Backwards & Forwards poetry

The Roman god Janus

The submissions for Backwards & Forwards include poets from Canada, India, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Poets selected for the feature to date are Alwyn Marriage, Aneesha Shewani, Brenda Read-Brown, Christine Griffin, Christopher Cuninghame, Jeff Parent, Julie Wiltshire, Margaret Kiernan, Nigel Hastilow, Peter Welby, Ruth Aylett, Sandra Howell, Tessa Gordziejko, William Wood

Our prompt for the month of January relates to Janus the Roman god of beginnings, transitions, time, duality, gateways, and endings. It encourages poets to explore the duality of time past and time forward from now.

Janus is the inspiration for New Year by Imogen Osborne, winner of our New Voices First Pamphlet Award 2021. In her introduction to the book, Imogen writes:
Marking the New Year in some form is possibly the most universally acknowledged ritual on the planet. . . I believe that New Year is renewing all the time, and is a place we can always return to, should we so wish.

The title poem — New Year — starts:

Until the stone cools,
becoming heavier as light drops from its centre

until the sound of water rises
higher than the lines that marked the ancient floods

Click to read the whole poem.

Thank you to all who have submitted to Backwords & Forwards.
Please keep the poems coming. The submission window closes on 31 January.

Margaret Kiernan

Margaret is a Nominee to The Best of The Net Award, 2021. She writes prose and poetry. She is published internationally for both. Her background is in Human and Social Rights.

Wheel of shadows

Gestation in progress
He waits, that deity Janus
Like a midwife, towel ready
At the extremity of Heaven
Passages open at war, eager to birth.

Patiently He waits for peace
To transition to the yellow glow of Spring
When grey shade falls away
Leaves behind the persistent internal
Intuited moody feelings
Now full known

Steps-out through that doorway
To the ritual invocation of Earth rising
In heat from Sun that always shines
When shadows become light
Refracted                                      
become indigo.

External stimuli turn the solar wheel
Keeping track of time, convivial
So faces smile outward in joy
Arrive at the minted coin
Seek an omen of new Love, or
Forecast the outcome of military deeds
perhaps.

Bare faced to the sky
Janus woodland walk

I walked by you today
watched you
that winter introspection
the language all your own.
You stood tall, bare faced
branched upwards, reached for the sky
with its dull moody drab roof
pulled from the ground.
You wear your silver light so well
those flashed blue shadows
flit upon the trees
help you to stand out
I crush and pull some
burnt sienna bark peel
tweak away some bits
my fingers close to frozen.
I reach around and I hug you.
Later, I rest my back into a crevasse
of a giant Beech tree while I wait listening
to the roots as my eyes seek
new growth
Catkins fall limply from the Hazel tree
I smiled to see scarlet elf-cup fungi
blush upon the ground while
lichens lay about the pools near wet hollows
where the Marsh marigold will soon awaken.
Wood anemone with the Bluebells
will crowd out the space.

Peter Welby

Peter read English at Oxford and then taught for 40 years. He has been writing poetry seriously since he retired on a very wide range of themes, forms and tones. He now has so many poems that he needs to publish some to make more room for storage.

January

Pert, arctic snowdrops ring in the new year
like snow-blanched magic mushrooms, armed with gear
of lop-eared helmets, sporting slender spears.
Lent comes early for redwing and fieldfare:
red hawthorn, holly, sweet berries are spare.
The church, frozen in moonstruck silver cloak,
its belfry’s great bronze thimbles mute as oak,
sees two-faced Janus turn our lives amiss:
fear of tomorrow, fret for yesterday,
stone blind, ears stopped at blessings of today.
Twelve months the Spirit broods over our sphere
plump as a smooth egg, filled with promises;
now the shell cracks and a fresh hope is here,
this, the first white month of the new-hatched year.

