Thursday, 21 February 2013

An Expostulation

Time flies. It is interesting to note that the preoccupations which now dominate much public debate were already taking wing in 1980 when this poem was written, e.g. environmentalism, minority ‘rights’ and new age spirituality. A few notes: 5th stanza – the USSR and the Cold War still existed; Jimmy Carter was US President; despite the ideological divide the US was selling large quantities of grain to the Russians. 6th stanza – it was regarded as a cultural triumph that The Who had been booked to play in Dallas, Texas – God help us. 7th stanza – “Christopher Street” was a term for the homosexual lobby. 10th stanza – “Giroux” is Robert Giroux, Chairman of Farrar, Straus & Giroux who spent a lifetime discovering and publishing a huge list of significant writers.


What is the use of books in bed,
The half-read and the to-be-read
   With no-one at your side?
The clock becomes a mass of ticks,
The blankets do not yield to kicks
   And vanish like a tide.

England meanders into night –
A room gone quiet after light –
   This dull autumnal day;
The U.S. with the poet’s wife
Beneath horizons bursts with life,
   And makes demotic hay.

In California golden men
With names like Brewster and like Ben
   Are riding on the surf;
The sun-soaked cities eat the coast
Like young PR’s devouring toast
   Out on the morning turf.

In Oregon, that lovely state,
Committed young make drivers wait
   Until they’ve checked the gasses
That spluttering from a cracked exhaust
Might visit minor holocaust
   Upon the natural masses.

In mid-West states the farmers bring
Their combines to the harvesting –
   The glowing plains are shorn;
They loathe the Russians, all they do,
Think Carter should rough up a few,
   But want them to eat corn.

In the New South of dust and plain
A cowboy flies an aeroplane
   And drinks at Caesar’s Palace;
A businessman concludes a deal
To civilize the commonweal
   And bring The Who to Dallas.

In Washington and in New York
Discrimination’s all the talk
   Against the blacks and women;
And Puerto Ricans, Mexicans,
Christopher Street and Indians,
   And anyone not winning.

Off Union Square a church is full –
A group debate the pentacle
   And study the “I Ching”;
Next week it’s “You and Worry Beads”.
Outside, a faded notice reads
   “The Church of Christ the King.”

On campuses a few old men
With shaky lips remember when
   They lectured on the Good;
Their students sat in quiet rows
Developing a canny nose
   For what was gold or wood.

But Giroux in his office grooms
The products of cheap, rented rooms
   Refusing to allow
That Art and Culture should become
As hollow as a beaten drum
   Or bellow like a cow.

In England now the pundits write
As if they ever had been right
   And try to scan the times;
Boring as men in urinals
They only know that criminals
   Incline to commit crimes.

Our intellectuals drink their juice
As subtle-arrogant as Zeus
   And open the New Statesman;
From front to back it’s full of “it’s”
And other non-elitist bits,
   As surly as a placeman.

The poets rise soon after noon
And spread their butter with a spoon
   Singing a small “introit”;
If Pope or Chaucer stood before them
And spoke of wit or of decorum
   I fear they would not know it.

The people who produced the ballad
Now struggle for a crazy salad
   And know not want they do;
The streets are like a vale of sighs,
Their windows are accusing eyes
   Demanding “Who are you?”

As sullen as an offshore rock
That’s grazed by a forgotten flock
   And cut off by the tide,
England sings ditties to the sky,
Scratches its cheek, is jostled by
   The flotsam at its side.

The storm clouds of this latter world
Are spreading fast like flags unfurled,
   The Furies search for blood;
We play our corner of the game,
Giving our number and our name,
   And watch the rising flood.

Think of the starving and the fraught
Whose lives are no more than a thought
   As officers prepare
To move their armies to the front
Where villages will bear the brunt
   As if they were not there.

Come back my love on the last ’plane
And we shall bill and kiss again
   Before the thunder starts;
For soon a sword will draw a line,
The generals will give the sign,
   And frenzy grip our hearts.

© January 1980

Wednesday, 13 February 2013


Jacob at the guarded ford
   Held nuclear fission on his tongue;
   The Stranger said, “What song was sung?”
These are the words of the Lord.

Jacob at the guarded ford
   Moved crack divisions in his brain;
   The Stranger said, “What mother’s pain...?”
These are the words of the Lord.

Jacob at the guarded ford
   Weighed pelf and hunger in his hands;
   The Stranger said, “The burning sands...”
These are the words of the Lord.

Jacob at the guarded ford
   Plucked rose and lily by the stem;
   The Stranger only said, “Idem.”
These are the words of the Lord.

Jacob at the guarded ford
   Ignored the wound his brother had;
   The Stranger said, “The wise are mad...”
These are the words of the Lord.

Jacob at the guarded ford
   Arraigned the lion, soothed the lamb;
   The Stranger only said, “I am.”
These are the words of the Lord.

Jacob at the guarded ford
   Fought till the night was almost dim;
   His shrivelled sinew cried, “Elohim.”

These are the words of the Lord.

© February 1980


Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Pithom and Raamses

“And they built for Pharoah treasure cities.”(Exodus I:xi)

A dusty laughter scuffles in the streets
And calls the faithful to a bitter thought;
The youthful gangs, the madmen and the cheats
Denounce a way of life they never sought.

The poorest man puts butter on his bread
And takes a little sugar with his tea.
The temple scribe can only scratch his head
And think of gentle winds far out at sea.

The treasure in the bunkers falls asleep,
Its guards play dice and do not watch the doors;
The faithful find it difficult to weep
And cannot find forgiveness for old scores.

At Sinai a jealous God awaits;
But no-one stumbles from the ill-hung gates.

© March 1980

"Who Can Interpret a Broken Branch..."

Who can interpret a broken branch
   Or a spot of blood on the Down?
Who can discover the locus of pain
   Or the exact mid-point of a frown?

At midnight the sky is a blank, black disc,
   As blank as a disused noun:
A ship is gnawing its bones on the rocks,
   The seamen pray as they drown.

© March 1980