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The song of the jolly headmen


1st October, 2020

Odilon Redon -, Public Domain,

The song of the jolly headmen

Now the year turns

Like a millwheel

Grinding the chaff away.

The river’s up,

The doors won’t close,

Puffed with moisture.

Or is it fairies, little Mabs

And Hobs and bottle imps?

Mischief, the old bicycle’s flat tyres,

Mud spooned over Wellingtons.

In the lop-sided hall

The fairies wash their babies in the beer.

Dreams without people.

Sandbanks. A grey silvered sky.

The hearty tramp on the moors,

The springy heather, the golden retriever

Bounding ahead, happy to be happy.

But there is something in the gorse.

It is the same shape as the gorse.

But it is not the gorse.

It is in the gorse

But not of it.

There is something in the gorse.

The dog stops and listens.

Grass wet with hovering mist.

The ticks climb the blades.

Shellacked buttons, feelers

Twitching morse,

They speak of tick affairs.

Conspiracies. The world

Is all cogs and springs and clicking gears

Run and maintained by grotesques.

Who rules a queenless hive?

Each soul has its wetlands.

Knee-deep in filmy water,

The murrain suck and pull

Of depth and marshy ooze.

She stands in storms.

She is motion and its consequence,

A woman caught in movement,

She plays with time,

Or time plays with her.

Keelhauled, roped and plunged,

This fear of winds

In a world not old but young,

Swimming in the dreaming brine

We fish together

Strung with weed.

Feed the feathered arrow through the torso.

Never pull. The raggedy flesh,

Slippy blood and gristle.

Stag’s teeth and a charm bracelet.

Your mood like fur stroked the wrong way.

Let the moral contortions commence.

The teller’s smile

A copper-wire crescent

Set in dough.

Chile powder on a horseshoe

Of pineapple,

Her hair disgraceful,

A heron’s nest of reds and aubergines.

Champagne and cigarettes,

An origami cat

Weakened by two fat raindrops.

Swill it around the mind.

Troubled blessing.

Torch the pretensions.

Let ideals smother in the crib.

We need no thinkers here,

Just pragmatists. Log-splitting men,

Cabin builders, calloused hands

And minds. For thinkers

There are crosswords and cribbage.

These hang and pluck no pheasants

Nor slat the shutters

‘Gainst the wind.

Love hides but waits to be found.

One hundred counted. Look

In the pockets of your scuff-sleeved coat,

And behind the Japanese screen

And in the coal scuttle

And in your heart last of all

Because you never want games to end.

We never met.

An echo in each other’s thoughts.

Corridors untaken

And doors untried.

After all the bright manifestoes

They still hang the prisoners.

Thirteen loops, thirteen steps,

The trapdoor surprises with its speed,

The vertebrae traumatised,

A mangle of gristle,

The spine’s perfection compromised,

Its question-mark answered.

Crane marionettes,

All-gallows eve.

There is a woman on the roof,

Astride the gables,

Set against the peat-black sky.

The thunder-heads roll in.

She holds a bird’s head

On a bamboo cane,

Shakes it in a palsy-dance,

Come, lightning.

And strike us all dead.

Tiny monkeys swarm

On beached and rotting palanquins.

The old empires pass,

Dowagers in a sick-breathed room,

Never to rise again.

Time smooths the blankets

And combs the hair.

Plants and puppets.

Unfurl the flags,

Hang them rightways

And have the village girls

Take Death down to the river.

Don’t whistle in the house, mother.

You’ll whistle away the luck

We never had.

The luck my father wished for

But never had.

Luck is a lady in the restaurant

But a harlot on the streets.

Ceremonial attire

Shaken out for wearing.

Confetti of dead moth-wings

Strews the tiles.

The ceremony is late starting,

Late finishing.

It is late now

All over the world.

The time zones come together,

The wicket-gate closes

On the dog-rose garden

Where we left our shadows.

There are eight jolly headmen.

Phobos, stripe-faced, pink- eyed,

A bobbing albino.

Kurtz, there in the heart

Of darkness.

Faustina, wife of Marcus,

The kind, wise emperor.

The wood-sprite, juju man,

With his matted coconut face.

Next Beppo,

Black head, nodding,

Red dashes for eyes.

Little Kätschen with her twig arms

Held up in glee.

Odilon with his one eye

And carven grin.

Jack the cartoon man,

Crosses for eyes,

Railroad teeth.

The shard

Of black-daubed tile

Digs the earth.

Eight jolly headmen.

Will there be more?

Hear them sing

And regret nothing.

Chickens in the church-yard.

They are the quick, and the dead

Sleep on and dream of loam

And trinket and flint.

The stolen church-bell

Was Domesday Book scriven.

Inside the church the mural,

Terracotta devils’ tongues

Of flame, the croix patée

Skewed in its corner.

The land a Templar’s,

A knight in absence,

Gone to the Holy Land.

Sir Stephen something,

Supping with Saladin

On mulled blood and old wine.

Born to be a dilettante,

Now I work the night shift

At the doll hospital.

The graveyard shift.

The dollies have no graves

But live again, remade

and recycled. All the little

Plastic arms and legs,

The eyes, the squeaky joints.

Clock in, clock out,

The dollies watch

As I go about my work.

The fan-dance has commenced and now

The town of devils must be rid.

The pharmakoi, the four bad men

And woman one in number

Outside the township limits

Must be driven. Point of order.

What of the names?

The names, the names.

In every log-book, almanac,

Or registration form,

Certificate of birth or marriage,

Bill of sale for Hackney-carriage.

All the names and signatures

Remain. The printer’s devils.

Vespers, Angelus, Domesday.

All the bells sing

And the overtones hum

and quiver.

Water-boatmen dimple the pools.

The water table’s up,

The underground river

Seeks a place in the sun,

Brings all its secrets with it

From the inky black,

The moss-slimed walls and runnels.

Artesian wells, Cartesian bells.

They ring therefore thou art.

The young daughter fears blindness.

A squint from a childhood illness

Brings twilight in like tarpaulin.

The edges of things blur and bleed.

Now she edges blindfold round the dark house.

Tap, tap, tap.

Learning the alignments and edges

For when the light fails.

You were told

Of the false lights,

Warned, cuffed once, twice.

Stay on the path, Will.

Gaseous exhalations

Sparked into a life

To flit and course the dead peat.

Thus science. Miss Abby

Says Will o’ th’ Wisp

Is come. Red dots

For eyes.

Stay on the path, Will.

Your namesake flickers,

Leads you on

To the graves of the bad children.


In the marshy ooze.

Down the causey.

(‘Ware the slimy steps

Do not pitch you in the Thames!)

The ghost of Bruno

Passes you

On his way up to The Strand

To the ambassadorial house.

In the end all endings

Are beginnings.

The old hallway clock

Strikes to end one hour

And begin another.

Wheel moves wheel,

Cycles, seasons and a turning.

And so the year turns

Like a millwheel

Grinding the chaff away.

Bell Cantos, a collection of poems and lyrics by Mark Gullick can be purchased here

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