Wednesday, 12 December 2012

"When Christ Calls to the Cracking Heart..."

When Christ calls to the cracking heart
And squeezes out its human woe
Into a tear of ice in the wind;
And the wintry suburban station,
Crouching on a black embankment,
Mourns for the extinguishing lights
Of the time-kept city below –
There is a footprint in the snow.

When I wander through the unswept streets
With a pocketful of handbills and sweet-wrappers;
When the political cries and pleasure cries
Die vainly on the night –
I wake in a holly-dark wood
With the wind’s razor across my cheek,
The city become a pile of stones –
There is a footprint in the snow.

When I stand in the crematorium garden,
Counting the names on rose trees,
Disturbing the iron earth with my foot;
When I consider the passing of seconds,
Feeling the crease spread in my skin,
And the stain blacken my eye;
When my hand forms questions in the freezing air –
There is a footprint in the snow.

The field-worm pushed a grain to the crib,
Its winter store and offering;
The Christ-child smiled and touched its head
Sharing His brilliance with the glow-worm;
I would warm myself at the glow of winter berries,
And think on the candle flickering in a twilit transept;
O, may the stranger turn in the door –
Footprints and footprints in the snow.

© September 1979

"A Siren Calling in the Night..."

A siren calling in the night,
A sniper’s gun along a sill,
A man convinced that he is right,
Prepared to wait and then to kill.

Who first denounced the middle way,
Appealing to a bunch of facts,
And now will not be seen by day
But in the dark does righteous acts?

© December 1980

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

"There is a Great Wonder..."

   There is a great wonder in silence.
In silence the Fireball expanded in
   A fecund miasma, not like brute
Zeus scattering his seed in rambunctious
   Frenzy, but like the noiseless progress
Of dreams – lurid, efficient, working their
   Way through boggling creations to a
Logic more startling than dreams. Nought after
   Nought mustered behind that initial
“I Am”, gathering time in the ‘O’ of
   Their gazes until naked, stubborn,
Clinging to its rock like a child to the
   Breast, an active chemical started
Laughing and dying. Suddenly sound was
   At home, screeching with the wind from a
Razor-backed scarp, or grunting in the springs
   Of a valley bottom, accepted
Into meaning by the coils of the ear.
   And silence, also, inveigled the
Creatures, pulling them short with a stunning
   Absence as they deciphered whispers
Which had not been whispered. For silence is
   The language of God. This agony
Of molecules, this litter of ice-bound
   Debris, receives the Word like a tone
Of voice unexpectedly present in
   The galactic mumble. What it means
Bamboozles the senses, although like a
   Novice copying the Lives of Saints –
Lonely at his work, his teeth aching – one
   Can risk in a margin: “The sun is
Shining; it is quiet; how good is God.”

© March 1983


A lover weeping by a brook
Began to quench his crying thirst –
   “Who would credit all the woe
   When the best becomes the worst?
      My princess with a look,
      With a fatal, final ‘No,’
Has turned to ashes in my mouth
         This summer taste,
And fallen to a July drouth
         Where none can sing
Our country life is now a waste.”
A starling with a broken wing
   Said, “No matter what you say
   Time will wash it all away.”

A recent patient from his bed
Surveyed the hospital with fear –
   “What if I should die tonight,
   Who will care or shed a tear?
      The pain that’s in my head
      Like an active piece of light
Prompts the question that I put.”
         His neighbour who
Had stirred the waters with his foot
         Put off his death
And did as much as he could do.
He whispered through his failing breath,
   “Say the worst that you can say,
   Time will wash it all away.”

Heraclitus strode the hill
Muttering to an empty sky,
   “Life is what approaches fire,
   To fall away is then to die.
      The wolf which makes a kill
      Let loose upon a byre
May dip its teeth within the blood,
         But when the snows
Have turned the northern fields to mud
         The frozen stream
Will sing beneath the ice, ‘Suppose,’
Become as distant as a dream.
   After we have had our say
   Time will wash it all away.”

A watcher on the final night
Felt solid earth beneath his shoe –
   “Cosmic Mother, ever stern,
   Tell your creatures what’s to do.
      Will this rocky height
      On which we stand and learn
Survive the portents of the stars?
         Our children cry,
More terrified than in the wars,
         ‘O let us live
That we might put our sadness by.’”
The dying sun exploded with:
   “There is nothing you can say,
   Time will wash it all away.”

