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

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