Category Archives: Uncategorized

Fossil Sunshine


The cover for my collection Fossil Sunshine, containing the results of the Written in the Rocks project, forthcoming from Worple Press. Cover image is the Kimmeridge Clay Formation, Kimmeridge, Dorset, October 2012


Poem with thermoluminescence


We take a sample from the buried cliff:
raised beach shingle, chalk, the Skipsea Till,
coarse and imbricated gravels. We lift
small cupfuls to the microscope, label
hippopotamus, hyena, straight-tusked
elephant, bison, deer and water vole.
We sort the flints from temperate molluscs,
wild erratics found in kettle holes.
Thermoluminescence dates the blown sand
to a period mid-Ipswichian.
Going further back, we see then how the land
in fact curved west away from Bridlington,
and where we took the rocks, the cliff we walked,
did not exist, was low Cretaceous chalk.


From Fossil Sunshine, forthcoming from Worple Press

Poem with horizontal borehole

Danes Dyke

We are waiting for results from Sheffield
on the sample taken from the horizontal
borehole.  Initially we thought the gravels
could be correlatives of interglacials
found further west – do you follow? –
but now we read in their significance
the movement of the North Sea Lobe
of the last ice sheet in eastern England.
Freeze and thaw has worked the sediments.
On top of these are laminated muds
and rippled sands, suggesting ice was present
to the south, but we’re not wizened Druids
with hazel wands. This is just our impulse.
We’re eagerly awaiting the results.

From Fossil Sunshine, forthcoming from Worple Press

Poem with Milankovitch cycles

Selwicks Bay

Like veins of fat in a hock of ham
fault lines score down heaved chalk cliffs
and across the thick shore platform.
The flints are uniform, and calcite clefts
indicate the brecciated crush zone
occurring to the south of the west-east
latitude of tectonic disturbance.
It’s highly complex, to say the least.
But there’s a rhythm in the chalk –
soft and harder beds, nodules, wispy marls,
alternating flints – regular as clocks
that mark a record of Cretaceous cycles:
the whole Earth’s orbit accurately ranged,
their frequencies a pace-maker for change.

From Fossil Sunshine, forthcoming from Worple Press

Poem with ideal conditions

Bempton Cliffs

Beneath the surface, stretching for a mile,
the huge chalk platform’s grinded into pits
by wave-chucked boulders and the pelted gravels.
Add to this the way the platform fits
with the western end of a major step
in the North Sea, and conditions are ideal:
the forces on the water mean it’s kept
refreshed and rich in nutrients, a field
of algae thrives in wave-cut crevices,
anemones and hybrids court with fists
of sea urchins, piddock’s interstices.
It’s the southern limit of the kelp forest.
And up above, where gannets collect,
a thatch of wild flowers grows, guano-flecked.

From Fossil Sunshine, forthcoming from Worple Press.

Excursion Five: The Giant’s Causeway Revisited

River Bush, Runkerry Beach, December 2012

River Bush, Runkerry Beach, December 2012

I was recently asked why, having lived so long in England, I still write so much about Ireland. It’s a question I’ve been thinking over for a while, and one I might turn on its head slightly – why do I find that when writing ‘about’ Ireland, by which I mean the north Antrim coast, do poems come together much more easily and satisfactorily? There’s probably a psychologist who will tell me there’s an obvious scientific answer, bound up in childhood and memory. Something to do with word association, perhaps, in the way that when I think ‘coast’ I think of the black basalt rocks and the waves at Runkerry, less than a mile from where I grew up. When I think words like farm and field, cow and sheep – no matter where I am – these words bring to mind this place, Carnkirk, where I am writing today. The word lane conjures a particular image, of a lane which runs straight towards the cliff at the end of our road, with a dark green mohican down its centre. In an undergraduate essay on Seamus Heaney I likened it to a centrifugal force, in that no matter how far Heaney travelled in life and in verse, all his poems were spun from and constantly pulled by the force of his childhood farm in Co. Derry, the heart of his ‘word hoard’.