© August 1980

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

An Ending

Efficacious formulae
Though we know not what they mean
Lead us up the garden path
Help us keep our fingers clean;
Having pulled the world to bits
Over whisky with a friend
I can sleep a dreamless sleep
Blithely sure it will not end.
Lorries thunder on a road,
Neighbours quarrel all the night,
Not a thought and not a qualm
Make me think I am not right.

Hence, in politics I find
Your ideas just will not do,
Doctrinaire tomfoolery
Out of date as much as you;
My ideas are to the point,
Badly needed I may say,
Broadly-based and well-thought-out,
Obvious as is the day.
If in time they’re found to be
Sadly distant from the mark
Blame it on conspiracy
Hugging shadows in the dark.

Or again, in personal life
Knowing what I wish to know
Once-close friends may drop like pins –
That’s their business how they go.
Health-checked and with much insurance
I’ve a sound belief which holds
Life’s a freshly laundered blanket
Free from shocks and sudden colds.
Many hours and many days
Stretch before me out of sight,
No one thinks about disasters,
Have you had one? Never? Quite!

Who, though, staring at the sky
After dark and after noise
Would not think on that dread day
Which will undermine our poise?
When the nebulae collapse,
Heat death like a dying stain
Will, across the cosmic spaces,
Cancel out what might remain.
So an ending stalks us all;
All of us despite our views
One day will receive a call
We’re unable to refuse.

© December 1980


Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Epigraph on Rome

Sunblaze. Heat dancing like black
Pepper, shaken by the brusque coolness
Of wind. Earth, old blackface, stirs
And responds, flexing itself in the glove
Of habitation. From the highlands,
The long silence of morning, where grass
Lisps in the breeze and the shepherd strides
Towards midday; from marshes and lakes
Where reed banks puzzle the water and a keeling
Boat gobbles the waves like a dog
Its food; from the smoky vista of the sea,
An artist’s palette drenched in oil,
Where nets team like boiling milk
And a wizened arm slams a stop-knot
On a rope; from country towns and estates
Where buildings bake in the sun, tradesmen
Sit at their doors and the sick are brought
To a window; from the rose arbour where a hand
Brushes a table, completing the first part
Of a History of the World (soon there would be shouts
And more bad news, disturbing eternity
In the silence of the shrine); from the dusty grapes
And gritty corn gathered like money
From the sky-warm land, the quiet lane
Soaking up sun like syrup in a sponge;
From the tremendous fertility of the plain,
The deserter dragged back on rutted
Roads past a man with a suppurating foot –
To Rome, to Imperial Rome, a glowing
Marble in the corrosion of the times.
Sound of a fountain in a city square,
Silted at corners, cracked at the base,
Furious with dolphin-light, ceaselessly
Moving. A moment of harmony was about
To come down. Watch it come down.
      Watch it come down.

© 1979

Thursday, 25 October 2012

After Rome

This poem is unfinished. The keen-eyed will spot it lacks a second section. I suspect I also planned a fourth. What the two missing sections were about I cannot recall. I doubt if I ever wrote the fourth but may have written the second. What happened to it, who knows? It may be just as well if only because, as often with my longer poems, I have had to cut a lot of windy apostrophizing.


“Troy is no more, and Ilium was a town!”
                                     (The Aeneis, Book II)

I. The Emperor

Dust and distraction. Dust and distraction.

