When my seventh poetry collection, Mama Amazonica, won Simon Armitage's inaugural Laurel Prize, I received an extra gift – a commission to write a poem about my favourite Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in Britain. I knew immediately I would write about Bodmin Moor – I now live in a deep valley just beneath the south-east corner of it. Every horse-lane bordered by high Cornish hedges opens to views of tors at the gate gaps. During strict lockdown I would walk the lanes and look up at always visible Sharptor and the Cheesewring. As soon as we were allowed to venture four miles by car, Brian my husband drove us to Kilmar Tor, off the bridle path that also leads to Hawkstor and Trewartha Tor. It's a steep climb to Kilmar Tor and got us fitter as it became a regular haunt. From the top, which is the third highest point in Cornwall, we can see Brown Willy, the highest tor, far across the other side of the moor, we can see Dartmoor on the horizon the other way, and the north and south coastlines. All the fauna and flora and land formations mentioned in my poem are loved discoveries. From the stonechats, skylarks, and bog asphodels, to the ponies we saw galloping across the plateau between Bearah Tor and the secret waterhole. I did what I love to do, which is to watch the pageants, while Brian took photos. I'm thrilled that Cornwall AONB have set my poem to aerial footage of the moor, grateful thanks to them, to Fin Davis for the film, and to Bodmin Way for the narration. I now have a series of moor and beast poems. Here is 'Beast of Bodmin':
Beast of Bodmin
You say I don’t exist, that the panther skull you found
in the river is fake, my alien origins
betrayed by an Indian cockroach egg-case
nestled like a ruby in my brain.
You say that walkers have heard me howl as if caught
in a trap or calling for a mate. That I escaped
from a private estate where I grew too dangerous to keep,
that I kill sheep by skinning them face-first.
That I could be pure myth – the Butterfly-Jaguar
with eyespots on my wings to frighten off humans,
that I wear a pelt of moon-moths by night.
Few have found my pugmarks, but they are homes to vanishing insects.
You see no gouges on the rowans,
but my claws are gorse where stonechats nest
and the spaces between my paws are tussocks
where skylarks hatch.
Each of my hairs is a recording of birdsong.
Sometimes you glimpse me crouched on a lightning fork,
my roar thundering downhill.
You say that my face is vast as the moorland sky,
that a raincloud parts
to give me eyes that glow in the dark.
You call me beast, but I am the hazel and oak woods
that once costumed the moor,
my veins streams that feed the valleys.
My yawn is the shaggy mists of sunrise,
my spit the lichen rags on trees.
I emerged from the swamp like a newly-cast mirror,
my rosettes barely visible in peat fur.
I am the curator of my own heaven
hung with paintings of starry nights
that whirl on my glossy coat.
My rosettes are not your quarries or mines
but the roses of pulsars, medals from eco-wars!
Yet all you see are rail-holes in granite sleepers of disused railways.
Extinct plants flex their colours when I run!
I pass through the understorey of the ghost-forest
like a photo in the developer tray, a shadow printed
with earth’s apex language.
Yet you scan snaps of me and say they’re forged.
I am the codex of unnamed species, the librarian of lost trees.
I am written in rare fonts of ambrosial inks,
in bog asphodels and heath orchids, marsh violets and sundew.
My belly is plush as sphagnum.
My ears are cists and cairns.
My breath is the wind that whips your face
and cradles the kestrel.
My heart is set in the slope like a reed-framed waterhole.
When the feral ponies come to bathe in me
I make them new as cave paintings that have just sprung to life.
My glance is the sheen on the stallion’s silver coat,
the spots that mark him as a leopard-horse!
His mare bursts from the surface, her eyes blazing,
her bracken coat streaked with amnion.
You say I don’t exist, but my bones are old as granite,
my marrow clear as the brooks that tumble
down to the valleys. My flesh is feldspar and quartz,
my tail is hoarfrost and fern flame.
You say I never existed, but my ancestors once roamed these heights,
their fangs became icicles dripping from cheesewrings,
their fur melted like a drift.
I could be stem cells
in the vial of a Frozen Zoo, waiting
a hundred years to awake
in my city of glass towers,
my smoking biobank.
I could be an immortal leopard
in a deep-frozen forest, surrounded by
lynx, wolf, deer – all of us dreaming
of a new Ice Age to cool the earth.