An Ode to Ochre and a visit to Roussillon

I recently paid a visit to the Provencal village of Roussillon, that extraordinary location where great ochre deposits are visible in the cliffs upon which the town is perched. During the trip I learnt that the village has a legend to explain these colours, the tale of Lady Surmonde. The legend has similarities to many aboriginal myths in the way it explains the origin of the colourful red ochres as having been stained by the blood of a mythological figure.

I decided to write a poem about this, expanding the legend a little to make Surmonde a rock artist and trance dancer so the blood infused in the rock carries the essence of her passion.

It’s a curious fusion in some ways. The myth has some obvious similarities to those of the classical / Western / Greco-Roman tradition with its tragic heroine. I’ve drawn this out and expanded on it, making her the muse of rock art.

For me, this conflation of aboriginal Dreamtime and the realm of classical myth is not so odd. Part of how we can put the final nail in the coffin of the colonial mindset is by transforming Western culture itself into an indigenous one, and that means allowing it to stretch back to and embrace its own Dreamtime, the age of the European cave painters, so its roots are in the Earth and there is deep cultural richness at the heart of the culture rather than a gap that might seem to need to be filled by conquest and acquisition.

The Greek theatre of Golden Age Athens has been described as the greatest miracle in the history of culture, but all they really did was add polish, proportion, geometry, rhetotic to story telling traditions and modes that had been maintained for tens of millenia. The Greeks were jusy expert makeup artists of mythic matter.

Aboriginal cultures long told stories in dramatised ways, with different voices for different characters and making use of other arts such as song and dance. It’s too easy to fall into the trap of making biased comparisons between Greek mythology and these other mythologies that are skewed by the halo effect, mesmerised by attraction to the makeup that was applied to the core mythic matter. But that halo effect is in this case a valuable precious thing, so the answer is not to uglify the Greek myth; rather, the obvious course of action is to take other matter from elsewhere and apply the same makeup. To show that Trojan women are as beautiful as Helen and that Paris had no need to sail away with the Greek queen – hence that there is no need for another Tojan war.

One of the simplest ways to apply proportion and geometry to a story is to turn into metered verse.

In this case I haven’t done so with an actual aboriginal myth but rather with this French legend that has this strong similarity with such myths about ochre-blood, because as said part of my goal is to reveal Europe’s own Dreamtime – the Arcadian Dreamtime. Afterall, the motif of ochre as the blood of a mythic figure is a meta-myth: there are many versions from different places and it was obviously transported to new lanscapes and applied in new ways, so why not France, given that there is already such a tale, authentically old?

You can read the poem here below, but there’s also an audio version in the YouTube video above, complete with some images to help tell the tale, created with a bit of AI assistance. The irony of using AI to create images of the story of a muse of a rustic art form that is all about perfornance and process and working tangibly with materials from the ground is not lost on me, but these are merely intended to be illustrations of the story, not works of art themselves, and i like a bit of contradiction.

In the starting stages of writing the poem, I also used some AI assistance just to get the ball rolling. Having decided on the general thematic structure, I gave Chatgbt my instructions, and there was that initial surprise when it came back with something intelligible, but on reflection I realised it wasn’t saying what I wanted it to say nor in the way I wanted it to say it, but it served as a starting point to use for a rewrite. I think one, maybe two verses have remained from that AI version (the bit about love’s snare), but most of it has changed completely. Here is the final version:

An Ochre Ode

In Roussilon, the southern sunlight streams,
On ochre cliffs, lit sharp against the blue,
The rocky walls, banded with fiery seams,
Rise bold in brightest red and yellow hue.

High pinnacles remember what is past,
Strong colors sing of nature’s art profound,
With lofty grace, the ancient rocks hold fast,
The painter’s eye in awe forever bound.

Whence came such colour? How and when and why?
There lived a lady, Sermonde was her name,

With passion for the Earth and for the sky,
Her young and tender heart was all aflame.

With brush in hand, she captured what she saw,
From birds that soared upon the Summer breeze,
To noble beasts that roamed the forest floor,
In every stroke, she breathed life into these.

This lady loved the wild Bacchic dance,
Through which a mantic fire flowed through her heart,
And as she entered elevated trance,
A mystic potency enthused her art.

