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Poet of the Week – 8: Steven Matthews


Steven Matthews is a poet and critic who was born and brought up in Colchester, Essex. He has been a regular reviewer of poetry for London Magazine, Poetry Review, and the TLS, and Poetry Editor for Dublin Quarterly Magazine. Waterloo Press published Skying, his first collection of poems, in 2012; On Magnetism, his second collection, appeared from Two Rivers Press in 2017.

In 2016, Steven was one of three inaugural poets-in-residence at the Museum of Natural History, Oxford, and created new work for the residency anthology Guests of Time (Valley Press). Filmed readings of the poems are archived online here. A poem from the residency was set as the final part of a song cycle for soprano and string quartet by Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Those Endless Forms Most Beautiful, which was premiered in October 2019. As part of his work on the creative-critical response to Wordsworth’s The Prelude published as Ceaseless Music, Steven collaborated with The Wordsworth Trust, Grasmere, on to a two-month exhibition at Dove Cottage, ‘Sounds of Wordsworth’, together with composer Paul Whitty. Aspects of this work, including ‘Stepping Stones’, a new sequence of open sonnets, are archived here.

Steven Matthews writes:

Perhaps because of the current situation, I have been thinking a lot again about the powerful hold that my Nana’s memory has over me, and the role that she played in tuning me in to poetry. We met up with her and granddad outside about twice a year, for a walk by the river at Mistley. Otherwise, Nana would be found always settled deep in her brown armchair at her council house, her photos of family by her side. But, from that armchair, she seemed to govern the district; people were constantly walking in the always-open front door to ask advice, seek opinions on feuds or marital disputes.

Nana always kept her strong-clasped handbag by that armchair, and would fish out sweets for us, endless tissues for the endless colds; but, sometimes when she did so, small newspaper-clippings would drop out. She scoured the local and national papers for bits of verse that she wanted to keep by her. After her death, granddad started his days by reading some of them out loud for her; I have her favourite in my desk drawer here. To Nana, poems clearly offered some sense of the possibility of saying something which she could not herself have put into words in this intense and concise way. That they were always, unbeknownst to most of us in the family, carried carefully folded away in her handbag makes me think that she saw these poems, however sentimental, as constant companions, always there as possible ways of interpreting whatever, in a normal day, might befall her; the poems offered what sense of understanding it there was.

I’ve always thought that that first moment encountering poems showed me everything about what they can do in a life, and what we are trying achieve in making them. They abide with us, and inform us in the literal sense. Even when they seem most ‘impersonal’, they are finding ways to figure, and figure out, what most moves and explains us. I’m struck by the fact that the male poets from my lifetime who I most admire share what might loosely be called a labouring or working class background (W.S. Graham, Les Murray, Geoffrey Hill, Seamus Heaney); but they find very different technical solutions to framing their background on that spectrum from personal to impersonal. (The woman poets I most admire are notably free of that class implication: Elizabeth Bishop, Louise Gluck, Jorie Graham, Paula Meehan).

My own sense of creating shapes in and through poems is of trying to pull something through to a telling, and hopefully memorable, conclusion. A friend who reads much of my work before it is printed tells me she thinks I’m too hooked on endings; but I do feel that that moment when hopefully you sense that things have been brought into single focus, what Yeats called the ‘click’ of the closing box of the work, is the one that we are all looking for.

David Hockney has recently advocated that we all ‘look hard at something and then think about what we’re really seeing’. Poems do that if they work, combining both the looking and the thinking – because they are set to a different kind of time, they create time where we can think differently, time where we can commune in different ways. Time, the time poetry takes, and the time poetry makes happen amidst the accelerated happenings around us. Time as what binds us, as what poetry especially alerts us to; the time of poetry as a necessary way of talking to, and about, what could not otherwise be said.



Five harsh days of hard frosts,
the canal path a glistening ribbon
of solid mud, the canal’s crystalline
surface parading
the canal-bed’s detritus –
logs, branches, a bike frame,
rocks of clumped earth,
a tracery of skeletal leaves
bolted into the solid substance.

Only when you began prising
small pebbles out of the path from
their thumb-print mud pebble-beds
and skimming them swiftly across
the frosted canal surface, was life
to be re-heard:
dull-zingings, light dashes of sound
sounded deep through the canal’s base
echoing beneath and beyond
the canal bridge,
the out-of-their depth, ice-bewildered
geese to clatter into air.

