Keith Armstrong

Keith Armstrong

Keith Armstrong has worked as a community worker, librarian, publisher and poet, and has performed his poetry throughout the world.

The Divided Self: a poem for Burns Night
Thursday, 25 January 2018 11:43

The Divided Self: a poem for Burns Night

Published in Poetry

 The Divided Self

by Keith Armstrong

'When'er my muse does on me glance, I jingle at her.' (Robert Burns).

Such an eye in a human head,
from the toothless baby
to the toothless man,
the Edinburgh wynds
bleed whisky.
Through all the Daft Days,
we drink and gree
in the local howffs,
dancing down
Bread Street.
Like burns with Burns
these gutters run;
where Fergusson once tripped,
his shaking glass
jumps
in our inky fingers,
delirium tugs
at our bardish tongues;
dead drunk,
we dribble down
a crafty double
for Burke & Hare,
heckle a Deacon Brodie
gibbering
on the end
of the hangman's rope.

In all these great and flitting streets
awash with cadies,
this poet's dust
clings
like distemper to our bones.
We're walking through
the dark and daylight,
the laughs
and torture
of lost ideals.
Where is the leader of the mob Joe Smith,
that bowlegged cobbler
who snuffed it on these cobbles,
plunging
from this stagecoach pissed?
Where is the gold
of Jinglin' George Heriot?
Is it in the sunglow on the Forth?
We're looking for girls of amazing beauty
and whores of unutterable filth:
'And in the Abbotsford
like gabbing asses
they scale the heights
of Ben Parnassus.'

Oh Hugh me lad
we've seen some changes.
In Milne's, your great brow scowls the louder;
your glass of bitterness
deep as a loch:
'Till a' the seas gang dry, my dear
And the rocks melt wi' the sun.'

Oh Heart
of Midlothian,
it spits on
to rain
still hopes.
Still hope in her light meadows
and in her volcanic smiles.
And we've sung with Hamish
in Sandy Bell's
and Nicky Tams
and Diggers,
a long hard sup
along the cobbles
to the dregs
at the World's End:
'Whene'er my muse does on me glance,
I jingle at her.'

Bright as silver,
sharp as ice,
this Edinburgh of all places,
home to a raving melancholia
among the ghosts
of Scotland's Bedlam:
'Auld Reekie's sons blythe faces',
shades of Fergusson in Canongate.

And the blee-e'ed sun,
the reaming ale
our hearts to heal;
the muse of Rose Street
seeping through us boozy bards,
us snuff snorters
in coughing clouds.

Here
on display
in this Edinburgh dream:
the polished monocle
of Sydney Goodsir Smith,
glittering by
his stained inhaler;
and the black velvet jacket
of RLS,
slumped by
a battered straw hat.

And someone
wolf whistles
along Waterloo Place;
and lovers
kiss moonlight
on Arthur's Seat:
see Edinburgh rise.

Drink
from her eyes.

(from Imagined Corners, Smokestack Books, 2004).

For Joe Skipsey: The Pitman Poet of Percy Main
Friday, 05 May 2017 10:27

For Joe Skipsey: The Pitman Poet of Percy Main

Published in Poetry

For Joe Skipsey: The Pitman Poet of Percy Main (1832-1903)

by Keith Armstrong

'He'll tell his tale o'er a pint of ale,
And crack his joke, and bad
Must be the heart who loveth not
To hear the Collier Lad.' - Joe Skipsey

To be a pitman poet
you drag words
out of the seam of a dictionary,
write against the grain
all the time
feeling the pain
of a small education,
scribbling in the dark
for a bright spark
germ of a poem.
Hewing
for rhymes,
ducking
in case the roof
of the verse
caved in on you,
Joe
it was bloody hard
to learn,
to craft a line
from the black pit
when the whole world
weighed down on you.
A man was forced
to sing,
to render a ballad
like a lamp in the tunnel,
scraping an education
from coal,
crawling along bookshelves
to find daylight,
Shakespeare,
Shelley
and melody
in the stacks
of an underground library.

After the UK
Thursday, 16 June 2016 15:13

After the UK

Published in Poetry

After the UK

Shreds of the UK
flapping in the downturn,
decayed Britain
broken into smithereens.
No Kingdom now,
no United State.
We are
citizens
with no obligation
to genuflect
in front of an overstuffed Queen.

Get the UK out of your system,
no going back.
We take the power
to rule ourselves,
make community,
build our own spaces.
Break
the hegemony
of dead parties,
lifeless institutions,
let debate flower,
conflicting views rage.

We want to breathe
and strip away
executive power,
share
the beauty and culture
of these islands
around.
Make good things,
good love.
Empower ourselves
with an autonomous freedom
in a new England,
in a new Europe,
in a New World
of real ownership
and delicate emotion.

Senefelderstrasse
Tuesday, 17 May 2016 19:28

Senefelderstrasse 19, East Berlin: a Brechtian poem

Published in Poetry

The appeal for Brechtian poems in the Mayday editorial is bearing fruit. Here is the first one, from Keith Armstrong.

Senefelderstrasse 19, East Berlin

In the oven of a Berlin heatwave,
this crumbling block bakes
and all the bullet holed walls
flake.
Tenements skinned bare,
they burn with anxiety, death wishes,
frustrated hopes.

From a cracked and peeling courtyard window,
a Beach Boys’ track
clashes against an old woman’s ears
as she carries a bagful of bruises home.
In this rundown, sunful flat,
I am tuned in to the BBC World Service –
a cricket season just beginning,
and East Berlin sizzling
in a panful of history.

Senefelderstrasse 19, crawling with flies.
On top of the wardrobe, some volumes of Lenin slump,
there is dust everywhere, dust.
And all we are saying in all the sweltering
is ‘Give me a piece of the Wall.’
just ‘Give me a piece of the Wall.’

Look down onto the street –
the cobbles still stare,
the cracks in the pavement leer.
And, like every day, Frau Flugge traipses gamely along,
trying hard not to trip,
shabbily overdressed and hanging on
to the shrapnel of her past affections,
to the snapshots of her dreams.

From corner bars,
the gossip
snatches from doorways at passersby.
Inside, it is dark
and the money changes hands
slowly,
burning holes in the shabby pockets
of the dour Prenzlauer Berg folk:

‘The People are strong.’
‘They can’t sit more than 4 to a table here.’
‘THEY say it’s illegal.’
‘Let’s sing!’
Amongst the clenched blossom of Ernst Thallmann Park,
‘a workers’ Paradise’,
this glassy Planetarium gleams
under an ancient East German sky;
shining huge shell of a dome,
it traps stars and opens up Planets:
it is far-reaching, transcending walls.
It can stir the imaginings of all the World’s children.
It is the light at the end of Senefelderstrasse.
It beckons,
Beacons.

And Me?
I am walking in blistered hours,
sick of the sight of money
and what it does
to all the people I love.
‘A tip for your trip!
Instead of a brick from the Wall to take home,
bring back a Bertolt Brecht poem’:

‘And I always thought; the very simplest words
Must be enough. When I say what things are like
Everyone’s heart must be torn to shreds
That you’ll go down if you don’t stand up for yourself
Surely you see that.’

Through the letterbox of Senefelderstrasse 19,
I push this poem.
And, for the last time, leave
through Checkpoint Charlie.
‘Goodbye Frau Flugge, Herr Brecht,
the trams.
My friends, I wish you
Sunny days.’