Week 534: A Dream Or No, by Thomas Hardy

In 1987 I was on holiday with my family in Cornwall and on the way back from a drive with my wife, youngest son (a football-obsessed thirteen year old) and new baby daughter happened upon a sign to St Juliot’s Church and dived down a narrow lane, just as Hardy must have come more than a century before to find his Emma, the girl with the corn-coloured ringlets who once and later was all to him.

A grey and silver evening, wind in the sycamores; the square-towered battlemented church empty except for a woman arranging flowers, who cooed over the baby while I slipped outside and went down the path to a stile made of a thin slab of slate upright like the blade of a guillotine, and stood there looking at what to him must have been a familiar sight: a field of rough grass, sloping down to a line of trees, and beyond that the land rising again, long-shadowed and suddenly golden as the sun dropped below the cloud line, then turned back to see the churchyard with its silent headstones and nettles and an ivy-covered stump, that perhaps to him had been a sapling. My son came up and seeing my mood was very understanding: ‘I know what it means to you, I’d feel like that if we went somewhere Bryan Robson and the Man. United team had trained together.’

I’m not sure that it’s proper to equate a mere poet with the mighty Captain Marvel, but yes, that was the general idea. Anyway, here Hardy looks back wistfully on that first time together in a poem of 1913 in which he is drawn to the place and that remembered first happiness despite the doubts and pain that it now occasions in him.

A Dream Or No

Why go to Saint-Juliot? What’s Juliot to me?
    Some strange necromancy
    But charmed me to fancy
That much of my life claims the spot as its key.

Yes. I have had dreams of that place in the West,
    And a maiden abiding
    Thereat as in hiding;
Fair-eyed and white-shouldered, broad-browed and brown-tressed.

And of how, coastward bound on a night long ago,
    There lonely I found her,
    The sea-birds around her,
And other than nigh things uncaring to know.

So sweet her life there (in my thought has it seemed)
    That quickly she drew me
    To take her unto me,
And lodge her long years with me. Such have I dreamed.

But nought of that maid from Saint-Juliot I see;
    Can she ever have been here,
    And shed her life’s sheen here,
The woman I thought a long housemate with me?

Does there even a place like Saint-Juliot exist?
    Or a Vallency Valley
    With stream and leafed alley,
Or Beeny, or Bos with its flounce flinging mist?

Thomas Hardy



Week 533: Rain, by Edward Thomas

A lot of wet weather lately – one of our local ponds that was bone-dry in October is now brimming over and home once again to a family of mallards. For me the poet of rain has to be Edward Thomas, especially in this piece, written in early 1916 while Thomas was undergoing military training in a camp near Romford. This is actually one of the poems where I part company with Thomas spiritually, since I have always rather liked the sound of rain at night. I remember lying awake one night in the Ogwen Valley in North Wales, listening to a torrential downpour on the roof above my bunk, thinking how it would be falling all over the dark countryside, turning the already wet soil to a black peaty sponge, and thinking how it would overflow, because the country could take no more: the trees had taken up great draughts, and the mosses could drink no more, and the rocks would have nothing to do with it, being no obedient chalks and limestones but hard grits and slates. So droplet would turn to drip, and drip to puddle, and puddle to rill, and rill to rivulet, until the hillsides would be alive with moving water… for some reason I found an exquisite pleasure in the thought of that soft wearing, that sleeking and slicking, gentler than ice but just as powerful in the end, and certainly the rain seemed part of an immense aliveness rather than anything to inspire thoughts of death.

But now for Thomas’s very different take on the matter…

Rain

Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain
On this bleak hut, and solitude, and me
Remembering again that I shall die
And neither hear the rain nor give it thanks
For washing me cleaner than I have been
Since I was born into this solitude.
Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon:
But here I pray that none whom once I loved
Is dying to-night or lying still awake
Solitary, listening to the rain,
Either in pain or thus in sympathy
Helpless among the living and the dead,
Like a cold water among broken reeds,
Myriads of broken reeds all still and stiff,
Like me who have no love which this wild rain
Has not dissolved except the love of death,
If love it be towards what is perfect and
Cannot, the tempest tells me, disappoint.