From here, her story takes a crueller twist,
Her lover to her husband is revealed,

Who to Sermonde serves up the foulest dish:
Her lover’s heart beneath the sauce concealed.

In grief and horror Sermonde climbs the hills,

Despairing, throws herself from their great height,

Then from her mortal wounds the red blood spills,
To stain the rock with colour, ever bright.

The cliffs, a testament to her despair,
Their hue a tribute to her anguished soul,
Each crimson drop, a symbol of love’s snare,
Her tragic tale, forever they extol.

But in her wake, her passion still remains,
Infused within the pigments we procure,
From rocks she fed, her ardor yet sustains,
The vibrant art, by love’s fair touch ensured.

So, when the brush upon the surface glides,
And ochre pigments bring the scenes to life,
It’s Lady Sermonde’s spirit that abides,
Her passion, fierce, dispelling all dull strife.

So blend the pigment, make the sacred mixture,
Take the brush and work in ancient style,
Use living paint to make a living picture,
Culture makes a window on the wild.

And so through many metamorphoses,
Into the beasts that walk the scrubland plain,
Once more she breathes and moves and feels and sees,
For when we paint, fair Sermonde lives again.

Above the clouds where Zeus’s temples shine,
The Muses circle round and round again,
And while some say the count of them is nine,
Others know in truth the number’s ten.

For Sermond’s spirit rose to her new home,
Within the gods’ great sacred company,
Zeus honoured her for painting beasts on stone,
And made her muse of rustic artistry.

Ode to Hawthorn Berry Tea

Thick, soft tresses of maidenly blossom cascade – scented surf in a heavenly flood,  
Pure white dress of the Hawthorn will one day become berry necklaces scarlet as blood
At the sight off a-gathering filling my basket I’ll go for a plentiful store
Of the berry that brews to a tea with the power to soothe and relax and restore
Hawthorn tea you delight me
You calm yet excite me
When daytime to evening gives way
A swift end to anxiety
Drunken sobriety
Perfect for closing the day

I feel I should probably write a second verse to that at some point, echoing the same stanza structure, but for the moment, there it is.

When I started the poem I was just writing about hawthorn blossom but then it came to be about the tea too. So it leaps from early Summer to Autumn with the line: “pure white dress of the Hawthorn will one day become berry necklaces scarlet as blood.”

The effect of the tea is a recognised one by the way – something to do with opioid receptors and vasodilation – a rush of blood to the head. Only thing I’ve ever found that is comparable to alcohol in it’s ability to take the edge off things at the end of the day, but a healthy alternative. Very effective at lowering blood pressure I understand and great for rounding off a day when you’ve been hitting the Java. Hence: “drunken sobriety” in the poem

The bit about gathering them is poetic license – I did do that a couple of autumns back but now I just buy pre-dried. I use about 50 berries, and I leave them boiling in a pan for about 12 mins, then I stand them for a further ten minutes in the water, steeping, having also added a chamomile teabag, then I sup away. I’ll then give those same berries a second boil but in less water and only for a couple minutes, for a second cup.

Bird is Spring

If you go down to the woods today 
you’re in for a big surprise 
as dozens of darling dinosaurs 
compete for their opera prize

A phrase from one may establish its rhythm, but 
then it’s lost as another phrase cuts blithely across it 
with all the informality of free verse, in rich cacophony 

And then that rhythm you heard before 
will suddenly reappear 
in a moment of ordered harmony 
as if made for the human ear  

Then it’s gone again, but the sounds still delight – heaven-storming chitterings 
pulsing scintillating emanations through the sap-irrigated matrix of the Chloromyriad  

The Old Romantics oh!’d and ah!’d  
for they found it uplifting and freeing 
and now the science is backing them up: 
It bolters our mental well-being  

So bathe in the forest and smell the earthy humus for even now  
the Star-lungs are warming up their vox-boxes in readiness – may we likewise  
prep our auro-tubules for sensitive apprecio-resonance with this ancient treasure of our planet!  

