Saturday, 31 December 2011

The All

The snow falls like a dying mind
– And who is good and who is kind? –
As lost to all external touch
I search for meaning overmuch.
The night is like an empty purse
– What is bad and what is worse?

Losing purchase in the dark
– God save us all, God save the mark –
I find my bedrock in a sort
Of coldly abstract legal thought,
But from the street there comes a cry
– “Who are you and Who am I?”

© January 1981

"God Is Gracious"

A little acrostic. In Hebrew the name, John - my Christian name - means "God is gracious". It seemed a good opportunity for a brief meditation on the joy of being. The Hebrews, of course, made a definitive choice in favour of life, a choice universalised by the Christian Revelation. How sad to find oneself living in a society which regards the culture of death as its apotheosis - death, and in particular suicide, as a "lifestyle option".


January is an adopted taste,
Out of its confines no path seems to lead.
Heat dies on your bathroom window,
Not able to resist at all.

Jousting in a hardened hollow two leaves
Outrage each other in a gust of wind:
How easy, though, to hug your knees
Nattering away by the fire.

Just as though it were summer I tramp out
Over the Downs for an afternoon walk,
Hair plastered by cold on my brow.
Now is the best time. Always. Now.

© November 1981

New Year's Eve

Tonight there is a hard frost,
Its teeth are like those of rigor mortis.
In the gloomy, wind-chilled valley
And on the sanded city street
Is a vacancy as silent
As the bodies in no-man’s land.

My love, in the coming year
Our chances will be those of the dispossessed.
We shall feed and water
But the old arrogance has gone;
And when the tribesmen shake their spears
We shall not even be able to buy them off.

Powers and dominions are awkward things
But they subject sudden death to something other than whim.
When historians one day finger their books
They will mourn at the sadness of this freezing night
When the frost like mercenaries clambered on walls
And an era tightened its cloak and died.

© December 1979

Monday, 26 December 2011

Edinburgh: An Occasional Sequence

The current controversy about Scottish independence led me to dust off this sonnet sequence written after my first visit to Scotland to attend a poetry bookfair which was part of the 1980 Edinburgh International Festival. I do not appear to have been greatly impressed. Perhaps the Scots can retaliate by pointing out my poetry is not very impressive. Indeed, I had to suppress one sonnet as being too awful, remove another as having nothing to do with the sequence and rewrite the sestet of a third when my old failing of vagueness reared its head too obtrusively.


Faces like haggis glare across the bar
And loud, repulsive voices order beer,
You keep it very quiet who you are
And wish to God you were not really here.

The vicious arguments go round and round
Beneath a clutter of continual noise,
In all this place there is no moral sound
Just people fighting and the shouts of boys.

Sam Johnson knew his mind on all of this,
This paucity where no one thinks a thought,
Where all the hits are just a sodden miss
And intellectual life a perfect nought.
The highroad south and vehicles up for hire
Were the only things in Scotland to admire.


Beneath the castle on a Sunday walk
In dour demureness and a wrathful joy,
The girls in white are not allowed to talk
And no one notices the ragged boy.

The elders call on God to claim their sins,
To strike the people dumb as is a stone,
And someone in the congregation wins
The chance to be a scapegoat and atone.

Elsewhere in courts and alleys young men wipe
The painful sting of living from their lips,
A stray cat hunts for mice around a pipe
And women smooth their hands across their hips.
A double-headed coin is spun once more
Between the tenement and chapel door.


The wrath of God was evidenced in stone,
The black volcanic stone which gathered soot,
The houses and the kirks might make their moan
But took their proper place beneath His foot.

Between the tenements the roads made way
Like faults in rock or chasms in the wild,
Each morning from the mud arose the day
To grizzle like a lost and dirty child.

Small wonder that the citizens went mad
Who had to live among these surly streets,
Who struggled but could not possess the glad
Nor slip the ministrations of the cheats.
A voice spoke grimly what they knew was true:
“You had no choice, and it was made for you.”


Up there beyond the edge of town
The northern hills are picked in light,
They silence glibness with a frown
And still know how to give a fright.

Their salutary shock is such
The townsman knows not what to say,
And does not really use them much
Beyond the odd, relaxing day.

The real persistence of these hills,
Autochthonous and very grim,
Reminds him that the powers that be
Are drawing up their final bills
And that when these are sent to him
He will not like what he will see.


The heart of Midlothian is a cold heart.
The grain is slow to rise and the bailiff’s hand
Is over all. Each citizen is assigned a part,
And human kindness is thrown away like sand.

