In the deserts of the heart



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In the deserts of the heart


Let the healing fountain start,

In the prison of his days

Teach the free man how to praise
W.H. Auden

Free Poetry publishes essays and poetry by today’s leading poets. These chapbooks are available free of charge and without copyright. The editor encourages the reproduction of this chapbook and its free distribution, ad infinitum.


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Free


Poetry

Jeremy Hooker




Reflections on Ground

&

Seventeen Poems


Vol. 1 No. 1 April 2005


Reflections on ground
1
My feeling for ‘ground’ as matter: soil, earth, stones and growing things, as the life of place, must have been laid down from the start. Indeed, I think of it as familial, ancestral, a feeling deriving from people who worked on the land as labourers and gardeners mainly in the south of England. In these fundamental things, however, original feeling becomes hard to distinguish from later imagination, from the stories one tells oneself or is told; so, too, my own memories as a child became linked with my parents’ memories of their childhoods, thus reinforcing my sense of belonging to a particular area over a period running back into the past, before I was born. The conventional word for the resulting sense of belonging is roots: a word I would come to distrust because it converts a complicated history into a natural process. But this would come later. As far as I am aware, my original feeling for poetry was closely associated with ‘ground’ as the elemental life of place.

The poems my mother loved, and which she read to me when I was a boy, came mainly from Laureata: A Book of Poetry for the Young, which she had studied in school at the time of the First World War. This anthology, not unlike Palgrave’s The Golden Treasury, was particularly rich in lyrical and narrative poems, and among my favourites were ‘Horatius’, ‘After Blenheim’, ‘The Deserted Village’, ‘The Forsaken Merman’, and poems by Tennyson, such as ‘Break, Break, Break’ and ‘The Brook’. After years during which the word ‘ground’ has undergone complex changes of meaning in my mind, I was startled when I came recently upon another favourite poem from Laureata, Pope’s ‘Ode on Solitude’, in which the word probably first resonated for me:


Happy the man whose wish and care

A few paternal acres bound,

Content to breathe his native air,

In his own ground.


Startled or not, it’s salutary to be reminded of the simple things from which one’s poetry springs: from sensations such as the feel of earth underfoot, or soil crumbled in the hand, or the experience of simply being in a place that one loves; from a liking for particular words.

Many of the Victorian and earlier poems in Laureata conveyed a sense of place. Thus, for me, Tennyson was associated with West Wight, which we could see across the Solent, Thomas Hardy (though not in Laureata) with Dorset, as was William Barnes. Richard Jefferies, whose essays, when I read them first at about the age of twelve, opened my eyes to nature, was identified with Wiltshire, ancestral ground, and country which I knew from visits. Some years later I read Edward Thomas, who was closely associated with my home county of Hampshire. From the beginning, then, my feeling for poetry was bound up with a feeling for the land. This is probably why I experienced no discontinuity – at least, no radical break – between love of Laureata poems and the modernist poetry I began to read when I was about 18 (some, earlier). There are, of course, enormous formal and linguistic differences between, say, Tennyson’s lyrics and the imagism and fragmentation of Eliot and Pound. Yet both Victorians and Modernists ground their poetry in a feeling for the elements – for soil and sea and winds – and for elemental places. For me, then, though I know why Modernists felt the need to break with their immediate predecessors (a break which, in some respects, seems less radical now than it did at the time) the transition from traditional English lyricism to The Waste Land and The Cantos wasn’t a difficult one.


2
Revolutions in one’s idea of poetry may be, instead of complete transformations, rather a redirection to original sources. To some extent, this, I believe, is what happened to my thinking about ‘ground’ in the years following my move to Wales in 1965. Initially, I was drawn to London as the ‘centre’ where I hoped, as a young poet, to publish and make a name. At the same time, I had a vague idea of poetry as self-expression, or the expression of states of mind. All this began to change when I encountered modern Welsh poetry in translation, especially poems by Gwenallt and Waldo Williams, which spoke out of the crisis of their culture in the twentieth century, and gave voice to a body of shared experience. More influential was the writing of David Jones, which I began to read in 1970.

The idea I developed at this time was that poetry should be written not about but from place. This, at any rate, was what I aspired to do. In some respects, as I realized later, it was a nostalgic desire, arising from the fact that, living in Wales, I could see the place I had come from, where I felt I belonged. I identified closely with David Jones’s words in the Preface to The Anathemata: ‘one is trying to make a shape out of the very things of which one is oneself made’.1 This was a definition of poetry which gave priority to the poet’s matter, to all that shaped him in terms of culture, history, family and ancestry. At the same time, it defined poetry by implication as essentially exploratory, since one has to discover the things of which one is made before one can make a shape of them.; indeed poetic ‘shaping’ is an exploratory act. Now, my idea of ‘ground’ became the whole ‘matter’ of place: the geological and historical shaping forces, the ecology, and the personal dimension, drawing on family and ancestry, as well as personal experience.

