Most of these poems were written by me over 2003 and 2004. I guess you could call them pretty dark in both theme and imagery. That’s putting it mildly. When I recently reread some of my poems from this period they reminded me of just how close I had been to giving up on life. The earliest of these were written whilst I was on 24 hour suicide watch.

For the first month of my incarceration I was kept in a gated cell (one with bars instead of a front wall and solid door) with someone sitting outside watching me all day and night. It was a cold, dank, and dirty cell more akin to a dungeon. Of course, you don’t expect luxury but the stainless steel toilet didn’t even have a seat. Worse still, should I require the use of a toilet I had to go in full view of the person who was sitting outside the cell (apologies for that image). This was hardly beneficial to a fragile state of mind. HMP Belmarsh’s Health Centre was my introduction to prison life – welcome to the jungle!

The days were long and unrelenting. In an effort to keep my mind distracted and away from those recent and really horrible experiences, I read a lot and started to write some poetry (there was no TV, so all I had was pen and paper). This started off as just writing some of the negativity away. However, inspired by several poets, including the war poet Seigfried Sassoon, I became absorbed in the process and focussed on learning and using many different forms and devices. I soon amassed a collection of nearly 50 poems. Some were better than others but none were poetic genius. Still, I had a go.

It is not overstating the fact that, writing these early poems were one of the things that saved me and gave me hope for the future.

Oh, to the person who loves correcting my punctuation and grammar….yes, I know, it’s all over the place but it’s ‘free-form’!

Graham Coutts 23rd September 2014


There was a point when I was on suicide watch that I felt like I was not alone in that cell. My ‘guest’ was not the rather avuncular ‘death’ in the second ‘Bill and Ted’ film (there was to be no game of ‘Twister’). I pictured a Bergman-esque Grim Reaper hiding in the shadows…just watching…and waiting.

The title changed several times but here it is “A Grim Encounter”. I later used it as the lyrics for the song HAND OF SHELLS. Although I get my ‘down’periods (don’t we all), the futility and bleakness of this poem is the antithesis of my naturally positive state of mind.


Take me home to that red river of souls,

Lead me to the dark and I will follow.

Come out the shadows creature of skulls;

A silent rattle, hooded and hollow.

My heart was in its hand four years ago

Split through like grain, seeding, grieving ahead.

Grin that toothy grin, twisted and gnarled;

A cold heart hate, its blade bright, bold and red.

Rasp that coarse breath all brittle and cracked,

Hook me with that bleached, bony hand of shells.

A lifeless stare from those sockets of pitch;

Lead me not into temptation, but into hell.

Blackness smother me like a fold of night,

Carry me downwards to that world so true;

Surround me with clay and ask, dirt and dust;

Reap well my friend, I give myself to you.

(c) Graham Coutts 2003 Reprint only with the express permission of the author.


After my first trial in January 2004 I was transferred to HMP Whitemoor. Very generously, the Chaplaincy loaned me an acoustic guitar, for which I am forever grateful. It helped me through some really dark times. This was the 4th song I wrote on that guitar. The initial inspiration was a magazine insert promoting a charity. The card had a picture of a young child who was blind. Although autobiographical, as I had just been given a life sentence with a 30 year tariff it is of little surprise that the lyrical content is full of hopelessness.


A small child cries without the aid of sight

And without eyes day becomes night

A silence cold as a winter’s snow

Those fingers hold and clutch him from below.

What I see (x4)

A tongue-tied youth hates all that he can see

He sees the truth longing to be free

In his world of pain he’s struck out all the time

With glass biting rain hampering his climb.

What I see (x4)

Just for a while a ray of light appears

She has a smile that evanesce his fears

But by his side his spectre laughs aloud

As he divides that ray becomes cloud.

What I see (x 4)

Don’t let him drown in dry seas

And sink in his sand of disease

Stop him please

Now in a bar those eyes are so alone

A silent scar almost fully grown

The living dead sell all their minutes short

His life is bled like a gruesome sport

What I see (x4)

Don’t let him frown in dry seas

And sink in his sand of disease

Stop him please.

