Pete Strong


My map of the Downs, I carry 
in my rucksack everywhere I go. 
It's not a record of a landscape 
but a drawing of my soul. 

My time is marked by chalk hills,
by long aching pulls 
across sheep-filled fields and barren scrub, 
beautiful, dead hamlets and smoky pubs.

I carry that map not to find my way, 
nor in case I get lost. 
I carry it because it is a picture 
that reminds me of who I am: 

a man out of my own land, 
still dreaming of bogs and gorse, 
of icy cold reservoirs, 
and black rock striking the sea like a lance. 

The rolling downland is a record of my soul's use, 
and has soothed like a lullaby
these last few years. It is 
the portrait I have been painting each day. 

I've been covering over a harder scene: 
purples, navies, conifer greens. 
And just below, the jutted out remnant 
of grey steel and blood red. 

When I stand on Itford Hill or Blackcap 
and close my eyes I see another world underneath. 
The slow foam rubber beauty of chalk 
hides an ancient, ominous granite shelf. 

Blinking, Newhaven becomes Newcastle, 
then Kilkeel, then back to rolling green. 
Industry to ice cream parlours, forest parks to cranes. 
The ferries flicker into fishing boats and back again.

At my core is ancient granite 
but now I wear a chalky coat and wander through 
a softer greener life. My portrait 
hides in the map I carry.

There's a routemap of the Ulster Way 
at the bottom of an old chest 
I carried over the sea once. 
I do not recognise the man in it.


Awaking to ice on the window, 
a cold wind caressing your feet 
and the single arm reaching out - 
whip it back in to avoid frostbite, 
encourage love bites instead.

The clocks have gone back and the dark 
is closer now, full like a mountaineer's pack. 
And heavy like a bag of spuds, 
like the box of memories in the attic, 
like a Norway Spruce being hauled across 
a filling station forecourt.

Cold is quiet, so your fingers 
and your toes will scream 
in the void left by it. Ignore them, 
they will hush soon.

You peer through the front door in hope - 
hope that today you will not have to be present, 
and the office phone, the clickety clack of keys 
will live a while without your dedication. 

Today is a day for settling into coffin-like months, 
and clutching the idea of spring close to you 
like a child's discarded blanket.
Today is hope and fear; 
let yourself freeze solid, 
until it becomes a rest.

Your knees will crack .
and the skin burn 
and bubble 
pinks, reds, 
Blinding, bright and pure.

Burn silently.
You are the fuel 
that will get you through.

Until you rise like Christ 
from the long-coffin-time 
and stretch out a fist 
into the padded sky and howl
for freedom and for new life. 

Slough off your desiccated shell 
and stretch your red raw fingers 
as if firing guns 
at the world – 
each digit a barrel.

The sun is coming
The sun is coming
Quick like a bullet from a well-oiled gun,
here she comes, the guardian Sun.
Here to bathe us in the dragon's breath 
and melt our sorrow and bless this earth.

Milky Tea

On a milky tea Sunday, thin 
and pale no matter the length of time 
the bag has been left in, 
we hold hands and pretend to be the same 
as if the repeated strokes of history 
are different to those of the cane.

Teachers beat us to learn and be free,
the past beats us that we remain - 
imprisoned like the polar bears 
on Cave Hill: proud and majestic once, 
now no longer milkily translucent, now just greys, 
cowering in the constant battering from Ulster skies.

Wee men in caps sing in rows 
in the damp halls their fathers sang in. 
While out in the blood soaked peat  
a future harvest is being consumed 
by locusts with the faces of men and women - 
today, on a milky tea Sunday, this is happening.

Flights, Issue Eight, March 2023