My Uncle’s Collection of Tortoises – a small gathering of recent poems

I gathered a few recent poems together. I hope you like them. They will appear in my forthcoming full collection ‘My Uncle’s Collection of Tortoises’ by Cinnamon Press in 2020.


Mental Schmental

Nu? she asks with her usual charm
of my mum, then glancing sideways at me:
mental schmental

we don’t need to talk about things like that
do we? Nothing that a few pills couldn’t help
and anyway ECT never did me any harm.



Why I Left The Island

I left the island because of the wind
that flung across the dunes year after year
unsettling sand that scoured my skin
partially burying the blue-doored cabins.

I would traipse the beach for hours
echoing its shore, eyes gritted, eliciting tears.
I became flat like the island
days settling themselves beneath my ribs

in the soft place that folds away loneliness.
And when I left, they sang enchantments
against what I would become
and lit a necklace of fires along the hills.

Even now they say: I remember him
on a blue bike by a billowing field. Surely
he was happy then. I am beginning
to understand where I am happiest.

Each night patiently, grass at the window
tries to explain. The flame grows easier
to love, the wind stirring the streets
reminding me why I deserved to leave.



In The Portuguese Synagogue

In the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam
the oldest in Europe, they still lay down
fine sand to absorb dirt and the sound of footsteps.

I learn that a chuppah can be made of anything
that a wedding under its cover can take place
anywhere, but preferably beneath an open sky,

that the glass broken during a marriage ceremony
can be of any kind and is a symbol of fragility,
that the boxes of those who perished in the war

stayed locked until they began to age and decay.
Then they opened them to find ants devouring
the prayer books, yarmulkas and phylacteries.

Across the cobbled courtyard, a small winter shul
is covered in a deep red carpet embroidered
with a wide-eyed phoenix rising from the ashes.

Here, time has set love free – common, repeatedly
trampled upon, hidden, lost, burned, eaten,
virtually extinguished, yet recoverable.



Low Star

Last night, we dropped off our son
then bought a Chinese takeaway
and watched a documentary
about the ends of the universe.

We laughed at how many times
Brian Cox smiled when mentioning death.
All is growing apart. How small
we become as white dwarves

random entities within the fatigue of entropy
shifting frequencies beyond thought
of our own unimaginable ghosts.
This morning, I find the requisite light

and am warmed by our low star.
The nuthatches hang like commas
in the sentencing, before arrowing
like time to a nearby branch.


Water Carrier

a child reaching out for the rain
collecting droplets in his cupped palms

will serve as my reservoir
this drawn-out afternoon

and when blackbirds regale the dusk
will be my evening water carrier



The Instruments

I met a girl once
and we spent hours in the maritime museum
trying to understand everything

about the instruments
that kept the vessels on-course and water-tight.
There was so much to learn.

One evening I came home
and banged my head repeatedly against the wall.
She had told me the reasons

we couldn’t go out anymore.
I guess you have to know enough to get by.
Too much and you’re ruptured.



The Underground River

We are walking. We are always out there walking.
As if walking this way and that down unknown roads
with the windows of strangers casting dull light
on our disillusionment will melt or disentangle
the many disappointments of daylight and as if
the turns we take – sorrowful, immediate, fanciful –
might act like dumb, arduous poetry – might become
more true and beautiful than history or mathematics.
We are beginning. We are only just beginning to tell
of the innumerable troubles we’ve rediscovered, shy
like wrens, brown and gradually disassembling
removing our sweaty gloves, unbuttoning jackets,
holding hands across the truth of our difficult lives,
a sense in which the hard earth can shift beneath
our stomping feet, dry-beds softening, moisture
eking through forgotten runnels, some deep found
rhythm in the underground river’s runaway song.



Octopus No. 11

I am Octopus No 11.
Tanked. Part of The Experiment. Intrepid.
I wait. With absolute acuity.

