Week 395: Tall Nettles, by Edward Thomas

I imagine that those brought up to think that a poem must always mean something beyond itself may find this little piece, together with why I find it so satisfying, somewhat puzzling. ‘Yes, but what do the nettles represent?’, they may ask. Nothing, so far as I know: they are just nettles in their own right, a humble and easily overlooked part of the creation, but this time they have been seen, and the poetry is in the seeing. It is as Thomas himself observed of his hero Richard Jefferies: ‘To see… as clearly as he saw the sun-painted yellowhammer in Stewart’s Mash is an office of the imagination’. And when it results in observation as affectionately meticulous as that in the last three lines of this poem, it is no mean office either.

Tall Nettles

Tall nettles cover up, as they have done
These many springs, the rusty harrow, the plough
Long worn out, and the roller made of stone:
Only the elm butt tops the nettles now.

This corner of the farmyard I like most:
As well as any bloom upon a flower
I like the dust on the nettles, never lost
Except to prove the sweetness of a shower.

Edward Thomas

Week 394: Appeals, by David Sutton

It’s a bad time for charities, this lockdown, and there seem to be even more good causes than usual needing help. One feels one should be doing something, and of course many people are. My daughter recently finished a sponsored ascent of her stairs 3204 times in 22 hours to equal the height of Everest, my son-in-law has done a sponsored half-marathon in his back garden. All a bit energetic for me now. I wondered if I could perhaps get people to sponsor me to write a poem, but it was put to me that I would probably have more luck getting people to sponsor me not to write a poem. So I have contented myself with at least digging out this one that I wrote years ago, but which now has sadly gained fresh relevance.

Note: I am aware that the term ‘spastics’ is no longer considered correct, but back when I wrote the poem it was simply the normal word for the condition: one made out cheques to The Spastics Society, which did not change its name to Scope until 1994. I don’t know how far poets can reasonably be expected to revise their work when the rug of language is pulled from under them – it’s a tricky one!

Appeals

Almost daily the world
Bleeds through my letter-box. On the mat each morning
I find fresh gouts: blind babies, orphans, spastics,
The deaf, the lonely old, ill-treated pets,
Blue whales, otters, donkeys. . . Donkeys? Well,
Why not; in indiscriminate despair
I scribble out the breakfast cheques, each careful
Conscience-minimum. Now world, will you
Leave me alone today? Will someone else
Apply these scraps of dressing? But the blood
Seeps through, it stains my fingers, sometimes at night
Becomes a bright unlaunderable flood.
Can’t someone tell them I’ve a life to lead?
Just so, they murmur, drawing off, and bleed.

David Sutton

Week 393: Ten Types of Hospital Visitor, by Charles Causley

I thought this week’s piece might be appropriate at a time when with any luck patients in hospital will soon be allowed visitors again, though if Charles Causley’s wryly observed poem is anything to go by, this can be a mixed blessing…

Ten Types of Hospital Visitor

1

The first enters wearing the neon armour
Of virtue.
Ceaselessly firing all-purpose smiles
At everyone present
She destroys hope
In the breasts of the sick,
Who realize instantly
That they are incapable of surmounting
Her ferocious goodwill.

Such courage she displays
In the face of human disaster!

Fortunately, she does not stay long.
After a speedy trip round the ward
In the manner of a nineteen-thirties destroyer
Showing the flag in the Mediterranean,
She returns home for a week
– With luck, longer –
Scorched by the heat of her own worthiness.

2

The second appears, a melancholy splurge
Of theological colours;
Taps heavily about like a healthy vulture
Distributing deep-frozen hope.

The patients gaze at him cautiously.
Most of them, as yet uncertain of the realities
Of heaven, hell-fire, or eternal emptiness,
Play for safety
By accepting his attentions
With just-concealed apathy,
Except one old man, who cries
With newly sharpened hatred,
‘Shove off! Shove off!
‘Shove … shove … shove … shove
Off!
Just you
Shove!’