Edward Thomas

Week 532: Question, by May Swenson

I confess that there is much in the work of more recent American poets that I feel not quite attuned to, as if it were written in a language that is clearly more or less English yet whose words, as in a dream, won’t quite come into focus. But I do like this poem by May Swenson (1913-1989), that reflects the difficulties that those of us most rooted in the physical have in conceiving of an existence independent of our body: our fleshly house, our faithful steed, our good bright questing hound.

Question

Body my house
my horse my hound
what will I do
when you are fallen

Where will I sleep
How will I ride
What will I hunt

Where can I go
without my mount
all eager and quick
How will I know
in thicket ahead
is danger or treasure
when Body my good
bright dog is dead

How will it be
to lie in the sky
without roof or door
and wind for an eye

With cloud for shift
how will I hide?

May Swenson

Week 531: The Gay Goshawk, by Carole Pegg

It should be said first that this week’s poem has nothing to do with the Child ballad of the same name, instead it is an original song to be found on the 1970’s folk-rock album ‘Mr Fox’, by a group of the same name formed by Bob and Carole Pegg. The group was short-lived, producing only two albums, and never enjoyed the repute and commercial success of their contemporary folk-rock bands Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention, yet they had a very original style that drew on a mix of traditional sources and in particular the musical culture of the Yorkshire Dales. I think this eerie magical ballad is one of their best efforts.

The goshawk’s threat to use supernatural powers, which could be seen as a touch coercive, brings to mind legends attached to mediaeval wizards like Michael Scot, who was reputed to have defeated an indefatigable demon by challenging it to weave a rope out of flying sea-salt.

Note: the first word in line 15 is hard to make out: ‘jasmine’ seems odd but seems to be what people hear.

The Gay Goshawk

The gay goshawk came to my window-sill.
The snow it fell fast and the stars stood still.
‘O won’t you take me in from the storm,
Won’t you take me between your sheets so warm?’

Gold was the colour of his wings so fair,
His eyes they were bold and of silver so rare
And I laid his brown body upon the pillow.
He became a man, lithe as a willow.

‘Don’t breathe a word, don’t scream, don’t shout.
I can turn the whole world round about,
Lay the moon flat on the land,
Twist a rope out of flying sand’.

Whispering women, so happy beguiled,
Now that he’s gone she must care for the child.
Jasmine’s the colour of his hair,
A nut-brown boy with a silvery stare.

The nights have grown cold and the seasons slip by
And knowing seducers still give me the eye,
But on cold winter’s evenings alone I walk,
I watch and pray for my gay goshawk.

Carole Pegg

Week 530: BC:AD, by U.A.Fanthorpe

‘And is it true, and is it true,/This most tremendous tale of all…’ run lines from a John Betjeman poem on the Nativity. To which I suspect that many these days will, like me, answer well, no, probably not, at least not in the sense that it did actually happen and happen in that way, which is our preferred definition of ‘true’. Yet we will be happy to concede ‘true’ in the sense of being a good story, reflecting some of humanity’s deepest hopes and desires, and powerful enough to have resonated down the ages.

I’m not sure how far in this week’s poem by U.A.Fanthorpe the author means to go along with the more literal aspects of the Christmas story, but it’s an entertaining take on the tale and it does for me go some way to capturing the true wonder at the heart of the Nativity which remains even when one strips away such mythic accretions as shepherds and angels, stars and wise men, and which should surely be something that those of all faiths and none can celebrate equally: I mean the sheer miracle of any human birth, this fragile chance to be alive on a green planet orbiting a vast ball of fire in the void.

My thanks to my followers for all their comments and encouragement over the year, and may they feel in whatever way seems right to them the warmth of this ancient glow at the heart of midwinter.

BC:AD

This was the moment when Before
Turned into After, and the future’s
Uninvented timekeepers presented arms.

This was the moment when nothing
Happened. Only dull peace
Sprawled boringly over the earth.

