Questions is a collaboration by Lucy Kempton and Joe Hyam. Poems are based on questions drawn from an agreed starting question and formed by answers, which contain and inspire the next questions. In response to Lucy's first question, Joe kicks off. This follows our earlier work in Compasses, archived here, where Lucy's photographs illustrate Joe's series of 50 sonnets under the title Handbook for Explorers.

Thursday 20 March 2014

Swallow, where does your thread lead?

Threads.  They swung like prayer flags, rippled
in the breeze, tickled like a ribald anecdote, hung
like webs spun on grass on that bright March evening.

We’ll lose them, I said.
No matter, you replied.

I wait for the swallows to return now,
hoping for a blue wingtip
drawn across my cheek in the dark.

Sunday 6 November 2011

If you could would you go?

A ball of string

"To escape Crete and its poisonous mazes,
which bend the mind and leave it empty,"
said Daedalus who survived the flight,
"such extravagant gestures are permitted."
But Icarus flew too high, some say too low.
His crafted wings, softened in the sun or soaked in spray,
lost wax and feathers
and he fell down for ever.

To explore unpredictable spaces in unfamiliar elements
is to follow the most delicate of birds, which drinks
as it skims the water, crosses oceans and continents,
feeds on flies, perches on telegraph wires
like musical notations, knows where to go, where to land
and when. Its nests are mythic architecture.
which country people do not touch
for fear the milk turn quickly sour or  the hens stop laying.

One of the ape family, adept at negotiation and deals,
I hang on a tree, one hand gripping a branch, the other
in the air to catch the birds that fly overhead. Earth remains
my element. If I could I 'd dare to enter the vast intelligence
of the unsuspecting and the unaware, to navigate without compass
or chart, and challenge gravity with a careless laugh.
But, discrete and far too clever, I cannot track the swallow's flight
except with wavering and uncertain thought, the dupe of fantasy.

A ball of string would help me find the way out
through the way in.  Though not alone. A forest of broken threads
testifies to other searchers who have got nowhere.
We bump into one another with apologetic grunts. It's dark.
The noise augments  the sense of bafflement and loss.
Swallow, where does your thread lead?

Saturday 30 July 2011

Kite or swallow?

A scarlet lozenge, a convention of a kite
-the kites we had as kids looked nothing like that when
we flew them on the chalk hill's humpbacked height
but still - a geometric diagram transected, then 
an s-curved tail, a knotted row of bright
blue bows, which looked at once again
prove to be messages on paper, folded tight.

Unfolding them I see some say
"Sorry no prize, please have another go!"
With some the words break up, trickle away,
lose sense and pattern, but just a few do show
solidity and meaning, substantial forms which stay
with me, find lodging there, and grow 
into companions for another day.

Seeing the world from up there where the kite
is flying, the human figure tweaking at the string
is small, expressionless, below, its movements slight,
the distant hills a convex line, the sun a thing
to conjure with, and throw another light
onto the blue-black oil-plume of the swallow's wing,
its joyous, startling, acuity of flight.

And as it flashes by the blue hills' bow
past other skylines, where the sea moves grey
and gulls and gannets plunge and swing
into the wave troughs' crackled white,
to roost in palms in lands where men
wave birdlimed brushes to and fro,
if you could follow, would you go?

Saturday 23 April 2011

What are the things which you wish that you knew?

As swallows try to catch them in nets of air,
Answers are harder than questions to find.
And so, inspired by yours, here's mine, my dear,
Honest as may be and returned in kind.

A cat named Curiosity  stalks in my  care
But it's clear the animal's designed
To hunt with eye and claw, whatever's there
And overwhelm with trophies an overburdened mind.

With so much data stacked up everywhere,
Rather than know more, I'd like to understand
The complexities which figure
In the cries and shadows of a troubled land.

Those who look for truth must learn to care
For crops trodden  down by rain and wind,
Burnt in hatred and ill will; and come to fear
What threatens to destroy them in the end.

It's not so much the structure of a star
Or particle or gene, but what lies beyond
The turbulence that swirls about us, near and far
And neither head nor heart can comprehend.

So my question curls up and settles where
You stand, your camera and eye aligned:
What's your choice? The swallows' game of dare?
Or bobbing kite tugged by a fretful wind?

Friday 8 April 2011

What promises have you to give? Or give up on? Or break?

Promises, promises. So that's what you're after
I've heard far too many and kept far too few,
forgotten, forgiven, in tears or in laughter,
it's highly unlikely I'll make any new.