The heart of Midlothian is a cold heart.
The city resounds with the slamming of doors and keys
Turned in locks. Each citizen is assigned a part,
Denunciations fly in the air like geese.

On Princes Street the goods cry in the shops
And people shoulder themselves from place to place.
The tenements like prisons are a mess of slops,
The Kirk shakes its finger in every face
With a warning word. Each citizen is assigned a part.
The heart of Midlothian is a cold heart.


The Scottish Poets

A forceful hand, a pint of beer, an oath,
Contempt for shuffling Calvinists outside,
A furious dislike of every oaf,
A loving litany of those they bide.

But Europe and the complicated sky
Are puzzles which they do not wish to learn,
A tot of whisky and a weeping eye
Are all their interest. And what men earn.

The saints and minstrels braved the wooded tracks
And sought the torch-lit courts with book and song,
At meat they outperformed the local hacks,
And taught the heathen what was good or wrong.
This current crew will while away your stay
But send you none the wiser all away.


The Athens of the North, the town of Hume,
Is sunk to absence and a fretful stir,
An old man scribbles theorems in his room
But what was once exact is now a blur.

The sharp incurious noises of defeat
Wander like ghosts behind a rational mask,
The wind is howling on grim Arthur’s Seat
But what it says is more than you dare ask.

If you have had your thought and think to give
A flash of insight to the people here,
Do not forget that those who dumbly live
Will not accept what’s new nor raise a cheer;
You will spend your life an exile till you find
A way to curb your strong, enquiring mind.


Mist in the Firth and mist is in my heart,
The mournful shore-notes tell of death at sea,
It is not long, my love, and we must part.

I thought I was a god when you and I
Up Niddry Street went coursing for the sun,
But now I know the depths beneath the cry.

Nothing is ever easy, nothing free,
And bleak the acts which in our hearts are done.
What was the meaning of your sweetest pose,
And mist like memory upon the rose?


His house was in the yew and beech belts of the South
Where dawn was like a gathering of many smiles,
The land was rich and moist and open like a mouth,
And churches, lanes and villages were spread for miles.

But here he found basaltic earth beneath the grass
Which gave to everything a grinning gypsy look,
He learnt to step aside at night that drunks might pass
And that divines were pedants of the holy Book.

But most of all he found that things were much the same
As in the lamb-chop-eating counties of his home –
That many were lethargic at the holy Name,
That few were faithful to the echo in the dome.
On North Bridge and in Chambers Street eternal life
Was not more pressing than a cuckold neighbour’s wife.


Sir Walter Scott

He wrote, although he was a gentleman,
That Scottish heads long empty since the war
Might fling a question at the fitful sun
And come to be excited by their lore.

Majestic ladies queued to offer praise
And lords to say they’d burnt a candle late,
The critics puffed him in their usual ways,
His publisher could not believe his fate.

And so, at Abbotsford and quite alone,
The public frenzy now a distant moan,
He thundered at a tale of blood and swords
And made himself a martyr to his words.
His ruin, shame and unromantic death
Became more certain with each passing breath.


John Knox

Through months in galleys and atrocious heat,
His spirit buttressed by the balm of song,
He argued with himself and kept the beat
But never wondered if he might be wrong.

When he returned the land would know his tongue
And every gilt-edged idol feel his rage,
The faithful must be shepherded among
The stinking formulations of the age.

But God would give him strength to do what must
Be done, to tell the damned that they were judged,
To terrify like whirlwinds in the dust
And shift the wicked who would not be budged.
The fire would help if need be but he prayed
That easy, quick conclusions might be made.


Holyrood Palace

The darkest harrowings are done by man,
The floorboards sigh and windows go insane;
A Christian gentleman confects a plan
And everything is as it was again.

A monarch may be young and none too wise
And muddle principles and things of state,
But who foresaw the terror in her eyes
Or understood the fury of their hate?

And so it was as evening torches flared
And anarchy descended with the night,
A vain man in his own death was ensnared
Before the Queen could scream or call for light.
Statecraft conducted with a sharpened blade
Makes louts of wise men and the best afraid.


At Prestonpans we saw the dead men laugh,
The pre-dawn light was muddy in their hair;
They shook the Firth until it broke in half –
I do not know if they were really there.

At Berwick in the empty market place
We stopped for breakfast in a driving rain,
Behind the tower a leper scratched his face –
I do not want to think of this again.

