Reading of Crusaders, their mire of treacheries,
massacres, tortures, burnings, seen through Saracens’ eyes
the cry, They’re coming, must have been
- to Muslims, Jews, to anyone in sight –
like the shuddering knock at midnight
in Warsaw’s ghetto and the scream
God! The SS are here.
Is this the self-same faith that I
sing in this darkened chancel to the lull
of interwoven cantores and decani
under these fan-ribbed vaults, the rise and fall
of love and love’s redemption? How was blood spat
from these star-pointing spires, how such retched pain
wrung from a million men
who meant no evil,
whose hunted lives sought nothing but to flee
that hacked Magnificat?
Outside the livingroom door we stood
trembling and white, loth to obey
our mother’s heartfelt plea.
‘Go in, love. Say you’re sorry.’
‘But it wasn’t my fault, Mum. It was his.’
‘Just say it, all the same. For peace in the house.’
And so, knees shaking,
sick voice clogged in our throats,
we went. Not knowing
how long the sewn-in servile patch would choke,
how much be paid for it
through dumb, wrong-suffering conflict
in years coming, going.
With faith, how easy it would be.
Confession to the Almighty,
acknowledgement of sin,
and the score would be settled, the debts
cleared from the ledger, the uncleared litter
swept to high dusty shelf.
How much harder the strain
without God. And it helps
little (yet a mouselike little)
to know God would forgive the man
who can’t forgive himself.
Living off the Land
No, it wouldn’t be fair or exact
to picture an army marauding
through occupied country, looting, exploiting,
making the most of the fact
of release from home’s apron-strings.
Yet some likeness does glimmer. A man
on divorce’s bleak tundra, cast loose
with no marital roof, can’t much choose
but live off the land
in any place love’s not refused.
Feeling I should read the papers
- though I can do nothing but spread my hands
and, bloodhound-faced, buckle the pests
in the bin or post money to pay for
some cause – seems deserving, yet sad
in the powerlessness it attests.
How can I influence things? Am I
anyway fitted to try? I see myself,
a harpoon-injured whale in a shoal, moving slow
across Archangel’s night-freezing sea,
ambushed by ice-floes from the Arctic shelf,
helpless to choose where the chill currents go.
Deep under snowdrift blankets
this Christmas morning,
as church bells holler to test
the metal of frost-zinc’d air
in a swallow-formation of gongs,
here, moved by myths of salvation,
redemption, peace, goodwill,
I feel the elation
of waking from snatched sleep
in snow-hole or perilous ledge
at twenty thousand feet
thinking The summit’s today
- the soaring of one lodged
on earth’s uppermost ridge
with icy triumph in grasp.
But, for now, burrowing warm
against toothed blizzard and landslide,
I inwardly celebrate
the unburiable myth
no reason can uproot,
finding this dream of truth,
this fearful hope, enough.
Down With Decimals!
If, ditching decimals,
some other numeral
(any would do; say, eight)
was taken to calculate
beyond the units stage,
so at sixteen one’s age
would spread to a second column,
and each eight following
would add an extra line
to celebrate with wine,
women and Spice Girl songs,
would forty then feel young
or old, moving five times
across the ledger lines?
Hard to predict. Yet eight’s
only one candidate.
All’s to play for. So list ’em,
rival numeric systems –
binary, trinary, quadratic,
quintuplet, sexual, septic,
octopus, nunnery, deckhand.
Now wouldn’t THEY be grand?
Message from Home
When the vinegar of work,
the panscrub cash
the collapsing joists of marriage
sink in a purulent aftermath
of claims and creditors
I read it still;
Keep smiling. I love you
written in rose-round hand
these forty-five years gone.
I fight but can’t believe
that love doesn’t go on.
How big things seem at the time:
quarrels at school, torn hair, sweat, tears -
huge as Churchillian war;
the lure of tarty girls – forgotten next year;
the burn on Clarkie’s neck
who stood before me at assembly -
the mark of Beelzebub;
the office feud - necro-fasciitis eating
the keepsake hours and months;
the gluttonous swallowing of fanatic potions
- soviet, bible-thumping, monetarist -
that break down sense with faith.
