Stand-to-Arms: David Jones’ ‘In Parenthesis’ (1937)

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There’s an extraordinary moment in the final pages of David Jones’ magnificent poem-novella, In Parenthesis (1937), when his hero, John Ball, dying at the Battle of the Somme in 1916, imagines the tourist industry that has since grown up around the World War One battlefields. In his last moments, he abandons his rifle: “leave it for a Cook’s tourist to the Devastated Areas”. Jones’ footnote acknowledges the risk of this sounding anachronistic but insists he remembers such discussions among the soldiers, how holiday-makers will later be photographed “on our parapets”. It’s the unexpected sense of territorial ownership that makes him angry (not the sense of injustice at different lives unfolding so differently): he compares it to strangers “occupying a house you live in, and which has, for you, particular associations”.

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This searing, revelatory sense of the documentary – what it was like to be there – is just one of the reasons to read Jones’ book. Another extended footnote considers the multiple usage of the hessian material of sandbags. In their intended role “they constituted, filled with earth, the walls, ceiling, and even floor surface of half our world”. But it was also “utilized as a wrapping for food; for a protection to the working parts of a rifle, and cover for bayonet against rust. The firm, smooth contour of a steel-helmet was often deprived of its tell-tale brightness [. . .] by means of a piece of stitched-on sack-cloth. The sand bag could be cut open and cast over the shoulders against the weather or tied round the legs against the mud or spread as a linen cloth on the fire-step for a meal, or used in extremity as a towel or dish-cloth; could be bound firmly as an improvised bandage or sewn together as a shroud for the dead”. Such human and humane improvisation in the midst of nightmare reminds us that Jones did not intend In Parenthesis to be a “War Book”, but rather one about a “good kind of peace”. He himself gives us another reason to read his book in these contemporary times that we consider so ‘difficult’: “We find ourselves privates in foot regiments. We search how we may see formal goodness in a life singularly inimical, hateful, to us”.

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For those interested in poetic techniques, Jones mixes prose and verse as naturally as walking and running. He is fiercely allusive throughout, particularly drawing on Shakespeare, Malory, The Mabinogion, The Song of Roland, other Welsh and Anglo-Saxon poems, Romantic and Classical poetry. TS Eliot tends to use his intertextual or allusive techniques forensically to dissect our Modern condition, how far we fall short of heroism, how far we are from spiritual pilgrimage, how sordid and smutty our lives have become. Curiously, Jones achieves something opposite, managing to elevate his fallible, cursing Tommies to some sort of reflection of the heroism of the past. The fields of northern France are compared to Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur in ways that establish rather than sever the links between myth and legend and the twentieth century. Bursts of shrapnel are associated with “the Thunder God” as discussed in Fraser’s The Golden Bough; the death of soldiers is rhymed with the myth of the king buried to protect and make the land fruitful. Jones’ interest in and identification with the ordinary soldiers is also expressed through his use of their words, in vivid, direct, often (knowingly) hilarious forms of demotic which put Eliot’s awkward efforts at doing the ordinary people’s voices into the shade.

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For a certain type of soldier, Jones tells us, trench life in 1916 with the “infantry in tin-hats, with ground-sheets over their shoulders, with sharpened pine-stakes in their hands”, brought Shakespeare’s Henry V “pretty constantly to the mind”. It’s from that play that one of the recurring phrases in In Parenthesis is drawn. In Part 3, Lance-Corporal Lewis sings as he walks, yet he sings softly, “because of the Disciplines of War”. Jones’ soldiers treat the idea with both respect and sarcasm on differing occasions though it’s striking that in the midst of battle, as things begin to turn against them:

 

Captain Cadwaladr restores

the Excellent Disciplines of the Wars.

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The book invites the reader in with knockabout drill on the parade ground at home to begin with. Then a long march to the port of embarkation, the troops looking smart as they march through town but once beyond civilian observation “with a depressing raggedness of movement and rankling of tempers they covered another mile between dismal sheds, high and tarred”. Proleptic of what lies ahead, they get lost among the port buildings, eventually waiting for departure to France in a “spacious shed [. . .] open at either end, windy and comfortless”.

Part 2 has the men marching through France, Jones capturing their first naïve witnessing of war’s destruction where a shell has fallen on the road they are pursuing: “men were busy here shovelling rubble into a great torn upheaval in the paving. A splintered tree scattered its winter limbs, spilled its life low on the ground. They stepped over its branches and went on”. One of the great themes of In Parenthesis ironically is the presence of Nature, often offering some consolation, some mythic pattern of life, death and re-birth to the soldiers, as well as (here) being subject to the destructions of human warfare. The natural processes of time, night and day, the seasons turning – also offer some consolation. Here is the magnificent opening to Part 4, John Ball seeing dawn break over the trenches:

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So thus he sorrowed till it was day and heard the foules sing, then somewhat he was comforted.

 

Stand-to.

Stand-to-arms.

Stealthily, imperceptibly stript back, thinning

night wraps

unshrouding, unsheafing—

and insubstantial barriers dissolve.

This blind night-negative yields uncertain flux.

At your wrist the phosphorescent dial describes the equal seconds.

 

The flux yields up a measurable body; bleached forms emerge and stand.

 

Where their faces turned, grey wealed earth bared almost of last clung weeds of night weft—

behind them the stars still shined.

 

The final seventh Part breaks more consistently into verse. Jones seldom uses line breaks to create the swaying rhythmic units of lyric verse but more usually for disjunction. His free verse recreates the soldier’s eye swinging from one thing to another, often in panic and confusion, the sudden bursting of danger from left field, from shells above, mines below. It allows him also to recreate the thrilling illogic of the stream of consciousness of his fighting men. Private Ball survives longer than many but is eventually wounded.

 

[. . .] it came as if a rigid beam of great weight flailed about his calves, caught from behind by ballista-baulk let fly or aft-beam slewed to clout gunnel-walker

below below below.

 

When golden vanities make about,

you’ve got no legs to stand on.

 

He thought it disproportionate in its violence considering the fragility of us.

