The Moonlit Road
White the road lies under the moon,
one quarter short of full;
white the road lies under the moon
that leers like a bleached skull.
The waxen moon hangs heavy now,
still as a hanged man’s head,
lighting the way for shadows’ steps,
the dead march of the dead.
The fingerpost points pointlessly
way over the chalk down;
the gallows ghost will never move
from where they cut him down.
White the road lies under the moon
in the unquiet night;
white the ghost stands beside the road,
pale in the wan corpselight.
The Castle Perilous
The princess sat at her window,
weaving her jet-black hair,
and all the folk who saw her swore
that there was none so fair.
Down flew a raven to her sill
and croaked, “Princess, make haste:
seek out the Castle Perilous
where your true love’s held fast.”
The princess ran down from her room,
heeding her destiny,
and saddled up her roan horse
to find where he might be.
The red deer and the red fox saw
her ride by out of doors,
the golden eagle watched her pass
over the purple moors.
She rode through dire woods and glens,
day and night without pause,
and reached the Castle Perilous
whose ramparts snarled like jaws.
Inside she saw a dreadful sight,
so grim her heart’s blood froze:
the bravest man that she had seen,
fighting three ghastly foes.
Three phantoms came on every side
to assail her brave knight,
and though he slew them every day
they rose again each night.
The sorceress stood at the gate,
smiling like gleaming knives.
“Come in, my fair princess,” she said,
“where mortals try their lives.”
“Answer my riddles,” said the witch,
“before you may depart,
or my three wights will kill your man
and I will eat your heart.”
“What is the blackest thing of all?
Tell me, my pretty dove.”
“Blacker than my hair is the heart
that never has known love.”
“What is the whitest thing of all?
Tell, or I eat you whole.”
“Whitest is the white purity
of a true loving soul.”
“What is the strongest thing of all?
Answer, my fair young maid.”
“Stronger than steel is the vow
that two true loves have made.”
The witch and spectres howled and fled,
the castle fell to sand.
She stepped across the clean bare ground
and took her true love’s hand.
He set her on her roan horse
and led her home again;
and peace and plenty blessed the land
through their long loving reign.
The Witches of Berwick
King James fetched home his Danish bride
but foul winds beat them back,
so the wise King sought out the cause
that drove his fleet to wrack.
Now Geillis Duncan was a maid
and healer of some fame;
her master Seaton of Tranent
asked her whence her gift came.
He asked her most genteelly
and noted down her moans,
he asked her with the pilliwinks
that crushed her finger bones.
She told the Berwick coven’s names
who threatened the King’s life,
who danced upon the Auld Kirk Green
and sailed in a sieve.
Old Agnes Sampson was the first,
called the Wise Wife of Keith,
brought to the King at Holyrood
to be put to the proof.
They bridled her most sturdily
with spikes in cheeks and tongue,
they cropped her head and wrote down all
she blurted while she hung.
Then John Fian of Prestonpans
whose guilt was not in doubt
for he confessed all, once he had
his fingernails torn out.
They burned them all on Castlehill,
bright as a burning tree;
thus James, Defender of the Faith,
was saved from sorcery.
There lived a girl in the end row,
fairest in all the land,
and all the men from all around
came suitors for her hand.
The boss man’s son sent his own men
to bring her to his house
and swore that she would never leave
until she was his spouse.
“Take all I have away from me,
take honour, jewels and life;
take me out of all memory:
I’ll never be your wife.”
“You have one night, my pretty one:
if you and I aren’t wed
before another day is done,
you’ll see your mother dead.”
Then as she wept alone that night,
her double left her glass
and stole through halls to the son’s room
where no one saw her pass.
The son smiled as she slipped inside,
regal and unafraid,
but in a flash she seized his knife
and stabbed him with his blade.
She twisted it in his black heart
till no red blood was left;
she did not strike with her right hand,
she struck him with the left.
Then back she glided through the house
to the poor woman’s room
and took her by her good right hand
and led her smiling home.
The boss man wept over his son
and searched both high and low
but never found the murderer
whose left hand struck the blow.
Mysterium, the ox and ass
and other faux-naif beliefs
in emblematic bas-reliefs
beside Annas and Caiaphas
show forth in a medieval frieze:
the midnight walk to Christmas Mass,
the stars and moon all frosted glass,
grass blades and abbey carp ponds freeze.
Parades of ensigns and cornets
of horse trail regimental flags,
the troop of drooping colours flags
to brassy flourish of cornets;
blind crusades across endless steppes
pitch camp; the sacrificial host
receives the sacrificial Host,
hostage to Fortune’s crass missteps.
The thick-lipped bewitched monarchy,
inbred true bloodlines’ royal sports,
trip dimly through their royal sports,
idiot spawn of purity.
What unheimlich manoeuvre could
void us before we choke to death,
gavaged with every shibboleth,
the forcemeat offal of our blood;
ineffables we effing parse
in polysemous homonyms
cured by Gulliver’s Houyhnhnms
with doses from a Yahoo’s arse.
No onomatopoeia sounds
the same, a tongue on its home ground
can’t even reproduce a sound,
the token effort Babel grounds.
God’s soundscape that we cannot bate
returns no answer known to us;
deep in the clouds of Perseus,
the black hole’s grace notes resonate.
My rich phantasmagoria,
spewn molten, congeals black and dun,
dejection cone of scoria
post solidus, heat spent and done.
put one word down and then it’s gone
with a sardonic gloria,
a true Roman oblivion.
But out of folios thrown down,
a dead leaf mulch of red and brown
under bare branches’ bony sway,
green growth may break through to the light
in crocus mauve and snowdrop white
saffron gold-hearted, in new day.