Neolithic Revolution • Akhenaten • Nadab and Abihu • In Colchis • Hosea • Midas • ‘Perhaps I should have...’ • Utgardaloki • Some more lines for Bold Slasher • Salute • The summer of 1990 • Pyongyang of the white concrete • My poems are not real poems
Poet, we require you to sing of our time
as the sheep sees it or the jacketed herdsman.
We have never tracked a deer through the woods.
We have never patrolled the shore for limpets.
We have never gone out collecting sphagnum moss
to kindle a fire in the cave we were wintering in.
A charging aurochs we find simply distressing.
We protest against your employment of conventional rhythms
timed to the hoofbeats of Equus przewalskii
not to the swing of the reaper’s sickle;
and who can still be bothered to feign an interest
in your mumbled epics about fowling expeditions
that sloshed in the meres of forgettable Doggerland?
We’ve heard our fill of polite cadences
on bone clarinets from the poets of yesterday:
poet of tomorrow, the oaten reed
is the instrument that universal history has ground for you
on the unresting quern of the agricultural village.
We demand that you learn from the pristine geometry
of hedgerows, ditches, field systems,
and discover a stark unfamiliar beauty
in ripening barley that sways in the sunlight—
a vocabulary of symbols adequate to modernity
in the yearly cycles of lambing and harvest.
He should have lived much earlier
hunted big game through the shade in the valley
sung complicated songs over simple graves
when all those stories had not yet been told
and Ra only meant the sun
He should have lived much later
helped to translate the Law into Greek
dwelt in the truth within earshot of the mosque
in a hermitage in Nitria studied the unity
gone from choral evensong to dinner at Shepheard’s
but living when he did
what choice did he have
he wrote his hymn and got married to his daughter
And we all do much the same
in a world that is not quite right for us
too advanced and too backward
by some thousands of years each way
so that all of us make our compromises
sometimes not really knowing it
and carry Thebes with us even into Akhet Aten
And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took either of them his censer, and put fire therein, and put incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the LORD, which he commanded them not.
And there went out fire from the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD.
For a moment Abihu wanted to stop
when Nadab stood on the cusp of the ritual
and the sky around them curled like incense
trembled like fire
rolled into music
He looked from the scrub and the stony ground
to the celebrant drunk on the Kenite sciences
who suddenly resembled their ancestor Isaac
and he said to him softly
Nadháv my brother
there’s so much here we don’t understand
another day we can finish the experiment
it’s something at least we were prepared to try it
but Nadab answered
we’re far too close to be scared off now
and whatever the powers may devise as a penalty
those who come after will never forget us
like freedom from Egypt
We’re too clever for miracles now––and no bad thing.
Few of us make the dangerous pilgrimage East
to watch useless fire spurting from the soil
by a different sea; we care little for our grandparents’
surly leviathan gods, and the Ríoni now
runs sparkling through Colchis unfreighted with bronze and blood,
nor, in my time, has any eccentric attempted
the Fleece. Their majesties have quite given up
performing the dance that recalled the springtime to Colchis
from the cuckoo lands: they find it comes unbidden.
And their daughter Medea explores in the garden
like any child, her playthings a coloured stone,
a curving branch,—but never the moon and stars.
I expect she will not be taught the songs to calm
that old giant in the North still screaming from his rock
or the Lady of the Animals who haunts our woodland;
just as even we, the much-laughed-at ‘palace conservatives’,
admit she may never need and will never learn
more than the rudiments of the ancient sovereigns’
rigorous arts. It is not those days.
And we would, I think, be wrong to feel any nostalgia;
though it’s probably true we’ve lost as well as gained
by rejecting the wonder and dread and spectacle
of the former times as thoroughly as we have.
