Thursday, 28 May 2009

Some new poems

William Lilly foresees the Great Fire of London

It is seldom straightforward—
this oracular plotting of seven stars
criss-cross over parchment.

Tonight, dry Saturn disposes
a combust Mercury; the Moon, antic
and inflamed in the night-house of Mars,

betokens for a man unsuspected foes,
and for a woman, passio hysterica,
suffocation of the Mother. But for a city?

He is not certain. All evening,
through the lattice, smoking clouds
have fallen from the sun,

like an oven door unshut,
spilling sparks onto floury rushes.


Hunt in the Forest
(after Uccello)

Not daylight. Surely after the lightning’s
fork they are counting down the miles
until thunder’s pressure breaks.
The storm-swollen sky bears down

on fan-vaults of bay and terebinth.
This too-mathematical wood screams trap:
the trusting greyhounds chase the stag
into a bluish blacklit nowhere, through

a forest of numbered leaves, where fallen logs
swing like magnets to the vanishing point.
One rider pulls up short, sensing the siren
undertow of the spaces in-between,

refuses to go on. Or could horses, men and dogs
in fact be still as stones in this frozen instant?
Serried, irradiate, walnut and holm-oak
uproot themselves and interchange.



Her eyes focus inward
on a nest of flame.

Her skin is burning linen
under an albumen glair.

Amber flowing in the wood
flushes with blood

the clambering child
yellow as grain

who clutches her hair,
God’s ivory gate

through which he passed.
Mildly she holds him

hushed to her breast,
blazing like wax

in a crib of hot gold.


Charm for a garden at the end of summer

This hop-lapped vessel
a green lion
fiercely prowls.

Man-legged, leaf-shanked one,
hear! Stride bone-shards,

repent your sway
of moss and fern.
Cast off your herb-pelt

and with your roar, shiver
this sealed alembic:
let outside in utterly.

Call pear and apple,
bid them bare their breasts
to the wasp’s bite. Call swallows

to stitch up the wounds
with thread of shadow. Call night,
call winnower, eat ashes

and underglow. Set down
clay too for you, death,
bread’s sunbrowned echo.

Pigeon and blackbird, hush.
Hold the curved silence
you remember from the egg.

O blood, thicken in the vein,
sink down.

O root beneath,
sing for the frost-lode.


Wedding Night

In the ‘Owl Bible’ of 1944, 1 Peter 3:5 read: 'For after this
manner in the old time the holy women also, who trusted God,
adorned themselves, being in subjection to their owl husbands.'

Daughter, you must bear it when he comes.
Wear your veil of scarlet linen. And don’t cry out,
even when the wing-beats near. Sweeten your hair

with balm and cassia. Show no fear, but tuck spikenard
into the scented strap beneath your breasts.
Wait with eyes cast down. You’ll hear a rustling music

like the chirr of desert birds outside your tent.
It was the same for me and for all our foremothers:
pure terror bent its polished talons to our necks,

smelling of ice and starlight: the Lord’s
unfathomable decree, that purity bring us bridegrooms
half-owl, half-angel. Be patient. Over time, the great wings

will shrink to silvered stubs, the eyes soften and relent.
One night, you’ll find you kiss your husband as he sleeps,
and stroke the downy feathers on the newly human feet.

Monday, 25 May 2009

More cards II

Three new archetypal cards: Hope, Fear, and the Black Sun.

Friday, 22 May 2009


Peninnis Head
(St Mary’s, Isles of Scilly)

Inside this knifeblock huddle of granite, castle-huge,
in the runnels far above the sea’s suck and churn,
there is, my father said, the grave of a sailor.

In a winter storm in 1894, flung a hundred feet high
and already a corpse riding a cannonball of water,
the fists of the sea and its snarl pounded him

into a crevice above us here. He was so wedged, such a mass
of mangled salt-soaked flesh, that no one suggested
moving him from beneath the shrieking gulls

shooing the horizon out to sea. So they sealed him in,
squeezing through the labyrinth of rock and sea-thrift with trowels
and buckets of concrete, hands over their noses, tamping it in,

tamping it down, mercury packing an unspeakable filling.
On the smooth, drying face, only the date and RIP: An Unknown
Sailor. I was too timid to go in search of the hidden tomb

in the pleated, mica-glittering rocks. But my little brother
clambered through, lithe and bold as a monkey
and disappeared. I waited: in the sun, pushing away thoughts

of the storm whirr of the stone blades, a drill bit hungry
for flesh and bone, awaiting only the sea’s current.
After a long while, he came back, quiet.

It is there, yes, he told us.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Massive Attack, Teardrop

Genius. I love the weird sizzle and crackle of the background (like a teardrop on the fire), over the stately harpsichord-like frame of the song, with its deep bass heartbeat thuds and Liz Frazer's opalescent vocals drifting over it all like the wide-eyed little amnionaut of the video.

In fact I've been mishearing the lyrics since the song came out when I was 15: ethereally lovely as Liz Frazer's voice is, she'd never win a competition in enunciation. Had I been asked to speculate, I'd have thought the words went:

Love, love is a fur,
love leads me duneward,
earless, somehow, pray...

