Wednesday, 26 October 2011

November Notes

Now that we are deep in autumn - "Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness..." - my mind turns to another of my early efforts in syllabics - 'November Notes'. My autumn is much harsher than Keats's: in fact, I'm more or less launched into winter.
   Reading my poems of this period - the early 1980s - it is striking how often I returned to a meditation on what it means to be a consciousness aware of itself and how often I ended up pondering on, and falling silent before, silence - the silence within the self, the silence which enshrouds all the sounds of nature, and the silence of the universe, and within which I find hints of something more, something other.


The days have drawn in: the first freezing
   Night has squeezed indigo hands
On an abandoned geranium,
   Slaughtering its watery
Tissues. Domestic junk in the shed
   Grows a fungus of frost whilst
Delicately, sporadically, white
   Spirit in a jar reflects
The solar system back at itself.
   Despoiled on an ash heap a
Cindered guy unceasingly stares at
   My lighted window where I
Pause to consider the platinum
   Glow of the moon. What absence
Is this, what death, when every August
   Thought, hewed into system by
The summer sun, thins to a breath on
   The pane? I cheered myself with
The chatter of sparrows, the evening
   Shout of the blackbird, but now
There is silence: soon, in the copse, the
   Bodies will congregate, starved,
Abandoned like mittens in the snow.
   It defeats me this silence –
Tongue-tied, impassible, attracted
   By death; but what else can a
Victim cling to, propped-up, his lifeblood
   Trickling over fingers like
A watchchain, before the sirens shriek
   Their mourning? When the alleys
Are searched for their daily cargo of
   Corpses, when a scream cuts short
In the Stuyvesant slums, we find them –
   Slumped, puzzled by their detour
Into reticent matter, but blessed
   By an icon-otherness,
Having slipped behind the silence and
   Shrugged off the troubled splendour
Of their lives. Such absence is presence:
   I pull curtains, huddle at
My fire, question the T.V. listings;
   But the absence, the silence,
Inhabit my brain like knowledge. What
   Thoughts are adequate to such
Impalpable pressure? Perhaps in
   The end all it offers is
The bliss of extinction, a body
   Subsiding in a shuffle
Of molecules. Or can a wise man,
   Scooping the silence in his
Palm like water, feel the presence of
   A Person, its fingers in
His hand, reassuring? Outside, the
   Days fade toward December,
Winds shatter the deciduous woods,
   Chastening my flesh to its
Dying. Philosophy, Socrates
   Knew, is a practice for death.
At the end he lay down, a cloth on
   His face, speaking hardly at
All. No one knew when he died. Once born
   We must wait upon silence.

© November 1982

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Lines to the Gracchi

The death - possibly execution - of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in Libya made me recall another of my poems from all of thirty years ago. In it I muse on the choices and costs involved in action in 'the public sphere' and the pathos of human death - yes, even that of a dictator with blood-stained hands. At the time I was thinking of the death of Stalin - who was left to die unattended for days by his henchmen who feared he might recover and punish them for daring to act on their own authority. 

The poem is in syllabics; I was more ingenious in those days. The epigraph, if memory serves me right, is from the mother of the Gracchi who, of course, lived to see both her sons murdered as a consequence of their intervention in public life in the second century BC Roman Republic.


“...but as it is, I too may have to pray to some river or sea to yield up your body. What faith can we put in the gods or men when we have seen Tiberius murdered?”

Who would elect to the public life, that turmoil
Of bitter ambitions, when so many at
            Your elbow – the clients, the snappers-
   Up, the half-disguised hit men – are eager to snatch

At your entrails, crying, “Stop! Criminal! You
Have insulted my party!” at the first hint of
            An action? And who would set his mind on
   Relevant things, giving rights to outsiders

Or rebuilding the drains, when the ticklish mob,
Anguished at receiving no presents, goes wild
            In the streets, bludgeoning its statesmen
   To death? Over luncheon tables deals are

Discussed, briefcases tapped and Swiss bank account
Numbers scribbled on cards. Outside, policemen
            Square up to the roaming death squads, but the
   Rain never stops and stucco tumbles from

The neutral faces of buildings: somehow, even
The weather is writing your bill of attainder.
            I would be as Horace, fastidiously
   Removed from the hurly-burly, tasting

The fruits of other men’s peace, but giving back
The modest price of an Ode for the Secular
            Games. It is the seasons interest
   Me, the ageing of my skin, the annals of my

Lust. Sometimes, though, in mid-sentence I see the rag of
Cicero’s hand, nailed to the Rostra, accusing my
            Tipsy selfishness. Perhaps, after
   All, writers have power, though too often their finest

Images are their deaths. But what privileges
Could I claim the morning after a coup? Only
            To add my weight to a human barricade
   Or slink off into the back streets there to

Embrace silence or the new authorities. It has taken
Me thirty years and many bad poems to grasp
            That life is very hard, that the river
   And sea gods, replete with tribute, are not anxious

To discuss justice. When someone is murdered, even
A tyrant – for sprawled on his deathbed he suffers
            The sea-change which all of us suffer –
   We should shake the stars with our fury, but

Afterwards there is nothing for it but to renew
The fabric of living. In an age when we do
            Not believe in ulterior purpose
   That is the one thing we aim at time after time.

© December 1981

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Romanists and Anglicans

Romanist to Anglican
Said, “My parti-coloured man
Should your vague collective mind
On this question of mankind
Come to see the saving grace
Of One Church in time and space,
Do not hesitate to call
At the church of Peter-Paul.
There on weekday afternoons
Having lunched on ham and prunes
I prepare my great defence
Of the Faith and Irish sense.
Briefly, then, it goes like this:
Dogma equals that which is,
All the Church says is not so
We the faithful need not know;
Nothing since is quite as fine as
Half a page of tough Aquinas.”

Anglican to Romanist
Said, “You’ve missed what is the gist
Of our vaunted middle way.
Through the year and twice a day
Voices in a loose chorale
Rise in praises to the All –
Better this polyphony
Than directives from a See.
Should you wish to come along
To the church of sweet St John
You will find me taking lunch
Scribbling notes about my hunch
That Our Lord – part scientist,
Activist and socialist,
Was at root in all His ways
Modern as a music craze,
If you like, a sort of Lennon
Saving us from sin and Mammon.”

Somewhere an exploding star,
Very hot and very far,
Like a million filaments
Fused the heavy elements;
Flung them into farther space
Where the quarks in endless chase
Flee across a universe
Wary of philosophers.
From the heavy molecules
As a solar system cools
Fashioned were the properties
Of a planet and its seas.
Finally were creatures born
Blinking dumbly at the morn,
Iron in their sturdy blood
Ushering the endless flood;
They, to purify their feasts,
Stupidly invented priests.

© Feb 1981