If I were a Hittite lieutenant of cavalry
I’d pay you elaborate formal compliments
in execrable French
I’d click my heels and
bow and my elegant
dress uniform would be gleaming with
I’d visit the shrine
before the service
watch you preparing
but all I can do
as the prophet Hosea
is call to you and tell you
call to you and tell you
that your eyes so dark I can’t see the pupils
are the waste light that glimmers
in the day that is coming
and I’m just the voice of one shouting at traffic
daughter of Diblaim
I’ll not make you happy
yet I’ve seen the taxis blown through the streets
the way they fly
in the grand cities
yes sometimes I dream of the grand cities
and the sky above them
They found him in the throne-room one morning
all bandaged in fragments and snippets of cloth-of-gold
and swearing he turns whatever he touches
to heavy, buttery metal.
The world is poisoned, he said, by my existence in it.
If I were to put my hand in the river I would break the sea.
Already the air is more thick and glinting than it should be.
With every step I take I insult the ground.
And the feeling at court is that the Man of Power is
right to be worried; there’s even some talk of a grant
(in silver) for appropriately-worded festal hymns
on this new affliction of Our Benefactor.
Perhaps I should have
hammered out a song for you
in the forgotten
from the relics of
a language spoken
by sailors, merchants,
and the priesthood of Moloch—
Tyrian chords, with
sour flashes of ore
wrenched from the quartz of
a seam worked out long ago—
like the song they sang
for Carthage fallen,
when a few peasants
stood in the light of the flames,
soldiers marched all day,
and salt stung the fields.
first published in Oxford Poetry XIV.1
and reproduced here with the editors’ permission
Through glacial ages
he was perfecting his devices,
alone among Utgard’s
vast empty places.
Season after season
he’d stand and watch
the skating of the gulls
from a desolate beach
where only a seal
lifted bodily in a wave
might stare back at him:
thus he learnt to weave
delusions from spray
and uncertainties about water
that would unhinge the senses of
Thunder and the Traitor.
Then he walked in the tundra
and it taught him long
spells to be recited,
brief charms to be sung;
and the clatter of the wind
in the bare oaks
of the Utgard forest
He made night last all winter
and day all summer;
he taught the sky
to dance and shimmer;
and, even now, journeying
in those lonely roads,
people glimpse things they can’t
quite fit into words,
things that slip between the trees—
and these are what remains
of his early illusions,
that he mastered fully,
then, growing bored,
left to run back down to nature
in the depths of the wood
while he was improving
more difficult skills,
more exacting mysteries,
to help him make fools
of the shining audience
he knew would appear.
And it happened, once:
and his lissom companions
the Utgard line
under the whispering mass
of canopied branches,
and Utgard’s man met
the venturesome gods
with a display of his art.
The performance he gave them
was restrained and classic:
nothing tawdry or dazzling,
just elegant basic
substitutions and glamours
and afterwards, to finish,
a faultlessly executed
For a while he listened
as Beardie and his men
wandered off grumbling
at being taken in:
and then he was alone
with his learning and his leisure
in the measureless space
of the Outer Enclosure.
So he just gets to hop back up, that man that I done in?
I know he’s your man, fair enough, you wanted him to win:
but I come here, the same as him, to fight him fair and square;
I fought him fair and he went down, you seen him lying there.
Here, doc, just tell me what you done to bring the bugger back.
You all know what he needed was the parson, not the quack.
Fine, you lot, laugh, ‘Bold Slasher’s scared’: I wasn’t scared of him.
But now his mouth is black with blood, his eyes are sunk and grim;
all stiff he stands and deathly, and his face is grey as lead:
I’ve beaten bigger men than him; I’ve never fought the dead.
I fought old Dan at Baker’s farm who’d felled a hundred men:
when strong Bold Slasher knocked him down he di’n’t get up again.
I fought a giant at a fair, stood eight or nine foot high:
but brave Bold Slasher climbs a tree and stabs him in the eye.
I fought three brothers all at once; Jack Finney bet I’d lose:
but you’re the one lost that day, Jack, I never got a bruise.
