Archive for May, 2010



'Fevrier' from Les Tres Riche Heures du Duc De Berry

'Février' from Les Tres Riche Heures du Duc De Berry



We are rather formally attired

for country pursuits in the ducal woods;


me with a tie and you, I uncover,

with white suspenders and matching knickers.


Intimate stranger, forever touching

for your least kindness, forever surprising;


unpredictable as light, you bring

my heart from hiding again and again!


Earth warms. Ice melts. Seas rise. And nothing,

everything changes. Each day, we marvel.


Still flowering, for our wintry birthdays,

are fuchsias, geraniums, a rose.


As the tide turns, we watch snow drifting

landward over fields, woods, hilltops.


We turn for home – and, in the dark border

beneath the ivy, find the first snowdrop.


Our camellia flowers: hardy, exotic.

Palaces are stormed. Governments fall.


Somewhere the wind is always blowing.

We make our house tight against all weathers.


A solitary swift arrives, gliding,

banking, silent. Our daughter is born.


And verdant England is replete with bird song,

with that hushed stirring, that old, old promise.




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Built well before the Mahdi sacked Khartoum,

like a ledger or the Church of England

our house is square, accommodating. Swifts,

each May, pronounce their southern benison

on ashlar cornerstones and dead masons…

A butterfly, lost in the wintry cellar,

seems closed as death but wings part knowingly.

O peacock eyes, how you seduce from purpose

and time! Imperial birds cry harshly

in paper gardens… At dusk, in indigo,

swifts dissolve. The house is white, seems solid

as a steamship. Darwin and Marx sent more

than smoke up the funnel.




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The Assassin

The Assassin

Lucheni had waited all day in the pines

above the lake. When she passed, he begged.

Her equerry dismissed him. As always,

self-absorbed, she saw nothing: an anarchist

with a grand and personal design.

On the quayside at Geneva, a week

later, Lucheni, the labourer,

stabbed Elizabeth, Empress of Austria,

with a homemade knife. Her husband foresaw,

like her assassin, anarchy: armies

entrenching in Bohemia; riders

galloping from Buda; at the Hofburg,

Jews and republicans!

The Crown Prince

The Crown Prince

The Empress and her only son discovered

the twentieth century. Rudolf

was cavalry and a liberal. ‘After

a long period of sickness,’ he wrote,

‘a wholly new Europe will arise

and bloom.’ Father misunderstood him.

At Mayerling, Rudolf shot Marie Vetsera

and then himself. Elizabeth travelled

from grief or disillusion: obsessive,

dilettante, naive and beautiful.

They died before their time, believing

their neuroses symptoms of the age, the world’s

contours shaped like their hearts.

The Empress

The Empress

On Corfu, she built The Achillean,

a kitsch imitation of the attic.

She peopled the palace’s emptiness

with statues of soldiers and poets –

like Heine, her favourite. “Another

subversive Jew!” the Emperor observed.

‘Ich hatte einst ein schones Vaterland.’

The Dying Achilles, nude except for

his helmet, was turned to face the north – Berlin

Vienna, Sarajevo. After

her death, the Kaiser bought the palace,

sold off Heine and replaced her Achilles

with his, The Victorious.

The Emperor

Franz Josef, Emperor of Austria,

King of Jerusalem, Duke of Auschwitz,

wore, on his wedding night, dress uniform.

He signed his letters to Elizabeth,

‘Your lonely manikin.’ After he had read

the telegram informing him of her death,

“No one knows,” he said, “how much we loved

each other.” ‘Es traumte mir von einer

Sommernacht.’ Across the darkening straits,

lamps are lit on the Balkan mainland.

On the empty terrace, a march or perhaps

a waltz wheezes from the orchestrion.

Fireflies blink with passion.

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The high windows caught the sky, varicose,

livid. The house was empty, unlived-in.

He hurried down wide paths strewn with rose petals,

wind-culled and faded. He searched borders,

bushes, her features imaged and snared in shapes

of angled branch and thorn, an orange sun

searing gun-metal clouds, the fountain sprouting

papery leaves, its bronze boy greening alone.

Ivy’s grasp crumbled artifice, obscured

the basin inscribed with a sonnet.

Soughing of breath or the wind in the arbour

summoned him into its close. She was there.

Her brow on the cold pane, she saw the fire’s

mirror – then looked suddenly beyond

to examine a shape falling slowly:

a leaf, a bird, a dark star, sharpening

from blur through disc to pentangle

becoming – a man. Not the imagined

scream, the body’s slump on the terrace,

servants running towards the now headless corpse

but the incomplete moment was memorised,

the continuous present, choosing, longing:

a stranger falling to earth, without

history or songs but with infinite

consequences now not quite beginning.

The house lay far behind; through snow that flurried

eyes, rain that haled the flesh, hopelessness

choking like marsh light; through smoke from burning

stands of silver birch, a bitter smoke

that crackled forth like speech and swathed the head that

sang where it had fallen, sang finely,

like grasses or a stream, of hills as smooth as

limbs, of forests deep as memory,

of golden-helmeted horsemen cantering

eastwards over soft, wordless floors – one carrying,

by its black hair, a head scattering

blood like roses and sublimely singing.

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A nor’ easterly blew – over Dutchman Bank –

on the front at Beaumaris, so we had

our chips, fish and mushy peas in the Vectra,

watching the ebb tide slowly, slowly expose

the furrowed gold of the Lavan Sands

and the cormorants and oyster catchers

skim the waves, when, suddenly, a herring gull,

that voracious omnivore, that frequenter

of rubbish tips and landfills – the colours

of its plumage pristine, as if painted –

landed on our bonnet and, not six feet

from a town council notice forbidding

the feeding of said beasts, watched us eat

each pea, chip, fish flake and morsel of batter –

meanwhile blocking the view – and then buggered off!


Note: this piece has been subsequently published in ‘A Jar of Sticklebacks’ –





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