All those eleven years he stood so close
words wouldn't gel. Out for a teatime stroll,
he'd be hemmed in by plots he couldn't grasp,
as if the saints of all those vanished churches,
St Alpha, St Oades, St Mary Kalender,
St Anastasius, held power there still.
Yards hid orchards, garages bowling-greens.
Turning a corner of wall, there'd be St Ruel
crouched with a brace of yellow hunting-dogs,
or Emma the king's mother, crossing the pit
of burning ploughshares to retrieve her honour.
In the cathedral, he'd make not for the diver
lifting foundations with his hands, but the grille
where Bishop Fox, ablaze in his cage of bone,
gapes at the arches copying him above.
Taking the town by surprise, tramping past reed-beds
through the horse-fields, he'd stop, become for a moment
some carter or packman from an old engraving,
who'd glimpse through trees the cathedral's great shed roof,
say, `Nearly there', and plot for a change of luck.
But no gold paved the streets; the pubs were stocked
with the same drifters acting the same delusions,
floating six inches above the working week.
Turfed out, they'd roam the water-meadows, dazed,
muddling through their stations of gall and wormwood
till darkness hid St Catherine's beech-wood cap.
Climbing the hill, he'd watch the layered cities
merge into anxious one. Best out of it,
among flowers like mantras - saw-wort, devil's-bit -
free from ditches and bells, the duress of shadows.
Not lines but arches, voices echoing
curve against curve, like ash-boughs interlaced
along the river. Swooping and gliding,
leaping with joy across a dust-lit space
where boxed kings moulder. Saints in gold and green
play hide and seek in their lime-washed recess.
And the arcs follow you out, over patched lawn,
to the closed factories with their broken glass,
acres of crinkled hangars in blank ruin,
where months ago the fork-lift trucks would scut
down aisles of pallets. Now there's a crude sign
hangs on barbed wire, `No Larking About',
and you suddenly want to skip in the air,
to mock its negation with silly walks.
As Josquin would, who, faced with the despair
of years of conflict, fire or plague's havoc,
would take a soldier's song or pop complaint
and build a mass out of a single phrase,
turning its commonness to sacrament.
As Hariprasad belies his bruiser's face,
heavy-lidded, raising the bamboo flute
to his thick lips, and with a half-smile frees
the spring that held him, to a chase of notes,
a float of breath, all light and entrances.
See how Chagall's postman works his round,
floating in tall cap and threadbare coat
at forty-five degrees, tired angel
of the annunciation.
It's a poor suburb in blue and white
cradle colours; a church built of cells
like a crystal, and low-roofed houses
stretched on four paws in the snow,
with stove and mattress on a plank floor,
broken palings that some out-of-work
vodka-sodden worm of a husband
couldn't be bothered to fix.
Held at a distance, these scruffy towns
glow with a lost, intimate vigour.
And, though I know it's all blarney, still
I'll always buy it, stirred by
the need to follow, become my own
Gabriel. Not in some blue-and-white
slumberland, but the fifties child-world
that photographs of Russia
always return me to. There I'll be,
flapping pyjamaed arms over slates
of back-to-backs sooted with mill-smoke.
Look, there's the fire station tower
and the dome of the Catholic church,
the canal's entangled obsessions,
all those bottom-knockers and tripe-shops
of a Lancashire ghetto.
And here's the old shunter, right on cue,
and the railway bridge, like a grey trough,
its faded yellow text proclaiming
the world's greatest brake linings...
Same blue and white, a bus rattles up.
Millgirls coming off shift, in headscarves
scrawled with Hollywood, the Eiffel Tower;
the sheen of anywhere-else.
Bread, salt, blood, sun, earth, water, light, shadow, and
likewise all the names of metals.
For these names are not the brothers of sensible objects,
not their offspring, but their progenitors.
Oscar V. de Lubicz-Milosz, Cantique de la Connaissance
tr John Peck
A withered fig-tree on the shore at Caesarea.
Camels by the Jupiter temple, a blind old man
under the frieze, scraping a one-string fiddle.