Nigel Hastilow

Nigel is a journalist by trade. He has written a few novels (now working on one about the English civil war called “The Man Who Invented the News”). He’s written one poetry pamphlet, to zero acclaim, called “High Water.” See also www.halesowenpress.co.uk

In the beginning

Somewhere in the empty void of nothing,
Someplace not a place, everything was not.
Nothing happened everywhere and nowhere,
In the height and depth, in the length and breadth
Of absence, of darkness, in the vacuum,
Somewhere – nowhere – something must have happened.
(‘Have happened’ or is happening right now?)
Something, not nothing. In infinity
Of time and space, a moment, a flicker,
A pulse, a spark, a definite something.
There! There! Then – and now – and now. A shiver
A speck, a nanosecond, a spasm,
A stab of light. Plucked from nothing, unseen,
And yet the void gave an unforced shudder,
A twitch, a sound, something upon a time,
Out of nothing, first moment of something:
A noiseless noise, sightless sight, a dusting
Before stardust. Nothing comes from nothing.

Jeff Parent

Jeff writes poems. He has been published by The Fiddlehead, The Quarantine Review, Shrapnel Magazine, IceFloe Press and others. In 2020, he was shortlisted for Cheltenham Poetry Festival’s Wild Poems competition. Jeff’s chapbook, This Bygone Route, was recently published by 845 Press. He lives in Nova Scotia, Canada

Remember how this feels

This open deer
is a crawlspace,
the hollow lure of it
red and velveteen.
You could imagine
the curve of a fox there.

Snow will come soon
and bury the heath
but the carcass will live on,
dry and taut, staring
into its last humid season
and every eager threat.

There is no ceremony here.
This is a summons
intimate, fundamental.

A jay calls.

Now go.
Remember how this feels.

Julie Wiltshire

At 72 years of age, Julie has just completed her BA (Hons) Hum (Open) specializing in English Literature. Two years of that was creative writing, mainly poetry. She achieved this whilst being a full time carer for her husband with cancer. Poetry is my passion.

The weather of the heart

In the unpredictable weather of the heart,
In the cold pitiless attrition,
A fluttering of memories silently drift.
Angels lay their snowy pinions,
Upon the unforgiving earth,
Of my mind,
To ease the insuperable pain.
Trapped in the bleak tenebrous days,
Of my deep midwinter, I shiver.
The rush of short days,
Catches my breath.
And in the ruins,
And the ticking tides of time,
I search for a release,
Amongst the cold strange light.
On the blank white pages,
Of frozen fields,
My lonely footprints,
Maybe spell out my fate.
The pages of my future,
Before me lay wordless.
The tyranny of frost,
Is apparent in my face.
I hold out my hand,
For the bud that must appear,
In the lap of spring’s light.
I await the stretched-out days,
And the soft kisses of the sun.

I await in anticipation,
A new beginning,
A new love.

In winter’s bleakness,
Wrapped up in a scarf of himself,
My malapert man departs,
 Along with the old year.

Sandra Howell

Sandra started creative writing after retiring because of ill-health. She turned to poetry after writing flash fiction and theatre reviews. Her first publication was in 2020, poems read by actors on You Tube. Collage Arts then commissioned a Lockdown diary, published online as Life Cycles at www.collage-arts.org/the-lockdown-diaries

The best-laid schemes

We all make plans
Shopping lists, tickets for a show, prepping ingredients for a meal, booking flights for a holiday, dentist or optician appointments, arranging meals out with friends.
Robbie you were right when you wrote, ‘the best laid schemes of mice and men’ can go wrong.
The loss of a close friend who achieved a lot, but was so young she had much more to look forward to, ended her plans and ruined the plans of her family and friends in 2021.
My admission to hospital in late December scuppered my plans.
Robbie, I still plan because I have hope.
I hope to recover so that I can plan
To prepare and cook meals
To see friends and family
To go to the cinema, theatre, art galleries, on holiday
To sing in my choir
To go kayaking
To live.

William Wood

William, a Cumbrian recluse, has published poetry, fiction and non-fiction in English and in French. williamwoodswords.wordpress.com

Anna in spring

I’m under no delusion
We’ll ever meet again
In any kind of afterlife.

Today when Spring’s renewal
Is so urgent and so lovely
Especially so lovely
I cannot face another year
Without you at my side

Rather I would join you now
In the nowhere where you hide.

