Archive for April, 2012

DEDHAM VALE REVISITED

Dedham Vale, John Constable, 1802

 

 

Dedham Vale, John Constable, 1828

 

 

September touches the Vale like a sigh,

a mellow, fruitful suspiration

edging from green to lemon, agitating

gently the skieyest leaves. The Stour

meanders to a sea of clouds vanishing

over an unimaginable Europe.

Dedham Church, a testament to wool,

focuses an especial scene: Saxon names,

corn marigolds, skylarks and enclosures.

 

After Napoleon, Peterloo and his wife’s

slow death, another canvas shows the same

landscape. New buildings exploit the river

and the church tower is luminous yet

vulnerable, not focal, to a whorl

of cumulus billowing from beyond

the horizon over dark, distressed elms.

Crouched under the overgrown bank of a lane,

the last you see of the painting, with her tent

and her cooking pot, a tramp woman

nurses a child under the tumbling sky.[1]



[1] The poem was first published in the Anglo-Welsh Review, has previously been published on this site and is one of the most visited.

 

 

 

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A SHIP OF FOOLS

The iron palace of electric light

steams into catastrophe and idiom,

a culture’s symbol of folly

and achievement.

The last, late sailing of the nineteenth century,

or the first of the next, it never arrives.

Unexpected, unheeded icebergs rise

from calm, dark seas.

The Captain loses face

and chooses death. The steerage,

having nothing to lose, gains nothing from death;

rushes from the vortex of the sinking ship

into frigid waters.

 

 

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ONLY ONE IN STEP

i

 

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave is

somehow very ‘Thirties: lots of chaps in

the dark behind high walls; much shadow-play

with unidentifiable voices;

belated, blinding suddenness of light.

The decade’s putative worthies (who all,

by the way, seem to have been chaps) go forth

unknowingly in parallel: e.g.

Hitler in Berchtesgarten, Wittgenstein

(Adolf’s erstwhile peer from Linz) in Cambridge.

Did Wittgenstein walk with Blunt, Philby,

Burgess and Maclean as the fifth man?

Meanwhile, elsewhere, at Trinity College

A.E. Housman tutored Enoch Powell: two

classicist lads from the West Midlands – and

the land of lost and wistful laddishness.

 

 

ii

 

Our Enoch – the wife’s second cousin twice

removed – although he always acted the

philosopher-king, indeed believed it,

in Parliament, in uniform, in the

groves of academe – appeared to labour,

tormented, in the dark, poor soul. Always

a solitary, he was chained to the

metaphysics of empire, protocol

and tribe: from the ‘Rivers of blood’ to ‘No

Surrender!’, preferring voluntary

exile to certain public failure. Yet,

see how, the fluent theme has become a

continuo – ‘influx’, ‘deluge’, ‘flood’, how

his acolytes have grown, like dragon’s teeth,

loquacious prisoners in Powell’s teeming,

booming cave of phantasmagoria.[1]



[1] The poem has previously been published on this site and is one of the most visited.

 

 

 

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MOST WANTED, MOST NEEDED

I

 

We know what happened to ‘the end of history’

and ‘the peace dividend’ but what will we do now

that Osama sleeps with the fishes? Gladly, there

is no shortage of men, for they do tend to be

men, for the role of bogeyman. The myth of the

ruthless, devious, almost supernaturally

efficient enemy endures, for all wars make

money for some and wars of choice – Afghanistan,

Iraq – make even more for the same some, so war

with Iran is probably, definitely not ‘if’ but ‘when’.

 

How many of us dare to publicly expose

our leaders’ new clothes, reveal courageous death and

injury under fire as pointless, immoral,

unnecessary, avoidable, in this still

bellicose and jingoistic nation with its

tinsel patriotism of drums and flags muffling,

obscuring reason – its manipulation

of so much righteous anger and genuine grief!

 

 

II

 

According to legend, Hafiz of Shiraz, Fars,

Persia – the Sufi mystic and lyric poet,

an exact contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer,

and popular still with speakers of Farsi

in Afghanistan and Iran, who learn his work

by heart as proverbs, sayings – was summoned

by Timur Leng aka Tamburlaine, who ruled

an empire that stretched from the Black Sea to China

and south from Kazakhstan to the mud flats of Sindh,

whose conquests, it is estimated, caused the deaths

of seventeen million men, women and children.

 

‘How could you prefer the mole on your lover’s cheek

to Bokhara and Samarkand, cities of gold,

the very jewels in my crown?’ questioned Tamburlaine,

making reference to one of the master’s ghazals.

‘I am profligate,’ replied Hafiz, ‘so am poor.’

The tyrant paid the poet many gold dinars

for his diplomatic wit. So let there always

be war by any other means, by doing what

we do best. The last couplet of the lyric reads:

‘O Hafiz, you have made a poem, so recite it well!

Be rewarded with the pearls of the firmament.’[1]

 

 

 

 



[1] The last two lines have been adapted from ‘TEACHINGS OF HAFIZ’ translated by Gertrude Lowthian Bell, 1897.

 

 

 

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PRIVILEGE

We take a wrong turn and are suddenly

in narrow, pot-holed streets, crammed with neglected,

industrial revolution terraces

built when the town was a thriving port.

Paint peels, curtains hang off rails, litter gathers –

in one of the most deprived wards in England.

In walking distance are blue chip companies.

Right to be here, by chance, on this 2012

Budget Day with its economics

of division, mendacity and greed.

 

Since it is also the first day of spring,

we cross the peninsula to visit

a botanical garden and its tea room.

After a lavender scone and a tiffin,

we stroll to the rock garden and sit

on our favourite bench. Coal Tits are nesting

in a sandstone wall. Some mortar has crumbled,

making a small, triangular aperture.

They perch on a nearby larch and then,

when all is well, both still and silent,

fly quickly in with a leaf or a feather,

and then out again, over and over.

 

Like flowers, we turn our faces to the sun.

We are the plump and sassy elderly.

In those or other wretched streets, some,

this winter just gone, have died of the cold.

 

 

 

 

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