Wednesday, 2 May 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

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