In Memoriam C
I went alone by old canals
And saw the gardens grown from waste
Coal-heap compost, newspaper paste
And smelt the raindrops’ funerals.
Around a reedy, autumn pond
A wary grasp of sycamores
And mortal ash trees marked with flaws
Where wire fences scarred their bond.
Upon the puddles ripples ring;
The sky begins to decorate
The garden with a water-weight
And smack the mud, and patterns bring.
It is a partial sanctuary;
Aided and abetted, rich,
Leafmould rotting in a ditch,
A very sullen place to be.
The lonely walk I’ve taken here
Has led past corners where we laughed
And where we drank a loving draught
And where we shared a pint of beer.
How could it not, when every street
Has been a place we’ve known and shared?
When every roadsign once declared
The city was our place to meet?
I cannot walk past cranes or trees,
Follow paths or railway lines
Without seeing speaking signs
Of what you sometime meant to me.
I had to go to somewhere new –
A place I never shared, and still
As up the tower I found my thrill
I wanted so to be with you.
The train fled through a concrete scar
Half across the garden fields,
Through the chalk your bone-land yields
Not long away – and yet too far.
I felt my trespass in a place
Reserved for our shared wanderings.
I cried to think of happy things –
Cold on the downs, your true embrace.
The beach is shingle and I read
That half the land is shingle too,
Five centuries worth of land born new
Where once the sea lay in its bed.
Each stone a flint plucked from the chalk
And rounded by the waves’ rough play
Until it found a place to stay
Where rustles are the stonefalls’ talk.
There is a castle on the marsh
Built by a famous, frantic King,
Now a ruin, crumbling
And eaten – rotten – broken – harsh.
Built there to stand upon the shore
But stranded by the passing tides
Each bringing stones, and wrack besides.
The sea is not there anymore.
Two miles inland – what a plain sign
For all those things we deem most firm.
The world will change, so ends the term
Of all possession – but chiefly mine.
I loved you till it creased my soul;
I changed my mind to want your shape
And feel the lack when you’d escape:
You did. I let the pebbles roll.
So starts an avalanche again –
The smallest stones move rocks.
The freest hearts are bound with locks
That rust like links in anchor-chain.
Four months already stand these fields fallow
That thickly were sheaved,
That thickly were sheaved.
Cuts the share deeply and lie the stones shallow,
Turned up the treasures we meant time to hallow,
The trees all unleaved,
The trees all unleaved.
Coincident footsteps convinced us of meaning –
I saw and believed,
I saw and believed.
Your hand for my holding, my wounds for your cleaning,
Those words for our hopes and your shoulder for leaning
And what we achieved,
O what we achieved.
The ground is all spent and now little is growing
For I’ll not plant there,
No I’ll not plant there.
Why cover the ploughings with a new Year’s sowing
Where the bones of the land are still bare and showing
And I know I still care.
I know I still care.
The ash still marks my forehead like a bruise,
So rare, this imposition of a state
Quite unlike everyday, preoccupied
By plans and hurried patchings of short time.
A foretaste of a heavenly banquet’s mine –
Indeed, for as I chewed the bread, sipped wine,
I had no other thoughts at all, just hope,
Pure gratitude and joy, joy still and cold
Like shining crystal in a dirty rock.
That is the flavour of the awaited feast –
The freedom from the guilt and daily fear
Of failing tomorrow’s contracted tasks,
Of wasting the chances to write and to keep…
I have no fear of death, he said, but, ah,
To fail! A thing I have not known, and fear.
I’ve loved to hear Charles Gordon saying that
For all so many years, since still a boy
I saw that desert city burnt, attacked,
Feluccas swarm across the Nile, close-packed
With jibbah-clad jihadists, Gordon stand
Calm and clear of conscience, ready to die
To prove his point. How dangerous a film!
But I cannot deny it feeds my heart
And so proves that ideas, when acted well,
And scored with mystic themes, pearl-satin skies,
The bittersweet melodies of wanting,
Yes, ideas can outlast the very stars,
For supernovas have exploded since
The pyramids, the Hadrian wall, some books,
Some towns, some very buildings, all of that!
