Two Poems by Martyn Halsall

Before Light

Same greys in the rumpled cloud heaps stacked and streaked
as a mound of fleece from Cumbrian Herdwick flocks,
as split slate set to avenue and standing stone;
same song on the wind off loch, shade of ashed peat.

Mysteries stay on the surface: why this place,
old centre now, afterthought of west and North?
Once junction of sea-roads as minds reached out
to far horizons, dawns after mist of life.

Draw close: swirled veinings, upended runes, diagonals,
each stone shaped slice of tooth, same shades as mornings;
pink marble insetting grain, an overlay
of bearded lichen, a near black moss of blot-work.

Consider this a gathering ground – for sacrifice,
moot-point or market, court for a rumoured goddess,
stone shaft grown guideposts to the haloed ring,
cross-piece a guide rail to the tomb’s slabbed wombing.

Pilgrims come still; summoned for five thousand years,
find first, eye-levelled, an escort of sentrying stones
but eagle-eyed, mounting on searcher’s glide,
the plan reveals a Celtic cross in strengthening light.

Close Reading

Name’s blotted out by a banner-patterning of lichen.
His mis-spelled stone records he lived in Sron
and died with his ds curved south, the wrong way round,
in seventeen thirty-nine, aged sixty-six.

Just one among stone biographies read in quiet,
except for breeze in reeds, and sea’s obituary,
morning tide sieving shingle yards away.
Chapel, once present in monks’ prayers, keeps its silence.

Neighbours of some anonymous stones still cluster
to keep their dead alive a little longer:
McKirwan, tenant in Oragang, in memory
of his loving wife recorded in flaking sandstone.

Honourings in Gaelic. To some so many children
who ‘died in infancy’ they are not named.
Others are celebrated in a swirl of words,
father and son Ships Carpenter, scrolled in singular.

Others beg questions of stone carver’s reading,
recording Mary Taylo (breakage in working –
next line) r, and Margare (next line) t,
in a stuttered place snapped off to a single e.

Slab leaning North, and angled like a limping shepherd,
is labelled the Property of Allan Wright,
stranger, perhaps, among Crawfords, McCullans,
names wound in plaid like green weave of low islands.

No coats of arms chiselled in this old red sandstone,
just crossed spade and worn hoe, just fade and shine
from seas, coming and going; just liturgy
of single buzzard, keening in its hidden helix.


Martyn Halsall is a poet and journalist who lives and writes in rural West Cumbria, reflecting on that environment and his former role as Poet in Residence at Carlisle Cathedral.

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