Learning How To Look – poems from Wales

I have come back from a writing workshop in Wales to a different world (of course). I hope you like some of these poems.

I am a great believer in words as a way of connecting to ourselves, each other and the planet. So, I hope that at least some of your time in the next few weeks and months is about that reconnection.

Keep safe. Be gentle with yourselves and each other.

p.s. My new book, my first full collection of poetry, ‘The Rare Bird Collection’ is out in May from Cinnamon Press.


The Household of Three Flies

I am empty in a household of three flies
and a kettle that repeatedly boils

layering my thin fear
throughout each room

and each time I open the window
to let one out

there are still three flies
buzzing about

this morning the fat dozy one
with five legs at last count

tottered to the ledge and tumbled
onto the damp ferns

as stupid as it had been when it began
and all three flies

seeming to know what it takes
to maintain their insectile opposition

to my attempts at freedom
and one, inevitably,

with five legs
remains high up in the corner of my bedroom.

 The Low Star

I dare not rise too far
for fear of being cold-shouldered
by the galaxy

so let me sketch a little
this local sky
from where I watch myself

down there on the rock
a ball of flame pooled in my palms
like a cupped wish

with wave upon wave
peeling off
into the ocean’s dark doubt

our lights
fractured and multiple
over the small inlet


I queued in the drizzle
to meet the master.

A black butterfly had once
landed on his forehead.

He wrote a book about it.
He told me: ‘be patient’.

That was thirty years ago.
I still get moths

stunned and staggering
around my bristling filament

 Sometimes Just This

 I need a rest from the hunt
don’t need to know why
I was broken away
from being safe
and became
the hunter and the hunted

I just need
I just need
a rest from the hunt


Bringing Back

Why is faith so fragile
Yet doubt so strong?

I want to bring back a stone or feather or pine cone
I can cling to

even in the rain even by the waterfall
even by the reservoir

the hill crests invisible in the mist
crow lifting off and headed into steady sheets
gulls swimming in grey air

a blackbird cocked-head listening for worms
on the soft verge by the low wall
blotches of orange lichen on the stone bridge

buds about to break from black branches
and behind the falling river’s rage
the chirrup of a chaffinch

and within its tumble and churn
a wiry tree with roots lodged
between the crack in one stone

everything slipping past
I would take it all away from myself

the collared dove rests at the very top
of a swaying telegraph pole

wires stretched this way and that across the valley
water trickling down the slate

from everywhere at once
tinkling like a xylophone

so it is not one thing after all
I am after

then the brassy honk of invisible geese

I imagine them overhead
an arrowing sign against the haunting steel
like a hallelujah arriving me home

but then I spot them tiny
close to a scrubby landmass
way out in the ruffled water




This morning having already
made several fateful errors –

in the kitchen reaching up
for the tawny marmalade
(the cupboard is below the sink)

blowing on a spoonful of muesli
as if it were hot soup

swallowing without taste
and having to do everything
before leaving the house

listening to the news
and an argument through the wall
between a father and a child

late to see a robin
singing its puffed up heart out
on the folded washing line

believing only what I know –
I thought: how much more then
can the heart mistake?

What Were We Thinking?

What were we thinking
when we set out to win?

Wind at our back
breezing through stone

coasting to easeful victories
repetitious and bored

removed from consequence
or why we’d begun

until the heart
islanded, warn down

came to believe we would not
have to turn back

into the wind
or learn how to lose 

The Railway Replacement Bus From Llandudno Junction


This valley smells like damp old men
this bus cutting through it like an operation

you feel the back of your hand
for a small cyst that has been there for years
but seems whiter-headed now

How soon before you need routine surgery
remembering your dad’s purple hands
veins bulging light blue
how old was he then?

No artwork here
brute steel skyline
plumes of pine sucked up the hillside
one vast silhouetted slab
echoing a cave’s depths
black stone cottage backgrounded
against its own sunk puff of smoke

Hard men must always have fallen asleep
on journeys like this
leaning against cold windows
heads lolling forward
startling awake from the doze
surprised at how far they have gone
wondering whether they have missed their stop

Flood waters lining the fields
crows on the back of straggly sheep
beneath toppling rain
water tumbling down to the side of the road
two horses kicking out at each other
then bolting through the mist
two lads fetching bike helmets out of the garage –
the same freedom rush!
Why care yet what anyone thinks
or for retrenchment?

Vast grooves of mud in the estuaries
how best to understand the land
when you haven’t lived here?

Daffodils seem out early
the distant speck of buzzard
seemingly stilled in the darkening yellowy sky
scree and rubble peppering the inclines

You do not want to take too long to get used to it
do not have energy to be reconciled
any more to past wrongdoing
that time has gone

The road bends
low walls of flint beginning the climb
then mountains of black shelving
dwarfing the bus, villages and farmland


 The Stance

And here at last is what I would send
(some oddball clippings

when not at my best
by the grate

kindling difficult to set alight
beast of experience

closer than previously thought
the way narrowing):

all the shells left on the sand
kite lifted from our child’s hands

landed in deserted gardens
of a hotel on the cliff face

by the crumbling high walk
with a long view of the headlands

encircling the vales
Lyme Regis in the mist

where later we would play croquet
keeping score before it rained

echoing inordinate distances
how, looming we may surprise ourselves

with a stance at once
looking forwards as well as looking back

Three Short Poems About Want

When I grow cold
thought is not what learns
the want of fire

What occupies love
for the time being
is the want of translation

Poetry is for when
you want the words
for how to love better

Learning How To Look


know that
emptiness is a gesture toward freedom
that the emptiness now is not
the emptiness then

that it need not be filled
by wayward gusts of emotion
or idea of right

that a whisper or touch or sigh or even a murmur
is enough
that it need not be filled

by anything other than what is


attend and intend
be kind
lean in
to self to others to the world
yet lightly


safe within this skin
with its exits and entrances
I can be taken beyond my longing self


you do not have to bring anything back
to him or her or them

nor does all this have to be captured
for him or her or them

nor does it all have to be done
or had now

all now by yourself


believe before you know


in between: The collared dove arriving
at the top of the tree
sunlight seeping through the cloud
its tail fanned out, translucent

stays for a while
then leaves


before you listen      breathe
before you look                    breathe
before you breathe                          both
look and listen


No need of photograph or patterning
memory or the grasping eye

more a learning how to look
less and

less declamatory than
the fall of water

and its threading under the bridge
out to the reservoir.



All poems (c) 2020 David Gilbert