A red Oxo cube tin. Rusted metal adverts
for tea and polish, re-used to patch
someone's allotment hut. A back-street workshop
where the Bulgarian cycling champion of 1914
sits crosslegged, patching a car's inner-tube
with foam rubber, scrapers and black glue.
Alleys of gearboxes, a street of hubcaps.
By the Roman aqueduct, a blonde's face
ten feet high, using the right toothpaste.
Bread. Salt. Blood. The names of metals.
High on a building passed every day,
a faded business-name unseen till this once.
Images torn off the world, signs without questions.
The white shirt gleaming on the man who kneels
to the firing-squad on Goya's Third of May.
A highway winding through fields of roses.
Dusk in the Rhodope mountains, the shepherds'
pipes in antiphon from rock to almond-tree.
Or the Captain on stage, growling his harp-mantra:
Mirror man, mirror me. Farther than you, farther than me.
Harp ring, harp rope. Harp smoke, harp joke.
And what could it mean, to know the primal salt,
the primal bread, without this salt, this bread,
pricked and patted and marked with B?
A town ruled by dust sleeps off old revelation;
a meeting of rivers; a bush of white jasmine;
the Patmos restaurant is closed for winter.
Some madman chasing down a road at night
in the High Tatras, shouting Nemecky
..German, German.. Ne, anglicky, anglicky..
Or the runes left by a sandpiper's scutter
while the lugger's beached. The nouns streaming
from Shiva's hair, O'd with a ring of fire.
Why should it be this place, not another,
the drooping mind drifts to? The high-hedged lane
rising from Itchen Abbas through the chalk
to the secret grange, its long walls
capped and crumbling, cardiganed with ivy
and bitter nettles. There's blackthorn in bloom
and cowparsley's merciless elegance,
and flints smoothed to divinities
whose names were lost long since. If one's shut out,
it's not from any richness, any depth
of joy or wholeness beyond the locked gate.
A mower's there, a ball, a swing,
but nothing tempts dreams of a harpsichord
or gold-tooled morocco. It's just a glimpse
things might be otherwise. Of Sunday walks
twenty years back towards freshness.
It's the eye greedy for a languid time
of myths and prospects. That wants to thread life
down the veins of a leaf, curve of a song,
and, following, make them its own.
Partrishow, Black Mountains
It's the kind of track Dürer
might have stumbled on; death and the devil
clopping down to meet the knight
at the well, where rags and a T-shirt
are tied to flag down healing.
The church above might have grown,
like the yews, from its ledge; a rainswept shed
so out-of-the-world it missed
the image-breakers, so poor it failed
to suffer restoration.
A barrel-roof; stone altars
like butchers'-blocks, cross-notched; and an elm screen
that some local carpenter
through cold and candlelight opened out
into the warmth of a vine.
The place catches the rumbles
of old battles, not between dark and light,
but twin souls that fight it out
in the same flesh. Stone and commandments,
`I believe', `Honour the king',
against whatever has power
in shadows and water, whose dreams divine
what is destroyed or renewed.
Frescoed death with his dagger and spade
announces the bulletins.
Each side invents its martyrs,
mourning for propaganda. The hermit,
murdered for his shirt and cup,
or the wise-woman, burnt in the name
of the Father and the Son.
In this Welsh stone, Vishnu sleeps,
our wars entertain his dreams. If one world
goes, he invents another.
But the chaffinch in the hawthorn hedge,
and the wind, are his dream too.
After the heat, the lime-walks are steeped
in evening scents. They offer something
memory can't grasp, something privileged
to others. It drifts to the park
of the tsars' summer village, statues
too sweaty with longing to bring off
the Italian poise all that expense meant
to buy. Hammocks in a garden
and a waster in a linen hat
strumming a guitar way out of tune.
A tenor in a peasant shirt torments
what life remains from a folk-song
innocent of folk. Everything rests
on a girl's eyebrows, her rejections.
The one they called a saint dies without faith,
while his friend, listening to the doves,
contemplates methods of suicide.
