POETRY

‘Sue Burge’s poems often blend known histories with emotional epiphanies. They are immediate and filmic, drawing the reader into small but complex worlds.’Tamar Yoseloff

‘widely travelled poems both culturally and historically, journeying deep into territories of collective memory and the individual psyche.’Heidi Williamson

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Spitting Distance
Perched on Hadrian’s Wall I arc
an apple core towards Scotland
Read More…

The Big Freeze 1963
When the snow fell taller than two-year old me
and milk rose from the bottles like Jesus
haloed with a gold or silver top.
Read More…

Elizabeth Cromwell Dreams of Silk
Elizabeth Cromwell chops off the head
of the silver-bellied eel brought wriggling
by the steward, glaive marks still suppurating
on its glossy back.
Read More…

A Walk in the Peaks
Clouds scuttle across the sky
like sheep a dreamer has forgotten
to stop counting.
Read More…

The Big Freeze – Ely, January 2010
The hulls of the trapped boats
creak and strain in protest,
loud in the silence as
snow falls on ice —
a gentle shroud.
Read More…

Cannibalism
He knows the roof of the sky
how it can darken in anger
at a penny in a sailor’s pocket
the hint of a whistle
the whiff of a woman
Read More…

Metropolis
It is days before we notice the crows,
our upturned pedestrian faces
pallid in the spiky neon.
Read More…

What Scott Knew
one,   frostnip — the topmost stratum of skin nibbled away,
two,   frostbite — when more layers freeze,
the blood too dulled to reach our dying cells;
from this there is no return, only further loss,
Read More…

I’m not wearing Chanel for the radio
says Judy the week before she dies
Read More…

On Accepting Oysters from Strangers
A noisy tavern
One dark Flemish night.
Read More…

In dreams of starlit water
Today, out walking, I saw :
a good shoe hanging by its laces
from the branch of a tree;
Read More…

The Right Honourable Mrs George Robertson-Blythe Addresses Her Husband
This afternoon was rather fine
so we wandered Lambethwards
and on payment of a fee
were permitted to observe
the afternoon recreation
of the piteous lunatics
at Bethlehem Hospital.
Read More…

Kinosaki Onsen
Stand on the arched stone bridge
watching herons spear fish.
Read More…

Earthquake, Lincolnshire 2008
as if shaken awake
from a deep faint;
Read More…

Marsh Fever
In the high Cathedral of the Fens
stone vaulting, stained with sunlit glass,
Read More…

Seven Easy Steps to Working with Angels
First, find your angel.
Go to high bridges, busy junctions, dodgy airlines, A & E.
Read More…

The Distractor Brides of St Petersburg
As we walk from the Peter and Paul Fortress,
my mind is full of the Romanov women with
their armour plating of hidden jewellery,
taking bullet after bullet.
Read More…


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Spitting Distance

Perched on Hadrian’s Wall I arc
an apple core towards Scotland
to be picked to pips
by barbarian hordes
of rooks and crows.

At night, the rain on my tent
is the tramping feet
of long ago legionaries
marching in a Babel
of tongues, cosmopolitan
as any London street.

They carried dried cherries —
wrinkled, burgundy bursts
of southern sunshine,
spitting the stones
turned into a game of chance:
closest, highest, furthest.

I dream of an avenue
of blossom stretching
as far as Dover;
scenting their way home.

Sue Burge
(published in The North — Issue 52 Spring 2014)

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I’m Not Wearing Chanel for the Radio

says Judy the week before she dies
as she pulls on her carnival mask,
clicks her heels night after night,
but home is never where she expects it to be
and she smokes till that voice, that whisky voice,
catches and gags, catches and gags,
her pitted lungs simmering with unsung songs,
her skinny arms,
zithered with old scars,
crawl their last as
she finds a corner
she can call her own,
to drink a final rainbow,
silencing all her somewheres

Sue Burge
(published in The Cannon’s Mouth — Issue 50 December 2013)

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Elizabeth Cromwell Dreams of Silk

Elizabeth Cromwell chops off the head
of the silver-bellied eel brought wriggling
by the steward, glaive marks still suppurating
on its glossy back. Fresh from the waters
of the Cam at Dinmock’s Cote,
An eel pointing westwards,
readying to return to the spawning grounds
of the Sargasso Sea, to die there
as the sea thickens with leptocephali
which journey eastwards, their growth
marking the different waters :
glass eels, elvers, yellow eels, silver.