Space Walk

You drifted into space
And there was nothing
Nothing I could do
But hurtle on in orbit
Round a world no longer
Ours.

Time and Distance

Whenever I wind the grandfather clock
Whenever I put out the bins
Or hang out the washing on the line
Whenever I turn the calendar’s page
And numbly watch the seasons change
Time pushes us further and further apart.

Aneesha Shewani

Aneesha works as a full-time technical writer and editor in India. She is an avid reader and frequently blogs at http://www.bluepenstrokes.com. Her poetry and short stories are published in various anthologies. She is also a book reviewer for Reedsy Discovery. She loves to crochet and watch Netflix.

Twitter: @felinemusings

Winter Mornings

Savouring on chapped lips
Crusty winter moments
With a sting of frosty nights
On pale, cold-kissed cheeks
Seeking the truant warmth
Rising from smoky tendrils
In delectable hot cocoa swirls
Toasty hands in woollen gloves
Warm with crocheted love
Naughty flakes in wisps of hair
Tender chill in the frozen air
With coffee roasts, mulled wine
Crumble pies from wrinkled recipes
Colours, aromas, and some stories
Recollections in painted cookie jars
Scraped memories from baking tins
I fill up the stark winter days

Grey

Smouldering,
Like a log in a fireplace
Delightful warm embrace
Of a greying partner in
Frosty winter evenings
Hugging,
Memories of a lifetime
Rolling in with the mist
As we snuggle tenderly
Under winter Afghans!

Alwyn Marriage

Alwyn’s twelve books include poetry, fiction and non-fiction, – most recently The Elder Race (novel) and Pandora’s pandemic (poetry). Her new collection, Possibly a Pomegranate, will be published spring 2022. Formerly a university philosophy lecturer and CEO of two international literacy and literature NGOs, she’s Managing Editor of Oversteps Books. www.marriages.me.uk/alwyn

Happy ever after

Sunsets are responsible
for so many happy-ever-after lies:
the lips that move towards each other in slow motion
to meet against the backdrop of a rosy glow;
the silhouetted couple walking hand in hand towards
a fiery ball; the dashing horseman effortlessly
lifting up the heroine, and heading for the skies.

Why not concentrate on misty murky evenings
in which the characters know each other well and realise
the future will not be a bed of roses – or chrysanthemums,
that monsters lurk unknown in shady corners,
that golden hair fades into grey and no princess remains
a sylphlike beauty or retains her optimistic innocence,
that even handsome princes can be boring, snore all night,
and wise old men tell lies?

Maybe we should change the endings of the stories
to take away the Hollywood romance
from boy meets girl, or even the familiar tale
of man and woman choosing to commit themselves
to one another. Most of us are pretty well aware
that life is likely to be better if we shed
unrealistic expectations.

But even if we introduce a healthy dose of realism
into the forming of relationships,
we’ll probably find that after all
the arguments, unpleasant revelations,
and the dark times when we wonder if we’ve made
the right decision, the gentle voice of love can still be heard
reminding us in quiet subtle ways
that it’s all worth it at the end of day
which anyway, however pink or grey the sky
will turn into a shared tomorrow.

Janus in Italy      

Look signora, specially for you:
genuine Gucci; see.
I will give you good price. No?
What will you offer me?
If you want two
I can sell them even cheaper.
Look at the quality.

Not wishing to buy anything, I ask
what country you come from.
Senegal you say; but when
I speak to you in French, cannot reply;
instead you explain in Afro-English
that you never went to school.

Perhaps, as some say, you are in the pay
of mafiosi; or maybe you just know
someone who sells these fake goods to you
for a song.

Is this really worth your while?
I haven’t seen a single purchase yet.
If no one buys your goods today,
will you have anything to eat tonight?

You look into my eyes, attempting to persuade
me of a need I know I haven’t got,
that a fake Gucci bag is just the thing
I lack in life.

Then suddenly you face the other way,
responding to an instinct that it’s time
for you to move along.

Swiftly you gather all the bags into your blanket,
look back along the way that I’ve just come,
give three short whistles, urgent, loud,
then bowed beneath the weight of unsold goods
you sink into the crowd.