As it darkens, all that lace unrolls,
out through the cedars, to the milky way.
Young men squabble over pamphlets,
plan strikes in the factories owned by
their favourite uncles. For others,
the talk's of Nietzsche, who carries a light
through the market, and buys nothing.
(after Odilon Redon)
It's not designed for us, this everywhere-sprawl.
If the green cossets and heals, if the orange
dazzles, so be it. It's meant
for simpler-faceted eyes than ours, to boost
an economy of pollen, seed and root.
Cut it, it's lost its purpose. Useless. Yet it
re-creates sunlight, setting aside complaint
for admirable tousling.
It's endless back-and-forth, relaxed arabesque
embodies searching. Yet the mechanistic
is there too, unseparate. Be thankful, then,
if the painter's mind can't help interposing
half-cocked theories before
the unreachable object. That's how we learn
the pretensions of the eye, the head floating
in the balloon, too conscious of the monkey
hitching a ride. He's aware that nature as
reflected in the mirror
mimics his own shape. But retains the blessing
presented in the dream, the stem and the flower
listless, cross-woven like the title-letter
of a great psalter. The park, the goldfinches,
the fagged wasp, are left behind.
The warrior dozes beside his cannon.
Whatever is not understood will bear fruit.
Josquin, Isaac, Obrecht; their names speak
of shrouded Flemish rivers, abbeys
beneficed by yobbish baron-thieves
for culture, in fail-safe repentance.
Clerics from little choice, first they sang,
then composed for the singers they trained
at the big missal. Ockeghem, cowled,
stands behind his choir, in dark glasses -
maybe copying damaged his eyes.
In masses and motets, devotion
wears mathematical elegance,
Plato's geometry of the nine spheres.
Tempting to misconnect their music
with the jewel-lit contentments of
a book of hours; castle and fieldwork.
The nostalgia for safety deceives.
They wrote for God, not for the CD.
Their staves are different, everything's
reconstructed. How it was shades off
into how it could, or should, have been.
At the junction, a high-revved Escort
is almost bursting with the thumped beat
of bass and drums someone needs in the blood.
No hint of tune gets past the metal.
Their need is to get in synch with time;
raw time, uncut with anything that
could lend it purpose. Who feeds on time,
the thought returns, on him time shall feed.
I'm not immune from this craziness,
not yet. But there's need for a refuge
somewhere time's overcome, even through
beliefs no sane person now could share;
an age when, through famine, plague and siege,
Josquin, Isaac, Obrecht found the calm
that like a hill-stream would rill and change,
shifting on the gravel of its themes,
yet stayed the same, inevitable
as anything worked and worked again
ought to seem. Holding out the promise,
the myth of meaning, that grounds and stills.
Without the netting of a bar-line,
the words follow their natural pulse,
the way birdsong does, the genetics
of the sacred at play in the breath.
A gate opens to polyphony
as though, across a field, a village
took shape, that never was; doves, woodsmoke,
certainties passed from father to son.
Here, it declares, is where you came from.
Though reasoned memory tends to dwell
on wet slates, tight lips and foursquare hymns,
all things loathed, then too late regretted.
Familiar's not a place, facts recalled,
it's a climate that offers comfort
the child in time never perhaps knew.
From a carol or acrostic spreads
a lost distance; to a boyhood hike
under stars; a short climb to tight moors,
grass in torchlight, a reservoir-wall,
friendship, miserere, self-release.
In what existence could I be
this man, the collector of jade,
who can discourse so intimately
on saws and files, on routes of trade,
describe first-hand some nephrite mine
worked out by the Sung dynasty?
My grain's too coarse, yet I admire
the bamboo carved like an old pine
that holds his brushes, his seal-stone,
his scholar's coat's phoenix brocade,
the gnarled sculpture of uncarved wood
that warms his heart better than fire.
How I'd embarrass the great man
with hayseed Tao, a splashed excess
of pail-filler's philosophies!
All I could hope for, to be drawn
humping a load of firewood down
some pass, through mists and knotted trees.
