Nomad is a book about Time – geological, mythic, historical and familial. Following the long journey from a pre-human world to the Gates of Grief, Paul Mills’ new collection tells a story of antler-bone spears, virgin forests, stone-tools, hand-prints on rock, ancestors and grandchildren. It’s about people together, the importance of art and story-making, of compassion and empathy. Above all, Nomad is a book about learning to use technology to survive the natural world without destroying it.

Sample Poems

History etc

a boy with a book     turning the pages
The Story of the British People in Pictures

Mary facing the block with scaffold composure
Queen Jane blindfold over straw

the gunpowder plot conspirators
And when did you last see your father?

a boy stands in the dock
about to be hanged    accused of theft
staring into the eyes of the criminal code

later Nelson    not much older
saying goodbye to his distraught mother

SLAVES on an auctioneer’s billboard
a Paris street     a woman beating a drum

history as error and correction
The King and Kaiser in a carriage
then       The spark that set the world alight
finally         A record breaking train

we lived in a semi in a cul-de-sac
in the middle of Cheshire in the fifties

the co-op by the railway bridge sold Hovis
my father umpired the second eleven

I was in the church choir we got a dog
my mother’s rice puddings were awful

history it seemed wasn’t interested
in a time and place without events

we watched General Montgomery on film
shot by shot the ricochet of artillery

when did it start?

turning the pages back and further back
there were scenes of people in their moment

how with a puzzled look muscular savages
urged a stone the weight of a railway carriage
uphill to Stonehenge on wheels of logs

while before that a man in skins
sat carving an object out of bone
there on rock the outline of a horse

a woman     a man    he with bow and arrow
wandered about hopelessly in the cold

if only they could have climbed on board
got away on a record-breaking train
all of them missing out on now

the boy wondered if any of them were fearful
like Nelson’s mother
but they knew nothing      
weren’t even British
lost somewhere in the struggle against ice
and before that and before that
there were others     but who?     where?
in a story beginning with no story


room to room you travel the world
downward to its beginnings
no life older than stromatolites
on sea-bottom rocks grainy as braille

blood-bathed hungers     ferns that swim
something like a pineapple with a mouth

then up again     and the eye of an ichthyosaur
trapped in lias      muscle-ringed for power vision
catches you as you pass

to surface in Anthropology       chips of flint
with found or made edges
one knapped around the fossil of a shell

masks that glare through glass towards
an opposite tiled wall
each one a stopped clock

this totem pole three storeys high
should be gazing out across the Pacific
beaks and wings now husks     its spirits flown

over the road is a John Lewis store cafe
the place to eat      
lettering in grey across one wall

the year our founder took the first step
from visionary thought to innovative business
Byron born on the same site as our store in Oxford Street

then one by Betjeman
if the end of the world should come
I’d like to be in a haberdashery department
nothing unpleasant could ever happen there

top floor windows
aged complexions
city roofs and spires

from hunter-killers of the Cretaceous
to     opens branches in the Channel Islands
who you are is always when and where

The story of hands

hands got so far off the ground
they forgot about making footprints
faces studied them carefully
what could we do with these?       what could we not?

thumbs moved upward to join fingers
closed on flint in pits of chipping and clattering
stone seemed the point but pointed where?

after so many hundred thousand years
hands were restless
wandered adrift between holes in flutes
left their image upright on cave rock

feeling the weight of boredom in the palm
got it together     shook on it

arrow-shafts     antler-bone     ivory
planed     sharpened     burned     bound
signing this way over there stop quietly
more and more animals died

spears     pruning hooks     on and on
hands drawing metal out of stone
tearing down     refashioning
making things that make things

hands close to exhaustion     how are we different
they wondered     from first-evolved hands?
tiny hurricane finger-whorls through the leaves
in no time driven to clicking words
tapping information     and what next?

sometimes the forward gaze of the face lost interest
so that hands again did what they wanted

hands of a woman playing with those of a baby in a railway carriage
the long explore of lovers’ hands filling themselves with each other

and sometimes hands were lost for words
hands laid on coffins     hands where they can’t help

The dead who have gone down into deep time

this small dinosaur skeleton on a shelf
in the Museum of Earth Sciences in Cambridge

its hands extended blind as if feeling for something
as if flicking away little drops of water

the head poised     about to conduct     steadying the orchestra
quite unwilling to turn in our direction

designed     it seems so carefully     like a fern
bones like branches intercepted by wind

surely     when it evolved     some sense of beauty
must have declared itself     because I am     this is
look no further

balanced so finely     the whole arrangement
stretched out like Asia     like a drawing

a season in hell of course the music of screams
and soon aer the first fossils appeared here behind glass

for William and Dorothy     apostrophists of the earth
rocks and trees were already almost events

a child-sized hill of moss     an old thorn bush
that moment on the lake when the mountain moved

towards him through a dream of still-living darkness
as if the earth were trying to become a story

the dead who have gone down into deep time
starting to come back    beautiful and bone-swift

Looking at a hand-axe

to see it you have to hold it
palm gripping the curve
thumb towards tip

point and edge
shaped for use
to slice hack pierce

dents for fingers
squeeze it
smooth wouldn’t do

you can look now
at its symmetry
an exact bi-face

laid flat
under this desk lamp

aimed     its reach global
ready for take-off

not becoming extinct
until the millennia
it travelled found it so

From the Palaeolithic

dawn frost    the heating on
and condensation already formed on the kitchen’s inside glass
beginning to slide    trickle in loops
spirals    spurs    wriggling forest vines    and a figure
between branches    climbing out    coming through
hauling himself forward into a clearing

I’ve seen him before    imagined him
one of the first coming into Europe
out of the east following rivers and sunsets
climbing a peak of rocks above the Danube

he stands in the dripping pane looking around him
testing the view where rafts are working upstream

generations after him will reach ice
will they survive the ferocities of the tundra?
he is one of the first sons of the mother who is our mother
he will never be rich    never be poor

through him    behind him    my garden
beginning to shine    an apple tree where a wren flits

how far will his thoughts carry him?
in his domed skull are all the tools he’ll need
to survive in paradise and demolish it
come no further    I ought to say    go back!

he faces me    between pathways of water
will he begin to melt when the frost melts?
he is disfiguring now in the heat of the kitchen

divers reaching a deep recess will find his skull
scattered among bones of cave bears


‘With the lightest and deftest of touches Paul Mills delineates a massive swathe of history in muscular and empathetic language. It’s no easy task but Paul’s skill is more than equal to it.’ 

Ian McMillan

‘These grounded, tender poems range between the scope and grandeur of prophetic utterance and the lucidity of lyric in an arc that embraces deep geological time and the intimacy of familial history.’

Elizabeth Cook

'An evocative exploration of where we came from and what it means to be human, bringing to life our unique experiences of loss, suffering, compassion and beauty along the way.'

Penny Spikins, Department of Archaeology, University of York

‘An extraordinary imaginative achievement, a collection of epic scope and lyric grace. Urgent and unflinching, these are poems I wish I could have written and know I'll go on re-reading.’

Michael Laskey