This was the moment when even energetic Romans
Could find nothing better to do
Than counting heads in remote provinces.

And this was the moment
When a few farm workers and three
Members of an obscure Persian sect

Walked haphazard by starlight straight
Into the kingdom of Heaven.

U.A.Fanthorpe

Week 529: A Christmas Childhood, by Patrick Kavanagh

This week’s seasonal offering is one of Patrick Kavanagh’s best-loved poems, full of frost and glitter and childhood wonder, and wistful for that wonder. I don’t actually think it’s one of his very best poems – to me it rambles a bit and could do with tightening up – but it certainly has its moments, and even flawed Kavanagh is still better than most poets’ best.

Note: water-hen. A name used here and there for various water-birds, but here I take it to be the moorhen.

A Christmas Childhood

(I)

One side of the potato–pits was white with frost –
How wonderful that was, how wonderful!
And when we put our ears to the paling-post
The music that came out was magical.

The light between the ricks of hay and straw
Was a hole in Heaven’s gable. An apple tree
With its December-glinting fruit we saw –
O you, Eve, were the world that tempted me

To eat the knowledge that grew in clay
And death the germ within it! Now and then
I can remember something of the gay
Garden that was childhood’s. Again

The tracks of cattle to a drinking-place,
A green stone lying sideways in a ditch
Or any common sight the transfigured face
Of a beauty that the world did not touch.

(II)

My father played the melodion
Outside at our gate;
There were stars in the morning east
And they danced to his music.

Across the wild bogs his melodion called
To Lennons and Callans.
As I pulled on my trousers in a hurry
I knew some strange thing had happened.

Outside in the cow-house my mother
Made the music of milking;
The light of her stable-lamp was a star
And the frost of Bethlehem made it twinkle.

A water-hen screeched in the bog,
Mass-going feet
Crunched the wafer-ice on the pot-holes,
Somebody wistfully twisted the bellows wheel.

My child poet picked out the letters
On the grey stone,
In silver the wonder of a Christmas townland,
The winking glitter of a frosty dawn.

Cassiopeia was over
Cassidy’s hanging hill,
I looked and three whin bushes rode across
The horizon – the Three Wise Kings.

An old man passing said:
‘Can’t he make it talk –
The melodion’. I hid in the doorway
And tightened the belt of my box-pleated coat.

I nicked six nicks on the door-post
With my penknife’s big blade –
There was a little one for cutting tobacco.
And I was six Christmases of age.

My father played the melodion,
My mother milked the cows,
And I had a prayer like a white rose pinned
On the Virgin Mary’s blouse.

Patrick Kavanagh

Week 528: Office Party, by Alan Brownjohn

This week a very funny seasonal poem. Well, I say funny – really it’s a bit sad and possibly I shouldn’t laugh, but it does capture rather brilliantly the horrors that we inflict on ourselves in the name of jollification, in this case the annual office party. Ah, Alan, did you learn nothing from Larkin’s ‘Vers de Sociėtė’?

Office Party

We were throwing out small talk
On the smoke-weary air,
When the girl with the squeaker
Came passing each chair.

She was wearing a white dress,
Her paper-hat was a blue
Crown with a red tassel
And to every man who

Glanced up at her, she leant over
And blew down the hole,
So the squeaker inflated
And began to unroll.

She stopped them all talking
With this trickery,
And she didn’t leave out anyone
Until she came to me.

I looked up and she met me
With a half-teasing eye
And she took a mild breath and
Went carefully by,

And with cold concentration
To the next man she went,
And squawked out the instrument
To its fullest extent.

And whether she passed me
Thinking that it would show
Too much favour to mock me
I never did know –

Or whether her withholding
Was her cruelty,
And it was that she despised me,
I couldn’t quite see –

So it could have been discretion
And it could have been disgust
But it was quite unequivocal,
And suffer it I must:

All I know was: she passed me,
Which I did not expect
– And I’d never so craved for
Some crude disrespect.

