What this blog is and how to use it

This blog contains poems that have caught my attention over the years. Many of the poems I've discussed and explored with 16 -19 year old students in my capacity as lecturer in English.

Browse the list of poems by scrolling down the page or read the titles of poems or names of poets in the sidebar 'Poem Titles and Poets'. Then click on the title or poet.

Saturday, 27 March 2021

Ode on a Grayson Perry Urn by Tim Turnbull

Tim Turnbull

Hello! What's all this here? A kitschy vase
some Shirley Temple manqué has knocked out
delineating tales of kids in cars
on crap estates, the Burberry clad louts
who flail their motors through the smoky night
from Manchester to Motherwell or Slough,
creating bedlam on the Queen's highway.
Your gaudy evocation can, somehow,
conjure the scene without inducing fright,
as would a Daily Express exposé,

can bring to mind the throaty turbo roar
of hatchbacks tuned almost to breaking point,
the joyful throb of UK garage or
of house imported from the continent
and yet educe a sense of peace, of calm -
the screech of tyres and the nervous squeals
of girls, too young to quite appreciate
the peril they are in, are heard, but these wheels
will not lose traction, skid and flip, no harm
befall these children. They will stay out late

forever, pumped on youth and ecstasy,
on alloy, bass and arrogance, and speed
the back lanes, the urban gyratory,
the wide motorways, never having need
to race back home, for work next day, to bed.
Each girl is buff, each geezer toned and strong,
charged with pulsing juice which, even yet,
fills every pair of Calvin’s and each thong,
never to be deflated, given head
in crude games of chlamydia roulette.
Now see who comes to line the sparse grass verge,
to toast them in Buckfast and Diamond White:
rat-boys and corn-rowed cheerleaders who urge
them on to pull more burn-outs or to write
their donut Os, as signature, upon
the bleached tarmac of dead suburban streets.

There dogs set up a row and curtains twitch
as pensioners and parents telephone
the cops to plead for quiet, sue for peace -
tranquility, though, is for the rich.

And so, millennia hence, you garish crock,
when all context is lost, galleries razed
to level dust and we're long in the box,
will future poets look on you amazed,
speculate how children might have lived when
you were fired, lives so free and bountiful
and there, beneath a sun a little colder,
declare How happy were those creatures then,
who knew the truth was all negotiable
and beauty in the gift of the beholder.

The Insider by Grayson Perry

Grayson Perry

Wednesday, 10 March 2021

Ode on a Grecian Urn by John Keats

 



Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness,
       Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
       A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fring'd legend haunts about thy shape
       Of deities or mortals, or of both,
               In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
       What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
               What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
       Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear'd,
       Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
       Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
               Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;
       She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
               For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
         Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
         For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
         For ever warm and still to be enjoy'd,
                For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
         That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy'd,
                A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
         To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead'st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
         And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little town by river or sea shore,
         Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
                Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
         Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
                Why thou art desolate, can e'er return.

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
         Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
         Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
         When old age shall this generation waste,
                Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,
         "Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
                Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."





Saturday, 27 February 2021

Psalm 46 [a]

 



For the director of music. Of the Sons of Korah. According to alamoth.[b] A song.

  God is our refuge and strength,
    an ever-present help in trouble.
  Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
    and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
  though its waters roar and foam
    and the mountains quake with their surging.[c]

  There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
    the holy place where the Most High dwells.
  God is within her, she will not fall;
    God will help her at break of day.
  Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall;
    he lifts his voice, the earth melts.

  The Lord Almighty is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our fortress.

  Come and see what the Lord has done,
    the desolations he has brought on the earth.
  He makes wars cease
    to the ends of the earth.
He breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
    he burns the shields[d] with fire.
   He says, “Be still, and know that I am God;
    I will be exalted among the nations,
    I will be exalted in the earth.”

   The Lord Almighty is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our fortress.


Footnotes

[a] Psalm 46:1 In Hebrew texts 46:1-11 is numbered 46:2-12.

[b] Psalm 46:1 Title: Probably a musical term

[c] Psalm 46:3 The Hebrew has Selah (a word of uncertain meaning) here and at the end of verses 7 and 11.

