Proclaimed by music’s brazen certitude
arresting the thronged city-centre, they
paraded through behind the band. We stood
aside, applauding – everyone aligned
like filings to a magnet. An array
of old men, some with sticks, in wheelchairs, blind,
proud under banners, dark suits hung
with decorations from when they were young.
As others on those beaches stay. Eyes-right,
each rank salutes the war-memorial where
the mayor and such stand. Your small claps ignite
on one face answering smiles, as if you bring
alive, incarnate, vague stuff that back there
they’d been told it was for when, scrambling
to boats, shell-shredded, beaten, they
scraped home from hell, to try another day.
Thrilled by pure pageantry you ask, ‘What are
Dunkirk Veterans, dad?’ So I explain:
‘Many years ago there was a war,
those men were in it. I was just a few
days old when…’ The old tale. ‘Did they feel pain?
Or cry?’ ‘Oh yes. But thought they fought for – you,
the future.’ ‘But you think fighting’s wrong.’
– When suddenly a Spitfire flew along
the High Street, dipped its wings and roared away
past the cathedral, and its huge unzipping
dispersed us back into our shopping day
from a brief exaltation, not of pride
in war, but at an embodiment that stripping
away our squandering decades ratified
yearnings unassuaged still: clear
in all the march-past recollected here.
Two poems from Transfigurations: a love cycle
Today as usual feels a waste of life
not being with you. Scribbling lecture-notes,
browsing, trundling the vacuum about,
cooking for only me… I could go out,
getting away from myself,
chat-up some woman who’s not someone’s wife…
Stuff that. I flick the telly. On the shelf
beside it that white-flowering pot-plant floats
unreproachingly pictures from the night you brought it,
your blonde hair loose: ‘I love it like that,’ as
I’d said, who’d liked it thickly plaited till
‘He does that for me,’ you explained, to kill –
but no, love’s Midas-touch
redeems to gold all we are, who’d not sought it.
Nervous, because of which I’d cooked too much,
stood dithering between classical and jazz,
I took your coat, brush-kissed September-chilled
radiance – and heard my voice indifferent
or sharp helplessly, as if I had to prove
this meal no ploy to set up… Held aloof,
I thought just, Christ, I love you.
And afterwards in sheer relief refilled
my glass more times than… Till my jabber drove you
off. I don’t remember when you went.
But phoned next morning to apologise.
Cock-up in all ways but the best, that night
remains my ballast to our gorgeous others,
beach, theatre, woods. Perhaps, likewise, your mother’s
your children, his ‘I’ll kick you out’, comprise
your negative stabilisers. Whose dimension
ensures us truer course than travelling light.
Towards such candid, all-subsuming white.
At peace, limbs interlaced, we lie and drowse.
On, as it seems, this island we’ve discovered.
Distantly lapping now all adverse seas
of circumstance. Warmed by your loving vows,
our fluent thrills of sexual embrace,
I pull the quilt so you are covered,
hoping that lulled here in our proper place
we’ll sleep, to wake together and at ease.
You think, and stir, slip from the bed, and dress,
bound back to husband, children. ‘Yes, the time
will come,’ you tell me. When we are downstairs
deliciously your lips browse my nakedness.
A last flash of your face in night. Content,
I hear your car start. Once more I’m
pillowed on your departed body’s scent
and impress, where my tongue finds long blonde hairs.
Last month’s miracle was young people dancing
on top of the wall dividing a city, hands
from the West reaching for those from the East
until that day shot for such transgression.
The Berlin Wall is History! headlines proclaim –
meaning not just dead, but irrelevant. Likewise
our postwar German friends say: ‘Hitler? –
that Nazi stuff’s just history…’
But history never dies, is the perilous tide
that wave upon wave breaking bubbles carries us onward,
floats once again like broken-up jigsaw
Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia.
In the baroque basilica of St Kasimir,
Vilnius, history laughs, is a headscarved woman
clearing out the Museum of Atheism:
‘All junk now, the lot wouldn’t fetch three kopecks!’
While if, in Romania, this day a tyrant was killed,
history weeps through the imperfect living who bury
his victims; melts down their myriad candles…
And also history stares betrayed
from sad eyes knowing Utopia too has died,
the lethal old charmer who led us on, alchemised
the selfless to murderers and their prey. Leaving
the future to crave merely more cars and shopping.
In Ward 27
‘All art aspires
To the condition
Of music’… Yes,
But what all art utters
Is life aspiring
To solacing structure,
So it is life
That craves to be music.
Tell that to the wearied
Brown backs of Brueghel’s
Three hunters descending
The snow through stark trees:
Their cold day, the boughs’
Rigid tracery, village
Below, where children
Are sliding, redeemed
Through art’s timeless vision.
