'Lengths' was first published in The Use of English 71 (2) Spring 2020. Many thanks to Malcolm Hebron and the English Association. If reading on a phone it is best rotated to landscape.


I had the idea that the world’s so full of pain
it must sometimes make a kind of singing 
                                                                  – Robert Hass

One     two     three     four      breathe

                                                Swimming lengths
in my local pool each evening after work
trying to unwind the day’s coil

and write a song for all the species
in my lifetime to have died

                                                                 An anthem for the Angel Island mouse
					                         A carol for the Christmas Island shrew
					                         An aria for the Aru Flying Fox

the bottom of the pool, tiles like skyscraper windows

                                                                A patter song for Po’uli
					                        An old Roman chant
					                        for O’ahu Alauahiu

            Remember the beach at Marselforn
and the boys thwacking jellyfish out of buckets
onto the pier and prodding them with spades
and puncturing them with the bamboo poles
of their crab nets

fried egg jellyfish that had bloomed
across the sea like a thousand flowers,
beautiful, terrifying, domestic, harmless,

brought on a current against their will
to pulse gently into the whim of boys
whose butchery could not be reasoned with

                                                              A round for the Central Rock Rat
					                      A ballad for the Bramble Cay Melomys

Imagine Deep Time
the bottom dropped
out of a well 

black sky volcanoes
plates colliding into Paramount
ghosts planing over ice sheets

small clear sea things
growing like floaters on a hot day

hurtling past stars	 
sun an emergency flare
heartburn 	violences
speed 	 zoom in    camera

					                  For the Wondiwoi tree 
					                  a terrific twelve bar blues

Slower, think of my slow

of nothing, then suddenly 
something: a sound
a rumble a thunder  	slick
slop of liquid

a clang a whistle a creak
a bubble  	go deep
do not believe

that if it doesn’t
make a sound
there’s no one
to hear it


Two 	three	four

how else can we imagine the age
of the Earth?				

					                     A bass for Bouvier’s Red Colobus
					                     A mass for Maui Akepa, a drinking
					                     song for the Dusky Seaside Sparrow

Flea-wide, detrital, forever,
zircon crystals from Jack Hills,
Western Australia

are the oldest rocks on the whole round planet

their memory locked inside concentric zones
like – ok, imagine – like rings on a tree trunk
four thousand four hundred and four
million years old

				               I touch the end, forty lengths, a
				               breath, keep going, a dip

                                                           A cover version for the Christmas
					                   Island pipistrelle

push a single zircon crystal
through the Super High Resolution Ion Microprobe
to find the carbon isotope:
it means there may have been surface water,
perhaps even life

				                           A shanty for the Pinta Island tortoise
                                                          An earworm for the St. Helena earwig								                             

A kind of singing
                          humans as pure verb –
mountaintop removal, coral scraping,
damming, deep subsurface injection – 

waste rock dumped in Appalachian streams,
Nile Delta starved of sediment, coastal
Louisiana losing an acre of land per hour

as levees suck the soil, pipelines
make the earth subside.
                                                   Over and over
				                   our new cartography.					

Bald cypress, wax myrtle, cottonwood – an acre – 
osprey, ibis, egret, beaver, manatee

					             For the Scimitar oryx I’ll cut a spiritual,
					             for the Saudi gazelle a slow jam
					             and a lullaby for the Liverpool pigeon
					             and a torch song for Telefomin Cuscus
					             and a melody for Maui Nukupuu
					             and a yell for – 


Today I woke to a glimmer of hope:
legislation for roadside verges,
that they’ll be mown just twice a year

and only after flowers set seed,
so wildlife corridors might guide
invertebrates across the countryside.
				                A new cartography.