[from On Magnetism]



A skilful artist,
her fine ginger hairs
were her deft paint brush,
as she danced the air
dabbing pollen grains
pink blossom to pink
blossom, tree to tree.

The finger-nail sheen
inside snail shells glowed
as she layered rose
petals for her nest,
then laid an egg there,
bunged each shelter-hole
with chewed clots of soil,
all to incubate.



Steven Matthews reads “Sounding the Canal”:

Steven Matthews and Naomi Wolf in conversation about the importance of poetry in these times of climate crisis:

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Poet of the Week – 7: Susan Utting


Susan Utting was born in South London, moved twenty times in forty years, then settled, after a fashion, in Berkshire. Notions of home, identity and where she comes from frequently feature in her writing, and are explored in her most recent work, along with the shifting lives of other women. After a patchy education (she failed the 11+) and a series of undemanding jobs, she was persuaded by an employer to apply to Reading University to read English. She gained a first-class degree, went on to study Creative Writing at Sussex University, which she then taught at Reading for more than 17 years.

Susan’s awards include an Arts Council Laureateship, a Poetry Business Prize, The Berkshire Poetry Prize, The Peterloo Prize, and a writing fellowship at Reading’s School of English and American Literature. Last year she was a winner in the Bristol International Short Story Competition. Her poems have been widely published, including in The Times, TLS, The Independent, Forward Book of Poetry, The Poetry Review and Poems on the Underground. Her work was selected by the London Poetry Library to be recorded for Poetry International at the South Bank Centre, where it was broadcast with various international poets’ work. Her latest Two Rivers Press collection, Half the Human Race, follows and includes selections from three earlier books: Striptease (Smith/Doorstop), Houses Without Walls and Fair’s Fair (Two Rivers Press).

Susan Utting writes:

Some time ago I was asked to say in no more than twenty words, where my poems came from. I said: ‘from an itch at the solar-plexus, a corner of my mind’s eye, or in through my ear like insistent music’. A lot has happened to me and my writing since then, but the answer still stands. A poem’s imminent generation is physical: an itch, a glimpse; and I have always had a love of the sounds of words, their musicality. As a pre-reading child I would repeat in my head like a chant a new word or phrase I liked the sound of cylinder, Hollander, colander kiosk for example, as quoted in my poem Catechism. When I began to learn the meanings of words, that a word could have more than one meaning, it felt like magic. I did live ‘in a place with beech in its name’ and the fact that that word (all this before I knew about spelling) could be a tree as well as a stony place by the sea at Brighton where my grandparents lived, was a revelation.

My poems have to sound good, out loud and in my head, and be rhythmical too. Rhythm is natural to me: it’s simply the way words emerge. I grew up with the rhythms of dance – my parents taught ballroom dancing. My mother was a talented all-round dancer – which I think may explain this.

I was delighted when the poet-reviewer Philip Gross wrote: ‘Utting unashamedly loves language…’ I do. I love the meanings and subtleties of language, the varieties of what words really mean, have come to mean, can mean and also mean – all those correlations and resonances. One of my most treasured reference books is a dictionary of etymology. I enjoy finding and making new connections between disparate words, ideas and narratives. E. M. Forster’s ‘only connect’ is a phrase frequently in my mind.

I have always striven for clarity in all my writing, but I think we can respond to a poem on an emotional level without necessarily understanding every word, every notion or image. If it engages us on first reading, intrigues or moves us in some way, we will read and re-read it, live with its language, imagery, rhythms and cadences. I believe that all poetry should be accessible, eventually.

Over the years my work has explored many areas of experience, many topics of fascination. When I first began performing my poetry I was described as a feminist poet. Though I would prefer the term ‘womanist’, I think engaging with, examining and showing the lives and situations of women has been a constant in my work. That became clear while putting together a New & Selected: ‘the lives of women, particularly those who are too often overlooked, unseen, hidden or silenced’. I want to make those all-important connections, to understand the lives of others while examining my own. I write poems in an effort to unpick the tangle of ideas and memories, of emotions and preoccupations in my head. Making patterns of words on a page is the best and most pleasurable way I know of doing it.