Also ‘words, words, words’ –
None knew better than Shakespeare –
Are stuck in the mud
Of our human turmoil.
Mad Ophelia dying,
Cry out unaware
Of the form they are shaped to –
Forms never rinsed clear
Of our mortal lot, here
For instance, shuffling
A corridor floor,
Counting the hours
Between cups of tea,
Till wheeled to the surgeon.
In the ophthalmic ward
The vision we crave
Is simple indeed.
Only music inhabits
That ultimate sphere
Purged of life’s blemish.
It moves through abstractions.
Past reach? In a sense.
Yet, moved, I find Elgar’s
Proves eyes wrecked for seeing
Still buoyant with tears.
Two poems from The Scheme of Things
Thick autumn leaves shoaled orange, gold and red
Beneath the beech, more precious than all toys.
I gathered up the choicest, pocketed
Them to keep. Next week, ‘The rubbish boys,’
Guffawed the barber, as I delved and blushed,
Finding at last my ninepence only after
Disgorging a heap of brittle shreds, brown dust,
‘Stuff in their clothes!’ I fled the adult laughter.
Annually frogspawn mantled every pond.
I’d scooop up dollops into jamjars, bring
Them home, for weeks watch with anticipation
Tadpoles sprout legs, so few survive beyond,
To make the next green hopping generation;
And feel betrayed by the whole scheme of things.
First kids in our road, then friends met at school.
We vied tree-climbing, running, sometimes fought.
Nick, George Stone, Rodney Baxter, Brian who taught
Me to spell queueing, the Fortey twins (‘Just two’ll
Be quite enough’)… From ropes above the Ching
We’d swing, let go, land safe on the far side.
Whooping along on bikes and trikes, we’d ride
To Loughton, Ilford, circles widening.
Where are they now? Some grandparents, some dead.
Passing in streets, there’d be no recognising.
In me they live forever bracketed:
Fairisle pullovers, Woolworths’ snake-clasp belts,
Plaster on knees. On branches cut to stilts,
Or pedalling homeward as the moon is rising.
‘Use your feet, and bring the bat down true
To the line of flight, head down, and Bob’s your uncle!’
They said; or maybe, ‘Think the problem through,
Tackle it stage by stage, and Bob’s your uncle!’
Meaning it will be fine, turn out all right.
Having no Uncle Bob, I’d fantasise
A puissant lordly being out of sight,
Monitoring my every enterprise.
His hands on all the ropes, and never lost
For a solution, supernatural kin,
Concerned, however we felt mauled and tossed
By life, to see us right, through thick and thin.
Years brought wrong choices, people, home to stay.
For others, too. Unsolvable. Had Bob
Lost touch, not known his work fall miles astray,
Or flushed with the high life dozed off on the job?
No – not remotely all we’d cracked him up
To be, just a quixotic simpleton,
Even before he finally cracked up
Under the drift of things, he’d never won
A major title, steered the ship of state,
Or written Tolstoy. Now he’s on his uppers,
Outcast, derided, an old reprobate
Scavenging bins for remnants of fish suppers.
Still meaning well, and wishing others joy.
From the corner of a pub he tips a wink,
Seeing again Miss Right meeet the wrong boy,
Smiles Bob’s your uncle!’ raising his cadged drink.
In Memoriam Dermot Nolan
Midnight, more falls of rain on deluged ground
Ambush my thoughts with the image of that place
Where you lie cold, the branches’ whip and sigh
Comes desolately to me as its trees’ sound.
I never called you father to your face,
Father. Adopted at six days old, I
Was forty when we met, your hand thrust in
My own was my first clasp from any kin.
Ex-military, tidy about your flat,
Your boisterous laugh and balding head were mine;
Buoyant you gripped the car-wheel, shirtsleeves rolled;
Leapt from a summer bank we picnicked at
To cleave the Thames. Till round your slow decline
Horizons shrank. Room, corridor, your old
Friends dead, ‘must be put up with’. In that plot
Of earth stiff at your sides now void hands rot.
I stood dark-suited in the Abbey where
Candles flickered, tinkling censers swung.
Some of the mourners knew me, from your club;
Others learned with surprise why I was there.
I listened to talk of you when you were young,
Escapades, inventions. At the hub
Of ravelling grave ceremonial,
I watched you sunk as rain began to fall.
Hours sorting papers, photos, medals, books –
You’d willed me everything, unguessed by me.
Emptying your wallet felt almost a theft.
Now views you knew hang from my picture hooks –
Your College, Burma. You’d be glad to see
My son with the binoculars you left.
