Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Country Music and the Sky

Ashford, Shoulder of Mutton and Stoner are all hills in Edward Thomas country in Hampshire.


I wake to my neighbour’s country music
And the urgency of radio news.
They are treacherous things
For before you can look out of the window,
Or begin to think who you are,
They have stuffed you into pockets
Of unnecessary pleasures,
Bogus and irrelevant worries,
And put a grey hand on your brow.
I make an effort
And go out into the garden –
My blood sits up in its veins.
Dew tumbles across leaves like skiers on slopes,
Spider-web sparkles like lemonade;
The marigolds and alyssum
Crouch in their nightclothes.
Already the late rose is cuffing the wind,
Grass leans over to hear its own gossip,
And runner beans struggle out
From under the overcoats
They have piled against the night.
The sky blushes with gold, pales with white,     
It whispers of distances,
Almost echoing to the single bell
Which tolls the new day
In Alpine passes; its blue
Is that of a canticle.
A first hand of warmth
Dabs lotion on my gooseflesh,
And I am thrilled into life –
Not a feather’s flick
On the shillings and pence plumage
Of a tottering starling,
Nor the wine-gum stumble
Of a beetle on the path,
Can escape my wide attention –
The world grows through me like a root.

But toast and coffee crackle in the kitchen,
And my tie waits for the working day.
The country music pounds through the wall
Like a long-distance runner under punishment;
It mumbles again and again to itself –
“Inanition, inanition of inanities”.

I thought of a morning below Ashford Hill,
Tip-toeing through fern and nettle
To reach the edge of Ashford Stream.
The water was low,
Scarcely enough to shiver the cress,
And the flat mud of the bank
Revealed the delicate paw marks of fox,
Glistening beneath a film of water.
Freshly, they re-enacted
Its wary approach,
The hesitant sipping,
The chestnut glare over shoulders,
And the triumphant trot
Beneath the banner of its brush
Away into the undergrowth –
The water wandered on
Like a girl in a trance
Absent-mindedly waving its hands at me...
And later, on Shoulder of Mutton Hill,
Looking across towards Stoner,
A fox rushed out into the cornfields,
Pausing only to light the bonfire of himself
And turn his nose to the wind.
I watched him through field-glasses –
A stone in gold,
A brick-red sunspot
Exploding across the fiery face of the field.
He snickered along the hedgerows
And sat a long time,
Sniffing the corn.
From where I stood
Perspective and distance disappeared;
I looked over the blue of scabious
Into the blue bowl of distance beyond
And seemed to be safely upon a sea,
Lulled by the green-and-gold-reflecting water...
That morning was a pearl of great price:
I hold it to my skin like a charm.

In the city the sky is thinking
Of the day ahead;
It points upwards into zero
And sideways into doing –
I am ready to rush for my train.
Country music punches holes in my walls;
It snivels like a child over his knuckles.
Another day, O Lord, another day.
The sky smiles and says nothing.

© September 1979/ Revised April 2012

"The Old Stone Wall, Honey-Red..."

The old stone wall, honey-red,
Baked in the sun
Beneath black-faced ivy,
Wearing it like improvised headgear.
A dog-rose climbed on the buttress,
Its delicate faces of linen
Lazy as ensigns in the fitful breeze.
The afternoon stretched into time,
Before and behind,
Ignored by the fingering moss
And crumbling pointing
As they mulled intensely over themselves.
Many lives had walked this lane
Mopping their eyes of the goad of sweat –
Its black pepper in the brilliant air.
But now there was only a silent stillness,
And my boot scuffing the turf.
Grizzled, sprawling, blunt as a gun,
This wall will survive
My translation to dust,
The years when I shall be kneaded
Into rich paste for brick.
It is ancient and lasting
As strong-walled Uruk –
That clamorous declamation
To the dust-and-khaki sky,
Sanctuary for cedars of Lebanon,
Water loud in its precincts.
Water was somewhere behind the wall,
Chronicling the passing of moments,
Clearing its throat of mud and leaf.
Uruk has gone into dust,
Snatched by Irkalla into the house of talons;
But the idea of England
Still lingered on this finger of land
Purpled by summer in the northern sea –
The grasshopper busy with screwdrivers,
The blackbird tugging at the worm of its song;
And the old stone wall, honey-red,
Smiling its tough smile
In the sunlight.