Elizabeth Cromwell considers Oliver’s ascendancy :
farmer, lover, husband, father, general,
Lord Protector, King in all but name.

She remembers Charles, that day, his fine lawn shirt,
elegant breeches, all stained, all ruined.
She smooths her gown of sober grey and dreams
of a dress that shimmers like frosted grass
in a fen breeze.

Gut the eels, dry well with a cloth.
To four good eels allow one pint of oysters.
Season with salt, pepper, nutmeg and large mace.
Put half a pound of butter into the pie crust.
Also half a lemon, sliced. So bake it.
Take the yolk of two eggs,
anchovies dissolved in white wine.
Mix and drain into the pie.

As her daydreaming fingers flute the pie-crust,
How can she know of the Restoration?
How can she know that beloved head,
cradled, troubled, so often, in her generous lap,
will be exhumed, called traitor, displayed,
stinking, at Tyburn until one stormy night
on a high tide, it disappears and passes,
for three hundred years, among the faithful,
to be re-buried, with wisdom,
the year that I am born.

Sue Burge 2009
(published in Brittle Star Magazine Issue 33)

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The Big Freeze 1963

When the snow fell taller than two-year old me
and milk rose from the bottles like Jesus
haloed with a gold or silver top.
When we could no longer count the shades
of white and grey and dirty yellow we could see,
when snowploughed steam trains burst
through tunnels of light, and cats and dogs
would yowl and growl, lost in a trail-less geography.
When birds fell to earth too weak to perch or fly
and a post-war world of colour and hope
became a black and white movie of days gone by.

Sue Burge
(Published in Writers’ Forum No. 139)

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A Walk in the Peaks

Clouds scuttle across the sky
like sheep a dreamer has forgotten
to stop counting.

Our walk is punctuated by stiles.
Slates like gravestones stacked against
a drystone wall.

We climb from Grindsbrook Booth to Hollins Cross
where the coffinbearers would pause
before the descent to Hope.

Whorls of wool litter the path as
sheep unravel in the fields.
Stones like bones uncovered by shifting mud.

Down a narrow lane a sudden breeze delivers
a swirl of blossom
transforming us into snowglobe figurines.

Ascending skylarks shatter the sky and
my head is full
of all the poetry I’ve ever forgotten.

Sue Burge
(first published in February 2012 issue of Literary Bohemian)

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On Accepting Oysters from Strangers

A noisy tavern
One dark Flemish night.

She lolls on the bench,
Her dress an array of high folds
which should speak of modesty
but for the plump flesh
bulgeing and whitening every seam.

A man approaches, apple-cheeked,
breath stained with watery ale.

He leans over her, absorbing
the reek of spent men, furtive sweat.
Offers her an oyster, newly cracked.

A cat, black as all the sins,
slinks towards the discarded shells,
the sticky floor a tidal strand.
He feasts on the pungent juice,
his tongue as rough
as a labourer’s fingertips,
lapping every wrinkled crevice.

Then turns and leaps on the empty bench,
where balances one last shell,
the wood still warm, still moist.

Sue Burge
(first published in Cake Magazine Autumn 2010)

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The Big Freeze – Ely, January 2010

The hulls of the trapped boats
creak and strain in protest,
loud in the silence as
snow falls on ice –
a gentle shroud.

A snow-eel weaves across the park,
stone eyes flooding
with whiteness as the new fall
takes him deeper, deeper.

In the Cathedral, ancient heaters
pump and gasp.
Beyond the glowing gems of glass,
a flurry of soft movement.

A woman slips,
her fallen shape a cruciform.
Gentle hands raise her,
pat the roses from her cheeks,
send her onwards.

Sue Burge
(published in Writer’s Forum May 2010)

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In dreams of starlit water

Today, out walking, I saw :
a good shoe hanging by its laces
from the branch of a tree;
a starfish, desiccated, in the gutter;
a span of wing feathers
still joined at the tips
straddling the path.

Tonight I dream of white birds
sobbing on the air in broken circles.
Gazing upwards is a man, naked,
except for one strong, black shoe.
A small girl, with plaits so tight
they are horizontal,
gathers beached starfish.
At the water’s edge she stoops,
places each fragile body
onto the dark water
where they float like pale constellations,
as if the world were upside down.

