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
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.