One hand scratched an aching leg, its tangle
Of sinew, the other clutched a mirror to his face –
It laughed before him like a toothless mouth.
It was an artist’s cancelled sketch, the charcoal
Smearing his features, gone at the jaw, crumpled
Beneath the eyes, into a terror of arrested
Striving. His days were spent trying to laugh
Things off, to put his arm around news of disasters
And whisper it into a corner. He knew the sweat-bath
Of the pore, stinging like salt in a wound.
Lounged in the sunlight like hangers-on, slipping
Through doors with a grin. The times gave birth
To plausible men, their talk the inveigling
Of a golden coin, their faces those of foxes.
The palace sang with sibilant music of garments
On marble as they hurried to a conference with grasping
Hands. Power had put a crease in his forehead –
After the meetings and deputations, after
The backstairs struggles, the steely eye and firm
Decisions, he was left to himself in a room,
Staring at the winking lamp of night, surrounded
By dead men’s eyes. There were piles of despatches
On the table and an empire sleeping on expectations:
It was like fighting the tentacles of a black cloud.
The palace with its golden walls, its courtyards
And quiet corners of stone, settled upon
Itself a little more each day beneath
A sky like cracked Euboean marble. Rome
Like a stone on an old tin lid slipped slowly
Into stagnant water. There was salt on his lips
From the restless sea, and safety only in the swivelling
Eye of the lizard.
                             He had thought of his birthplace,
But was already groping for what blood and brains
Could finger but no longer understand –
It was years since he had seen the dusty grapes
And gritty corn taken by cart down the sky-warm
Lanes, soaking up sun like syrup in a sponge;
And earth, old blackface, flexing its cheeks
Beneath a breeze like water trickling... Now
His life was a careful phrase, shifting decisions
From one pocket to another, with an eye
Down corridors. He knew that he could cry out
In the night with the one desperate note of travail,
But be ignored like an ancient ghost, thinly
Flapping its dishonoured way amongst the dust
In corners. There would be no cheers if the Emperor’s
Barge were to slip along the coast, past
Small ports in the blue of the day: applause
Had crackled out across the water, but that
Was long ago, a different time...
                                                      “I sit
Here with dirt under my nails, powerless
To stop the pains in my leg, the frontiers stretched
Like rope. There are hands in pockets, eyes on chances,
Everyone is hungry and sated at once.
My finest generals win their battles but only
For themselves; my civil servants stand in small groups
Which I can never get close to; and the people clamour
For corn and more public holidays. Everyone
Cleaves to the axle whilst the wheel’s rim
Batters on rock. Those few who dare me to consider
Reports are in danger from my temper and factional
Whims. I cut them off and wander round
With tears in my eyes, holding a wolf by the ears.”
   Peachlight of the sun swept through the room; it appeased
The petulant mind. There were so many things
To do, so many, they seemed so distant. Somewhere
The wind was in the grass, the rustle of leaves
Was like hurrying feet.
                                       “I have tried to shape policy,
To mould thought into edicts, hoping to put
A handclasp on the hearts of men, to push
Aside squabbles over the price of bread,
And turn their eyes to the sun. From the blood-shot
Dawn in the east to the evening foam of the British
Sea is a dispensation as muddled as men
But fertile as a cornfield, walled from the stony
Plains without. Men ignore the horizons,
And forget that the empire is a rich clasp
On the cloak of the world. There are hands, leather-hard
With needle-tooled envy, waiting to snatch it
For themselves. The health of states does not depend
On money on the table, but on the pulse in your heart
When you take a handful of soil and look along
The valley which glows like a woman’s cheek. A land
And its people are one, owners of a great prize
To be denied the shifting encampments.”
                                                                   But why in moments
When his blood should be steady, his hand extended
Without trace of a tremor, did it sing
In his ears – “What need had I to play the long pipes?”
The manifold trickster Chance, muddling the affairs
Of states, had thrust him to the fore, his cheeks gone hollow
Like hands held to his face aghast. He sat there
Pulling threads in his cloak, telling himself stories
About tomorrow’s business, refusing to admit
There was a ship in the harbour ready for escape.
If only the signs or the Gods would be more explicit!
What if a stone was always and only a stone?
And death was always and only death – his death?
How propitious was that for a gesture? Examining
His gums he felt indescribably gone.
Something wandered through his mind like a head-pain –
‘I found Rome built of brick and I left it
Built of marble’ – “Whose words were those?
And what of me, a seedy landlord, shrivelled
In his clothes, grinning in a back-room?”

Outside, the empire crumbled like a dead log
In the sun. Only the cricket sang continuously.

III. The Artist

All day the moments settled as tangible
As dust. Books and classical music lay
About the study whilst the artist sat out
On the lawn with headphones and an extension lead.
His dozing mind beamed on the world; letters
Lay unanswered in the grass. The tired afternoon
Sun sagged towards dusk – old gold,
Faded bronze, the tawny time of silence
And defeat, when a man might start awake to find
Death groping among his bones.
                                                      He had received
An invitation to join all the right people
At a grand celebration to be held in the museum.