I wake to the sound of beating wings,
the dry crackle of a storm in the air,
starlight reflected in your sleepless eyes.

Sue Burge
(published in Mslexia Issue 26)

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Cannibalism

In memoriam –
Alfred Wallis 1855-1942 – Cornish Mariner and ‘Primitive’ Painter

He knows the roof of the sky
how it can darken in anger
at a penny in a sailor’s pocket
the hint of a whistle
the whiff of a woman

He grew up on tales of Franklin’s fate –
the ships splintered in an arctic grip
the starving men dreaming
of the blue flesh of their own dead

He knows how the land feels
after days, weeks away
how it tilts him and sways him
as if he has defied his God
with the velveteen sweetness of brandy

He wades through the flotsam
of the grocery store
stamping boxes to a flatness
he can fill with his world
seeking nails he can use
to crucify his visions

In the world beyond
the privileged discuss Primitivism
over cups of Darjeeling
taming fears of consuming darkness
by sending forth the sacrament
the word made flesh

In the world beyond
the scholars pick clean
his remains – marvel
at the whiteness of his bones.

Sue Burge
(published on Kettle’s Yard website)

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The Right Honourable Mrs George Robertson-Blythe Addresses Her Husband

This afternoon was rather fine
so we wandered Lambethwards
and on payment of a fee
were permitted to observe
the afternoon recreation
of the piteous lunatics
at Bethlehem Hospital.

One young woman caught my eye.
Do you remember that Irish maid?
She seemed to get plumper and prettier
every day. Always smiling, humming.
Then suddenly – gone!
And Cook in such a state,
on a Sunday too, and all those guests…

A strong resemblance, don’t you think?
Strange how she cradles that filthy shawl,
lullabying to a void,
stroking the air with those raw fingers,
her face so scratched and torn.

This afternoon was rather wet
so we took the carriage Bloomsburywards
and on payment of a fee
were permitted to observe
the little foundling girls in white and brown.
All rosy clean,
eating their dinners of pease pottage.

One little girl caught my eye.
I don’t know why.
Maybe the way she ate, so quick, so trim.
Then she raised her head
and I saw
your chin, your eyes.

Sue Burge

In Mslexia Issue 56 Sarah Dunant introduced her personal selection for new writing on the theme of ‘the affair’ : “…I really admired Sue Burge’s splendid The Right Honourable Mrs George Robertson Blythe Addresses Her Husband which is one of those poems where you say to yourself ‘I couldn’t have written that’.   I loved the fact that though everything seems so domestic and ordinary and polite on the surface, the well-spoken narrator is actually delivering a series of killer blows to her spouse.”

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Metropolis

It is days before we notice the crows,
our upturned pedestrian faces
pallid in the spiky neon.
We see them hunched on highrises,
silent gargoyles. Neat heads
brushing a sky full of dust.

They have flown from Fuji’s slopes
where there is no north,
watches and compasses
spinning in wild parody.

In the mornings the crows stretch their scaly feet,
wheel and caw in such unison
we almost seek the hidden hands
of some majestic master of bunraku.

Daytime Tokyo is a nightdream,
businessmen with briefcases on bikes,
the blunt noses of bullet trains edging forward
like twitching greyhounds at the gate.
A massive human ballet choreographed
by blinking road signs, sequences of light and dark,
the smell of sewage seeping through the cracks.

We want to know what the crows see,
looking down on this cityscape,
ash on their feathers,
seeking a new north.

Sue Burge
(published in The Lampeter Review Issue 12)

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Kinosaki Onsen

Stand on the arched stone bridge
watching herons spear fish.
Listen to the click of geta
on the cobblestones.
Savour a cup of warm, salty
springwater, eggs boiled in the
springwell, shells sulphurblack.
Feel skin turning to silk
in the scalding ladies’ bath;
the faint deepness of men’s
laughter trickling through the walls.
Slurp cool and slippery soba noodles
from a thin, pale, green bowl.
Sip frothy beer from thick cups. Then,
slip on a quilted haori, and follow the
sea eagles, lamenting the sinking sun,
to roost in a deep and plum-scented dusk.