© July 1979

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

The Ridgeway Above Wroughton

Wroughton is a village outside Swindon, Wilts, nestling under the flank of the Downs.
   Again, I had to revise this poem to remove the windy nothings; I cannot claim to have removed them all.


The ant researching the damp, black earth,
Trickling through grass like a drop of oil,
And the man stumbling across divots
Of chalk, shriven by the thumping shiver
Of wind, are one
Beneath the huge, worked quarry of the sky.
Distance humbles your lifted head,
Swallowing the Ridgeway like a river,
Opaque as honey.
It is all more ancient than breathing.
Here the philosopher’s aching skull
Can ease in the sugar-warm brew of air
Where hawthorns like eremites
Stoop upon truth,
And grass turns the page of itself.
Sunlight like lenses
Tramps across land,
Igniting the suede glow of a hayfield;
Its dazzle is shattered gold on your eyes
By which the woad flanks of the Downs,
The drifting cloud,
The quick lark singing in the basin of heaven,
Are moments apprehended
In the turning of a wheel –
A sky of fire,
Scarlet as mist in a twilit rain-forest,
Revolving on an eye
Unknowably calm,
Blinding as light in light –
The vision is here and gone in a stunning second.
Where have I known it before?
It was the long moment of the waterfall,
The seamless music of its ebony string
Whispering shadows
To the mystery of sunken stones –
A sound not drowned out by noise,
Flecking the blue, flecking the green,
Enamelled by light.

When I go down it will be
To the furious surf of men,
The slurry of suburb and industrial estate
Nosing the flanks of the Downs.
There the sky is cellophane,
Wrapping up streets.
The sullen shriek of combustion
Plasters a violent haze in the air.
What trash of metal!
What fat-cheeked rhetoric of delivery vans!
The punk bulk of factory and warehouse,
Bulbous as bellies in khaki sweatshirts,
Sprawls across this field of folk
Embroiled in the fake exigencies
Of cash and carry.
We finger greedily the obliging soil
And rummage in it like a chocolate box,
Smearing ourselves with affluence.
Cities like fever
Spawn upon the earth;
They offer the starlit frenzy of heroin,
And the hopeless grief of concrete in rain.
Quarantined, men are puzzled
By a flurry of dust in their eyes.

Stare down, stare down – this land
Is solemn as an eyebrow.
Wind pirouettes in silence.
History is under the stones;
The air is full of waiting.
Sound of cattle on a gentle breeze,
Elastic clashing of flanks;
Shouts and a face
Just caught in light – it is gone.
Furs and a grunt, a warm covering of dirt,
Easing along the uplands
With a watchful eye
On the dragon-forest below –
A scurry of wind wipes the slate.
Warlord Arthur rides from Badon
With a clatter of heavy cavalry;
Hoof-mark clangs in rock,
Classic, ancient – our Dioscuri.
Old highway,
History is battered
Into your deeps and bruises,
Breeding the English rose at your feet –
Your scars are very grey.
Dust scatters to an empty afternoon.
The Downland birds toboggan on silence.
Cloud on cloud,
Cloud seeping across cloud,
Sparkling like sea-water beneath farthest blue –
The Downs disappear in the funnel of distance.
To look at such distance
Is strangely like grasping a hand.
It is the spaces –
Sun-flecked sea, albino desert,
Spongy dip of a moor –
Which release us from ourselves:
Where else can the spirit journey in its flesh,
Flee to a question, return with an insight?
The prophet,
Hurrying through miles of dusty sunrise,
And lonely Gawain,
Clashing his way across fire of ice,
Are like a morning wind
Scouring the winter unease of the city;
For the truth is always intruding,
Sudden as visions of the plague pit.
It is like time obliterating a monument.
There was a day when Britain
Like a foetus under sea
Drifted across the equator,
And these Downs were a thin rain in water.
Years were as many as waves of the sea,
Enthralling the sky with silence.
And now,
The sea is at the coast, all day long,
Wolfing it down.
The wind is at the mountain,
Night and day,
Slicing it like ham:
The moment of the Downs will pass
And will be as a second.
But their time is not our time,
And their long persistence,
Cradling bones,
Reconciles us to impermanence.

