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Collected poems, p.1
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       Collected Poems, p.1

           Alan Sillitoe
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Collected Poems





  Collected Poems

  Alan Sillitoe



  from The Rats and Other Poems, 1960


  Poem Written in Majorca

  Ruth’s First Swim in the Mediterranean, 1952

  Our Dream Last Night

  To Ruth

  Out of my Thousand Voices




  Autumn in Majorca

  On a Twin Brother’s Release from a Siberian Prison Camp

  On a Dead Bluebottle

  Picture of Loot

  A Child’s Drawing


  Excerpts from ‘The Rats’

  from A Falling Out of Love and Other Poems, 1964

  Poem Left by a Dead Man

  Cape Finisterre






  Dead Man’s Grave

  The Drowned Shropshire Woman

  Car Fights Cat

  Frog in Tangier

  Friend Died

  Guide to the Tiflis Railway

  from Love in the Environs of Voronezh and Other Poems and Storm and Other Poems, 1968 and 1974



  Ditchling Beacon


  Empty Quarter

  First Poem

  Love’s Mansion

  To Burn Out Love



  Ghosts: What Jason said to Medea



  Full Moon’s Tongue

  Silence and Stillness



  Gulf of Bothnia – On the Way to Russia

  Eurasian Jetnote


  Baikal Lake-dusk

  Shaman at Listvyanka


  Railway Station

  Ride it Out

  The Poet

  Left as a Desert

  Love in the Environs of Voronezh

  Goodbye Kursk

  February Poems

  Lovers Sleep

  The Weight of Summer



  Signal Box




  View from Misk Hill near Nottingham

  from Snow on the North Side of Lucifer, 1979

  Lucifer’s Astronomy Lesson

  Lucifer: The Official Version of his Fall

  Lucifer Turned

  Lucifer’s Decision


  Nimrod and Lucifer

  The ‘Job’

  Lucifer and Empedocles

  Lucifer the Archer

  Lucifer and Columbus

  Lucifer the Surveyor

  Lucifer the Mechanic

  Lucifer and Revolution

  Lucifer Telegraphist

  Hymn to Lucifer

  Lucifer’s Report

  The Last Chance

  Lucifer and Job

  Lucifer and Noah

  Lucifer and Daniel

  Lucifer in Sinai – 1

  Lucifer in Sinai – 4

  The Last

  Goodbye Lucifer

  from Sun Before Departure, 1974–1982

  Horse on Wenlock Edge

  Nottingham Castle


  North Star Rocket

  Fifth Avenue

  The Lady of Bapaume

  Stones in Picardy








  Left Handed

  New Moon


  Alioth the Bigot

  Changing Course

  On First Seeing Jerusalem


  Learning Hebrew

  Synagogue in Prague


  On an Old Friend Reaching Jerusalem


  Yam Kinneret (The Sea of Galilee)


  The Rock

  In Israel, Driving to the Dead Sea

  Ein Gedi (After Shirley Kaufman’s essay: ‘The Poet and Place’)


  from Tides and Stone Walls, 1986

  Receding Tide


  Landscape – Sennen, Cornwall

  Boarded-up Window

  Derelict Bathing Cabins at Seaford

  Southend Pier

  Derelict Houses at Whitechapel

  After a Rough Sea, at Seaford

  Window, Brighton

  Torn Poster, Venice

  New Poems, 1986–1990


  Dawn Pigeon

  Early School




  Small Ad


  Dead Tree

  Spring in the Languedoc


  Departure from Poppi

  Living Alone (For Three Months)




  Shylock the Writer

  Delacroix’s ‘Liberty Guiding the People’

  The Italian Woman

  The Liberty Tree

  Noah’s Ark

  A Biography of Alan Sillitoe by Ruth Fainlight


  Unlike a novelist, who may hide behind his fiction for the whole of his writing life, a poet who presents his collected poems displays the emotional history of his heart and soul. Such a record, however seemingly disguised, cannot be falsified, supposing of course that the poems are true to himself, and what poems are not, if they are poems? That is the condition which I have followed in assembling this collection: the assumption that the inner life is more discernible, though perhaps only after diligent searching, than any self-portrayal in a story or novel.

  From seven short volumes written between 1950 and 1990 I have chosen less than half the verse published, and therefore ask myself whether, if the omitted matter were put into another book, would it present a different picture of the state of the heart and soul over the same period? That may be a novelist’s question, but the answer is a fair ‘no’, for the material left out was mostly the fat and gristle surrounding the meat of what is printed here.