The world is too fleeting and formless to count on,
the same goes for me, and I dare say for you,
oak turns into acorn and molehill to mountain,
things can turn upside-down, quite out of the blue.

The river we step in is never the same one
whether we paddle or try to swim through,
so what is the self that arrived with my name on?
Cells change and replace themselves, minds will do too.

Yet sometimes to stay put is what we require,
and loyalty and patience are powerful glue,
to hold us fast here in the warmth of the fire
our backs to the window, enjoying the view.

So here I am still trying to answer your query
without being pompous, or dour, or untrue,
or to clothe it in fake metaphysical theory,
if doggerel's what comes it'll just have to do.

So if you're still contented with fireside gazing 
I'll toss you another loose line to pursue
(though spring's at the door and there's no time for lazing):
What are the things which you wish that you knew?

Monday 10 January 2011

What I see in the flames

This new year, amid the crack of ice
And unspecified threats, I look into the fire
For help and comfort, or advice,
As anxious flames leap high and higher.
They're puzzled by the elements they're in,
Crowded down by elephantine shapes
In drifts of darkness they can't contain
While in the embers a salamander slips
In and out like a promise to be given.

What promises have you to give?
Or give up on?

I think again about the phoenix
And doubt the promise of redemption
When looking at the burning sticks;
Yet think of what is going to happen,
Of leaves composting in a bin,
Of yeast cells working through the dough,
Of  a spinning top's brief, trembling spin
And the crunch of frozen snow.
I promise that I'll watch the fire
Till it gives way to smoke, and the smoke
Has climbed the air and is no longer there.

What promises have you to give?
Or give up on? Or break?

Thursday 23 December 2010

How then to live in the space there is?

As apples round into form, from the core
take on the heft of substance, fill then fall.
As birches turning, tall on hills, drop gold, and jays 
shout at treetops, flash blue temper, caw and call. 
As wax wanes, burning in pools, glows and spills,
and the lemon-scented leaf sends down
its downy messengers, unfurls, roots, grows.
As the solemn, solitary child plays.

The edge of space we touch at our finger ends,
we cast out webs, threads, spools, 
hashing up space like cheese wires, cross,
form nodes.  We run along them,
jump, hang in the air. 

How then to live?  As if the moon
were always over snow-lined fields
where crows walk, and the dull blue 
glowing curve of evening cloud, so
the leaves snap with cold at the road's edge
and you know that pheasants hunch
amongst the spikes of sedge and bone yellow
umbels of the winter weeds, but let them be,
coming home as you are to the hiss of the fire.

And what do you see in the flames?

Sunday 7 November 2010

Where would you be if not in this place?

The hydra-headed question, its fangs deep
In wrist and ankle, burns in the cage of bone.
No response of grace or wit, no cry, no leap
Of inspiration can release its grip.
Instead it breeds another question
And another, twisting to escape.

How to be in two places at one moment,
In adjacent, unconnected universes?
Or here, at this given moment,
The watcher and the watched,
The force that thought represses
And the flood dispatched?

How to be in Babylon in time?
Spinning beyond light and shade,
In time for lunch or the end of time?
Yes, a one-way ticket is a tease,
Sharp and fatal as a Samurai blade,
Dressed with oil of cloves; and promises?

On The Bullet, now, from Tokyo
To Kyoto. The country hurries past
Too fast to know it,
Or to know, beside me
The suited man who quietly reads.
He rises and bows, Goodbye," he says.
I rise, I bow, Goodbye," I say.

A conversation never had.
But, in a fine rain, instead,
Among manicured trees, I hear,
Repeated, the same hollow note.
A bamboo tube, pivoted
In the stream, fills and tips and falls,

And knocks a stone at intervals
Long enough to forget, and short
Enough to recall its repetition -
A lonely sound, hollow as a bone,
That, coming back, takes you by surprise.
I'm still waiting for it to return.

How then to live in the space there is?

Monday 1 March 2010

What's in the box?

Perhaps if I open it, let me see... Crack!
Leering and swaying and squeaking with glee
spiked on a bedspring, out will jump Jack.

Or is there a cat there, fluidly
slipping out, purring and curving - unless
it's dead, poisoned and rigid? Or might there be

a dog which has learned to be helpless
shuttled and shocked, carefully tortured
by a peer-reviewed high-priest of happiness?

If I turned out the box, perhaps I could
still find hope there, a rattling, lone
remainder, a tarnished coin, good

currency, tender still, though very much down
in value. But soft. You've already told
of a perfume of citrus-peel, blown

from the lands of spices, of lemon trees, old,
brittle, but fragrant still, contained inside bright
glossy red lacquer patterned with gold,

a tiny, dried wonder. And something so slight
can, for a moment, by alchemical grace
cast out all evils, put them to flight.

