Sunday, 31 May 2015

Keith Douglas: 'The Knife'

THE KNIFE (Keith Douglas)

Can I explain this to you? Your eyes
are entrances the mouths of caves.
I issue from wonderful interiors
upon a blessed sea and a fine day,
from inside these caves I look and dream.

Your hair explicable as a waterfall
in some black liquid cooled by legend
fell across my thought in a moment
became a garment I am naked without
lines drawn across through morning and evening.

And in your body each minute I died
moving your thigh could disinter me
from a grave in a distant city:
your breasts deserted by cloth, clothed in twilight
filled me with tears, sweet cups of flesh.

Yes, to touch two fingers made us worlds
stars, waters, promontories, chaos
swooning in elements without form or time
come down through long seas among sea marvels
embracing like survivors on our islands.

This I think happened to us together
though now no shadow of it flickers in your hands
your eyes look down on ordinary streets
if I talk to you I might be a bird
with a message, a dead man, a photograph.

                                     [Wadi Natrun, October 1942]

'The Knife', published in Poetry London a few years after Keith Douglas's death, was originally dedicated to Milena Gutierrez, one of the subjects of one of his failed engagements. It has a touch of the swooning romantic which occasionally appears in his love poetry, to varied effect.

This poem has an unfinished quality (even to the extent of seeming to lack an essential word here and there), but beyond the heartfelt emotion and a few unforgettable images, it is the final stanza which really makes it special to me. Those bleak lines are so powerfully evocative of the end of a love affair, and the final lines have that cold, clear prophetic-foreshadowing quality of some of his finest poetry: "if I talk to you I might be a bird/with a message, a dead man, a photograph." 


Monday, 25 May 2015

Alun Lewis: 'Indian Day'

Birds over Gateway of India by Swaminathan. Used under Creative Commons license

INDIAN DAY (Alun Lewis)


Dawn's cold imperative compels
Bazaars and gutters to disturb
Famine's casual ugly tableaux.
Lazarus is lifted from the kerb.

The supple sweeper girl goes by
Brushing the dung of camels from the street
The daylight's silver bangles
Glitter on her naked feet.


Yellow ramtilla stiffens in the noon,
Jackals skulk among the screes,
In skinny fields the oxen shiver,
The gods have prophesied disease.

Hedges of spike and rubber, hedges of cactus,
Lawns of bougainvillea, jasmine, zinnia
Terraces of privilege and loathing,
The masterly shadows of a nightmare

Harden and grow lengthy in the drought.
The moneyed antipathetic faces
Converse in courts of pride and fountains
With ermined sleek injustices.
Gods and dacoits haunt the mountains.


The sun the thunder and the hunger grow
Extending stupidly the helds of pain
Ploughing the peasant under with his crop
Denying the great mercy of the rain

Denying what each flowering pear and lime
And every child and each embrace imply - 
The love that is imprisoned in each heart
By the famines and fortunes of the century.


Night bibles India in her wilderness
The Frontier Mail screams blazing with such terror
The russet tribesman lays aside his flute
Rigid with Time's hypnotic surging error.

The kindness of the heart lies mute
Caught in the impotence of dreams
Yet all night long the boulders sing
The timeless songs of mountain streams.

In 2015, it is one hundred years since the birth of Alun Lewis, one of the Big Three of British World War II poetry along with Keith Douglas and Sidney Keyes. Like Keith Douglas, Lewis died in 1944, while Sidney Keyes died in 1943. All were young, but at 28, Lewis lived the longest by a few years. I have written a little more about him here.

Out of the Lewis/Douglas/Keyes trio (none of whom knew each other, although Douglas and Keyes may have crossed paths), Douglas is - to me - by far the most contemporary. He wrote cold, cutting poetry which in most particulars could have been written in recent years. Lewis and Keyes were more in a backwards-looking Romantic tradition, although Keyes was so young when he died that I hesitate to say which direction he would ultimately have taken with his work.

