Poems


In rolling royalties he took an innocent delight

but what, in baring his soul, had he really wanted?

Nothing it seemed to him gave anyone the right

to anatomise the growth that he had merely planted.

ּ

Those corners that most excited them remained dark for him,

dark and consequential, like a late summer sky

as it banks away towards evening and the stormy rim

of darkness veiling and unveiling hillsides of rye.

ּ

He thought it would be enough to tilt his page

to catch the rain-washed strokes of light,

to leave it all incomplete, a cloudy rage,

and throw a tarpaulin over it as one would a boat.

ּ

But even then knots of people stood around

wanting a word, a signature, above all information.

Did he feel flattered? So long as they didn’t surround

him he could edge away, pleading engagement, the woes of creation.

ּ

He had meant what he said: he stood on the edge

of the known world of noisy, parasitic business,

and on those reckless enough to approach his ridge

had urged safety and caution as one might a straightening of dress.

ּ

How many repetitions does it take? The broken sky

leaned dangerously but still the multitude

came on steamily, as if they detected a lie,

and so far he had managed not to be rude.

ּ

Here was the earth, the covert, the blanket of red leaves

that discreet October had kindly provided,

a stump wrapped around with the silence of foggy trees,

where nothing further could be exposed or derided.

ּ

It wasn’t exactly peace and far from solitude.

There were many theories, but no one thought he was a saint.

With neighbours moving remotely he could avoid a feud

and brood in silence on his mysterious taint.

Great

1.

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.

2.

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.

3.

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.

4.

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.

5.

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.

7.

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

A garden rooted in light

 

His lightnings gave shine unto the world: the earth saw it, and was afraid.[1]

 

1.

 

The body has weathers, cyclic undertows

of health and wealth; it is all there

in the algebra of cells, in the molecules that wink

and bubble in the tide, the offering

in the grid of sunlight on the straw chair.

It speaks whether or not we listen,

robing around the mud-winged carp.

 

The city broadcasts its seething rhythms,

bruiting the hiss of wet streets.

The spate flows straight from the cave’s mouth

and hours and seasons only slightly shift

the rhythms of appetite and sleep.

It is the garden rooted in light

and listens whether or not we speak.

 

And is the cruellest rhapsody found

in the rose only or also in stone?

Concentration camps, planted across Europe,

stare from the hearts of the third generation.

It is not that the torturers are not evil

but that things always keep on going,

relentless as a carousel.

 

Each moment forgives the last,

but senescence and death whisper

at the nape of chrysanthemums,

raddled dictators and news girls,

as the year washes out departing birds

like tea-leaves, mustering for their migration.

Time for the medicine of light.

 

 

2.

 

Out of the mirror and into the world

slips death, a fish. What can be done?

Rosy sierras in gulfs of dusk,

a scallop of cloud that gives the day

a fanfold setting, water combed and woven.

An oil of silence seals the private

night and the clapping of the rain.

 

Nature continues ticking away

like a bicycle and the summer wind

pushes at shadows until they sway.

From the neglected whiskers of a hanging basket

a scythe of prebendary sun

proceeds to crop a lifelike lobster

for auburn and spore-damp autumn.

 

An intruder. But is a human being

any different from the chrysanthemum?

Is there not the same retreat

of sap to the stalk as, tied and withered,

the wind-danced Vitus settles back

to its own equilibrium?

What lives once lives forever.

 

But still it all ends badly

and the fever of the outside world,

chuntering in business cycles,

pays its respects at the hospital bed.

The guest considers it’s time to go,

though reverie, a cupped lagoon,

can be smuggled to the border.

 

 

3.

 

Over the hilltop first appear

the Horse people from the high steppe.

Across the horizon, south and west,

loom the people of the Boat.

There is time over the centuries

for parley and barter, with the same

terms of trade in marriage and death.

 

The future is living memory.

Bulgur, taboulah and falafel

filter into the women’s quarters

where religion like a portcullis

enforces its negations.

Genes and faith move to fill the sump

of unity beneath the swash of wars.

 

Time laps at the idle keels

of sampans in painted harbours,

while far to the north, beyond the Alps,

players strut their deceptions.

Every scapegrace shall get his comeuppance,

every rapscallion and merryandrew,

each poltroon and rantipole.

 

The bells of Europe’s cathedrals,

lost in the long withdrawing roar,

sound like a faint Atlantis

to profane fanatics in their glory,

but in a post-disputational age

are still audible to the slender soul’s

solo ‘I am, therefore I am’.

 

 

4.

 

In the garrigue at midday

the temperature bears aloft

only the indefatigable insects.

The tiny diamond drops of dew

have all but frozen in the shade.

The bourne is glad with bright chatter.

The fire of the smithy is white fire.

 

This is how one comes to greet

the world before taking leave of it.

Who knows whether the horses will come?

And in the meantime a tiny twinkle

signals a shift in everything.

And this haggard, clanking cadaver

must needs be heaved everywhere.

 

With age comes a penchant for nutshells

but outside the tender filigree

the wind blows over the salt waves,

the chamois seeks the arnica.

Who is to say where it might end,

this incommensurate universe?

Who is to speak the last word?

 

A daisychain of stars ignites

a light garden overhead,

at once given and renewed,

that in all the prison cells below

where wills are broken and unbroken

is seen sharply or not at all.

The last word is never spoken.

 


[1] Ps 97, v. 4; BCP.

Only the evening like honey comes

to stare into the cross-hatch of faces

etched in the grime, the blunderings

of animals caught in the grid.

