Ernest Sheppard

Ernest Sheppard was a founder member of Horsham Writers’ Circle. His poetry won many prizes in both national and international competitions and appeared widely in small press magazines. In the classical tradition, Ernest favoured rhyme and metre and a small selection of his work is displayed here in affectionate memory of a much-missed friend. The following eight poems all appeared in issues of The Darned Thing — the in-house magazine published by HWC during 1992-93.

THE BRAMBLE BUSH

[Added: 15th April 2018]

Published in Word Craft Issue 11 Spring 1984

Where yesteryear the tangled brambles grew
in wild profusion all along the hedge,
this year there is an unimpeded view
across a stubble-field from edge to edge;
the ditch they straddled has been filled in too.

Only the footpath sign points as before
to where from the cat’s cradle of the canes
our fingers pillaged from the glistening store
the sun-taut berries, careless of the stains
which crimsoned our hands with their sweet gore.

Not uncontested was our pilfered loot.
A toothed defence of lacerating thorn
protecting every arching cane and shoot,
causing out delving fingers to be torn
defied the rapine of the blue-black fruit.

Throughout one golden afternoon we filled
receptacles to overflowing with the sweet
plump globules which enclosed, distilled
in them, the essence of that summer’s heat
that had from cloudless heaven spilled.

We cropped a scant part only as our share
of the rich banquet that September day.
There would be an abundance and to spare;
for smaller guests, before it would decay
or shrivel with the early frost-nipped air.

Now we must find another patch that grows
such honeyed blackberries. — But will it match
the vanished thicket where a blackbird chose
to build its nest, there secretly to hatch
its callow brood among the bramble rose?

VULTURES

Published in Word Craft Issue 30 Winter 1988
This poem was Runner-Up in the VERS Poets Open Competition)


They scythe the rising pools of heated air,
winged psychedelic sextons,
their naked wrinkled heads alert
on scrawny necks to spy dead prey
sprawled in the rigor of its fresh decay.

Some of them perch on silent Parsee towers,
black-gowned, white-ruffed, like Calvinist
predestinarian divines,
gathered to join a hideous rite
beneath an Eastern sun’s remorseless light.

The vulture-headed gods of Egypt spread
protective wings — Mut over temples,
Nechbet on Pharoah who is dust.
Above the tombs of Luxor glide
their live hieroglyphs which never died.

Across the Andes, where volcanoes sleep
in nightcaps of deceptive snow,
the condor shadows agonies
of dying beasts, and where he soars
death shadowed progress of conquistadores.

They filled Charles Darwin with intense disgust,
their bald and scarlet heads immersed
in putrefaction — Was he aware
that these, whom death thus kept alive,
nature had made best fitted to survive?

LOVE’S TASK

Published in Word Craft Issue 25 Autumn 1987

How soon, when death has stilled a heart
life’s hidden mainspring of resolve,
relentless alchemies dissolve
familiar contours on the chart
of cherished features whose dear lines
somehow escape the probing gaze,
as if the flesh, impatient of delays,
would, like the soul, flee what confines.
Yet, who knows not, that flesh must shed
all semblances, save that which lives
in memory, till that which gives
it nurture, in its turn is fled .....
                Therefore, though death impose its mask,
                Let Love assume the sculptor’s task.


GUESTS

2nd Prize in Ernest Walters Open Poetry Competition
Published in Word Craft Issue 28 Summer 1988


I keep an open-handed house, where all
whom I have known in former days may call;
                and though the years have altered them and me,
I will find room for them, both large and small.

Some I shall seek out and invite them in,
since they will be as dear to me as kin.
                They will bring gladness to my heart, and be
of all the guests most welcome at my inn.

Some, whom I had forgotten many years,
faint rumours of them reaching to my ears,
                like some not quite remembered melody,
I will be greeting through a mist of tears.

Others, whose company I knew before,
will come to knock upon my open door,
                and in their saddened visages I’ll see
the scars of hurts and injuries they bore.

And some, whose coming I would dread,
may visit me as from the long-thought dead,
                to stand and claim my craven scrutiny
of words once spoken, or else never said.

Nor could I bid such guests to go elsewhere,
and plead I’d made an end to the affair;
                they have a right to use the given key,
and to the place with me that is their share.

All these I’ll shelter, whether they may please,
or whether painful thought accompanies
                their entering into my reveries .....
all will be guests of mine, .......
                                                                these memories.

EPITAPH FOR A SNOWMAN

Published in Word Craft Issue 28 Summer 1988

Here lies one who in youth grew old
and died by inches in the sun,
a fate to make one’s blood run cold,
as his cold blood was made to run.

A little mound of grey on green
remains, mute witness to his fate
whose nature was not unforeseen,
given his soluble and transient state.