Alan Brownjohn

Postscript: So why did the young woman pass him by? When I first read the poem, my initial theory was that she instinctively felt it would be wrong to violate the aura of quiet dignity that I liked to think surrounded poets. This theory did not survive contact with poets.

Week 527: ‘Late Came The God’, by Rudyard Kipling

Can a poem be powerful yet also, viewed rationally, a bit daft? If so, then I think this one by Rudyard Kipling certainly manages it. It is intimately associated with Kipling’s short story ‘The Wish House’, which it prefixes in his 1926 collection ‘Debits and Credits’, and that story itself is very odd, yet also quite masterful in its way. It concerns a woman Grace Ashcroft, who, after various affairs in which she received affection that she did not return, late in life falls deeply in love with a man called Harry Mockler. He becomes ill and she goes to a ‘wish house’ that is inhabited by a ‘Token’, some kind of wraith or supernatural being who can, or so she believes, grant her the power to take on herself another’s suffering. Which she does, saying ‘Let me take everythin’ bad that’s in store for my man, ’Arry Mockler, for love’s sake’. Subsequently she injures her ankle and then develops an ulcer on her leg that turns cancerous, causing her great pain.

It is a moving tale and the poem is harrowing in its uncompromising evocation of disease and pain, but the problem I have with it is that the world simply does not work like that. Empathy is a fine thing, but it has its practical limits. I knew a little girl who died of childhood leukaemia after a short and suffering life: I am sure that if there had been any way for her loving parents to take pain away from her and into themselves they would have done so. The truth, I fear, lies much more in the direction of Robert Frost’s bleak assessment: ‘The nearest friends can go/With anyone to death, comes so far short/They might as well not try to go at all.’

Nonetheless, the poem and story bear witness to what a strange and powerful writer, quite unlike anyone else, Kipling at his best could be. As for their psychology, given that the story first appeared, in magazine form, in 1924 it is hard not to see in them a wish-fulfilment fantasy on Kipling’s part, a vicarious projection of himself into the narrative. He was racked with guilt over the death of his son John in the Great War, having pulled strings to get him a commission in the army after he had initially been rejected due to poor eyesight. Maybe one can hear in that ‘for love’s sake’ Kipling’s own sublimated version of David’s great cry in the Bible: ‘Would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!’

Note: ‘the God’ – I take this to refer to Eros, the god of love, feeling scorned because of Grace Ashcroft’s earlier behaviour in affairs of the heart, and now exacting vengeance. Those averse to divinities, vengeful or otherwise, can simply take it as karma.

‘Late Came The God’ (from ‘The Wish House’)

Late came the God, having sent his forerunners who were not regarded –
Late, but in wrath;
Saying: ‘The wrong shall be paid, the contempt be rewarded
On all that she hath.’
He poisoned the blade and struck home, the full bosom receiving
The wound and the venom in one, past cure or relieving.

He made treaty with Time to stand still that the grief might be fresh –
Daily renewed and nightly pursued through her soul to her flesh –
Mornings of memory, noontides of agony, midnights unslaked for her,
Till the stones of the street of her Hells and her Paradise ached for her.

So she lived while her body corrupted upon her.
And she called on the Night for a sign, and a Sign was allowed,
And she builded an Altar and served by the light of her Vision –
Alone, without hope of regard or reward, but uncowed,
Resolute, selfless, divine.
These things she did in Love’s honour…
What is a God beside Woman? Dust and derision!

Rudyard Kipling

Week 526: Sandra Lee Scheuer, by Gary Geddes

Sandra Lee Scheuer was a student at Kent State University. Her subject was speech therapy. She died in 1970, aged twenty, when she was shot in the neck with a bullet from the M-1 rifle of an Ohio National Guardsman. Three other unarmed students were also killed in the shootings. At the time a student demonstration against the escalation of the Vietnam war into Cambodia was taking place on the campus. There are differing views regarding the magnitude of the threat posed by rock-throwing students to National Guardsmen armed only with rifles and grenade launchers, but all seem to agree on one thing: that Sandra had nothing to do with the demonstration and was merely walking between classes.

