Poetry: Julie-ann Rowell

On Walking to Iken Church

The moss so soft in its pockets,
the reeds sometimes like violin string,
pink-footed geese in a frieze
and then honking, how they flew
so perfectly. I heard movement
in the reed beds and stopped to listen,
but whatever it was froze too, listening,
and we were trapped in our worlds
of path, hidden pathway, waiting for
the other’s decision. The reeds
were taller than I was, as close
as rumour, creaking salutary
notes. They performed their
cover-up well. I wished I was
as clever. I took a step forward
and this was more than enough to tear
the silence – this lumbering life
cart-horsing itself through
the delicacy of the marshes.
The church the only human
perfection, perched upon
its no-longer island above the reeds.

(Iken is an ancient place of pilgrimage in Suffolk which was originally an abbey on an island, as so often is the case with sacred sites. J.R.)

The Invisible Line, Guantánamo Bay

This man known only by a number thinks
he hears a gull calling, but nothing’s certain.
The sky is not certain, mostly its blue, though
maybe he invented that: colour is limited.
He’s tired of the orange of the plastic sandals
that make his feet sweat, and the overalls that mean
he cannot be clean when he wants to be;
everything is measured, but immeasurable.
The gull’s shriek is an echo he misses,
once understood, uncanny how the call fixes
his heart, he’d have ignored the bird once –
a creature of God, intended for man.


I contemplate the un-forecast rain, the sky
is closed over, no stars, not that I often
gaze up: the ground’s more familiar.
I return to my computer, closing windows, doors.
The rain beats down. I’ve received a message
to sign a petition, orange printed against white:
a man incarcerated and tortured until
he’s losing his mind, and now a military tribunal
will decide the frame of his days. I remember
my husband on the telephone – ‘something unpleasant’,
yet the fact he survived the attack. This voiceless
screen: no one to chide or notice.


He’s had his head held under water; his ears filled
with the roar of the ocean, until he couldn’t recall
anything. He’d gladly pledge his soul,
but how? When he can’t speak, barely listen.
Now he’s forgotten what prayer can be.
There’s nothing in his mind, but circles
of dreams on this island of dreams
carrying him through the steel door
to a battlefield of the gorged and gorging,
the smell of blood, his uncle’s butcher shop,
limbs wrenched apart, the shining guts
of an animal. There must be a message in the universe.
The sea bird’s still calling.


I phone my husband’s office across the world
to ask about the impossible.
He doesn’t want to recount the sinking of the towers
when he dreams it all the time, action-replay
of dust cloud, shredded documents – a mockery of ticker tape,
but when I mention the signature he tells me
he would sign, or this goes on like a river
you can’t dam or divert
. The rainy night devours
the garden. I glance out as the line disconnects,
look again at the page of orange and white
on the flickering screen, then kill it.


The heat sucks at him, always there
even when they blindfold and strip him
the heat insinuates. Has that bird come to free him
from this island? Is that why its outside his burden,
some would say screaming? The young white lawyer
explained she would try her best,
she did not cover her face; then they made him
lay his body down: he doesn’t own his body.
His hands look as if they belong to someone
he once knew, but what were their features,
except for the beard? He might have been
a holy man. He might have been God.


I’m wakeful – those voices in the dark,
like being a child chased through dreams.
But the sun climbs over the hill, like the end of a film.
Can I save anything? A sinner confessed, and rising
then falling like a stone. Coffee or juice… Where is
the heart of me? The kitchen’s an empty space.
If I open that fridge door, if I do another thing, my life
is lessened. I believe it. I hurry to my study,
search for orange words on white.

Julie-ann Rowell lives in Totnes and teaches poetry in Bristol. Her first pamphlet Convergence won a PBS Award. Letters North was nominated for the Inaugural Michael Murphy Memorial Prize for best first collection in Britain and Ireland.