And deserts have advanced across the plains
Since ancients wrote down recipes for thrush
In honey, piglet cooked in brine with herbs.
Much longer then will last self-sacrifice
When isolated in a parched, dry town.
The dust of all the desert, dust of sin,
Can’t choke the throat the spirit wants to loose
And when I sang in worship, welcoming
The news of Easter, still a long walk hence,
I sang despite the dust surrounding me.
The first of many days of Lent,
A walk of indecisive hopes
That fall and flutter, telescopes
Can pick out figures where time went.
One moment I have heart to dream,
Then crush it, sentencing my step
To be man’s mark on barren steppe,
And lose my sight of what I seem.
The promise of another task,
The light of distant island shore,
A flock of child-like bird adore
And ask the questions children ask;
Why does the sea lap up the rock?
The shapes the cliffs make, do they change?
If I walk west, where will I range,
And when return? Who times the clock?
The desperate, half-mocked chance to care –
I didn’t really let the card
Imprinted with a kiss regard
My face’s puzzlement – just there –
I stood it on a shelf as if
I understood its sending, sent,
I understood all that she meant
Because I’ve fathomed motive’s glyph.
All characters are now to me
Like people populaced in books,
Their eyes give wary or vacant looks,
They seek to conquer, or to be free.
Reducing all my colleagues, friends,
And new acquaintances to parts
I vastly undervalue hearts
And so my hope in people ends.
Up jumps a hope, and then it drops,
And day by day or eve by eve
I wipe my tears on my sleeve
And harvest sadness with these crops.
I know too much, yes that I know
And would be glad, surrendering
The rush of teaching’s rendering
Of people, for the chance to go
And live for nothing else but this,
Grass and sand and seagulls’ cries,
Peatsmoke stinging bleary eyes,
Words that heal with their kiss.
These things still catch me in my throat:
Nail varnish, certain sea creatures,
The tickets my desk still features
For films seen last year, my green coat.
For several minutes I can live
Just answering the moment’s call
And fill my head with duty, all
The tasks my choice to teach can give
But sooner, later, never long
A moment’s hush descends and dwells –
A hush that echoes thought, which tells
Of who I was, what songs we sung.
It seemed much better to become
Another soul in the same flesh
And leave the previous self to mesh
And then dissolve – to turn quite numb.
And yes, it’s numb, where it did burn,
Just like the numbness of a knock,
The numbness of loss, hurt and shock
That disappears when you turn.
So simply look another way –
A busy life is quick to find
And teaching, writing, fills a mind
And worry quickly fills a day.
Because a tidy room, a space,
A sunny morning, open page,
Will catch my throat and then engage
A memory to inhabit space.
She rests, or toys, or fixes things
And fills the room with noise and play
And crams life into the whole day
And hears the words the singer sings.
She’s heard most of my words before
And tested, tasted, all their sense
And I can’t read them blankly, hence
Would rather not read any more.
Wine and Water
A glass of wine might slake the thirst
But water, sure to rest the soul
Runs freer, less in our control,
The next draught swifter than the first.
Yet still we have this drink to share
Through time, across a world made small,
I drink with poets, saints and all
Distracted, dreaming, trying to care.
Blood. It does not mix with oil.
Another source of cleanliness
To sluice the cuts that nonetheless
Are stinging, tinctured with the soil
Of all the everyday, and night,
The bringer of our rest or pains,
Should heal us as we sleep, but veins
Of running sorrow bleed us white.
So washing off all worry’s marks –
Cold splash of spring-fed water, or
A brassy jug of wine to pour
So rainbows shine in ringing arcs.
A mile away the city lights –
The ancient, banking city, lit
With red and white and sure to fit
All today’s money – those clear sights
Which stand on towers stood to the South
One half the distance to my school,
They blink and glimmer like the pool
Reflecting stars from night’s broad mouth.