Your grandchild, Dermot. Still the drenched boughs sob;
But new by sodden roots fresh snowdrops bob.
From the sequence The End of the Pier Show
STATE OF THE NATION
In the very posh School on the headland where they wear
Different ties for Full Colours, Half Colours, Prefects
(Senior and Junior), House, and each year the Combined
Cadet Corps marches to honour the Tudor Founder
Behind the Corps of Drums playing ‘Men of Harlech’
And ‘Sweet Polly Oliver’, now in the chemistry classroom
Dr Dabby is demonstrating. He’s Persian,
‘Rub-a-dub-dub,’ he utters, and ‘Hubble-de-bubble,’
According to him talking English, the boys all giggle,
‘Abracadabra’ – the whole bloody place explodes.
‘We are sorry to lose Dr Dabby,’
Says the Headmaster at end of term assembly.
‘We sing now, as always, “Schola quam amamus”.’
In the very Grand Clifftop Hotel old Spavin is tickling
The ivories, much as he has for a million years
Since the good old Edwardian days when top-hats and tiaras
Rolled up in carriages, talking of golf, horses, angling.
Now over Chili con Carne and Breaded Scampi,
It’s ‘globalisation’ and ‘accessing information’,
They think they are talking English, none being aware,
As Spavin forsakes ‘Tea for Two’ for ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’,
That Hitchcock upstairs is accessing his PA’s bed,
In he plunges – the whole bloody place drops into the sea.
‘We are sorry to lose the Grand Clifftop,’
Says the Mayor, ‘But that’s how things go with coastal erosion.’
The piano washes ashore at the Muppets’ Paddling Pool.
In the very High Court Sir John (Mr Justice) Lately
Is flouting a welfare report by preventing a father
From seeing his son, the mother not wishing such ‘contact’.
Not that he gives a bugger, red-carpeted round the circuit,
On huge pay and holidays, it’s hardly surprising
His own kids don’t see him, and after Court it’s not homeward
He toddles, but off to the Club for a nap and a bottle.
In front of him now, one Counsel’s asserting, ‘It’s chalk,’
The other, ‘It’s cheese,’ he savours this till, ‘Just look
In the bloody fridge and find out!’ – and the dad shoots him dead.
‘We are sorry to lose the old judge,’
Say women he thought fit for nothings but minding the children,
And the one in the brothel who flogged him dressed as a schoolgirl.
On this very old Pier you can fish and eat candy-floss,
Riding the bumper-cars target the girl with huge knockers,
Go boss-eyed at the wheel of road racing simulator
Machines in Funland, or hanging your face through effigies’
Head-holes be photographed as a clown or gorilla;
Or sit writing postcards over your coffee, or saunter
The boards to the end, where our lifeboat is housed – touch it.
Then come to the show. Traditions that run through the town
Story like lettering through rock. Until the Big Storm
Hurls a barge – clean through the ramshackle bloody structure.
‘We are sorry to lose the old Pier,’
The Town Coincil say, ‘But the cost of repair, we must move
With the times, sell it off.’ For one pound, or the nearest bidder.
Each day the sun rose sullenly and late,
Clung low round vague horizon and then dipped
From sight again, as if earth’s tilt had slipped.
The snow lay dirtying, till another spate
Of blizzard blanched the streets and rigid park.
Such traffic as there was crawled headlights-on
Through days not reaching day’s pitch before gone;
When gales blew up and rummaged through the dark.
Outdoors eyelashes froze to spikes of ice;
Across the land the power cuts got more
And longer; ice came down the North Sea shore,
Even the seabirds vanished from the skies:
Pierbound fishermen missed the weave of gulls
Crying above the water; saw on floes
The scatter of birds that where they landed froze,
And mourned the fallen realm of lost friends’ souls.
It seemed the seasons’ cyclings had broken
From time’s axle, skewed to final stasis.
Oblivious that soon through snow’s last traces
Daffodils would thrust, earth’s gold awoken,
As annually through the decades since – unlinked
To our interior weather-shifts, where lapse
To winter may calm to a freeze perhaps
Killing down through the soil till all’s extinct,
And circulating on the crust above
The ghosts of broken hopes bear up, make light
Of cuts and shortages, face the cold; at night
Weep for all unrenewing greenness; love.
In the Cobweb Club
How did we get here, where did it all go wrong?
These sheepheads for instance, crimped upon stools or propped,
Glasses aloft or at elbow, a frieze along
The bar spouting garbage, the nicotined lighting moulders,
You picture spiders busy from ankles to shoulders
Enshrouding the lot of them. Hasn’t the penny dropped?