This remnant of his mortal coil
will go the way of flesh and snow
to liquidation in the soil
which will cause greener hope to grow.

REFLECTIONS

Published in Word Craft Issue 30 Winter 1988

Mind must, as water, be at rest,
and light be trained on that which stands
beyond: tree, house or hill, remembered,
or here and now; a bridge, a cloud,
upended in suspension, mirroring,
deceptive, were it not that we
no longer, as in childhood, bending,
look straddle-legged at the world.

Consider then that, as in water,
the image which we contemplate, though true
and capable of confirmation, plays us false;
for it is framed in evanescence and,
light failing or the surface rippling,
cohesion’s lost and in an instant
the mirror’s crazed, or turning blind,
dims bright reflections in the mind.

A WINTER SCENE

Published in Word Craft Issue 30 Winter 1988

The westering sun striates the virgin snow
with blue-barred shadows, and the town below
whose houses seem to huddle in the cold,
blinks drowsy windows to disarm the glare
now slowly blushing to a mellow gold
on aged walls washed by the frosted air.

Here, on the hill above the valley’s floor,
the rumour of its daylong busy chore
is muted, muffled by the felted white
which filters out the strident urban sounds —
The loudest clamour here is winnowed light
which sculpts the frozen drifts and sifted mounds.

The trees rise rigid from the glistening lawn,
their trunks and branches as with charcoal drawn
beneath iced thicknesses. The winter-sky’s
blue haemorrhages through their traceries
to spot and stain the soft fleece where it lies
around the roots in crystal vortices.

Imagination fails to see the scene
etched other than in silvered damascene,
as if this grey-haired man whose dazzled eyes
survey it now, had never known this town,
this hill, these trees, be royal otherwise,
than, dressed as now, in Winter’s ermine gown.

NOVEMBER-TREES

Published in Word Craft Issue 25 Autumn 1987

November pensions off the trees
with golden handshakes. Beech and lime
and maple, their redundancies
made tolerable for a time,
fall back on their annuities.

Budding and flowering past, the fruit
of labour is in stiffened limbs.
Deserted, almost destitute,
they stand exposed to all the whims
of adverse winds that shake the root.

It’s for the best, to make a sweep
of all the tinsel, shed the wood
that’s dead and brittle, and just keep
as little lumber as one should
into that long and wintry sleep.


SPIDERS’S WEBS

From The Best of Word Craft — a modern anthology
by members of Crawley and Horsham Writers’ Circles
Published by Wren Press August 1987


This mist is earth’s warm breath made manifest
in chill September morning’s close embrace,
and I, an early wanderer, am blessed
in silver splendour of the spiders’ lace.

How busily these weavers plied their looms
while tepid sunshine lured them out to bask,
and redly yet in gardens glowed the blooms
whose pallor now their slender web festoons,
with care entwined for a remorseless task.

The crystal droplets of the mist are sewn
like tiny pearls upon the tautened strings
of gossamer, Titania’s hoard is known
to boast no finer gems; but these are sown
with an abandon worthy of great kings.

Yet none of those who wrought such artifice
sits guard upon his intricate designs ...
Has death to whom they dedicated this,
their fragile tribute, garnered them in his
invisible, yet even stronger lines?

GIRL IN A WHEELCHAIR

From The Best of Word Craft — a modern anthology
by members of Crawley and Horsham Writers’ Circles
Published by Wren Press August 1987


The coin of private pity is her share
from passers-by who hurry past her shape,
an outsize ragdoll, lolling in that chair,
sole means of a desultory escape.

Her mother, tall, her will a strut of steel
long welded to her daughter’s iron fate;
her love, the pivot of her Karma’s wheel,
propels the chair that bares such heavy freight.

Only small children tend to stop and gaze
at her great child. Still unschooled in pretence,
their candid look of puzzlement conveys
the strength and weakness of their innocence.

Not theirs, to answer with averted sight
life crucified, wheeled through a crowded street,
fearful, lest the contagion of her plight
arrest and snare the tendons of the feet.

Their eyes see life retreated into eyes,
and hands turned into rigor at the wrists,
an inert, sagging body, which belies
the way her heart its gravity resists.

For their disquiet and their mute concern
she gives her all she has to give — her smile —
half pitying them, that through her they must learn
a scarce-lived life with life to reconcile.

CHEETAHS HUNTING

Published in Word Craft Issue 13 Autumn 1984

Arrow of muscle and the taut-strung bow
together dormant under dappled fur,
they lie inert, blond bellies on the ground
at thornbush shadow’s margin in dun grass.

