Two

 

40. My kith and my kinfolk, a full century away
From the clerks on stools in a gas-flared light
Flat-spreading to ledgers where, propped up late,
They toil on in Clerkenwell under a sky,
                Gothic and muddy, with a heavy breath,

Pregnant with soot, with wetness, with
Smells of frying and of lunch in boxes,
The air spitted, then fraying with the sound of taxis:
Sticky, unending, like the rough-cut cloth
                On which they are printed, all of a piece.

High on the skyline, tilting place to place,
Bundles of the elements and piebald at evening
With a vast inner longing, and the horse plumes waving
As they came in their wagons and took by force
                Chattels of the landlord and minor gentry.

There is a family of mine in the midwest country
That held fiefed possessions before the Normans came.
A good name among many in that broken time,
A blur at this distance, hardly an entry,
                But a start, an event, an erstwhile home.

For a century or so, till that Doomsday time
Ushered in records, and their rendezvous
Became the thickness of night in the flinty shires —
Segregating into the 'us' and 'them',
                Small, a contagion, and running on

To woods and high pastures. Not a vigorous clan,
Not breeding that much, a tight-fisted lot —
Unminded, distrustful, bristling, yet
Seamless as weather or the wind to the vane
                Advancing, scattering and in retreat.

Sometimes in summer at the fall of night,
When doorways are open and the warmth spills out
There brims such a crinoline, such complexioned thought
That yours was the feminine, that this or naught
                Was the yielding to tumult beyond all want.

There are thigh bones, their sockets, the nodular flint —
Indomitable, incalculable but always large.
That builds up the wall and the bedroom ledge
Roughcast but solid, though the dream is spent:
                The breath we remember and the going under.

And then there is nothing but the evening's tinder,
A tree that burns red, the brushed hedgerows cut
With a circular, flaring, incandescent light
That makes the heart darkness, the memory blonder
                Under teachers, with schoolbooks, a forgotten aegis.

Only at evening when the shutters in pages
Close on the day and the wide sky glitters
With a thousand sharp points, and the leaves in tatters
Are waving, long-gloved, and the far wood smudges
                With the returning, red-brown, of the autumn tide,
 
50.Does the fox sniff the fields for the sharp days ahead?
The badger has its scratchings, the letheret twitches
At the first chill of winter, and by it hatches
Windings of straw, in warm burrows conveyed
                To the new world at springtime, where soft green grass

Is fattened, thick-planted, where the wet stones hiss
In the sunlight, and even the rain-doused air
Breaks open with a lucence, and the mud-caked fur
Is cast off in patches, and the mottled sky
                Patterns with storm-clouds and will never stop

From lifting in consort, as passion's own sap
Into April quiddities, to flagrant jest.
Who is the gambler and who the host?
Whatever the stratagem, the lattermost step
                Has hot tears only that are out of focus.

Still I go back to those unturned acres,
To the whaleback swallow over the late spring wheat,
Tousled with day's end but breathing out
A warmth, a contentment, something to hold us
                In a contour of keeping to a quiet land.

Here we began and it is here we end;
The temporary steadies to an allotted place.
The passion dissembles, dissolves, and a gentleness
At last stands proxy for the common bond
                Born out of fervour that is put away.

The grave holds the bones, and the grasping yew
Fragments what was and there is none to tell
How the lichen knits thickly in the churchyard wall
And the past days are real as they ramify
                Into us vaguely, for some remark

Which brings it all fervently, shamefully back —
That here we stood silenced, where the stand-around sights
Were bus-stops and houses, proprietary streets:
Each place where it happens has an ordinary stake
                In the past continuing until it's shut.

You did not know how the ending would hurt
Me;  you are not troubled that the caressing stairs
Still rise to your footsteps and the lightness hears
The timberwork trembling and calling out:
                'Where is that tumult and you alone?'

There are shadows in the house, and a certain line
To the curtains that crumple towards the floor.
But wait in these cisterns and you will hear,
If you listen, heart mute, to that hidden train
                That hangs on the air like a distant tune.

And this not of me, but of generation, generation
Dropping through the house like the empty rain:
Outwards and ever demurring again,
Vibrations of a bell that is pregnant to thin,
                Echoes and dustily till they tire.