The poem appears in a 1980 collection by the Canadian poet Gary Geddes (b. 1940). It must have been hard to write it without overt anger, yet what dominates is pity, and maybe the poem is all the more effective for it. Note how the poet weaves into the narrative Sandra’s subject, speech therapy, such that the silencing of her voice and consequent loss of her healing gift becomes emblematic of the whole violent suppression of the freedom to speak out.

‘or put a flower in his rifle barrel’ – this refers to an incident the day before when another student, Allison Beth Krause, had put a flower in the barrel of a Guardsman’s rifle, saying ‘Flowers are better than bullets’. Allison too was killed in the shootings the next day.

Sandra Lee Scheuer

(Killed at Kent State University, May 4, 1970 by the Ohio National Guard)

‘You might have met her on a Saturday night,
cutting precise circles, clockwise, at the Moon-Glo
Roller Rink, or walking with quick step

between the campus and a green two-storey house,
where the room was always tidy, the bed made,
the books in confraternity on the shelves.

She did not throw stones, major in philosophy
or set fire to buildings, though acquaintances say
she hated war, had heard of Cambodia.

In truth she wore a modicum of make-up, a brassiere,
and could no doubt more easily have married a guardsman
than cursed or put a flower in his rifle barrel.

While the armouries burned, she studied,
bent low over notes, speech therapy books, pages
open at sections on impairment, physiology.

And while they milled and shouted on the commons,
she helped a boy named Billy with his lisp, saying
Hiss, Billy, like a snake. That’s it, SSSSSSSS,

tongue well up and back behind your teeth.
Now buzz, Billy, like a bee. Feel the air
vibrating in my windpipe as I breathe?

As she walked in sunlight through the parking-lot
at noon, feeling the world a passing lovely place,
a young guardsman, who had his sights on her,

was going down on one knee, as if he might propose.
His declaration, unmistakable, articulate,
flowered within her, passed through her neck,

severed her trachea, taking her breath away.
Now who will burn the midnight oil for Billy,
ensure the perilous freedom of his speech;

and who will see her skating at the Moon-Glo
Roller Rink, the eight small wooden wheels
making their countless revolutions on the floor?

Gary Geddes

Week 525: The Remembrance, by David Sutton

Remembrance Sunday last weekend, and again a surprisingly large crowd from our village gathered round the memorial cross at the corner of the green. I remember when we moved here in the early seventies there would be no more than a rather pathetic handful of attendees, but since then we have had the Falklands, and Iraq, and Afghanistan, and the hope that war between civilised societies might be becoming a thing of the past has had to be put aside, with a resultant renewed awareness of freedom’s price, and a desire to remember those who have paid it on our behalf. So this week I offer on this theme one of my own poems, that I wrote after a somewhat larger gathering on Shirburn Hill to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of VE day in 1995.

The Remembrance (May 8, 1995)

We crowd the hilltop, standing in loose ranks,
A thousand, maybe, come from all around.

Scents of hawthorn, woodsmoke, trampled grass.
A chilling wind; grey battlements of cloud
Rimmed with gold, pale shafts of hidden fire
Fanwise to the west.
                           Eight thirty-three.

A queue for hot dogs; skittish children; prams;   
A roped-off bonfire darting orange flames
This way and that, on cold upswirling air.
The minutes tick away. We wait, unsure.

For we were young: what grief was this of ours?
A rumour from beyond the sky, a shadow
That fled before our childhood. Fifty years
Is long for men, in life and memory.
Yet we knew names; we saw the sad closed faces.
Their grief has been our freedom.                                                                                                                           A maroon
Cracks like a whip. A deep obedient hush
Falls on the hill; coats rustle; one small child
Cries and is rocked. We stand. Two minutes pass.
Mist on the plain beneath, a white half-moon
Strengthening above.
                           Then bugle notes,
A roll of drums. The solemn statues move,
Speak and are ordinary. We go back,
Torches aloft; cars nose the narrow lane.
Something is served: at least, our silence said
All that the living can say to the dead.

David Sutton