I watch. One behind my observation glass
take a break for thirty seconds longer
than the other (a short biped with a limp).

I am up and over the edge, across
the bench – this irrelevant division
between our cephalopod brethren.

Then wait once more in my new tank. I like
to watch those eyes dilate when they return:
The Incredulity of the ‘Superior Race’.



Belief (The Old Christmas Tree)
For Jan

I believe Barnet Local Authority
when they say they will collect it in January
(if we have cut it in half).

We do not have a saw
so I made do with secateurs
lopping off its top – where angels perch –

clipping and tearing at each stubborn branch
stacking them – my own lattice work –
feathery in the deep dark bin.

The cat tried to work it out
pawing at the branches
sniffing at fallen needles camouflaged in the grass.

The tree that means so much
is now no more than a big stick.
And for the third Friday in a row

I led its scrawny body up the garden path
and let it lean against the low wall.
And for the third Sunday in a row

I haul it back down
and could easily get cross.
But you have to laugh. After all

I am a Jew and should have known.
Tomorrow, it’s the dump.




Sometimes almost without you noticing
a constellation may appear –
the cousin who phones from America

the difficult conversation that doesn’t
explode into an argument but reveals
kindly what you should have acted upon

a pair of goldfinches eyeing the seeds
an evening more quietly attended to
the unnecessary left undone –

patterns dimly recognisable only
the next morning having dreamt of a puppy
freed from the car boot and safely returned

to its owner – a wild-haired laughing stranger
who then invites you in to meet his friends




Blackpool may be grim. Spiceheads sculpt themselves
in doorways along Dickson Street while pit bulls sleep.
A fat woman throws her fag end to the ground
clambering with a groan from her mobility bike
and reaches for the door pad to the DWP.

A teen with aubergine hair pushes a pram
behind a pale wiry boy with concave cheeks
and a tannoy blasts from the sea front theatre
announcing cabaret season, while gulls descend
on tangerine bin bigs spilling KFC.

Terry tells me how he was raped at ten
dropped out of school, got hooked on amphetamines
then crack then heroin. Now, when he goes for a job
the DBS checks fuck me up. One mistake
more than twenty-five fucking years ago.

The system is a cunt. He is beginning again.
Putting himself about, mending locks for mates
and can go a few hours now without the shakes
is even thinking about kids. He smiles at last.
His girlfriend holds his hand. Is proud of him.



May Never Get

At the end of the day, being no more
or less miraculous than a tulip

shopping becomes difficult. I am stopped
by a wagtail that flits between the traffic

a cluster of redwings on the stubble
the florist steeped in roses and balloons

with silver lettering lit by the sun
crocuses, snowdrops and daffs bringing us

back to all that we were born to witness
while two women, arm-in-arm, laughing, turn

to look at a man in grimy blue overalls
smoking a cigarette, showering a jag

and a rainbow rises over the car wash.
I may never get to Sainsbury’s.



My Uncle’s Collection of Tortoises

I began to collect elephants
because he had collected tortoises.

They both seem old and wise.
My elephants remind me of his tortoises.

He passed me down a small jade tortoise
that sits next to a soapstone elephant

on our bedroom bookshelf.
I remember two huge tortoises

guarding the back door
of my grandfather’s house in Herzliya.

Me and my brother would sit on them
when we came back from the beach.

I had learned to swim.
We ate corn on the cob.

He taught me the latin name for the hoopoe
Upupa epops which made me laugh

(still does) while I rode into the night
on my uncle’s giant tortoise.



All poems (c) 2019 David Gilbert

David has three pamphlets published. Liberian Pygymy Hippopotamus (Templar), Elephants Fragile (Cinnamon), ReCollections a collaboration with Beth Hopkins, artist (Bethlem Gallery). He is Writer in Residence at The Bethlem Gallery and his forthcoming full collection ‘My Uncle’s Collection of Tortoises’ will be published by Cinnamon in 2020.