  I was surprised at times by the extreme revision most of the poems so obviously needed when, all those years ago, I had considered them indisputably finished. Even so, I can’t imagine that in the years to come I shall see any cause to amend them again. Though I shall no doubt look into the book from time to time, I shall no more be tempted to re-write than I am when looking into a previously published novel. Only in that way do the novelist and the poet coincide in me, otherwise the two entities are so separate that we might be two different people. Why this is I shall never know, unless there are some things which can never be said in fiction. They simply don’t fit, being drawn from an elevation of the psyche which the novel can know nothing about.

  When I became a writer it was as a poet, but it didn’t take long for fiction to obtrude, perhaps to fill in those spaces which must necessarily exist between one poem and another, my temperament having decided that during my life I could not be permitted to be unoccupied for a moment. Such periods of emptiness, being too fearful to contemplate, were duly filled, and have been so ever since. The unconscious fear of idleness prevents me from brooding too heavily on my fate except in such a way that pro
duces stories and novels.

  The earliest poems in The Rats volume came while I was working on Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, but all the other poems were written during the progress of various novels. The sentiments deployed in The Rats bled into the views of the hero of my first novel, but from that point on, poetry and fiction came out of totally different territories. A later volume, Tides and Stone Walls, was written to a series of remarkable photographs by Victor Bowley, and the poems chosen from that book are those which in my view rely on the photographs least, though even then they were directly inspired by them. Twenty-one more recent poems at the end of the present book are ‘new’ in that they have not been previously collected.

  The Rats and Other Poems was written by an exile returning to England who, having spent a total of eight years out of the country before the age of thirty, expected to go away again to write in an isolation which he had found congenial. It did not happen, but it has always seemed to me that a poet and writer, wherever he lives, even if on home territory, suffers exile for life. Geography notwithstanding, such displacement is a kind of mental stand-off from the rest of society, giving the detachment to see the surroundings with a calculating eye – not an emotionally cold eye, but one which uses language and observation from a standpoint entirely personal.


  from The Rats and Other Poems, 1960


  When on a familiar but deserted beach

  You meet a gentleman you recognize

  As your own death, know who he is and teach

  Yourself he comes with flower-blue eyes

  To wipe the salt-spray from all new intentions,

  And kiss you on each sunken cheek to ease

  Into your blood the strength to leave this life:

  (A minor transmutation of disease)

  To watch the mechanism of each arm

  Inside your arms of flesh and fingernail,

  To despise the ancient wild alarm

  Behind each eye. Shaking your hand so frail

  Your own death breathes possessive fire

  (A familiar voice that no one understands)

  Striding quickly, sporting elegant attire,

  Coming towards you on these once deserted sands.


  Death has no power in these clear skies

  Where olives in December shed their milk:

  Too temperate to strike

  At orange-terraces and archaic moon:

  But Death is strong where hemlock stones

  Stand at the foot of cold Druidic hills;

  There I was born when snow lay

  Under naked willows, and frost

  Boomed along grey ponds at afternoon,

  Frightening birds that

  Though hardened for long winters,

  Fled from the nerve-filled ground,

  Beat their soundless wings away

  From Death’s first inflicted wound.


  The water that touches your thighs

  Swallowed the STRUMA.

  Water that folded the wings of Icarus

  Climbs your limbs, sharp with salt

  That stiffened the beard of Odysseus.

  Tragedy, comedy, legend and history –

  Invisible wakes through centuries

  Of exiles seeking home:

  You turn and look as if at

  The wandering Ark of the Hebrews,

  Then cleave the waters of your Inland Sea.


  You had a dream last night:

  Deep in my primeval sleep

  A match was made between my heart and yours

  And I moved into love with you

  And found your body willing.

  Maybe it began with you

  When deep in your primeval sleep

  A wielding of desire for some

  Fulfilling (too matter of fact

  And clumsy in afternoon or evening)

  Drew me out of some too private dream

  And held us plough to furrow.

  No judgement made, for neither side

  Can settle on the cause,

  And no more thought is here but this:

  What if a birth should come

  Out of our midnight dreams?


  If I throw out my arms and strike

  The night that comes, open my heart

  To whoever guards survivors, favours struggles

  Carries sunshine garlanded about

  Her waist, will my fight fail?

  Will I unbuckle my resistance

  In the darkness? Let ice melt

  Fear kill, suffer death to take me?

  Though passion is not greatness

  Nor greatness passion

  When measured by such fluid odds

  As sunlight and death,

  Passion augments

  The alchemy of returning life

  Stands the blood high in its demand,

  Becomes supremely knowing,

  And draws me back

  Into the living battle of our love.


  Out of my thousand voices

  I speak with one

  To the waves and flying saltfoam,

  Flinging the dovetailed words

  Of a single voice

  At the knife-edged prow

  Of the ship unbreakable

  That carries her away.

  I throw the one remaining voice

  Of all my thousand out to sea

  And watch it curving

  Into the black-paunched water

  Like a falling star,

  A single word of love

  That drops into the grave,

  A thousand echoes falling by her ship.


  One great problem poses:

  What is that island we’re passing?

  Green hills, white houses,

  Grey peak, a blue sky,

  Ship sailing smooth.

  These problems arise

  On islands that pass,

  White houses lived in

  And mountains climbed,

  Clouds moving like ships

  And ships like clouds.

  We on deck open baskets for lunch

  To feed the problem of each white island

  Of how steep such contours

  And shallow those bays,

  And who keens that song

  In pinewoods by the shore.

  ‘How beautiful it is’ –

  And how remote, waiting for other islands

  We shall pass, puzzled that the birds

  Can dip their wings at many.

  What is that island we’re passing

  Heartshaped and hemlocked

  Watered by a winding stream?

  A monument to us and we a monument to it –

  A great problem posed

  Till each unanswering island

  Left in darkness grows a separate light:

  Solutions beyond reach:

  Cobalt funereal in the deep sea.


  The ocean was timeless, blue

  When your unwaxed wings wheeled towards heaven.

  Wind was recalled, emptiness new

  And smooth as Thermopylae’s lagoon given

  To the Heroes’ barge held in repose. Nothing stirred:

  The gods watched and held their breath

  Forgot to stake each others’ wives, heard

  Wings feather the air, dip and climb. Death

  Did not come to Daedalus. The sun

  Heliographed his escaper, watched his prison cloak

  Colouring the sea, shadowing his one

  Track channelled to Italy, whose mirror spoke

  For his safety. Icarus found entirety

  In a gleam from the sun. Was it a lotus-land

  He climbed to? A mission of piety

  Foretelling a lesse
r doom written upon sand

  For older men? Or pure myth? His wings aileroned

  The windless air and carried him in a curve

  Measured by a rainbow’s greatness above the honed

  Earth: lifted him through a mauve

  Loophole of sky. No ships sleeved

  The water and filled a farewell in their sails

  Or circled the fallen wings, or grieved,

  And Daedalus, onward flying, knew no warning fairytales.


  Scorpions lurk under loose stones

  Marked on Leipzig maps, and electric tramways

  Ride shallow loops over thrown-up bones;

  Eternal dust guides shadowed gangways

  To Punic necropolia tombed-out

  In timeless tangents, watched by upstart towers

  Of a young cathedral, basilicas combed-out

  By Time’s long competition and the hours

  Of each’s ruin. The shadows of Jesus

  And Hamilcar and the later dead

  Back up the ancient argument that whims are diced

  Out by the timelessness of heaven. The bled

  Lips of this crumbling village, with the cry

  Of begging children, prove that stone and scorpion lie.


  Autumn again: how many more?

  The quiet land broods

  In the peace of hope taken away,

  Like a birth in silence

  Or slipping unnoticed towards Death.

  In the dusk and softness of earth’s evening

  Black figs fall and burst:

  Pig food, earth food

  Tears from the tree’s broad face.

  The familiar wind makes passions tolerable:

  A woman does not know for whom she sings;

  A prophecy of rain when clouds collect

  And the earth in its achievement turns

  But will not breathe.


  Out of the snow my brother came

  Ghost within ghost like a child’s game

  Of case into case;

  Cloud reflections smashed with wattled feet,

  A coniferous stick wielded to meet

  Face with face.

  Moss-warmed, waist-coated with leaves

  His memory survived to shake my hand,

  Soil-laden fingers

  Reaching from my brother who craves

  Impossibly for the enormous land

  Where no man lingers.

  A surrogate ghost my brother found a road

  Across blue ridges, by marks of axe and woad

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