• David Wheatley

Northborough sonnets



Finding John Clare’s name carved into a bridge

I pitch our tent for the night no one will

see us from the road but then before dawn

some drunks making a racket uncouth sorts

not safe for a young mother and child try

the next field this goes on for some time then

key to a flat from stranger in pub then

the rent unpaid and a cat left behind

linger in the station ladies’ close the

door and lift our feet when the attendant

comes round let ourselves out in the morning

fetid from pools of wee on the floor and

be on our way and whatever you may

choose to remember none of this happened



A man on a bicycle come to see

he says his daughter slam door goes away

best keep on the move if they’re coming for

us now pin in map and move to northern

town not open door to them either when

they catch up bundling food and clothes through the

letterbox bewildered old couple stood

on the path shouting we know you’re in there

grandmother is a very ignorant

woman she will stop at nothing to turn

you against me for spite I know she is

watching do not get undressed in front of

the TV letters pile up no money

now but safe where nothing can touch us safe



Until fetched home skulking vanquished at bay

mother pushing ninety now cataracts

fogging her view on the drive to the shops

sheer madness but still full of vengeful spleen

don’t read in bed barks at me it’s a fire

hazard don’t think you’re having your own front

door key spits while you’re under this roof old

so-and-so I keep my enemies close

now wily stratagem I know her game

I am in my childhood bedroom the view

remains the same the woods full of bluebells

hedges full of bloom as the poet wrote

family connection there I fancy

ah blue celeste of poesy and the

finer things in life you have seen me right



John Clare tracks the placid snipe haunter of

remotest shades marshy flats and stagnant

floods flushes only when approached closely

follows a zigzag course as it takes flight

walk out to Rutland Water and hear it

drumming away to itself mottled brown

and black in the reeds below the osprey

nests and incubating her secretive

revelation that may never take place

soldering the shallows with her needle

bill when the poet moved a few miles up

the road to Northborough his mind darkened

mourning the snipe’s peace that in dreariest

places will be a dweller and a joy



Mother whose figment of whose mind is who

you do know I’m here don’t you unsleeping

your voice carrying entering under

the door is it time for tea yet what are

you doing in there or have you slipped out

on one of your flits again carrying 

your things in big heavy bags then slinking

home no acknowledgement and creeping back

upstairs to your hidey-hole yes mother

I hear all unless it is you not there

and who slipped away unnoticed while I

drag out my vigil and scribble my notes

on tissue paper not for reading not

for you mother years of this left long years



Going through old family photographs

removing my face emphatic scratching

cancellation of the never happened

or snip you out mother all the photo

cutouts tumbling under the bed into 

the archive hand-copied parish records

births deaths marriages long generations

of pig finishers pure collectors their

gammon faces in the tavern gaslight

the ignorant unkillable bloodlines

following me from curtain to curtain

down the village street not seeing me though

not the secret laugh of the struckthrough face 

scissored to flitters that pool at my feet



Splash damp ground ahead I enter the woods’

marshy acres far from the fruit-pickers

on the horizon and the rifle-shots

of the Stamford bus exhaust there is a

clearing where the roots open outwards like

two hands the spew of a low sinky foss

among the flaggy plots investing me

in old sallow stumps unwanted and warped

last-gasp commonage not worth fencing off

I see the sky smile on the meanest spot

and water pooled in my shoes now the damp

leaked in through any old hole stumble on

a brown-black bird tell me its name again

shot drowned in the reeds and its eyes pecked out





A pine wood in North Africa


‘I am in a great hurry. Could you keep this for me until this war is over?’

Sorley MacLean to Douglas Young, 25 September 1939


Among El Alamein’s

reversing dunes a pinewood

of the mind walks the shifting

ridge whispers rumours to

its roots of a waterhole

and rings with a great music

of helmets hammers banners

of the great wood in motion

in the scirocco, the divided

wood bright with the brightness

of the face remembered

in the phosphorescent 

night of another sky.


Under another sky

the ringing of exploded laughter

and the creak of the opening graves

to salute the men departed

and welcome the men returned

the wounded Actaeon

bleeds on the sand and slowly

brain and heart converge

on one belief; it is the depths

from which they climb

that burden the mountains so

and the sap is known as it oozes

rising to its proper work.


Dear Douglas in the event

of my death preserve

my poem on the pinewood

watching over this sandy

foxhole file away in an

airless drawer its branches

and their steely shadows

sweating under a cloudless

sky and keep in your breast

pocket the needles I stooped

to gather once in a musky

handful somewhere Scotland and this

waiting desert met and touched.