Week 365: The Players, by Stuart Henson

I have little patience with wilful obscurity in a poem, but subtlety and genuine mystery are another matter, and this week’s offering, by contemporary poet Stuart Henson, is characteristically subtle and, at first reading, a little mysterious. Who are these players that assemble in the spring dusk? What is this drift road they travel? The second question is easily answered: a drift road is an ancient country road used to take travellers, farm workers and animals between rural villages, that here takes on a temporal dimension, haunted, as are all roads, by wayfarers from the past. As for the players, I take these to stand for just such wayfarers, those who travelled before us down time’s road, moving from light through half-light into darkness, their voices being dimmed and their lives slowly effaced yet still for a while finding echoes within our own. And how well that image of the coin in the closing lines works, conjuring into existence again some long-vanished twilight with its throng of mediaeval travellers, alive and credulous under a new spring moon.

The poem can be found in Stuart’s collection ‘The Way You Know It’ (Shoestring, 2018), which contains 40 new poems and selections from six previous volumes; further information can be found on Stuart’s website at stuarthenson.co.uk

The Players

Out of the green graves or the road’s dust
The dusk assembles them, wisest and least,
like shadows gathered to a feast,
and one by one in candle-fall they come
about the chestnuts and the tombs,
speaking their dumb discourse to leaf,
to stone, and to the sun that lingers
low on the hill where the hay lies mown.

Gargoyles that once were angels hang and grin.
Above the sunken lane the dead lean in.
All the quick world is spring and listening
at time’s conventicle, a ring
where thin grey fingers pluck at strings
that resonate through bird-light,
bat-light, half-light, out on the air,
on the dim concentric circles of the night.

Their text, their eloquence, begins to be
our understanding too and our intelligence
is rhymed to theirs and hears as if the trees
translated us; but what they say’s grown
brown with lichens, rain-washed, worn away.
Their day has travelled with its dusty sun
and goes ahead, and if we follow them we know
we should become them finally and not return.

For once these players might have been
priest, poet, teacher, physician…
But now the leather on their heels
is wearing thin. Their eyes see through us
and they’re gone, beyond our hearing,
down the drift road where time and timeless join,
turning their pocket-silver twice for luck,
for a moon like the edge of a new coin.

Stuart Henson

Week 364: Tell me not here, it needs not saying, by A.E.Housman

I have always felt this week’s offering to be one of the most beautiful of English poems, at least as far as the first four verses go. I could do without the last verse, in which the elegy edges over into self-pity: if you really have to state the obvious about man’s relationship to ‘heartless, witless nature’ then I rather prefer the breezy acceptance of W.H.Auden’s lines: ‘Looking up at the stars I know quite well/That for all they care I can go to hell’. Well, quite. The universe is not about us. Which need not prevent us from finding it an immensely interesting place, and being grateful for the opportunity to observe it for a brief span. 

Tell me not here, it needs not saying

Tell me not here, it needs not saying,
What tune the enchantress plays
In aftermaths of soft September
Or under blanching mays,
For she and I were long acquainted
And I knew all her ways.

On russet floors, by waters idle,
The pine lets fall its cone;
The cuckoo shouts all day at nothing
In leafy dells alone;
And traveller’s joy beguiles in autumn
Hearts that have lost their own.

On acres of the seeded grasses
The changing burnish heaves;
Or marshalled under moons of harvest
Stand still all night the sheaves;
Or beeches strip in storms for winter
And stain the wind with leaves.

Possess, as I possessed a season,
The countries I resign,
Where over elmy plains the highway
Would mount the hills and shine,
And full of shade the pillared forest
Would murmur and be mine.

For nature, heartless, witless nature,
Will neither care nor know
What stranger’s feet may find the meadow
And trespass there and go,
Nor ask amid the dews of morning
If they are mine or no.


Week 363: Fire Thief, by Karine Polwart

This is an original work by the Scottish folk-singer Karine Polwart, written for a BBC Radio 2 musical documentary series called The Radio Ballads. It is based on interviews with Anne Marie, who is living with HIV and lost her husband to AIDS, and Betty, who lost her son Michael. Both husband and son suffered from AIDS-related dementia long before their bodies died. I admire how skilfully Karine uses the devices of the old ballads – question-and-answer, refrain – to build an atmosphere of doom and pity. Of course, it’s better still with its music, a haunting guitar accompaniment: the track can be found on Karine’s album ‘This Earthly Spell’.

A couple of Scots words here: a rickle is a loose heap or rickety structure; dool is dolour, pain.

Fire Thief

Who stole the heart of my bonnie laddie
All alone and aloney O
And left me another lad in his body?
Down where I cannot go
Down where I cannot follow

Who stole the light in my laddie’s eyes
All alone and aloney O
And left me another lad in disguise?
Down where I cannot go
Down where I cannot follow

Who stole the words on my laddie’s tongue
All alone and aloney O
And left me a rickle of skin and bone?
Down where I cannot go
Down where I cannot follow

Who stole today? Who stole tomorrow?
All alone and aloney O
And left me with nothing but doul and sorrow?
Down where I cannot go
Down where I cannot follow

I know the name of the fire thief
All alone and aloney O
But you can’t grow a tree from a fallen leaf
Down where I cannot go
Down where I cannot go
Down where I cannot follow
Down where I cannot go

Karine Polwart

Week 362: What were they like?, by Denise Levertov

I have been reading Max Hastings’ ‘Vietnam’, an account of the Vietnamese War in which he meticulously chronicles the destruction of the country and the devastating effect of the conflict on those caught in the middle. This poem by the American poet Denise Levertov (1923-1997) distils the essence of that calamity. The diction has a lyric quality which may seem at odds with the subject, yet adds a further sheen of irony to the poem.

What were they like?

Did the people of Viet Nam
use lanterns of stone?
Did they hold ceremonies
to reverence the opening of buds?
Were they inclined to quiet laughter?
Did they use bone and ivory,
jade and silver, for ornament?
Had they an epic poem?
Did they distinguish between speech and singing?

Sir, their light hearts turned to stone.
It is not remembered whether in gardens
stone lanterns illumined pleasant ways.
Perhaps they once gathered to delight in blossoms,
but after the children were killed, there were no more buds.

Sir, laughter is bitter to the burned mouth.
A dream ago, perhaps.
Ornament is for joy.
All the bones were charred.

It is not remembered. Remember, most were peasants:
their life was in rice and bamboo.
When peaceful clouds were reflected in the paddies,
and water buffaloes stepped along terraces,
maybe fathers told their sons old tales.
When bombs shattered those mirrors,
there was time only to scream.

There is an echo yet
of their speech which was like a song.
It was reported that their singing resembled
the flight of moths in moonlight.
Who can say? It is silent now.

Denise Levertov