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

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