John Matthias wrote perceptively of my work at this time, in for example Solent Shore (1978), that I would like my poetry to be of use in the place: ‘as essential as the necessities unladen in the harbor’.2 One effect of this thinking was that I conceived my work in terms of sequences, and as working with and through what I now consciously thought of as ‘ground’. I perceived a continuity between natural and nonhuman constituents of place - geological processes and materials such as chalk and flint, shingle and clay - and historical, human experience; I made formal connections between poetry and place, which I described in an essay included in my book Master of the Leaping Figures (1987): ‘Entering a place that is new to us, or seeing a familiar place anew, we move from part to part, simultaneously perceiving individual persons and things and discovering their relationships, so that, with time, place reveals itself as particular identities belonging to a network, which continually extends with our perception, and beyond it. And by this process we find ourselves, not as observers only, but as inhabitants, citizens, neighbours, and locate ourselves in a space dense with meanings’.3 The connection I was seeking was similar to that which I found in the Welsh poets. It defined a poetic function, a way of speaking beyond the isolated self, as a voice of community.
3
The thing I was not initially prepared to recognize was the extent to which my perception of home ground depended upon distance; that if I could see where I had come from, it was because I was no longer living there. But seeing had long been one of my preoccupations. It originated in my reading of Jefferies, who opened my eyes to the life in nature, vibrant in every ditch and hedge. It owed a great deal to the fact that my father was a landscape painter, although it wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I really looked at his paintings, and appreciated his sense of colour, of dynamic movement, of water and light, shadow and cloud. And when I saw these things, I knew them in myself too, in my perception of the world. His work helped me to make a personal connection between the tradition of English landscape painting and the literary tradition that descends from Wordsworth through Ruskin and a Victorian ‘poet-naturalist’ such as Jefferies to Hardy and Edward Thomas and Ivor Gurney: a tradition for which accurate observation is integral to moral and visionary ‘seeing’.

It was as I began to recognise factors which complicate the ‘art of seeing’ that I came – following an earlier admiration for William Carlos Williams - to read the American Objectivists, especially George Oppen and Charles Reznikoff. In one sense, there was no problem – far from it: Oppen confirmed my feeling for imagism as a root of modern poetry, and as a technique for transcending momentary perception, and for building sequences and long poems. The ‘mosaic’ form which I adopted in some poems owed something to the example of Reznikoff’s Jerusalem the Golden. The Objectivists’ close attention to the things of a ‘common’ world reinforced what I had long been drawn to in the tradition of Lyrical Ballads, thus enhancing my sense of connection between the Wordsworth-Jefferies line of English vision and a key element in American modernism. But it was also Oppen who wrote: ‘“Whether, as the intensity of seeing increases, one’s distance/from Them, the people, does not also increase”’/I know, of course I know, I can enter no other place’.4 Place itself, in this sense, becomes distance from others, instead of a space of shared meanings. Lost in this distance, the poet could become a solipsist leading what Martin Buber calls ‘the life of monologue’. Looking back, I can see that this was the risk I became most aware of after completing some of my most ‘rooted’ poems.

It was in Buber that I discovered new possibilities of relationship: ‘We do not find meaning lying in things nor do we put it into things, but between us and things it can happen’.5 I had struggled as a poet to write a convincing experiential poetry, using the first-person singular. Indeed, in the first sustained work that seemed to me authentically mine I had adopted as a persona the chalk giant of Cerne Abbas, which had enabled me to explore relations between self and other, male and female, and life-engendering and destructive forces. I should have learnt from this that poetry for me is essentially exploratory – that I have no real interest in recreating completed experiences, but only in using the known to reach towards the unknown, and to find in the familiar the strange, the other.

Emily Dickinson said it perfectly: ‘Nature is a Haunted House – but Art – a House that tries to be haunted’.6 The perfection of the saying inheres in its mystery, which different readers will understand differently according to their needs. As I understand it, it refers to the artist – the poet – as one who works at the limits of the sayable; or rather as a maker, one who shapes objects which are open to mystery. We can’t be certain that spirit will animate our poems; we can only make them so that they are open to spirit, not closed on ego-experience.