[d] Psalm 46:9 Or chariots

Wednesday, 24 February 2021

Effects by Alan Jenkins

 

Alan Jenkins

I held her hand, that was always scarred
From chopping, slicing, from the knives that lay in wait
In bowls of washing-up, that was raw,
The knuckles reddened, rough from scrubbing hard
At saucepan, frying pan, cup and plate
And giving love the only way she knew,
In each cheap cut of meat, in roast and stew,
Old-fashioned food she cooked and we ate;
And I saw that they had taken off her rings,
The rings she kept once in her dressing-table drawer
With faded snapshots, long-forgotten things
(scent-sprays, tortoise-shell combs, a snap or two
From the time we took a holiday “abroad”)
But lately had never been without, as if
She wanted everyone to know she was his wife
Only now that he was dead. And her watch? –
Classic ladies’ model, gold strap – it was gone,
And I’d never known her not have that on,
Not in all the years they sat together
Watching soaps and game shows I’d disdain
And not when my turn came to cook for her,
Chops or chicken portions, English, bland,
Familiar flavours she said she preferred
To whatever “funny foreign stuff”
Young people seemed to eat these days, she’d heard;
Not all the weeks I didn’t come, when she sat
Night after night and stared unseeing at
The television, at her inner weather,
Heaved herself upright, blinked and poured
Drink after drink, and gulped and stared – the scotch
That, when he was alive, she wouldn’t touch,
That was her way to be with him again;
Not later in the psychiatric ward,
Where she blinked unseeing at the wall, the nurses
(Who would steal anything, she said), and dreamt
Of when she was a girl, of the time before
I was born, or grew up and learned contempt,
While the TV in the corner blared
To drown some “poor soul’s” moans and curses,
And she took her pills and blinked and stared
As the others shuffled around, and drooled, and swore…
But now she lay here, a thick rubber band
With her name on it in smudged black ink was all she wore
On the hand I held, a blotched and crinkled hand
Whose fingers couldn’t clasp at mine any more
Or falteringly wave, or fumble at my sleeve –
The last words she had said were
Please don’t leave
But of course I left; now I was back, though she
Could not know that, or turn her face to see
A nurse bring the little bag of her effects to me.


Click here to buy A Shorter Life by Alan Jenkins



Friday, 12 February 2021

from How to Wash a Heart by Bhanu Kapil

 



Don’t forget me, I whisper to my
Father.
Give me something to eat, I’m
So hungry, I call out to my
Mother.
The conditional care
Of even these
Imaginary parents
Excretes a hormonal load.
Am I safe with you?
Or like a baby crawling on the bumpy
Carpet, am I my own
Mother, actually?
Imagine a baby developing so rapidly
That by nightfall
It has ripped through the pale blue
Smock to evolve
Beyond the limits of the human.
I remember
How my mother woke me up
So early
To look at the bloody stars.


My grandfather fermented the yoghurt
With rose petals
And sugar then buried it
In the roots of a mango tree.
Come here, he said, extending
The sweetest fruit I have ever tasted
Come June.
On the far side of the orchard
He grew saffron and the mangoes there
Were red and pink.
In the dry well
He planted a pomegranate tree.
This is where they threw
The bodies
Come August
Noon.
Can you find your way home
By smell?
Metallic, the air tilts along a diagonal line.
I smell the pollen of the flowers of the mango tree
Which once concealed
A kill.


For lunch, my mother made okra
With caramelized onions,
A feat! The wet caps
She stuck to my forehead, cheeks
And nose.
Grimacing as the gates of the school
Swung open, I was
A joke.
The children who were children
Like me
Fled.
I was alone with the slime
Dripping down the neck
Of my red and white dress,
Nettle bites lucid on my shins.
Because I ran through the alleyways
And not the streets
To get here:
A hot yard.
Shame invites the sun
To live in the anus, the creases
Of the throat.


The priest brought my mother home.
My father fell over in the snow
After drinking his guts out.
The world
Was falling down around my ears.
When our neighbours
Said go, we fled,
Our hearts beating
Like a fish.
Hello, sang Lionel Richie, on the taxi’s orange
Radio.
My grandfather burned his notebooks
Then scraped the ash
Into a hole
He could button up.
Don’t ask me to remember
The word for zip.
My secret is this:
Though we lost all our possessions,
I felt
A strange relief
To see my home explode in the rearview mirror.


Monoracial, we fetched up
In a place without
Discrete racial categories.
Our hair
No longer felt like our hair
No matter how long
We combed it
With milk.
The messages we received
Were as follows:
You are a sexual object, I have a right
To sexualize you.
You are not an individual.
You are here
For my entertainment.
You complain too much.
Your sexual identity is not
Important.
The way you talk about what happened to you
Is a catastrophic representation.
Merry Christmas,
Little pig.