 

He crawls away, encumbered by the weight of his rifle which he eventually leaves behind. An Ophelia-like figure, the Queen of the Woods, cuts garlands for the dying soldiers, whispering quietly to each of them, according respect (when the real circumstances of their deaths received anything but) elevating their passing to ritual. (Here is a brief animation and reading of this moment). That Jones can achieve this mythic sense, simultaneously dwelling on the clumsy encumbrance of Private Ball’s rifle, and allowing his fleeting thoughts about the future Cook’s tourists is a breath-taking moment of literary achievement. The whole is “a work of genius” (TS Eliot) and “a masterpiece” (WH Auden). For Adam Thorpe it “towers above any other prose or verse memorial of that war (indeed, of any war)”; for Thomas Dilworth it is “probably the greatest work of British Modernism written between the wars”.

 

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David Jones

 

I have been reading little other than In Parenthesis for the last few weeks. The narrative precision clarifies with each re-reading, as does the characterisation, the recurring motifs become more significant, the gem-like passages of exquisite poetry leap out. I have come to it very late; a reason for some regret but it is the best thing I have read in years. Perhaps the title put me off. It sounds arid and a bit tricksy. Jones suggests the parenthesis was the war itself (perhaps again indicating his real concern with how we live our peace), though he also cryptically adds “because our curious type of existence here is altogether in parenthesis”. The whole work concludes with lines taken from The Song of Roland: “the man who does not know this has not understood anything”.

 

The Politics of the ‘Daodejing’

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I travelled north to Bradford earlier this week to read from my versions of the Daodejing. For the first time a reader of Mandarin was present to read from something approaching the original texts. Bradford artist Yan Wang read beautifully as well as providing the evening with a couple of large banner-scrolls of chapters from the text. The whole evening had been organised by an old friend, Bruce Barnes, a poet and tireless organiser and more recently translator of long-neglected work by Kosuke Shirasu, a Japanese proletarian writer from the 1920/30s. I read Bruce’s ‘interpretations’ of Shirasu’s work (done with the help of Jun Shirasu and published as Out of his struggles (Utistugu Press, Bradford) on the train back to London and it reminded me that I had wanted for a while to organise my thoughts about the political elements in the Daodejing poems. (Poem titles in brackets are those I have given to the individual ‘chapters’ of the text).

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It’s generally accepted that one of the purposes of the collection of texts called the Daodejing is to instruct about good government. Chapter 46 (Annexation) argues that when government adheres to the Way – the teachings of the Daoist ideas – then its great parades of horses “are put out to grass to fertilise the ground”. It’s when government neglects the Way that its “war horses sire and foal / even on sacred ground”. Such neglect leads to personal and political “unsteadiness” which Chapter 26 (‘Breath-taking Scenes’) identifies as the “loss of all authority”. This is authority in its truest sense because in other poems we read of aggressive, power-grabbing behaviour which is also a way of neglecting Daoist ideas. Chapter 29 (‘What is Fixed’) describes those who grab at “earthly power” who are as liable to smash it as gain any advantage.

One of the key chapters, 67 (‘Three Treasures’) goes so far as to suggest that “only one reluctant to grasp power / is properly capable of government”. One clear attitude in these poems is that busy, hyperactive government – one that “grows brisk full of initiatives” – is an error:

 

those who hope

to rule by dishing out

press releases

a multiplicity of choices

are the con-men

of the nation

Chapter 65 (‘Blizzard’)

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This distrust of big government is compounded when those with power try to ingratiate themselves with those they rule. With very little modernisation, the Daodejing is suspicious of those politicians who “style themselves ‘man of the people’ / sometimes ‘housewife’ / they like to say ‘we are all in this together’” (Chapter 39). What lies behind such cynical declarations is a real hunger for power as an exercise of ego (not true government). Laozi is very clear that such egoistic motives lead only in one direction for a nation: war.

 

–those who govern my teacher says

must oppose conquest by force of arms

 

such methods swiftly rebound

thorn and bramble where troops assemble

Chapter 30 (‘Scorched Earth’)

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Leaders (and the Daodejing never really doubts that human society needs leaders of a sort) need to adhere to the Way and encourage their people to do the same. Chapter 37 (‘Dispassion’) puts it succinctly:

 

—the way enacts nothing yet through it all things are achieved

if the powerful

possessed themselves of it

the ten thousand would be transformed

 

once transformed if they begin

to demand action

they ought to be constrained

with the uncarved wood quality of namelessness

 

the unconditional quality of the nameless

evokes dispassion—

hence it is to be still

 

so the nation pursues its way in peace

 

This idea of ‘constraint’ begins to sound authoritarian again but elsewhere it appears our political leaders are being advised not to over-encourage our expectations. Chapter 19 (‘Fewer Wishes’) advises that a people’s restlessness ought to be dealt with by offering them “simplicity / to behold give them the uncarved block // give them selflessness give fewer wishes”. In our world of unconfined desire and acquisitiveness (the point of being alive?) this sounds suspect perhaps but is perfectly in line with those who choose to opt out of modern life towards simplicity, fewer possessions etc. The uncarved block is a recurring image representing the fullest presence of life and experience before we begin to hack away at it with our self-centred preconceptions. The three virtues of the Daodejing are to be compassionate, to be frugal and to lack ambition.

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The point is that Daoist thinking is optimistic about human nature. There is a Rousseauistic quality to its belief in the goodness of mankind as a noble savage who has for too long been corrupted by interference, too many codes of behaviour imposed from above. This is where the poems’ anti-Confucian elements are most obvious. Chapter 18 (Codes of kindness’) argues it’s only when the Way “falls into disuse / codes of kindness thoughts / of morality evolve”. Laozi argues we are better off without such rules of codified behaviour. This is not quite anarchism but certainly a powerfully libertarian thread runs through the work. In one of the most striking images in the whole sequence, Chapter 60 (‘Recipe’) compares true government to the cooking of a “delicate fish”. It requires the gentlest of touches:

 

no agitation

or any demon

or the fretting

of your own spirit

 

no shuffle or harm

or sudden injury

but aid and attend

gain advantage

 

the power to feed

the common purpose

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It’s this delicacy, gentleness, almost passivity of government that leads Laozi to associate this approach with the stereotypically ‘female’. Early on, in Chapter 6 (‘Valley’) we are told the spirit of the Way is “[a] valley without end / it is female it is called mysteriousness”. This translates politically into government playing a largely passive role (as does the good teacher) to show, facilitate, enthuse, give space, watch and approve. Government must be honest, give the tools, give opportunities, do its job well. Its role is to synthesise and connect (not disconnect or sever), shed light (but without dazzling, even inadvertently), use a delicate touch, be tangential. Its actions call forth responses to the fact it acts, plans, demands. Better back off, do not intervene, don’t use imperatives, perhaps use no words at all. It is better to play the female part, be passive, give space, encourage desired behaviours, neglect all else.

 

Tributaries

chapter 61

 

—strong nations must play the low ground

to which all contributing waters flow

the point to which all things converge

so their invitations issue from stillness

through quiescence they gather power

let’s call that female and the male cannot

resist he brings his watery tributes

and she gains adherents he procures favour

as she looks to embrace and empower

he finds himself part of a greater thing

in this way becomes part of creation

so both thrive both discovering bliss—

real power is female it rises from beneath

Study of a Kneeling Boy Bending a Bow, for Dorchester House c.1860 by Alfred Stevens 1817-1875

Like the cooked fish, another memorable image is the bending of a bow. As it is bent the top (of society) descends earthwards while what is “nearest the earth is raised up”. This is the ideal process of government in the Daodejing. Only in Chapter 80 (‘The Commonwealth’) does Laozi give something of a portrait of the contentedly ruled society. It is small, hard-working, has basic needs met; it has the capability of greater luxury (and also weapons) but none of these are made use of. This little society is aware of others around it (perhaps run on different lines) but its people are so content they feel no desire to travel.

Idealistic without doubt. But does this even sound attractive? It’s unlikely to – given our absorption into our consumerist society, our expectations that government ought to provide and lead. But we don’t need to look far to see systems breaking down and at the least what the Daodejing offers is an alternative vision of the exercise of power in society. It’s a vision that is over 2000 years old which means it’s either well past its sell-by-date or that it contains some wisdom that we ought not to ignore.

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Martyn and Yan Wang reading from the ‘Daodejing’ for Beehive Poets, Bradford

Tony Harrison’s ‘Them and [uz]’

Last week I posted on Tony Harrison’s ‘A Cold Coming’. The following discussion of another extraordinary Tony Harrison poem originally appeared in book form in Tony Harrison: Loiner (Clarendon Press, 1997), edited by Sandie Byrne.

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‘Them and [uz]’ – listen to Harrison read this poem here.

for Professors Richard Hoggart & Leon Cortez

I

αίαι, ay, ay! … stutterer Demosthenes

gob full of pebbles outshouting seas –

 

4 words only of mi ‘art aches and … ‘Mine’s broken,

you barbarian, T.W.!’ He was nicely spoken.

‘Can’t have our glorious heritage done to death!’

 

I played the Drunken Porter in Macbeth.

 

‘Poetry’s the speech of kings. You’re one of those

Shakespeare gives the comic bits to: prose!

All poetry (even Cockney Keats?) you see

‘s been dubbed by [Λs] into RP,

Received Pronunciation, please believe [Λs]

your speech is in the hands of the Receivers.’

 

‘We say [Λs] not [uz], T.W.!’ That shut my trap.

I doffed my flat a’s (as in ‘flat cap’)

my mouth all stuffed with glottals, great

lumps to hawk up and spit out… E-nun-ci-ate!

 

II

So right, ye buggers, then! We’ll occupy

your lousy leasehold Poetry.

 

I chewed up Littererchewer and spat the bones

into the lap of dozing Daniel Jones,

dropped the initials I’d been harried as

and used my name and own voice: [uz] [uz] [uz],

ended sentences with by, with, from,

and spoke the language that I spoke at home.

RIP, RP, RIP T.W.

I’m Tony Harrison no longer you!

 

You can tell the Receivers where to go

(and not aspirate it) once you know

Wordsworth’s matter/water are full rhymes,

[uz] can be loving as well as funny.

 

My first mention in the Times

automatically made Tony Anthony!

Read about the drafting of this poem – in the Tony Harrison Archive at Leeds University.

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Though it was Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ Harrison ‘mispronounced’ at school, it is actually Wordsworth who is more important to him because both share a belief in poetry as the voice of a man speaking to men. This conception of poetry as speech is a powerful constituent in Harrison’s work and perhaps one not clearly understood. John Lucas, for example, has attacked what he sees as loose metrics in the poem ‘V’ but, to reverse Harrison’s comment that all his writing (theatrical or otherwise) is poetry, all his poetry needs to be read as essentially dramatic and deserves to be tested in the spoken voice as much as in the study. Harrison’s interest in the curious idea that the true poet is born without a mouth implies the difficult battling for a voice or voices which can be found everywhere in his work and it is in this clamour that I find its dramatic quality. In a public poem like ‘A Cold Coming’, Harrison makes use of the contrasting and conflicting voices by playing them off against a regular form. This is almost always the case, but in what follows I prefer to concentrate less on metrical effects than on the way voices interweave.

The very title of the pair of sonnets, ‘Them & [uz]’, seems to promise conflict, at best dialogue, and it opens with what could be taken as the howl of inarticulacy. In fact each pair of these opening syllables gestures towards crucial worlds in Harrison’s universe. The ‘αίαιof classical dramatic lament is echoed by the “ay, ay!” of the musical hall comedian cheekily working up an audience. Immediately, the reader is plunged into the unresolved drama of two differing voices, instantly implying the two cultures of the sonnets’ title. The line and a half which follows, sketching Demosthenes practicing eloquence on the beach, is intriguing in that its locus as speech is hard to pin down. It is perhaps intended at this stage (apart from introducing the poems’ central issue) to hover in an Olympian fashion above the ruck of dialogue that follows, implying the heroic stance which will be taken up in the second sonnet.

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Line 3 opens again into a dramatic situation with the voice of the narrator (the adult Harrison), repeating his own interrupted recital of Keats in the classroom, while the master’s scornful comments appear fresh, unreported, as if still raw and present, in speech marks. The narratorial comment on this – “He was nicely spoken” – confirms this poem’s tendency to switch voices for its effects, this time its brief sarcasm barely obscuring the unironic comment likely to be made by an aspiring Loiner, or by an ambitious parent. The example of nice speaking given (again in direct quotes in the following line) is the master’s claim to possession, to authority in matters of language and culture and the separated-off reply of the narrator – “I played the Drunken Porter in Macbeth – with its full rhyme and sudden regular iambic pentameter, implies both a causal link between the two lines, painting Harrison as dispossessed specifically by the master’s attitudes, as well as conveying the tone of resignation in the young schoolboy.

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Much of the tension and success of the poem has already arisen from the dramatic interchange of voices and the master’s voice asserts itself again in line 7 ironically claiming a kind of monolithic, aristocratic purity to poetry which this poem has already attempted to subvert:

 

Poetry’s the speech of kings. You’re one of those

Shakespeare gives the comic bits to: prose!”

 

The following lines contain a curious wavering in the clear interplay of dramatic voices, only part of which is resolved as the poem proceeds. Evidently, the intrusive, even hectoring, parenthesis (at line 9) is the narrator’s questioning of what appears to be the master’s voice’s continuing argument that “All poetry” belongs to Received Pronunciation. Yet the aggression of this attack, with its harsh alliteration and sarcastic question mark, is out of key with the other narratorial comments in part I, though the tone is re-established in part II. In addition, I have some difficulty in accepting the master’s words as appropriate to the situation which – with no break – continues the speech made to the young Harrison. For example, the word “dubbed”, with its implication of the deliberate laying of a second voice over an ‘original’, already hands victory in the argument to Harrison’s claim for the authenticity of ‘dialect’ and, as such, would not be used by the believer in “the speech of kings”. Equally, the apparent plea, “please believe [ s] / your speech is in the hands of the Receivers”, does not accord with the voice that summarily dismissed the pupil as a “barbarian” 7 lines earlier. In this case, Harrison’s desire for the dramatic has foundered momentarily on that old dramatist’s rock, the necessity for exposition which compromises the integrity of the speaking voice.

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The true note of the master returns – interestingly, following one of Harrison’s movable stanza breaks, as if confirming a shift in voice though the speech actually continues across the break – with “We say [Λs] not [uz], T.W.!” The tone of the responding voice, after the suggestion of a more spirited response in the Keats comment, has returned to the resignation of the brow-beaten pupil. This is reinforced by the more distant comparison of the boy to the ancient Greek of the opening lines, heroically “outshouting seas”, while the young Harrison’s mouth is “all stuffed with glottals, great / lumps to hawk up and spit out”. This first sonnet draws to a close with this tone of frustrated defeat for the boy, yet the drama has one final twist, as the voice of the master, sneering, precise and italicised, has the last word – “E-nun-ci-ate!“. There can be little doubt that the boy must have felt as his father is reported to have done in another sonnet from The School of Eloquence, “like some dull oaf”.

The second part of ‘Them & [uz]’ contrasts dramatically with the first, though the seeds of it lie in the image of heroic Demosthenes and the accusatory tone of the reference to Keats which seemed a little out of place in part I. This second sonnet’s opening expletive aggression strikes a new tone of voice altogether. “So right, yer buggers, then! We’ll occupy / your lousy leasehold Poetry”. The poem’s premise is that it will redress the defeat suffered in part I in an assertive, unopposed manner. Not the master, nor any spokesman for RP is allowed a direct voice, yet the interchange of speech and implied situation can still be found to ensure a dramatic quality to the verse.

The passionate and confrontational situation of the opening challenge is clear enough, yet it’s striking how it has taken the autobiographical incident in part I and multiplied it (“yer buggers . . . We’ll occupy”) to present the wider political and cultural context as a future battlefield. Even so, there is no let up in the clamour of voices raised in the poem. Immediately, the narratorial voice shifts to a more reflective, past tense (at line 3) as the rebel reports actions already taken – and with some success, judging from the tone of pride and defiance: “[I] used my name and own voice: [uz] [uz] [uz]”. Even within this one line, the final three stressed syllables are spat out in a vivid reenactment of Harrison’s defiant spoken self-assertion. It is this slippery elision of voice and situation which creates the undoubted excitement of these and many of Harrison’s poems as they try to draw the rapidity and short-hand nature of real speech, its miniature dramas and dramatisations into lyric poetry. A further shift can be found in lines 9 and 10, in that the voice now turns to address a different subject. The addressee is not immediately obvious as the staccato initials in the line are blurted out in what looks like a return to the situation and voice with which this sonnet opened. Only at the end of line 10 does it become clear that the addressee is the poet’s younger self, or the self created as the “dull oaf” by the kind of cultural repression practised by the schoolmaster. The reader is further drawn into the drama of the situation by this momentary uncertainty: RIP RP, RIP T.W. / “I’m Tony Harrison no longer you!”.

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The remaining 6 lines are, as a speech act, more difficult to locate. There is an initial ambiguity in that they may continue to address “T.W.”, though the stanza break suggests a change and, anyway, this makes little sense as T.W. is now dead (“RIP T.W.”). In fact, these lines use the second person pronoun in the impersonal sense of ‘one’, addressing non-RP speakers in general, and it is the generalised nature of these lines which disarms the effectiveness of the passage. This is particularly important in line 14, “[uz] can be loving as well as funny”, the tone of which, commentators like John Haffenden have questioned. The difficulty here is that if Harrison is addressing those who might use [uz] anyway, though there may well be many amongst them for whom the fact that “Wordsworth’s matter / water are full rhymes” is useful ammunition and reassurance, the same cannot be said of the “loving as well as funny” line which might variously be construed as patronising, sentimental or just plain unnecessary. Nevertheless, the poem regains a more sure touch in the final lines in its use of the reported ‘voice’ of The Times in renaming the poet “Anthony“. The effect here is both humorous (this, after all the poet’s passionate efforts!) and yet ominous in that the bastions of cultural and linguistic power are recognised as stubborn, conservative forces, still intent on re-defining the poet according to their own agenda, imposing their own hegemonic voice where there might be many.

The Death of Philip Levine

The death of Philip Levine, one of the greats of modern American poetry, was announced yesterday. Bloodaxe published his selected poems, Stranger to Nothing, in 2006: http://www.bloodaxebooks.com/titlepage.asp?isbn=1852247371. Astonishingly, this was his first UK publication since Secker produced an earlier Selected Poems in 1984. Not as well known as he should have been in this country, there has been a good deal more attention given to him in very recent years.

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I’m ashamed to say I only came across him when Poetry London asked me to review Stranger to Nothing alongside Dan Chiasson’s Natural History and Other Poems (Bloodaxe, 2006). It was on the strength of the review that Anne-Marie Fyfe asked me to contribute to a Troubadour Poetry event in London celebrating Levine’s work. Sadly Levine was unable to attend on the evening due to illness and I had the honour of reading some of his work in his stead. For what they are worth, I’ll append the notes I made to myself on the poems I selected to read that evening at the end of this blog. Happily, I think I remember Anne-Marie later reporting back that Levine approved of my brief selection.