I might have become a trombonist, run a scenic
Railway line in the Pennines, gone into marine
Biology, among glimmering sub-oceanic
Corals and fins have stumbled into that rich
Fulfilment of being we sense as our birthright, which
Slipped through the lines we learnt when young and green.
But that’s all history; and to have time over
Again knowing what one knows now would not unfold
Some leafy vista yielding a life in clover.
Though I’d cherish the small things more: those crocuses
By my path, ripped out with the hedge, how they used to please
Me thrusting through iron winter their purple and gold.
Meanwhile in the Cobweb Club the stools are jinking
With indignation: cutbacks, shake-ups, it’s red
Alert, the tight little ship’s in danger of sinking.
Professor Heathcliff flails round the bar in search
Of the pipe in his mouth, old Vlad’s dropped off on his perch
Without dropping off; and I’m away in my head.
Audio-visual aids for the next lot to take
Heed what to avoid from? Likelier, where they are tending.
We too had bright prospects, who flinch from a lengthening wake.
Now gin, not genetics, is Dr Medusa’s lore,
The Dean’s having technical problems with the floor,
O’Toole’s done with wives unless deaf, dumb, and rich but low-spending.
How many true stories have a happy ending?
Haydn and the Fish
Brilliant slivers, how strange to us these fish
In their element beyond glass, some speckled gold
So adroit, others mere blobs in their lacy mesh
Of fins and tail; these red-and-white hooped hold
Briefly formation like notes on a stave, then scatter.
A serrated sail-like thing as if cut from black
Crepe paper hangs. How evolved, every organ intact,
This pulse of gills and feeding in quivering water.
And I think of bees’ hives, the hexagonal symmetry
Of the cells, the myriad larvae. I’ve no inkling
What goes on in the brain of a single bee,
If you’d call it brain, or in their world speak of singling.
And all the way from Africa flocks of birds
Are winging overhead, as every year
Finding again the great cathedral tower.
And what raised that but instinct for what’s past words?
Now it’s with science we probe, our telescopes
So sophisticated they catch light travelling
Across ten billion years, ghosting the shapes
Of the galaxies forming, matter unravelling
From the Big Bang – where Einstein’s maths and Hubble’s
Scrutiny founder. A universe can expand
From something far smaller than an atom: mind,
Stars, empires; outlandish fish; love, and its bluebells.
Or it might be such a universe as when
Our nearly empty train ascending into
The foothills of the Alps stopped, and we ran
Across the carriage and flung up the window
And all was sunlit greenness and a stillness
That brimmed with millions of grasshoppers singing,
And we turned to one another, our hearts singing.
But the train moves frittering on, we lose that wholeness.
I wake early these summer mornings, birds are singing,
Our corporate monkey wheels are stilled, the covers
On keyboards, streets ungridlocked, roofslates shining;
From shore to shore pale feet jut from humped duvets.
Sampans drift past crumbling gilt pagodas;
Sinuous lizards ripple green jungle floor.
I listen to time sing: of the more stars than are
Sandgrains on Earth’s beaches. Of loves, and murders.
And music issues from my radio,
From far beyond it – how strangely come about,
Commissioned from a placeman long ago
At a Hungarian princelingss mincing court,
For flunkeys to scrape. We foist upon it crude
Pictures, storms, lovers, wars and emperors,
Half-comprehending thrill as from a source
More elemental heart’s truth is renewed.
The footballer Danny Blanchflower knew it, what
The great composer teaches: Most think the game
Is about winning. It’s not. It is about
Glory… What houses this aquarium
Was once a madhouse. Mooching up to the glass
A huge phosphorescent blue fish flicks edge-on
And vanishes; then flashes reversed, sinks down
To its lair. A wink from unfathomable space.
/>And You, If You
And You, if You, through life I’ve tried prayer: nothing back,
Not even like letters marked />Return to Sender.
The laws of our physics swirl down black holes
Into cosmic foam. For You too we find metaphor:
Heavenly Father, Great Watchmaker, Dove Descending…
We impute to You deeds that insult our brain. You are Purpose?
The refugees pour from Kosovo, children robbed of their childhood.
Reason fails dumb at our human black holes,
We listen to Beethoven who means nothing and everything:
Can he be mere spume off blind genes?
On the Cross You are love, not power.
Sunlit lawn: ‘That whirl of midges, what are they for?
Science says, “Part ot the food-chain”, but what for?’
He is jocular. I reel in Your vortex.
Through twenty centuries heaped with gorgeous fossils,
York Minster, the Hymn Book, the Sistine Chapel ceiling,
Your Gospel shines new as the penny my childhood found
In each Christmas stocking, mint-fresh for next year.
We drift the void on bright threads we spin,
Art, memory. You are the dream we cannot give up,
Still vibrant with our cries.