Click here to buy How to Wash a Heart


Click here to watch Bhanu Kapil reading from her collection How to Wash a Heart. It comes with a three-minute introduction.

Or click the link below




Thursday, 11 February 2021

A Portable Paradise by Roger Robinson

 


And if I speak of Paradise,
then I’m speaking of my grandmother
who told me to carry it always
on my person, concealed, so
no one else would know but me.
That way they can’t steal it, she’d say.
And if life puts you under pressure,
trace its ridges in your pocket,
smell its piney scent on your handkerchief,
hum its anthem under your breath.
And if your stresses are sustained and daily,
get yourself to an empty room – be it hotel,
hostel or hovel – find a lamp
and empty your paradise onto a desk:
your white sands, green hills and fresh fish.
Shine the lamp on it like the fresh hope
of morning, and keep staring at it till you sleep.

Click here to buy A Portable Paradise by Roger Robinson 



Click here to listen to Roger Robinson reading from his collection A Portable Paradise, including a reading of the poem A Portable Paradise. It's about 12 minutes long and begins with an introduction by Ian MacMillan. You'll find the poem A Portable Paradise at 8 minutes.

If you listen very carefully you can hear me applauding in the audience.

Or just click on the YouTube video below.



Wednesday, 10 February 2021

What the Thunder Said by T. S. Eliot

T. S. Eliot


  After the torchlight red on sweaty faces
After the frosty silence in the gardens
After the agony in stony places
The shouting and the crying
Prison and palace and reverberation
Of thunder of spring over distant mountains
He who was living is now dead
We who were living are now dying
With a little patience

Here is no water but only rock
Rock and no water and the sandy road
The road winding above among the mountains
Which are mountains of rock without water
If there were water we should stop and drink
Amongst the rock one cannot stop or think
Sweat is dry and feet are in the sand
If there were only water amongst the rock
Dead mountain mouth of carious teeth that cannot spit
Here one can neither stand nor lie nor sit
There is not even silence in the mountains
But dry sterile thunder without rain
There is not even solitude in the mountains
But red sullen faces sneer and snarl
From doors of mudcracked houses
                                      If there were water
   And no rock
   If there were rock
   And also water
   And water
   A spring
   A pool among the rock
   If there were the sound of water only
   Not the cicada
   And dry grass singing
   But sound of water over a rock
   Where the hermit-thrush sings in the pine trees
   Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop
   But there is no water

Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
—But who is that on the other side of you?

What is that sound high in the air
Murmur of maternal lamentation
Who are those hooded hordes swarming
Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth
Ringed by the flat horizon only
What is the city over the mountains
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air
Falling towers
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
Vienna London

Unreal

A woman drew her long black hair out tight
And fiddled whisper music on those strings
And bats with baby faces in the violet light
Whistled, and beat their wings
And crawled head downward down a blackened wall
And upside down in air were towers
Tolling reminiscent bells, that kept the hours
And voices singing out of empty cisterns and exhausted wells.

In this decayed hole among the mountains
In the faint moonlight, the grass is singing
Over the tumbled graves, about the chapel
There is the empty chapel, only the wind’s home.
It has no windows, and the door swings,
Dry bones can harm no one.
Only a cock stood on the rooftree
Co co rico co co rico
In a flash of lightning. Then a damp gust
Bringing rain

Ganga was sunken, and the limp leaves
Waited for rain, while the black clouds
Gathered far distant, over Himavant.
The jungle crouched, humped in silence.
Then spoke the thunder
DA
Datta: what have we given?
My friend, blood shaking my heart
The awful daring of a moment’s surrender
Which an age of prudence can never retract
By this, and this only, we have existed
Which is not to be found in our obituaries
Or in memories draped by the beneficent spider
Or under seals broken by the lean solicitor
In our empty rooms
DA
Dayadhvam: I have heard the key
Turn in the door once and turn once only
We think of the key, each in his prison
Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison
Only at nightfall, aethereal rumours
Revive for a moment a broken Coriolanus
DA
Damyata: The boat responded
Gaily, to the hand expert with sail and oar
The sea was calm, your heart would have responded
Gaily, when invited, beating obedient
To controlling hands

                                    I sat upon the shore
Fishing, with the arid plain behind me
Shall I at least set my lands in order?
London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down
Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina
Quando fiam uti chelidon—O swallow swallow
Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe.
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
                  Shantih     shantih     shantih


Click here to buy The Waste Land and Other Poems by T. S. Eliot



Death by Water by T. S. Eliot

 

T. S. Eliot

IV. Death by Water


Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell
And the profit and loss.
                                   A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
                                   Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.