I’m not a clever talker—ask the folk down our way;
‘Bold Slasher, slow old basher,’ that’s the kind of thing they say;
but can’t you see that what your doctor done just isn’t right?
You keep your prize, if that’s the thing—I’m calling off the fight.
And tell me this: what makes you think that dead thing’s on your side?
What makes you think that what’s come back’s the same as what just died?
And when he’s done with me, what then? Who knows what he might do?
Get back, you body: like I’ve said, I will not fight with you.
He won’t get back, he still comes on, he means to do me ill:
so here goes doomed Bold Slasher, that a dead man’s going to kill.
So it was really only to be expected that we,
who have never found it easy to decide between
the village commune and the universal Republic,
should have come at last to those tall blue volumes:
the works of Marr.
And in truth it’s a glorious thing to be able to trace
the curlicued fancies of nature back
to any their four fundamental units—
earth air fire water, say, or
adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine,
or, yes, the four
SAL, BER, YON, and ROSH.
SAL is a sail of sullen sable you saw on the sea of the soul.
BER is a bird borne by on the breeze when the borough was brittened and burned.
YON is iron and you and I and the yonder for which we yearned.
ROSH is the rushes’ irrational rustle between the shore and the shoal.
How to knot primordial
vocables into charms—
that, at least, we might learn
from this old grammarian and mystery-monger,
the founder of the New
Teaching on Language,
who was criticized after his death
in an essay of Stalin’s.
The summer of 1990: we’d turned out for what proved the last
Revolution Day parade
Under the gloating new signs that said TRAFALGAR SQUARE
(We didn’t call it that)
And for the last time the marching band of the People’s Army
Played the old anthems
So the windows all rattled in McDonald’s and the
Teenagers were silenced
And as always the procession ended with the Internationale
Like the partisans sang
In the woods and the hills and in Hitler and Edward’s prisons
And as always when they got to the line about ‘changing
The old conditions’
They flaunted their cymbals in the air with bright ostentation
And we all cheered
Last night I dreamt I was standing
in Pyongyang of the white concrete.
The sun was a nuclear explosion
sinking towards the West,
and I thought I’d take a tram
and go rattling in search of adventures
up an empty five-lane highway
as the tangerine flame of that sunset
danced in the ripples on the Taedong.
But this morning I was puzzled and uneasy
and I looked in The Interpretation of Dreams.
And Freud was a Kremlinologist of the mind,
skilled at deducing uncertainties
and stand-up rows in committee
from accidents of ceremony or placement,
confident he knew whose face
had been airbrushed out of the photograph—
though of course what he said would always
be blankly denied, if true,
and if false could never be refuted.
Yet I don’t think the mind is always
so bureaucratic or so assured:
at times it resembles rather
a crowd scene from the Cultural Revolution
where yesterday’s proud successes
wear the dunce’s hat
and the massed brigades of Ambition
and Hope and the Fear of Death
are again bombarding the headquarters.
And it seems there are also times
when our barbed and elaborate defences
are a prison, our autonomy isolation,
and—however we cheer ourselves up
with placards and choreography and spaceshots—
the unreason of things afflicts us
in our own devices against it;
or at least I told myself so,
still troubled by what I’d dreamt
in this ninety-ninth year of Juche
when the leaves were loosening on the trees.
In case there’s any doubt, let me
take this opportunity of saying
that my poems are not real poems.
Real poems come thundering off the tragic stage,
or live as folksongs in the fields and the harbour,
or echo in the great hall to remind a drunken
warlord of famous massacres and deceptions;
but mine do none of these things.
Real poems are uniquely personal expressions
of the individual’s private desires and torments,
or (according to certain equally eminent authorities)
they are intrinsically social and give collective voice
to the struggles and dreams and disquiets of an epoch;
but mine veer between the two
or don’t really do either.
Real poems are jewels with an infinity of facets
that catch the light in different ways
as they are turned and viewed by each new reader;
but mine are built up laboriously
out of ordinary rainwashed stone
and only one interpretation is correct.