Saturday, 11 April 2020

FIVE BAROQUE PLAGUE SONNETS




     


FIVE  BAROQUE  
PLAGUE  SONNETS

1 Smallpox

Science for the curious, is what it says
on the slick caption. The curious are pressed
tightly into a book, still hoping to be blessed.
Each bears a coffin at which someone prays.

Crosses, coffins and cowls determine them
according to the medieval scheme
of superstition, death and troubling dream.
It’s half cosmology, half stratagem.

Do smell them, Highness, as they struggle on.
The plague exhausts them. Science moves off stage,
just one pale rider left and one bare field

to conjure with. And soon they are all gone.
There are no options here except to yield
or else keep hoping someone turns the page.



2 Black Death

The man with broad-brimmed hat and bird-mask waits
a moment before entering. His scent
wafts by you, Highness, as presentiment
of what must follow. Watch how he operates

in his full gown. Observe how he inspects
the body, turning it here and there at distance
with his cane, meeting no resistance.
Note how he prods it. He’s the bird that pecks

at corruption. He sees the patient’s hands
are black with the usual buboes. This is all
by the script. It’s the very reason for his call.
The plague is spreading. It makes strict demands.

We watch familiar birds hovering in the air.
They will not ring the bell. Nor are we there.



3 Cholera

Everything begins somewhere. Everything is ‘here’.
Here is where the enemy starts his long
arduous campaign, launching the first spear.
He has no home, has no desire to belong

to just one place and so he moves about.
Two skeletons clench by a fetid pool,
and soon a table with a glass of stout
and cloudy water carry one to stool

another to feast. You watch a man collapse
at one point on the map, one street, and soon
everyone’s falling. Death runs from open taps

and drops from the singer’s mouth. There are few
remaining, Highness. We watch the sun at noon
rise ever higher, burning off late dew.



4 Spanish Flu

The khaki flu. The extra years of war
that is no war. From country seats to huts,
from shacks to palaces. You can’t keep score
of numbers. State by state the country shuts

its eyes and mouth and soon begins to drown.
Its skin turns blue and within hours it’s dead.
The rest wear masks and camphor. The whole town
is dream terrain, a dull street-plan of dread.

The cull is on, Your Highness.. World is thinning.
Let’s call it nature or divine constraint.
It is the way we’ve lived since the beginning.
Cover the doors in blood or chalk or paint.

That is the age-old troubled human scene.
It’s time for better drugs and quarantine.



5 Covid-19

Now here we are in quarantine, our ears
sharpened to the footsteps stalking us.
We watch the passing of the empty bus
as one more phantom carrier appears

and swerves around us grinning as he goes.
Elsewhere the poor are jammed into their rooms
to gaze from blocks that reek too much of tombs
intended for them, while the virus throws

its net across the whole estate like smoke.
Observe, Highness, how some of them remain
still poorer, and while you and I should live,

survival will be harder to forgive,
though later it might serve for a black joke,
that you, Highness, might very well explain.







Saturday, 8 February 2020

NEW BORNS














New Borns
‘Who would bring a child into this world?’

What child with foreknowledge would enter the world?
I would, said Alan,
For apples and arbutus, for apemen and alphabets,
I would enter the world.

What child with foreknowledge would enter the world?
I would, said Barbara,
For boats, bats, bells, barnacles.
Beermugs and beauty.
I would enter the world.

What child with foreknowledge would enter the world?
I would said, Catherine,
For camels and cobras, cold and curmudgeons
I would enter the world

What child with foreknowledge would enter the world?
I would, said David,
For doughnuts and dreadlocks, damsons and dogs,
Desks and deliciousness
I would enter the world

What child with foreknowledge would enter the world?
I would, said, Ellen,
For ears and elephants, eggs, earth and envelopes
I would enter the world.

What child with foreknowledge would enter the world?
I would, said Fingal.
For fruit, for featherbeds, fossils and frankincense,
Freedom and formaldehyde
I would enter the world.

What child with foreknowledge would enter the world?
I would, said Geraldine,
For gooseberries, geckos, goldfinches, gorgonzola
I would enter the world.

What child with foreknowledge would enter the world?
I would, said Helen,
For hoarfrost and hazelnut, hairdos and hedgehogs,
Hotdogs and honeycombs
I would enter the world.


What child with foreknowledge would enter the world?
I would, said Ian
For inkblots and India, ice-cream and igloos
I would enter the world.

What child with foreknowledge would enter the world?
I would, said Jennifer
For jellybeans, January, jumbucks and jeopardy,
Joysticks and Jericho
I would enter the world.

What child with foreknowledge would enter the world?
I would, said Kieran
For Kettering, kilowatts, kecks and Kilimanjaro
I would enter the world.

What child with foreknowledge would enter the world?
I would, said Lukas,
For leopards, lollipops. limericks, linseed,
Letters and longing
I would enter the world.

What child with foreknowledge would enter the world?
I would, said Marlie
For mysteries, margarine, mothers and mistletoe
I would enter the world

What child with foreknowledge would enter the world?
I would, said Natalie,
For nuggets and nougat, for night and for necklaces,
Nostrils and nostrums
I would enter the world.

What child with foreknowledge would enter the world?
I would, said Ossie
For oranges, oblongs, offside and orang-utans
I would enter the world.

What child with foreknowledge would enter the world?
I would, said Pamela
For pepper-pots, popinjays, pickle and palaces,
Penguins and porridge
I would enter the world.

What child with foreknowledge would enter the world?
I would, said Quinn,
For quadrilaterals, quails and quaint quackery
I would enter the worlds.