60.Perhaps that comes never, not in the winter's hard stare,
In sermons of light on the stripped pine table,
In the knotting of the cold and the outside trouble:
A splinter in the glass, or a dip in the floor:
                This, the very last, in the rough-hewn stone.

Yet even on the obdurate they leave their stain.
The air in its ascensions is accursed with grief.
Imperceptibly, delicate and only if
You hold both my hands am I truly one
                As we now turn backward, for good or ill.

But then I am idling, and I know too well
How emboldened by the Downlands they journey on
In every embodiment but loved by one
Fervently, passionately, as though their fall
                Were encircled by coppice and by valley fold —

In the whole world about, in fields rough or tilled,
In the streams that come down to have of earth
A tincture of wetness, of greenness, as of shade beneath
The blueness unstitching from the thick birch wold —
                This time, this place, and ever again.

If this is old England with no sepia worked in,
Without ploughman and workmen of the heavy shires,
The waistcoats, the caps and the pinafores
Tell me as much as the history can
                Of a penny for baccy and tuppence beer.

They had nothing, were nothing but tongs in the fire
To glow briefly to life and be dull again,
Stretched to a fashion, a tough-knotted strain
Clasped to themselves and their simple fare:
                Under their heaven no embroidery.

Such then their customs, like cuckoos, now flown away,
The cottage to stones, or an old man's strolls.
Through the high-tufted meadows the tillage smells
Of flowers unentered, where the humming bee
                Must brood on no ripeness in the soft dry husks.

Shuttered as an eyelid as the laughter asks
Who will consent or be man enough
To be turned in the wind and only if
She wills it and wantons and the bright air dusks
                Her cheekbone with shadows, and the climbing breath

Enraptures the body, the shoulders, the deep cleft beneath,
The haunches with their movement, and the half-held tears
Have all the preponderance that fortune wears
Of the first time, the last time, and the tousled earth
                Swelters with desiring, and more with hope.

With the skyline around that will take its shape
From the  tough knit of turf, that the smooth limbs meet
In imagined perfection, that the phantoms at
The heart of such things are a small water stoop:
                Unruliness always and to no end.

70Afterwards I wander through a yet older land,
Past chariots or circles to just as man is:
A mere flake of flint in the feathered grass,
Palaeolithic in winter and in the wind
                Nothing, an emptiness, no recalling.

Through you I am learned in each style of dwelling,
In bridges and churches, the several enclosures,
The drift to the town and the slow erasures
Of land to rough pasture, past ditching and tilling:
                The countryside sullenly lengthening on.

What a man takes out he must put in:
As ever, the seasons insist on that.
But what will he do when the seed-corn is not
Provision, but only by his little ones eaten:
                The first of their needs but to stay alive?

I can take you to fields where the bailiff and reeve
Ruled and are silent under wind-sown grass.
Can point out the corners where the tumbled mass
Of bodies are cursing as the plague years drove
                Out their infecting multitude

To heathlands, to hilltops, to stagnant woods
There much to starve while their pastoral lord
Lolled in his dwelling, and still God's word
Hung in his gesture, and over all heads
                Popes nodded a blessing but looked askance.

What does it matter? These are greasy pence
In the largesse of a country that soon extends
Their influence to valour and the Holy Lands —
By marriage, by connivance, by a governance
                That such as man is, then so he was.

None of my namesakes had a hand in this,
Had care for the roll-calls or the noise abroad.
Theirs was the springtime and the bird-filled wood,
The summer of idling through the wind's distress,
                In the air a delighting, where nothing is

Imagined or permanent but must regress
To things as are entered, and everywhere
They are silent and inward. Yet they never tire
Of calling up witness that I give them voice:
                Speak for them urgently when they are dumb.

This is my bloodstock, this that welters or staggers,
The vastly dispossessed who are lumbering on.
Vague blots on the records, soon lost again:
Mendicants, hucksters, mere surly beggars,
                A cross in each lawsuit, who never build.

They have entered no patent: there is nothing to tell
In looks or containment of that opening voice,
Nothing of radiance in the once-dark eyes
Rounding or deepening, consumed and still
                Returning to our heartland beyond all doubts.

 

Now rewritten and published as a free ebook by Ocaso Press.

 

part one     part two    part three    part four