So cup your hands round it, and hold it to your face...
Where would you be, if not in this place?

Saturday 9 January 2010

What on earth shall I draw to day?

Imagine, when you look, how the eyes
Of Rembrandt and Picasso widen,
Their bleak gaze, hard and black,
Your book open like a laugh,
Pencil sharp as an angel's foot,
Your eyes on the scrounge.
Watch fissures in walls and faces,
Narrow and wry, where lenses
Cannot go, where in the dark in the skull
Or in a spiral shell, particles
Dance at one time in different places,
Or in "the infinite spaces
Between the stars" which terrified
Pascal; or in the spaces
Between the head and heart
Where animals watch for prey ...
A line will do, just a line
To wire the air, connect the thought,
Lead from one thing to another,
Hang an apple on a tree,
Place a loaf on a table.
Answer if you can on the way
The questions that come up:
What is hidden in this jar
Or in that lacquered Chinese box,
Where, hard and dry, curled segments
Of tangerine peel are stored
(To perfume ice cream or soup),
Faded but aromatic still.

Wednesday 11 November 2009

Cool in the bright air?

You, there in the bright air, are you cool?

I would be, right up there
among the glass-sharp crystals
of ice and octane fuel, dust and minerals,
jet trails, comet tails and blue-white angels
of the upper air,

with earth and all its mess
far off below, its mucky pigments,
bones and hides and dung and sweat,
and self-preserving urgent flesh, invisible
to my frozen, naked eyes.

But no.
I'm still here, on the ground,
just blood-heat, thank you, midway,
contained within an ambient landscape
(grassland and some scattered trees...)
my dampened, stubby-fingered hands
filled with red ochre, and charcoal from the fire,


'What on earth shall I draw today?'

Tuesday 13 October 2009

Just what have you been doing with yourself?

Sheltering by day from the sun I sit
In the cave, in the cool cave, watching the walls
For cracks and crevices to stretch and fit

The shapes of leaping animals that live outside,
Where nothing stands still for a moment
And the mouth of the sky is open wide.

The dust with which my mouth is full,
I spit on the wall, and shape with my thumb
A creature, half man half animal.

It's cool in the shadows in the cave.
The gods who live here are asleep.
I'll wake them with the din they crave.

I'll beat with a bone this tight stretched skin
Till it trembles. I'm not primitive; I know
It's the 21st century I'm in.

And I won't be here for long
To spit pigment on the crumbling wall,
Hoping the picture won't go wrong.

Most of us are waiting for a bus
If not an angel with a blinding light,
Until the screwers come to unscrew us.

The words with which my mouth is full,
I spit on the wall and paint in my head,
A creature half man half animal.
You there, in the bright air, are you cool?

Saturday 22 August 2009

All the lonely people, where do they all come from?

They're sewn from motley, so it seems, threadbare, thin
patches, tattered clothes from shabby, faded scraps
which sag, or don't meet at the seams, show leering gaps
embarrass us with sight of unaccustomed, light-starved skin.

Or else they're sown from serpent's teeth, pulled from the grin
of the reptile's skull, and scattered in the dust,
fleshless and clattering bones who only know they must
hurt, fight and kill, burn rankly from the emptiness within.

Mis-shapen, sad or savage then they seem,
and alien. But who's that kidding? I'll not deny the fact,
the face kept in the jar is also on my shelf.

Love (tra-la-la-la!) proposes that we're not alone, and may redeem,
we hope - if losing it won't kill us first - the act
of living. So tell me now, just what have you been doing with yourself?

Sunday 26 July 2009

Who is it who can tell me who I am?

Why is it that I need to ask the question? Why
Should anyone who cares, be there to know,
On stage or in the wings, which actors throw
Their costumes off, tired of pretence and try,

From shame, to bring themselves to say, " I'm true"?
For actors may stop acting, and not just pretend to fall.
More likely then, that this doolally king can call
No longer for the respect and recognition due

To one who knew so many tricks and scams,
(As you have to, who struggle in the driving seat),
Who now must see the truth, its heart and hands and feet,
And discover routes worn through endless rooms,

The tables, chairs and beds inside his head,
Their range and content and arrangement,
The sadness of the tools eroded worn and bent,
Discarded in corners where the dust has fed.