4

It was Lee Grandjean, the sculptor and painter, who said to me: ‘We must break our taste’. We had met in 1981 at Winchester School of Art, where we both held residencies. It was in the following decade, however, that we began to work together collaboratively, producing a book, Their Silence a Language, consisting of poems and prose, and drawings and photographic images of sculptures, and Groundwork, an exhibition of sculptures and poems. Meeting Lee and seeing him at work renewed my original feeling for the sculptural. In Welsh Journal, in an entry made in 1972, I had written: ‘Last night, looking again at pictures of Henry Moore’s sculptures, I realised once more that my instinctive feeling for things and for landscapes is closer to the feeling of sculptors like Moore and Barbara Hepworth, and of certain painters, than to that of most writers’.7 I was thinking of earliest impressions: of the rhythms and shapes of downland, of scalloped ploughland, of sea-walls, shingle beaches, and mud-flats. I was aware, too, of the textures of my father’s oil paintings. It was important that Lee and I felt similar needs as image-makers yet were practicing different arts, so that our differences were at least as imaginatively stimulating as our similarities.

Working with Lee helped to confirm my sense of ground as both material and shaping force. But also, when he spoke of breaking our taste, challenging us to ‘make it new’, the idea harmonized with my conviction that poetry is both image-making and image-breaking. That is to say, the poet needs to be iconoclastic towards his own work, knowing that every image is provisional, and reality larger, stranger, and more mysterious than any word or image. This is not a philosophical position; it is a fundamental instinct springing ultimately from my earliest sense of what I would learn to call particularity and personhood; from life as Henry Vaughan apprehends it: ‘A quickness which my God hath kissed’.8
5
A poet risks becoming fixed in his or her ideas. No doubt this was the case with me when preoccupied by ‘poetry of place’ and a concept of ‘belonging’. One day a friend said to me: ‘you have never accepted being a stranger’, and I knew she spoke the truth. Or rather, it had been the truth, and it had determined my earlier thinking. For some time now, however, I had known what it means to be a stranger. The reference wasn’t especially to any form of ‘alienation’. It had more to do with recognition of ‘not knowing’; of the perception that, as Philip Wheelwright says: ‘The existential structure of human life is radically, irreducibly liminal’.9 In my critical writing I had become increasingly concerned with the relation between poetry and the sacred, continuing work begun on David Jones in the 70s but also focusing upon Henry Vaughan and Thomas Traherne, and modern and contemporary poets who attempt to express a religious sensibility in a language imbued with secular values. I had come to think of ground in a religious sense; but what I was most aware of was its instability.

There was a sense in which this took me back to the beginning, but with a new awareness of the question of underlying reality. In my experience the actual shore near which I had been brought up was, from my first sight of it, dangerously and excitingly unstable – the path along the sea-wall eroded, the detritus of war, which might have been booby-trapped, washed up and mixed with natural flotsam. The world beyond the shore extended the instability, with razed buildings, bomb craters, layers upon layers of the past exposed. All this influenced my sense of language, and therefore of identity. I’d always felt a disparity between the definition of names and the mystery of identity – the self-feeling that descends into being. In recent work, especially in ‘Seven Songs’, I’ve explored this instability, which could also be called a sense of wonder at the strangeness of existence, which precedes all concepts and categories, but also continues behind them, and as a kind of under-life in words.

Writing of ‘Seven Songs’ in Adamah I described them as characterized by ‘fluidity’. ‘The voice of these is conceived as being female, not in the form of a woman persona, but as a kind of androgynous space, in which I attempt to transcend the limitations of both male and female egos’.10 I had reached this position, not by rejecting the materiality of ground, but (as I wrote in the same Note) through a greater awareness of ‘groundlessness’. This has its negative aspects, but, positively, ‘it is associated with possibility, with loss of ego boundaries in an enlarged sense of being, and with imaginative energy that both makes and breaks images, in an attempt to intimate the power beyond images, on which all life depends’.11

In these reflections on ‘ground’ I have described some of the things that I think I can see when I consider my present writing, and look back over my work as a poet during some forty years. One thing is certain, however. As I wrote in ‘At the Edge’, the afterword to Their Silence a Language: ‘I think of poetry as an art of seeing, an art by which, in my blindness, I learn to see’.12



Seventeen Poems

Jeremy Hooker




Earth Poems

1 Song of the Earth


Bring or do not bring your mind’s distress.

The seas it foundered in

Are none of mine.
My words are flint, cold to your touch.