My skin is glass paper, a gravelly rub, the tips
of my fingers are match heads; my leg-bones
click-clack, syncopate to the floorboards, their
whiplash and skitter. Stairs are a tap-dance,
metal-tipped; there’s a hum I’d forgotten,
a knock I can’t place, music I don’t remember.

I swallow; there’s an echo, liquid as liquid,
then high at the back, the plumbing’s hi-hatting,
tom-tomming. And my voice! It’s a reedy song
– hush-hush it, girl, save it for later –
For now, plastic bags are maracas, tap water’s
Niagara, the plughole’s a Looney Toons glug.

Outside, I’m eavesdropping the world,
its chirrup and whoosh, its overhead roar,
its ten o’clock wail, tittle-tattle, its holler
and clank. A single magpie: its dirty croak
is a joy. I scratch an itch and my fingernails
thrill, I’m alight with the noise of myself.

At the flick of a switch I was wired.
Now I’ve fallen, coup de foudre, a sucker
– go on, say it, girl! out loud! – a lover
of sound, head-over-heels with cacophony.

[from Half the Human Race: New & Selected Poems]


Wear a headscarf, long wool skirt, solid boots.
Sit on a folding canvas stool in the precinct
where the people flow and spend; unfold
a blanket like a river over your knees.

Bear the fine rain, horizontal wind, smile,
drift, be here but elsewhere: stretch a blanket
like an ocean over your sleeping daughters,
your one son, hum the song that soothes,

keep the words you know by heart, inside,
synchronise your breath with theirs, soft,
softer still, tuck the blanket tighter, closer;
dare to daydream home.

[First published in Poetry & All that Jazz (2019)]

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Poet of the Week – 6: Peter Robinson


Peter Robinson was born in Salford, Lancashire, in 1953 and grew up mainly in Liverpool. He is an internationally appreciated poet, whose Collected Poems was published by Shearsman Books in 2017, and has been awarded the Cheltenham Prize, the John Florio Prize, and two Poetry Book Society Recommendations for volumes of his poetry and translations. The Salt Companion to Peter Robinson edited by Adam Piette and Katy Price appeared in 2007 and a new volume of critical studies edited by Tom Phillips, Peter Robinson: A Portrait of his Work, is in development at Shearsman.

Book cover image

He has also published aphorisms, short stories, literary fiction, and his six volumes of literary criticism are in print from the university presses of Oxford, Cambridge, and Liverpool. Two Rivers Press has brought out two of his collaborations with artists: English Nettles with illustrations by Sally Castle appeared in 2010, and Bonjour Mr Inshaw, with paintings by David Inshaw, is one of this year’s books. Two Rivers Press also publishes Foreigners, Drunks and Babies: Eleven Stories (2013) and his second novel, The Constitutionals (2019), whose main character takes daily walks around Reading to help recover from a cruel virus. Peter Robinson is Professor of English and American Literature at the University of Reading and the poetry editor for Two Rivers Press.

Peter Robinson writes:

“My poetry, and much of my other writing, can be understood as an exploration of the word ‘repair’. It is a form of sheltering from experiences, and an emblem of the need to mend or make amends when selves and others have been damaged or harmed. This theme is regularly and appropriately associated with my being the witness at gunpoint to an act of sexual violence over forty years ago, which has impacted on all my work and in particular on a sequence of poems in The Other Life (1988) and the novel September in the Rain (2016).

However, it is probably unlikely that I would have responded to that experience in those ways had I not been born into the exact locations of L. S. Lowry’s paintings and brought up in a series of impoverished urban parishes in Manchester, Wigan, and Liverpool. The industrial and domestic architecture and the ravaged and re-wilding natural scenery of those places has shaped all my responses to the world, and I have taken the need to find artistic interest in such textures with me to scenery as far flung as the mountains, plains, cities and coasts of northern Italy and the volcanic landscapes of northern-eastern Japan.

My wife, Ornella Trevisan, who specialised in environmental biology at university, has undoubtedly helped enlarge the scope of that commitment to reparation and ‘repair’. If asked to give an account of my many and various writings produced and published over the best part of half a century, I would think that this dominant thought, derived from the art theories of Adrian Stokes, has been the shaping spirit that has compelled me to want to produce works that aid in the mending of ourselves, our societies, the inhabited environments on which they depend, and of the suffering world itself.”