He stood at the buffet with the slight uneasiness
Which a man in a crowd without a ticket feels.
About the noisy room sherry in glasses
Held at the chest was like weights finely placed
In the scales of image. Voices, echo of voices,
Beneath the dome filled it with importance.
They waited for the showing of certain things, recently
Taken from a tomb in Greece. Last night he had dreamt –
   Silence of darkness, stillness of time; a stool
Collapsed in a mushroom of dust, settling like a cloth
On a windless day. Hades abducted Persephone,
Leaving the outraged sky and shivering grass
To shine unseen in the intimate darkness.
Agamemnon lay beneath his death-mask,
Becoming rock encrusted with gold. His dust
Bowed in reverence to the bones from which
It had fallen. Acetylene of the assassin’s knife –
Light sliced into the tomb. Time
Fell into gear in the bustling, shifty activity.
Voices grunted and dirt-stained hands fingered
The treasure before lifting it away. Newsmen
Gathered outside to wave microphones at the dark.
The Director announced himself satisfied – the remains
Would be studied by a chosen few. The living
Would wave their fingers in the guts of the dead. He had woken
And thought: “O world-eyed Agamemnon!
I had rather an earthquake ground you to shards than that
A National Institute should display your bones.”
And here he was, preparing to applaud the sanitised
Plunder, to lave it with a voice refreshed
By white wine. (What are those vacuous shufflers
Led by a muffled figure to the crossroads?
They are going into the dark.) The voices bubbled
And he thought to himself –
                                              “What of those early days
In the studded Aegean? Islands simmering like meat
In broth; the cave beneath the cliffs where emerald
Water teased the milky depths, and the Gods
Slept wrapped in its twangy echoes. Sunlight
At dawn stretched into sky like Archimedes’
Lever, its beauty expanding your lungs as if
A God had breathed in your nostrils. The sky, laced
In that breath, tied you to itself with skeins of silk,
Such was the glory of the glory of life. I remember
I fingered an earthenware pot, its useful and modest
Surfaces, and my mind was empty of thought
And full of being; I could have created hugely
And it would have been no more than the work of the world.
I have known nothing like it in thirty years since.
Now there is a misty barrier between myself
And the past; I can see it through the corner of my eye.
My words on the page are shallow. I sit at my desk
Through the working day and the world passes me by.
I write a letter to The Times and its publication
Is a flatness marked by silence. The perpetual flash
Of blood on the frontier and my queasy suspicion
That the centre has gone, collapsed like shopping in a bag,
Are a trouble, but to whom should I talk?
What string should I pull? I have never thought of myself
As a statesman; it is all I can do to fling out instructions
To my agent. But I think that for us
The only proper museum is a sun-soaked hillside
Where the plough turns up the past every day,
Returning it to the soil in the generous wave
Of the ploughshare.
                                 Puzzling and unruly columns of dust
Wander the plains of the east; traveller’s tales
Are derided. Collapse of empires and national woe
Occur only between pages of a book.
And how much blood will it take to wash the stone
Of preparedness clean? But what does it signify
When oblivious in a steamy office men
Are squabbling over paperwork or mindlessly
Snapping their fingers? 
                                       Our lives fall from us, we return
To the dust and our woes and happiness go with us.
What do the bones say in the deepest strata?
They are picked clean of motives like sticks. But written
On the wind is a silent phrase, prodding the unawares
Traveller – the mounds and broken earth on which
He stands are altars of the bones’ attempts
To parley with the silence. For over the wall,
Over the frontier, beyond the bad lands, the shifting
Hordes, is a magnificent simplicity of light,
To know which their lives were made rituals,
Their deaths a voyaging into silence around.
   Back in the suburbs which await me, through the long
Parole of days, by day or by night, there is a mumbled
Sigh which may only be traffic on arterial
Roads. As an indication that all is well
The weekly washing has been hung out to dry.
Death will come as a great stirrer of all this.
In my garden the long grasses are wanly so-soing
Their heads. I think I shall not sleep tonight.”

© circa 1978 (Unfinished). Revised October 2012


Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Autumn Rain

What does the rain say, falling, falling,
Kissing the ground with a flat-lipped sigh?
Only that life is appalling, appalling,
Shoving its shoulder between you and I.

The dark of the night is appealing, appealing,
Soothing the fatal flaw which grew,
The incomprehension revealing, revealing,
The gap like a death between me and you.

The leaves like ashes descending, descending,
Glint in the damp of the bleak-faced sky:
Wet-headed I wander, pretending, pretending,
That love still chuckles between you and I.

© October 1983

A Separation

My love, each year the marigolds decline,
Lapsing in splendour to a spent, brown show;
And winter, swilled in the mouth like mouldy wine,
Grows busy with its ice-bound status quo.

Yet heedless of the sopping, choking soil
Come Spring the heavy-shouldered seedlings stir –
Jazz up the garden like jam on the boil,
Singing in orange like a mad, punk choir.

My dear, my dear, should you go, should you go,
What will be left me but the blackbird’s scream;
The marigolds smashed down by one cruel blow,
And dusk like anarchy along the lawns
Where some chill figure wanders with a dream
In the long, lasting, wasting day and mourns?

