It’s all more or less alphabetical in England


John McGahern


Ash is our spearhead; preservers, survivors,

we pass our children through them, hollow trees

that make us whole, ward off evil, can save us

from everything but God.  Ash holds the keys.



Barrows around and beneath our estate

are threatened by bright cables, where the dreams

of five thousand years are drawn into light

entertainment, and no ghost of honour gleams.


Clay pipes rise up out of the clay like bones;

their flesh was years behind the plough, their blood

was stemmed by a dying empire.  Here were blown

smoke-screens of peace, while the hunt view-hallooed.



Deserted villages, shapes under turf,

the tofts and crofts, a mill-tump, a torn-down

church and at evening, as the blackness curves

across – see, there, below the sheep, a frown.



Elm hateth man and waiteth, but it’s been

too long: it will watch you rot in the earth

before it comes back and restores this scene

to Constable’s taste.  By then, what’s it worth?



Fords unmake cars; they lap at the electrics,

despise bridges, conceal a troll, an ogress.

Their music’s cattle hooves; their game pick-up-sticks.

Myths inhabit them; they inhibit progress.



Green men greet you at the locked church, the pain

in their expressions foliating to words,

we know what has been lost, but these remain.

Something bursts into hush: endangered birds.



Hundreds, where the free men came each full moon

to meet by tree or crossroads.  From this tump

try spotting the mosaic: hundred stone,

moot hill, landfill, refrigerator dump.



Ignis fatuus or will-o-the-wisp

still has its way in the Fen, on the Level.

Its AA sign belches yellow as you gasp

at its blue lamp swerving you to the Devil.



Jay thinks it’s a scream that so many birds

have gone quietly; he’s looking for that oak

he buried for the future.  Nothing is heard

of his taste, only how he kills a joke.


King Arthur will return when we have need.

By-pass, hypermarket, airport-runway, mall.

Camelot and Cadbury have both agreed

to sponsor the table.  Who’ll make the call?



Ley-lines.  England’s palm laid flat to divine

her way forward.  The pendulum traces

a serpent swinging down St Michael’s line

from profane to banal to sacred places.



Maze, mis-maze, Troy-town...  Drive the Devil out

with a game of Maiden’s Bower, Shepherd’s Race, chase

him into circuitous coils of doubt,

he likes the fast lane and a straight fair race.



Nuthatch, masked and sinister, sidles down

sequoias, tapping the network, violence

in the whistle that says his cover’s blown

to that closed-circuit treecreeper’s surveillance.



Oaks bend their knees, their stag-heads mocked by jets,

their arms raised. Micro-chips fly off our axe,

a forest of plastic.  Only lightning lets

itself thrill furrows into heart attacks.



Ploughing, you found a way in.  With the team,

you walked and looked and picked gems from the clay.

Now here’s High and Mighty: your mould’s a dream.

He’s European, ears capped;  you’re in his way.



Quoits, cromlechs, dolmens: the mushrooms appear

overnight.  Are they good or might they kill?

Myth picks them up to taste.  Not now, not here,

irradiated, tinned.  In time, they will.



Rape means something different in the country.

Assault on the eye; thick yellow pollen forced

down the nose and throat; coarse affrontery

to your rights that says spread this on your toast!


Springs well from faults, like art from a neurosis.

Anon, deep at her water-table, dreams

a string awakening of rivers, composes

our shires in chords of downfall, modal streams.



Trespassers will be Prosecuted:  the right

to roam is not where all roads lead; it’s to

the game all landowners play and will try

to win – that asks not where you are but who.



UFOs above us ; crop circles below.

The process of sowing and reaping goes on.

A mystery.  A life of black holes.  We know

nothing even of the wild flowers that have gone.



Village life: on the edge of darkness; a slice

of moon;  touching all four seasons; your bread

growing and ripening; watching the price

of silence rise; seeing more of the dead.



Windmills want to catch what’s in the air; sails

jammed, broken or missing, they try to be

marketable properties; when that fails

farm themselves out with renewed energy.



X in a country churchyard.  Prefix, sounding

as if it means what you became here once,

insisting on such flowery-grave surroundings.

Excitement then exit with experience.



Yew knows more than ever you will, as old

as Zeno’s aim, dense as toxicology,

keeping its black humour even when spoiled

suburban, its runic etymology.



Zodiacs across the landscape.  Draw lines

between dark centres and, look, there are stars

wheeling their prophecies.  Study the signs

beyond route constellations, shooting cars.