At Lindisfarne the Holy Isle was blushed
By ancient sunlight sweeping in from sea;
On motorways we saw the creatures crushed
By travellers careering home for tea.
The world goes by with scarcely a surcease,
I shall sit beneath the Rock and hold my peace.

© September 1980

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Winter's Ape

The snowdrop hung its heavy head.
   “What is love?” you softly said
And led me to an icy stream;
   “Love’s a fitful, chilly gleam,
A wisp of early morning steam;
        It is as bright as the sun
   And in winter as soon done.”

A robin redbreast cast an eye.
“And hate?” you said as you walked by,
   Slipping in the melting snow;
   “Hate is what you do not know,
A body in the undertow;
        It is as dark as the night
   And in winter never light.”

A beech tree spread its empty hand.
“And trust?” you went on to demand,
   Snapping twigs beneath your feet;
   “Trust is taking whisky neat,
A hand upon the garden seat;
        It is the birds to the bread
   And in winter seldom fed.”

The sky was like a battered shell.
“And hope?” you questioned, “can you tell?”
   Squeezing berries with your nail;
   “Hope is water in a pail,
An ancient cure which might avail;
        It is the hinge on the door
   And in winter will not thaw.”

The berries were the deepest red.
   “Tell me of yourself,” you said
And turned to face me in the gloom;
   “I am back-talk in a room,
A muffled movement in the combe;
        My horny hand on your wrist
   I am winter’s ape you kissed.”

© January 1980

Mid-Winter Sun

The wind is chaotic,
Shaking the house like a dog.
In the brief afternoon
The sun puts its fingers
On a clod of earth,
And the wren splays its legs
In possession.

I think of summer
When I will walk my garden
Like a potentate.
Gold will be my colour,
Gold of the sun,
Of my demonstrative voice
Chanting the Iliad as I walk.

I am hoarding myself,
Waiting for better days.
I am a gleam through brushwood
Leading you on
Through the sticky soil:
Only discover me
And I shall outshine the mid-winter sun.

© December 1979

Urbi et Orbi

Apart from the very lightest grammatical brush-up I was going to leave my poems unchanged but I found the third section of 'Urbi et Orbi' so thinly 'thought' and, therefore, glibly expressed that I attempted to tighten things up. I can't claim to be completely satisfied with the result but short of writing a replacement section (and my mind now is differently stocked from what it was thirty years ago) it's the best I can do. I thought of suppressing the third section entirely but the rest of the poem felt truncated. I thought of suppressing the entire poem but thought that there were things in the first two sections which earned their keep. Besides, what parent can resist the temptation to thrust his faltering progeny into the limelight?



I walk the city streets at twelve o’clock.
The late-night clubs are straightening their ties
As dice and women grin their whisky grins.
The ashcans filling with McDonald’s trash
Blare dead “hosannas” to the frosty air.
I have watched the feet go dragging through the straw,
Shuffling the lost and fading to a cheap
Cold end. One had a brilliant mind but now
His arm is punctured, raw, his thought become
A broken pile of concepts. One knew it all,
Needed no discipline nor patient fact:
He struggles nightly with the acrid lights
To hide the challenge of his wrinkled skin.
We all believe that death is next week’s trial,
But curled against a wall to entertain
The rats are some who last week thought the same.
Cities flung loosely on the cheek of earth
Flare through the line of night, each offering
Oblivion to those who cannot stand.
Pity and social science stalk the streets,
Waving indignant fingers at the Christ
And quoting from the Sociological Rules:
They guard their dead, half-acolyte, half-crow.
New York, L.A., the cities of the plain –
The Christmas message like a ball of mist
Is shrugged aside on Broadway. Limousines
Won’t start, the addict begs his bread, and men
Beneath a rancorous unhappiness
Wander towards the old year’s close not knowing
That the Blood once spilt hangs in the air tonight.


Like sandflies humans crowd the littoral:
The sea is big with sewage. Beneath horizons
The coral isles are out of bounds. Revolt
And insurrection teach the people what
To think and those now burnt in effigy
Tomorrow face their captors and the future
In cellars where the guns cough after sentence.
The ghost of Cato stalks aghast, its hand
Denouncing all sclerosis of the mind –
The intellectual “maybes” of the West
Concerned about their bellies, fat on meat.
An industry like smallpox pits the earth,
The cardboard shanties swathe the capital,
And out at sea Poseidon is ignored
So that the oil might light Manhattan’s follies,
Titillate the London air, and wipe
The rational smile from Hamburg’s face beneath
The stupid gloss of neon. The poor desist
From mentioning themselves, restricted to
The hot and killing climates. In republics
And in the kingly presence all forget
The duty of the ruler to be wise:
Compassion is a tightened fist and if
We must give thought then let us calculate
In units of a thousand T.V. dinners.
The churches sing across the land; the shrines
Are lit, their light hangs like a tear in the air.
O lift the hand of blessing and let joy,
Unreasonable joy, descend once more on this
Sad world which wrings its fingers like a child.


