That too was November ─ dark and difficult days

of false starts and clouded thoughts, days without inspiration.

And at his elbow no biographer to evolve the flutterings

of vocation, the engendering of something great.

He is the hero of this island, where he feeds his cat milk,

but where ardent seekers will forever tend with picnics and families.

Yes, he stood here on a day like today, silver hair parted in the middle,

straining to see extended across a thousand years of sky

a purpose plain as a condor. From that point a mission formed

like a diamond in the depths of misery and utter loneliness

he had discovered at fourteen. And the music of the spheres

he had heard then would never wholly fade or desert

his moments of triumph and eventual success.

Events sprang up like palisades to be commanded

but at last his forthrightness was freed like an awaited egg

and his gut shook forth words that would be heeded.


Car le jeune homme est beau, mais le vieillard est grand.[1]

And an argument arose among them

as to which of them was the greatest,

these brawny young, or gratifyingly gnarled, men.

They had walked out and taken the shape of ghosts

when the power had surfaced along their forearms

and gently distorted the surrounding hills.

Above them the heavens had curdled,

scattering rare clouds, and seemed about to drop

thrones, moneybags, armies at their feet.

So what remained to unsettle blood, race and tribe,

beauty, bounty and booty, but the usual

disputes of dynastic succession?

And he took a little child. This one is greater

than you all by about twenty-five years,

he said. Even Jenghiz himself

would not escape the crumbling of towers,

the cracking of walls, the final dissolution

of marble and sandalwood, beeswax and gold,

as the canopy of heaven came down

to drape all with fire and the luxury

of memories glazed with ruin.


I have seen my face, he said, a face with the skin

not so much stripped off as slapped on.

I have seen my face, a knob stranded in no-man’s-land

from where the tattered banners have long flown.

Beneath that face life erodes, not dawning, sinking,

briefly brave, like a rock tide-exposed.

This face, naked as strangled clay, with a certain last fire,

marches with the line of noyers to the bruised horizon.


Be not afraid of greatness.[2] When the call comes

none will hear the bugle of Childe Roland

save the dawn waterfowl at the lapping lake.

Some are born great, leaping from their mothers’ wombs

to glorify God in excelsis and survey

nursery and anteroom with atrocious calm.

Some achieve greatness, their leaden hearts

feeding the mountainside with patient steps,

to watch the sun rise at their command.

And some have greatness thrust upon them,

accepting the purpose of the brutal crowds

roaring beneath them like many-headed seas.

But most barely stumble from scene to scene

of a life of intangible coherence,

mossing the footings of an incorruptible manor.


I do not want to be remembered. I cannot think of any reason why I should be and it is enough that God knows me and will know me for all eternity. Memory doesn’t come into it.[3]

And if your name is writ in water, rejoice like Keats,

in the invention of sports photography that keeps

the marble boulders forever orbiting around it

and the hero forever thoughtfully pondering

in the annals of celluloid. Prepare to be honoured

fitfully, in the breach, in school libraries,

in the brief interval in adolescence in which the heart opens.

Prepare for your miserable coffee table,

that hardly bears a vase but bore six novels,

to be visited and photographed as if by anthropologists.

And marvel at the vestigial celebrations of poetry,

the fanfare of prizes and awards, the popping of corks

and media hyping, the ever-hopeful launching of reputations,

all of which disappear before long into the void

of the British Bermuda Triangle. Demand to be interviewed

by the last reader, as she closes the last book

and turns to witness the biggest and boldest

dream epic from the Hollywood wave machine.

Come, let us brandish our quills and welcome the arrival

of wars, famine and disaster to nourish the human soul!

6.         The Poet

When I descend to read my poems to you

I think somehow I am placing my hand

on your fair forehead, getting you to close your eyes,

telling you, this is how it can be,

this is how words can work to open the shutters

between you and the land of truth you long for,

where even now you strain after perfect love.

But with your brow damp, your eyelids damp,

we both recall there have been many previous lessons,

much repeating, pressing, much patient awaiting

of the precious lesson to descend.

But each time the veils do not lift for long,

or all at once, the struggle to learn, to see,

must be abandoned and the distance shortens

between the beginning and the end.


There’s sunlight here and now among the trees;

but not so long ago or far away

you found that you had less and less to say

and came to be cut off from light and ease.

You clutched the sackcloth of the hospital

and thrust your fingers in the electric socket

after the visitors had gone, a racket

more soul-shaking than any rattle.

But all this suffering was a bright mesh

for sharp-emerging spiritual being

into the young sight of eyes and seeing

from the chrysalis of afflicted flesh.

Now twice a week you gather food and comb

and visit those with long and useless lives,

who have long since crushed all their relatives

and lie aghast in an old people’s home.

The clockface does not show its secret layer:

you rise inside a pocket of the night

and lift your hands before a glint of light,

when all is quiet, to fold yourself in prayer.

You press against the spaces of the dark;

and cancer patients in their far-off vigil

are held aloft in their sublime ordeal,

solaced from glimpsing a high water mark.

The sunlight shows the greatness of a day,

that none of this was done for outward show,

a grand surrender gradual and slow,

but not so long ago or far away.

[1] Victor Hugo, ‘Booz endormi’, May 1859.

[2] William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night Act II, Scene V, ll. 139-141.

[3] Sister Wendy Becket interviewed here. Telegraph Online 7-May-09