'Indian Day' is taken from Lewis's collection Ha! Ha! Among the Trumpets, the title of which refers to the description of a war horse in the Biblical book of Job. It was published posthumously in 1945. Lewis was posted to India in 1942 and was deeply moved by the striking sights and violent poverty of the country. This was one of the poems which resulted.

'Indian Day' doesn't exactly escape cliches about the subcontinent, especially those that would have been implicated in the colonial gaze of the time. The view of the "supple sweeper girl" is a bit voyeuristic (without being particularly perceptive) and the conclusion that " imprisoned in each heart" isn't that exciting. But this is still a hugely evocative poem with unforgettable lines - "The sun the thunder and the hunger grow" and "Night bibles India in her wilderness" (the latter made me think of another Welshman, Dylan Thomas, who a few years later wrote the words "starless and bible black" in his play Under Milk Wood. The seriousness of the black-covered Bibles seems to me very evocative of nonconformist Wales.)

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Mixed Borders (2): Visiting Red Cross Garden

I visited Red Cross Garden to properly start my poetry residency just over a week ago, on an evening when the weather was only somewhat less unpleasant than it is today. Fortunately, it cleared up for most of the time I spent visiting.

Mary O'Connell, who is the Volunteering and Education Facilitator at Bankside Open Spaces Trust (which administers this garden and other green spaces around the Bankside area), gave me a thorough and interesting tour, pointing out the botany of the garden, its features past and present, and some details about the restoration. Red Cross Garden was first laid out in 1887, and along with its cottages and community hall, it was part of Octavia Hill's social housing work. She believed strongly in the importance of decent housing, access to nature and exposure to culture for disadvantaged people. The cottages are still in use as social housing, and they are charming to look at. The community hall was used for concerts and poetry readings. After the garden fell into disrepair during World War II, it was restored by Bankside Open Spaces Trust in 2005-2006, with many of its original features such as the small bandstand and wildlife pond.

I took a number of photos, some of which you can see below. There are certainly a number of possible angles for poetry - history of the garden and the area, Octavia Hill herself, the work to restore the garden, the botany, and so on. I've written one poem so far, but it is under wraps for the moment. Suffice it to say that a fictional character who has played a major role in my life walked into the garden (as it appeared in my mind after visiting), and it made sense to write about him there as I could see him so clearly.

I'm off on holiday in a couple of days, for about a week, but I will certainly be visiting the garden again soon after that, and writing some more.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Mixed Borders (1): Poet In a Garden

Alhambra gardens, Granada, Spain. Photo by Clarissa Aykroyd

I'm very pleased to say that I will be taking part in Mixed Borders, a collaboration between the Poetry School and the London Parks and Gardens Trust, where a number of the gardens taking part in the London Open Garden Squares weekend (13-14 June 2015) will be hosting poets-in-residence. You can read more about the scheme in this blog post from the Poetry School.

I've been assigned the Red Cross Garden in Southwark for my residency, which has a great depth of Victorian and social history, and just looks to be a lovely little garden in a fascinating area - I am about to go and visit it for the first time.

What will I actually be doing for my residency? Writing poetry, of course. Our opening workshop included some exercises which proved fruitful, and various inchoate garden-poem ideas are circling in my head already. I'd like to explore different angles, such as the history, the associated people (particularly the founder Octavia Hill, also one of the National Trust founders), and the interaction with the Southwark area. Botany is far, far from being an area of expertise for me, but I want to have a look, at least. On the weekend itself I should be in the garden for at least a few hours on one or both days - watch this space. I might read, I might hand out poems, I might just sit there looking moody and trying to write. All shall be revealed in time (when I figure it out.) In a somewhat-related way, I might even get back to those translations from French of Rilke's 'Rose' poems which I've been neglecting so badly.

And obviously, I have been reading poetry of the garden, including selections from Flora Poetica: The Chatto Book of Botanical Verse, edited by Sarah Maguire, who herself worked as a gardener for some years.

Further blog posts should follow soon - about the garden, the poetry and more...

Here are a couple of garden poems worth reading, from either side of the pond, by Sarah Maguire (Britain) and Louise Glück (US).

ROSEMARY (Sarah Maguire)

THE SILVER LILY (Louise Glück)