From here I see them every dusk
And every morning, if I rise,
They shine beneath plane-brightened sies,
They flood the morning like rich musk,
A smell of money? Or of time?
Perhaps of youth? But none I know,
The choices I took long ago
Forewent this wealth, undid this crime
To eat while others starved and cried,
I chose to eat the children’s bread
And rest upon a narrow bed
That barely rests me on my side.
But then it was no choice for me –
There never was an enchantment
About the interests money lent
So how can I claim virtue’s fee?
Our hearts each lead us where our minds
Can tell us that our calling dwells
And all the lies that rumour tells
Are as the rusted swords time finds.
As years pass, they seem less and less,
All worn by soil, by water, salt,
And distant tongues grow hard and halt
While living words grow and possess.
Now I can wear her gift upon my wrists,
The reassembled clock-pieces to link
Our lives, half out-of-time with what persists.
These first pair, shared and bought, began the lists
Of contracts of giving, presents for ink,
Now I can wear her gift upon my wrists.
The next two are stiff, worn in Cambridge mists,
And I lost one of our favourites – flat stones sink
Our lives, half out-of-time with what persists.
I hung rings in her hair – this sight persists
When I wish memory’s eye would wink.
No eye can wear her gift upon my wrists…
They only hold together with sharp twists,
Straining but secure, I thought, but now think
Our lives half out-of-time with what persists.
But hands that held are impotent, blank fists,
And the last dregs of gladness, those I drink
Now. Can I wear her gift upon my wrists,
Our lives half out-of-time with what persists?
Snow Convicts me of Selfishness
The air plays fair with floating flakes
Today, not landing, touching, cold
And sure to make all memories old
As they’re immediate, as now wakes.
The moment of our living life
Which we have called the present, well,
Impermanent as snow that fell,
As dreams of future home or wife.
To touch is just to melt, to slip
Into the water of my tears
And reaching back through eight long years
I catch a stalagmatic drip.
Each thought or act, designed to build
A structure, gently, life’s smooth plan,
Is now dissolved. What I began
The changing of the air has killed,
Wind from across the sea or land
From far-off cities, far-off fields
Each birthing wind, which in turn yields
The emptiness of empty hands.
But all of this is out of place –
To let the snow be first a sore
Is to ignore the beauty – more –
To see the mirror but ignore your face.
My hurt is not the only one,
I am no axis for the world.
Forget the anger that you hurled
And let the tears drip, then be gone.
Unsettled snow and bitter wind –
The metaphors of my unease.
The weathers, like the seasons, tease
And when I pitied me I sinned.
Between the lines the story tells
I hear an author’s voice distinct.
Convinced that he and I are linked
I hope to set such stirring spells.
Adventure, or a sudden loss,
Alike speak truth when men can stand
And see themselves as earth of land
And venture futures on time’s toss.
The rafts of dreamers, mad or sane,
Carried by inhuman streams,
Rivers in the sea, strong beams
Of balsa wood and bamboo cane,
Light as light and fragile, lithe,
Barely count to city minds
But when the rocks and anchor grinds
Rafts pass swift on, serene and blithe.
For those who share the water-rolls,
Split and crash through frantic swells
A floating scrap of wood impels
No certain theory, proves no wholes,
But if you have become relaxed
And let the currents rise and dip
Allowed them lift you, turn and tip
Theories convince untaxed.
Lines from a Train Window by Bedford
By Bedford sheets of water blanket grooves –
The sillion silvered, overcome and smoothed.
Hedgerows prove ancestral farmers’ plans
But water came and drank up all the land.
A waste – lost value – blank diminished ground –
Or know that soil too needs rest and sleep.
A string of salmon-coloured floodlights from
A light industrial estate, those sheds
Near Wellingborough, parade a fan of rays
Across the fresh full mere like liquid stars.
The Garden, Gone and Remaining
It’s dangerous, returning where
You left your living herbs to root.
A trip to re-taste friendship’s fruit
Was bittered by a chilly air.
