Collected Poems, p.1Alan Sillitoe
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from The Rats and Other Poems, 1960
Poem Written in Majorca
Ruth’s First Swim in the Mediterranean, 1952
Our Dream Last Night
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
Dead Man’s Grave
The Drowned Shropshire Woman
Car Fights Cat
Frog in Tangier
Guide to the Tiflis Railway
from Love in the Environs of Voronezh and Other Poems and Storm and Other Poems, 1968 and 1974
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
Shaman at Listvyanka
Ride it Out
Left as a Desert
Love in the Environs of Voronezh
The Weight of Summer
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
Nimrod and Lucifer
Lucifer and Empedocles
Lucifer the Archer
Lucifer and Columbus
Lucifer the Surveyor
Lucifer the Mechanic
Lucifer and Revolution
Hymn to Lucifer
The Last Chance
Lucifer and Job
Lucifer and Noah
Lucifer and Daniel
Lucifer in Sinai – 1
Lucifer in Sinai – 4
from Sun Before Departure, 1974–1982
Horse on Wenlock Edge
North Star Rocket
The Lady of Bapaume
Stones in Picardy
Alioth the Bigot
On First Seeing Jerusalem
Synagogue in Prague
On an Old Friend Reaching Jerusalem
Yam Kinneret (The Sea of Galilee)
In Israel, Driving to the Dead Sea
Ein Gedi (After Shirley Kaufman’s essay: ‘The Poet and Place’)
from Tides and Stone Walls, 1986
Landscape – Sennen, Cornwall
Derelict Bathing Cabins at Seaford
Derelict Houses at Whitechapel
After a Rough Sea, at Seaford
Torn Poster, Venice
New Poems, 1986–1990
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
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
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.
POEM WRITTEN IN MAJORCA
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.
RUTH’S FIRST SWIM IN THE MEDITERRANEAN, 1952
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.
OUR DREAM LAST NIGHT
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,
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
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
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 IN MAJORCA.
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.
ON A TWIN BROTHER’S RELEASE FROM A SIBERIAN PRISON CAMP
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,
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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