Click here to buy The Waste Land and Other Poems by T. S. Eliot

The Burial of the Dead by T. S. Eliot

T. S. Eliot

The Burial of the Dead by T. S. Eliot

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.
Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch.
And when we were children, staying at the archduke's,
My cousin’s, he took me out on a sled,
And I was frightened. He said, Marie,
Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.
In the mountains, there you feel free.
I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.

  What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
                      Frisch weht der Wind
                      Der Heimat zu
                      Mein Irisch Kind,
                      Wo weilest du?
“You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;
“They called me the hyacinth girl.”
—Yet when we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden,
Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.
Oed’ und leer das Meer.

  Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,
Had a bad cold, nevertheless
Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe,
With a wicked pack of cards. Here, said she,
Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor,
(Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!)
Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks,
The lady of situations.
Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel,
And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card,
Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,
Which I am forbidden to see. I do not find
The Hanged Man. Fear death by water.
I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring.
Thank you. If you see dear Mrs. Equitone,
Tell her I bring the horoscope myself:
One must be so careful these days.

  Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,
To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.
There I saw one I knew, and stopped him, crying: “Stetson!
“You who were with me in the ships at Mylae!
“That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
“Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
“Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?
“Oh keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to men,
“Or with his nails he’ll dig it up again!
“You! hypocrite lecteur!—mon semblable,—mon frère!”

Click here to hear Fiona Shaw reading The Burial of the Dead

Click here to hear Alec Guinness reading the whole of The Waste Land 

Click here to buy The Waste Land and Other Poems by T. S. Eliot




An Easy Passage by Julia Copus

 

Julia Copus

An Easy Passage by Julia Copus

Once she is halfway up there, crouched in her bikini
on the porch roof of her family's house, trembling,
she knows that the one thing she must not do is to think
of the narrow windowsill, the sharp
drop of the stairwell; she must keep her mind
on the friend with whom she is half in love
and who is waiting for her on the blond
gravel somewhere beneath her, keep her mind
on her and on the fact of the open window,
the flimsy, hole-punched, aluminium lever
towards which in a moment she will reach
with the length of her whole body, leaning in
to the warm flank of the house. But first she
steadies herself, still crouching, the grains of the asphalt
hot beneath her toes and fingertips,
a square of petrified beach. Her tiny breasts
rest lightly on her thighs. – What can she know
of the way the world admits us less and less
the more we grow? For now both girls seem
lit, as if from within, their hair and the gold stud
earrings in the first one's ears; for now the long, grey
eye of the street, and far away from the mother
who does not trust her daughter with a key,
the workers about their business in the drab
electroplating factory over the road,
far too, most far, from the flush-faced secretary
who, with her head full of the evening class
she plans to take, or the trip of a lifetime, looks up now
from the stirring omens of the astrology column
at a girl – thirteen if she's a day – standing
in next to nothing in the driveway opposite,
one hand flat against her stomach, one
shielding her eyes to gaze up at a pale calf,
a silver anklet and the five neat shimmering
oyster-painted toenails of an outstretched foot
which catch the sunlight briefly like the
flash of armaments before
dropping gracefully into the shade of the house.


Click here to buy the book Girlhood by Julia Copus




Thursday, 4 February 2021

History by John Burnside


History by John Burnside

St Andrews: West Sands; September 2001

Today 

         as we flew the kites
- the sand spinning off in ribbons along the beach
and that gasoline smell from Leuchars gusting across
the golf links;
                       the tide far out
and quail-grey in the distance;
                                                 people
jogging, or stopping to watch
as the war planes cambered and turned
in the morning light –

today
          - with the news in my mind, and the muffled dread
of what may come – 
                                  I knelt down in the sand

with Lucas
                  gathering shells
and pebbles
                   finding evidence of life in all this
driftwork:
                 snail shells; shreds of razorfish;

smudges of weed and flesh on tideworn stone.

At times I think what makes us who we are
is neither kinship nor our given states
but something lost between the world we own

and what we dream about behind the names
on days like this
                           our lines raised in the wind
our bodies fixed and anchored to the shore

and though we are confined by property
what tethers us to gravity and light
has most to do with distance and the shapes
we find in water
                           reading from the book
of silt and tides
                          the rose or petrol blue
of jellyfish and sea anemone
combining with a child’s
first nakedness.

