Poetry by Judith Wilkinson


Nothing has escaped our attention.
We’ve dreamed up the camels, mustered our courage,
packed food and water rations, assembled the whole rigmarole
of sleeping bags mats tents ropes reins sewing kit
compasses maps GPS boots medicine box
clothes for the heat clothes for the cold
a long-blade knife for cutting the reins
in an emergency.

We’ll know when to let go.

At every crisis point, at every junction in the sands,
at least one of us will choose the smoothest route,
find the rhetoric of calm,
breathe in the winds of optimism –
persuaded by tangerine dawns.

At least one of us will leave something behind:
a fear, an illusion,
something beautifully possible

From Judith Wilkinson’s new collection, In Desert, Shoestring 2021 (opening poem)


I travel by inches. If the whole world
travels by light years, I shall stick to my inches,
my immeasurable slow-dance, here, in this desert,
and glide and slither as if there were no geography.
I am not carefree. I have my tentative misgivings,
my pace being so slow, the world so large.
Its whirlwinds might overwhelm me, its colours blind me.

An eternity ago I spiralled into being.
Meditation is my forte.
I don’t chase mirages.
The agonies of exile pass me by,
though my eyes are on stalks and follow the caravans
until they melt into the horizon.
I take in the nomads from every laborious angle,
see how the camels creak and bend
across dizzying immensities of sand.

I shall be enough for me.
No dreams of latitude pull me away
from myself. I breathe my way forward
patiently, close to my own apex,
my locomotion slower
than the rocking of the calmest sea.
No claustrophobia catches me,
no heatwave desiccates me.
Sealing myself off from the sun
I’ll sleep foodless homeless at home through lengths of years
and wake like Rip van Winkle
and thrive, my alphabet intact, my muscle-tone unchallenged,
as if time had curled itself up in me and dwindled
to an irrelevance.

This is where I shall live, in this flesh
that has no wanderlust, the shell of myself
still inhabited.

Judith Wilkinson, In Desert, Shoestring Press 2021


I crossed every emptiness thinking
there was a fate for me beyond the border,
a city raised out of dust to harbour us.

The first emptiness was the hole quarried in me
by those I left behind.

The second emptiness: parting with myself as he entered me,
taking it as a rite of passage.

The third: the bodies our group stumbled on:
pilgrims defaced by sand.

The fourth: scavenger fears circling us –
the stranglehold of a vacated sky.

I knew there was space inside me for the desert.
I knew there was space in me beyond the desert.
I know I can walk through the nameless night.

But this desert is absolute
and without end.

Judith Wilkinson, In Desert, Shoestring Press 2021


‘Life has made me a child of the desert. It reconciled me with my past.’
Malika Oufkir, Stolen Lives – Twenty Years in a Desert Jail

 Here’s one version of me:

I was fathered twice, the daughter of an ambitious Berber,
confiscated by a King.
After the two had clashed,
I was parented by a prison.

In that throttled space
the remnants of our family huddled together, nursing our shell-shock.
Like Ulysses, we kept dreaming of a return.
A caged Scheherazade, I invented the same version of ourselves
in another landscape.

But I forgot about the fourth dimension,
how time dug roads in my skin that lead nowhere.
Today I am a young woman – half-modern –
in a middle-aged body that has nothing to do with me.

In my head I am the one
who didn’t negotiate time,
the obstinate one who solved conundrums
such as how to cook a rotten egg, divide the scraps like treasure,
handle the rats, the scorpions, the infernal desert locusts,
and how to escape, alive.
That version of myself slipped under the radar of time
to emerge in different languages, free as a ghost.

The desert is the place where I seem to fit –
that constant, sandy looking glass where I sense my image intact.
There, I dare to step straight through and arrive on the other side
just like everyone else.

Only who would have thought I’d be so new

Judith Wilkinson, In Desert, Shoestring Press 2021 (first published in PN Review)


The first desert mother
was full of invention. She blazed the trail –
unless a desert father beat her to it.
In any case somebody came first.

Proactive, she entered the desert armed with a plan
and the doggedness that had set her against
everything she knew.
She had no time for the status quo.
She was scientific, clever with her hands,
skilled in the ways of making something out of little,
curling twigs into baskets, cultivating some grain.
She had a nose for oases,
found a rocky nook to catch some sleep in at night
and wasn’t spooked.
Quick in her decisions, in it for the long haul,
there was nothing dreamy about her;
she wanted to find the God of the wilderness
and it was her only adventure.

She built a cell and made it liveable.

The second desert mother couldn’t come too close to her:
she drove her off,
annoyed at being followed and aped from a safe distance.

Soon, orders began to spring up like desert plants
until there was no counting them,
until every next candidate had a place to arrive
in that citadel the desert became.
And there was chanting, but in only one tongue.

Judith Wilkinson, first published in PN Review


                Keep me up till five
                because all your stars are out,
                and for no other reason.

                                     J.D. Salinger

You ripped the moon from the sky,
ll your stars were out dancing
and I was drinking roses.

So the world turned a while,
with you at the core
fantastical, hell‑bent on breaking

a few idols, a few dreams stuffed with
overdoses of sunlight,
and still I was drinking roses.

Then the stars crept into their shells
and for months all I heard were
the dragons of laughter.

From: Judith Wilkinson, Tightrope Dancer, Shoestring Press 2010.



The circus had departed.
The ghosts she claimed had disappeared.
The scent of him a gradual vanishing act.
If he came back today with conjured caresses,
there’d be no fiction to catch them,
no canopy rigged for high drama.

First, you walked by one day and
the scent of you stung me and
your laugh planted itself in me and then
you and then you beyond denial, or was it
just a token on the wind
I put your name to?

So much child’s play in a day’s work.
Their lovemaking so much fantasy, his make‑believe
her conviction, his freedom her licence,
with him she could be constantly unwise,
when he promised she accepted
something too good to be true.

When you arrived at my door saying: try me –
I did.
Among the wise ones who knew better,
among office ways and compromise and my small lies
and a slick voice always saying: no –
I preferred my choice.

Always the first to start and the last to finish,
reveller, rampant self‑broadcaster, winged
speaker, wiry drinker liar soothsayer beautiful
mocker tightrope dancer juggler with many fates.
A few narrow escapes, a few amazing escapes –
his talent of recovery was catching.

Extract (opening verses) of a long poem from Judith Wilkinson’s collection Tightrope Dancer, Shoestring Press 2010.


On a sculpture by Constantin Brancusi

What are you, Maiastra, what makes you sure
your gold-bronze body, so featherless, nude,
must shine like a beacon and magically cure
doubt? Aren’t you too simple? Your feet glued
in the rough stone – have you no urge to fly,
to move? Yet your round chest appears to hold
the shades and glimmers of a changing sky –
are you waiting? Will your parted beak unfold
some scheme, some prospect? Why do you half stay
and half surge, all without hesitation,
without need for choice? Were you born from the clay
forms on your worn base – are you their consummation?
And will you age? Does paradise conceal
a bird like you, complete, yet somehow real?

From: Judith Wilkinson, Tightrope Dancer, Shoestring Press 2010.

© of all poems featured on this site remains with Judith Wilkinson

Share this content: