Edmund Griffiths  

E d m u n d   G r i f f i t h s


Neolithic Revolution • Noah • Akhenaten • Nadab and Abihu • In Colchis • A prophet of Baal • Hosea • Midas • A.D. 100 • Fifth century • Utgardaloki • Some more lines for Bold Slasher • Salute • The summer of 1990 • Hey Nineteen Thirties When the state has withered away • My poems are not real poems

Neolithic Revolution

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.



When the rain started
Noah went dancing through the streets of the town,
kicked up splashes in puddles,
waded over his knees where it was already deep,
and laughed when he saw they still didn’t know their
judgement was upon them.
Even now they ignored him, of course.
There was none to see the exultation in his eyes
or to hear him shout ‘All of them, God,
all of them, God,
all of them.’

When the rain continued
Noah for the first time felt the deck of the ark
lifting under his heels.
All around him they were serious now,
in their sodden clothes
manhandling luggage onto carts
and yelling at their children to leave some toy behind.
There was none to see the glory in his eyes
or to hear him sing ‘All of them, God,
all of them, God,
all of them.’

When the rain stopped
Noah gazed out at the cool grey light
on the cool grey water.
Nothing forced him to remember
how they had wept at the end, how their
bodies had tumbled in the mud and the surf.
If you wanted, you could even think it all looked clean.
There was none to see the shame in his eyes
or to hear him drone ‘All of them, God,
all of them,
God, all of them.’



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


Nadab and Abihu

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.

                Lev. 10:1f.

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
                Courage Avíhu

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
                seizing knowledge
                like freedom from Egypt


In Colchis

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.


A prophet of Baal

You don’t like talking about the past.
But I think you were there that morning on Carmel,
hoisting metrical psalms to storm-mastering Baal;

and I think, when it came to it, you wouldn’t hurt yourself—
you just bowed your head and stepped out of the dance.
As you walked down the hill, away from that sky,

did you look back and see the other side smirking?
Now you hide yourself here in a country parish
where it often rains and we ask few questions:

I suppose even now it still goes with you
that perhaps if you’d done it the god would have listened,
and perhaps even then he would not.



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
Tyrian purple
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
and splintered



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.


A.D. 100

True the marching sky has yet to be hammered open
and the world goes yattering on in the blues and greens
it has always favoured
and we have not yet seen
and we have not yet seen filling our eyes
the birds and columns
the birds and columns the suddenness and light
of the kingdom

Oh it stood so close to us
oh it stood so close to us when I was young
you’d see it shining
you’d see it shining behind trees and stones
I would run in the street
and sometimes it was hard not to burst out laughing
at the dust and the rubbish and the flies and the police
because I knew the big secret
they would all be wiped away
they would all be wiped away soon
in the kingdom

And now we are old
and now we are old and it hasn’t come
perhaps it can’t
perhaps it can’t while there’s anyone waiting
it needs a generation who will be wholly surprised
when they look up and see the stars dropping like rain
slower than you’d think
slower than you’d think leaving gaps in the clouds
over the kingdom


Fifth century

Out to his grave we carry
a subtle theologian,
one whose voice was lifted
nasal in oecumenical councils

and the chapel of the General Staff.
Even condemned he refused
to qualify his opinions:
he maintained a venomous correspondence,

and blood was spilt for his doctrine
in riots in the southern cities.
Certainly he was not a Eutychian,
though careless observers said so—

his views were more devious than theirs,
difficult for his followers to grasp,
and one by one he discovered
obscure but fatal errors

to exclude his remaining friends.
(It is not to be thought that he did so,
knowing they wouldn’t renounce him,
to spare them the Committee’s attentions.)

At the last only we, his jailers,
were there to hear those notorious
sneering rebuttals; and perhaps
we were also the only ones

who saw him in the garden alone,
the author of the Definitions,
watching birds on the grass
and singing tunelessly to himself.

Now he will never become
a sainted Father of the Church.
Now his name will never
be given to peasants’ children

in the dusty valleys of Thrace,
or whispered at anxious moments
during squalls off the Libyan coast.
And now to his grave we carry

this subtle theologian:
possibly, when all are judged,
his teaching will prove to have been orthodox
and he alone will be saved.



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
suggested tricks.
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,
straightforward routines
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:
big Thor
and his lissom companions
strayed across
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
general vanish.
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.


Some more lines for Bold Slasher

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
linguistic elements,

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

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
Before Liberation
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


Hey Nineteen Thirties

Hey Nineteen Thirties, you came back!
We always knew you would;
but to see you now walking again these old
familiar roads
between scatters of boarded-up shops
as exchanges fall like lightning around us—
well our hearts just leapt and we
stumbled over our words and
yes, it’s really you.
We were harsh about you, at the end:
you were brutal to us.
But we’ve pined for you since,
got pedantic and miserable
from always picking over where we went wrong,
though we don’t deny it—there
have been others.
There was one in particular
walked with a light and skipping step,
cheered us up with summer and jokiness,
and for a moment we were happy, but you see
we were set in our ways by then
and elaborately sensible:
all that bright-eyed whimsy
and the effortless Parisian cool—
we found it hard.
In the end we turned our backs.
It was never like it was with you,
never the way you made us forget our first love,
the one we’d walked home from the
temperance pub that time
after the Esperanto lesson
when the gasworks stood
silhouetted against the evening

kaj birdis tra l’ ĉiel’ printempaj nuboj.

But we’ve got by without you:
we’ve taken long walks in the
Berkshire countryside
and grown used to living alone.
And now you’re back.
It all drops away like smoke.
And it’s yes please Professor Laski, it’s yes please the writers,
all we need is the ILP so there’s somebody to unite with.
You haven’t changed,
though we and the world both have;
we’ve been wrong before,
glimpsing your face in the crowd,
but now we know.
And it’s yes please the Popular Front, it’s yes please the Depression,
all we need is a Book Club to help us get your attention.
Just say the word, your
voice magnetic as it was amid the noise of Elgar,
and we your heroes
will meet you out there in an afflicted area,
older now and difficult but as ready as ever
to trace pathologies for you and
accept your healing.


When the state has withered away

When the state has withered away and has even been nine-tenths forgotten
people will still be found who gather slightly self-consciously
and practise the arts of the state, slightly self-consciously,
drafting cogent memoranda to non-existent departments, twiddling
bits of that machinery where they find them sticking out of the grass.
Treat them, on the whole, with forbearance: we were nostalgic too,
and even our assemblies often seemed little more than a pastime.


My poems are not real poems

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.