All seen through the isolator drug
of unlinked now. It’s a convex lens
bulging the Petri dish with grotesque forms,
showing gargantuan slugs -
shrunk, under bare eyes, to post-coital worms.
Overwound telescope, today,
is that why we pay such monstrous reverence,
such sacrifice to you –
to make pigmy seem big?
Whenever I’m afraid
(which, being n-nervously disposed,
I’m often m-made)
I don the insouciant pose
you taught me to
when, in short trousers, three,
I rose to sing the theme
that Jesus wanted me
for a sunbeam.
‘You’re just as good as they are’ -
one of your adages.
‘Just you refuse to care.
Think of them as no more
And now, sixty years older,
your words still calm fear’s depths.
I take slow breaths
conjure up peas, spuds, cress,
and am made bolder.
That’ll Be Jill!
That’ll be Jill’s car coming in.
Make sure there’s a parking bay.
Keep the press out – turn the lock.
She’s twenty-five today.
What luck to work in the self-same shop
as someone due for a throne!
If only the paparazzi boys
would leave the girl alone.
She’s very discreet. The Prince has warned
her not to breathe a word,
especially on intimate things - you know -
and when and where they occurred.
She says if she did there’d be hell to pay,
a dreadful aftermath.
They’d print it all. They even tried
to snap her in her bath!
We have to watch our customers.
It’d be quite a gaffe
if she stepped up to a top-level shelf
and they took a photograph.
We wonder about her slazzy car
- how she could stand the price.
If he did, some of us aren’t sure
payments like that are nice.
She’s a lovely girl, though. Clever, too.
Passed half a dozen O’s.
Could have gone on, but what’s the point
when Himself pays all she owes?
Here she comes. What a thrill to be
a national figurehead!
And to know what the Heir-Apparent
is really like in bed!
And the honour of being one of those
for whom Archbishops pray!
So raise your glasses everyone.
She’s twenty-five today!
‘With too much reading,’ I say.
Under the black-white card,
as if made mechanical by its O’s, P’s, A’s,
the optician’s white coat twirls. ‘Oh, reading! I never read.’
It’s one of those hours of entering another world:
the childhood trip to the flics
where the usherette’s flashlight swirled
down dark rows of laps and feet;
the peep round the gang’s wall for a copper coming;
the corporal’s hysterics to Get an ‘aircut;
or the talk with a schizoid (Who’s mad – him or me?):
world of the print-free mind.
What clothes her walls if not bookshelves?
What flits through her thoughts in the wasteland haze
of spud-peel, bus queue, shower?
Neighbours? Work-colleagues? Soaps?
Mind flounders to read her, conjuring as it gropes
a cosmos near yet never touching ours.
The ruck of shoulders above pigeon feet
defines him. The nervy laugh – like a shutter rattling.
The five-times-failured driving test shuffles stick-insect hands.
Yet it’s assertion, the breathy rush to battle
on any antique literary point that grinds
flaring annoyance when our splayed ways meet.
Publisher’s hack, he’ll sigh
- one moan in a flock of other whines –
at lack of lucre. Yet he has everything
money will buy – at his bleak wife’s expense.
And it’s no salve to see
that what swells literary brag in him
isn’t sparse cash but dearth of other things
no gold can buy.
Boy, she’s got legs!
Lithe as a mustang’s,
supple and sinuous.
Neat, where a man could hang,
kissing her tibias.
Boy, she’s got legs!
Look at those thighs!
Filled out milk churns,
tops round as beachballs.
Wonder how she performs
on the high dive-board.
Boy, she’s got thighs!
Has she got frontage!
Two kitten’s noses
under silk cover.
Think of uncovering those
once dinner’s over.
Boy, she’s got frontage!
Boy, she’s got style!
No one who saw her
could ever doubt it.
Stands out a mile
back and before her.
Boy, she’s got IT!
No need for talking,
actions speak louder.
Right, let’s get stalking
lipstick and powder.
No time to waste, guys,
dithering and havering.
Bring on the glad eyes.
Boy, she’s got everything!
Mid-January, and seven flowers
bloom in my sodden borders. And though
there’s reason for the winter jasmine,
cotoneaster and snowberries to blow
and the rose to bear still its flag from warmer hours,
even for the fuchsia with its later spring,
I startle at the third-time budding row
of pansies – that’s for thoughts – who call on me
as if heartwarmed by winter sympathy.
