Thursday, 10 May 2012

Nightfall at Pagham Rife

A poetic vocation is born! Ted Hughes has much to answer for.
   Pagham Rife is a small river flowing into Pagham Harbour - now silted up and a nature reserve - a mile or so to the west of Bognor Regis on the West Sussex coast.


Without sound, without movement,
Dusk put its gravecloth on the brow
Of the hills, the mouth of the sea.
A man stood in that great bowl of darkness
Listening to the river as it ambled off
To the marsh. A fish jumped unseen –
The sound of its ripple as involved and as lasting
As the birth and death of a dynasty.
This urban man, far from the cities
And with only his car keys for company,
Listened appalled to his own incomprehension.
The grandeur of night, the last light on a cloud –
The lintel of another existence –
Mocked his bundle of cells and jaded muscle.
The ticking of mud was a challenge
To make something of it.
He shrank into himself like a crouching tribesman
Waving a sharpened stick at the night.

But his hand on the bar of the sluice gate
Tightened its grip until the knuckles glowed white:

      It was a nebula
      Knotted and brilliant in the depths of space
      It was landscape
      Cooling to crags out of a nest of steam
      It was joy of the victor
      Fires of his army –
      History flowed through the household of his hand
      It was parchment
      Riotously covered with leaf of gold
      It was impulse, decision –
      Coriolanus shook the sluice
      And beat it into meaning.

Under the blackness, under the night,
He took off, like a king, the robe of disguise:
His arm was a sceptre of command.

He looked down and saw the swans on the Rife

      Silent as lions
      Epic as eagles
      O darkening eye of the sun –

Their plumage blazed magnificence.
They moved upstream
Turning the globe
With a foot on the riverbed:
Behind them were gasps of mud.
Assured as hierophants
They vanished through the curtain
Held by their courteous chamberlain, the night.
The man almost cried, “Take me with you!”
But realised that the domain into which he had come
Lay elsewhere. He turned aside, claimed his inheritance,

      And wrote this poem.

© September 1978/Revised May 2012

Wednesday, 2 May 2012


Who would not have sailed with Brutus,
Searching for these islands
In the steely mists of the northern sea?
Or bootlegged for Elizabeth
With Drake and Ralegh,
Plunging through combers like a saw through wood?
That is what I think
When I stand in the Marches
Watching the west wind blot the grass,
The dog rose shiver red and white in the sun.
But at home
On sunny, windswept afternoons
I put aside grandeur,
Alone in my room.
I sit at the window
And watch just a simmering
Corner of garden –
The creosoted fence like black canvas,
Grainy and pulled very taut;
A passion flower climbing
With semaphore arms,
Pouring itself on a trellis;
And the ceaseless, piled activity
Of turbulent sky above.
Dove-bruises of cloud
Rush across the earth –
It is English weather –
Blue and gold enamelling
Giving way to blustering cloud,
As quickly dispelled
By a sudden shaft of sun.
The wind sings at my door,
And a shred of spider-web
Shakes on the pane like a trampoline.
It is an agitated honey-jar
This corner,
Become as a little Eden.
The fence has a sheen like a fly’s back;
At its foot are the gathered
Remnants of gardening –
Dusty old canes,
Remains of cacti crawled on by ants,
And an old mat
Gone anaemic in weather.
The garden swells with good things
Like a smile;
Vegetables fall over themselves,
All fingers and thumbs of growth;
And the passion flower flushes
Along its stem,
Its darkly-smiling leaves
Pursed like empty pea-pods.
It will be the highlight of summer
When it lusciously flowers:
Already its feelers
Are dizzily hugging themselves
With narcissistic glee.
And again the wind is in the corner,
Stirring things up like a stick in paint.
I am wholly at peace with myself,
Reconciled with the hung flesh
On my bones.
Warmth clambers through the window
Dressed in the primary colours of summer.
Brutus! Brutus!
Your land is fruitful as a bursting fig;
Call down protection on this demi-paradise!

© July 1979/Revised April 2012

Works and Days

From my window on the world,
My back office sunk among
Part-roofs and fire escapes,
I can see into a courtyard
Where a sycamore tree
Is surrounded by a biscuit-blank wall.
The tree, thinly leaved
And wan from its lonely existence,
Raises its crown
In a howl of anguish;
Its trunk is weeping bark.
I try to spare some moments
Each day for the tree –
To study all its small changes –
Just as in the train at morning I stare
At the wedgwood bowl of the sky,
And the young embankment grass
Waxed by the sun,
Remembering a moment
By a forest pool
When waylaid to listen
I heard the damp earth
Buzzing and crackling in the morning heat –
Small sounds, too small to hear
Above engines and radios,
But unique as life
In the clear forest stillness.
I want these sounds
To tell me about myself,
But the blundering boy of speed,
In his clumsy boots of noise and routine,
Tears me from my thoughts
And lands me in the sump
Of another City day.

The tree is so cramped
It scrapes at the wall with its branches.
But the wall is Polyphemus,
Irremediably stupid;
It would crunch a body
Like a bunch of radishes if it could.
I think the tree
In this solipsism of wall
Must sometimes doubt
The reality of its own existence.
But somehow it holds on to dignity,
Like elders in their robes,
Their hands clasped on wisdom,
Their heads serious in servitude –
O Israel, Israel,
City mud and wasted straw
Are our labour these generations.
I have sometimes thought of a gesture,
Some striking affirmation of self-hood,
But the spaces of morning frighten me.

Two things cheer my day:
The occasional whirlwind of sparrows,
Plump as corn on the cob,
Turning furious cartwheels
On the cobweb-grey hub of their heads –
The Lord God spoke out of whirlwinds;
And a certain self-hating satisfaction
When I see that the paving round the tree
Has split into grins,
Kneaded by the tree’s roots
Like fingers in dough
(Already old Cyclops
Has cracks in his boots).

I am surrounded
By the silly sheep
Of computer terminals,
Lulled to believe
That we have placed permanence
On the face of the earth
(It enables us to knuckle under,
To knock along with entertainment,
To ignore the questions under our ribs);
We have turned from the glory of life,
The super-charged moment
Caught in the hot flash
Of sunlight on water,
And dare not look over our shoulders.
But the marble columns have fallen,
The edifice is always cracking:
One day I think we shall be terrified
By a sudden access of sky.
And then –
Flashes the kingfisher water drop,
Replete with perfection,
Though we shall see it with a sticky eye.

My head has begun its descent
Into the dregs of afternoon;
The tree drapes its first shadow
Like gauze on a wound –
I am a row of ciphers.
The years lounge in my in-tray:
Its wire mesh fingers my face,               
Its long fingers finger my face.              

© May 1979/ Revised April 2012