3

The third skilfully deflates his weakly smiling victim
By telling him
How the lobelias are doing,
How many kittens the cat had,
How the slate came off the scullery roof,
And how no one has visited the patient for a fortnight
Because everybody
Had colds and feared to bring the jumpy germ
Into hospital.
The patient’s eyes
Ice over. He is uninterested
In lobelias, the cat, the slate, the germ.
Flat on his back, drip-fed, his face
The shade of a newly dug-up Pharaoh,
Wearing his skeleton outside his skin,
Yet his wits as bright as a lighted candle,
He is concerned only with the here, the now,
And requires to speak
Of nothing but his present predicament.

It is not permitted.

4

The fourth attempts to cheer
His aged mother with light jokes
Menacing as shell-splinters.
‘They’ll soon have you jumping round
Like a gazelle,’ he says.
‘Playing in the football team.’
Quite undeterred by the sight of kilos
Of plaster, chains, lifting-gear,
A pair of lethally designed crutches,
‘You’ll be leap-frogging soon,’ he says.
‘Swimming ten lengths of the baths.’
At these unlikely prophecies
The old lady stares fearfully
At her sick, sick offspring
Thinking he has lost his reason –

Which, alas, seems to be the case.

5

The fifth, a giant from the fields
With suit smelling of milk and hay,
Shifts uneasily from one bullock foot
To the other, as though to avoid
Settling permanently in the antiseptic landscape.
Occasionally he looses a scared glance
Sideways, as though fearful of what intimacy
He may blunder on, or that the walls
Might suddenly close in on him.

He carries flowers, held lightly in fingers
The size and shape of plantains,
Tenderly kisses his wife’s cheek
– The brush of a child’s lips –
Then balances, motionless, for thirty minutes
On the thin chair.

At the end of visiting time
He emerges breathless,
Blinking with relief, into the safe light.

He does not appear to notice
The dusk.

6

The sixth visitor says little,
Breathes reassurance,
Smiles securely.
Carries no black passport of grapes
And visa of chocolate. Has a clutch
Of clean washing.
Unobtrusively stows it
In the locker; searches out more.
Talks quietly to the Sister
Out of sight, out of earshot, of the patient.
Arrives punctually as a tide.
Does not stay the whole hour.

Even when she has gone
The patient seems to sense her there:
An upholding
Presence.

7

The seventh visitor
Smells of bar-room after-shave.
Often finds his friend
Sound asleep: whether real or feigned
Is never determined.

He does not mind; prowls the ward
In search of second-class, lost-face patients
With no visitors
And who are pretending to doze
Or read paperbacks.

He probes relentlessly the nature
Of each complaint, and is swift with such
Dilutions of confidence as,
`Ah! You’ll be worse
Before you’re better.’

Five minutes before the bell punctuates
Visiting time, his friend opens an alarm-clock eye.
The visitor checks his watch.
Market day. The Duck and Pheasant will be still open.

Courage must be refuelled.

8

The eight visitor looks infinitely
More decayed, ill and infirm than any patient.
His face is an expensive grey.

He peers about with antediluvian eyes
As though from the other end
Of time.
He appears to have risen from the grave
To make this appearance.
There is a whiff of white flowers about him;
The crumpled look of a slightly used shroud.
Slowly he passes the patient
A bag of bullet-proof
Home-made biscuits,
A strong, death-dealing cake –
‘To have with your tea,’
Or a bowl of fruit so weighty
It threatens to break
His glass fingers.

The patient, encouraged beyond measure,
Thanks him with enthusiasm, not for
The oranges, the biscuits, the cake,
But for the healing sight
Of someone patently worse
Than himself. He rounds the crisis-corner;
Begins a recovery.

9

The ninth visitor is life.

10

The tenth visitor
Is not usually named.

