Week 152: How Annandale Went Out, by Edwin Arlington Robinson

A poem first published more than a century ago, in 1910, but still topical given the ongoing debate on assisted dying, and the recent decision of our MPs that cats and dogs may be put out of their misery but human beings must, like Shakespeare’s Gloucester, be tied to the stake and stand the course.

How Annandale Went Out

‘They called it Annandale – and I was there
To flourish, to find words, and to attend:
Liar, physician, hypocrite, and friend,
I watched him; and the sight was not so fair
As one or two that I have seen elsewhere:
An apparatus not for me to mend –
A wreck, with hell between him and the end,
Remained of Annandale; and I was there.

I knew the ruin as I knew the man;
So put the two together, if you can,
Remembering the worst you know of me.
Now view yourself, as I was, on the spot –
With a slight kind of engine. Do you see?
Like this?… You wouldn’t hang me? I thought not’.

Edwin Arlington Robinson

Week 151: I have run, played, climbed…, by Molly Holden

It seems I have known too many women die before their time: a schoolmate, a friend at work, a sister-in-law, and most recently a neighbour at only thirty-two, leaving a daughter of four. I think of them when I read this poem, that balances so finely gratitude for life and grief at leaving it.

I have run, played, climbed…

I have run, played, climbed,
made love, given birth,
cooked, washed, devised a home,
planted seeds in earth.

What more could a woman want
than such a life without tears?
Only to see it continue
more years, more years.

Molly Holden

Week 150: From ‘The Reverse of the Medal’ by Patrick O’Brian

This passage is for me one of the high points in Patrick O’Brian’s meticulously crafted and inexhaustibly readable Aubrey-Maturin series of naval adventures set in Napoleonic times. The naval captain Jack Aubrey, as a result of a rather naïve trust in the British justice system of the time, has been sentenced to the stocks despite the best efforts of his friend Stephen Maturin, ship’s doctor and spy. Jack’s enemies are hoping, via hired bravos, to compound the indignity of the stocks by the infliction of serious injury, but the men with whom he has served over the years have quite other ideas. The passage is a perfect example of the narrative device which Tolkien, in his classic essay ‘On Fairy-stories’, calls ‘eucatastrophe’. 

Jack was led out of the dark room into the strong light, and as they guided him up the steps he could see nothing for the glare. ‘Your head here, sir, if you please,’ said the sheriff’s man in a low, nervous, conciliating voice ‘and your hands just here’.

The man was slowly fumbling with the bolt, hinge and staple, and as Jack stood there with his hands in the lower half-rounds, his sight cleared: he saw that the broad street was filled with silent, attentive men, some in long togs, some in shore-going rig, but all perfectly recognizable as seamen. And officers, by the dozen. Babbington was there, immediately in front of the pillory, facing him with his hat off, and Pullings, Stephen of course, Mowett, Dundas… He nodded to them, with almost no change in his iron expression, and his eye moved on: Parker, Rowan, Williamson, Hervey… and men from long, long ago, men he could scarcely name, lieutenants and commanders putting their promotions at risk, midshipmen and master’s mates their commission, warrant officers their advancement.

‘The head a trifle forward, if you please, sir,’ murmured the sheriff’s man, and the upper half of the wooden frame came down, imprisoning his defenceless face. He heard the click of the bolt and then in the dead silence a strong voice cry ‘Off hats’. With one movement hundreds of broad-brimmed tarpaulin-covered hats flew off and the cheering began, the fierce full-throated cheering he had so often heard in battle.

Patrick O’Brian

Week 149: Beyond Decoration, by P.J.Kavanagh

I was sad to hear of the death last week of the poet P.J.Kavanagh. I met Patrick once briefly at a poetry gathering when he read out one of my poems. I was hoping to see him afterwards to tell him how much I liked many of his own poems, but he had disappeared outside to catch up with the cricket on the radio and I thought he wouldn’t thank me for interrupting a Test Match at a possibly critical moment just to witter about poetry. So in lieu of that missed opportunity here is one of his that I would surely have cited, a poem of grief and epiphany, disarming in its vulnerable sincerity. 

Beyond Decoration

Stalled, in the middle of a rented room,
The couple who own it quarrelling in the yard
Outside, about which shade of Snowcem
They should use. (From the bed I’d heard
Her say she liked me in my dressing-gown
And heard her husband’s grunt of irritation.
Some ladies like sad men who are alone.)
But I am stalled, and sad is not the word.
Go out I cannot, nor can I stay in.
Becalmed mid-carpet, breathless, on the road
To nowhere and the road has petered out.

This was twenty years ago, and bad as that.
I must have moved at last, for I knelt down,
Which I had not before, nor thought I should.
It would not be exact to say I prayed;
What for? The one I wanted there was dead.
All I could do was kneel and so I did.
At once I entered dark so vast and warm
I wondered it could fit inside the room
When I looked round. The road I had to walk down
Was still there. From that moment it was mean
Beyond my strength to doubt what I had seen:
A heat at the heart of dark, so plainly shown,
A bowl, of two cupped hands, in which a pain
That filled a room could be engulfed and drown
And yet, for truth is in the bowl, remain…

Today I thought it time to write this down
Beyond decoration, humble, in plain rhyme,
As clear as I could, and as truthful, which I have done.