Week 330: Jesus and his Mother, by Thom Gunn

This is a relatively early poem by Thom Gunn (1929-2004), first published in 1954. While it is very different in subject-matter from his later, American-based work, it shows the same discipline and command of form that characterised his poetry throughout his life. Despite the narrative, it does not strike me as primarily a religious poem: I see it as more about the estrangement that must almost inevitably grow between any child consumed with a sense of mission and uncomprehending parents who simply wish it to have a normal life of uncomplicated contentment.

Jesus and his Mother

My only son, more God’s than mine,
Stay in this garden ripe with pears.
The yielding of their substance wears
A modest and contented shine,
And when they weep with age, not brine
But lazy syrup are their tears.
‘I am my own and not my own’.

He seemed much like another man,
That silent foreigner who trod
Outside my door with lily rod:
How could I know what I began
Meeting the eyes more furious than
The eyes of Joseph, those of God?
I was my own and not my own.

And who are these twelve labouring men?
I do not understand your words:
I taught you speech, we named the birds
You marked their big migrations then
Like any child. So turn again
To silence from the place of crowds.
‘I am my own and not my own’.

Why are you sullen when I speak?
Here are your tools, the saw and knife
And hammer on your bench. Your life
Is measured here in week and week
Planed as the furniture you make,
And I will teach you like a wife
To be my own and all my own.

Who like an arrogant wind blown
Where he may please, needs no content?
Yet I remember how you went
To speak with scholars in furred gown.
I hear an outcry in the town;
Who carries that dark instrument?
‘One all his own and not his own’.

Treading the green and nimble sward
I stare at a strange shadow thrown
Are you the boy I bore alone
No doctor near to cut the cord?
I cannot reach to call you Lord,
Answer me as my only son.
‘I am my own and not my own’.

Thom Gunn

Week 329: When I asked for fish, by Carl Sandburg

‘Beautiful’ seems an odd epithet to apply to a poem about a man eating eggs in a fish restaurant that’s run out of fish, but I do find this piece by the American poet Carl Sandburg (1878-1967) beautiful in its oddball way. Perhaps it is that ‘shining breast of the Ohio river’, perhaps it is just its quiet celebration of a commonplace moment of contemplative aliveness, but anyway, I like it. It’s from a 1928 collection called ‘Good Morning, America’.

When I asked for fish in the restaurant facing the Ohio river, with fish signs and fish pictures all over the wooden, cracked frame of the fish shack, the young man said ‘Come around next Friday – the fish is all gone today’.

So I took eggs, fried, straight up, one side, and he murmured, humming, looking out at the shining breast of the Ohio river, ‘and the next is something else, and the next is something else’.

The customer next was a hoarse roustabout, handling nail kegs on a steamboat all day, asking for ‘three eggs, sunny side up, three, nothing less, shake us a mean pan of eggs’.

And while we sat eating eggs, looking at the shining breast of the Ohio river in the evening lights, he had his thoughts and I had mine thinking how the French who found the Ohio river named it La Belle Rivière meaning a woman easy to look at.

Carl Sandburg

Week 328: The Inquest, by W.H.Davies

W.H.Davies (1871-1940) was a perennial presence in anthologies when I was at school, but I’m not sure how much he is read these days, though the poet Michael Cullup published a thoughtful reappraisal of him recently. Davies suffered from the wrong kind of patronage, being taken up by the Georgians as a ‘nature poet’ when this was not his main strength. Reading him in bulk, you feel that what he really needed (as indeed we all need) was someone to put the boot in, though whether he would have had the discipline and self-knowledge to respond to such treatment is open to question. Yet at his best he had power and originality, as witness this spare and rather grim piece. Somehow I don’t recall this one being in the school anthologies.

The Inquest

I took my oath I would inquire,
Without affection, hater, or wrath,
Into the death of Ada Wright –
So help me God! I took that oath.

When I went out to see the corpse,
The four months’ babe that died so young,
I judged it was seven pounds in weight,
And little more than one foot long.

One eye, that had a yellow lid,
Was shut – so was the mouth, that smiled;
The left eye open, shining bright –
It seemed a knowing little child.

For as I looked at that one eye,
It seemed to laugh, and say with glee:
‘What caused my death you’ll never know –
Perhaps my mother murdered me.’

When I went into court again,
To hear the mother’s evidence –
It was a love-child, she explained.
And smiled, for out intelligence.

‘Now, Gentlemen of the Jury,’ said
The coroner – ‘this woman’s child
By misadventure met its death.’
‘Aye, aye’, said we. The mother smiled.

And I could see that child’s one eye
Which seemed to laugh, and say with glee:
‘What caused my death you’ll never know –
Perhaps my mother murdered me.’

W.H. Davies

Week 327: The Rolling English Road, by G.K.Chesterton

I have always had a soft spot for this G.K.Chesterton poem. OK, it may take a somewhat romantic view of intoxication – Chesterton took a somewhat romantic view of everything – but it is fun, and underneath the fun can be seen a more serious dialectic about individual freedom versus civic responsibility that has been ongoing since the days of Falstaff and Prince Hal, and that finds a kind of serene balance in the closing stanza.

The poem has, so far as I know, been mercifully spared the attention of composers, but Maddy Prior does a fine folk version of it on her album ‘Flesh and Blood’.

The Rolling English Road

Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode,
The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road.
A reeling road, a rolling road, that rambles round the shire,
And after him the parson ran, the sexton and the squire;
A merry road, a mazy road, and such as we did tread
The night we went to Birmingham by way of Beachy Head.

I knew no harm of Bonaparte and plenty of the Squire,
And for to fight the Frenchman I did not much desire;
But I did bash their baggonets because they came arrayed
To straighten out the crooked road an English drunkard made,
Where you and I went down the lane with ale-mugs in our hands,
The night we went to Glastonbury by way of Goodwin Sands.

His sins they were forgiven him; or why do flowers run
Behind him; and the hedges all strengthening in the sun?
The wild thing went from left to right and knew not which was which,
But the wild rose was above him when they found him in the ditch.
God pardon us, nor harden us; we did not see so clear
The night we went to Bannockburn by way of Brighton Pier.

My friends, we will not go again or ape an ancient rage,
Or stretch the folly of our youth to be the shame of age,
But walk with clearer eyes and ears this path that wandereth,
And see undrugged in evening light the decent inn of death;
For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen,
Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green.

G.K.Chesterton