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Death arrived. Not for the man who bespoke it

but for the carpenter’s mother.

It was manhandled into the Astra,

ferried across the Cambrian mountains, the Severn

and down to the Solent.


                 from The Craft by Gill Learner






















Gill lives in Reading where there is a very lively poetry community. Her poems have been read on Radio 3 and BBC television, translated into Romanian, widely published in journals (such as Acumen, Agenda, Artemis, Mslexia, Poetry News, The Interpreter’s House and The North) and a large variety of anthologies. They have also won a number of awards including the Poetry Society’s Hamish Canham Prize 2008, the Buxton 2011 & 2012, and the English Association’s Fellows’ Poetry Prize 2012.


She began writing after retirement from teaching Printing Studies in Berkshire School of Art & Design and her poetry often reflects her continued interest in technologies old and new, her love of music and the visual arts.


Her first collection, The Agister’s Experiment, was published by Two Rivers Press in 2011 and she hopes her second collection will appear in 2016. She very much enjoys reading her poetry to an audience and can be heard regularly at Reading’s Poets’ Café. Her web pages are at www.poetrypf.co.uk/gilllearnerpage.shtml      








for Jez and Jen

As for a boat he worked the wood:

curving it wide at the shoulders

by cutting the internal ply, the two-by-one struts,

narrowing down to the foot.

It was measured and made for a friend.


Unvarnished it hung some years in the barn

with a glossy canoe –

a Shire stabled next to an Arab –

without brasses, not meant for show or endurance,

a simple container.


Death arrived. Not for the man who bespoke it

but for the carpenter’s mother.

It was manhandled into the Astra,

ferried across the Cambrian mountains, the Severn

and down to the Solent.


Padded with straw

and New Forest beech leaves

under a sheet of drawn-threadwork,

it was set up on trestles, lid off for looking or chatting

in lavender-rosemary air.


A gentian-blue cover was scattered

with primroses, iris, an apple-flower wreath.

Four women lifted and steadied it, strode with it;

carried their grandma

not to the sea but the fire.





How they unwind themselves, these ropes

of roads: from slates to pantiles, apples

to olive oil, war graves to sailors’ cliff-top

cemeteries. Tolls hurry us through forests

hung with black kites; mountains fade

into parallel horizons. After Clermont Ferrand

the rise is marked: five … seven … ten hundred metres

plus. In the down-slide, Norman Foster’s miracle

stretches over Millau to the Grands Causses

flecked with close-cropped sheep. We squeeze

through blasted rock, hang over rivers, see tarmac

simmering and on the rush taste Fitou, Corbières.

My northern soul starts to unwrap its leaves –

a brussels sprout becoming a gardenia.





This he believes – that in this secret plying of his craft

he formulates a prayer for equal rights

for all his fellow men to work and earn and eat.

He knows that if he’s caught indentures will be forfeited,

his father’s payments thrown away, his mother’s heart

in pieces like a window smashed.


Of this he’s sure: where each letter waits. He chooses,

feels for the nick, clicks into place until

the stick is filled. Two blocks of lines from ore

hacked free, melted then solidified. He locks and inks,

pulls proofs, scans and corrects

what few can read but all may sing.


The forme disguised, the stone re-shone, he feels

a kick of fear in the tired street. He runs

with a jolt on his thigh of the pasteboard black

with the Frenchman’s song which swells in his head

so that he might shout the comrade world awake

to rise, unite and face the final fight.




in memory of Ralph Beyer


First sweep the ruins for unexploded bombs;

sift rubble for what to keep; clear blocks dressed

centuries ago. Now lay roughcast stone on stone

into undercroft, chapels, porch and saw-tooth nave.


Leave gaps. Fill them with angels scratched

on panes or allelujahs of many-coloured glass.

As furnishings: a cross of timbers black with fire;

Christ in glory on a floor-to-vaulting tapestry.


Find a man, a refugee, with skill and flair. Give him

words and tablets set into the zig-zag walls.

In a nave unholy with welders, masons, scaffolders,

watch him sketch, breath curling, on the stone.


Eccentric capitals grow from the chisel’s bite,

line on line. He brushes off the dust, tilts his head

to judge the fall of light. No two letters are alike

but, amassed, sing rhythmic harmony.


Don’t ask his faith, how his mother died

or if, in this place of reconciliation, work

is freeing him. Admire his craft, how it

blends into the whole – this covenant.





I never tired of watching him at work, itching

to collect the forbidden litter of his craft – glittery

like the remnants of a crown. Before the war

he sketched a promise of my own, with dragonflies

and reeds, but a mortar in the fight for Anzio

stilled the welted hands that had refused to hold a gun,

chose stretcher-poles instead.


Years on, stepping from lake to coloured lake

in Notre-Dame of Chartres, I feel my nape-hair rise

at the shades of maîtres verriers eight centuries gone

who placed alongside saints their fellow artisans:

wheelwright, cooper and apothecary, a wine-grower

treading grapes. My father would have honoured

the artists’ genius if not their god.