Some time later, Naomi Jaffa discussed his life and work with him at Aldeburgh in 2009. The Poetry Channel’s blurb for the recording of that conversation gives a flavour of Levine as follows: A giant of American poetry and now the newly appointed US Poet Laureate, Philip Levine memorably appeared at Aldeburgh in 2009 where he enjoyed a 45-minute conversation with Naomi Jaffa, The Poetry Trust director. In this absorbing, funny and wide-ranging interview, Levine covers growing up as a Jew in anti-semitic Detroit, working for General Motors, finding his voice as a poet, life at college with teachers Lowell and Berryman, his fascination with Lorca and Spain, his love of jazz (and loathing of Wagner), and which four writers he could bear to be stuck in a lift with: listen to that here: http://thepoetrytrust.libsyn.com/philip-levine-s-journeys

And as tribute to a truly great poet here is my September 2006 review of Stranger to Nothing:

On the face of it, the contrast between Dan Chiasson and Philip Levine could hardly be more striking. Bloodaxe have produced a fascinating selection from a poet whose relative absence from discussions of US poetry on this side of the Atlantic is a huge loss. Born in 1928 in Detroit, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, the first poems included here were not published until 1963. Like Raymond Carver, to whom he bears some resemblance, Levine spent many years labouring in industry  and much of his later poetry recalls these experiences and the people with whom he worked. Whereas Chiasson is urbane and metropolitan, Levine is urban and industrial. Though encompassing a long writing career, this is not a selection that reveals very much in the way of artistic development; Levine’s characteristic style and tone seems to have come to him fully formed and he has seen little need to alter it. One reason must be the premium he clearly places upon being true to his materials – and in particular the experience of the American working people he portrays.

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Accordingly, there are poems in which Levine doubts the value of the imagination in its tendency to romanticise real experience. ‘Salt and Oils’ from the mid-eighties moves rapidly through moments in a life, but then concludes:

“These were not

the labours of Hercules, these were not

of meat or moment to anyone but me

or destined for story or to learn from

or to make me fit to take the hand

of a toad or a toad princess”

With very different results this might be seen as another attempt to achieve the “transparent eyeball” that Chiasson refers to. Things are what they are and it is in this sense that the collection title works. The phrase comes from an early poem in which a visit to a graveyard leads the narrator to contemplate the realities of life so that “in time one comes / to be a stranger to nothing”. This is also typical of Levine’s style – a loosely constructed, colloquial blank verse, driven along powerfully by the syntax across lengthy sentences that work by slow accumulation rather than the local explosions of linguistic surprises.

But if the fantasies of imagination are dismissed, Levine holds firmly to its role in the re-creation of the past. Often precisely dated, he vividly and lovingly portrays scenes and people from his past. A truck-driving uncle from “black Detroit” is sketched through telling detail – his “two hands kneading / each other at the sink” – and this summoning up into a type of art remote from the original life is, Levine seems to suggest, a kind of redemption or dignifying, so that the Uncle can at last “rise / above Belle Isle and the Straits, / your clear eye / rid of our rooms forever”. Throughout this book, lives are invoked in this fashion in finely-judged poems that neither underplay the poverty and misery within them, nor uncomfortably rose-tint the strength and humour such individuals need to survive.

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Perhaps for some, there will be something too fatalistic in these portraits of working-class America. Ought there not to have been more overt political agitation? But Levine works the vein of the individual, the idiosyncratically human and, I’m sure, for him that represents political position enough. In the very recent poem ‘Our Reds’, he again memorialises three characters from school days (1930s/40s?) and their promotion of Communist doctrine. Though the poem indeed acknowledges that what the future brought was “an America no one wanted” it is to “bless” the three that the poem intends: “bless / their certainties, their fiery voices / we so easily resisted . . . their faith in us, especially / that faith, that hideous innocence”. It is perhaps only in moments that working lives are felt redeemed as in the stunning ‘An Ordinary Morning’ with its plain recounting of workers arriving in the city on a bus. The driver and a passenger strike up a song – “O heavy hangs the head” – and as dawn breaks the other passengers wake, momentarily allowed the nobility that their exterior lives seem to deny:

“the brakes

gasp and take hold, and we are

the living, newly arrived

in Detroit, city of dreams,

each on his black throne”

Levine has said that the tradition of poetry he inherited in the 1940s was “utterly lacking” in the kind of people and experiences he had grown up with. His intention was to add to US poetry “what wasn’t there” before. To have done this so consistently – to record the plight and resilience of the poor and inarticulate in America without breaking into the angry simplicities of blame or party politics or caricature is a monumental achievement. This is a collection that deserves to become a significant feature in the twenty-first century landscape of UK poetry.

And here are my notes from the Troubadour event (page numbers here refer to the Bloodaxe edition of Stranger to Nothing):

Reading Philip Levine’s poetry I was immediately put in mind of Carver’s admiration for Chekhov – he quotes Chekhov’s letter again and again in which he says “you don’t have to write about extraordinary people who accomplish extraordinary and memorable deeds”. Also like Carver, Levine worked in industry for many years – born in 1928, his first book didn’t appear till 1963. Both seem fully paid up members of the working classes – Carver said he could never write down to his own people. ‘Saturday Sweeping’ – p 26

I like the way Levine’s poems seem to meander organically from one thing to another – without a hint of irrelevance. He also plays great tricks with chronology – memory of his working years often playing such a large part in his current thinking and writing. ‘Sweet Will’ – p 84

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Levine – like Carver – would sign up to Pound’s dictum that the only worthwhile morality in writing is “fundamental accuracy of statement”. But there is another current in Levine which can take him towards the surreal. This poem reminds me of Ken Smith’s ‘Fox Running’ (both 1981). ‘The Fox’ – p 68

In later Levine, the political anger is often transmuted into a kind of less deceived tenderness – an amazed sense of good fortune. ‘Philosophy Lesson’ – p 150

Levine often writes of visits to Europe – particularly Spain – and the Civil War clearly stimulated his imagination. Here though – I take it – he is also commenting on one of the great American poets who came to Europe – one I guess temperamentally very contrasting to Levine and I think this has to be intended partly as literary critical comment. ‘The Trade’ – p 127

Levine is also unfashionably willing to walk naked – emotionally. Some will think he sails the wrong side of sentimentality but I’d disagree.’Starlight’ – p 55

Working on Rilke for so long in recent years – I see him everywhere. In the Elegies he claims that even the street girls – prostitutes – are momentarily aware of the visionary possibilities his poems are concerned with. But here – lastly – is Levine working from a position of a good deal of factual knowledge and communicating the same thing – moments of vision without the religious baggage. ‘An Ordinary Morning’ – p 86

A Holocaust poem – my Dad’s desert war and one of the Magi

Last week, the 27 January 2015 marked the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp. I have only once tried to address the subject – in a poem dedicated to my father who served in WW2 in the RAF, mostly in the deserts of Egypt (he was with 80 Squadron: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No._80_Squadron_RAF).