If you’re on the road to Chitterfest  
you’d better keep moving fast  
for tomorrow’s the day the developers come  
so this chance may be your last

Sing on, sweet birds, sing on your spasmodic gutterations of brain-brightening liquid light! 
Star-lungs: stars are flowers; flowers is bird; bird is Spring…. No bird, no Spring

Should every bird that ever there was 
stare mute from under glass – 
just dozens of dry, dumb dodos – 
we’ll despair that this came to pass

The Silver Birch – video

The Silver Birch
a caudate sonnet

My gladness of the silver birch I wish
   To share, that slender goddess of a tree
Her shower of silken hair moves in a swish
   That stirs in me a mystic reverie
As turns this verdant, grassy leaf-fringed glade
   Into her sacred grove, and I, her priest
Mid-frisson in the dancing, dappled shade
   Call druids, bards and ovates to the feast
But let us now the details try to trace
   The little leaves, heart-shaped, serrated trail
      Along each pliant twig to form a spray
That’s bright and airy, made with measured grace
   Cascading sprays together form the veil
      That by the gentle breeze is set to sway
Her stretch of sky she turns to shimmering show
And whispers Summer’s secrets soft and low.

On Odes to Coastal Dawns – spoken word video

What poet now would ever dare
To sing an ode to morning air
The rosy mist that hovers there
O’er sea-girt folds?

What mind could ever fully grasp
The magnitude of such a task:
To frame in verses built to last
Vapours of gold?

Perhaps some master’s careful brush
Could set in oil the heart’s full rush
Paint here and there a windswept bush
With well-mixed hue

But how could we with words sing praise
And capture this ambrosial haze
To place on page for later days
This heavenly view?

Now most assume in ancient time
Some poet placed a fatted chine
Upon Aurora’s hillside shrine
None now could equal

And so the theme of their refrain
Will tend to be one more mundane
For who among them still would deign 
To pen a sequel?

But poets! To her shrine turn back
Tread rhyming steps along that track
And do not worry if you lack
A perfect gift

For when we see the rosy glow
We will be comforted to know
We’re not the first to see the show
As sea mists lift.

Ode to a Car Key – spoken word video

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Ode to a Car Key

O fine, faff-free and labour-saving key
That lets me lock and unlock, with one press,
The car remotely and most easily
For you my heart now fills with thankfulness
Let’s say it’s raining and one stands
With luggage in both hands
It’s been a busy day and one is tired
How glad one feels to then recall
A single button press is all
That is required!

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Hephaestus for the gods with rarest skill
Did many a shining bronze device design
Some tool that leapt to action at their will
Performing tasks befitting lives divine:
Their gold cars pulled by brazen steed
Through air at such a speed
As lighting that precedes the thunder’s rumble
We feel ourselves to be their kin
When gracefully we enter in
Without a fumble

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Helios the Sun in chariot made by Hephaestus, with animated bronze horses

So unimpeded in the car I climb
And like a king upon a throne I sit
And cruise the country lanes in state sublime
Like Bacchus in his magic vine-filled ship
And as my homeward way I wend
I know at journey’s end
There waits for me a happy circumstance:
I’ll loose the safety belt and out
I’ll get and walk away without
A backwards glance.

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Bacchus in vine-filled ship

Songbird Stay (spoken word video)

Songbird Stay

O key ingredient of the harmony
   Of Spring, dear Songbird stay, we beg you, stay!
The dead must feel an equal agony
   To hear you not, nor see the light of day
Should silence fall within the woodland dells
   We’d mourn as if the Sun had left the sky
Or all the flowers lost their honey smells
   As from their petals drained the coloured dye
We love those trills that irrigate the mind
   With water from a laughing, babbling stream
      Your calls explore a secret sylvan space
And by the echoes somehow is defined
   Within our human thought a painted scene
      Of all that’s filled with natural, verdant grace
Sweet Songbird stay and ever, ever sing for once you’re gone it never could be Spring

We’ll take whatever course for you is best
   Ensure the fields from poisons are kept free
Keep dogs instead of cats, to spare your nest
   And anywhere you need it plant a tree
We’ll plant such bowery covert as you need
   We’ll plant so you can shelter, roost and call
We’ll plant the plants that give you food to feed
   We’ll plant them if we value Spring at all
We love each sound you sing, o darling bird
   All notes that issue from your quavering throat
      Each lilting warble, chirrup, cheep and coo
By which the silent sleeping air is stirred
   These sounds now through my open window float
      To broach the Gates of Dawn, and bring the New!
Sweet Songbird stay and ever, ever sing for once you’re gone it never could be Spring