Then: what difference will it make? Then: but still:
legislation, thought, consultation,
work, science. How do we offset the loss

of hope? Red clover. Lady’s bedstraw.
The wild geese that flew over at breakfast,
over the school, into the rain

					                  An answer song for the Alaotra Grebe
                                                          which after twenty years the Atitlan Grebe 
                                                         did answer

Easy to put away all thoughts
but the rhythm of the water-clock

to imagine there’s nothing wrong out there,
that the sky in the big pool windows

shines down like this safely on every crossing

					               A field holler for the forest ox
					               A yodel for the Yangtze River dolphin

The lengths we’d go to. Another lap
around the library, all these books and papers
about cloud brightening, veil-making,

genetically engineering trees 
to give them more reflective leaves, creating 
nuclear winter so soot and smoke

could form a shroud against the best
the sun might throw at us…
the phytoplankton in the Southern Ocean

are feasting on the iron we’ve fed to them
so they in turn will suck our carbon from the air,
the swollen algae blooming into galaxies

                                                       A stereophonic madrigal 
                                                       for the monkey-faced bat 
                                                       A Geisslerlieder for Emma’s Giant Rat

            Remember a speech I read – 
that sea level rise is already locked in – 
means there’s no going back; we are looking
for reprieve;
we are not looking for a sea change;
we’re looking for reprieve;
we are not looking for our children’s children
or our children’s children’s children;
we are looking for reprieve;
we are looking for the space behind 
our homes; they teeter on the breeze;
we are not looking to sell up or out; we’re just looking
for reprieve; we’re not looking backwards;
we need something to believe;
we’ll keep going forward, but we’re looking for reprieve

				              One two three four breathe
				              kick   	kick

                                                   Tell me again how we’re doing for time
                                                   what the wetlands sing as the wetlands drown?

The lengths we could go to: marine
permaculture, regenerative agriculture,
decentralised energy, electric vehicles

a field liberated from its fences,
its seed let go, a neighbour sharing
solar with their neighbour, a network
of driverless cars, slow and on time.

Think of all the space we’d have to breathe.

Why does the language of hope sound less scientific? 
When did we forget rocks weren’t nouns but verbs?

Imagine the fields of wild-roaming cattle
Imagine the kelp forests stretching for miles
Imagine the cities we might build
Imagine the songs we might sing
					             A work song for the West African black rhino
                                                     A broadside for Borreo’s Cinnamon Teal

That bright spring morning at Oxford Circus,
Extinction Rebellion’s folkboat,
flotsam and jetsam of tents, flags,

gazebos, pavement chalk. TELL THE TRUTH
three feet high on the bright pink hull,
sail wilting as if just only struggled

into port. Tents unzipping like any campsite,
people bewildered, wanting breakfast. A few police
hovering like bumblebees. Then: the quiet.

No cars. But more than that – all the people
coming from the station, the people
going to work, are quiet. Anything might happen


The ricocheting chatter of kids in swimming lessons
and velvet yoke of streetlamps through the big pool windows…

like that golden winter light on the walnut path, a stonechat like a teasel
on a teasel. A year since the wildfire stole three hundred acres 

of the Flats, our stomping ground, we stealth through oaks
towards Alexandra Pond, count wheatear, little owl, 

the footprints of a just-gone fox.
And on the water gadwall, pochard, a lone goosander.

For weeks we could smell the sweetness of cooked oak 
through the kitchen window, hanging in the heatwave-woven air.

Today we watch the birds in a flushed chill breeze,
walk through brambles brimming over in the gorse

                                                            A hymn for the Hooded Seedeater
                                                            A jingle for Garrido’s hutia				 

                                          The final length, a breather at the deep end

Remember walking the hill between
the two ancient temples of Mnajdra and Ħaġar Qim,
cicadas clamped to carob trees

clattering their ribs in the heart of the island
clicking their ribs like lussuria or warning
not for us or because of us but as they had done

always, before the milky limestone blocks
were rolled on cut querns and raised to the sky
so the solstice would shine through the limestone eye.

Did the people sing then? Or chant? Or breathe in silence
until the full day swelled to the crack of cicadas?
Amazing how little we know

            Swimming lengths in the local pool

                                                              One 	two	breathe		
                                                              one	two

				I sing what I can for Kauai Oo,
                                a repeat-after-me for Kauai Nukupuu