Friday, 26 April 2013

Four Last Things

Death, judgment, heaven, hell.

Karl Rahner writes somewhere to the effect that most men do not reach a spiritual level in this life worthy of being judged.

He was enjoying another good argument,
His brain as active as the froth on his beer.
His hand was busy declaiming,
Cranking his face into pictures of moral commitment.

He was cold and sweating, shrunk inside the skin of himself.
His final argument lay in his mouth like saliva.
Death with a small black pin was striding through the air:
He had left it too late to discover what he really thought.

He had left it too late to discover what he really thought.
The human heart descending slowly in a pair of scales –
The musty creature sprouting feathers and nestling in the dust –
Was this what judgment was?

He had read many newspaper articles,
And had taken the Book of the Month regularly;
But none of this had seemed to prepare him
For the questions now being asked.

For the questions now being asked
Good God I thank you.
I know what I think about other people’s motives
And it is a joy to be able to hold forth.

Who would have thought that heaven was so simple,
That I could encompass it all in a witty phrase?
What with the beer and the women and the one howling bore
I am having the time of my life.

I am having the time of my life,
Though I am troubled by a vision like a face behind cloth.
Somehow I have lost my cheerfulness
But I win all my arguments and drink much wine.

To be as convivial now as I was in the past
Is something that puts hairs on my chest.
I am not sure if this is heaven and I do not much care,
I have reached my “summum bonum”. Do I dream?

© December 1979

Love's Imprecation

Speak the word and come to me,
Sit you down and make me free;
Conjure with your churlish spells,
Slaughter cattle, poison wells,
Do whatever must be done
That the devil’s cause be won;
Save the fury of my face
From his laughter, my disgrace;
Only, hag, good wicked witch,
When you have killed him with the stitch,
Ripped him rib by rib apart,
Have pity on his beating heart;
Teach him well but teach him short,
Make me happy in his thought,
And when he wakes all sweaty-limbed
Bathe his eyelids, mandrake-dimmed.
Dearly I love, O take your spells,
Practise them on someone else:
My mind is like a lightning-bolt,
And he an untrained, furious colt.

© December 1979

Monday, 15 April 2013

To His Wife

These sonnets make reference to the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian revolution - both "developing stories" at the time. The Russian invasion was taken so seriously that indeed it was feared that "a new Assyria" was on the march. How sobering to look back over these few decades - already the Russian invasion is memorialized by little more than rusting hulks abandoned in the landscape. Shelley's 'Ozymandias' comes to mind.


The first of marriage is a giggling breakfast,
The day as bright as water, and the bed
Which served as table for the night’s repast
Forgotten till old Adam nods his head.

Coffee and toast and glossy orange juice
Are all the contact offered with “out there”;
For lovers have a temporary excuse
To hide behind a cordon sanitaire.

Consider then, no matter where you look
A man beats up another, someone dies.
The Russians polish guns, Iran goes mad,
And tears of refugees make fighters glad.
Compassion scribbles in an empty book,
“Love is irrelevant as butterflies.”


The second is the wilting flower forgotten
As life becomes a hurried kiss and run;
Your hand appals you and seems ill-begotten,
And no one knows quite what is to be done.

Our days decay into a past become
As turbulent as water in a strait;
And our request for all is answered “some,”
And our request for some is answered “wait.”

I offer you a kiss my sweetest love
For soon the times will make us all behave.
At night I question devils in my sleep
As nations clash like monsters in the deep,
And dream of someone pulling on his glove
Who in an instant tumbles in his grave.


The third is in the classic lines of Chaucer
Which tell us of the squire who carved before
His father. But the men of Odoacer
Are busy with their thoughts and call for war.

The Russians play their cards; Afghanistan
Is made a province and the Khyber Pass
Dreams of its future as an autobahn:
The eyes of the dead are silent as glass.

Think tonight of the lusty squire, the one
Who has to love and suffer history.
A new Assyria is on the plain
And stirs up man’s old wilfulness again.
Two people are but fodder for a gun,
And armies marching give no surety.


The fourth is taken from a tapestry
Gone smoky on the wall above the fire;
It shows us in the human husbandry
And dates us by our out-of-date attire.

