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I turned the page, but if I'd had time to pause

I'd have asked him about detail, and fascination;

what caused him to pause: the list of a stone wall,

exchange of tenanted sheep and cattle, angle


of a lone hawthorn sculpted to a banner by sea wind;

and offered him in exchange one field I recall

from walking it a thousand times with a collie:

its angle leaned against sky, its limestone rib


                 from Kavanagh's Field by Martyn Halsall

















1 BIOGRAPHY:  Martyn Halsall


Martyn Halsall is a retired journalist, living and writing in West Cumbria. His poetry has been published in various magazines and anthologies including The Reader, Tears in the Fence, Other Poetry, The Keats Shelley Review and Honest Ulsterman. He was the first Poet in Residence at Carlisle Cathedral, and writes about poets and poetry for the Church Times. His most recent collection, Coronach, was published in 2016 by Wayleave Press, and he is currently completing a collection about experiencing cancer.









To know fully one field or one land is a lifetime's experience. In the world of poetic experience it is depth that counts, not width. PJ Kavanagh: The Parish and the Universe. (1967)




Wandering through words I encounter PJ Kavanagh

in his approximate hat, a patched coat as I remember,

leaning on a gate, watching the same deep field

he had always known, as if waiting for it to harvest.


I turned the page, but if I'd had time to pause

I'd have asked him about detail, and fascination;

what caused him to pause: the list of a stone wall,

exchange of tenanted sheep and cattle, angle


of a lone hawthorn sculpted to a banner by sea wind;

and offered him in exchange one field I recall

from walking it a thousand times with a collie:

its angle leaned against sky, its limestone rib


exposed through a wound in the grazing, its stand of beech

running like a ripple in current, its rise and roll

of runrigs, like barrow mounds, tidal depths of grass

as seasons passed through, following light and waymark.


I imagine if I turned back the page again

Kavanagh would be there still; the familiar ash plant

propped up against his shadow. I could offer him

also a walk by the river, and water's riot


over the old weir, raised after a dry October,

and the channel that led to the wheel, and how the mill

is now rented to those affording luxury.

I doubt he would follow that line, after a shrug,


preferring to wait for what was news on his ground,

rehearsing the familiar, and finding it always new:

that sudden gust that parted the long-edged grass,

that answering owl, echo to his hands' cupped summons;


preferring to stay outside while his wireless set

recited the six o'clock tragedies of that evening:

his headline how he watched the forest fire of a fox,

and read night off the manuscript of star-gazing.





Gaelic word for funeral song, for land

lamenting here. Every wind is keening;

Local names are clanned in the soft mounds

of burial grounds, sand within hearing

of surf that soothes them.


Obituaries need translation, guarding

inside sparse indications a whole

code of origin and loss. Sometimes

a snatch of English, for the minister's widow.


Each horizon's too far. We start

again from the croft's garden,

walk down to the loch to watch

out, as sky settles, for the seal's arrival.





We obeyed the map, followed it after first

noticing the hamlet's name in spare-time winter:

magnet word, true North; door to the whole island.


Turn left running up the fold through Gaelic Staffin:

distance a line of crofts like pebbles on shoreline,

tarmac striped moorland, clouds rigged, curlew flowing.


Single track, with some breathing space for passing

leads to the phone box with its door blown in;

a flap of washing can cans down a line.


Sun patchings; slant fields churned with buttercups,

an odd tree leans out of the herding wind,

old dykes of turf and cobble witness boundaries.


Sedge tunes a breeze; otherwise skylarks' fingerings

are all that conditions silence till curlews rise,

plumb same note, same note's anthem of lament.


No inkling when we first circled the name,

as giving a visit direction, that map of Skye

would be fulfilled in overflow of cloud,


and turning back, past plantings, wind-bent greens,

only a hint of how the world could change;

memory rather of one man, mowing his island.



(from a painting by Eirikur Smith)



Imagine you are the woman pictured at the end

of the lava track, at the aftermath of Iceland,

her gaze hardened with glacier lines, her outlook

shingle, back-lit by an open wound of sunset.