Sometimes I am dizzy with the fear
of losing everything – the sea, the sky,
all living creatures, forests, estuaries:
we trade so much to know the virtual
we scarcely register the drift and tug
of other bodies
                         scarcely apprehend
the moment as it happens: shifts of light
and weather
                    and the quiet, local forms
of history: the fish lodged in the tide
beyond the sands;
                              the long insomnia
of ornamental carp in public parks
captive and bright
                              and hung in their own
slow-burning
                       transitive gold
                                               jamjars of spawn
and sticklebacks
                           or goldfish carried home
from fairgrounds

                            to the hum of radio

but this is the problem: how to be alive
in all this gazed-upon and cherished world
and do no harm

                         a toddler on a beach
sifting wood and dried weed from the sand
and puzzled by the pattern on a shell

his parents on the dune slacks with a kite
plugged into the sky
                                 all nerve and line

patient; be afraid; but still, through everything
attentive to the irredeemable.

Click here to buy Selected Poems by John Burnside




Wednesday, 3 February 2021

The Horses by Pablo Neruda




Horses by Pablo Neruda

From the window I saw the horses.

I was in Berlin, in winter. The light
had no light, the sky had no heaven.

The air was white like wet bread.

And from my window a vacant arena,
bitten by the teeth of winter.

Suddenly driven out by a man,
ten horses surged through the mist.

Like waves of fire, they flared forward
and to my eyes filled the whole world,
empty till then. Perfect, ablaze,
they were like ten gods with pure white hoofs,
with manes like a dream of salt.

Their rumps were worlds and oranges.

Their colour was honey, amber, fire.

Their necks were towers
cut from the stone of pride,
and behind their transparent eyes
energy raged, like a prisoner.

There, in silence, at mid-day,
in that dirty, disordered winter,
those intense horses were the blood
the rhythm, the inciting treasure of life.

I looked. I looked and was reborn:
for there, unknowing, was the fountain,
the dance of gold, heaven
and the fire that lives in beauty.

I have forgotten that dark Berlin winter.

I will not forget the light of the horses.

Click here to buy The Essential Neruda: Selected Poems





Wednesday, 26 August 2020

Crossing from Guangdong by Sarah Howe


Something sets us looking for a place.
For many minutes every day we lose
ourselves to somewhere else. Even without
knowing, we are between the enveloping sheets
of a childhood bed, or crossing
that bright, willow-bounded weir at dusk.
Tell me, why have I come? I caught
the first coach of the morning outside
the grand hotel in town. Wheeled my case
through the silent, still-dark streets of the English
quarter, the funereal stonework facades
with the air of Whitehall, or the Cenotaph,
but planted on earth’s other side. Here
no sign of life, save for street hawkers, solicitous,
arranging their slatted crates, stacks of bamboo
steamers, battered woks, to some familiar
inward plan. I watch the sun come up
through tinted plexiglas. I try to sleep
but my eyes snag on every flitting, tubular tree,
their sword-like leaves. Blue metal placards
at the roadside, their intricate brooch-like
signs in white, which no one disobeys.
I am looking for a familiar face. There is
some symbol I am striving for. Yesterday
I sat in a cafe while it poured, drops
like warm clots colliding with the perspex
gunnel roof. To the humid strains of Frank
Sinatra, unexpectedly strange, I fingered
the single, glossy orchid – couldn’t decide
if it was real. I picked at anaemic
bamboo shoots, lotus root like
the plastic nozzle of a watering can,
over-sauced – not like you would make at home.
I counted out the change in Cantonese.
Yut, ye, sam, sei. Like a baby. The numbers
are the scraps that stay with me. I hear
again your voice, firm at first, then almost
querulous, asking me not to go.
I try to imagine you as a girl –
a street of four-storey plaster buildings,
carved wooden doors, weathered, almost shrines
(like in those postcards of old Hong Kong you loved) –
you, a child in bed, the neighbours always in
and out, a terrier dog, half-finished bowls
of rice, the ivory Mah Jong tablets
clacking, like joints, swift and mechanical,
shrill cries – ay-yah! fah! – late into the night.
My heart is bounded by a scallop shell –
this strange pilgrimage to home.