The world is a peony after summer rain,
Lip-red and full of water.
To hold one is like holding a chalice;
To put your face
Into the cool maze of its heart
Is to find an eternal moment,
In desert, at sea, in the rain-forest.
And now, and in England,
The Ridgeway like a patient teacher 
Calls us back to ourselves:
See! It is lit with the furnace
Of evening, a fire which burned
On the oily swamp, and will burn
On the last rocks above water.
I am content to wear
The slight frown of a monk
Listening to the pulse in his temples;
And the smile of a child
When day bursts on the Downs,
Basting them with sunlight of gold.

© June 1979/ Revised December 2011

Ashford Stream

Ashford Stream is in the parish of Steep, Hampshire - Edward Thomas country. I got to know the area very well all those years ago, tramping it to match up Thomas's poems with the landscape.
   Barbary Castle is the great Iron Age earthwork on the Ridgeway outside Swindon - a truly magnificent site.
   I had to do some work on this poem, and on others written around the same time and which I shall shortly post, to remove windy apostrophizing to great but abstract 'eternal things' - an unfortunate failing of mine at the time.


It was a dull, overcast day,
The sky dank on the land like fox fur,
Gone grey as a horror.
My nose itched and my clothes clung
As I climbed through beech trees
In the chilly air,
Making for the top of Ashford Hill.
All round was a silence centuries deep
As if the world had eaten poppies.
But then, like the turn of a leaf in light,
There sprang a sound mixed in
With the brush of my legs in fern,
The soft crunch of mould underfoot –
It was the sound of water running,
Filling the tent-like spaces of the wood
With its blackbird song,
Swelling and fading in the afternoon gloom.
It always surprises me, Ashford Stream;
It stays hidden, then abruptly leaps out at you,
Like a child in a crowd,
In a mixture of anxiety and manners,
Clear and freckled with pebbles.
I stood a long time, listening to its song,
Though I cannot remember
That time seemed to pass.
Its muffled bells and bird calls
Were a ceaseless music,
Inhabiting the twilit world
Of tree and creeper caverns.
When I left,
Brushing the green lichen from the trees,
I looked back,
But could see only shadows
Lifting their ears to the sibilance of the stream
Like monks at duskfall
With their cowls thrown back
Rapt in appropriation of that unruffled note.

The sound of water running –
It is the purest sound I know.
I have stood on Barbary Castle,
Watching the breeze make sorties in the grass,
Staring at the wide, bronze offering
Of cornland and grassland around;
I have listened to audible time
Booming quietly in my ears
As the wind flowed round me
Engrossing me in a pulse of movement;
And I have felt better able
To seize that into words
Than this binary, self-contained water language
Which is the music at the heart of music.
On the Russian steppe, on the Mexican plain,
In snow, in scree,
This music laces the air –
It trembles like starlight in the deep of night,
It surprises the traveller at dusty noon,
And when he leaves it behind
He walks away from himself
For it is the sound of homecoming,
Of journeys done,
Of tribulations weathered.

That day on Ashford Hill
The sky hung like the death of all tone
With only an occasional thrush-call
Sharping the air;
But no dull day can remit my joy
When I stand by Ashford Stream
Like a father by his child
To be told with a gravity that breaks the heart
That all shall be well,
And all manner of thing shall be well.
I cannot describe it, this water music,
Can only experience it,
Standing at the lip of the world –
It is the form and sound of eternity;
Existence at peace with itself.

© September 1979/ Revised December 2011

Monday, 9 April 2012

A New York Skyline

How time flies. "C.B." is Citizens' Band Radio which was a great craze in the 1970s and 80s and is almost forgotten now having been superseded by mobile phones and the internet.


Perpendicular and tough,
Silent as a cooling breath,
New York’s upper stories climb
Casual and off the cuff.
In the streets the people rush
Busily about their death
Always conscious that there might
Never be another time.
Who, if with the crudest brush,
Would have painted such a sight?