He was an engineer by trade and – as far as I know – saw no hand to hand combat. His brief was to maintain the Hawker Hurricanes that were a major component of Allied air power in North Africa. The poem records his only war injury: badly burned legs from jumping too quickly onto the nose of an aircraft after it had landed, straddling its still blisteringly hot twin exhausts. In the 1960s, he’d tell us about this while we sat at the dining table gluing together Airfix models of Hurries (as he calls them), Spits and Lancs.

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The poem was finally published in 1994 in On Whistler Mountain (see https://martyncrucefix.com/publications/on-whistler-mountain/) It opens with a less than complimentary picture of my father’s unreconstructed political and racial views which I wanted to link to the birth of Christ and the Holocaust. Ironically, given his attitude to people of colour, my father dreams in the poem that he is one of the Magi, Caspar, often depicted as a King from the Indian sub-continent. The poem’s narrative folds over to encompass both the first stirrings of Caspar’s dream about the birth of Christ as well as his last days which I imagine him spending in northern Europe.

Being a King of sorts, my-father-as-Caspar imagines the birth of a conventional king, one of conventional powers, but the child’s family turns out to be of no “consequence”. The child he finds in Bethlehem (I was thinking of course of T S Eliot’s ‘Journey of the Magi’) seems little more than a “futile gesture”. More dreams – which the poem takes as shorthand/short-cuts to the life of the imagination – then drive Caspar north to settle in northern Europe, himself facing racist attitudes among the native peoples there.

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My father’s imagined bafflement before this strange dream in which he plays the role of a non-white king is – I’m sure now – partly his son’s liberal conscience obliquely criticizing his politics. My poem leaves Caspar to die in the northern forests, himself bewildered by what his own dreams have driven him to. The Christ child he dismissed years earlier, continues to visit him in dreams where he goes weeping over that “precise, god-forsaken ground”. The visionary child sees into the future, is a prescient witness to his own Jewish people rounded up by the Nazis’ similarly repellent attitudes to power and racial difference, finally entering “incinerators smoking in the German forest”. Of course, Auschwitz itself and many other camps were not built on German soil, but it was important to use the ‘G’ word at the end of the poem. In the strict pursuit of truth, I was imagining Caspar’s long-house on German soil in the locality of Dachau or Buchenwald, the name of the latter translating as ‘beech forest’.

A Long-House in the Forest

for my father

1.

His war happened in the blazing Middle East.

When he was young, far from the mud of Europe

and the wired camps, his thighs were burned

by too much bravado, sitting astride

the exhausts of a Hurricane that hadn’t cooled.

He picked up the language. Never liked Arabs.

Any dark skin’s still a nigger to this day.

So he votes for the Right, though he’s careless

of politics and takes it as read: we all

long for power and we all need to be led.

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2.

In his dream, he is Caspar. He has chosen

to wait in the draughty long-house, watching

the yard collect its ragged slush of leaves.

He knows the corn-bins are flooded and rotten.

He knows this month is the anniversary

of nights when Caspar rolled in distress, youth,

dream illumination – an excited showing

of power’s open hearth, its air-gulping fire –

his sleep filled with the birth of a king

whose strong arm would invigorate the world.

At once, Caspar instructed a journey. His gift

for this new king, of course, was gold.

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3.

A wretched child asleep on that year’s straw.

Neither mother nor father people of consequence,

but simple Jews – trouble-making, deluded.

This was nothing worth his understanding.

(He knows Caspar is a man of wisdom and books).

What could be the need for this powerless figure?

Why this pot-bellied brat? This futile gesture?

Shepherds stood with doting faces for the boy.

He turned his back, dropped the derisory gift.

4.

Without wishing, Caspar gleaned what became

of the lad from travellers’ unlikely tales.

How he saw no reason to cloak humility.

Nor saw the need to make a show of strength.

No surprise the authorities destroyed him.

And on that day, Caspar, his dream-self,

was driven by dreams again, north this time,

to the Black Sea, fighting the Danube inland,

to this blond-haired, beer-drunk, long-limbed place,

whose people mistake him for a piece of Hell

with his blackened face and barbarian tongue.

5.

Sitting by the squadron’s crest, a photograph

of the kids, he sees no reason to dream himself

black and ignorant, plagued by dreams. But he is

Caspar, has chosen the long-house and struggles

at night – not with dreams of the hot south,

of home, courtyards, frescoes and fountains-

but with a dream that has no place yet, though

he searches for it, now that same, futile boy

in the straw has grown his only dream-guide

and weeps over this precise, god-forsaken ground.

He finds it ruled by those whose failure is to see

no need for an icon of the weak, the needful.

Here, the boy’s deluded people prove no trouble at all,

filing from wooden huts ranged like inland galleys,

to incinerators smoking in the German forest.

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Teaching Dannie Abse’s ‘Two For Joy’ (2010)

I first became aware of Dannie Abse’s work in 1986 when he and his wife, Joan, were editing Voices in the Gallery,  a sumptuous anthology of poems about paintings for the Tate Gallery. To my astonished delight, they accepted ‘At The National Gallery’, an early poem of mine about Gerrit van Honthorst’s ‘Christ Before the High Priest’ which later appeared in Beneath Tremendous Rain (1990). Our paths continued to cross around the London poetry scene, especially at (usually fraught) Poetry Society Council meetings in the 1990s. A couple of years ago he visited the College where I work and happily discussed his poems with students. His death in September 2014 was such a sad loss.

With the New Year we are again teaching Dannie Abse’s collection Two for Joy (http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/0091931177/karelsoftw-21). But with the changes to A Levels being hurried in from September 2015, this will be the last time we work on this book (for AS Level Coursework) though it has proved a joy to teach. This is perhaps a surprise given its subject matter.

