The Domestication of Ghosts

After yesterday’s rant about HS2 I thought it about time I added a new poem. This fits in quite nicely as a follow-on post, as it has an environmental theme to it. It also ties in with #FolkloreThursday , as was the case with my post last Thursday about Stinking Cleg, a Portsmouth ghost.

This poem references many of the Black Dog myths of Britain, and one that is green ( the Cu-Sith or fairy dog of Scottish & Irish folklore). It’s good fun to read as a performance piece on a wet and windy autumn or winter night. Of course the poem has another message, that we are never that far from the past, no matter how contemporary and ‘civilized’ our society seems, and long-term any battle between nature and man will only be won by one side, and that isn’t us!

Anyway, the poem.

The Domestication of Ghosts

Back then, all this was forest.
A time when shadows had names;
Barguest, Black Shuck, Yell Hound.
We revered them, feared them,
we knew their teeth were real.

Barricade doors, huddle close,
fires spit sparks against the dark.
Church Grim, Gwyllgi, Gyrath;
shape-shifting ghosts in mist
these long dank nights of fear.

Red eyes the size of saucers,
soft-padding through untamed land.
Moddey Dhoo, Skirker, Capelthwaite;
at crossroads on unmarked lanes,
portents of early death.

Now names have lost all power,
shadows softened in sodium.
Padfoot, Gabble Retchets, Cu Sith
no more now than distant words,
just static on a screen.

But one day will come a storm,
your dog will howl all night,
the spectral hounds of Annwn
will shiver down your spine,
you’ll feel their teeth are real.

Stinking Cleg

This post has been prompted by #FolkloreThursday on Twitter.

I’ve long been fascinated by folklore, myth and local legend – growing up in the heart of Wessex and living in a city such as Portsmouth, these are topics that resonate and they are obviously great starting points for poetry. There are lots of urban legends, myths and ghost stories centred on this small island on the south coast of England, some of which I have written poems about. They seem to go down well when recited at poetry events particularly when performed in an over-the-top thespian voice!

One such story relates to an unfortunate Portsmouth vagabond from around 1900 who was apparently beaten up and thrown into the harbour where he subsequently drowned.

Stinking Cleg (no relation to the former leader of the Lib Dems) can apparently be encountered on particularly foggy days in the Arundel Street area of central Portsmouth. His distinctive odour, a combination of rotting flesh, maggoty fish and brine is smelt by the intended victim long before his hideous features are seen.

This poem first appeared in issue 60 of South Magazine, when I was the featured poet.

Stinking Cleg

He will return when the smog descends;
when slate skies leech into concrete,
buildings dissolve into the peripheral,
side roads are a figment of memory,
and you are alone, so very alone.

This smothering veil of murk
will cling to skin like an old dank shroud
as pavements seep into nightmare;
the whole island muffled silent,
your footsteps deadened to nothing.

It’s the smell that you will notice first
as he glides in from his harbour-grave,
as the tang of brine clags into rotting flesh;
of one whose revenge from a violent end
is to stalk the living on a night like this.