There’s a corrugated-iron roof,
its undulations flattened
by settled years of lime-green moss;

it juts into repurposed space
where stone-wall textures are revealed,
enhanced by sparser finishes,
framed pictures hung against it:

a dusk cloud risen behind a hill,
the portrait of one tree in moonlight,
another strafing seagull …

They emphasize the edges
letting on bare sail-loft opposite:
a dried grey wood interior
where all the thrifty meanings start.

Then, me too, I’m a counter of clouds
come over the hills like this one
‘salmoning’ in a ‘deepening blue’;

they fill up turning windscreen glass
(you see I’ve put the car in too)
above West Bay’s horizon

with a borrowed sharpness, focus
from promptings given by
that pink house under its precipitous cliff.

Recounting them, you’re at least alive to
how this word-cloud builds and disperses
ideas like a Nordau’s or Lombroso’s –

and how they’re clouds themselves, these verses.

[from Bonjour Mr Inshaw, 2020]


Green shutters open on an early sky;
in the Casa Divina Provvidenza
even its room doors, closing, breathe a sigh.

With time, heat would release your love,
till evening’s fresher breeze,
then starlight, the companionate,

and talking on a phone, you see
her hurry towards our rendezvous
beside Mazzini’s statue in the square:

an open face, still trusting as you like,
enlivened with enthusiasm,
unfazed by time and, no mistake,

that’s the zone from where all this life came.

[First published in The London Magazine, February-March 2020]

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Poet of the Week – 5: Lesley Saunders


Lesley Saunders has been writing poetry for more years than she cares to remember. It was, almost inevitably, a teacher at her all-girls’ school in the 1960s who introduced her to T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden as part of the A-level English syllabus. It was only then that Lesley realised that perhaps poetry had more to give, intellectually and emotionally, to an inquisitive but naïve young mind than she had imagined. She read Classics at university, but the magic of that modernist, engagé poetry strongly influenced her study of Homer, Sappho, Virgil and the rest.

Half a century on, and Lesley is the author of several books of poetry; her most recent collection, Nominy-Dominy, is a praise-song for the Greek and Latin literature she encountered in those early days; it was described in The Interpreter’s House as ‘an inventive and hugely convincing paean to an abiding relationship with the classics’. Book cover of Point of HonourShe has won various awards, including the Manchester Poetry Prize, the Poetry Business Pamphlet competition and the Stephen Spender Prize for poetry in translation. Her most recent books aside from Nominy-Dominy are Point of Honour, a book of her translations of acclaimed Portuguese poet Maria Teresa Horta; and A Part of the Main, a dialogue-in-poetry with Philip Gross in response to the social and political upheavals of 2016.

Having retired from her career as an educational researcher a decade ago, Lesley now leads creative writing workshops – with a regular annual session at Reading Museum and Art Gallery to coincide with the spring exhibition – and undertakes reviewing, editing and mentoring work as well as occasional residencies and commissions.

Lesley Saunders writes:

One of the most reliable stimuli to my work is collaboration, in all its different forms. I’ve worked with painters, sculptors, musicians, composers and dancers, as well as other poets. My first collaborative poetry project was with Jane Draycott; the result was Christina the Astonishing, published by Two Rivers Press, which had recently been set up by Peter Hay. The book has his powerful, beautiful prints interleaved throughout.

I think it’s the combination of trust and resistance that makes working with someone else so beneficial to one’s own vision and craft – by which I mean that one has to feel a basic trust in the other person’s integrity as well as in her/his gift in order to play the game at all; and then the necessary resistance comes from having to engage deeply with that other person’s very different life-world, allowing oneself to be changed whilst not being swept completely away.

I am constantly finding huge pleasure, as well as challenge, in the process. When Philip Gross and I began our dialogue-in-poetry, it was out of my urgently felt need to ‘reconcile myself to others, the present to the past and future…’ in the wake of the Referendum and all its unlooked-for social consequences. We wrote about a stanza a day, back and forth, to each other, responding in the moment to whatever came up, for about three months. At one point I wrote in an aside to Philip: ‘I meant to pay you a compliment, about the knight’s-moves: each new section of the sequence is a bit like a mini-commission – “can you do this? and now this?”.’

