Atherton Onward

Adventures in starting over

Month: February, 2014


Earlier this month I performed a piece which later was used in the Amo exhibition, but up until the week before I had to perform it, there was still a question as to which would end up getting the outing.

This poem came to me in fragments, mostly on the bus, and it was weeks before it finally took on some kind of discernible shape. I’m still proud of it (or as proud as I can get, being – stereotypically perhaps – highly critical of everything I write); at some point, this does need to come out and be performed, but it will have to wait for the right time for an outing.



When I was young my mother used to
stitch my name into the back
of every garment I owned, so that
I could always distinguish what was mine
and what belonged to someone else.

These days, my collars are not embroidered
but I have a pretty good grasp of needlework
change the colour of the thread
for every new chapter I begin,
I can no longer pick out my name
but I can tell you the year, the exact day
for each new tally mark I wear,
point you to any destination you desire
on the underground line map sewn meticulously
on the insides of my eyelids
I remember what was mine.

My father was a sailor and handy with thread
he taught me to always follow
the brightest star, that it would lead me
home, wherever in this world I stood
and I followed his advice,
chose the brightest point in my sky
built paper maché wings to follow it
left the provisions and the camels at home
my eyes saw black but for that one point
and I remembered too late that
the brightest angel speaks with a forked tongue.

My stars taught me to be water,
to reflect, rather than to shine
to be deep and quiet, hide what lies below
the fallen trees and the rusted shopping trolleys
empty whisky bottles and cracked tv sets
I have taught myself to be placid
to school my features to glacier,
learned to smile demurrance at insult
to kiss the hand that strikes you
because it also keeps you fed
I have learned to deflect
to speak when spoken to,
learned to shine backwards and around corners
the way the sun bathes the moon
so no-one questions the source of this lesser light.

My friends would call this weakness
and maybe they’re right, but I called it talent
and I learned to be water,
to balance others out, learned to flow
smoothly around their sharp edges
counterweigh their imperfections
I learned to absorb, to transmute
to reflect and echo back until all that was left
of me was a perfect mirror
showing them the best of themselves
a pale and glassy figure
wearing my face like a kabuki mask
my name stitched into the collar of its shirt
I have learned the merits of this act
can identify the exact point at which my mind
leaves my body to do its dirty work for it
sometimes the only reminder that this is mine
is the name sewn into my clothes
the list of failures and flaws carved
into my hide and then hidden like an old diary page
I remember what was mine.

There are days when I know pride in my silence
admire the grace of my bowed spine
the way tree branches grow in circles around street lamps
bending to worship these false suns
and I wonder if this isn’t somehow better
to cover the shards of others’ work with rings
let my bark grow over scratched initials
and pieces of glass, a broken mirror
that can no longer look back at me
raising my lips in a rictus grin like it’s
out of practice wearing my muscles
but there is only so long I can sit
like a passenger in my own skin, stuck with an
inconsiderate driver who doesn’t even know the controls
I am tired of being water
and the dams are starting to crack.

How long have I watched the sun glow red
on too many tainted mornings,
how many times have the clouds been mirrored
in my bathroom sink before I chose not to flow
but to freeze
how long have I watched jaundiced sunsets
silhouetting chimney stacks and machinery
into church spires and empty crucifixes
I have grown tired of arranging my limbs on soft cushions
beating my breast and rending my tunic
for some lesser Adonis who will come to Cythera no more
hand me the tourniquet and iodine,
I have known too much bend with too little grace
my limbs are not the willow tree
to sway on the banks of the river,
predisposed to softness
the stitches have come out of my collar
but I remember what was mine
and softness is not easy –

I have stood on the edge of the brink
more times than I care to number
listening to it whisper its song to me
how easy it would be to fall,
how simple the step into nothing,
it would have been so easy –
I guess that’s why I never took it.

My father was a sailor, handy with thread
and he taught me to follow the stars no matter the storm;
My mother stitched my name and the names of six million
into my clothes, she taught me that roots
will plunge deep through the most frozen of soil
and the pines on the Russian steppes may deceive
for all they are wizened and warped
and for all that I could not navigate as papa wanted
for all that I do not carry my mother’s survivor’s guilt
there is too much of my father’s spirit in me to bend
too much of my mother’s to break
surrender does not come easy.

There is pride in that, you know.
Pride in having learned how to bend,
in having ebbed and flowed
having dammed everything behind stone
but I never broke.
Some days, I wish I had
some days, I wish I could open my ribcage
pluck out my heart and lay it like a Mayan priest
on the altar of another’s care
sometimes I wish that I could look at love
less like a bout of cholera or a growing cancer
hollowing my insides and growing claws into my brainstem
believe it or not, I want to know what it’s like
when it doesn’t have to hurt
I want to know what it would be like
to write love poems without them always coming out
as a litany of regrets and self disgust
how it would feel to surrender my skin to another
without that surrender being taken at the point of a knife
I want to have a day when I won’t have more words
for bruises that faded years ago
than for the sweet kiss my lover placed on my forehead
the night I woke up screaming in his bed
I want to look in the mirror and not see a puppet
with someone else’s fingerprints all over the strings
after they’ve already been cut loose
I want to know what is so wrong with me
That my memory can’t tell a black eye from a love song.