© August 1983

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

All For A Place

I an old man stare into the fire –
It is laughing at itself with phoenix-flames.
When I was young I stirred things up,
Sizzling the waters into a gusty
Plume of steam, strong and mindful in the strong-willed air;
            All for a place under the willow tree.

In the heart of fire is heart of light,
Unknowable, like the hot flash of water
On a summer’s day. The air would nuzzle me
And conspire with my thoughts, a sleepy accomplice;
I held my life in the cup of my hand;
            All for a place under the willow tree.

A log slips and cinders crawl like souls...
My love (that was the great prize)
Has gone. I cannot remember when. A fire
Is within me, it burns my paltry hand.
Outside, the wind is full of back-talk, it sneers;
            All for a place under the willow tree.

The fire has fallen. I take a stick
And stir the ashes of analysis. A lonely man
In a cottage of stone, I sit with a milky
Cup of tea. This knowledge has shrunk the muscle
Of my heart. Could I fall on my knees and blow in the grate?
            All for a place under the willow tree.

© September 1978


(The Moon and the Sun)

The moon rose like silver in the sky,
The Plough swung slowly with the slowness of time,
The garden burned with St. Elmo’s fire
And the apple trees rustled in the night wind.
He is like the fruit. He is like the moon.

            The moon sank before dawn.
            In that chill annihilation
            My mind crumbled to pieces,
            Almost would not bother,
            Returned to the friable, dew-damp soil.

The sun rose like a lion in the sky,
And all day long considered the world.
The garden pool glimmered with gold,
Its imperious glitter tore the flesh from my heart.
He is like the light. He is like the sun.

© October 1979

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

The Explorers

Tell me now the scud is flying,
Now the trees are bent in pain,
Is there any point in dying?
Is there meaning in the rain?

We who stumble on the mountain,
Climbing through a darkened wood,
Search to find the hidden fountain
Singing gaily of the good.

In the trees on either side
Laughing creatures glibly call:
“Nothing, nothing,” something cried,
“Nothing, never, not at all.”

Distant on a troubled plain
Many people go their way;
“Nothing,” comes the voice again,
“Leave us,” other people say.

On the snowline stop and pause,
Think of what we leave behind:
Feather beds and human laws,
Braggarts talking to the blind.

Turn your face to where the sky
Leaps out of the snow and rock;
Abstract concepts rushing by
Denounce the hands upon the clock.

Somewhere after many miles,
Where the fountain washes sand,
Hides the valley of the smiles,
Simple as a waving hand.

Search on fellow to the end,
Quests like this are never done;
Freezing hail must be our friend,
Hope, the hidden, paltry sun.

© July 1980

Thursday, 6 September 2012

On the Death-Mask of Samuel Johnson

Silent in the toils of death
Sweet pugnacious Johnson lies,
No disturbance of a breath
Mars the thinking in his eyes.
Hard at work and hard at thought
Somewhere he makes headway with
Problems how a soul should live –
Once the teacher, now the taught.

Through the window in the street
Sooty sparrows feed and fight,
Citizens on business meet
To gull each other day and night.
Johnson and his commonsense,
Treating with the tragic muse,
Goes unnoticed by the queues
Wailing for their rightful pence.

Forms decay and mobs go out
Roaring that the streets are theirs,
Protest stumbles into rout,
Looters grab their fairer shares.
Ugly prophets, lithe of voice,
Put their callous point of view:
“Beat your neighbour – when you do
Make it plain you had no choice.”

Yet for all this public noise
Nothing is so altered that
Miseries give way to joys:
Every beggar has his hat,
Every child a bite of food,
But before a cheer can rise
Someone finds with angry cries
A violation of the good.

Johnson, Savage and the rest,
Walking London streets at night,
Talked till dawn about the best,
Argued Tory points of right;
Wary of what pundits bring
They agreed to drink a toast
When they might afford the cost,
“Gentlemen, God bless the King!”

From this death-mask learn who can
What it is to cleave to sense,
What it is to trust in man
Always in the present tense.
Underneath the soul there lies,
Sudden as a gloomy pit,
Chaos where no lamps are lit
And Deviation ever cries.

There the lost are self-condemned,
Driven on their violent way,
On a journey without end
From the simple light of day;
They who with their Judas’ pence
Rattling in their cartridge case
Jeered at Reason to its face
And scorned to kick the stone of Sense.

Teach me, Johnson, that I might,
Standing in the market square,
Shun the false alarms of night
And the gibes of people there;
Go bareheaded to the truth
Whilst the storms of daily news
Harden into misplaced views,
Unafraid to ask for proof.

© June 1981