The Christmas feast approaches fast
To bathe with light the dull-eyed past;
My thoughts encompass Eastertide
When Christ the King both loved and died;
And solaced by the Christian year
I face the world in middling cheer.
When man kills man and feels remorse,
Or helps the wounded to his horse,
Shares flies and pain in squalid shacks
Preaching to those who turn their backs,
Refuses to denounce belief
With Amin’s pistol in his teeth*;
I give assent to that small voice
Which once allowed leaves little choice.
It calls us to abandon self
And take our neighbour off the shelf,
That from a makeshift stable bed,
The moment of the broken Bread,
From Passion and Epiphany
Might come a faith to set us free;
Free to arrange as best we can
The earthly stay of ingrate man:
The drunkards and the starving all
Invited to the feasting hall,
That justice and compassion might,
Like milky dawn, make day from night.

Pray to make pure your intellect
That we be Church and not a sect;
And with an un-illusioned mind
Proclaim the Child to all mankind.

* Archbishop Janani Luwum of Uganda, martyred at the hands of the dictator, Idi Amin, 17 February 1977.

© December 1979

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Looking At My Fingernails

Another poem in syllabics. I see in this one that I adopted one of those systems used by W.H. Auden and others to make their task more difficult - or shall we say, interesting; i.e. apart from the regular pattern of syllable count, all contiguous vowels or vowels separated by certain consonants, in this case 'h' and 'w', are counted as one. In fact, I recall that rather than make the task greatly more difficult it helped by forcing one to define more clearly and succintly what one wanted to say. Of course, whether the final poem is any good is another matter.
   I also note that in a stroke of early ecumenical endeavour I moved beyond my usual Classical-Christian thought world and made a nod to the god, Shiva. The hymn, 'Lord of the Dance' was very popular at the time and may have had something to do with it.  I cannot recall doing such a thing in any other of my poems. I wouldn't do it again: it's a question of where the truth lies.


I sit at my window studying
   My fingernails, their half-moons
As pale as morning mist. A dull unease
   Inhabits the mocha light,

Issuing in newscasts and the death
   Of Innocents. November
Takes hold, mulching the soil to a stony
   Paste, killing each primary

Colour. Wrapped in a miasma of warm
   Clothes and cigarette smoke I wait
For the New Year, content to doodle
   With problems, ignoring the

Screams that infiltrate with the hissing wind. On
   All Saints’ Day I thought of the
Corpses collapsed in self-dug graves, their
   Open eyes dishonoured by

 The scattered, indifferent earth. Now,
   As Advent approaches, I
Might stir myself, but the tepid air
   In my lungs gasps at the effort,

Grateful for the grey, cold sleep of the
   Year. If only a tinsel
Innocence would suffice, would redeem the brute
   Facts of this world! But Man, born

In blood, always encounters the tough
   Fabric of the universe, and his
Own wayward temper, urging him to
   Attack. When I focus my

Mind I see aggregates of atoms that
   Issue in poisonous Saturn,
A meteorite cluster or a
   Falling tree, and vulnerable

 Man, a complex of molecules sheathed
   In saliva, gingerly
Sniffing his way through the sciences,
   Getting hurt time and again. But

Sometimes, deep in the flux of things, I
   See the Dancing Lord Shiva,
Dancing out his intricate patterns,
   Bestowing consciousness with the

 Tap of his drum, his arm raised in a
   Potent gesture of friendship. If,
Somehow, our destiny is to dance as one
   With the Lord of Life it will be

With the scars of experience etched on
   Our skin, our hearts aching that
We acquiesced in so many deaths. I
   Am sleek and trim, fondling my

 Fingernails and breathing on them with
   A mist of condescension.
Between now and Christmas men will be shot,
   The unjust will dab their lips with

A napkin, and each day the dusk will
   Fall, incapable of caring.
I sit on, swaddled in my comfort,
   As vulnerable as a birth.

© November 1981