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.
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. 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.
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.
 Victor Hugo
, ‘Booz endormi’, May 1859.
 William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night Act II, Scene V, ll. 139-141.
 Sister Wendy Becket interviewed here. Telegraph Online 7-May-09