“Who would give me a map to find you, the paper / superimposed with a constantly moving ‘X’?”
-From “Father-Son Conversation
Malcolm. Professor. Triple. Dos. So many x-es, so many ex-es. Expatriate. Expletive. Ex-father. Ex-son. Two lines, for a moment, cross. This is how the Romans made ten. In Arabic numerals, it takes two digits: father, one; son, nil. Zero is a placeholder: round, complete, and gone. A circle describes its absence. It has been ten years since our son was born and died, and not a day goes by that he is not a felt part of me, like the fingers of my two hands.


Why I Should Be Over It By Now (ten reasons for ten years)
  1. Because it was a long time ago.
  2. Because, after all, he was very small.
  3. Because hawthorn blooms a lace cover for its thorns.
  4. Because many couples don’t have children (yet, ever).
  5. Because you had choices (not choices).
  6. Because beech-leaf orange rages the valley unchecked.
  7. Because you look best in photos when you smile.
  8. Making overrated is good sense, because.
  9. Because who can remember his name?
  10. Because of the wonderful things he does.


The first snow of winter has dusted our part of England, and I am sitting by the fire, warming up after a long country walk. To prepare for a poetry reading this afternoon in London, I leaf through my new book, the one I read from all last year. Unlike the previous slim pamphlet, it contains no mention of James, our son. No dedication. Not a single poem.


Cognates of Grief Kobus, Koos, Jago, Jamma, Diegu, Joggi, Ya’aqov, Yaakov, Iacobus, Iacomus, Jakobus, Iakov, Jakobe, Köbe, Iago, Jaime, Diego, Santiago, Yasha, Séamas, Siâms, Yakobo, Jems, Jacques, Jakku, Jaak, Jake, Jack, Jim, Jimbo, Jimmy, Jamie, Jay, first, only, baby, James.


We are in Edinburgh for his tenth birthday, visiting friends. It has become a special place to me, my most-visited city outside of London in the Old World. I only know a handful of lullabies, but I sang them to James in his final moments. After the doctor confirmed that his heart had stopped, all I could hear was the refrain: Speed, bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing, Onward! the sailors cry. Carry the lad who’s born to be King Over the sea to Skye.


Countdown 9 – years of love (in a world in need of love). 8 – Acht and Uno (and infinity). 7 – Lucky (and miraculous). 6 – For idealists (ideal father, ideal son). 5 – It is complicated. It gets better. 4 – Art, compassion, courage. 3 – My inner life is my real life. In it, I carry my son. 2 – I wash my hands as though life depends on it. 1 – Compassion, poignancy — how much everything matters… 0 – The essence of parenthood — that pure and selfless love.

Noman’s Land Common (Film-Poem Online)

<a href="https://vimeo.com/152471055"><img src="https://i.vimeocdn.com/video/552486948.webp"/><br/>Click to watch</a>

Noman’s Land Common

A shadow passes over the meadow, effortless in its cooling presence, a wake of songbirds, for a moment stilled, for a moment passed over by a presence like night, a shoal of fish beneath the barnacled hull, tender in covering, blanket-soft, the lids pulled over our welling eyes, to shed a drop in the pool of soft grasses, which ripple, concentric, in an unseen wind that blows all things, together, onward, all things, eventually into crossing, into parting, into the covering-over of life with — not death, exactly —  but the other side, the other life in which cloud, meadow, fish, ship reveal their true names to us —  flashes-through-sunlight, dark moisture, ink of relentless progression. A brush dipped in clear water, the pigment’s smoke, a cipher of leaves in the swirled cup. The Hawthorn renounces her wedding vows. Slow raptors finger the dryness of heat. Nameless, in the new world, a congregation of petals, root, trunk, and branches, new leaves, in the unnamed world, hold out their yellow hands to the rain. A voice cries out in a language you recognise, and the cloud —  for that is what it is, just a cloud, retreats in spinal curvature over the hill, which is grass, then soil, then stone, a foetus in the centre, its open hand a gesture of greeting, of saying “goodbye” —  and now you are on your knees, in a field, jet-lagged, on a Wednesday, remembering your name, a gift from your mother, as the multiplication tables arrange themselves before you, pieces for chess, a calendar full of meetings in which you can never say: for a moment, I was that shadow, say, listen, I have been to the other side of life, and a child rests in the womb of the earth, but instead stare-down at your ink-stained hands, and nod, and arrange your broken face into the gesture of listening.

Process Notes

With the tenth anniversary of the birth and death of our son James fast approaching, I find myself writing about the ongoing effects, including sudden and overpowering moments of grief. The text came first. I then shot time-lapse of clouds through an inexpensive toy kaleidoscope using a Raspberry Pi camera. I also shot real-time nature footage through the same kaleidoscope by holding it up to my smartphone camera. Valerie composed and performed the music. The title refers to a nearby patch of common land in North Hertfordshire that we frequent. One year, after extensive tilling, a field adjacent to the common erupted in red poppies, not unlike the no-man’s land of the First World War.

