(from The Examined Life)
It’s like a Sunday outing to the Downs –
a batsman strolling out on Shamley Green
as if he thinks the summer has no end;
but then the road begins to twist like a gut
and the last bend flips us into autumn –
across a ridge the school stretches the sunset
like the Thin Red Line at Balaclava.
We drive in silence through the iron gates
and park, get out, as calm as undertakers.
I can’t believe the journey’s at an end
but just starting. A bell rings like fate.
We stand, talk like friends of friends
then Dad recites the pep talk he’s rehearsed;
my ears can hardly bear each kindly phrase,
my eyes are turning to my bedroom posters,
and I wonder what my mum is doing now –
shelling peas while watching Songs of Praise?
I get a hug from Dad and watch him go;
he drives off with a grin that’s not his own
and takes my childhood home.
The Master with the Sports Car
(from The Examined Life)
A swallow left behind still lit with summer
he nested in our wintry school
and warmed us with his tales of Rive Gauche glamour,
Sorbonne in ’68, Truffaut, Sartre;
his sideburns, Chelsea Boots and Romeo curls
curdled the smiles of all the war-time masters –
curriculum could never clip his wings
and we were glad he didn’t stay for long
afraid he’d lose the scent of foreign things
and turn into … a teacher after all.
Better to picture him in Kentish lanes
roof down, low slung, speeding to the Channel,
to see his sunglassed eyes and mirrored glance
at poplars streaming back through wine-dark France.
Senior Dormitory: Monday Morning
(from The Examined Life)
is crouching down and whispering in my ear
suspiciously benign: ‘You awake, James?
You’ll never guess – I’ve got you out of Latin,
I’ve settled it with Neggers, you’re in the clear.’
He knows how much I’m dying to believe him;
I dread that class and now he’s seized his chance:
‘Relax, I’ll run your bath and get hot towels …’
I close my eyes. I’m gone. And he’s relentless:
‘But first I’ll bring the croissants, café au lait,
and then perhaps a fat hand-rolled Gauloise?’
I dream of sky-blue France, of St. Tropez
and float in heaven … till I hear the bell
and Jonesy’s chuckle fading into hell.
(from the Oratory of Light, after the Irish)
Lord, in dream I cross
The vast grey ocean
Rolling through waves and troughs
To sweetest Ireland.
And as my boat arrives
The seagulls scream
Their welcome in the skies,
Rejoicing that I’m home.
Gliding on Lough Foyle
With swans to serenade me
At last I find my soul
On Mount Binevenagh.
By the abbey of Durrow
The elms are whispering …
And in the startle of a flurry
A blackbird sings.
At dawn in Ross Grencha
I hear the stags; and cuckoos
At the tremble of summer
echoes through the woods.
The Journey East
The car revving up, the three of us
wiping mist away to find a whiter world.
Black-ice to Clonakilty –
cortege of cars behind a spectral hearse.
Strings of lights in Bandon, sapphire-cold,
and the stars are moving through the river.
On Cork’s Victorian viaduct, a train made of snow.
We steam below the River Lee.
Cork city crusts behind us;
three swans on Slatty Water; feathery ice.
The sun’s last x-ray radiates the trees.
Lights turn red in Castlemartyr.
Diesel-slush road. Across the Blackwater
Waterford has drifted white.
Inching mile by mile – through Iceland? Greenland?
Wexford, another country.
Dungarvan’s glittery square:
each shop an advent calendar window.
Beyond the Suir bridge the dark returns …
but angels are alighting on New Ross.
Rosslare night; chalet on a ghostly estate.
Sound of wind in chimney.
Dawn ferry, sudden vibrations –
propellers churn the sea to snow.
The swell-swing up and down and up –
O let the voyage finish now, and grant us solid earth.
From Pembroke Wales unfolds in white;
a postbox in a wall, red as a berry.
Below the Severn bridge –
water turned to bone!
The Somerset Levels, crisp and even;
the motorway accelerates the dark.
The night re-icing the Yeovil road –
not now, not now we’re nearly there.
Cattistock lumped with snow;
wood incense, curtains edged with gold.
A house on Duck Street:
an outdoor light – a star that’s stopped overhead.
Angels and Harvesters
(from Angels and Harvesters)
As thoughts arrive
From god knows where,
Or sun breaks through
A fraying cloud
Emboldening a patch
Of trees, or grass,
They just appeared
Among the harvesters
The field a world
Of cutting, gathering,
Their outlines sometimes
They walked between
The bending figures
Pausing to watch,
The world they’d left,
Amused to see
The same things done.
They moved around
Unseen by all –
Unless one glimpsed,
Perhaps, light thicken,
A glassy movement,
As air can wobble
On summer days.