Last light catches the ribbing down her hut,

cream corrugated iron, sanded rust;

something of a splintering in the concrete cast,

steps leading up beyond sand's overlap;

the beach spread to the emptiness of ocean.


Suppose you had just returned here, and you shared

realisations in the night map of her face,

her vision of year, ending; deepening sky overcast

spreading its blue dyes further through calm tide;

a shaken pepper pot flock moving away,

south, into migration.

                                    Consider the painter's hand

leaving her to winter, having prepared the storm

by layering thunder through eclipsing oils.


He might glance back, regret abandoning her there,

turning from the sea, that last flock now far out.

Imagine, instead, he stayed; stood waiting with her.




(from Matthew Mark Luke and John No.1 by Inigo Ford, in St Michael and All Angels' Church, Nether Wasdale, Cumbria)



Resin blocks cupped in tissue squeal as bows

are primed, with cello. A viola, two violins,

are wedged between shoulder and chin, as sighting

to take aim at the scores. The cello's plucked

to heartbeat. Glance stills a final twittered tuning,

discord, before a bow into the Mozart.

Behind them colours breathe through evening glass;

Christ's purple victory robe; a dawn's smashed yolk-light


All evening translations: Janacek's 'Intimate Letters'

opened to imaginations: an angler's line

tightening; fields leaning from an evening train,

tossed blossom before a storm, breeze airing

a hammock, owl over graveyard. Music's guided

through nods, raised eyebrows, unthreading of a loose

horsehair... Behind them evening drains

light out of glass; turns angels to lead profiles.


Oak could have slept, or ascended into fire,

but four beams, rescued, were brought here, became abstract

portraits of writers: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John

Number One. And the artist asked his friends

what colours the apostles speak in, worked to grain

medical white for Luke, spread sky for John,

debtors' blue-black for Matthew, bloodied stripe

for Mark, and a tip of sunrise over a peg.


Night, and the figures from the glass manuscript

have stepped back into dark before resurrection.

No Christ, yet; or pair of angels with furled wings,

no sky-lined local ridge, slated from Wasdale,

re-sited to a Palestinian garden.

Just four men's names, called out with number and pack,

who never came home, but live on as east light

returns each dawn to make creation live.


Who gave their lives in the Great War: Jos Cooperthwaite,

Geo Cooperthwaite, Hugh R Park, Walter K Roper.

Next day's lament still echoes Shostakovitch.

Church door's left wedged to birdsong. Lambing's started.





Never went anywhere without his crook,

so when she saw it hooked to his hospital bed

she knew he'd not go back to the farm and the flock's

steep tracks that led from inbye to heft crags.


He'd drive to market, hobnail boots, low gears,

a shepherd's pace when gathering, time to hand,

to herd his flock round scree, through  April showers,

bringing them down to close barns for their marking.


'Bit like that hospice in your home idea,'

he'd said. 'A coming back to what's familiar.'

Taken with that he'd put a sum aside,

something to go on, with gratitude for gifts


as when he'd seen a morning flare, the set

bloom of a day, late rubbled light on scree;

the way quiet water shifted to wind's breath,

blossom and leaf that told the time of year.


She took his will as instructed: 'A churchyard patch?'

'Aye, I'll have no truck with burning; it's not right.'

He felt the vale would hold him, the same catch

that snecked lambs, gathered evenings from rinsed twilight.


Folk from far came close in polished shoes,

splashing to the grave up the course of a sudden beck

from cloudburst over Gable, a slate sky loose,

dogs tethered for the day, wallpaper marked


where his crook was set each time, bone handle shined

by his grip, and carried for him up the coffin lane.






She towed her trolley, hubble-bubble, over cobbles

and entered the cathedral through the door with a hiss

and knock-back. She waited for deafening Amenning echoes to fade.


New words bombasted in the language of stone and brass,

long military roll calls under bats' wing creak of flags;

the The in the slate floor that followed her everywhere.