(c) Graham Coutts 2004 (Reprint only with the express permission of the author)


This was my attempt at a narrative poem. Coming to prison under such dreadful circumstances was like being hit in the face with a house brick (not that I know what that’s like). I imagined how it felt for a baby going from the warmth and safety of the womb (my pre-prison life) to a horrible, noisy, and alien environment. The ‘phantoms’ were actually some really kind staff who were on my 24 hour suicide watch. And yes, they really did ‘save me’. The resolution of the poem was inspired by another, whose title I can’t recall. Thanks anyway.


It hit me like a speeding express train

That crimson violence of birth, a bolt, blind,

And white light sparking through my head, and rain

Lashing out like pins. Uniforms so kind,

They fuss and adjust; but tears still I cry.

“Let it all out son – a tissue to dry?”

In comes the Doctor to weigh and assess,

I try to talk but stumble and mumble,

Bewildered, confused, my brain can’t process

What this world’s about. Hands start to fumble;

“Open your mouth”, they say, “arms in the air,

The soles of your feet, let’s see hands through hair.”

Time passes so slowly at first, despite

Phantoms watching me through blue walls of bars.

A gloom descends that is darker than night.

The only light luminous from the stars.

The odd looking phantoms saved me……

A month or so on, this still seems unreal;

I look to my past through my looking glass;

Those looks are no more that you once did steal.

I long for our walks – the trees and the grass.

I long for your whisper soft in my ear,

So tender, so war, so safe, and so dear;

“It’s just a nightmare, it’s okay, I’m here.”

(c) Graham Coutts 2003

Reprint only with express permission of the author.


Indulging in my childhood penchant for Greek mythology, Sisyphus was cursed to spend an eternity rolling a boulder up a hill. This trial was never-ending and every day was the same. Very much like prison. These song lyrics won a UKDS Merit Award in the 2006 Koestler competition. My favourite couple of lines (out of everything I’ve written) are: “Somewhere someone drowns at sea, Lady Luck swap them with me”.


This winter snow goes on and on

Like the trial of Sisyphus

I keep looking for a sign

Broken cloud across my land

A shaft of sunlight on my hand.

A question asked a million times

You know the word and why each day

The sign I long for is so far

Like the sun across my land

I hold a cloud within my hand.

I’m ready

I’m closer

I’m going too

I’m going too.

Someone someone drowns at sea

Lady Luck swap them with me

Let your ocean break my bones

Break apart my clouded fist

and pull me deep into your mist.

I’m ready

I’m closer

I’m going too

I’m going too.

This winter snow goes on and on

Like the trial of Sisyphus.

Will my mother always hold me

Will my mother always hold me….

(c) Graham Coutts 2004

Reprint only with the express permission of the author.


Before the smoking ban came into effect in prisons (which is only loosely enforced) you could end up in a holding room filled with the toxic fug of cigarette smoke. As a lifetime non-smoker and professional asthmatic (?!) this was problematic to aay the least.

Some officers were sympathetic to my issue. However, on one particular occasion in the legal visits area at HMP Belmarsh, despite knowing about my medical condition, I was ordered into the moxious atmosphere of the holding room. For an asthamtic, this could have had fatral consequences. What made the whole incident even more unexpected was that, at first, the female officer who had issued the order had such a find face. Gosh, was I wrong.

I can’t remember the name of the form that I used but I really liked it and enjoyed the challenge of making it work.

Oh, and please don’t misinterpret this poem as being misogynistic. It’s not s comment on any gender, just the disappointment of false expectations.


‘The Holding room’she slyly sneers,

Pretty face in screw twisted scorn.

Appeals evanesce through bound ears.

@The Holding room!’ sje slyly sneers.

Asthmatic inmate gasps in tears

with wishes never had been borne,

‘The Holding room!’ she slyly sneers,

Pretty face in screw twisted scorn.

Casting forth her decayed power,

‘The Holding room!’ she crows once more.

Lip curled as a wilting flower,

Casting forth* her decayed power.

Withered heart rotten and sour,

Odious and savage in gore.

Casting forth her decayed power

‘The Holding room!’ she crows once more.

(c) Graham Coutts 2003

Reprint only with the express permission of the author

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