Englaland

After the battle of Brunanburh (AD937), when Æthelstan’s army defeated an invading alliance of Scots, Irish, Britons and Norse, the Viking mercenary Egil Skallagrimsson extemporised a panegyric for the English and their king. Englaland is a stunning re-imagining of Skallagrimsson’s song, an unapologetic and paradoxical affirmation of a bloody, bloody-minded and bloody brilliant people. Yorkshire miners, Danish huscarls, pit-village bird-nesters, aging prize-fighters, flying pickets, jihadi suicide-bombers and singing yellowhammers parade through the book in an incendiary combination, rising to the challenge of the skald’s affirmation: you are the people in the land; know you are the people; know it is your land.

Cover photograph: Russell F. Spencer

Sample Poem

The Song of the Yellowhammer

Æthelstan, war-wager waster of wapentakes
humbler of hundreds corpser of kings.
Albion passes to Ælfred’s wolf-whelp
abaser of armies Lord of lives and lands.
Even the paths of the Highland deer
belong to Ælle’s golden-haired Ætheling.
Egil Skallagrimson, Egil’s Saga


I
The yellowhammer’s song
is the princeliest ditty
of Deira’s summer buntings,
far surpassing schoedinus’s
reedy flat battery
and the loose change rattle
of the corn, proclaiming
its paupered promise:
a little bit of bread and no cheese.

From the starveling clays of Lent
to the Mass of St. Michael’s
stubblefield plenty,
the copsed and coverted
arable hedge-lands resound
with the scribbler’s wheezing
demotic, sprig-summited
from barebone quick,
foaming may, shot-hard unripened haws.

Geolu ammer, tongue
of the pale-haired
Frisian barbarians,
Hengist and Horsa
of the wyverned-skin,
sons of Wictgils, son of Witta,
son of Wecta, son of Wotan,
sire of Thunor,
hammer of Hrungnir, daughter of Earth.

The Danelaw clays
are streaked with beaten gold.
Below the plough
the citrine ingas blows.
The byways are verged
with travelling ragwort,
sunakai, salno.
Lion’s teeth blaze
from the field’s rough fleece, seeded from the sun.

The ceorls of Wessex
are satisfied
with their crust and honour
not the ploughman.
Humber’s plate is empty.
Tees and Medway, discontent.
A wind from the East,
the blown dunes fray:
cadent citronella from candled gorse.


II
The dragon-prowed fleet
of Ivar the Boneless
floats moored on Humber
like a raft of garefowl.
Squinted by blizzarding
Baltic snow, flailed foam
and strafing sand:
the bleached eyes of Ælle,
King of Northumbria, watching from the point.

Ravenspurn’s
wind-whipped strandline.
Hood-stripped
bare-tonsured
becloaked
as wandering Wotan,
Wilgils gathers driftwood
in the wintry broken rose:
tumbling petals of schneeammer falling.

The white-tailed eagle’s
sunlit eye
tracks Humber’s gullet,
along Ouse, Don and Ea,
to the slow blonde stones
and saffron clays of Hampole.
An orchard
of yellow pears.
Aureate moon, soft light of xanthic tallow.

Worn and dislocate,
kelts ground on gravels
in the vale below the priory,
shredding their rainbows.
Suffocate gapes
and gasping gills
give out.
Kite and corvid,
horn-billed erne, sparring on the shoals.


III
Beck-walk from Hampole
to Holywell Wood
in a back-ripping tunnel
of hawthorns. Unbelieved
fish, fleeing upcurrent
before us: pike and barbel, chub.
And in a man-deep plunge-pool,
Hung in a sunshaft
column of light, a trout flicked its tail 	vanished.

Whence the sturgeon?
Its English redds lie occluded,
occult. A seven-foot ‘vagrant’,
forked bankside at Towton,
armoured flanks
packed with hard caviare.
Others, exhaust kelts perhaps,
found floating bankside at Barnby Dun
and Bolham-on-Idle: stoned by frightened farmboys.

Mercian Sabrina,
Offa’s moated failsafe,
Silts glutted with styria
from Purton to Tewkesbury,
to stone-bottomed Vrnwy and Tanat beyond.
At Oswestry’s guffawing table
the simultaneous interpretation
of Cadwallon and Penda,
stripping the plate, unbuckling the bones, cleaving the noble jowl.

Æthelstan rests
in Aldhelm’s Abbey
jowled by cheek
of the Naked Gardeners.
Eden fallen to satyric Arcadia
couched in celebrity We-Sex,
E-Sex, the only way,
South and Middle seaxe,
vortexing to Wen. The Saxons knew no North.


IV
Thunor at forge,
poaching gold
in the bellowing furnace.
Then the overhead malletings
of Mjollnir the helm-splitter,
shaping rings to deal in hall.
The song from clashing metals
shrills across the heath,
auric fletchings from the anvil, fleeing to the gorse.

Coney-cropped common
flaming with furze
from Hague Hall to Hargate.
In the yellowhammer’s glebe
Ebenezer in exile dreamed
the People’s Anthem:
ten English acres, neither thrones
and crowns - nor masters’ drop-hammers
slamming and sparking, exploding men like bombs.

From Biggin Hill to Church Fenton
the arable aches with song,
ploughmen and pilots
raising tankards in the taverns
until dusk throbs crimson
from the cities of the west.
Broad-winged spitfires
sputtering home, break
the anxious reverie, screaming squadrons of June’s dark swifts.

White cliffs lidded
with wheat and whin,
gull-wheeled and flakked with jackdaws.
Demobbed from Burma
to a prefab on the Vale
and life on the Barnsley seam,
Eck trudges sludge to Frickley pit
in dawn’s drowsing serenade.
The unknown familiar song. Those birds were never blue.

The heavy horse
of Wink House farm no more.
The plovered pastures
put to plough,
now forested in rape.
The gorsy commons scoured
to muck and agrochemical brass.
Feast and field-folk, banished.
Golden lads and lasses, pissing petals in the wind.

Lehman Brothers
Kardashian sisters:
the loue of money is the root of all euill.
Whore is to body
as slave is to labour
and celebrity to soul.
In each case, ker-ching.
Three card mountebank
conmen, conjuring profits and total loss.

Breath of plug-in air-freshener,
suffocate central heating.
Tight shoes and top button.
Door-car-door return.
Podged, paralytic, stinking
of lipids and anxious with cancer.
Xmas, Valentine’s –
many happy returns. We escape
to nature like a drowning man surfacing, before going under again.

The tumblestone cottage
at Hampole Wood,
bramble derelict,
shooting blackthorn.
Chop bones, horseshoes, residual brassicas.
The woodcocked rides
now clotted with pheasant.
Keepers fishing for fur with nooses.
Tractors trawling the oceaned arable with baleen of steel.

Cut the vines
from the hoary crabtree;
plank the pens against the fox;
birth milk and mutton
in backyard barn and byre.
To each man his allotment.
With plough-turned fieldstone
gentled hands will build
once more, and lift the lintels of long tumbled halls.

A fair field full of folk,
the stooked crofts of Ringstone
via Scawsby’s red pikes
and daggered Mile End.
The frosted fallows
of Frickley’s Winter Palace,
stormed with driven hares:
blasted bloodless by yeoman grapeshot,
the truncheons of Orgreave, St. Peter’s cutlassed field.

Bismarck’s maxim
following Clausewitz.
Divisions make it so.
Stalin shrank not
from exemplary slaughter
and made a New World: ditto Hitler,
Truman, buck-toothed Saloth Sar.
Too much blood, I can’t commit.
Not Samuel, but Jeremy, cursed of God; a prophet.

V
Fafnir at Gnitaheath,
smug in his cavern of gorse,
curls his coils
around Otter’s Ransom.
At the place where water springs forth,

Sigurd unsheaths
flame-edged Gram.
The incomprehensible
screethings of yellowhammers relay across the moor.
Sigurd hacked out
the worm’s black heart
with the anvil-cleaving blade.
Fafnir’s dying benediction:
‘Gold will be your death’.
Indeed, through greed
all men are monstered,
but in blood is lore
and shriving. The dripping clot spitted, turning over fire.

Dusk-camped under piebald birches,
the inscrutable song
of the yellowhammer
throbs in the gloaming
like a raw sore.
Drawn by the cook fire’s golden glow,
chattering nuthatches spiral down:
Regin sleeping, Sigurd licking
from fingers pink froth foamed from Fafnir’s broiling heart.

The pricked ears of the man-wolf
opened on Gnitaheath
to language of birds,
the spite of nuthatches, sharp-faces
turned to earth and advantage, urging
betrayal and accumulation –
enrich yourself kill friendship and honour
slay the one that trusts- like fishwives,
or lawyers, disinheriting children, picking the pockets of corpses.

In the King’s tent at Vin-Heath
Egil hung up his harp.
And the song of the yellowhammer
sounded over the hazelled field
like a skald in hall:
you are the people in the land
know you are the people
know it is your land.
Shield-wall bristling with halberds, tusked like the eofor.

Reviews

‘One is in the presence of the same linguistic exuberance, intellectual vigour and keen sense of living history as in Oswald’s Book of Hours, and that’s reason enough to buy any book.

Sheenagh Pugh

‘His is one of the richest languages at work in current UK poetry.’

Magma

‘Ted Hughes on the rampage.’

The Compass

‘In language rich and fecund, it offers a powerful distillation of the history of this bastard isle.’

The Big Issue

‘rare to see poetry that so whole-heartedly moves through time as a means of speaking of and to the present.’

Under the Radar

‘a berserker’s yawp of a long poem.’

Poetry Review