Ode on Returning Home (spoken word video)

Ode on Returning Home

When work is done, thoughts turn to home’s warm glow
Behind me has now closed the office gate
Bright images shine forth that lift me so
Familiar smiles of little ones who wait
   And onward leaps my heart to say
   To them that I’m well on my way
And echo back the joyous, radiant cheer
   Returning is a Treasured Thing
   That makes my Soul and Spirit sing
For they to me are infinitely dear.

This love must be the fire that warms the tale
Of he who journeyed far on leaving Troy
And neither towering wave nor raging gale
The will to reach his loved ones could destroy
   Nor could the lulling lotus flower
   With all its hedonistic power
Obliterate the thoughts of wife and child
   Nor could the cyclops rude and strong
   Nor sirens with their luring song
Prevent him reaching his beloved isle.

Our old savannah tribes would send a band
Of huntsmen, ranging far in search of prey
By reading clues laid down by hoof in sand
To guide them on for days upon their way
   Until, at length, the prize attained,
   They yearn to see those who remained
In camp, awaiting that long hoped for sign:
   When finally the band they spy
   Across the grassland wild and dry
Their hearts explode for joy, and so does mine.

Gloom Breaker – an ode on the tale of the heart-healing power of the songs of the birds of Rhiannon


At dim-lit dawn on Platform 1 in sombre throng
we stand forlorn in flat, sense-numb routine 
until from trackside trees bright breaks the redbreast song:  
clear, lucent water in a crystal stream   
We tend to think that we’ll not hear
such music at this time of year
yet chiffchaff, thrush and finch brave Winter’s squall   
Untensing, in my mental eye
I spread my wings; I rise and fly
upon the soothing sound set free, and then recall  



how Branwen’s hope lay likewise in her feathered friend  
as she in miniature set down her news:   
‘Come soon! I, Queen of Eire am by brute force detained  
Your sister, Bran, they torture and abuse’   
She ring-wise rolls her chosen words
and gently takes the docile bird’s
frail form and round a tiny leg she ties   
the note. A kiss, to wish it well
then through the window of her cell
releases it and skyward, swift the starling flies  



It lands, it sings, they read, they sail, but sail in vain:  
A fire claims her child – she can’t but grieve   
and though Bran’s fleet a wood had seemed upon the main  
Just queen and seven soldiers live to leave   
And these in shock, with aching hearts
Then board their ship and disembark
Across the sea in saddest state they sail
When finally they reach their home
She dies of grief with one last moan
In sympathy the voices of the songbirds fail.



How heavy sat the sorrow of these seven men
While songbird silence held the land in thrall
They travelled on together through the gloom and then
They came to Harlech with its feasting hall
And here a wondrous sound they heard
Of great Rhiannon’s mystic birds
And suddenly sweet bliss displaced their pain
And here for seven happy years
This magic kept away their tears
As I too am uplifted waiting for my train.

An Ode to Herbs (spoken word / video)


For aromatic oils in herbs and shrubs
Let thanks rise to the gods, from whence they fell
When one but holds the leaves and gently rubs
There issues forth a mystic, fragrant smell
   The living plants will ornament
      A tended garden plot
The plants will then provide yet further gifts
   For sprigs of these ingredients
   When added to the cooking pot
         The taste uplifts


Hellenic folk in golden ages old
These perfumes of the plants sought to explain
With stories down the generations told
Of how such shrubs some pretty nymph contain
   How when Apollo yearned to kiss
      Sweet Daphne, she, forlorn
With all speed did attempt to run away
   Then saving metamorphosis
   The pretty maiden did transform
         To odorous bay


O Sage! O Thyme! O Rosemary! I praise
Your power to boost our health, our pain to ease
Our memory to strengthen, moods to raise
Our sense of sight and smell and taste to please
   It must have been  when we first burnt
      Dry incense, or with mint
We first less pleasant tastes and smells disguised
   That we, now that at last we’d learnt
   To add a subtle herbal hint
         Were civilised