Lucifer, the Archangel

The Round Room. Almost overlooked Victorian
passions, pastimes, pastels – the stucco sentiment,
the pride of steam, the brotherhoods. In the centre,
Lucifer in bronze, Epstein’s metal fused
with difference – great wars have beaten out
the alloy, have taken up a mythic that is
brutish, new and sexual. A future, and a past.

The space is here for gathering, an entrance,
and a place to meet. This day, the first of many
schools have gathered beneath the startled wings.
The hands afraid to touch; the careful foot that takes
a step; the nakedness that knows no shame.

Eager girls are warned about their task, the need
to have a watch on time, the mobile phones
that may not see the light of art or day.
They’ve hours to spend with sketches, in their
badges, blazers, blue shirts, neat school ties.

A later party comes, they’re older – boys
with phones – girls who huddle, smirking.
Their teacher gathers them below the pinioned
gaze. Her German accent is refined and taut.
“You’re here to seek the stories of your past.”
She offers them a city gallery’s diaspora
of Cultures, Faiths and Races. They’re eager
for their liberty and swirl away. We talk – one teacher
to another. “My little ones would love the art in here –
but these just don’t care,” she says. Not having
any Group to organise, I’m on the side of hope.
Three lads are posing for their phones
with Lucifer, their temporary friend. “Don’t give up
on them. They’ve found a moment to engage!”

We laugh, exchange farewells, and disappear
in search of falling light, of favourites lost,
of pictures taken, slow becoming oaks.

Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery – January 2019

 

Firewatchers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Firewatchers in the Blitz, two men look down
on Bloomsbury and St Paul’s. Above their heads
drone Heinkels, in their schwarms. Above those,
darkness, thinning air, the silence of the gods.

I’ll put my father first. Warehouse clerk,
waiting out the aerial assault; in letters –
shocked beyond a word to tell his father,
brothers, what he saw. Then Eliot, poet,
editor, no head for heights, summoning his senses
for the faith of Four Quartets – the cunning, clever
labyrinth that puts injury and death aside,
and suffering; makes learning and allusion key
to meaning no cradling bomb can break.

They both survive – my dad to find a quiet war,
a wife, an only son. A decent life,
obscurity, and love. In sickness and in health.
For richer for poorer. An honest litany.

Eliot was making his – his reputation as modernist
and icon-maker, breaker of machines and idols,
fades. The ironist of Prufrock, the wasted cities,
now bejewells crown and custom of the Church;
as if his revolution had never circled overhead.

Unknowing of the other, both died 2 years apart.
I have a letter in my father’s hand that tears.
Only facsimiles of Eliot’s, and poetry, of course.

Lowick 2018

Executive Decisions

My mother burnt her diaries.
Autumn had come, or spring.
At 80, she stood up for the future,
and exercised her rights upon the past.

All pencils saved,
each simple record made its sacrifice.
Flames took them,
week by week,
until her exit unencumbered,
and all entrances sealed up,
she was alone at last.
No prying biographer,
or curious, late-orphaned son
to put her life together again.

Larkin, younger,
and with a different end in mind,
thought much the  same,
but his were shredded from beyond the grave.
The poet parting company from the man.
25 volumes kept from 16 years,
And one final woman posthumously employed
to compost the rank, malodorous stuff
he grew his fame in.

I see them now,
the personal, the literary things,
the lives sloughed off like skin.
Give it all away to fire.
Keep not a scrap until the end.
No point in hanging on.
A pile of ash.
A heap of ticker tape like straw.
That’s all.

Chester 12.10.90

Lunch with Tony Harrison

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The point of lunch was just to fill his time
between our conference and another date –
thus brought, the bistro fare had wit and form,
the seafood heaped a healthy metric on his plate.

I have no memory of what filled mine –
as if my choice could would matter either way.
I listened, picking up each tone.
He filled his fork, had something wise to say,

I gave a careful moment to each thought,
and let him talk, and listened hard,
enjoyed his confidence in role as poet-scholar,
much-examined author, and living English bard.

But through the hours that came and went,
there’s now no sign of why or what,
nothing that either of us said survives
or mattered more than any other jot.

Though even every word has gone, I stagger
through the rhymes to get this right.
When merest hints of deference were
put away – and being plain was held in sight.

I, as a guest of fame, had harder tasks –
his polished northern man could calmly pace
a day like this. And thus possessed had only then
to smile and nod, while I kept in my place.

Thus I remember what he ate, and watched
for that which marked his right to be
in verse, or owner of each volume that he’d read.
Not so, if this should be reversed, he me.

To be forgot the greatest gift that anyone
can make when real talk’s thin.
A lift, a lunch, a bookshop in the styx –
so taste the moment, hold it in.

Chester 12.12.17

See Keeping the Clay Moist

 

 

The Wigtown Women

In 1685, two women were executed
at Wigtown, Galloway, for being
Covenanters. 
Both called Margaret,
they were 19 and 65 years old.
They were tied to stakes in the
harbour and drowned by the tide.
4 men, convicted of the same
offence, were hanged.

 

God’s tide is coming, Margaret.
God’s tide is coming.
These stakes they have driven
Into the foul slime

Between their dry sinful lives
And the eternal sea
Are here to hold us to our faith.
Stout ropes that wrench

Our wrists, keep us to our covenant
With Him, as did his
Nails. Regard not their cries.
They shame themselves.

The sea will not wash their sin
Away when our lives
Go to Him. We die as upright
Christians, they to fester

In their beds of fever or sullen
Age. No quick rising
Waters will cleanse their filth.
The cold will cling

To us, will cleave to our heart’s
Core, but His Fire there
Will burn harder than hate’s laws.
We are but women –

Bodies meant for pain and giving
Life. Men, who spent
Their days in fields or hammering
Their praise, they hang

In air, strangled, broken necked
Like crows on a wall.
Poor things to be so separate
From life in death.

We they do not torment so.
Hand back our bodies
To the Lord. Think on this
Margaret. Do not despair.

One given body, one that’s
Yet to yield. That’s all
We are, and coming to His love.
Forget the cold around

Your breast. Drink deep.
Our names are there.

Whithorn
August 1995

Republished June 2018

The poem implies the elder woman gave the younger courage. In fact she was drowned first, so that her death might change the mind of the younger woman. Young Margaret did not yield, and the Episcopalian executioners allowed her to drown when she would not break her oath.