They tell I am

What you become.
No tree bore the branch

From which your sick thoughts spin.

There is no vertigo in falling leaves.
Along brain’s empty dancing-floor

My small blades creep.

The grass’s flood-tide bears you home.
2 At the Edge
You will haunt the edges

Becoming more shadowy the more

This world streams past.

Now there is nothing but grassblade

Running into grassblade,

Each a separate wave where the colours flux

Orange into brown. The field is going out

With the autumn tide,

And where you were there is now

Only a cry.


3 The Elements
Even a poor eye

Can see clear through the globe

To its Antipodes. All, all,

Like a frail door banging in the wind,

A leaky raft through which the sea springs,

Cannot keep out the other elements.

With faculties so weak

You can reach out to touch the other side of death.



From a Pill-Box on the Solent

On a day of ripped cloud,

Angled light, wind against tide,

I am tempted to begin

The story of my life.
Waves come from far off,

Through the gap they have made,

Between Purbeck and Wight.
Surf booms in the pill-box,

Rattles the shingle,

Folds over it, unfolds,

Laying it bare.


Let it blow sand or salt.

Here at least I tread without fear

Of unsettling dust.

Gull on a Post

Gull on a post firm

In the tideway – how I desire

The gifts of both!


Desire against the diktat

Of intellect: be single

You who are neither.
As the useful one

That marks a channel, marks

Degrees of neap and spring;

Apt to bear jetties

Or serve as a mooring;

Common, staked with its like.


Standing ever

Still in one place,

It has a look of permanence.
Riddled with shipworm,

Bored by the gribble,

In a few years it rots.
Desire which tears at the body

Would fly unconstrained

Inland or seaward; settle

At will – but voicing

Always in her cry

Essence of wind and wave,

Bringing to city, moorish

Pool and ploughland,

Reminders of storm and sea.
Those who likened the soul

To a bird, did they ever

Catch the eye of a gull?
Driven to snatch,

Fight for slops in our wake.


Or voice a desolation

Not meant for us,

Not even desolate,

But which we christen.


Folk accustomed to sin,

Violent, significant death,

Who saw even in harbour

Signs terrible and just,

Heard in their cries

Lost souls of the drowned.


Gull stands on a post

In the tideway; I see


No resolution; only

The necessity of flight

Beyond me, firm

Standing only then.




Curlew

The curve of its cry –

A sculpture

Of the long beak:

A spiral carved from bone.
It is raised

quickening

From the ground,

Is wound high, and again unwound,

down

To the stalker nodding



In a marshy field.
It is the welling

Of a cold mineral spring,

Salt from the estuary

Dissolved, sharpening

The fresh vein bubbling on stone.
It is an echo

Repeating an echo

That calls you back.
It looses

Words from dust till the live tongue

Cry: This is mine

Not mine, this life

Welling from springs

Under ground, spiraling

Up the long flight of bone.

At Ovington

(for Lee Grandjean, sculptor)


You would make a form

that contains, which your hand moulds

as we talk, creating a body

between us, in the air. Below

the broad full river glides

hypnotically, silver,

green and dark. Here wind

meets light and water,

and the current at each instant

finds its bed, erupting

over shoals of weed, sliding

through a lucid gravel run,

continually making

and unmaking lines,

as in my mind I catch

and loose its images,

and about our heads

swifts hawking for mayfly

unerringly, explosively, glide.

I would let all go again,

saying – it is perfect without us,

but we meet here, we share

words and your hand shaping

the flow, the brute

and graceful wings.

And our feet beat solidly on the bridge.

Steps
First is the feeling,

which I must trust, moving on –

cut into the void.
*
A passage opens –

that is where the drama is –

out of the covert.
*
To attain a truth,

work fearlessly, for ourselves.

We must break our taste.
*
You dance on the edge

of destruction, you dare see

what will come of it.
*
There is work to do

with fire – simplify the self –

charred and blackened form.
*
You finger the edges,

you execute the instant –

gallows-carpenter.
*
A rooted figure,

bound to earth but gesturing

at the open sky.
*
A human forest –

energy between figures,

linking them and us.
*
You shape the image:

it is a bridge we cross over

to meet in the world.
*
To know oneself shaped,

and work with knowledge of death –

that it may bear fruit.
*
Fern, gorse, pine, slow cloud

moving on – ‘voice of the rhythm

which has created the world’.
*
One use of space is

for speaking across, another

to deepen silence.

Company

‘Mystery amid a great company of tree’

Heywood Sumner

1

The wood is full of wounds:


limbs scattered, trunks

twisted and broken,

shells of sapwood standing

when the heart has gone.


