Laughter Tangled In Thorn by Mike Jenkins

Dressed like a child
for our ritual Sunday afternoon
pilgrimage to the hillside:
your pear-shaped hood,
scarf wound like a snake
and red ski-boots dragged along
like grown-up things worn for a dare.

When I laugh, I don't mean it to hurt.
It is the brother of the laugh
at the end of our laugh-making -
rigid bones melting into blood.

The moor grass has turned
into a frosty yellow, its green
gone deep into hibernation.
We crunch mud, step streams,
in games which strip us of years
like the trees have been
of their leaves. The water
and your green eyes
share the only motion.

You see a red berry
and call it a ladybird.
I think of your city upbringing;
the seasons being passing strangers
through Belfast streets
where you cadged rides from the ice.

When the brook's chatter is snow-fed,
your laughter is tangled in thorn.
You discover an ice sculpture
mounted on a spine of reed,
and call it 'Teeth and Jaws'.
The light of your words
travels through it.

High above Merthyr, mountain lapping mountain.
You are amazed at the rarified sunlight!
When you speak, the numb streets
are startled. We leave the childhood
of the moorland, to grow taller
with a tiredness which is the sister
of when we lie, translucent and still,
on the single spine of the bed.

by Mike Jenkins
from Empire of Smoke

Additional information: Mike Jenkins (born 1953) is a Welsh poet, story writer and novelist writing in English. He taught English at Radyr Comprehensive School in Cardiff for nearly a decade and Penydre High School, Gurnos, Merthyr Tydfil, for some two decades before that. At the end of the 2008–2009 academic year Jenkins took voluntary redundancy. He now writes full-time, capitalising on experiences gleaned from former pupils. He continues to live in Merthyr Tydfil, and has done so for over 30 years. He is also the father of Plaid Cymru politician Bethan Jenkins and journalist Ciaran Jenkins.

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Canine Graffiti by Mike Jenkins

 Some loopy boy wrote 'FUCK OFF'
in firm felt-tip on the white back
of a nippy-as-a-ferret Jack Russell.

Senior staff spotted it while it shat
in the midst of a modern dance
formation – leotards snapped!

(When they weren't busy piercing ears
with sharp instructions, or spiking hair
with swift backhand cuffs,

they did have time to snoop on lessons
which exceeded the statutory decibel rate.)
They set off in pursuit of the errant dog,

skilfully hurdling its poop in the process.
They chased it into Mathematics
where it caused havoc by lifting a leg

45° towards the blackboard's right-angle.
Then through the Audio-Visual concepts room,
across the film of Henry V, making Olivier's horse

rear and throw the bewildered actor.
It hid behind a smoke-screen in the bogs,
sniffed out bunkers in the coal-bunker.

For hours it disappeared and Senior Staff
suspected a trendy English teacher
of using it as an aid to creative writing.

Finally it was duly discovered
by Lizzie Locust (Biology), necking
with a stuffed stoat in the store-cupboard.

Now you can see the distraught Headmistress
scrubbing form bell to bell in her office,
a small dog held down by burly, sweating prefects.


by Mike Jenkins
from Invisible Times

Additional information: Just in case some of the words don’t make sense because they’re British words, or slang and euphemisms specific to the South Wales Welsh-English speaking region, here’s a quick breakdown of some of them:

Loopy: strange, odd, crazy, affected, etc.

Felt-tip: a marker pen, usually a cheap one meant for kids but it can mean the bigger ones too.

Nippy: to do something in a fast, quick, spritely, etc, manner e.g. ‘I’m nipping over to the shops do you want anything?’

Shat: the past tense of the verb ‘to shit’. It’s not a proper word as far as I’m aware and ‘shit’ is more or less used as it’s own quasi-infinitive in most cases i.e. ‘he shit himself [yesterday]’, ‘he has [just now] shit himself’, ‘he will shit himself [if he eats that]’.

Backhand cuffs: backhand hand motions or in this case backhand slaps to pupils or backhanded admonishment due to frustration at not locating the dog yet. That thing where teachers take out their frustrations by speaking passive aggressively towards pupils out of a sense of personal frustration (when it’s nothing to do with said pupils) as I’m sure we have all seen in our schooldays.

Snoop: spy, eavesdrop, etc.

In the bogs: the ‘bogs’ are the toilets… because, at least in my experience, there would be mysterious pools of water on the floor by about 10AM each school day and you could never be certain if they were sink water shaken off of hands or bodily fluids… the smoke screen in the bogs being that it’s where pupils would go to hide when smoking as is no doubt universally the case.

Bunkers: ‘bunking off’, ‘doing a bunk’, etc is the act of not attending class. Skipping class, skiving, but it can also mean playing truant as well though here it’s just the former. The play on words being that people skipping class are in a room intended for storing coal thus both are commonly referred to as ‘bunkers’.

Store – cupboard: A room where school equipment is stored behind a locked door. Usually a small antechamber between two classrooms or a smallroom leading from one classroom like an en suite bathroom but filled with shalves of old textbooks, random items and a prime location for pupils or members of staff to neck on with each other.

Necking: to ‘neck on’ etc involved kissing but implies a more salacious aspect such as groping, french kissing, fondling, etc. Usually done in a place intended to give some privacy but usually easily discovered such as behind the bike sheds or in a storeroom cupboard. ‘Necking on’ being a term often ascribed to teenagers at a party experimenting with such aspects of intimacy.

