Friday 13 September 2013

Sarah Maguire's 'Almost the Equinox': "Wondering at the River and the City and the Stars"

Anchor on the Thames by hozinja. Used under Creative Commons license

and the Thames so emptied of current
it shows bare flanks of sand. Beige sand. A beach.
The sudden vertigo of hardness when we're cupped
over the walls of the Embankment
examining the strange cream stones below,
driftwood, bottle-tops, crockery, one sodden boot.
And the slow mud opens its mouth.
Jets long departed, their con-trails fire
across the fierce blue skies, unfurling
into breath. The very last weather of a summer
spent impatient for change,
waiting for a sign, an alignment.
Beneath our feet, a hemisphere away,
the full moon tugs fluids into tides, and stops
another night in its tracks,
hours before it climbs over London -
the constant pull of elsewhere
mooring us outside ourselves. The colchicums
come naked into the early autumn air.
Bruised into mauve and purple,
their frail blooms admit the memory of harm
in their risky flight to beauty. Packed bulbs
underground harbour their secrets.
Now that we have witnessed
the flare of that ginkgo spilling up
beside St Paul's - its roots woven
deep beneath a graveyard of graves,
its slim knotted branches, sleeved
with airy, fantail leaves -
it will return to us, suddenly,
years from now. Anomalous Jurassic relic,
its origins are as ancient as these slabs
of blackening Whin-bed Portland Stone,
set here by Wren to stamp out Fire and Plague.
As a child, I climbed all the stairs
to the Whispering Gallery, laid my cheek
against the painted plaster of the dome,
and let those perfected acoustics bear my changed voice
back to myself. The huge nave
reminds you of the Great Mosque in Kabul -
sunlight falling on pillars of stone, the hushed intentness
of prayer. Shattered, war-torn, it's still standing,
somehow, next to the river by the Bridge of Bricks,
just as Wren's great dome once soared above the Blitz,
intact. Tonight, we will look up to see
Mars, that old harbinger of war, come so close to us
it rivets the southern sky with its furious,
amber flare. Sixty-thousand years ago it lit
these heavens and looked down
on ice. Next convergence, nothing will be left of us
leaning on this bridge of wires and tempered steel,
wondering at the river and the city and the stars,
here, on the last hot night before this planet tilts us
into darkness, our cold season underground.
The tide has turned, the Thames comes inching back,
drowning everything it will reveal again.
                                   for Yama
© Sarah Maguire, 2007. Reproduced by permission of the author.
I must have first read this poem about six years ago. It appeared in 2007 in Sarah Maguire's The Pomegranates of Kandahar collection, which she signed for me at the T S Eliot Prize readings at what must have been the start of 2008. I now know Sarah a little through the Poetry Translation Centre's activities, and she very kindly agreed to let me reproduce the poem.
This poem is a little like a mirror, for me. It reflects a good deal of my own thoughts and sensations about London - it has what I think of as "London truth", but I'm not sure if it's more my own perspective on the city, or the city's perspective on me (if that makes any sense at all). Since becoming a Londoner over the past eight years, I think a good deal about how the city and I, or the city and any of its residents, watch each other, and the direction of the gaze.
'Almost the Equinox' is dedicated to Yama Yari, a translator from Afghanistan. Sarah described the poem's genesis and inspirations as follows:
"The poem was written in response to a period of clement weather in early September 2003 and it records the first time I took my friend Yama Yari to St Paul's and Tate Modern. We'd met the previous March when I was in St Andrews for the StAnza Festival and he heard he read my poem 'The Pomegranates of Kandahar'. Yama was astonished that someone British might have an interest in his country and we quickly became friends. 
"The poem refers to several of my abiding obsessions, notably the tidal Thames, which is a constant source of wonder. And, of course, London itself: like all Londoners who grew up with parents who lived through the war, I have a particularly charged relationship with St Paul's which, for us, will always be a powerful symbol of resistance to fascism. The Great Mosque in Kabul also managed to survive the Afghan war lords' decimation of the city following the Soviet retreat. The leaves of the autumn crocus (Colchicum spp.) appear in the spring, create food supplies via photosynthesis and then die back into the bulb; the rather ethereal flowers come up, leafless, six months later. The Gingko biloba tree is an anomalous survivor from the Jurassic period - the same era that the Portland limestone beds, used to construct St Paul's, were being laid down. In September 2003 Mars was at its closest to the earth for 60,000 years."
I am fascinated by London's layers; for me, they mostly have to do with human history, art and architecture, all of which are present here. As well, the poet (who has trained and worked as a gardener) brings in the ancient and living natural world, the gingko by St Paul's with "its roots woven/deep beneath a graveyard of graves", and the Portland stone used by Christopher Wren to build the cathedral, in a more recent but still distant century. These are the kinds of layers that I would normally not perceive. It is a very forwards/backwards poem: "it will return to us, suddenly, years from now" - the watchers in the poem see themselves caught by this moment as memory, in future years. The poem itself becomes tidal, like the river, the way "the full moon tugs fluids into tides," and the ebb and flow of memory.
As in many of Sarah Maguire's poems, there is also an intense geographical and emotional reach. Here, it happens through the comparison of St Paul's and the Great Mosque in Kabul, which the speaker's friend has seen. London truly is a city at the centre of the world, and unlike Victoria or Dublin, the other cities which I've called home, you feel in London either as though you are on the edge of endless excitement, cultures and possibilities, or on the frontlines of the world's darkness and war. I think that this poem conjures up both, and powerfully. Mars overhead is described as "that old harbinger of war", and 2003 was of course the year of the Iraq invasion and the start of the Iraq War.
I'm glad to be able to post this poem just before this year's equinox, but I only wish that the weather this year was as described here, ten years ago. Still, I will be going to chase the sun soon enough... 


  1. Your thoughts on becoming a Londoner, and what the city might think of you, are so interesting to me: 'I think a good deal about how the city and I, or the city and any of its residents, watch each other, and the direction of the gaze.' Also your view this being a 'forwards/backwards poem' really strikes me, and this line stands out: 'The poem itself becomes tidal, like the river, the way "the full moon tugs fluids into tides," and the ebb and flow of memory.' So I want to thank you for all this, because surely these thoughts will stay with them as I apply them to situations and thoughts of my own.

    1. Thanks, as always. I'm glad it means something to you, as occasionally when I share such thoughts (or just think them) I wonder if I am crazy. :) (Perhaps not quite, but you probably know what I mean.)

      Yes, I think of London as a living organism, and a watcher. I am not quite sure if this is purely a metaphorical concept or to what degree it may be literal, but it's very real to me.

      Particularly in certain places, including a great city like London, the past, present and future seem to coexist and it's hard to see time as linear. I think T S Eliot said it best in one of the Four Quartets, 'Burnt Norton':

      Time present and time past
      Are both perhaps present in time future,
      And time future contained in time past.

  2. Absolutely. The older I get, the less I seem able to think or to experience life in linear fashion. So many people seem to assume that there must always be a beginning, middle and end to everything, but that is not how I perceive the world at all. Or, if there is an end, I tend to think of it as a joyously rediscovered, fulfilled, renewed and more gratefully experienced beginning which we thought we'd lost. And the gradually glowing advent, and then glorious bursting sunrise of dawn each day convince me that perhaps this is so. I want it to be.