Looking back

Genesis 19

So much was left behind, of course I felt regret:
that’s why I glanced back just for one last sight.
I’d repeatedly warned my husband not to let
himself be influenced by his guests last night
but as it happened, I was given no say
even when he offered our daughters to the men
instead of the strangers. Here, have your way
with these young virgins,
he called out; but then
disaster fell on them and on the wicked city
partly as punishment for their attempted rape.
Now I’m paralysed by bitterness and pity
instead of gratitude that we made our escape.
It didn’t dawn on me that this was my own fault
until I realised that the bitter taste was salt.

Christopher Cuninghame

Christopher lives in north-east London and often writes about how he sees natural worlds connecting in an urban environment. He has published poems in print and online.

Of a dance

Two heads are better than one, they say –
If coupled quote-marks don’t impose upon.
Sketches of dancers, arms half-moons,
Their eyes rested in each other’s,
The reckoning’s made with gravity’s force.

The lock is a gone-away present,
Its high chant singing after them;
To hold the clicking of a finger,
A flick of the neck, to send them spinning.
Clutched threads control opposites, blank-faced again.

If they could make it simpler,
Let’s say more like an amoeba’s cell
Twisted into a Moebius ring,
To follow the perfect line all round,
All the way back to its perfect start.

Or there’s taking a middle way,
A taking from the middle of the road.
This side, of the argued fox’s infinite gaze:
This side, of the badger’s argued wreck.

In somewhere’s night they may both curve, uncurbed, to the tango.

Ruth Aylett

Ruth lives and works in Edinburgh, Scotland, and her poetry is widely published in magazines and anthologies. She has been known to perform with a robot. Her latest pamphlet, Queen of Infinite Space, was published by Maytree (https://maytreepress.co.uk/) in late 2021. For more see http://www.macs.hw.ac.uk/~ruth/writing.html

Bonfire leaping

What if, when you jumped the flames of midnight,
the mechanisms of hours really shifted
and clicked into a new count from zero?

Would you wonder who you now are,
repeat the self-conscious lurking
at the edges of dance floors?

Hear your voice making it all up:
stories of false futures, imagined pasts,
journeys along twisty paths with no vistas,

just surprises round each turn?
Those grey rocks hinting at cities
you once lived in, now only glass.

Janus

Long rains rot the grass
into brown hollows, the air is raw.
Janus stands halfway along the path
across the Links, liminal,
looking up and past me.

Maybe he can see
the sparkler trails with which
I wrote your name
into the darkness, bonfire night;
further back the van lights
vanishing up the road,        
taking your body away.
Further still, the slack and toothless
face with which you died,
your aging smiling self at birthday meals,
mother on the beach with child,
that laughing girl with 40s perm.
I see these photos every day
sliding across my computer screen;
in my head your resolution drops,
the pixels spread and blur.

I pass and look into Janus’ other face
impassive but bleak-eyed.
He sees the other parent,
after sixty years, unpaired,
who sometimes weeps for you and
sometimes calls me by your name.
He sees the age that bleached
an anxious heart into compulsions,
bleach another into grandiose assertions,
future triumphs, trips he’ll never make
to see old friends, now dead.
And in the distance Janus sees
my children walking down the hill
for me and feeling just as sad.

New acquaintance  

The streets are silent
in the candid winter morning
exits made in the early hours
entries yet to come with waking.

The morning-after debris,
bottles, carry-out wrappers, cans,
trodden into the muddy grass,
examined carefully by gulls,

An old year jettisoned
into a landfill archaeology.
This blanched empty sky
waiting for our fresh graffiti.

Brenda Read-Brown

Brenda worked for many years as an IT project manager. She gave this up in 2001 to work as a full-time freelance writer. Brenda has won many poetry slams, and has performed in venues all over the United Kingdom, in Copenhagen and Texas.

Keys

I couldn’t find my keys,
so I stayed at home;
realised I had no inclination
to go anywhere,
no leanings to do anything.
So I stood straight, in my hallway –
not out, not really in:
a Janus.

I could have stayed there for a hundred years,
or at least until my next birthday.
A statue; a monument to myself,
or to indolence or indecision.