What child with foreknowledge would enter the world?
I would, said Richard
For rodents and rattlesnakes, roses and robots,
Reindeer and relevance
I would enter the world.

What child with foreknowledge would enter the world?
I would, said Stephanie
For Saturdays, sausages, seagulls, serendipity,
I would enter the world.

What child with foreknowledge would enter the world?
I would, said Tom,
For tenterhooks, tambourines, tablespoons, tangerines,
Toast and topography
I would enter the world.

What child with foreknowledge would enter the world?
I would, said Ursula,
For umbrellas and undergrounds, urns and Uruguay
I would enter the world

What child with foreknowledge would enter the world?
I would, said Vivienne,
For verdicts, variety, velvet and viscousness
violets and vortices
I would enter the world.

What child with foreknowledge would enter the world?
I would, said William
For woods, winds, waves, woodchucks
I would enter the world.

What child with foreknowledge would enter the world?
I would said, Xavier
For xylophones, xylographs, xiphoids and Ximenes
x-rays and xenocrysts
I would enter the world.

What child with foreknowledge would enter the world?
I would, said Yolanda
For yearlings and yesterday, yarrow and you
I would enter the world.

What child with foreknowledge would enter the world?
I would, said Zoe,
For zeniths and zithers, zeal and zoology,
Zebras and zips
I would enter the world

What child with foreknowledge would enter the world?
I would, said Al,
Bonnie, Cal, Dot, Ed, Fee, Gareth, Hattie, Imogen
Joe, Kit, Lol, Mo, Ned, Orville, Pip, Queenie
Rosemarie, Sid, Tess, Uli, Vi, Wendy,
Xi, Yann and Zero.



Wednesday, 18 December 2019

Prayer for my Daughter


Magdalen College, Oxford


Somehow or other I succeeded in leaving this poem out of the New and Collected (2008). I did not mean to, it just went missing. Then recently, when I was in Munich, the man who had invited me, Helge, said it was this poem that I had read some  fifteen years before at Cologne, that he remembered and that other people had liked so much.

Last night I read it at LUMEN, the cold weather harity in London, and one member of the audience has written to me and asked where she could find it. The answer was, 'nowhere'. But I have found it among old files, and here it is.

It was written for our daughter, Helen, just about to go up to Oxford in 1994, the year we moved to Norfolk. It refers to the Yeats poem, of course, and quotes it too, but it refers to much else. Each time I wrote one part another part demanded to be written so in the end there were seven. It was both fun and moving to write.



Prayer for my Daughter


1.
So here we are and here’s my stanza,
like a Clementi cadenza
a penny-plain extravaganza,

just to keep things neat but sprightly
in what might otherwise politely
decline into a straight unsightly

father-to-daughter patronising
advisory misadvising
lecture on vague points arising,

a Yeatsian prayer to admonish
characteristics too Maud Gonneish,
Fenian or Amazonish.


2.
My stanza’s nineteenth century capers
are out of time. I read the papers
and know the new opinion shapers,

I know their loose, sincere demotic
ironies and semiotic
quiddities, but I’m Quixotic:

though windmills are as quaint as giants,
I continue in defiance
of gravity or modern science

rhyming like a man demented
dolphin torn and gong tormented
till the giants have relented.


3.
Darling, tonight the whole horizon
closed like a lid. The traffic sighs on
rainy tarmac, men flit like flies on

jets of wind, the river fractures,
and a streetlight manufactures
a wealth of frazzled broken textures.

So beautiful: the petrol station’s
amber flatness, the quotations
of lit shopfronts, the impatience

of running clouds. The winter races
into darkness, interlaces
bodies in its breathing spaces.


4.
You see, I want to turn this patter-
song to deeper, graver matter,
more throttle more carburettor

I want to be a souped up, solemn,
portentous father, wise as Solom-
on not just a gossip column,

someone you’ll take seriously
whose works you’ll study furiously
not discard imperiously

from some theory-laden high-rise
nor swat and squash flat, wasp- or fly-wise.
but approve, applaud and lionise.


5.
Walking last night I sought an image
to offer you, a kind of homage
to the wind’s wild scrape and scrimmage,

and noticed how the very cheapest
vulgarisms struck the deepest:
the Woolworth lights, a buckled leaf pressed

to the pavement, a crisp packet
flying in the gust. I took it
home with me, to store and stack it

in memory, imagination,
to use it in some combination:
a poem finding its occasion.



6.
Some quick advice? Well just a quickie:
Beware the sentimental-sticky,
Beware the choosy and the picky,

Beware all those who talk in torrents
The snobs who earned the strict abhorrence
Of poor pale sickly D.H.Lawrence,

Beware the Oxfordly superior,
Beware those with a smooth exterior,
The cynic wiser and world-wearier,

Beware the shady and the murky,
Beware the overprecious-quirky,
Beware your father talking turkey.


7.
Out on your own. The eighteenth hurdle
safely past. The tales I’ve heard all
tend to make a man’s blood curdle,

so to the prayer (I’m feeling prayerful):
Darling be wise, be good, be careful,
be water, fire and earth and air-ful,

find images beyond the kitchen
that women used to bake and bitch in
from Halicarnassus to plain Hitchin,

may you, in darkness, be that changing
wind and light, your mind free-ranging,
sea-like, unplumbed, salt, estranging,

tender, yes, but not kid-gloving
neither too mousy, nor too shoving,
be fortunate, be loved, be loving

be all of these, be kind, far-seeing,
in short, beyond the you- and me-ing
all that befits a human being,

what human beings may be made for:
life, unearned, unknown, unpaid for,
that you were celebrated, prayed for.