And everywhere new growth

heals the wound, a seedling

needles the leaf-mould,

the dead stump bears a living shoot.


2

The wood is full of voices.


But where, where?

(the cuckoo calls),

where is the word that springs new?
3

Figures emerge from the trees,

stag-headed, wreathed with green leaves.
Darkness covers the site –

which light dissolves, opening

cavernous depth.
A sea wind gusts through the grove.
The space fills with sunlight

and shadows, whispering.


Where, where?

At the centre, the naked man

wearing the holly crown.
In the trees

forked bodies twist and writhe.

Angels and beasts stare down.
Ghost haunts ghost

among the broken pillars,

under the tattered canopy.

The love song fades in the sigh of leaves.


A god with arms outstretched

bows down to the ground.


4

At the edge of the clearing

the great oaks stand,

massively bossed and knarred.


They do not hug the earth

but possess the sky.

Small oaks grow in their shade.
As we approach, they seem

to look at us –

their silence, a language.

Westerbork

To the memory of Etty Hillesum


1

Our path lies along the Milky Way

and from planet to planet –
then out from the trees

and past the grey saucers

of the radio telescope.
Among toadstools, under oaks

loaded with acorns, we find

a solitary, white earth-star.
2

A few late foxgloves on a bank –

‘sheltered’

I say, and the word echoes oddly.


Who can resist the ironies?

When will we recognize

that irony is not enough?
3

How understand the faces, Etty?

You looked at them

from behind a window

and were terrified.
You sank to your knees speaking

the words that reign over life

and bind you to these men

in the depths:


‘And God made man after His likeness.’
Did you know they would murder you

and your kind?

That they would drive even the children

into hiding, and hunt them down.

And the parents. And the doctors.

All would be sent out on the Tuesday morning train.


4

The black train, which an artist

in the camp painted, looming.
But what amazes more

is the painting of a typical farm

and farmyard beyond the wire

as he saw them,

as we see them still.

5

At first there is little to show –



a few irregularities in the ground

of what might be a park.


Then we see what we expect:

a wooden guard-post,

preserved, or perhaps restored.
Below it, a short stretch

of the railway track reaches

from buffers towards the east;

broken off, twisted, the rusted iron

curves into the air.
And there, incised in stone,

a verse from Lamentations.


6

They hunt our steps, that

we cannot go in our squares …
You were a fountain of life.

Your love flowed into the world.


You looked for meaning

and found it even in the worst,

accepting ‘all as one mighty whole’.
But the faces – how shall we accept

that you could see in them

instruments of destiny?
Whose faces, Etty?

What are they like?


7

Back from the universe,

back from the world,

back from the streets

of Amsterdam,

back from the houses,

back from the rooms

and the rooms behind the rooms,


you were driven, and driven in.
The space of your freedom

was at last a book, in which you wrote,

passionate to understand;
a mind behind the white face;

a card, thrown from the train window:

‘we have left the camp singing.’

Dreaming of Europe: a collage


How good our nights and days

of making love on the roof garden

among spires and towers

lifted up on a level with clock faces

we did not see
*
THIS COULD BE A PLACE OF HISTORICAL IMPORTANCE
He has a taste for ambiguity

which he inscribes in stone paving

in front of the cathedral:
1. Something happened here you should know about.

Do not spit or dance on the spot.

Cover your head.
2. It is just possible that something important might happen here.
3. Think about it.

You could change the world.


*

It is certain that when she was a little girl

the big, black thing frightened her.
Now we are overawed,

the blackened stone spires

look down on us.
Inside, the upsurge of power,

graceful, light.


It is invested with a presence:

the after-image of bomb damage.


How many did it save?
*
It is impossible to leave the parapets of Europe.

You cannot abandon the fathers,

they come after you with retorts and muskets,

scissors and rolls of cloth.


You may trek across deserts

or sail over the rim of the world,

but the germ is in you.
Even in dreams

columns of water thunder to the ground,

cities are swept away.
Or a white wolf sits in a walnut tree

outside the window, looking in.


*
I believe in the head of Hans Arp.
It is a potato or an apple

or some good fruit he grew

from the tree of his imagination.
*
We learn to walk with the Christ child

on a walking-frame.


With a windmill, he teaches us to play.
He opens his arms with the generosity

of a drunkard.


Magnified in the minds of men

he becomes a demon who drinks our blood.


*
I believe in Hans Arp and Sophie Taeuber

and the visitation of angels.


Angels are no economists.