Indoors, I wouldn’t catch anything,
but I’d have to drop everything.
I wouldn’t fall over:
no roots sneak across my carpet,
no kerbstones rise.
But I wouldn’t climb anything:
the stairs were as far away
as Everest.

After a month or two
I remembered where my keys were,
or rather, I heard them jingle to me
from the kitchen. My trouble is
I’d bend over backwards
to avoid disappointing anyone.
Action was knocking at my door
and opportunity flitted
past the window.

Each step we take
is inherently unstable,
but when one foot moves
the rest follows.
I walked to the kitchen,
picked up the keys and left.
It wasn’t difficult.

Christine Griffin

After a career in teaching, Christine returned to her first love – writing, particularly poetry and short stories. Christine is widely published including in Acumen, Snakeskin, The Dawntreader, Graffiti Magazine, Poetry Super Highway and Writing Magazine. She has performed her work at the Cheltenham Poetry Festival and the Cheltenham Literature Festival.
@chrissiemg1

January

Magic is dismantled, packed into boxes,
hauled into lifeless attics.
Elves and reindeer, tired of suburban living,
take flight to their Lapland homes.
Houses shed winking stars,
Santas tumble from rooftops,
a camel deflates with a hiss
on the grey path.

Trees no longer sparkle
through festive windows
black-curtained against the dark.

Angels wing their way
to realms of glory as
the Holy Family flees to Egypt.
Wearied, the Wise Men
begin the hard trek home.

It is a long slog to spring.

But on St Agnes’ Eve,
a clear winter sun lifts
above the roof tops,
sprinkles snowdrop-stars
on the frosted grass.

The feast of St Agnes falls on January 21st

My Dead …

… are folded in  butterflies’ wings,
hazed in jewelled flitterings.
They are a drift of dragonflies,
a glimmer of glow-worms in smoky twilight.

They are the willow’s tears,
shape shifters, smoke spirals
swirling from haunting autumn pyres.

My dead count their backward steps
through tick-tocking, tolling days
stretching, amorphous, clinging
to rainbow dust.

They are ebb and fluid- flow,
slick, silver-scaled,
name -whispering ghost- travellers.

My dead are the plaintive curlew’s call
on lone salt marshes.
They are the mournful foghorns
calling, calling
at the cold channel’s edge.


Cockcrow

They used to call it cockcrow
that insistent calling to relentless toil,
ghost-sounding still
in my early-dawn suburban garden,
my clock-ruled world.

The smock-clad peasant standing
on this once rough-stubbled field,
cursed as he heard it, stumbling
to coax the oxen to the plough,
their snorting breath white on the frosty air.

The woodman here before him heard it too,
shouldering his tools, watching leaves
spinning in the first winds of autumn,
calling his stripling lads from their beds.

Beneath his woodland, ancient fields lay
ridged and furrowed. Here a hooded serf,
roused at dawn, harrowed, hoed,
forced turnips from the stony ground.

He could not know the mud-encrusted
bone-sliver lodged in a gnarled root
was once prized by Octavia
combing her hair at cockcrow
in her villa beneath the land where he stood  ̶
where I stand now.

Tessa Gordziejko

Tessa is a writer, producer and theatre-maker who recently moved from Yorkshire to South West Scotland. In 2019 she received funding from Arts Council England to develop her creative practice and has been engaged in social dreaming as a tool to dig deeply into a shared unconscious and communal stories.

Like before

“When all this is over” we say “and we return
to normal…” thinking that there will naturally be
a shore or river bank to which bridges that won’t burn,
reach across a channel, estuary or sea.
We are standing on the beaches waving,
not drowning, not us, not yet, but for the grace
of some or other god. Some will set sail, braving
currents and storms in small boats, to reach the normal place.
We sit under willows, by rivers of Babylon
singing to the unbelievable rule of law,
usual, regular, custom, habit, keep calm and carry-on
ordinary lives, histories, exiled from ‘like before’.