*

The bus sinks
with a hydraulic sigh. So, we have crossed
the imaginary line. The checkpoint
is a concrete pool. The lichen-green uniformed
official, with his hat brimmed in black gloss,
his elegant white-gloved hands, his holstered
gun, slowly mounts the rubber steps,
sways with careful elbows down the aisle. I lift
this crease-marred passport, the rubbed
gold of the lion crest – a mute offering.
Two fingers brace the pliant spine, the thumb
at the edge – an angle exact as a violinist’s
wrist – fanning through stamps to halt at the last
laminated side. He lifts his eyes to read
my face. They flicker his uncertainty
as he makes out eyes, the contour of a nose:
half-recognition. These bare moments –
something like finding family.
The mild waitress in Beijing. Your mother…
China… worker? she asked, at last, after
many whispers spilling from the kitchen.
Or the old woman on the Datong bus,
doubtless just inviting a foreigner to dinner,
but who could have been my unknown
grandmother, for all I knew or understood.
She took a look at me and reached up
to grasp my shoulders, loosing a string
of frantic, happy syllables, in what
dialect I don’t even know. She held my
awkward hands, cupped in her earthenware
palms, until the general restlessness showed
we neared the stop. As the doors lurched open,
she smiled, pressed a folded piece of paper,
blue biro, spidery signs, between my fingers,
then joined in the procession shuffling off. Some,
I realised then, were in hard hats, as they
dwindled across the empty plain, shadowed
by the blackened, soaring towers of the mine.


*


Something sets us looking for a place.
Old stories tell that if we could only
get there, all distances would be erased.
Wheels brace themselves against the ground
and we are on our way. Soon we will reach
the fragrant city. The island rising
into mist, where silver towers forest
the invisible mountain, across that small
span of cerulean sea. I have made
the crossing. The journey you, a screaming
baby, made, a piercing note among grey,
huddled shapes, some time in nineteen-forty-
nine (or year one of the fledgling People’s
State). And what has changed? The near-empty
bus says enough. And so, as we approach,
stop-start, by land, that once familiar scene –
the warm, phthalo-green, South China tide –
I can make out rising mercury
pin-tips, distinct against the blue
as the outspread primaries at the edge
of a bird’s extending wing. So much
taller now than when I left
fifteen years ago. Suddenly, I know –
from the Mid-Levels flat where I grew up,
set in the bamboo grove – from the kumquat-
lined windows on the twenty-fifth floor,
tinted to bear the condescension’s glare –
you can no longer see the insect cars
circling down those jungle-bordered boulevards.
The low-slung ferry, white above green,
piloting the harbour’s carpet of stars,
turned always home, you can no longer see.



Click here for a link to a performance of the poem by Sarah Howe

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An Ordinary Morning by Philip Levine


A man is singing on the bus
coming in from Toledo.
His voice floats over the heads
that bow and sway with each
turn, jolt, and sudden slowing.
A hoarse, quiet voice, it tells
of love that it true, of love
that endures a whole weekend.
The driver answers in a tenor
frayed from cigarettes, coffee,
and original curses thrown
down from his seat of command.
He answers that he has time
on his hands and it’s heavy.
O heavy hangs the head, he
improvises, and the man
back in the very last row,
bouncing now on the cobbles
as we bump down the boulevard,
affirms that it is hanging,
yes, and that it is heavy.
This is what I waken to.
One by one my near neighbors
open their watering eyes
and close their mouths to accept
this bright, sung conversation
on the theme of their morning.
The sun enters from a cloud
and shatters the wide windshield
into seventeen distinct shades
of yellow and fire, the brakes
gasp and take hold, and we are
the living, newly arrived
in Detroit, city of dreams,
each on his own black throne.



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Click here for a great reading of the poem by the poet







Sunday, 14 June 2020

Christabel by Samuel Taylor Coleridge




Tis the middle of night by the castle clock,

And the owls have awakened the crowing cock;
Tu—whit! Tu—whoo!
And hark, again! the crowing cock,
How drowsily it crew.
Sir Leoline, the Baron rich,
Hath a toothless mastiff bitch;
From her kennel beneath the rock
She maketh answer to the clock,
Four for the quarters, and twelve for the hour;
Ever and aye, by shine and shower,
Sixteen short howls, not over loud
Some say, she sees my lady's shroud.

Is the night chilly and dark?
The night is chilly, but not dark.
The thin gray cloud is spread on high,
It covers but not hides the sky.
The moon is behind, and at the full;
And yet she looks both small and dull.
The night is chill, the cloud is gray:
'Tis a month before the month of May,
And the Spring comes slowly up this way.

