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Robert Burton

Posted 11-24-2010 at 05:09 AM by Steve Bucknell
Updated 03-01-2011 at 02:03 PM by Steve Bucknell
For a moment the moon is a gold coin above the feathery tips of the conifers, then a grey smear spreads over the sky and it ghosts away. I check the thermometer outside and it’s just a degree above freezing. The stone birdbath is solid ice; I boil water to free it and clean it. A holly leaf pricks my thumb as I pull it out of the ice and litter. I fill it with fresh water. If it freezes again tonight I’ll remove it in the morning to set its disc of ice in the dark hawthorn hedge like a window.

The forecast is good, feeding my addiction; the BBC has a Weather Warning: “Heavy snow may affect northern and eastern parts of the UK during Thursday, Friday and Saturday. 2-5cm could fall, with 10cm across the hills and mountains. Icy stretches may develop on untreated surfaces.” That sounds a bit optimistic to me, but the unearthly pink reef-like clouds and light in the sky last night and again this morning seem a harbinger.

I retrieve The Book of Wonders by Peter Redgrove from my bookshelves (Crescent Moon, 1996.) It remains readable, which is surprising; as a seasonal ritual I leave it out in the garden in all kinds of weather. It has flown through thunderstorms, rain and hail. It has dried its papery covers in the heat of midsummer. I think it is time for it to face ice and snow. I open it at random and jam it into the heart of the overgrown holly at the side of the house. It is open at page 82: “I wake from a dream of crowned and grimacing white faces/ To my bedroom window which crowds with vast white faces grimacing.” On page 83 the poem is “The Turning Stars” which begins: “Orion hammering up there like brass studs/ nailed into the black wood of the vault.”

I remember once seeing Penelope Shuttle’s name here on the Sphere as a “latest membership request” and feeling a rush of excitement. Should I have said something? Is there a way to fast-track those who are already published and accomplished poets? I haven’t seen her name here again.

A Book of the Winter is keeping me good company:


The ordinary recreations which we have in Winter, and in most solitarie times busie our minds with, as Cards, Tables, and Dice, Shovel-board, Chesse-play...Shuttlecock, billiards, musicke, masks, singing, dancing, catches, purposes, questions and commands, merry tales of errant Knights, Queens, Lovers, Lords, Ladies, Giants, Dwarfs, Thieves, Cheaters, Witches, Fayries, Goblins, Friers, etc....And the rest, which some delight to heare, some to tell, and all are well pleased with.

Robert Burton. The Anatomy of Melancholy.

This makes me chuckle. Ah well, time to get ready and go to work now, a Late shift: one o’clock to nine-thirty tonight.

Witch Skin
a sequence:

Kelp moon
a basin of snow
peaks of haar
Kraal fields
a storm pool
marshes of metal
realm of the fogbow

A hot day at the icecap
and the anti-sunshine bursting the big wind
The lunate windows
dark with pebbles
and zodiac mirages
I sleep in my bone bed
my black stellar mouth
open to the dirty sky

Stars of the dewpoint
The blue
The tideway of the tin mine
Washout of old days
in the bone cave
and the year leaps
anchoring me to leaf-mould

Aftershocks of snow
a snail cloud
over the rain forest
I don’t need a new name
The winter-hunter is singing
and the finger-stone hears

Ice movements
the moon is under the sun
I am seven seas
of ghost water
Eyelids and sickles
Menhir planets saddle
their sun dogs

The branches waste autumn
Killers are on the move
riding their unicorns
My wingspan is January
Sabbath is a time ball
I am Mary with her folding bed

the gentlewoman moos
prehistoric mice
gobble the falcon
the gun-dog and the war-horse elope
the morning of the ice age
the nightlong moon
is twinkling
here is my transitory wristwatch
for your ceaseless cupboard

Granite clocks
brood over their images
of castles and shadow figures
Street pianos are white
as clowns
The echo-chamber waits
for the Virgin

The ashblond’s crucifix
fasts amid the stone leaves
Two bird-dragons cavort
beside a mutilated woman
weaving with a distaff
The witch-child reclines
in her wombish boat
The man extracts a thorn from his foot
The thieves run towards the North Door
their shadows weaving like sea-shrubs

Star-shaped beads
and ghost crystals
for the Wheal Virgin
seated beneath the rain tree
She takes root
she turns the tree to ice
she harvests the albino mirror
Her burning perambulator
Scissors my bones
Yet she smiles between the mad apples

Sea green pinafores
In the maid’s room
Jelly-babies in the jewelcase
Half a loaf in the guest room
Time for Taurus...
The sea-owl visits
my death-cup
and music fades into the long moss;
the dwarf’s baby breath
ticks on the water
and the giant with the nose-ring
crucifies the naked lady

The wooden day
Wants a night-light
My oil-skin nightie drips milk
The lace-maker drinks her wine
her mouth like a zoologist
her velveteen war-bonnet
dark as a widow’s wedding ring

Here is the garden dry as mambo glass
arrowheads of the clock
tawny moons and ice-bears
the apostle with time to kill
and the lizards extolling the leper
Here is the rosary in the fridge
And the doktor’s tin whistle beside the pipe-rack
I drop the book in the cradle
Old joke...

Between two moons
it whispers in my ear
I cannot hurt you
The whip is unwatched
Whiteness is unwept
and gun-shy
Winter arrows kiss me
I go jay-walking
roads of mica-schist
on my hunger march

The ghost train
is stained with blood
and whose blood?
The recovery of my red cloak
Led to my marriage
I look down from my solar tower
and see the raw weather
beginning again in the forest

Stalagmites on fire
and I was counting beads
The women’s war
ended in the mud
all the fault of the forceps
The knife and the drum
are frozen
Forked shadows tap on the floor
Bring night flowers
for the virgin with the glow-worm key

An exercise in old girls
Slang tragedies
a bookshop full of glass dictionaries
I close the storm door
I touch the computer
The ghost train is late
The abortionist squeals
he is in shell-shock
and the dirty nurses
sing their marching song

The sister touches
the carnival window
with her glass spoon
In the garden
my year becomes a beehive
then a nightingale
then a gypsy in her stockings of ice
It is growing dark
and it is growing light
I am ready to believe anything
I cannot sleep
The room is wanting flame
it smells of the bible
Therefore I ought to love
But I have before me the moon-black years
growing thinner

Surrounded by October
I open yesterday
Quickly, sister
Nobody reads the newspaper
No one writes the address on the envelope
I shout:
Here is the book
Here is the window
What language do the echoes use?
The first room was cold
the second was a litany of snow
Here is the winter key
Listen, they are singing
The door opens
but still she wears the same dress

She has gone
She has left the garden
She will not bite
Into any more mornings
She will not give
any more scarlet coins to the poor
She will not finish her story
Did she hear our voices?

Penelope Shuttle/Peter Redgrove. The Hermaphrodite Album. Fuller D’Arch Smith.1973.
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  1. Unread
    Ed Shacklee's Avatar
    I'd never heard of Penelope Shuttle before this posting, Steve, but ignorance is a curable disease. Thanks for the tip, and the gold coin.

    Posted 11-25-2010 at 12:30 AM by Ed Shacklee Ed Shacklee is offline

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