Coiled to destruction for the fleet gazelles,
trip-wired in squat head for scent and sight
to drive the muzzle to the bloody kill,
they always hunt in twos and threes,

An undeliberated strategy deciding
which prey to single from the leaping shapes,
how haunch and shoulder are to be employed
by each to close in on the startled herd.

From crouch to sinuous glide to loping run,
from pistoned shoulders to the whiplash tail,
power is hubanded, the better to explode
from sinews bunched like fasces under fur.

Driving the spotted killers on to close
the narrowing gap between a life and death,
the last despairing leap,
                                the daggered claws,
a turmoil in the dust, and the unseeing sun.

A DERELICT HOUSE

Published in Word Craft Issue 9 Autumn 1983

Came on my walk to this house: a skull;
had eyeless sockets, was blind and dull
of life and of future; it hung askew
from its shutters, and gave no sign it knew,

that it knew, but was in no state to tell
who had placed it under this deadly spell,
shut it in on its cracked hearth-stone,
with mildew and mould in every bone.

Bone-yellow plaster, wallpaper tongue
obscenely lolling the floor along;
festering corners, a crazed stone-sink
choked long since on the dregs of drink.

The porch aslant from a windy assault,
the sandstone sills with their sweat of salt;
the stairs too drunk to make it to bed,
and roof-tiles crunching under my tread.

I came away and left it there
with a whiff of carrion on the air.
Thought to myself: “What a lonely death
for a house forsaken by living breath.”

THE YELLOW STAR

Mama had sewn it on my dark-blue coat,
my only one, which buttoned to the throat,
and kept me dry and warm in rain and wind. —
The yellow star looked pretty on the blue,
I told Mama. She sighed and said: “Mein Kind
it means that they will know you are a Jew.”

Mama’s own star was on her best black dress
she wore in mourning for Papa. — I guess
he met his accident the night those men
came for him in the large black motorcar.
They took him without coat or jacket, when
he had to leave without his yellow star.

There was a time, before it was the law
we had to wear the star, when no one saw
that we were different from other folk;
but afterwards, when going out of doors,
the neighbours and old friends no longer spoke
and we were banned from all but Jewish stores.

Whe wearing of the star was made the rule,
I was forbidden to go back to school,
but my Mama would teach me what she knew,
at home. And sometimes Rabbi Hillel came
and taught me what it was to be a Jew,
that David’s star was not a cause for shame.

Tomorrow is the day, when all who wear
the star are taken to the station, where
we’ll board a train to take us to a better place
somewhere in Poland. — Many of us are
pleased to escape the long-endured disgrace
that goes with wearing of the yellow star.

A WALK IN WINTER

I walk the lanes this Winter-afternoon.
The westering sun swathed in a gauze of veils
smiles cold seduction on the scene, but fails
to thwart the wooing of a pallid moon.

The air is sharp and clear, each taken breath
holds a presentiment of snow to come.
The land rests under silence, stricken dumb
and apprehensive of a time for death.

Seen from a hill, the huddled village lies,
roofs battened over eaves with sombre thatch;
its guarded windows, tight-held on the latch,
send passing glances from suspicious eyes.

The hedges stripped to bareness, and the trees,
skeletal in the rigor of a trance,
all mime the stasis if their frozen stance,
in terror of some terminal disease.

And yet, a sudden breakthrough of the sun
striking the blood-bright clusters of the haws,
and yellow hazel-catkins, are a cause
for budding hope that life is not outdone,

that in the gap between the door and jamb
of light and darkness, imperceptibly,
it burgeons in the sinews of each tree.
and in the thin bleat of the new-born lamb.

CORMORANTS

A wedge of them, with metronomic beat
Of wings, flies shadowing the sea
Above the half-moon bay whose tints of blue
And green betray the deeps and shallows.
Necks stretched straight forward,
Gimlet-eyed, they scan the whitecap waters
For telltale silver of the wheeling shoals,
Before they peel off, broad-webbed feet
Thrust out for braking, fountaining the spray,
Then slip below the surface.

A cloud-rent lets a searchlight sun
Dance with quicksilver flashes
On the switch-back waves. And there they are
Hull-down, necks periscoping, raptor-beaks
Juggling the caught fish to a head-down pose
For closed-fin slide into the gullet.
A half-rise from the sea, wings shaken free
Of surplus water, and they dive again,
Before their brine-soaked, un-oiled plumage
Forces them to seek the shore.

On rocks or sandbanks poised,
They dry their shingled cloak-like wings
And rudder-feathers of the tail,
Black, with dull-green sheen of well-worn serge,
Spread for the wind. Thus, barely moving,
In cognative stance, they look
Their ancestry: the toothed reptilian divers
Of the Cretacious oceans, hunters
Of Ganoid fishes, ancient as
The fossilled Archaeopteryx.