™      ™      ™      ™

Viewed from the Neva the vaulted

pock-marked wall has a geometry

like a chessboard, while over all

hangs a giant, bitter sulkKresty 2

™      ™      ™      ™

like smoke that does not fade

with the backwash but rises

to blacken and haunt the river passengers

for years to come in dreams and spectacles of ruin.

™      ™      ™      ™

Now one can recall, too, with comprehension

the early morning figure passing along

the Fontanka canal and over the bridge,

alone, unobserved, but furtive.

™      ™      ™      ™

The tender heart is deceived into thinking

that this city’s scowl can be coaxed away

by a spot of sunshine, that it does not conceal

anything more than weakness and defeat.

™      ™      ™      ™

The truth is altogether harder: the waves

of famine, terror and death

have arrived in scars that ridge

every step to the cemetery.

Kresty 3™      ™      ™      ™

The queues are gone. The smell

remains but there is no smell.

In the cells on three-tier bunks

the teenage thieves fester

™      ™      ™      ™

with one tap for twenty-four inmates,

the hardest on top, like the guards.

Each crime is sweated out in the heat,

a rape, a stolen anorak.

™      ™      ™      ™

And so all the passing birds long

to fly in at the little crosses

bearing pebbles of light

like migrating souls.

™      ™      ™      ™

Everywhere time stops, history yields,

eternity hesitates, while nature

spreads out and endures.

Like honey the evening comes.

In central London you can hear a pin drop.

Pillar patterns in the wallpaper continue, deep in the night,

to bear up this Edwardian world.

In the corner of the mirror a pilot, with a light,

watches the US election on CNN on a laptop.

Headphones, spectacles suspended from the neck ―

these do not interrupt the operations of insomnia

or the tides of interracial sleep that come

to glue like balm the former exacerbations.

From Halloween and Guy Fawkes to Obama

to the Chancellor’s Autumn statement to the next

decision on interest rates, to the Glenrothes by-election ―

the diminished days wince past.

™      ™      ™      ™

We fold and unfold. On the ward,

life and health are infused by means of

liquids, signatures, rituals against contamination.

The relapse, which we defer, is inevitable.

With the accurately personal atmosphere,

nobody has any doubts as to what we are dealing with.

A year or two is thought to be precious.

As the man with the collar discovers,

they hold the cup of life to your lips for the last sip.

Like the flow in the Tottenham Court Road,

it is impressionism without the umbrellas.

We co-operate ingeniously in the defeat

of pointless and shameful suffering.

™      ™      ™      ™

But shuffling and shoving slop between groups

and uncertainty arises as regards criminal intent

and the scientific impact of pesticides.

There are ripples in the econosphere.

Fire broke out, a bus crashed, a plane came down

in Mexico City to disturb all calculations.

Meanwhile our attention is milled

in the great spiral of hospital urgency and delay

and the frail coracle of the soul churns out the storm,

uncertain whether headed for port or reef,

and finding them perhaps not so very different.

Explanation

 

One fine May morning, Ian McMillan came into the Radio 3 (classical music) Breakfast studio and announced to listeners that they could collaborate to produce a poem. He had written the first line; a friend had contributed the second. Listeners hit their e-mail and before long the following poem had been produced, each line by a different hand:

 

The Poem

 

I pull the curtains wide and feel the morning on my face 

Then stumble down the stairs to make the tea. 

The gush, the steam, the click, the clink, the ritual gathers pace… 

The phone rings, and it’s you, it’s you! I hear you telling me 

You are outside, but I’m not washed or dressed. 

I pressed the buzzer, shut my eyes and you can guess the rest…

 

Two pentameters repose tellingly among otherwise undistinguished shuckings in this homely basket. I easily resisted the temptation to contribute at the time but later fell to wondering how in an alternative one might incorporate the presenter’s delightful name.

 

The following retains in part the origin of the first two lines; but these too, I felt, could not be left to float away into kindly oblivion, to become lagan for historians of the ephemeral:

 

 

Lines for Sara Mohr-Pietsch on Radio 3’s Breakfast show.

 

 

The blinds have slashed the morning on my face

and laced the boiling water with hot tea.

I know your summer punch is gathering pace ─

the angels bear the news from you to me.

I hear the mermaids singing, each to each:

Dear Sara, Try less fenugreek, more peach.

 

 

29th May 2009

Suffolk 037In the battle between nature and art, art always wins

and nature always has the upper hand.

Are we in a painting or not?  Bystanders and passers-by

mill around, holding forth copies of The Haywain,

moving with the fierce sloth of Giotto’s angels,

photographing themselves in front of Flatford Mill.

 

The sun dutifully sparkles on the lily pads

as we recognise ourselves in the painting,

newly transformed into art lovers:

here is the scene we step into or progress through

in wheelchairs with sandwiches and cameras,

even a velvet dog or two.  Home at last ─

 

to Willy Lott’s House, with the wisteria at our backs,

wistful in a balmy way for more rugged times

when splinters from the barges were cursed and forgotten,

pond waters stagnated less from a working mill

and bark and canopy still waved above

the wool-backed flocks of mellow silver.

 

Now tea is served at the National Trust’s

Bridge Cottage, bedded in borage and comfrey.

One can stoop inside a dark shed, glossed for visitors

and, as befits a shrine, with memories glassed.

These are forgotten in the sunlight at picnic tables

when couples plan their way back to the M25.

 

Five abreast, each fretting with his or her ice cream,

families are agencies of banality. It was always thus ─

even when the mud clung to frocks and boots

and the fires roared in vain through summer damps,

when wealth was visible and mattered more

and yahoo meant something else entirely.

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