Going down was hard. Leaving the ridge that sloped
from the shadowed face, he had to cut free
along imagined contours, by hummocks, reed-bog,
chest-high bracken. Without pre-cut paths,
since sheep-tracks wanted only to wind parallel
to the top. In the end, the drop left him
looking in over a fence, as a wolf might,
and at what? Attenuated fingerholds
of human care, recognised only by scraps
of baler-twine and blue polythene bags;
the nant tumbling through twisted, gnawed ash-trees,
silver birch, hawthorn, rowan; ragged strips
of pasture, something that might pass for meadow
if the tractor ventured in. Although later
that stream might irrigate farms, even towns,
exposure here created a strange innocence
which, from above, or in memory, was precious,
but now the only aim was crossing the dip
to clamber the opposite height, and so work back
to the same summits, further on. It was
the scoring by weathers, the scared emptiness,
the extravagance of greens, as if the colour
were newly invented, led up to this joy.
He was back to that dawn on the throne-platform
as the ruins of Hampi came into watery view,
a farmer's bike wobbling between temples
to the fields beyond, the stories on the walls
emerging into relief; the balance-arch
where the king yearly was weighed against gold,
the stone conduits, the elephant-stables
arched like a palace, the lion-god's statue
five times man-size, under his cobra-hood,
the arm of his consort still encircling his waist
with the rest of her hacked away. A plain where
after the last battle the Nizam's troops
for five whole months plundered the city to waste.
And the time, looking over the plane's wing,
he saw a vast snowfield extended from mountains
in an unlabelled country, until suddenly
a first settlement glowed there, heading a road
to the thaw-land. As though to cultivate
were an enslavement, an act of war,
a breaking-in of the mind's rich desolation,
(as a platoon might sense, too long up-country,
hamlets estranged by language and mutual fear
as camouflage and stores for the insurgents)
and thorns and barbed wire guard the edge of terror
so out becomes in, and in's out, for a while.
After the forage, dark comes on,
the carpet's covered with newspaper spread
with the spoils of the soil, all shapes
and colours, mis-shapes, ambiguous colours,
fungi waiting to be labelled.
One has a mauve subtler than reflection
of cloud in water, another
a delicate cream skinning to crimson
behind gnaws and bruises, with moss,
needles, torn leaf at the root. A spectrum
of earth-smells; ripe, soapy, gluey,
peppery, putrescent; and the textures
that go with them, from silk to slime,
rasp and flake, powder or deliquescence.
Each wears its history; the mark
of insect-eggs, loose spider-threads, or where
a twig caught on its way to mulch.
Some I appease with names from the field-guide's
fashion-plates. Others, though, don't match
anything exactly; either the gills
don't buttress rightly with the stem,
or the spore-print looks wrong. Born days ago,
some still with fragments of the caul
that wrapped them, they seem older than the house,
as if they'd sucked in through the web
of mycelial threads all the memories
of the parent wood; storms, burnings,
night-cries. And as the streetlamp flares to red
I hold on to the dusk, needing
the contemplation that, immediate
as mist or woodsmoke, surrounds them.
A mile's circle of blocks,
a huge calm at one
with an unutterable
violence. Distance cancelled,
height succeeds height, heap
beyond heap, on and on,
the mist smudges it in
from all sides, boulders the pink
of blotched meat, everywhere
the watery shine of quartz.
No small churning. The Picts
sensed their gods lived here,
drinking, having sex,
hurling their missiles.
Below, it's an airy cone
dreaming out of the loch,
clear-voiced, a truth remote
from the green foreground.
Yet there's intimacy
in the cracked, veiny
massiveness, a persuasion
only clambering feet,
schooled by the sharp edges
on calf and instep,
as though boots were mere
dancing-pumps, can take in.
One learns to accept
whatever beings move
or are projected here,
anoraked in weather.
Conversations with strangers
start and fade, laden with
meaning the words alone
don't contain, and out of
silence a roused ptarmigan,
one who can't breathe among
the evasions below,
whirs up snowy wings
into the invisible.