Gentle emotion
shakes, makes
me wider,
fearless surround,

teardrop on the fire,
fearless sum'house...pray...

light, night of the day
black flowers blossom
fearless sunbrowned clay...
beg the flowers' blossom,
fearless, somehow grey...

teardrop on the fire
fearless somehow...

water is my eye
most faithful mirror
fearless sunbrow, pray...

teardrop on the fire
of a confession
fearless sunplough, pray

most faithful mirror,
fearless sunrise, pray

teardrop on the fire
praise sundown, pray

Use totally inter-er-ful!

Actual lyrics here.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Happiness Ringed by Lions

I'm currently reading Jane Hirschfield's Each Happiness Ringed by Lions, which is pretty marvellous as collected poems go. Her style is simple, conversational; the syntax flows with conventional punctuation, unlike, say, Alice Oswald (of whom more anon). The poems tend to the confessional: there's a whiff of the classical concerns of Anne Carson, but without Carson's lurid air of the psychiatric ward. Even more, there are echoes of Pauline Stainer's work, but without her visionary permutations of medieval Christian imagery and fondness for the surreal and elusive. Hirshfield and Stainer share a kind of clear-eyed sobriety, speaking from a fulcrum-like place of simultaneous involvement and detachment. It is no surprise to find that Hirschfield has long been a student of classical poetry (echoes of the archaic Greek poets recur) and of the poetry of Japan and China: the aesthetic harmony is unexpected and very pleasing. Take these epigrammatic lines:

Grief and hope
the skipping rope's two ends,
twin daughters of impatience.

One wears a dress of wool, the other cotton.

(from 'Nothing Lasts')

This could easily be one of Guy Davenport's translations of a fragment of Archilochos:

Fortune is like a wife.
Fire in her right hand,
Water in her left.

(G. Davenport, Thasos and Ohio: Poems and Translations 1950--1980, p. 23).

Particularly tart is the Heracleitian aphorism: 'For horses, horseflies. For humans, shame', which concludes a subtle meditation on the unknowability of others' interior lives.

Hirshfield has a Buddhist's concern with non-attachment, craving, and habit. I could quote any number of these still, clear poems, but the one that has stuck in my mind the most is an atypical prose-poem.

Linnaean Problem

I have been wondering why there is no name for that part of poetry's music which is not rhythmic. It is simple to say 'meter', 'drumbeat', 'stress'---but what is the other half called? Prosody, 'sound', melopoeia---each covers both. Rhyme is merely a fraction; assonance, consonance, tune mean only themselves. Perhaps it is like the problem of horse and rider: Easy to have a horse with no rider, impossible to have a rider without, grazing somewhere nearby, a horse. Time exists without the scented, muscular body travelling through it, but no planet, parrot tick, leopard lives free of time. Even the purest singing signals a maculate conception, within an imagination schooled by passage. And so that part of poetry's music made by the untempered mouth, breath and throat remains, without the measuring hoofbeat, uncapturable silence. A mockingbird's song heard in a mirror; the shadow a dog's night-barking leaves on the dark.

Monday, 4 May 2009

Pulvis et Umbra

Over at The Times' education blog, School Gate, there's an interesting discussion developing. Sarah Ebner, the journalist, had asked a young graduate from the University of Lincoln named Sarah Beard to write a piece on the difficulties she was finding as an average graduate from a 'new' university in a non-traditional subject, Business and Tourism. Ms Beard's article was, it seems, responded to with a great vitriol by commentators, comments which were, according to Beard, 'narrow-minded and full of intellectual snobbery.' Ebner's follow-up piece has also attracted a slew of sneers, starting with this fascinating one from 'Anonymous':

The only worthwhile graduates work in the City.

Everyone else is just mediocre in my opinion, the City is the gauge of success. If you aren't on at least £100k within 5 years of graduating you have failed in life.

Now, presuming that it's not intended ironically, I found this comment incredibly saddening as well as darkly funny. Call me 'the boy who swallowed the Collected Works of C. G. Jung', but I have a feeling that we could tell a lot about this man--and it almost certainly is a man--just from these few words. Public schoolboy, non-Oxbridge (probably Bristol or Durham complete with chip), wears stripy shirts with non-matching collars, unhappy childhood, not a reader, doesn't like being alone (he probably comes home to his duplex and switches on the TV and the stereo at once), a heavy drinker and/or recreational drug-taker, a wideboy and a bit of a bully. Probably a workmanlike if rather brutish lover, possessive, with a terrible temper and a penchant for identikit girlfriends whom he showers with gifts but treats badly and disposably. Actually very unhappy beneath all the bluster, which will probably be brought home to him thanks to a titanic midlife crisis involving an affair or infatuation with an ungraspable, unpindownable, mercurial Other Woman, who won't be possessed. (And I'll add, à propos of nothing, our chappie is almost certainly a Taurean, albeit one living out the sign's Shadow admirably.)

What an absolute tosser. But I recognise that, on some level, some nasty treacherous part of me instinctively agrees with him; beneath my bearded, boho, Letters to a Young Poet-reading exterior there's a tyrannical materialist with a crushing lack of imagination. Thank goodness for that year and a half of Jungian analysis I had in my mid-twenties: if I hadn't had it--and I resented the expense constantly--I would never have seen that the attitudes of 'Anonymous' are hidden somewhere in me, too.

Poor old Jung. Awful though he was to his wife, and despite all his other faults--including that horrendously opaque writing style--I still think the old Sage of Bollingen had it more right about the human psyche than almost anyone else.
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