Come, sit by me and let me hold your hand,
My brain become a blackboard without chalk:
The sun is dancing on your wedding band
But Charon is commanding us to walk.

When time begins to sunder what has grown
As closely as the fingers of a hand,
The furious concerns of man fall by
Become as distant as a fading cry:
And all that you and I have ever known
Is given to the tide and shifting sand.

1st January 1980

© January 1980

The Chauvinist's Compleynt

“What do you do when your love is away?”
I climb out of bed singing “Glorious day.”
I make my breakfast but drop the tray.
“O what do you do?” I mope.

“What do you do when your love is not here?”
I work on a draft but the thought is not clear;
I read Lord of the Rings and forget to cheer.
“O what do you do?” I mope.

“What do you do when your love is elsewhere?”
I eat in a restaurant with whoever is there;
I denounce the poets and pretend not to care.
“O what do you do?” I mope.

“What do you do when your love is quite gone?”
I take many baths and none is too long;
I drink many cocktails and all are too strong.
“O what do you do?” I mope.

“What do you do when your love is abroad?”
I pick up the ’phone and play with the cord;
I tell her I love her and then “I am bored.”
“O what do you do?” I mope.

“And what will you do now she has returned?”
I’ll check her expenses against what I earned;
She’ll look aggrieved and I’ll look concerned.
“And then you will kiss?” I hope.

© December 1979


Monday, 1 April 2013

The Thing Which Sticks

This is another abandoned long poem in which I lost my way. I remember lengthy sessions trying to puzzle out where it was going and how on earth I would end it. After the initial sections which do not seem too bad the poem becomes abstract, insufficiently substantiated by image and symbol. And the focus changes from the significance of the 1930s writers and the Spanish Civil War to a meditation on time, history and the individual. As with other of my abandoned long poems I have done a lot of editing to rescue a spine of meaning.


(Young Writers of the Thirties Exhibition, National Portrait Gallery, London, Sept. 22nd 1976.)

They seemed, even in their not-knowing, to be prescient.
Their confident tone, perhaps, was the starting of this,
With all the assurance of hikers lightly equipped
At daybreak who measured the mountain and its squat cone
Of cloud with a thumb. And in books, studies and extended
Articles, our affair with the lacunae that constitute the past
Has built a significance to chivvy their every aside
Into order, almost demanding that the wide dance
Of the Thirties come clear in their pages. Only later,
In the broken grass, did we notice the notebook with its leaves
Torn out. In such ways we make sense of the past:
But insofar as we deal with an image between us
And an act, whose location in space-time we don’t know;
A gesture, the limits of which are inevitably lost;
And a thought inferred from a jotting hurried for the post;
That is, as we bully the material to create something
Consistent as evidence but impossible to verify, perhaps
It is best to pack the archives in the college vault
And let the scholar descend to return with ordered
News. For here under the hidden lights
Which put brown in the corners, and the matt dusk
Of respect which leans across cases like a bearded professor
With eyeglasses, these gathered samples are measly stuff: –
The first editions become anaemic from afternoons
Lost beneath shelves, their spines hanging like doors;
The programme notes, the wrinkled photographs of friends
In Oxford bags with legs as carved and faceted
As English oak; but mostly the letters and scrawls,
Lonely and silent like the restless faces of patients
On pillows when beckoned by the surgeon’s nod – all
Testify to the imaginative work performed
When papers are fingered and lamps adjusted to reveal
Significant objects from significant lives. Retrieved
From the interstices of the forgotten day they disclose
The frenetic, large-eyed men, with grins as confident
As impresarios’ (the world turning gravely about them),
Who wagered amid the discussion of books and payment
Of fees the nervous tic of their doubt on a strenuous
Effort to stand as close to their time as a simile.
But from mornings at a desk with pencil and paper; meetings
With connections at luncheon; and dull afternoons with Goethe
Or a tract for the times, they hurried to the challenge of evening,
And like those who rushed across town through soaking streets
On numerous and crucial errands, fell back exhausted
But released from the unequal struggle with the misread map.