First time he did it I was scared.
After a while, though, with more care
it wasn’t so bad, and not so sore.
Now, shall I con him? No more
a swizz than what he said, telling me
it couldn’t put a baby in my belly.
And it’d leave him out.
On that there’s not a doubt -
he’s told me often enough
once there’s a swelling tum, he’s off.
I’d be called ‘Mother’ then. Something
to make me someone. And money for nothing.
And in a way an ambition, an aim –
something I never thought I’d want to claim.
Yes! Like Joanne. I’ll do it! I’ll make sex
compensate what this waste existence lacks!
He longed to be remembered.
Yet nothing came of it.
And now all we have is his books,
each neatly inscribed in his foliate hand
under the stuck-in label scrolled Ex Libris.
It’s all he’s left as legacy – his name,
and that fast fading.
As worn as a dirty net curtain,
the vanity of human greatness bumbles
to molar yawns
round moralistic circles, bar gurus’s talk,
and it’s only when, turning a corner, the real thing faces us
like a buffet of Iceland wind
that cheeks sting raw with its truth.
Bluffer and bragger
and the sage fermenting compromise by sedation,
the self-publicist Toad and mountebank flanneler
all subside, lilliputian,
and, distracted by strange light
we tilt our eyes
and find, overhead, gothic-arching the great,
the old man boxed next door, who,
viced with cramps,
offers to mind our dog
while we strut the Lord Mayor’s reception.
Sparse in stone aisle and corrugated chapel
on straggling Sundays, the faithful
wail out their siren chant.
and for most, even of these, the giant
that Christian faith once meant
cowers back in a Pale
of half-believed and half-defended soil
within which lingers:
the first magical kiss of life,
the start of the universe,
the gift of love.
This last, especially, the singers
believe, yet only converse
- on the steps after the service –
of other things, fellowship
in a quite different sense.
Friends and a trust to keep
with them stand the sole evidence
of once-transcending peace.
There are no days of grace,
the policy states. Insurance
earthly or heavenly
stalls till the premium’s paid.
And should some circumstance
of flood, fire, subsidence,
collapse of roof or tree,
find the cheque sent too late
there is no leniency,
no credit for good intent
against the unforgiving
and unforgiven instant
of slalom driving, the moment
of windswept-kite forgetting,
no ombudsman with power
to wrench back the lost hour,
just as no small print saves us
from loss of woman’s favours,
nor grants a breathing space.
There are no days of grace.
‘Funny thing happened to me
happened to me…’
No longer young,
last of the funny men –
boater, check blazer, swagger cane
in tic-compulsive churn,
white shoes and spats, teeth gripping his tongue,
almost a leer of pain
under the rouge, his fun
filched from the East End, not so much
the accent as the jokes, not tuned
to this cummerbund audience, more the stuff
of Brown Ale clubs. Anachronisms untouched
by the millenium’s switch, he joshes on,
the stone grin knowing his time has gone
who once made these embourgeoised people laugh.
A writer now long forgotten…
Among the columned pages I find
a name unknown to me
under strange, moving lines, and wonder
how many others of its kind
lie deep-interred under
the hot volcanic ash hailed down
on the hour’s celebrities.
Yet most of the greatest leave
only a gem or two.
The servile centuries obey
fashion’s flash-floods. Time’s an unmended sieve,
and many a generous act, or way
of thinking kindly, leaves no trace,
a mound marked Known to God, a place
no voyager ventures to.
This is the house I’ve lived in second –longest.
Beside it, the rest were nests
for a season and then move on.
Is it senescence crowding in from the west
like evening mist that strangles sandbank sunsets,
or has some red-skinned itch to travel gone
that vexed and bit?
Both, perhaps: like an abandoned boat
on an unfrequented, fraying cuff of coast
that shifts and re-points till, at some neap-tide, hurled
by the foaming anger of hailstone, sand and grit,
it settles up-beach in a milder world,
where only inner longings trouble it.
With the same sounds - at different pitch -
beautiful virgin and, in lower key,
English as well. Compare the switch
that ageing Cheshire-lovers see
when they transmute
to ageing Cheshire lovers.