The book is a compilation of work from several years focused on Abse’s relationship with Joan, his wife (herself a writer, editor and acclaimed art historian). It was published a couple of years after The Presence (http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/0099531860/karelsoftw-21), a memoir completed in response to Joan’s tragic death in a car accident in 2005. ‘Two for Joy’, of course, alludes to the old country saying, cited on seeing magpies: one for sorrow, two for joy. The poems in the collection evoke both sides of this cryptic saw, from the early joys of young love to the sorrowing widower more than 50 years later.

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In terms of teaching and coursework the book’s focus is so intense, powerful and yet varied that the material always goes down very well with students and enables them to write confidently about ‘the collection’ (one of the Assessment Objectives). We might start with the simplicity of ‘Condensation on a Windowpane’ where the aging narrator inscribes his and his lover’s names on the wet windowpane because he wants to write “something simple as pure water”. Yet even water, further considered, is complicated, “like steam, like ice, like clouds”. This plainness of address and nakedness of emotion is immediately engaging but Abse is really flagging up the collection’s main themes of love and time as, eventually, the words fade, dribbling down the glass: “They weep as they vanish”.

Or what better way (I mean appalling way) to gain students’ attention than this opening quatrain of ‘Lachrymae’:

I crawled from the noise of the upturned car

And the silence in the dark began to grow.

I called out her name again and again

To where neither words nor love could go.

This little sequence of poems like tear drops is set after Joan’s death and delicately re-visits a few scenes from married life, only to end with the narrator walking in solitude beside the Hampstead ponds, “where a lone swan sings / without a sound”.

An earlier poem ‘A Night Out’ records a visit the couple made to the Academy cinema in Oxford Street in the 1950s. As a Welsh Jew in London, courting and marrying a gentile, there are plenty of moments in these poems where the unconventional couple have to confront the narrow-mindedness and bigotry of the 1950s and early 1960s: anti-Semitism in ‘A Marriage’; general moral strictures in ‘Two for Joy’. On the occasion of the cinema visit, Abse’s cultural background is significant as they watch a fictionalised account of the Holocaust: “images of Auschwitz, almost authentic, the human obscenity in close-up” so much that “we forgot the barbed wire / was but a prop [. . . ] those striped victims merely actors”. Afterwards, the couple are stunned by what they have seen, sitting in a “bored espresso bar”. Gathering themselves at last, they return home to a German au pair girl, their own children safely asleep upstairs:

Reassured, together we climbed the stairs,

undressed together, and naked together,

in the dark, in the marital bed, made love.

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Abse’s technical skill with plain language is on full show in such lines and the class might have debates about how far individual love is shown to counter, compensate, or merely distract from world horrors. In a 1980 essay called ‘Rhyme’ (collected in Dannie Abse: a Sourcebook, ed. Cary Archard: http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/1854115073/karelsoftw-21) Abse has commented on this poem and presenting students with his observations has often proved to be a moment when sceptics about the deliberateness of a writer’s choices can be converted. He compares ‘A Night Out’ with ‘In Llandough Hospital’ arguing that the charge of emotion from the film was so powerful that he “did not want to make any pretty artifice out of it. I did not want to be lyrical about such a theme. I wanted to be as truthful as possible, to avoid all kinds of artificiality, to say what I felt and to say it plainly. I wanted the verisimilitude of prose”.

The period of the Cold War is briefly evoked at the end of ‘A Scene from Married Life’ in contrast to the “few and brief” cold wars of the couple’s marital rows. Set in Abse’s beloved Ogmore-by-the-Sea in South Glamorgan, after a petty squabble, the narrator metamorphoses into a monster of self-pity and suicidal thoughts. The poem cleverly balances the two perspectives of the over-dramatising, younger self with a more ironic, mature judgment. It’s only at the end with the appearance of Joan on the cliff top (surely an echo Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Voice, with Emma in her ‘sky blue gown’) that the faux-suicide relents:

On the high cliff my wife dressed in blue and all

The best of the world true and desirable.

With surrendering waves I crawled back to the shore.

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Such humour, often in self-mockery is never far from Abse’s work. The darker side of grief is evoked in the image of blood-stained petals falling in ‘Magnolia’ (“bridal branches slowly violated”) but most powerfully in ‘The Revisit’ which again works the rich seam of two periods of life knotted together. A beautiful lake scene enjoyed together is re-vised by the lonely widower into an apocalyptic vision, with the sun-set now evocative of “Angel wars. Such April bloodshed!” Though there are more consolatory poems in the book, where time the healer is seen to begin its work, ‘The Revisit’ shocks in its blunt confrontation with grief and on this occasion Abse’s use of poetical devices, the abundant skill of the artist, only serves to emphasise the helplessness of the man:

The gradual distance between two stars is night.

Ago, love, we made love till dark was bright.

Now without you dark is darker still and infinite

It would be a shame indeed if, in the mean-spirited, ever-narrowing criteria of the new A Level specifications, a collection such as this one could not continue to find a place. Dannie Abse’s website is at: http://www.dannieabse.com/.

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Old Stokes’ Garden Nursery 1970 – 2014

An interruption to blog-casting over the last couple of weeks as I’ve been away from the desk, here and there, partly in Wiltshire visiting my 90-year old parents.

I’ve long understood that one of my triggers as a writer is the simple disparity between ‘then’ and ‘now’. I have grown convinced that an individual’s mental health is partly dependent on the free flow of thoughts and feelings between personal present and past, the integration of personality, a sense of coherence, or organic change, over time. There has been a good deal of research recently on the idea of nostalgia as a healing force (hence some of these dips into autobiographical mode) and I’d like to talk more about that sometime. But for today, while staying in Wiltshire, I came face to face with a pretty powerful example of this disparity between past and present. Here it is:

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OK – it’s not much to look at, but this is the final route of the Hilperton Relief Road, designed to take traffic away from the village where I grew up in Wiltshire. My father has been praying for this to happen for years, convinced the thundering, articulated transports that pass the house originate solely from ‘the Continent’. It’s true they do have to manoeuvre through the village itself, but the route cuts across green fields just a stone’s throw from the little village church of St Michael and All Angels, fields where I’d mooch about as a kid with friends from the self-build estate of Marshmead.

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So a personal wound to my memory – but also an ecological blow to the rural area. Within a few years – though the local authority currently denies this – the meadows surrounding this new road will be filled in with houses and the ghastly sprawl of Trowbridge town will engulf another village. More lucrative land for developers is the prime motivation for building the road after all these years. More personally, on the bulldozed soil in the first photograph once stood a few ramshackle buildings, little more than large garden sheds and fogged, filthy-windowed greenhouses. This was the site of Stokes’ Garden Nursery where I worked a few hours a week at the start of the 1970s.