Magnificently

they squander the light.
*
Does the wood see, does the field?
It is not after all the worst thought

that no one watches, spying

into every shell-hole and crack.
*
Longing is the road they travel.
Every one a stranger

searching for the lost home.


It is not here, not there.
*
After they were driven out

they sought shelter in a cave

and wore garments which they wove

from animal skins.


It was the best time, they would learn to say.

Bethlehem

Over all, suddenly, with a crash

that sends sheep scrabbling

at stone walls or squirming in the dust,

a jet fighter crosses the target area.
Over David’s fields and the trunks

of felled olive trees, two thousand

years of life compacted, swirling

in the wood. Over stony fields,

hard, white hills and Herod’s

mountain tomb crowning the wilderness.


All look up blindly –

women from weeping at Rachel’s Tomb,

soldiers at roof-top gunposts,

Arabs selling fruit in Manger Square

or at lathes turning out holy figures,

a tourist enjoying the ironies,

who remembers another place:

starlight on the home fields,

voices drawing closer from door to door.
O little town
*
They will sing a new song

descending from the fields

of galactic dust,

from the black cold

by the blaze of nuclear suns.
They will come down

out of the nebulous dark

to the ruined stable,

gas shell and shattered atom

lighting the night they blindly stare at
*
And so we enter

under an old doorway

made to keep out animals,

and descend through histories:


between pillars stained brown

as old canvases, under

ikons and a brass hanging lamp

balancing a tzar’s crown,

past symbols, past stonework

of Crusaders, Armenians, Greeks.


Under the gaze of Elijah

over the long falls of his beard

we come to the mosaic floor

and the floor below the floors,

down to the simple place

all has been built to protect,

or bury …

when, suddenly, with a crash

that shakes the walls,

a jet fighter crosses the hills


and we stand with candles

shaking in our hands


*
Lantern light on faces

under the shadowy cross-beams.


So the scene is set:
Mary wrapped in a night-sky cloak.

Ox and ass, big-eyed, nuzzling

into the cradle.

Joseph leans head on hand, resigned

to what he loves but does not understand
*
A smouldering warmth,

fire in the dead of the year,

a red glow at the heart

of black cold, and starlight

falling through the broken roof,

a smell of hay,


the child’s cry among the farthest stars

from Earth Song Cycle
Written in clay
What could he do, the swineherd

gaping at the meadow?

Had he dreamed

the earth had opened, closed,

his herd gone squealing down

along with her,

the fairest flower?
What could he do but wait

and learn, maybe, that flowers spring

from rotting flesh.
*
She will come back (they said),

the sweet, red seed is on her tongue,

she will return

and we will taste her words


And when she rose,

she will descend (they said)

she will descend again,

and rise


there is no end,

spring air returns,

the birds repeat their calls,

the wind of winter wails

in trees and round the house

the same old song


no end

no end
*


He looked (the squeal

still ringing in his ears)

and every thing

everywhere

spoke to him of her
She was the water and the fish,

the stream within the stream

becoming flesh,

she was the black grain and the bread,

the wet clay and the pot,

the light, the dark,

the silence and the word,

she was all formless

on the verge of form, and form

becoming formlessness.


And so he tasted on his tongue

the song


and sang it to a lute

made from his flesh and bone


and wrote it in the clay
no end

no end


That trees are men walking’



A poem dedicated to David Jones
Dry-mouthed, in a dry time,

the polluted summer air grey,

I sit down to write a poem

I have been contemplating

for twenty years – an elegy.
And find nothing,

nothing to say

about death. For

the man who died is alive,

his images flow

in the channel that he made.


Yet there is a story to tell.
It begins with a bear,

a bear that the boy sees

in a London street,

a muzzled bear,

held on a chain,

a bear which he draws, dancing.


It is a story about a bear,

and about a boy who becomes a soldier.


A bear in a London street.

A soldier caught in a tangle

of barbed wire, torn khaki

exposing his private parts,

a human being in a place

that he shares with rats,

mules, shattered trees,

dead men,

trees that are men walking.
*
The artist mixes his saliva

with the pigment,

and spits on the cave wall.
It is not himself he paints,

but the living creatures.

But he is there, at one

with the herds that flow across the wall.


No doubt of it, no doubt at all –

he makes himself at home.

There he is, too, a figure

moving across the heavens –

the bear, and the hunter of the bear.
*
A ruffled air.

A closing among the trees,

the crucked branches fallen still.
Who was sitting there in his place?

(He was a child, but that was ages ago,

before the spit dried on the rockface.)
Whose scratch marks?