Bijou dwellings on the twelfth,
Smart apartments further up,
Make from steel strip and from stone
Modern metaphors for health.
Iced martinis radiate,
Formal as a china cup,
Recent versions of the Good –
Never, never be alone,
Never think but meditate,
Never frankly look at blood.

Elsewhere in this concrete town
Someone eats his simple meal,
By his side an open book,
On his face a simple frown.
Plato, Aristotle then
Grand Plotinus on the Real
Teach him that in certain truths,
Apprehended in a look,
He must seek the fate of men.
Meanwhile, New York moves and moves.

Broadway scintillates with light,
River wharfs are like a coast,
Heliports are active with
Non-stop sorties through the night.
No one could refuse to be,
Living in this frantic boast,
Less than fully self-obsessed,
More prepared to take than give.
Bistros share the comity
Of the fashionably dressed.

Distant countries, distant states,
Stir their milky bedtime drinks,
Concentrate their partial minds
On their partial minor fates.
Small-town talk of what men earn,
Judgement in a thousand winks,
Keep the local pundit’s head
Dodging round the lowered blinds;
Little, though, there is to learn
From the bookshelf or the bed.

New York like a huge machine
Will not deal with what is small,
Wants its denizens to be
Ultra-smart and very mean.
Ardent in the singles bars
Venus having had a ball
Proffers plastic ecstasy
To some expert on C.B. –
Sketching tail lights of the cars
Mondrian works frenziedly.

Why should anyone desire
To exist in such a way?
Probably because we all
Love a chance to play with fire.
New Yorkers have answers to
All the questions of the day;
Treat their artists with disdain,
Pull them down from ten feet tall,
Cut them at a private view
And then take them up again.

Nightfall tells you everything.
Taller than the tallest dream
Buildings glitter in the sky,
Distant cliffs where sirens sing:
“Happiness is being chic,
Things are not quite as they seem,
In a full engagement book
Lurks success for you and I;
Are you strong or are you weak?
Wear your most deceiving look.”

When, forgetful, people die
(Not a word to bandy here)
Eighty stories wrapped in glass
Will not yield a single sigh.
Sunset, sunrise, afternoon
Through the plaza downward peer,
Distant on a Perspex roof,
Checking that the minutes pass.
New York ladies lift a spoon
Actively in search of youth.

© February 1981; revised April 2001

The Vigil of Venus

In Central Park beneath the clustered eyes
   Of midtown blocks which oversee
The lustful sparrows and their lustful cries
Late April gathers up its dusty skirts
   And shakes a sort of madness free.
It runs unhindered through the growing shoots
To one who thinks he loves and that it hurts,
Who shares the purpose of the swelling roots
   And glibly stares at girls and flirts.

Some go out jogging to regain their trim,
   Some gaze into the lake’s brown skin,
Some feel a frenzy race from limb to limb
And put a finger on a treasured gun –
   Still others with a book stay in.
Manhattan, fearful of the summer heat,
Propitiates with games the growing sun:
Frenzy and Spring are where the Furies meet
   To pick off people one by one.

In Brooklyn Heights a kitten starts to call
   And, ardent, screams across the night.
A lonely student jumps to hear it bawl,
His text unread, his thoughts upon the blood
   That goes on flowing out of sight.
What stirs the juicy tendon of a hand?
What old response to totems in the mud?
The intellect in trying to understand
   Would climb beyond this if it could.

In Queens and in the Bronx the melting trash
   Sings in the gutters to the day;
No-one is hopeful, no-one over-brash,
Nor looks with equanimity upon
   A madman who demands his say.
The urgent feelings of the latter Spring
Have turned upon themselves till what is done –
A knife wound or a brutal battering –
   Seems like an offering to the sun.

The boy in Central Park on Venus’ Eve,
   Hoping he loves but doubtful too,
Shakes himself into trying to believe
That in the smoky, flame-filled evening air
   A something vouchsafed to the few
Will swathe with light his gauche and anxious face,
Will modulate the marks of Eros there,
And teach him on this Eve to love with grace
   Not tempt him with a stupid dare.

© March 1981