The trees that stood between brick walls
That hid along the alleyway,
Perpendicular and grey
Behind the street thick with footfalls –
Those trees that softened up waste ground,
Beloved by none who owned them, no,
Beloved by one who knew them so,
Can no longer there be found.
Eight sycamores, wind-strewn and wild,
A faded, fallen apple, broke
Beneath the ivy’s unfair yoke,
And hazel and its hopeful child,
The ashes, birches, and tangled low
Odd-limbed gooseberries, all leaf
Their chance to fruit far too brief,
My chance to help them years ago.
If anybody knew or cared,
I did – who slept beneath the branch
And dreamt that plot my mind’s wide ranch
And ate the berries birds had shared.
Returning down that concrete path
Something airy worried me –
Then bare sky lay, no branch, no tree,
And sorrow mingled up with wrath.
For all these deeds and rights to build
What value has the love of soil?
For profit pulled from a rebar broil
Who counts the trees the clearers killed?
Small pain, oh yes, for all fall, trees.
What sentimental rot – what pose!
But gloved hands felled and counted those,
That last were climbed and held by these.
I know the width of limbs, the give
And sway of outstretched arms that reach,
From letting slower creatures teach
And show me how to be and live.
God speaks in rocks and fruits and trees,
So shouldn’t I be sad and cry
That disregarded saplings die
That I regarded, gave me ease?
From bed – this bed – beneath this spread
I’d wake and see them greet the day
Or sleeping, hear the wind at play
To test them, twitch them, shoulders spread,
Roots wild-set but gripping close,
Joying, fighting with the gale,
Ducking rain and flicking hail,
And then in sun, remain, repose.
I left a lot there in that ground,
A sage-bush brought and cropped and strong,
The trunk split-twisted, leaves grey and long,
Potatoes not yet dug or found.
Nothing’s lost. I hope – it must be.
I know that God permits no waste,
And where our minds dash on in haste
He plays a longer game than we.
How many times a root re-springs,
How many times a spring re-flows,
Oh, every time you prune a rose
You prove the loveliness of dead things.
Birds and Boats
The ship is launched upon the lake,
Its sails set, now out of reach,
I ask, will it touch the beach,
Or twist, tumble, capsize and break?
The pond for model boats is dry,
The leaves of hurried sycamores
Clog the drains and dirty the floor.
This is no season to trust the sky.
No boys, no girls, no granddad’s knees,
No uncles, ice-creams, Labradors,
Just lonely dreamers seeking cause
To still believe their fantasies.
Somewhere between this keyboard and
A desk eight thousand miles away
Someone might be moved to say
‘I know his hopes, I understand.’
Then shall I have a call to trace?
If I’m appointed, will I be
In awe of purpose, torn through space?
The balsawood and cotton ships
That people loose in summertime
Are sent off, voiceless, bare, to mime
The exploration of long trips.
They bumped against the concrete rim,
A stranger sailing his own craft,
Gently lifted it out, laughed,
And walked, carried it back to him.
Perhaps he watched it, hunkered low,
Imagining himself shrunk small
Astride the deck’s slow rise and fall
Sailing where the sailors go.
But still in fact ashore – well still
A toy boat bears a beating heart.
I don’t know how to say this part,
But where mine’s gone, perhaps I will.
To hope seems too much certainty,
And simply to forget and do
The jobs today has found anew
Does not distract or settle me.
My heart is out upon the sea,
I sent it there, I bade it fly,
When back in distant evenings I
Would stand and watch the gulls wing free.
But Now Send Flesh
That coat of gentle, ginger suede,
Real warm, perhaps the sleeves too long,
No inside pockets, can’t belong
To this me, since such fabric’s frayed.
The leather’s bright as bought, except
A collar-line; the buttons tied,
All rethreaded, worn with pride;
I’ve thrown out others – this I’ve kept.
For weeks I’ve followed round my ghost
Counting when I wore that first,
When she gave that, bit lip, cursed,
To find her hand was still on most.
But this I purchased long ago
When I was first at leisure, rich,
And chose to rise to pleasure’s pitch
And wear the mirror’s happy glow.