The lovely lady, Christabel,
Whom her father loves so well,
What makes her in the wood so late,
A furlong from the castle gate?
She had dreams all yesternight
Of her own betrothèd knight;
And she in the midnight wood will pray
For the weal of her lover that's far away.

She stole along, she nothing spoke,
The sighs she heaved were soft and low,
And naught was green upon the oak
But moss and rarest misletoe:
She kneels beneath the huge oak tree,
And in silence prayeth she.

The lady sprang up suddenly,
The lovely lady Christabel!
It moaned as near, as near can be,
But what it is she cannot tell.—
On the other side it seems to be,
Of the huge, broad-breasted, old oak tree.

The night is chill; the forest bare;
Is it the wind that moaneth bleak?
There is not wind enough in the air
To move away the ringlet curl
From the lovely lady's cheek—
There is not wind enough to twirl
The one red leaf, the last of its clan,
That dances as often as dance it can,
Hanging so light, and hanging so high,
On the topmost twig that looks up at the sky.

Hush, beating heart of Christabel!
Jesu, Maria, shield her well!
She folded her arms beneath her cloak,
And stole to the other side of the oak.
What sees she there?

There she sees a damsel bright,
Drest in a silken robe of white,
That shadowy in the moonlight shone:
The neck that made that white robe wan,
Her stately neck, and arms were bare;
Her blue-veined feet unsandl'd were,
And wildly glittered here and there
The gems entangled in her hair.
I guess, 'twas frightful there to see
A lady so richly clad as she—
Beautiful exceedingly!

Mary mother, save me now!
(Said Christabel) And who art thou?

The lady strange made answer meet,
And her voice was faint and sweet:—
Have pity on my sore distress,
I scarce can speak for weariness:
Stretch forth thy hand, and have no fear!
Said Christabel, How camest thou here?
And the lady, whose voice was faint and sweet,
Did thus pursue her answer meet:—

My sire is of a noble line,
And my name is Geraldine:
Five warriors seized me yestermorn,
Me, even me, a maid forlorn:
They choked my cries with force and fright,
And tied me on a palfrey white.
The palfrey was as fleet as wind,
And they rode furiously behind.
They spurred amain, their steeds were white:
And once we crossed the shade of night.
As sure as Heaven shall rescue me,
I have no thought what men they be;
Nor do I know how long it is
(For I have lain entranced I wis)
Since one, the tallest of the five,
Took me from the palfrey's back,
A weary woman, scarce alive.
Some muttered words his comrades spoke:
He placed me underneath this oak;
He swore they would return with haste;
Whither they went I cannot tell—
I thought I heard, some minutes past,
Sounds as of a castle bell.
Stretch forth thy hand (thus ended she).
And help a wretched maid to flee.

Then Christabel stretched forth her hand,
And comforted fair Geraldine:
O well, bright dame! may you command
The service of Sir Leoline;
And gladly our stout chivalry
Will he send forth and friends withal
To guide and guard you safe and free
Come to your noble father's hall.

She rose: and forth with steps they passed
That strove to be, and were not, fast.
Her gracious stars the lady blest,
And thus spake on sweet Christabel:
All our household are at rest,
The hall as silent as the cell;
Sir Leoline is weak in health,
And may not well awakened be,
But we will move as if in stealth,
And I beseech your courtesy,
This night, to share your couch with me.

They crossed the moat, and Christabel
Took the key that fitted well;
A little door she opened straight,
All in the middle of the gate;
The gate that was ironed within and without,
Where an army in battle array had marched out.
The lady sank, belike through pain,
And Christabel with might and main
Lifted her up, a weary weight,
Over the threshold of the gate:
Then the lady rose again,
And moved, as she were not in pain.

So free from danger, free from fear,
They crossed the court: right glad they were.
And Christabel devoutly cried
To the lady by her side,
Praise we the Virgin all divine
Who hath rescued thee from thy distress!
Alas, alas! said Geraldine,
I cannot speak for weariness.
So free from danger, free from fear,
They crossed the court: right glad they were.
Outside her kennel, the mastiff old
Lay fast asleep, in moonshine cold.
The mastiff old did not awake,
Yet she an angry moan did make!
And what can ail the mastiff bitch?
Never till now she uttered yell
Beneath the eye of Christabel.
Perhaps it is the owlet's scritch:
For what can ail the mastiff bitch?