Nine Years of Love

Nine of HeartsNine years ago today, our son was born. Three days later, he died in my arms. Reflecting on my life as it is now, it is hard to imagine being the father of a nine-year-old boy. Yet it is equally hard to imagine my life without this experience of both loving and letting him go. Two important men in my life passed away recently. My maternal grandfather showed his love for his family by working hard to lift us up from his agrarian pioneer roots in New Mexico to establish a more prosperous and secure lifestyle for his descendants. My dear spiritual teacher John-Roger dedicated his life to loving and uplifting others, and attracted a like-minded community of people dedicated to using everything in their life to learn and grow. As much as my own parents gave to me from the depths of their hearts, it is also this greater “village” that helped to raise me into who I am. The hallmarks of this form of parenting were unconditional love and selfless service. Nine years on, it is not so much the grief at letting go of the opportunity to parent my own son, as it is this great impulse of love, and a desire to pass forward all I have been given in my own life, that remains strong with me. I look to that greater “village” for examples of how to love and serve within this lineage. Continue reading…

The Book of Love and Loss

“All the new thinking is about loss. / In this it resembles all the old thinking.”
-Robert Hass, “Meditation at Lagunitas
The Book of Love & LossLove and loss have been very present with me lately. Such thoughts were recently punctuated by the heavy thud of a parcel dropping through our mail slot — my contributor’s copy of The Book of Love and Loss. The anthology weighs in at nearly 400 poems, and reads like the roll-call at a meeting of the Highgate Poets. It also features English laureates Andrew Motion and Carol Ann Duffy, Welsh laureate Gillian Clarke, children’s laureate Michael Rosen, and Frieda Hughes — daughter of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. I was also pleased to see Carrie Etter’s Birthmother Catechism series represented here as well, having recently heard her read these poems at the Swindon Festival of Poetry. Following on from the dedication, the work seems to be its own labour of love, and tribute of sorts, to the recently-departed UA Fanthorpe. It also aims to give solace to any who grieve, and seek comfort in the music of language. For this reason, it is an honour to have my poem “The Silence Teacher” among its pages. Belgrave Press, Bath (Hardbound, 384pp, £12.99)

Demonstrating Faith in Humanity

What a day it has been. I woke up to the news that my beloved spiritual teacher and friend since childhood, John-Roger, passed away in the early hours at the age of eighty. If there is one thing he taught me, it is to keep doing good, no matter what. Tonight my sister-in-law and our much-loved little nephew are boarding a plane back to Australia. For whatever I may have been able to impart to him in our two weeks together, he has certainly taught me much more. In a short while, I will be carrying on with some of the good work I have found to do in the circumstances of my current life, by helping to produce a free, live online poetry broadcast. The show, after all, must go on. It is my way of reaffirming that the world is a small place, and that you and I are not so different after all. I submitted the following article to Huffington Post Books yesterday, and it has come back to me today with all of these new resonances.

How Bedtime Stories Restored My Faith in Humanity

I never thought a slim paperback of children’s poems, packed with silly illustrations, sing-song rhymes, and bottom humour would restore my faith that printed books will endure. I had rather hoped for the seminal work of some brilliant, tortured Nobel laureate. But those precious few evening moments, while my nephew squirmed beside me in his bed, protesting against obvious sleepiness, confirmed that ours was a shared experience no touch-screen device would soon encroach upon. Don’t get me wrong  —  he loves phones and pods and pads of every sort and, like me as a boy, becomes easily engrossed in the challenge of video games. The sense of individual progress, developing skill, and the spectacular multimedia rewards at the end of each level of “accomplishment” are tough for paper and ink to compete with by day. Yet when it comes time to switch gears from wakefulness to dreaming, the last thing he needs or even wants is a glowing glass slate crackling with sensory input. Instead, we share stories and rhymes about creatures who slither and fart. We laugh. He points at the illustrations. As soon the poem chimes to an end, he asks for another. I begin to read more slowly. We inhabit the sound of my voice together, a conduit between or two private experiences of the tale being told. As we draw further into ourselves, and into the music of language, we draw closer together. His breathing slows as he slips away fully into his own world, and I creep away, book in hand. It could only really happen with a book  —  that portable, flimsy, shock-proof, battery-less, recyclable, spill-resistant, organic launch pad into ourselves. In fact, the more his generation inhabits the realm of flickering data on glowing blue screens, the more necessary the interior experience of a good book may become. Studies have shown that such screens promote a kind of restless insomnia, and even passively-lit pads like the Kindle still click my brain into the skim-and-scan gear I whizz through online. So, when it is time to stop surfing for sensory input, and reconnect with myself, I want paper and ink. Books bring us back to our own imagination (after all, how many times has the movie of your favourite book disappointed you?), to the innermost experience of a tale being told, and to the music of the spoken word. The love of a good book is conveyed first and foremost as an act of love. And really, who doesn’t still love to be read to, at any age? Traditions endure and outlast technological “disruption” when they tap into what makes us essentially human. There is nothing quite like reading a bedtime story from a printed book. For this reason alone, I have hope that the next generation, for all the amazing discoveries they will make though high technology, will still share some of their most intimate moments, and profound personal revelations, curled up with an old-fashioned book. Thoughts? Remarks? Visit the article on Huffington Post.

Andrew Philip Reviews The Silence Teacher

The RoadMy friend the Scottish poet Andrew Philip wrote a review of The Silence Teacher that I just discovered tonight. His perspective is one I greatly respect — not only because I hold him in such high esteem as a poet, but because he, too, has walked grief’s road after losing an infant son. It must have therefore been as hard in some ways for him to read the collection as it was for me to write it. Yet I can also think of no one better equipped to understand, from the inside out, the difficult task of attempting to make art, and thereby make meaning, from such loss. There were many dark nights of self-doubt for me. These poems often felt simultaneously necessary and impossible to write. Grief is such difficult terrain to navigate honestly without fears of self-indulgence. Yet Andrew himself has done this masterfully, and I rate his own poems about his son among the most moving I have read. It is therefore greatly affirming to see him write that The Silence Teacher represents “the kind of volume I wish I had written” since, through his support, encouragement, and fine example, in a way he did. You can read the full review here.