I bought it yet before I knew
The name that now distends my fears.
I’m tied to something through the years
That has no will to say or do
Yet speaks, forgiving, soft and smooth,
The skin like skin I miss to touch.
Ask, ‘Do I miss her?’ ‘No, not much,
Except when breath my lungs would soothe.’
On every surface, every door,
Fingerprints and darkling hairs.
I find her when I walk upstairs,
She rests in blankets even more.
The pencil pot, the chopping board,
The tent, the grout for fixing tiles,
The dreams of treading sunny aisles,
And every single guitar chord.
I haven’t yet resolved this rage –
Am I to amputate my past
And lose the years I clung to, fast,
And blanken all my diary’s page?
Don’t give advice – don’t share your grief –
I know already that time heals,
That when a nerve is cut it feels
But later leaves its torture brief.
Can you imagine I want that?
A heart which soon will cease to care?
A place to hide? Oh, how unfair
To know distraction or combat.
So either suffer every jab
And let no-body lift a share
Or betray, regret, then forswear
The once-bright future, paint it drab.
That jacket though is still as fresh,
And I still like it as I did,
And while I hated, cried and hid,
I petrified. But now send flesh.
To think of burying gold
When it hangs for free in the air
Just beyond the lover’s reach,
Just above her hair.
There beyond the snouts of dogs,
The winter-fingered trees
But bright and strong and in my eyes
The shining coin of spring’s surprise
It hangs to tempt and tease.
The crocus tips are up
And the night has returned to its hours
And all the city folk are glad
To tell seasons by the flowers.
Past the sour smell of square white bread
Put out to feed the birds
I route my return in time to pray
And gently finish the first spring day
With a gentler ring of words.
I used to think you had to understand,
To know your place in history’s line,
Your form, your pace, your isocline,
And hold your past and future in one hand,
The hand that holds the pen. No more.
The pattern of art’s providence
Is far more complex, fractal, tense,
Than any art can frame or store,
And when I’ve walked through quiet pines
I’ve heard the boughs that yawned and swayed
That beauty isn’t something made
But something found between straight lines.
Hear Mozart tumble with his tune –
He knows how long to tease and tweak,
But try and numerate that feat –
Retire, and learn to play bassoon.
I wrote three thousand words today
In just two hours, to do what’s due,
Delineate some skill’s debut
And teach a child to make work play.
But that was not enough, I missed
The target I had had me aim
And have drawn out this writing game
To be the whole week’s stretching list.
What better? Suffer? Write and sob
Or inject laughter, distract noise
Forget my children, leave the boys
The girls, the classroom, drop the job?
I am one man – I have one heart –
And when I test it, stretch it out,
The pain is like a desert’s drought,
The muscle rested pulls apart.
Then only through life’s constant work
Can I find rest from doubt or debt.
There’s no relaxing here, not yet,
So I’ll pick up the pen I shirk.
Every pattern that’s made by the water
Where tides sculpt the ripples of low-slung sand levels
Is hidden, invisible, but for its traces,
The skeleton ridges and quartz-dancing revels.
Across the cold strand the sea is like silver,
Its lobes licking tenderly flattened out swells.
The sand barely rises, except when the water
Displays a true level and every tongue tells.
But even those waters are ebbing and rushing
And never the beach or the sea’s edge is smooth,
But climbing, high-rising, then falling, revealing,
It softens the crystals like lullabies soothe.
Delabole Waterfall at High Tide
Upon the lip a flow like glass,
It seems as solid as the slate
Over which the waters mate,
Salt and sweet, where waves amass.
The waterfall persists its flow,
Its noisy rattle, chatter, rush
But the bigger water sweeps in hush
The shatters patterns with a throw.
Now synchronised in flow and draw
The waves ride in and mount the shelves
Some further, nearer, spend themselves
To salinate the pool-spread shore.
Is it a battle or a game?
These two waters meet head-on
Their distinct selves are seen, then gone.
And left, one cold and salt-sweet same.