Charles Causley

Week 392: An Eala Bhàn, by Dòmhnall Ruadh Chorùna

These are verses from a longer poem in Scots Gaelic, written by Dòmhnall Ruadh Chorùna (Donald Macdonald) (1887-1967) during the Battle of the Somme. It is addressed to the sweetheart he had left at home, Magaidh NicLeòid (Maggie MacLeod), the ‘white swan’ of the title. The poem has none of the righteous anger of Owen and Sassoon, just resignation and the ache of longing for a life left behind, sentiments that must have been much more typical of the common soldier in the trenches.

It has been set to music and was sung, very beautifully, by Julie Fowlis, at the Thiepval Memorial Service on July 1st, 2016: you can hear this on YouTube, as you can another haunting version by Karen Matheson. We owe so much to singers like this who are doing their best to keep alive the Gaelic language with all its rich heritage of song and poetry.

The translation that follows is my own.

An Eala Bhàn

Gur duilich leam mar tha mi
‘S mo chridhe ‘n sàs aig bròn
Bhon an uair a dh’fhàg mi
Beanntan àrd a’cheò
Gleanntannan a’mhànrain
Nan loch, nam bàgh, ‘s nan stròm
‘S an eala bhàn ‘tha tamh ann
Gach là air ‘m bheil mi’n tòir

A Mhagaidh na bi tùrsach
A rùin, ged gheibhinn bàs
Cò am fear am measg an t-sluaigh
A mhaireas buan gu bràth?
Chan eil sinn uileadh ach air chuairt
Mar dhìthein buaile fàs
Bheir siantannan na bhliadhna sìos
‘S nach tog a’ghrian an àird.

*****************************

Oidhche mhath leat fhéin, a rùin
Nad leabaidh chùbhraidh bhlàth
Cadal sàmhach air a chùl
Do dhùsgadh sunndach slàn
Tha mise ‘seo ‘san truinnsidh fhuair
Nam chluaisean fuaim a bhàis
Gun dùil ri faighinn às le buaidh
Tha’n cuan cho buan ri shnàmh

Dòmhnall Ruadh Chorùna

The White Swan

There is a sadness in my state
My heart cannot resist,
Not since the very hour I left
The high peaks in the mist,
Not since I left the little glens,
The lochs and bays behind,
And you, the white swan living there,
Who’s never from my mind.

O Maggie, don’t be sorrowful
If I should not survive.
We journey on: what man can stay
Eternally alive?
Like flowers in a deserted fold
We flourish, till the rain
Beats down our little span of life.
We do not bloom again.

*****************************

And now goodnight to you, my love,
In your warm scented bed.
May you sleep peacefully and wake
In health and clear of head,
While I am here in this cold trench,
No quiet rest for me,
Nor hope of home, for who can swim
Across so wide a sea.

Week 391: Album, by R.S.Thomas

The other day my wife and I were looking at our wedding photos from fifty-four years ago, and reflecting on the fact that most of the people in them are now dead. (So important to stay cheerful during lockdown…) Well, I suppose it is obvious that for most of us, if we live long enough, there comes a point at which, of all the people we have known in our lives, more are now dead than are still living – it just takes a photograph album to bring it home to one. And this in turn reminded me of this rueful poem by R.S.Thomas.

Note the scrupulously truthful ‘bandaged’ in the last stanza. Not a glib ‘healed’ – anyone who has lost a child or partner may tell you that not all wounds are healed by time. Just bandaged, covered, the way a smile may cover grief.

Album

My father is dead.
I who am look at him
who is not, as once he
went looking for me
in the woman who was.

There are pictures
of the two of them, no
need of a third, hand
in hand, hearts willing
to be one but not three.

What does it mean
life? I am here I am
there. Look! Suddenly
the young tool in their hands
for hurting one another.

And the camera says:
Smile; there is no wound
time gives that is not bandaged
by time. And so they do the
three of them at me who weep.

