C.H.Sisson (1914-2003) worked in a modernist, imagist tradition very different from any that I would see myself as belonging to, and for the most part his values and admirations are not mine, yet there is something about his own poems, especially the ruefully elegiac later ones, that I find intriguing: a kind of cerebral music, a bittersweet scent on the page, like rosemary. Here he looks back trying to find meaning in a life and ancestry characterised by a puzzling arbitrariness of fate and fortune.
I was born in Bristol, and it is possible
To live harshly in that city
Quiet voices possess it, but the boy
Torn from the womb, cowers
Under a ceiling of cloud. Tramcars
Crash by or enter the mind
A barred room bore him, the backyard
Smooth as a snake-skin, yielded nothing
In the fringes of the town parsley and honeysuckle
Drenched the hedges.
My mother was born in West Kington
Where ford and bridge cross the river together
John Worlock farmed there, my grandfather
Within sight of the square church-tower
The rounded cart-horses shone like metal
My mother remembered their fine ribbons.
She lies in the north now where the hills
Are pale green, and I
Whose hand never steadied a plough
Wish I had finished my long journey.
South of the march parts my father
Lies also, and the fell town
That cradles him now sheltered also
His first unconsciousness.
He walked from farm to farm with a kit of tools
From clock to clock, and at the end
Only they spoke to him, he
Having tuned his youth to their hammers.
I had two sisters, one I cannot speak of
For she died a child, and the sky was blue that day
The other lived to meet blindness
Groping on the stairs, not admitting she could not see
Felled at last under a surgeon’s hammer
Then left to rot, surgically
And I have a brother who, being alive,
Does not need to be put in a poem.