Sue Burge
(first published in Writer’s Forum Issue 81)

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What Scott Knew

one,frostnip — the topmost stratum of skin nibbled away,
two,frostbite — when more layers freeze,
the blood too dulled to reach our dying cells;
from this there is no return, only further loss,
our blackened faces staring back like Ponting’s negatives
in which we smile closed smiles, reluctant to reveal
our teeth, cracked like garden pots attacked by frost.

three,that even my dreams of English gardens are shock-frozen —
colours leached from memory — a nightly journey towards
four,optophobia — the fear of opening one’s eyes, seeing only
whiteness.

five,that the dogs will lick their yellow snow
like lemon sorbet,
all panting ecstasy and ice-spiked fur.

six,that the sun glows like a low candle in a vaulted chapel.

seven,that my snowblind eyeballs see only a mirage of
insectless sastrugi shimmering like sand dunes.

eight,that the spans of all our sealskinned arms together
are not enough to embrace this great white silence.
nine,There are so many words for snow and all of them are cursed.
there will never be a ten.

We are unfinished in the eyes of our frozen Lord.

Sue Burge
(published in Orbis Issue 170)

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Earthquake, Lincolnshire 2008

as if shaken awake
from a deep faint;

surfacing to a
dark chorus of birdsong;

the irritable mumble
of a tectonic shrug;

the sound of one tile falling.

Sue Burge
(first published in Writer’s Forum Issue 83)

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The Distractor Brides of St Petersburg

As we walk from the Peter and Paul Fortress,
my mind is full of the Romanov women with
their armour plating of hidden jewellery,
taking bullet after bullet.

Slowly we realise that at every corner
the same scene is unfolding :
a glossy white stretch limo,
entwined gold rings on the sleek bonnet,
blonde or brunette beehived brides
in creamy satin and thick white pelts.

Classic vistas frame their radiance :
the Birzhevoy Bridge, the River Neva
freezing to a still, grey porridge.
The Winter Palace, St Isaac’s Cathedral,
the Church on Spilled Blood’s patterned domes
turning snowflakes into kaleidoscopes.

Fairytale scenes of snow queenliness.
Mosaics of smashed champagne flutes.
Icy streams of celebration.
Floating feathers of released doves.
We stop once, twice, ten times —
uninvited witnesses of breathless promises
hanging in the air like frozen banners.

As we watch, the silky fingers of Petersburg
pickpockets expertly take all we have.
By the time we realise all the brides are identical,
with their fixed matryoska smiles,
we are naked from head to toe.

We stumble down Nevsky Prospect towards our hotel
along a conveyor belt of rolling champagne bottles.
Our pink skin hoaring,
ice at our hearts and groins,
ripe snow brides.

Sue Burge
(first published on Literary Bohemian website February 2010)

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Seven Easy Steps to Working with Angels

First, find your angel.
Go to high bridges, busy junctions, dodgy airlines, A & E.
Snow angels and sand angels
although easy to spot,
have the lifespan of mayflies,
fragile power gone
in the turn of a tide.

Second, introduce yourself.
Pay close attention to your angel’s name.
Gabriels and Michaels are rare now.
Avoid Clarence.
Modern angels favour a complex polysyllabic nomenclature.

Third, evaluate prospective angel’s strengths.
Your experience of speed-dating and match.com
will be invaluable in making this difficult choice.

Fourth, remember your angel is an accessory.
Wing colour, size and status, length of robe,
angle of halo, should be carefully noted,
along with swords, trumpets, harps and scrolls.
Ensure your angel stands out in a crowd.

Fifth, be careful what you wish for.
Miracles can become tiresome,
cluttering your house with “returns from the dead”
and too much wine.

Sixth, try and spend quality time together.
Angels are sensitive and neglect will manifest
in the form of feather loss and lack of lustre.

And finally,
Angels have a tendency to trip and, occasionally, fall.
At the merest whiff of sulphur, flee.

Sue Burge
(published in Orbis Issue 170)

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Marsh Fever

In the high Cathedral of the Fens
stone vaulting, stained with sunlit glass,
cannot contain the voices, pure
and raised in prayer, drifting through
the charged, miasmic air
to the Flatlands where men quake
with ague and lace their beer
with opium.

In drawing-rooms ladies sweat
and spread their bread
with holy spiders, pour
white poppy tea into thin blue cups
while roses scramble, wild, unsmelt,
in gardens overhung with clouds.

Sue Burge
(published in The Fenland Reed Issue 1)

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