On Saturday, an unseasonably mild day, with the rain holding off but the world a numb grey bleed of ocean and sky, we came at the Causeway from the west round Runkerry Point. This is true basalt country, rocks tumbling black and slick towards the sea as if just forged. Bulbous in places, jagged in others, they sit on the beach like the Grand Causeway’s truant cousins, un-uniformed, laid back, really more fun. They are to me more believable as lava. I always loved the way the heat ran through them on a summer’s day and you could believe they might just pop like bubbled tarmac. We walked around the blustery headland, where I noticed what I never had before: large erratics on the edge of the cliff or in the fields, where sheep spread themselves out in the fields, their rumps inked red. The headlands lay before us, four or five, each reaching further out in the still water: Portnaboe, the humped Stookans, the Grand Causeway low in the water, then the Organ, and finally the Chimney Tops. It’s well worth it, if you visit the Causeway, to take these coastal paths and get a proper look at the place.

Looking west from Runkerry Point

Looking west from Runkerry Point

I officially started this project – to write new poems addressing the geology of climate change – in June, but really my thinking around it dates back over a year, to a talk given by Dr Bryan Lovell of Cambridge University, then President of the Geological Society. Bryan has been my advisor and supporter throughout the project, and if it was not for his enthusiasm and belief I doubt I would ever have got started. He spoke that day about an event which happened 55 million years ago, when over a billion tonnes of carbon was dumped into the atmosphere. The temperature of water at the bottom of the ocean increased rapidly from 11 to 15 degrees centigrade, oceans became more acidic, with less oxygen, and the extinction of life that followed in the oceans and on land marked the beginning of a new geological epoch (the Eocene). The message is a simple one: we humans are now repeating that carbon dump, but on a larger scale. For all the climate change deniers, here is evidence in the geological record about the effects of carbon on the atmosphere and the planet. What’s happening now has happened before, but this time we’re responsible.

This is the piece of scientific fact – the real geology of climate change – that I’ve been worrying away at for most of this year. This is what, when I set out on this project, I really wanted to recast in poetic form, to try and get this message across in a new way. But it’s been nothing but stops-and-barely-starts, failed sonnets, some terrible haiku. I’ve tried to make it work, but it won’t. The problem was how to write a poem (another question might be why write such a poem, for which I’d begin by referring you to this post) that worked all of this science and scientific omen into it while retaining the subtlety and condensed-ness of the poetry I like to read and write. Maybe the science of it was just too big for poetry. Maybe there’s no way to do away with the scientific words without losing the science.  I just couldn’t find a way in.

Causeway Headlands, December 2012

Causeway Headlands, December 2012

But then a few weeks ago I was looking in the new issue of Earth Science Ireland and came across an article on climate change by Jan Zalasiewicz and Mark Williams, in which they refer to the event 55 million years ago.  They mention, however, something I had not been aware of before: that the influx of carbon “may have been triggered by massive volcanism associated with the opening of the North Atlantic (and so, locally, the Giant’s Causeway).” I wouldn’t say this was a eureka moment, but it was certainly one of those exciting ones that I think most writers of poetry must feel: a way into a poem that comes from an area you know and know well.  I’ll just have to see what happens.

The Geologist by W. Hart-Smith

The Geologist
W. Hart-Smith


I know a man who regards rocks as books.
He breaks open their covers with a hammer, prises leaves apart with a cold-chisel. To him
the earth is a library of neglected books.

He can interpret language of fault-scarp, valley and dome:
a mountain is not a mountain so much
as an item of incunabula,
a rare old tome.

Nothing’s neat here, though: nothing’s undisturbed.
Time is both illuminator and vandal.
Chaos and carelessness are magnificent, even if
he regards it all as something of a scandal
books should be left lying about so
with their pages cemented,
whole collections, first editions,
tumbled, cascaded, tilted, upended,
sprawled over the floor, scrawled over
with crude green comment.

It almost drives him demented –
the destruction… the teasing of a flaked fragment.

But sometimes Nature herself
will turn a page for him,
peel a whole cliff away
spectacularly …

He dances to see
the clean, undisfigured print there,
especially when the sun, setting,
touches it lovingly
and calls up an echo in his soul
of the same golden glint there.


This poem was selected by Joe McCall to be read at Poetry and Geology: A Celebration at The Geological Society last year.  (Every attempt has been made to find copyright holder).

An Apologie for Geopoetry

The geologist Dr. Eric Robinson has sent me a response to an earlier post on this blog, which I’ve pasted below.  Eric taught in University College London until 1999, during which time he became closely involved with the Geologists’ Association in its mission to take geology to a wider public. In the Geologists’ Association Newsletter in October 1992 he championed the poet Norman Nicholson as the archetypal ‘geologist’s poet’.  Nearly 20 years later, it was a pleasure to hear Eric speak on Nicholson at The Geological Society last year.