Week 139: My Father’s Birthday, by Kathleen Raine

A sad poem, but turning most beautifully on one poignant image in its closing lines.

My Father’s Birthday

15 March 1880

He remained silent on many things,
In his last years, he could not speak of
To wife or daughter who had never shared
Memories or hopes nearest his heart. Only with children he could
Share the simplicity of receiving from God
With gladness what each day brought,
The morning sun, the task he never refused.
His month was windy March, when coltsfoot flowers
Open their bright disks to receive the sun, or close
Against the chill and cloud of a harsh season.
On my childhood my father shone like an early sun,
Who in his old age closed his rays against the cold
Climate of a loveless house.

Kathleen Raine

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Week 138: A Birthday Rhyme for Roberta, by John Hewitt

A poem of marital bereavement, all the more effective for its restraint.

A Birthday Rhyme For Roberta

For ease of heart and mind
I estimate each stride,
and, lurching forward, find
the landmarks still abide
though senses be decayed,
blurred sight and muffled sound.
Yet yesterday I strayed
on acorn-gravelled ground
to find October true
by each diminished sense,
perpetually new
as grace or innocence.

But now not with me there
picking the coloured leaves,
was she I thought must share
the thistles and the sheaves
when this late harvesting
my husbandry may prove,
as she had shared the spring
and summer of my love.

John Hewitt

Week 137: Huesca, by John Cornford

John Cornford (1915-1936), son of the poet Frances Cornford, was a volunteer in the Spanish Civil War and wrote this most moving love poem to fellow activist Margot Heinemann shortly before he was killed on the Cordoba front, on or just after his 21st birthday. Its cadences have long haunted me: I admire its elegiac restraint, its complete lack of rhetoric or bravado.

Huesca

Heart of the heartless world,
Dear heart, the thought of you
Is the pain at my side,
The shadow that chills my view.

The wind rises in the evening,
Reminds that autumn is near.
I am afraid to lose you,
I am afraid of my fear.

On the last mile to Huesca,
The last fence for our pride,
Think so kindly, dear, that I
Sense you at my side.

And if bad luck should lay my strength
Into the shallow grave,
Remember all the good you can;
Don’t forget my love.

John Cornford

Week 136: Wall, by Norman Nicholson

I think any poet has to love drystone walls, those beautiful boundaries that snake across the fields and hills of our Cotswolds and north country like lines of some forgotten script. This is one of the best poems about them I know.

Wall

The wall walks the fell –
Grey millipede on slow
Stone hooves;
Its slack back hollowed
At gulleys and grooves,
Or shouldering over
Old boulders
Too big to be rolled away.
Fallen fragments
Of the high crags
Crawl in the walk of the wall.

A dry-stone wall Is a wall and a wall,
Leaning together
(Cumberland-and-Westmorland
Champion wrestlers),
Greening and weathering,
Flank by flank,
With filling of rubble
Between the two –
A double-rank
Stone dyke:
Flags and through-
stones jutting out sideways,
Like the steps of a stile.

A wall walks slowly,
At each give of the ground,
Each creak of the rock’s ribs,
It puts its foot gingerly,
Arches its hog-holes,
Lets cobble and knee-joint
Settle and grip.
As the slipping fellside
Erodes and drifts,
The wall shifts with it,
Is always on the move.

They built a wall slowly,
A day a week;
Built it to stand,
But not stand still.
They built a wall to walk.

Norman Nicholson