We stopped when it felt right to both of us to conclude. And we decided not to go back and edit anything, apart from typos. This was because what happens in collaboration is not the work of two individuals nor even of both individuals, but is somehow a third thing, a creature that has grown in the space-between, impossible to have imagined beforehand. One has to respect its independent reality, and not tinker with it post hoc.

In my life these days, there are three visual artists with whom I am fortunate to have a close relationship – not so much friendship (though that may come into it) but a mutual commitment to an exploration of word and image which manages to be both serious and playful. One of the three, Philippa Dow, is making beautiful calligraphies of many of the poems in Nominy-Dominy; we are promised an exhibition at the National Poetry Society in London in the future ‘when all this is over’. You can see some of her other work here.

I encountered the extraordinary paintings of Rebecca Swainston, an artist who lives in Tilehurst, very recently, at the art exhibition hosted by Reading Museum in the spring term of 2020 – my visit was to be the last outing I had before the restrictions on movement were announced. I was immediately captivated by the haunted, haunting atmosphere of the two paintings on show there, and wrote ‘Symptoms’, published below, in response to one of them the next day. We have just begun writing to each other and sharing work-in-progress. Her work can be viewed here.

And so it goes – serendipity has become a better friend to me, in writing as in life, than waiting around for inspiration.

I’ve been experimenting with prose-poems over the last couple of years, and there are several in Nominy-Dominy. I’ve chosen this one, because so much of what we used to read in our Latin classes was about military conquest, Caesar’s Gallic Wars and all that – from which we learnt the word ‘comminus’, meaning ‘hand to hand [fighting]’; though as a girl I could hardly know what that entailed. The poem picks up the word in a sort of riff on the soldiers’ cult of Mithras and its initiation ceremony:


Hand to hand. Like a man. The grip and creak of knuckles; knowing the precise moment to hold, let go. A blindfolded naked man, a man kneeling with his hands bound behind him, a man crowned, a man restrained from rising, a man lying on the ground as if dead. In our barracks and bivouacs we share the soldiers’ meal, blood and oaths, in Rome as in Dalmatia, in Britain as on the shores of the Black Sea. Foot-sloggers, slingers, sappers, scouts, camel-troopers, tiros and veterans, in the stations of the night and scarred by old wounds we do not speak of what we have seen. If something has happened, it has happened between us. Nama. Shake on it.

[from Nominy-Dominy]


after ‘Green Collar, Rabbit and Cat’ – Rebecca Swainston, oil on gesso panel

Humans are most creaturely when they’re sick,
lying in their own muck and matted hair,
hypersensitive to smells and sudden sounds,

shying from the light. A wild thing comes crawling
out of hiding then, a self of bones and viscera,
twitching muscle, peristalsis, pulsings, pain –

sleep’s impossible for an animal that’s hunted
and held deep in the lair of its own flesh.
The breeze carries bad news, like the scent

of corpses of its own kin and kind. Often
the disease is mild; often it kills.
A girl stills the coney’s rigid quivering spine,

laying her arm along its fur, staying its escape.
The green jewels around her neck shiver
with the fever, and her fawn eyes come undone.


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Poet of the Week – 4: Tom Phillips


Tom Phillips was born and grew up in Buckinghamshire and, after studying English at Cambridge, moved to Bristol where he worked in local radio for ten years, before switching to print journalism. After nearly two decades at Venue magazine, he went back to university and studied for a PhD in creative writing at the University of Reading, before teaching the subject there and at Bath Spa. Regular journeys to SE Europe around the same time led to his establishing links with writers and artists across the region, learning Bulgarian and translating contemporary Bulgarian literature. Tom and his wife Sarra, a visual artist, moved to Sofia in September 2017.

Aside from occasional dry spells, Tom has been writing and publishing poetry since the mid-1980s, mostly in magazines, but also in anthologies, pamphlets, the online poetry/art project Colourful Star and the full-length collections Recreation Ground (Two Rivers Press, 2012) and Nepoznati Prevodi / Unknown Translations (Scalino, 2016) – the latter written first in Bulgarian. His work has been translated into Bulgarian, Albanian, Romanian, Macedonian, Serbian and Italian and he has appeared at a number of international poetry festivals in SE Europe.