Whose pawprints?


Was it Artio, mother

of the Bear who rules the Honey Isle?


Trust him to recall the names,

more than the names,

this man of courage

who descends into the hades of oblivion,

who will leave none to perish.
Does Artio wake in the cave,

or is her body the cave

from which we issue,

emerging to read the scratch marks,

follow the pawprints,

going with care over the forest floor,

penetrating the tangle,

learning to dance?


*
Grandfather Bear
who gave his bones to the altar

his flesh to feed the tribe

his skin to clothe the being

who shifts his shape,

becomes the bear

who dances


Mother Bear
who digs under the roots,

makes herself a bed,

licks her paws, sleeps.

When she emerges, it is spring;

her cubs blink about her.

She licks them into shape.


Brother Bear
in a London street,

brown bear on a chain,

which the boy draws – dancing.
*
At Capel, in love

with the shape of things:


Dai, in his army greatcoat,

framed in a window, engraving.

Or walking with his friend

to unblock the stream

and free the waters.
Rhythm echoes rhythm

for the hunter of forms –

hill-shapes, trees,

hart’s-tongue fern,

the horses that return

without riders –

the men betrayed to death.
Falling waters loose,

bind and loose

shaping the ways of change.
And mist – mist crumbles rock.

Cloud packs hunt the hills.


Clouds, and mist, and something

that is neither,

a story of change woven

around the things that change.


That the dead men lie down

in the shattered wood,

shed their skins like snakes,

crawl back to the womb that bore them.


*
I paused by Nant Honddu,

by the dingle where David had a cell.


It was an enchanted place,

but what I saw was no dream.


The waters are dying, the trees

are being torn from the ground,

silt builds up in the rivers of the world,

the Thames, where he floated

the ark of his imagination,

the Rhine, the Danube

and the effluent of Europe,

the Brahmaputra,

the Nile, the Ganges,

the Euphrates, where Eden

is a desert of smoking wells.

We are making another earth;

the creatures we drew from the rock

are going back, fading,

their rhythm a distant beat.
Before the figures of the dance turn to stone,

before there is no voice left

to tell the story of the serpent

coiled around the mountains,

the serpent of drought

that Indra slew, freeing the waters,

before there is no hand to draw the bear,

no one to tell the wonder tale

of the bear waking in the cave,
pray for us, Dafydd.

David the Waterman,


pray for us.

from Seven Songs
Groundless she walks
Her footstep strikes

the dusty track.

Heat-haze

on ripening wheat creates

a shimmer in which the gorged pigeon

flaps away losing shape.

In dark places, in their own spheres,

minute creatures webbed in moisture

vibrate at her burdened tread.

And she feels down through cracked earth,

knowing something about them, sensing

the rhythms by which they live.

And what, she thinks, are their constellations,

what gods burn in their heavens?

Do they too know a Cassiopeia who holds up her arms?

Are they companioned, or unsupported

except by physical law,

sheer materiality, lumpen as flints

which will indifferently turn my ankle

or break a plough?

Instability

was the mark of the day when she woke.

She has been at the edge

since first light crazed mirror and window glass,

froze the lightning of the garden tree

against the toppling tidal wave of earth.

She is a woman carrying a child who flinches

at the momentary thought she is a man

who dreams herself to be a woman,

and who now is walking beside a harvest field,

kicking up the dust,

alone, afraid.


What is possible? she insists, feeling

again the movement under her heart.

Who was it said

‘the march of time’?

Months weeks days hours minutes seconds

hard boots striking sparks from flint

regiments tramping from the cave-mouth

down the years.

And must it be so, faces

with the same blind look ever

appearing, disappearing – one likeness

dominant as Jupiter in the night-sky?


An obstruction in the flow: blackness

shot through with flashes of light,

scintillations,

her mind itself the sky

in which a woman lifts up her hands

over heavy-headed wheat,

the whole sea of the field whispering.
But she may not dissolve;

she must absorb turbulence;

the desire within to be other

is the pressure she must bear.


But must the story repeat itself,

the flame be kindled to burn as one

with the whole fire that consumes and dies?

Let me take a seed of thought

and find for it a cryptic niche,

some damp place under soil or under bark,

a home of bacteria, of creatures

that live in water, and grow there

a being that moves to another rhythm …
But now her mind is an ice-berg

in a polar sea, mountainous dark

moving under her, bearing her along.
And instantly the image fractures,

and dissolves.


What, then, is possible? she cries

silently, as groundless her footstep

strikes the dusty track.
The child I carry

will crawl into the world.