So many dead in the dust were announcing themselves.

She flinched, preferring candles with their tongues of fire.

She heard half-remembered singing, and went to hide


backstage, behind the altar. Men were emerging

out of the walls, chanting their status and rank:

Bishop, Archdeacon. A Great Servant of the State.


She watched a woman crouched under dead weight

of murmuring among arches that propped medieval air.

She saw that her lips barely moved, and knew she made


the same sounds as voices clamouring in her head,

sometimes from the powerbrokers, sometimes from memories

that inspired the saint by the lake at work on his prayers


whose eye she caught in stained glass; who understood.

She knew he would stay by the water with its lap and beat,

and bring her the stillness of beech trees that answered back


only in breathing, that hosted absolving birds.

She went outside, and found the whole city miming,

except for the daughter spelling Welcome, in sign language.





Tide had just turned; planed, widening sands

were spreading banquet for sanderling, ringed plover

peppering to tideline. Evening had tinted sky

orange over stillness. Flat water, single waves

lazed ashore in reversing, quickening ebb.


Right place to come with love, and border collie

after those difficult words, oncology,

cannula, that prick of needle, and sideways glance

showing pulsing crimson, as an internal cosmos.


Possibly, and possibly not. You probe for answers:

'It's not good news', but details need biopsy.

Prelude in black keys, dark bunting of evening curlew

follow the coast south. We are gratefulfor their music.





Distance comes nearer, the heartbeat of the ferry

throbs through our  boot soles, judder and wash of passage

draws island closer; seascape assumes detail.


Those white stones grow to cottages and farms,

the one road's shown by worry of a single car,

bracken and pine tonsure the one, low hill.


Landing's as if by landing craft's lower jaw

lowered onto concrete slipway with clang and grate,

green flaps and overlaps opening a talk


of oystercatchers, and half a million weathers.

Outlook is other islands; the map unfolds

to chapel (ruin), and lighthouse (automatic).


And memory is that other chapel with its roof of air,

flooring of daisy and turf, its emptied glazing

still held by sandstone framing the splintered slate.


Saints have long left the liver niches they governed,

like the hunter whose grave slab, under an asphalt lid,

rests now with carving of the running deer.


Kinight and wife remain close in the same stone.

He bears his sword and shield, she appears to hold

an otter. In silence we appear to hear


lost worshippers still filing through the narrow doors,

gathering among walls now thatched with grass and trefoil,

soaked in centuries of psalms. We wait for singing.






Slow-motion shooting star, the plane

fades to an afterthought of silver, leaving

Worsdworth's soundtrack: rustling skirts of birches,


stream's gargle after a dry spell, tap

of hazel staff on the stone bow of the bridge;

crisp whisper of sycamore leaves after vertical fall.


His weather forecasts the aviary of freshening breezes,

and a shepherd's nod to cloud flocking over the fell;

sky parting, silent, with an invitation to walk.


Not always a watch, but knowing how light at mid-morning

caught tops of the trees that were turning fawn to windward.

His seasons easy: lambing, through hay, to harvest.


His descent through woods, through beeches' parliament,

grey pillars steadying west wind's arguments;

the river's case drawing closer, becoming insistent.


Always his voice, testing out future poetry,

not knowing how far it carried in his drafting:

'Allus booming', said an unintended audience


complaing how the paradox of overpowering

shouted down half the world he was describing

before our shouted crises of sirens, and headlines.


Still all the world's an art gallery, with its muted shuffling,

and undertones round the picture where at dusk

Turner had worked an evening star over calm water.





Sanctuary was the title poem in the 2014 collection, published by Canterbury Press, of poems based on Martyn Halsall's year as Poet in Residence at Carlisle Cathedral. This also included Quartets. Coronach, Roads to Marishader and Migrating Birds appeared in Coronach (Wayleave Press) published in 2016. Will's Gift was commissioned by Hospice at Home West Cumbria.


4 - Afterword

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