You are here

You have arrived.
We followed the map all right,
it says we’re here, but
there’s nothing recognisable in sight.
We’re looking for – this point, this garden,
this historical landmark, this maze,
this turning in the road, this centre of attention.
Can you tell us, stranger, where it is?
Inform and educate us.
You’re in it. You are here.
It’s more a state of mind than anything else.
Maybe there’s something we can’t see,
a place we can only feel
with our eyes closed. Maybe, a feeling
we can only smell, a perfume
that is discernible only
when the wind changes
and it’s time to fly away. Midnight,
the glass slipper falls,
smashes into a thousand
deadly, purple shards.
Maybe we are not able to think
about new beginnings
or alternative endings.


Tilting horizon

Halfway up my window frame
the hill swings against the sky
as it greys to end of year, four o’clock dusk.
Below, suspended khaki, charcoal scrub
of moorland, winter trees, rock.
Further down, iron modernity sags
with traffic and yellow electricity.
The old gods knew enough
about oracles, the heaviness of stories,
the volatility of millennia
to teach these new deities –
divinities of hashtag, screen, picture, text –
a thing or two. Like the circular holes
in pebbles collected from the shore:
hag stones, placed above the door,
protection on a shaking, racing earth.
Like the clear sea, level water,
where a child – beautiful aquatic ape
forbear who filled her daylight wading, fishing,
gathers angel wings in shallow waters –
looks into the sun,
cracks shellfish on the rocks.
The horizon tips us out of the old year.
We need weight to steady time, the universe,
past savannah or waterside,
or future campground, red planet,
in the present tilting moment.
But we have too much to shed: clothes, bedding,
a jumble sale’s bulk of stuff
that divides house from household,
woman from man, black from white,
nation from continent, human
from beyond-human, land from species. We have nothing to lose,
all to relinquish. Nothing to keep,
all to retain: memories, shawls, ancestors, clocks
and tiny gods.
The skyline topples into black, the moon rises
on a counterweight with the dying day.
Draw the curtains, breathe. Do not derange the season
or lose balance with the hours that face the night.

A Father

6. He loves painting airplanes. Sleek silhouettes piercing dawn’s warm glow. Sweeping along the surface of clear jewel seas surrounding his island home. He hopes that one day his vibrant colors will blend to fit the tastes of the laughing Yankees on the bright screen of his boxy TV.

19. The frigid frost of his first winter is almost as biting as the man who yelled “go back to your shithole, nigger!” on the way home from his second job. Another graveyard shift. He still struggles to accept how New York’s streets aren’t paved in gold, as he was told.

32. He is on another island, along with his astute wife and curious children. His family forms the dense rock keeping him afloat in the rolling sea of white suburbia. Struggling against the waves exhausts him. Sometimes, it seems easier to succumb to the relentless currents intent on swallowing what’s left of his spirit. Intent on telling him he’s nothing in comparison to these vast waters to which he does not belong.

46. It comes out of nowhere. Perhaps from a distant memory of his childhood in a lush land where the insects erupted into nocturnal symphonies. It comes out of nowhere. This urge to add color to the quiet. It’s been so long since his art leapt farther than the crevices of his heart. But who has time for wings and skies when there are colleges to which his children must apply? One thing he’s learned in this cold country is that nothing is free. He does his best to ensure his children succeed, even if it costs his own dreams.

63. Would he make his mother proud, if she could see him now? Yes. He has elevated himself in society, but what does that mean? He bleeds envy. Not of a family member, nor friend. He is ashamed to admit, it’s his own children. For the miles to school through hills and gullies they’ll never have to walk. The dozens of immigration forms they have no need to complete. No threats of encroaching superpowers. He’s given them the gift of a world that comes first, and resents them for it.

71. His hand trembles too much to hold his paintbrush. Yet another piece of himself he had to give up, but his resolve is firm. It’s his turn. With patience and practice, he wills it steady. There’s no going back now. He is ready.

80. There is no better day for new starts than today, they say. He’s glad he listened. His heart glistens with pride as his peers’ eyes grow wide at the sight of his paintings. His quaint gallery attracts passersby no matter the time of day nor night. His wise wife clasps his hand as she leans into him with a grin. She whispers This is only the beginning.

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