What ground will he stand on?

What humus, or piece of debris

hurtling from the supernova,

the giant star that once was man?



from From Debris

Magnolia

Flowers opening,

foxglove-red at base,

creamy shell-like petals


scatter your images on the ground

where the tree springs,

flowers erect,
where it moves in you

and the only word

you feel in your mouth

is tongue.


For Quickness
Observation (looking at the magnolia) can become an idol.
Why should seeing be painful, unless one is possessive, wanting to see all?
It is feeling with, feeling into, that respects the other.
Distance makes this possible. There is no other way of coming close.

Hare

Fear of us makes

the heart jump,

the body leap, the long legs

run uphill, and stand –
Absolute hare,

long ears laid back,

long skull, our image

a gleam in dark eyes.

For a Woman Who Said She Could Fall in Love with a Boat

for Mieke on her fiftieth birthday
What I wish you is not a sieve

or a chugging tub

or a hulk half sunk in the mud

with ribs that clutch at the sky,

but a sound bottom,

good timbers throughout

and oceans ahead to plunge in.
Or a canoe, maybe, or a kayak,

for mountain lakes and rivers,

skin or bark rider of rapids

and a wise spirit to guide you –

sickle-gleam glimpsed between cedars,

new moon drifter on dark water

bringing peace.
Or a rowboat,

oars dripping,

crawling in creeks – where you anchor,

and lie back, head pillowed,

and dream, rocking, rocking,

watching the sailing sky.


Or else a thoroughbred yacht,

sail taut as a fin or billowing,

gull-white hull with lines

sleek as a great northern diver –

a yacht which never dives, but cuts through waves

over the crab’s den and the lobster’s lair,

over stones and mud where the weeds are,

under, down under, while it races over

and ocean is its pasture.
Better for you a boat like a dolphin,

a mythical craft,

part mammal and part bird.

Nose up, nose down, and the back curves

out of the water, awash and shining.

What are you then but the sea

and the sea’s daughter,

waves riding waves

and spume in your hair?
Best of all though I wish you

one of your native boats.

Not a tjalk with a hold

full of vegetables and household stuff,

or the floating barn of a flat-bottomed aak,

smelling of grain and stone to mend roads.

No grandfather barge which you would care for

like a beloved elder, retired

from the work of the world.

Rather an antique sailing boat

with brass portholes and polished timbers,

stately and playful and worthy

of every weather,

canal-wise and ocean-knowing,

a boat with an engine that never fails,

and room below when you carry a fellow voyager,



Their Sk

and a red sail.



Acknowledgments
The poems have been drawn from the following collections:

‘Earth Poems’ from The Elements, Christopher Davies, 1972; ‘From a Pill-Box on the Solent’ and ‘Gull on a Post’ from Solent Shore, Carcanet, 1978; ‘Curlew’ from Englishman’s Road, Carcanet, 1980; ‘At Ovington’ from Master of the Leaping Figures, Enitharmon, 1987; ‘Steps’ and ‘Company’ from Their Silence a Language, Enitharmon, 1993; ‘Westerbork’, ‘Dreaming of Europe: a collage’, ‘Bethlehem’ and ‘Written in Clay’ from Our Lady of Europe, Enitharmon, 1997; ‘That trees are men walking’, ‘Groundless she walks’, ‘Magnolia’, ‘For Quickness’, ‘Hare’ and ‘For a Woman Who Said She Could Fall in Love with a Boat’ from Adamah, Enitharmon, 2002.





1 The Anathemata (London: Faber, 1952), 10.

2 Reading Old Friends (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992), 84.

3 ‘A Poem like a Place’, Master of the Leaping Figures (Petersfield: Enitharmon Press, 1987), 76.

4 ‘Of Being Numerous’, George Oppen, New Collected Poems, ed. Michael Davidson (New York: New Directions, 2002), 167.

5 Between Man and Man (London: Fontana Library edition, 1961), 56.

6 Emily Dickinson: Selected Letters, ed. Thomas H. Johnson (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971), 236.

7 Welsh Journal (Bridgend: Seren, 2001), 64.

8 ‘Quickness’, Henry Vaughan: The Complete Poems, ed. Alan Rudrum (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1983), 307.

9 The Burning Fountain (Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press, 1968), 18-19.

10 Adamah (London: Enitharmon, 2002), 107.

11 Ibid., 107.

12 Jeremy Hooker and Lee Grandjean, Their Silence a Language (London: Enitharmon, 1993), 75.



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