From the lake of mud that steams and bubbles in the sun,
Rises this old boy, with one foot in the future.
He gazes desperate and bewildered at the questioner
And in a mirror catches sight of a person unknown

Leering back at him with a dark and ancient guile:
Someone else, elsewhere, in a hurricane lost?
Or the shreds of another, carved out of mist,
Who nurses in his skull an angel or a crocodile?

For many selves crowd through the enfilade
Of rooms with doors that open wide for them and close behind,
Where they search through time for others of their kind,
And with a tra-la-la, find joy sometimes before they fade.

All the lonely people, where do they all come from?

Thursday 9 July 2009

Who do you think you are?

Who? is hard. What? less so:
A bundle, a ganglion of fears
and hopes; a reptile brain
binary switching, snip-snap, between
life and the other; an eye, an ear,
a mouth, a nose... who knows?

A memory, mimic, mirror, though
speckled, smeared, unclear,
it gives back little; then again
perhaps you think you've seen
a shape something like yours here,
or heard familiar echoes, you suppose...

There is, they say, nobody in the driving seat
at all; no me, no you, no discrete
self to be, for self itself's a sham,
forms, fluid and dissolving, are our complete
story. Yet, still, we hear ourselves repeat,

'Who is it who can tell me who I am?'

Saturday 20 June 2009

What do you fear? What do you hope for?

Hope and fear in one immense flash gone,
The switch tripped, the end lost in the beginning,
The question on the road, knocked down, unanswered.
Worst of all, I fear not to know what's going to happen
Next, or ever after in the story, when it won't matter
If Jack and Jill are drowned and love is lost for good,
And the dragon and St George fall down together in a heap,
And a straight white line and a single note declare
Every hope and speculation out of court.
Lips, I fear, closed tight to greet the question,
The blank page, the cold eye, the hollow fruit.
I fear the click as the clock springs tighten,
And hands, with nowhere else to go, go round and round,
Empty railways stations and the shudder of rock and roll.
I fear that no room may be left in the heart for fear.
Yet I can still hope in place of fear, on waking up, to hear
The cold song of blackbirds who know the sun will rise, and when.

Who do you think you are?

Tuesday 2 June 2009

What are you waiting for?

I'm waiting for the fire to catch, and for the freeze;
for the embers to fade and for the thaw.

I'm waiting for the drifting log to turn,
to feel the crunch of teeth shearing
through flesh and bone, to flail, limbless
haemorrhaging, sinking, lost.

I'm waiting for lunch, for the show to start,
I'm waiting for it all to be over.
I'm waiting for all good things
to come to an end, I'm waiting for all things
to come to those who wait.

I'm waiting for the warm south wind to blow
the scent of lemon flowers over silver
fish-scaled seas, and incense smoke
of smouldering phoenix feathers.

You may as well ask
'What do you fear?'
or equally
'What do you long for'?

You can take your pick...

Sunday 17 May 2009

What have you heard?

What have I heard?
That people talk to keep the unknown out.
I've heard their voices,
Low and monotonous,
Nervous in the dark; heard a woman sing
Of love as cruel and old as tigers;
Heard the shingle shift beneath my feet
As each wave breaks;
Heard empty cans kicked down the street;
Heard the waters flowing past
The unblinking eye of the crocodile
Fast contained in silence.
Today, I heard the new year break
Out from the old with a cry;
Heard a door open and close.
What are you waiting for?

Monday 4 May 2009

Where's my lunch?

Where's my lunch? Well now, I fear the cupboard's bare!

Time to fall back on scavenging for scraps,
through rubbish heaps and dustbins to survive
or find a meal, and even those yield slender pickings.
Once you'd have found immaculate fish-heads,
-tails and -bones like ichthyosaurs, for cartoon cats
to steal, potato peel and chips gone cold
in papers old as yesterday, and ash and cinders,
the residue of forests, fossilised or live.
Now it's mostly plastic shards and shreds,
old cat food tins and wrappers from fish-fingers.

I've heard we'll burn or bury ourselves yet.
What have you heard?

Monday 27 April 2009

Whence comest thou?

Out of a cracker, me! A bouncing plastic toy
With a joke inside is my progenitor.
From the bottom of a bottle, it pops up -
A story as likely as any other.
Fish-like, I view the world through glass,
Could spend a lifetime on the answer,
While pulsing screens regurgitate
Equations, theories, prophecies.
Note, in the the margin of the script,
This man - the grandson of a trilobite,
Friend of every plant and animal that's fit to eat,
Of elephant herds and starling swarms, the shark,
The python and the goat -
Is puzzled by the noise he makes,
The ferment in his vat.
"Hey, you!" he shouts at the mirror
Which is shouting back at him:
"Hey, you! Where's my lunch?"