FLOWERING BROOM

On heaths and hillsides, bright as minted gold,
Broom flowers, now that saffron-coloured gorse
Has paled to amber, and has ceased to hold
The bee-desired nectar at its source.

But why should broom, whose blooms are merest show,
Devoid of scent and of the honeyed hoard,
Provoke in bees a frantic to and fro,
Intent to leave no blossom unexplored?

Each shining flower is a tender trap,
Sprung by the yellow-banded bees, whose lust
For nectar makes the pollen-petals snap
Apart, to coat the insects with bright dust.

And so, defrauded of sweet loot, the bees
Become the dupes of Cupid, as they zoom
From raped to virgin flowers, bearing seeds
To bring more glory to the golden broom.

ORIGINAL SIN

Seen at this distance, our sinning
was somehow like a tender fall,
like that of autumn-leaves down-spinning,
or like the sliding of a shawl.

How could we see, who were but growing
aware that love first tempts through eyes,
that seeing leads to lust for knowing
the one who’s loved without disguise.

To give ourselves was our sickness,
to be received was our need;
we had no inkling of the quickness
whereby such wants a famine breed.

We were as trees are, lithe and slender,
unconscious of the things that maim,
resinous of spirit, and as tinder
which at a touch flares into flame.

It was within a sylvan setting
where sunbeams gilded ancient boles
that we, all, save ourselves, forgetting,
joined bodies to engrafted souls.

Whose was the word that urged transgression?
Who counselled first to break the seal? —
I know no more. — Yet can confession
more than the partial truth reveal?

And then the heavens we’d offended
blighted with guilt our time of bliss;
its bitter taste was apprehended
whenever we exchanged a kiss.

This meant a price to pay, and losing
the purchase to a thief within...
Love freely given, but refusing
to free us from a sense of sin.

RECOLLECTIONS

My idle thoughts, caught up in toil
which brings on tedium’s duress,
have come full circle on Time’s wheel.
Now, from a lifetime’s gathered spoil
of memories, I repossess
the treasured trifles they reveal.

These make of moments I forgot
in retrospect one whole fair day,
and cause extinguished suns to wrest
blue laughter from Forget-me-not,
or let misfortune’s castaway,
shriven of ill, be purely blessed.

There is no strangeness in the ease
whereby from ashes, grey and cold,
like to that legendary bird,
my thoughts on wing-bourne reveries
soar from the New back to the Old,
to find the past has re-occurred.

It seems as if I always knew
the contours of this land of dreams.
They have all been explored before,
yet are discovered to be new
whenever memory redeems
the early closing of a door.

THE DUCK-BILLED PLATYPUS

This weird antipodean creature
was first discovered some two hundred
years ago. Its every feature
declares that Nature might have blundered.

For this amphibious Australian
(one only of a separate species)
could scarce be thought to be mammalian;
at least, such was the learned thesis.

How could a mammal be egg-laying
and have a duck’s bill — not a muzzle —
and four webbed feet? — It was dismaying
zoologists who hate a puzzle.

Some were who would have recommended:
“Let’s call the beast Ornithorhyncus,
which means ‘Duck-Billed’.” Thus would be ended
a problem to perplex the thinkers.

But others pooh-poohed the suggestion
and said, “It seems the sense is lacking
to call it this. There is the question:
If duck-billed, why’s the beast not quacking?”

THE SITTER

Posing to have her portrait painted, she’s aware,
Beauty is not her forte, but she does not care,
And meets her would-be critics with a stare.

She has her share of pride, and having this, she lets
No smile suggest she holds it cheap, and therefore sets
Her mouth and chin to show she’s no regrets.

For being plain in features and in choice of dress —
Perhaps she is, or will be, courted nonetheless
By one for whom she will be his princess.

VIXEN

Hearing the high-pitched yelping of the hounds
Which raised the tufts of pelt along her spine,
Deep tribal terror struck her at the sounds.
She cuffed some of her cubs which tried to whine
Into stunned silence, felt the danger worth
A heightened caution for her litter’s sake,
And drove them deeper into shielding earth,
Her instinct telling her what was at stake.

The dog-fox had not come, as was his wont,
The morning after with a gift of food,
Nor since. She was reluctant to confront
The world above, and leave here hungry brood
Defenceless in the den, for danger lurked
That was beyond their ken. Her milk gave out,
And now what she must do could not be shirked...
Stark hunger made her quit their dark redoubt.

Now vulpine cunning sharpened every sense,
Brought innate skill and judgement to a head,
As, muzzle in the air to test for scents,
She stalked the field-edge where the rabbits fed,
There crouched in ambush, autumn leaves and fur
Blending in perfect camouflage, until
An unsuspecting prey came near to her,
And she lept instantly to make a kill.