As well as in the two editions of Balkan Poetry Today he edited, Tom’s translations of Bulgarian poetry have appeared in Modern Poetry in Translation, The High Window, Raceme, Blackbox Manifold and Ah! Maria. Besides poetry, Tom has written more than twenty plays for theatre companies in Bristol and Bath, including Show of Strength, Theatre West and Ship & Castle.

Tom Phillips writes:

The poems I enjoy reading most are those that leave plenty of room for manoeuvre. Poems that are objects in the world you can look at, look into, and indeed look back out of from different angles. That doesn’t mean my own work necessarily turns out that way, but that’s the ballpark I’m aiming at.

Like most ballparks, though, it’s a fairly broad and ill-defined one. And that’s probably related to the way I work. I rarely sit down knowing what I’m going to write or write about, and it usually starts with three things arriving at roughly the same time: the observation or memory of one or two minor details; a few likely-sounding word combinations; and a vague neural itch. From there the process tends in a relatively haphazard manner until it – whatever it might turn out to be – starts acquiring a shape and form, a direction and focus, an internal emotional logic. At some point, too, I have to decide whether to commit to what’s coming into being or not: is it a poem in its own right? Is it an ur-poem or testbed for phrases and images that end up belonging elsewhere? Or is it a red herring, a complete non-starter?

Perhaps because of this, my work tends to go through quite distinct phases (although these often overlap or run in parallel). In a piece about Recreation Ground, for example, Bristol Review of Books expressed considerable surprise because, in Bristol at that time, I was mainly known for satirical performance-oriented poetry. There were similar reactions to Unknown Translations too, because writing in a second language – Bulgarian – sent my work off in a completely different direction again and that, in turn, has had an effect on the poems I’ve been writing in English since then.

If there is a common thread, though, it’s place. That’s always been a reliable theme, but moving to a different city in a different country has inevitably brought it into sharper focus. Both the pamphlets I’ve put up online since we came to Sofia – Present Continuous and Foreign in Europe – effectively continue what someone described as ‘the love song to the city’ that runs through Unknown Translations, while there’s another batch called Kvartal (Neighbourhood), a fragmentary diary that records happenings in our street and was almost entirely written on our balcony over a few weeks towards the end of last summer. Naturally, at the moment, in this current period of isolation that feels like it was written about, and in, another world.


All through her second wedding, your sister carried white lilies.
She chose Psalm 23 and we duly mumbled
‘The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want’,
thinking this is more like a funeral
and trying not to giggle at the serious bits.
You dug me in the ribs and said,
with more feeling than you meant,
that this is what passes for life in Portishead.

Outside – we nipped out for a fag during ‘Abide With Me’,
tip-toeing past weeping aunts and teenage sons
in suits they’d bought for work experience
(a row of bulging parcels waiting for collection) –
outside you breathed again and then you said
how glad you were you’d escaped
what passes for life in Portishead.

And when you kissed me in the graveyard
with its blots of dead confetti like giant flakes of dandruff,
I was thinking: Yes, thank God, thank God,
if it hadn’t been for this town’s deep chill,
its icy politeness and evening classes,
its Sunday lunch drinks and over-cooked roasts,
the dismal rain on the Lake Grounds of a Saturday night,
if it hadn’t been for the gossip which spread
like a bushfire when you dyed your hair red
and started hanging out with unsuitable types
who played in punk bands like Chaos UK
or limped along the high street on farting Lambrettas –
if it hadn’t been for this town’s desire
to disapprove of all it didn’t understand,

you’d never have run for Cornwall and the sea,
you’d never have run for a place of your own
and you’d never have run into me.
In the doorway of the church, I almost smiled and I almost said:
there are so many reasons I’m grateful
for what passes for life in Portishead.

[from Recreation Ground]


The first sight of dry patchwork rolling out beneath us
or unfamiliar words murmured at zinc bar counters;
peeling skin on my back like an unfolding map
or yellow acres of sunflowers facing up to the sky;

sporadic glimpses of a slow-moving river
through slits set into the curves of a staircase;
terracotta pigeons on terracotta tiles
or icons glinting through incense and gloom;

a late tram rattling through lamplit suburbs
or an early plane flying over low city rooftops;
those spiralling conversations lasting all night
or the plangent musk of newly poured wine;

the passing last whistle of a passing last train –
those days we needed nobody’s leave to remain.

31 Jan 2020