When I was young, my mother used to stitch
my name into the back of every garment I owned
so that I could always distinguish what was mine.
I keep them in a drawer, every one marked
with a different coloured thread.



A lot has happened in the last few weeks. Some of it I can talk about, some of it I can’t.

I wrote this poem for the sister I chose.


The cliffs at Berry Head stand
like a punk’s salute to the sea.
Six hundred feet of sheer granite,
when the January storms come in from the west
this is where they hit first,
sweep up the face
and tear screaming across the heath
towards the town that huddles
hiding behind their skirts.
There is a spot, right on the edge
where you can stand on the wall
of the old fortress and lean out over the void
held up by the wind and daring the waves
to play kiss chase;
it’s a dangerous game
but it calls every winter,
and this is what I see
when your mouth tells me you’re fine
and your eyes speak of a valley
through which you will not let me follow.

Phoenix, I have watched you work origami
on the fire you keep in check,
folding in on yourself, becoming
ever smaller to fit more neatly into a pocket
But the heat has not dimmed
and you have burned through the fabric
of every coat he has held you in.
You are a miniature sun,
and he was drawn like a moth
flew to you on wings he constructed
from the discarded feathers
in your flight path,
embraced the burn like a lover
and wore the ash as cologne;
but he lowers his eyes
when he looks at you now, and says
that he wishes he had chosen a candle
because at least its light
would not hurt his eyes.

For every sack he placed on your back
you have carried the load with grace
back straight, head up
you danced the devil’s tune
in veils of razor wire and smoke
held tight to the rope he was winding
about your ankles, wrists and neck
and made the suspension an art form
a star dance in the anti gravity of your union
where there was no pole by which
to fix the compass of your mind.
You were the meteor by which he timed his centuries
carved them into the post of your bed
“She loves me.
She loves me not.”
You sang so sweetly for his virtues
that your captor never heard the echo
reverberate off the gilded bars of your cage
you have grown into the walls
become lichen, the cracks in the stone
spent what fire you had
on the risk of your wedding band;
now you are a gambler with a habit,
leaning on the rail of the last bridge to nowhere
tossing the coin of your courage
to test if that, too, wants to leave you.
You have nothing else left to lose.

He tells you that you have nothing
while ensuring that this is true when tested
snaps your bones one by one
to ensure you cannot walk away to try
I have watched you become a shadow
frightened of its own potential for solidity
you wait to be blown away
carried off on the errant breeze
yet hardly dare open your wings
afraid they will no longer carry you
too used to the chains that keep you with him
you have become a wild creature made tame
by confinement and gratitude
you forget that the absence of pain to compel you
does not constitute kindness or worth
so you stand by the gates,
shaking, uncertain
you have but one step to take to freedom
but it has been solong since you felt
the grass beneath your feet,
your skin mistakes the softness for thorns
and retreats to the reassuring stone of your cell.
You have been staring so hard into the void
that you can no longer turn around
to see the army of allies at your back
you feel their warmth behind you
and wait only for hands to push you
unprepared, to fall into nothing
watch the ground hold you like a prayer
and buoy whatever part of you is left;
I cannot stand here an unseen spectator
and watch you jump before you are shoved.

Phoenix, you rose above all this before
again and again
you have kissed the granite that would break you
kissed your jailors goodbye
you have risen with the breaking day
a red sun streaking from the haze
between hours, between days
and he is but the moon,
forever chasing and forever less,
noticed only for the reflected glory he takes
when in your presence,
he is bound to you by gravity,
not the other way around.
But you –
you, with your hurricane heart,
with your spitfire tongue, you
with horizons in your eyes and mountains in your back
you were always too much
to be contained in a bell jar of his making
and I will not let the vacuum mute your song.

You, who are ascendent, who the wind is taking
you who need only remember your wings
they will carry you
Phoenix, you have only to taste
the ashes in which you now stand,
embrace the burn
and rise.

Spoken Word

I had the amazing opportunity to contribute to the Team V/Amo exhibition at Birmingham Art Gallery a couple of weeks ago after I performed this piece at a poetry jam here in Birmingham. Although the subject matter was terrifying to revisit, this was something that had to be spoken to be purged, and I’m incredibly grateful that the folks at Amo wanted to show my work.

The day I first performed this, I had thought of – and discarded – a half dozen explanations, caveats and introductions. In the end, the only thing I could say was “have you ever missed somebody like a bad habit?”