They passed the hall, that echoes still,
Pass as lightly as you will!
The brands were flat, the brands were dying,
Amid their own white ashes lying;
But when the lady passed, there came
A tongue of light, a fit of flame;
And Christabel saw the lady's eye,
And nothing else saw she thereby,
Save the boss of the shield of Sir Leoline tall,
Which hung in a murky old niche in the wall.
O softly tread, said Christabel,
My father seldom sleepeth well.

Sweet Christabel her feet doth bare,
And jealous of the listening air
They steal their way from stair to stair,
Now in glimmer, and now in gloom,
And now they pass the Baron's room,
As still as death, with stifled breath!
And now have reached her chamber door;
And now doth Geraldine press down
The rushes of the chamber floor.

The moon shines dim in the open air,
And not a moonbeam enters here.
But they without its light can see
The chamber carved so curiously,
Carved with figures strange and sweet,
All made out of the carver's brain,
For a lady's chamber meet:
The lamp with twofold silver chain
Is fastened to an angel's feet.

The silver lamp burns dead and dim;
But Christabel the lamp will trim.
She trimmed the lamp, and made it bright,
And left it swinging to and fro,
While Geraldine, in wretched plight,
Sank down upon the floor below.

O weary lady, Geraldine,
I pray you, drink this cordial wine!
It is a wine of virtuous powers;
My mother made it of wild flowers.

And will your mother pity me,
Who am a maiden most forlorn?
Christabel answered—Woe is me!
She died the hour that I was born.
I have heard the grey-haired friar tell
How on her death-bed she did say,
That she should hear the castle-bell
Strike twelve upon my wedding-day.
O mother dear! that thou wert here!
I would, said Geraldine, she were!

But soon with altered voice, said she—
'Off, wandering mother! Peak and pine!
I have power to bid thee flee.'
Alas! what ails poor Geraldine?
Why stares she with unsettled eye?
Can she the bodiless dead espy?

And why with hollow voice cries she,
'Off, woman, off! this hour is mine—
Though thou her guardian spirit be,
Off, woman, off! 'tis given to me.'

Then Christabel knelt by the lady's side,
And raised to heaven her eyes so blue—
Alas! said she, this ghastly ride—
Dear lady! it hath wildered you!
The lady wiped her moist cold brow,
And faintly said, ' 'tis over now!'
Again the wild-flower wine she drank:
Her fair large eyes 'gan glitter bright,
And from the floor whereon she sank,
The lofty lady stood upright:
She was most beautiful to see,
Like a lady of a far countrèe.

And thus the lofty lady spake—
'All they who live in the upper sky,
Do love you, holy Christabel!
And you love them, and for their sake
And for the good which me befel,
Even I in my degree will try,
Fair maiden, to requite you well.
But now unrobe yourself; for I
Must pray, ere yet in bed I lie.'

Quoth Christabel, So let it be!
And as the lady bade, did she.
Her gentle limbs did she undress,
And lay down in her loveliness.

But through her brain of weal and woe
So many thoughts moved to and fro,
That vain it were her lids to close;
So half-way from the bed she rose,
And on her elbow did recline
To look at the lady Geraldine.

Beneath the lamp the lady bowed,
And slowly rolled her eyes around;
Then drawing in her breath aloud,
Like one that shuddered, she unbound
The cincture from beneath her breast:
Her silken robe, and inner vest,
Dropt to her feet, and full in view,
Behold! her bosom and half her side—
A sight to dream of, not to tell!
O shield her! shield sweet Christabel!

Yet Geraldine nor speaks nor stirs;
Ah! what a stricken look was hers!
Deep from within she seems half-way
To lift some weight with sick assay,
And eyes the maid and seeks delay;
Then suddenly, as one defied,
Collects herself in scorn and pride,
And lay down by the Maiden's side!—
And in her arms the maid she took,
       Ah wel-a-day!
And with low voice and doleful look
These words did say:
'In the touch of this bosom there worketh a spell,
Which is lord of thy utterance, Christabel!
Thou knowest to-night, and wilt know to-morrow,
This mark of my shame, this seal of my sorrow;
     But vainly thou warrest,
          For this is alone in
     Thy power to declare,
          That in the dim forest
Thou heard'st a low moaning,
And found'st a bright lady, surpassingly fair;
And didst bring her home with thee in love and in charity,
To shield her and shelter her from the damp air.'

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