Week 261: Casehistory: Alison (head injury), by U.A.Fanthorpe

Ursula Fanthorpe (1929-2009) studied English language and literature at Oxford and went on to teach it for sixteen years at Cheltenham Ladies’ College, but then abandoned teaching to work as a clerk and receptionist at a Bristol hospital. This is a good example of the poems that came out of that experience: compassionate without sentimentality, and admirably rooted in real life.

Casehistory: Alison (head injury)

(she looks at her photograph)

I would like to have known
My husband’s wife, my mother’s only daughter.
A bright girl she was.

Enmeshed in comforting
Fat, I wonder at her delicate angles.
Her autocratic knee

Like a Degas dancer’s
Adjusts to the observer with airy poise,
That now lugs me upstairs

Her face, broken
By nothing sharper than smiles, holds in its smiles
What I have forgotten.

She knows my father’s dead,
And grieves for it, and smiles. She has digested
Mourning. Her smile shows it.

I, who need reminding
Every morning, shall never get over what
I do not remember.

Consistency matters.
I should like to keep faith with her lack of faith,
But forget her reasons.

Proud of this younger self,
I assert her achievements, her A levels,
Her job with a future.

Poor clever girl! I know,
For all my damaged brain, something she doesn’t:
I am her future.

A bright girl she was.


Week 260: From ‘Briggflatts’, by Basil Bunting

‘Briggflatts’ by the Northumbrian poet Basil Bunting (1900-1985) is a long, discursive poem in free verse, somewhat in the style of Ezra Pound’s ‘Cantos’, which Bunting greatly admired, and like the ‘Cantos’ it makes considerable demands on the reader. This is a tradition that I struggle to relate to, and I have to confess that much of the poem is not to my taste, but I do like these two passages, which are separate in the text yet seem to fit naturally together as an elegiac farewell to life and love.

From ‘Briggflatts’

My love is young but wise. Oak, applewood,
her fire is banked with ashes till day.
The fells reek of her hearth’s scent,
her girdle is greased with lard;
hunger is stayed on her settle, lust in her bed.
Light as spider floss her hair on my cheek which a puff scatters,
light as a moth her fingers on my thigh.
We have eaten and loved and the sun is up,
we have only to sing before parting:
Goodbye, dear love.

Her scones are greased with fat of fried bacon,
her blanket comforts my belly like the south.
We have eaten and loved and the sun is up.


The sheets are gathered and bound,
the volume indexed and shelved,
dust on its marbled leaves.

Lofty, an empty combe,
silent but for bees.
Finger tips touched and were still
fifty years ago.
Sirius is too young to remember.

Sirius glows in the wind. Sparks on ripples
mark his line, lures for spent fish.

Fifty years a letter unanswered
a visit postponed for fifty years.

She has been with me fifty years.

Starlight quivers. I had day enough.
For love uninterrupted night.

Basil Bunting

Week 259: Winter Nightfall, by Robert Bridges

Robert Seymour Bridges (1844-1930) was a Grand Old Man of English letters in the early twentieth century – indeed, he was Poet Laureate from 1913 to 1930 – and his work was still to be found in the Georgian anthologies that dominated the schoolroom when I was young. I would guess that he is little read now, though I seem to remember Yvor Winters, an American critic notable for the independence of his judgments, being an advocate of his work. I think this poem makes an interesting comparison with Frost’s ‘An Old Man’s Winter Night’ (see week 14). Bridges’ is a perfectly competent poem: it has form, it has atmosphere, it has compassion, but to my mind Frost’s is by some way the better piece: it just seems more urgent, more alive, and as so often with a Frost poem there is a wildness prowling at its edges which Bridges’ neat rhymes and slightly mechanical rhythms fence out. Just my opinion – see what you think. 

Winter Nightfall

The day begins to droop,–
Its course is done:
But nothing tells the place
Of the setting sun.

The hazy darkness deepens,
And up the lane
You may hear, but cannot see,
The homing wain.

An engine pants and hums
In the farm hard by:
Its lowering smoke is lost
In the lowering sky.

The soaking branches drip,
And all night through
The dropping will not cease
In the avenue.

A tall man there in the house
Must keep his chair:
He knows he will never again
Breathe the spring air:

His heart is worn with work;
He is giddy and sick
If he rise to go as far
As the nearest rick:

He thinks of his morn of life,
His hale, strong years;
And braves as he may the night
Of darkness and tears.

Robert Bridges


Week 258: Song, by Alun Lewis

This is one of several poems of wartime separation and loss written by the Welsh poet Alun Lewis (1915-1944), this one being unusual in that it is written from the woman’s point of view. The historical context is of course the Second World War but its message of grief is universal, and when I visited the beautiful Falklands Memorial Chapel at Pangbourne, not far from where I live, it was this poem that came strongly to my mind: there were enough in that conflict too who never came home again to wives or sweethearts.

(On seeing dead bodies floating off the Cape)

The first month of his absence
I was numb and sick
And where he’d left his promise
Life did not turn or kick.
The seed, the seed of love was sick.

The second month my eyes were sunk
In the darkness of despair,
And my bed was like a grave
And his ghost was lying there
And my heart was sick with care.

The third month of his going
I thought I heard him say
‘Our course deflected slightly
On the thirty-second day – ’
The tempest blew his words away.

And he was lost among the waves,
His ship rolled helpless in the sea,
The fourth month of his voyage
He shouted grievously
‘Beloved, do not think of me.’

The flying fish like kingfishers
Skim the sea’s bewildered crests,
The whales blow steaming fountains,
The seagulls have no nests
Where my lover sways and rests.

We never thought to buy and sell
This life that blooms or withers in the leaf,
And I’ll not stir, so he sleeps well,
Though cell by cell the coral reef
Builds an eternity of grief.

But oh, the drag and dullness of my Self;
The turning seasons wither in my head;
All this slowness, all this hardness,
The nearness that is waiting in my bed,
The gradual self-effacement of the dead.

Alun Lewis