Prefects: In my experience sixth formers doing something for their school leavers certificate to have extra ‘good citizen’ points when applying for university. Not the Head Boy or Head Girl but given tasks by staff and running or representing various matters for the student body. Compare them to the ‘student council’ in anime for a more commonly known version of this type. I guess though on the whole it’s just teacher’s pets, the (within the school) social elite or those who are already prone to social climbing and a lust for power even at this early an age.

‘He Loved Light, Freedom and Animals’ by Mike Jenkins

An inscription on the grave of one of the children who died in the Aberfan disaster of October 21st, 1966

 

No grave could contain him.

He will always be young

in the classroom

waving an answer

like a greeting.

 

Buried alive –

alive he is

by the river

skimming stones down

the path of the sun.

 

When the tumour on the hillside

burst and the black blood

of coal drowned him,

he ran forever

with his sheepdog leaping

for sticks, tumbling together

in windblown abandon.

 

I gulp back tears

because of a notion of manliness.

After the October rain

the slag-heap sagged

its greedy coalowner’s belly.

 

He drew a picture of a wren,

his favourite bird for fraility

and determination. His eyes gleamed

as gorse-flowers do now

above the village.

 

His scream was stopped mid-flight.

Black and blemished

with the hill’s sickness

he must have been,

like a child collier

dragged out of one of Bute’s mines –

a limp statistic.

 

There he is, climbing a tree,

mimicking an ape, calling out names

at classmates. Laughs springing

down the slope. My wife hears them

her ears attuned as a ewe’s in lambing,

and I try to foster the inscription,

away from its stubborn stone.

 

by Mike Jenkins

from Empire of Smoke


Not so Fun facts: This poem refers to the Aberfan disaster the catastrophic collapse of a colliery spoil tip at 9.15 am on 21 October 1966. The tip had been created on a mountain slope above the Welsh village of Aberfan, near Merthyr Tydfil and overlaid a natural spring. A period of heavy rain led to a build-up of water within the tip which caused it to suddenly slide downhill as a slurry, killing 116 children and 28 adults as it engulfed the local junior school and other buildings. The tip was the responsibility of the National Coal Board (NCB), and the subsequent inquiry placed the blame for the disaster on the organisation and nine named employees.

I’ve been to the town and it’s still a very quiet place to this day as a generation of the community was lost in that disaster. Where the junior school once stood there is now a memorial garden.

Neighbours by Mike Jenkins

Yesterday, the children made the street

into a stadium; their cat

a docile audience. As they cheered

a score it seemed there was a camera

in the sky to record their elation.

Men polished cars, like soldiers

getting ready for an inspection.

Women, of course, were banished

from daylight: the smells of roasts merging

like the car-wash channels joining.

Today, two horses trespass over boundaries

of content; barebacked, as if they’d just

thrown off the saddle of some film.

They hoof up lawns – brown patches like tea-stains.

A woman in an apron tries to sweep away

the stallion, his penis wagging back at her broom.

I swop smiles with an Indian woman, door to door.

These neighbours bring us out from our burrows –

the stampede of light watering our eyes.

 

By Mike Jenkins

from Empire of Smoke

Among Shoals of Stars by Mike Jenkins

Each night the sea

tires of its slopping and slapping

and ascends the limestone staircase

of cactus-sharp stone.

 

It lies down

where sky has been,

waving away the blue

and only hooded clouds

show its occasional restlessness.

 

Bright fish with mouths

that globe, look down on me

and the breezy whish-whish

of sea-weed is the needled

branches of every pine.

 

I see the lights

of planes as they are out

trawling for dreams.

The moon spills milk

which I drink in,

before I too lie down

to sleep among shoals of stars.

 

by Mike Jenkins

from Invisible Times

Mouthy by Mike Jenkins

Sborin, sir!

We’re always doin racism.

It’s that or death, sir.

Yew’re morbid, yew are,

or gotta thing about the blacks.

 

But sir mun! Carn we do summin interestin

like Aids or watch a video o’ Neighbours?

Mrs Williams Media upstairs ave got em.

 

Oh no! Not another poem!

They’re always crap, rubbish

not enough action, don’ rhyme.

 

Yer, sir, this one’s got language in it!

It’s all about sex!

Yew’re bloody kinky yew are!

I’m gettin my Mam up yer.

 

Sir! We aven done work frages,

on’y chopsin in groups.

We ewsed t’do real English

when we woz younger,

exercises an fillin in gaps.

 

Sir mun! Don’ keep askin me

wha we should do,

yew’re the bloody teacher!

 

by Mike Jenkins

from Graffiti Narratives


Fun fact: The accent and inflections here are indicative of the Merthyr style of Welsh-English or ‘Wenglish’ dialect. Jenkins taught English at Radyr Comprehensive School in Cardiff for nearly a decade and Penydre High School, Gurnos, Merthyr Tydfil, for approximately two decades prior to that. At the end of the 2008–9 academic year Jenkins took voluntary redundancy. He now writes full-time capitalising on experiences gleaned from former pupils. An extract from one of Mike Jenkins’s poems has been used as part of the public realm regeneration of Merthyr Tydfil town centre.