R.S.Thomas

Week 390: ‘The corn was orient and immortal wheat’ by Thomas Traherne

This passage from ‘Centuries of Meditation’ by the English poet and mystic Thomas Traherne (1637-1674) has become famous, though Traherne’s work didn’t attract much notice till the twentieth century. I like it, but I think there is a temptation for writers to project back on to themselves as children more poetic sensibility than they actually had at the time, and wonder if this is not such a case. In my experience small children tend to be of a fairly practical turn of mind, and Hardy comes nearer the mark when he says, in a poem recalling his own childhood, ‘Everything glowed with a gleam/Yet we were looking away!’. I well remember a walk in a spring wood with my own small daughter when she was two. ‘I know’, I said, taking out my notebook and pencil. ‘Let’s sit on this log and you tell Daddy what interesting things you can see and he’ll write them down in his book’. She obligingly sat down and thought. I waited expectantly, trying to imagine myself into her world of unsullied perception. What would it be? Something about the dance of the light on the leaves, the bluebells stretching away all round us under the beech trees? Eventually she delivered. ‘Beth can see pencil!’, she said.

‘The corn was orient and immortal wheat, which never should be reaped, nor was ever sown. I thought it had stood from everlasting to everlasting. The dust and stones of the street were as precious as gold: the gates were at first the end of the world. The green trees when I saw them first through one of the gates transported and ravished me, their sweetness and unusual beauty made my heart to leap, and almost mad with ecstasy, they were such strange and wonderful things: The Men! O what venerable and reverend creatures did the aged seem! Immortal Cherubims! And young men glittering and sparkling Angels, and maids strange seraphic pieces of life and beauty! Boys and girls tumbling in the street, and playing, were moving jewels. I knew not that they were born or should die; But all things abided eternally as they were in their proper places. Eternity was manifest in the Light of the Day, and something infinite behind everything appeared which talked with my expectation and moved my desire. The city seemed to stand in Eden, or to be built in Heaven. The streets were mine, the temple was mine, the people were mine, their clothes and gold and silver were mine, as much as their sparkling eyes, fair skins and ruddy faces. The skies were mine, and so were the sun and moon and stars, and all the World was mine; and I the only spectator and enjoyer of it. I knew no churlish proprieties, nor bounds, nor divisions: but all proprieties* and divisions were mine: all treasures and the possessors of them. So that with much ado I was corrupted, and made to learn the dirty devices of this world. Which now I unlearn, and become, as it were, a little child again that I may enter into the Kingdom of God’.

Thomas Traherne

* ‘proprieties’ here has its older meaning of ‘properties’.

Week 389: The Echoing Green, by William Blake

This seemingly naïve pastoral is not perhaps in the visionary vein one usually associates with Blake, yet I feel it has acquired a peculiar poignancy in these days of social isolation – certainly my own local Echoing Green is eerily deserted these days – no sport, no teenagers in convivial huddles on the benches, even a lock on the children’s playground in the corner.

I wonder, incidentally, what a village green would have looked like in Blake’s time. Probably rather different from our own mowed and manicured areas with their cricket squares, football pitches, swings and climbing frames. Was football even played on a pitch then? – I have an idea that it was more a mob-handed affair ranging over open fields between two sides intent on doing as much damage to each other as possible and never mind the ball (OK, not much change there then). Certainly I know my own local green is all that remains of a great wild common, a favourite haunt of early botanists, stretching right up to the edge of the woods over acres long gone under housing estates.

The Echoing Green

The Sun does arise,
And make happy the skies;
The merry bells ring
To welcome the Spring;
The skylark and thrush,
The birds of the bush,
Sing louder around
To the bells’ cheerful sound,
While our sports shall be seen
On the Echoing Green.

Old John, with white hair,
Does laugh away care,
Sitting under the oak,
Among the old folk.
They laugh at our play,
And soon they all say:
‘Such, such were the joys
When we all, girls and boys,
In our youth time were seen
On the Echoing Green.’

Till the little ones, weary,
No more can be merry;
The sun does descend,
And our sports have an end.
Round the laps of their mothers
Many sisters and brothers,
Like birds in their nest,
Are ready for rest,
And sport no more seen
On the darkening Green.

William Blake