Stokes’ Nursery is on the left at the far end of Horse Road as you head into town. I cycle along there one Sunday and find Old Stokes out in the open, moving up and down the sunlit rows of chrysanthemums, lifting the still-tight flower heads to examine them, pinching off a browned leaf here and there. It appeals to me – the money and the work.

The following Sunday, on my first morning, he musters a smile of sorts in greeting. He is bent with age, rather hump-backed and moves with a limp. His head is small and round, a few wisps of grey hair, and he purses his lips so that in speaking there is a faint lisp. But he doesn’t often speak and I like that.

I begin reliably turning up and taking his cash, at first just Sundays then Saturday mornings as well. I find myself beginning to identify with him in little ways. His wife is invisible. Their detached house is set off to one side of the grounds where he has several glass houses and outdoor growing areas. The house always appears deserted, with the curtains closed for the most part. Nothing moves or changes. No-one sees her. Old Stokes never talks about her. I never ask. She suffers from agoraphobia, or so my Mum tells me.

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One morning, he leads me through the rickety door of the main glasshouse into its humid, stuffy other world, reeking of compost, plant rot, fertilizer, cell division. “Pricking out”, he murmurs and I wonder if I have heard him right. At an earthy metal bench, backed with a window so filthy nothing can be seen but a fuzz of sunlight, we stand side by side and he shows me what to do. The seedlings are new-grown in their first trays and each has to be gently teased out of the loose soil and away from its clinging companions. Then each spindly seedling, green leafed, pale-stemmed, white-rooted, is tucked into a new hole (drilled by the ‘dibber’) in a newly prepared tray. Pricking out is boring and brainless. It’s not something I am unhappy doing, bearing in mind I am getting paid a few shillings – after February 1971, thirty or forty pence – to do so.

But I prefer watering; lugging the python-like, yellow hoses up and down the glass house aisles, pulling the trigger on the hose attachment and spraying water everywhere, dampening the already humid atmosphere. Soon I am promoted to patrolling the rows of vigorous chrysanthemums, lifting the heavy weights of the flower heads, picking out ear-wigs where I find them, dispatching them with a curt rolling of my thumb and finger. Crouching down between the rows, I disappear completely from the view of anybody passing along Horse Road. Crouched there, I am in a manageable jungle, happy to be alone, often bringing my family’s old blue transistor radio with me, listening to Noel Edmonds (from October 1971), his Sunday morning slot from 10-12. His kind of drippy folk-rock is (I’m afraid) what I like to listen to and David Gate’s songs like ‘Diary’ and ‘Baby I’m-a want you’. McCartney’s first solo album is being played. Cat Stevens has released ‘Tea for the Tillerman’ the year before and ‘Teazer and the Firecat’ in the autumn.

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Twenty years later, in my first book from Enitharmon Press, Beneath Tremendous Rain, I published a triptych of poems about Old Stokes, his wife and the boy working for them. Here are the two best ones:

The Nurseryman

See how my wife hasn’t bothered to open

the curtains. It’s three o’clock. She must be bad.

She thinks I don’t know what it costs her

to steal a glance at me outside, to brave

these fifty feet of open space, her weak legs

trembling with terror, sick in her belly,

knotting ever closer round her poor heart . . .

I’ll cut some chrysanthemums to please her.

My flowers always please her.

Years ago she’d tell me how it felt.

She’d say a bulb will sometimes come up blind

no matter how carefully you’ve set it down.

It’s the way of plants. There’s no cure at all.

But it’s not only her. Still poor as Adam,

there’s just one thing I have that’s in demand

and it’s not right that a man who’s spent life

tending soil into flower should gain nothing

but a touch for dressing death in glad rags

with some careful blooms on a wire frame . . .

I’ve found a natural talent for wreathes.

My one extravagance:  that I can charge

higher prices than most and though Christmas

is a boon (when my great medals hang on

many bolted doors), yet it’s the year-round trade

in bereavement that keeps this place afloat.

I’d plans once. A shop, new green-houses, a son.

Now I’m forced to take on a series of young lads

who help me out. They’re all more or less sullen.

This one’s so quiet, although he chats to girls

across the hedge, as they all have done –

all playing the working-man, hands dirtied,

with the jangle of my money in their pockets.

This one trails his radio around all day long

as if he can’t stand the sound of himself.

Doesn’t work hard. See where he goes now,

slipping down beside the sheds. No radio today.

Well, he’s happy enough on one-fifty an hour . . .

I must cut some chrysanthemums to please her.

The Wife

I sit beside my beautiful maidenhair fern.

It likes my darkness, is dank, spreads slowly.

I count my books, silent on their long shelves.

I’m dying of pure old age, not experience.

I was not always so understanding – accusations

and resentment shouted him into the garden.

We have not given each other all we’d hoped.

I name children, true pleasure, company . . .

I’ve felt such horror at what lies beyond

the window, where even clothes on the line,

blown by an uncontrollable wind, cardigans

undone and swept open, slacks kicked wide

are too much to bear. He has devoted himself

too much to the fertility of row upon row

of plants and had less and less for me.

But we’re past the allotment of blame.

For years, he’d bring chrysanthemums

to me and watch like a child while I shook

earwigs in the sink, flushed them out of sight.

An absurd ritual I long for, absurdly,

since it ended these past four or five years

before the hedge was removed to make beds

of carnation. And we’ve no boys now –

as if a supply-line had suddenly gone dry.

Don’t parents have children nowadays?

They all blur into one – that particular one

who left quickly. Why do I think of him?

He’s forgotten me. Does he have a wife?

And a child? I remember descending the stairs,

past the grave-quiet telephone, with a jug

of water in my hand. I thought I heard

one of the cats, opened a sliver of curtain.

I would do this all over again . . .

See the boy slumped against the shed

legs crooked and splayed, one hand flickering

on his belly as if dealing a deck of cards –

but with such unrestrained violence.

He saw me. Gave the look of one who has been

interrupted – annoyance, much more than

the guilt I’d expect. I dropped the curtain,

then wanted to open it again – and it’s that

which fills me now when I think of ‘life’

and then I see myself – the dry, pressed flower

I found once in a borrowed library book,

squeezed out now, frightened of the light.