And then they went
Walked into nothing
Just left the world
Unless it was
The swish of scythes
The swish of scythes
The Monastic Star-timetable
‘On the holy night of Christmas
When you see the Dragon above the dormitory
And Orion poised above the chapel roof
Prepare yourself to sound the bell.’
Darkness freezes round me in the cloister.
The vellum words and stars inflict their patterns
Whispering like the ceaseless prayers we send to God.
No one must lie asleep who must protect the world.
‘On the festival of Saint Germanus
Look for the jewel of the Archer’s arrow
Hanging above the middle of the tower:
That is when to start the night-time hymns.’
The stars are our seasons, the keys of our prison:
Winter snowfall, glittery scatterings of spring rain
The globes of poppies in the harvest fields
The dying meteors of copper beech, oak and elder.
‘On the Lord’s circumcision
When the bright star in the knee of Artophilax
Is level with the corner of the dormitory
It is time to bring the taper to the lamps.’
The thrill of live flame! A writhing spirit,
The chapel like a soul skinned with gold,
This is the light I seek beyond the constellations;
O lux aeterna, burn off my crusted life!
‘On the feast of our beloved Saint Agnes
When you see the Virgin’s spears rising clear
Above the space between the sixth and seventh windows
Make ready for the sacred office.’
I dread nights of fog, mist, vapours, cloud
The clinging absence, the separation from God.
Lord, how long before a star expands inside me
Flooding my soul and flesh with gracious light?
‘On the feast day of Saint Clement
Orion will rise above the end of the refectory –
But wait until you see the sword and scrabbard
Before you wake the brethren.’
So many nights I’ve waited for eternity
Listening for music, looking for meaning,
But all I’ve felt is the dark between the stars,
My heart, beating like a bell, the phrases of mortality.
Cranborne Woods (17 May, 1994)
For my mother
We stopped the car, ducked below the fence
Felt time unravelling in a revelation
The seconds fall and scatter into thousands
Of tiny saints, a reborn multitude
Flowing past the trees, through pools of sun,
Each earthly form a spirit flame, pure blue.
They watched us drift among them, large as gods,
As if we’d come as part of their parousia
To stay with them forever in these woods.
As time grew darker we slipped away like ghosts
And slowly drove...towards your death next May
When once again I saw the risen host
Could watch you walking weightlessly among
The welcomers, the gently swaying throng.
(from ‘The Frame of Furnace Light’, in The Monk’s Dream)
For my father
It was the third day after he was dead
His body yet to be consigned to fire
We were marooned in limbo, as becalmed
As the endless days of summer rolling by
Turning to ash the surface soils of Wiltshire
And shrinking the chalk streams of our valley.
That evening we stood on Pepperbox Hill
Gazing at fields embalmed in golden heat
And there, as if cut from the corn, a circle.
We walked down and picked our way through rows
Towards the solar disc burning in the wheat
And crossed the threshold of the temenos
Entering the benediction of the stasis
The heart of the sun, whirling, motionless.
A Vision of Comets
(from A Vision of Comets)
The flight was delayed.
Outside, the night sky was clear
And the land that had received the sun all day
Now slept in silence.
It could have been a Greek island
Or the new land of America.
He was returning home, for good, or for bad,
And the welter of accumulated memories
And friendships loomed up from the pit
Of his stomach in sudden queasy waves.
Time ticked on and passengers sat in rows
Under the flickerings of neon
Slowly numbing themselves to the worry
Of wondering when the flight would flash up.
Eventually, sunk in the midst of
Painful feelings of regret and loss
A sense of peace overtook him
An inner inexplicable assurance
That his journey home was right.
He felt suddenly at ease and, turning round,
Saw people rising as one from their seats
Quickly assembling their luggage and moving
Towards the gate for their departure.
He went back against the flow to find his bags
And say goodbye to those who had been his intimates.
But as he made his way to where he’d been
He saw what seemed to be starry darkness –
As if the wall had melted away –
And people vanishing into the fringes of his eyes.
He somehow knew the young man who stood there.
It must have been outside for the darkness
Stretched around, sealing the horizons.
He approached the man, who pointed to the sky
And there, igniting the dark in golden sprays,
Eight glowing comets moved softly through the night
Slowly rising, turning, dipping, gliding
Like gilded dolphins hooping through a sea of blue.
Their tails, from which auras of sparkle
Would fizz and fade, were interwoven and moving
As if guided by an intelligence
As if the comets were on the kite strings controlled
By this young man as he moved his hands.
Then the comets began dissolving –
Yet their particles realigned and coalesced
Into luminous strokes with dots and squiggles –
And he realised they were giant words of Hebrew,
That they were telling him what his purpose was,
What his mission was on earth.
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