Sunday, 27 November 2011

Year's End

Autumn is sneaking past the church.
Two men in the churchyard
Give the dead a haircut,
Clearing out the tired straws
And dusty greens of summer.
Toadflax wanders on walls,
Unsure what to do next
Now that winter is going to shake its fist.
The beech trees have rusted like tin,
And the skinned boles of the elms
Point at the cucumber slice of the morning moon.

It is coming, it is coming,
Through all this dusty waiting –
The shriek out of darkness of winter,
The long slog through snow,
The hard crunch of ice underfoot,
And the wind, rasping from the sides of houses,
Polishing its collection of frost.

I remember last year
The first fall of snow, innocuous under lamplight.
I rushed home in the dark
As the wind shook dusters in my face.
When I got in I was larded with snow,
Finger-deep like a well-whipped pie-filling.
It was minutes before I discovered my feet
Still there in front of the fire...

Autumn-time and winter-time,
And the moment of the first damp shoot above ground –
I am in love with them all.

© August 1984

Thursday, 24 November 2011

The Sudden Man

Exodus 33: 18-23

In the smog of a half-burnt autumn day
When the shops were crowded, the buses late,
I passed a park and looked in at the gate –
The grass was deflated, trying to pray,
   And the trees had nothing to say.

I walked through the gloom with its sooty taste
And thought of the ageing blood in my head,
The caste-off past and friends now dead,
The moral commitments made in haste,
   The by-ways and the waste.

I watched as the final rose leaves fell
And lay in the ashes like holy men;
A blackbird scuttled away to its hen
And evening rang like a darkening bell
   Or an iron lid on a well.

I went back to the gate at the end of day
And passed in the mist a sudden man;
I saw only his back, his shoulders’ span,
But knew what it was he had to say –
   And I had found my way.

© March 1980


I cannot range the European plain
   Nor bear an armring from the distant courts;
I cannot sing the cruelty and pain
   Nor drunken warriors collapsed like noughts.

The muddy tracks are now all autobahns,
   The woods rush past and do not crouch in threat;
The king lists are ignored like someone’s yarns,
   The future of the tribe a misplaced bet.

But in my mind this fraying autumn night
   I hear the steady fall and lift of oars;
I face the east and journey as I write –
   Wide traveller, en route to Danube’s shores.

© February 1980

Sunday, 20 November 2011

A Dead Hedgehog

I find that looking at one's poems written many years ago it is even more difficult now than then to decide if they are any good! Rereading my poems I immediately recognise the inflections and rhythms which seemed so compelling to me at the time and find it almost impossible to get beyond them to look at and hear the poem as others might. The consequence for 'A Dead Hedgehog' - a poem I remember being very fond of - is that I am quite unsure whether it is a serious and rhythmically convincing discussion of a weighty moral problem or a banal expression of self-evident worries! Others must decide.


With paws upon an iron kerb
And flattened quarters in the road,
This creature, dead as Banquo’s ghost,
Is stiffly silent under frost,
Become a sort of absent verb
Which mocks the thought of how it towed
Its young ones through a nearby field
To see what food the hedge might yield.

Now will it haunt this peopled spot
To ask a bloody question of
The denizens who could not care
If creatures die beneath a car?
The noisy children shouting, “What?”
Their father blowing on his glove,
Are more concerned that in a room
A warming fire invites them home.

When Banquo at the evil feast
Appeared all bloody and despised
It was to teach the provenance
Of matters stifled in a glance,
That actions which are thought the least,
Or by a curtain go disguised,
Are re-embedded in the heart
Which they proceed to tear apart.

A joint of beef or packaged egg
Are garnered from a local store;
Who thinks upon the loaded gun
That clamps on foreheads one by one?
An animal may dumbly beg
That you should scratch its back some more
But soon, while champing on a bar,
Will bellow in an abattoir.

This tiny hedgehog crushed in blood,
Gone indistinct beneath the night,
Is now an emblem gathered to
The things which tell me what to do.
A tear is lost within the mud,
The whistling wind shrieks, “What is right?”
But few who walk the freezing lane
Will care about this battered stain.

Then think upon the image of
A life which men would gladly live,
Of those who hungered and were fed,
The homeless who were found a bed:
Would not this all-embracing love,
Embellishing the verb “to give”,
Include the animals who share
The earth we husband in our care?

An automatic slaughter is
A coarsening of the moral sense,
And those who glory in their power
As lives are squandered hour by hour
Are those who with a poisoned kiss
Create a sort of violence,
That every creature’s final breath
Might serve an economic death.

The hedgehog will be cleared away
To rot upon a rubbish tip,
A car will pass you in the road
With pomp of some malignant god;
But sometimes at the end of day
A voice will make you bite your lip:
“How shall men live? Will you not mourn
A hedgehog lying bruised and torn?”


© January 1981

Saturday, 12 November 2011

A Bowl of Chrysanthemums

It is autumn-time and time for autumn thoughts.

The earth fingers the black mess of itself,
Soaked by last night’s rain,
Choked by the sticks and straws of the recent dead.

The brief hours of the sun are waning,
Tamping shadows into corners.

A bowl of chrysanthemums on a window sill
Gives out their invitation-to-Hades smell –
They nudge the air with the baby’s thumbs of their leaves.

Autumn is digging a trench
For the dark blood-offering of ourselves.
Will the shade of Achilles appear from the bleeding soil?

Will he shake his hand in grief at his gossamer body?
Will he point in despair at the spider sneaking beneath a stone?

            I stood on the common at nightfall,
            The last of the day was a blue rim on horizons,
            The ice-light of stars had appeared;

            But when the tawny owl hooted
            And I moved my shoe in surprise,
            The world turned on its back,
            Ignoring us,
            Painting black on its black.
            It painted black on its black.

A little light and a little heat –
These hug the stone in the dark.

            I can hear the winds on headlands
            Bewailing the white fury of the sea:

            I can see the brute fist of cloud
            Challenging the fallow fields to a duel.

When the light begins to fade
Chrysanthemums glow like coals;
They nod their many-petalled eyes
And lower their heads to the night.
They struggle on.

Long life and a long life.
I am told they are the flower of lasting.

O Achilles, how long is it since your arm swept the air?

Long life and a long life.


© October 1979