The remembered fumes of solder sear my nose,

I hear the scrit of a scoring tool, the crunch and snap

as crescents, triangles, and random shapes

are bitten from sheets of glass: heaven in speedwell blue,

haloes the red of sun on my closed eyes,

robes like bluebell leaves, the gold of marmalade for angels’ hair;

lead cames to rim and bind.


He could never cycle past a church but must go in,

examine others’ work, critique, admire, till my mother

led me into the air for our necks to uncrick among the stones.

A glazier, he’d say, fills holes for light, and sight

onto the world. I make images to linger on.

By focussing its power through chromatic chemistry,

he dared manipulate the sun.





Once all I knew was toe-broken puddles,

no-go ponds, snowy pavements beaten

to grey glass that begged for a run-up

and a sideways glide. My first ice lollypop

was snapped from the gutter of the porch,

promising coolness but tasting of old books.

On walks, the stream was crisped along

each bank and once we found a crow hooked

on barbed wire, a garnet drip frozen to its beak.


Measled in bed, I missed the post-war weeks

when drifts topped fences by the cinder path.

Later, the ice-house in the woods – strictly

out of bounds. Down steps in musty dark,

we shone our bike-lights onto cigarette ends,

shattered Ansell’s bottles and those things

we High School girls were not supposed

to know about. In winter ’63, when

washing lines held only swags of snow,

I had to jounce the baby in his pram over

solid ruts up the hill to the shops then brake

our descent by clinging to garden walls.


More recently I learned to steer into a skid

and now I know how water boiled of gas,

frozen, shaved and shaped to a convex disc,

will angle sunlight onto a twist of hay to make it

smoke then flare; that ice can conjure fire.




For Pat


This is a runner that is laid out between us.

We weave in growing things: lilies, thyme,

the jewels of spindle trees, with scraps

from walks: a feather from a red kite’s tail,

a rabbit scut. There are smells of coffee,

cat-fur, printer’s ink. Textures range from

flint to fleece; slips of lettering are ravelled 

with baby ribbon, rags of something blue.


Most threads are locked too tight to be

unpicked but even when the weft is pulled

to cobweb thin, the warp holds strong.


Patches are bleached by sunlight, stained

by rain while colours switch from one pass

to the next: usually in harmony from red to

green to violet; at times brasher than brass.

Now and again we stop and turn, admire

this work that stretches over quarter

of a century and know that it’s still growing

inch by foot by yard without an end in sight.




for Malalai Joya


She calls through harsh hot days that start

with magpie cackles, on into lightless nights

melancholy with warnings of owls.


From gables of houses or roofs of huts,

her notes open cages. Some captives

fold wings across their eyes, others


shake out their feathers to soar

without looking back. She sings

through the forest, a ghost-bird always


one branch ahead of the falcon. Her songs

are jewels worn in defiance of the howl

of fennecs, coughs and squeaks of macaques.


Doves cry Look out! Look out!

but she will not be quiet.




for Emma


I stalk you through the atlas,

study weather, calculate the time

it must be there, decide you’re heartless

then that probably it doesn’t seem

an aeon-and-a-half to you, among

the smells, noise, flavours of exotic places;

and when at last the phone does ring

I shrug away your reasons or excuses.


Consider all the parents, lovers, partners

fretting for backpackers, peace-

keepers, explorers, migrant workers,

their worry gathering in clouds like gas.

Harnessed, this energy could power

a small country for a year.





In case this harvest doesn’t last, I’ll set something by:

fire a drum of applewood to smoke split kisses;

fillet laughter, pack it into pots with oil and herbs.

I’ll seal your voice in shiny tins, string private jokes

and dry them, press a bunch of your best anecdotes. 


Your hangovers will feed the compost heap, along

with crossness when I come home late, flu-induced

self-pity, a taste for horror films. And I’ll throw on

football absences and Leonard Cohen times.


But against the day the cornucopia runs out,

I’ll have a hoard: memories of Norway layered in salt;

whispers distilled in tiny bottles; vacuum-packs

of secret looks; nights simmered in honeydew, poured

into jars and stored where the sun shines through.




‘THE CRAFT’, ‘FOOT DOWN’, ‘MAKE-READY’, ‘HOW TO BUILD A CATHEDRAL’, ‘THROUGH AND THROUGH’, ‘THE CALORIFIC VALUE OF ANXIETY’ & ‘LARDER’ are all from The Agister’s Experiment; first published as follows ‘THE CRAFT’ & ‘THE CALORIFIC VALUE OF ANXIETY’ Outbox (Leaf Publishing), ‘FOOT DOWN’ Hand luggage only (Open Poetry),  ‘MAKE-READY’ Poetry Ealing 14, ‘HOW TO BUILD A CATHEDRAL’ Manchester Cathedral Competition booklet, ‘THROUGH AND THROUGH’ Artemis 2, ‘LARDER (BBC Radio 3 website).


‘THE POWER OF ICE’ (Keats–Shelley Review 25/1), ‘THE RUG-MAKERS’ Artemis 9, ‘KABUL SONGBIRD’ (The North 49) and Her Wings of Glass: Ambitious Poems by Contemporary Women Poets (Second Light Publications).



4 - Afterword

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