This is the poem I wrote.



I dreamed of you again tonight
and woke in a sweat for all the wrong reasons.
The clock tells me 3am
it’s still light where you are
I guess that’s why I’m awake.
It has been 3 years, 6 months and 22 days
since I last saw your face
but I remember you perfectly,
the smallest details etched indelibly on my brain.
I still remember your smell
still look twice when someone
passes me on the street with your stride
I still know the names of every star
that shone through the cloud
and the light pollution
on the night you showed them to me,
I still know you.
You were the first.

You spoke my name like a promise
promised me dreams woven of whispered secrets
you traced my freckles like constellations
found my edges and saw a puzzle
you could study for a lifetime
and never get bored of looking.
You saw every scar I had and didn’t recoil
kissed every one and called them sacred
made my skin into your treasure map
and you the only one who had broken the code.
You took the weapons out of my hands
and you became the blade
I would have used on myself.
Sometimes I’m sure a shard of you
is still lodged somewhere in me
hiding under my skin like shrapnel
I heal clean, but it aches when it’s cold
and I forget that I’m too young
to have weather bones.
You took the compass I was holding upside down
became my lodestone
and now I don’t know how to navigate
without the wall at my back
and I miss the certainty that comes
with having only one possible option
miss waiting for the order to fire
miss the spark in the barrel
miss the duck
miss the strike
I miss you.

Stop thinking.
Switch sides.
Just listen to the clock and sleep.

You have artist’s hands
and your fingers tune the strings of your bass
like spidersilk as you teach me your art

You’re stroking the neck of the bottle
you’re three drinks too far
and I am three feet too close

Cold clear skies speak frost
and the sun is warm on my back
I still keep that picture in a frame
because I have never smiled like that since

Your eyes have gone black
At least now we match

We’re eating strawberries on the grass
and you’ve made me laugh so hard
my ribs ache with it

You have artist’s hands
You stroke the neck of the bottle
My neck is not glass
Head meets wall
The wall is my compass
Bright on black
you showed me the stars
and you could name every one
and your smile is sunlight

You have artist’s hands
and I am your canvas

I don’t miss the excuses
scarves in the lecture hall
long sleeves in summer
Don’t miss thinking fast to explain
tell my mother where the marks came from.
Got the bruises in training.
Got the bruises out hiking.
Got bruised moving furniture.
Caught in a commuter train.
Slipped the curb.
Bruises, what bruises?
It’s nothing.
I fell.
It’s nothing.
You were the first.

You are the reason nobody ever heard my poetry
Too scared to stand up and speak
afraid that all anyone would see
is another fucking cliché
another weakness.
You promised you would always be with me
now I can’t look in the mirror
Sure you’ll be over my shoulder
The words come out wearing my voice
still all I can hear is you.
Strip my skin
and you’ll find yours under it.
What you never understood is
I was never looking to be rescued.
Prince Charming is not my type
and you were no fairy tale
But you took every monster I had
and held them hostage; you replaced them.
What use in insubstantial fears
when I had you?
What point in white knights
when we couldn’t tell a shield from a fist.

Now or every nightmare when I wake
heart pounding, flinching at shadows
there are too many nights when I dream of you
and regret waking to find you’re not there.
Some nights I wake and I can’t help it
brush the thread in my mind that has always been yours
just to know you’re still there, close
and far away from me.
Maybe it’s physics
magnet drawn to iron
you kept the blade you took
and I still have a fascination with sharp edges.
Maybe it’s only because the marks have faded
and X no longer marks the spot
but some days the shrapnel moves
and too often the sensation is pleasant.
Maybe some day I’ll wake up and not wish you were here
maybe that’s the day I will finally stop loving you
the way I could never love myself.
But I wonder if I will ever stop writing poems about you
and I’m not sure I want to.

The clock tells me 3.02am
and where you are it’s still daylight.
Nothing for it but to wait
settle down, hold quiet and still
wait for you to sleep peaceful
and your dreams will brush the edges of mine.
It’s the closest I get now to being near you.
It’s ok, I’ll be quiet, I promise
I won’t move
won’t speak
I won’t even dare to pray.

The very talented Ayesha Jones filmed a performance of the poem at Birmingham ICC, which was then shown at the exhibition. The film she created can be found here:

Part of me is still not sure how I feel about people hearing it – the subject is highly personal, and it’s the first time I have really felt naked when performing or posting a poem. But at the same time, the response was amazing and actually saying what had been plaguing my mind out loud did finally conquer a few demons I hadn’t realised I had been holding on to. It was certainly a valuable lesson to me as a writer; I’m not sure I could bare my soul like that every time, but something tells me that this is where the key lies to improving my work as a writer and even developing as a person.

“The day you feel like you’re showing too much, like you’re walking down the street naked… that’s probably the day that you start to get it right.” Neil Gaiman