Collected poems, p.10
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       Collected Poems, p.10

           Alan Sillitoe
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  But at least we ’ad ’em!


  A pier is a bridge that failed,

  You might say –

  Whatever else is said.

  At the end are fish, and ships,

  And underneath is water,

  Or jewelled shingle.

  Lamp posts point to the signal station

  So does the toytown railway.

  People buy and sell.

  The planks smell fresh.

  Not liking salt

  They reach for land.

  A rotund father and thin daughter

  Stroll hand in hand.

  Good for business.

  A walking-stick clatters

  But don’t look now:

  The invisible man goes by.

  Every pier has one.

  He swaggers to the end and back,

  Panama hat at an angle;

  And then again returns,

  Craving land beyond the water,

  Wound-up to walk forever.


  We came off the ship:

  ‘This is America. We’re here!’

  A shorter crossing

  Than the railway trip.

  Having to make a living

  Was better than in Russia.

  Nobody tried to kill us.

  America was smaller than we thought.

  We lived three generations

  In those houses:

  New Year



  Bricks talk,

  But Books are eloquent.


  He went to sea because he didn’t like the dark.

  He wanted his ship to be looked at from the shore

  By a woman who would wonder

  Where he was going and why

  But not where coming from:

  His mother;

  And stared at by a man who envied him

  And craved to follow:

  His father.

  Many do not like the dark

  But on a ship at night the lights stay on

  Inside yourself.

  You take it like a mother into you

  In case the sun won’t show at dawn.

  At sea there’s only

  Space, and you.


  After thirty years he came home.

  He had forgotten the house

  But recognized the window.

  His sister never married

  But she knew he’d come.

  They passed unknowing in The Lanes.

  The first iron dewdrop of the knocker

  Shook dust

  From the flowers.

  ‘Not today!’ she said.

  He walked away,

  Forgot the house

  Forgot the window

  Forgot his sister never married

  Forgot the knocker made no sound

  When it struck home.


  The Big Voice, the Visual Scream

  Shouts about the National Lottery

  Or the advantage of travelling by Aeroflot

  Or the holiness of the Virgin’s Grotto

  Or a film about the antics

  At the court of King Otto;

  Or did someone win

  A Motto Competition –

  First prize a reproduction

  On a theme by Watteau?

  Or, taking it all in all (and altogether)

  Let’s have a scenario like this:

  The Big Bang Lottery Prize

  Is a trip by Aeroflotto

  To the Virgin’s Grotto

  In a corner of the Empire

  Of mad King Otto –

  From which you come back, if at all

  (You’ve guessed it) BLOTTO;

  Crossing the frontier in a haycart

  Concealed inside the wrappings

  Of a Cracker Motto

  Against an idealized backdroppo

  As designed by Watto.

  Speculation is a dead-end,

  So forget it. A mindless hand

  A single rip: we’ll never know

  Where poster-dreams

  And demons that lurk behind them go.

  New Poems, 1986–1990


  In winter trees don’t move:

  Half the lawn is coppered with leaves,

  Scollops under the bare trees.

  A snow-blue sheet, no sky:

  A ginger cat from copper into green

  Stalks careless birds.

  Can’t tell when it reaches bushes,

  Form and colour blending

  For its survival.



  Cars slide on macadam tracks

  Called streets.

  Almost a circle,

  Vision pauses to detect

  A winter warning from the east.


  Clatter towards train and bus,

  Traffic a departing Joseph-scarf.

  Vibrations shiver up the slates

  To aerial filigree of bars

  For webbed feet to grip.

  No rival dare approach

  His view of dustbins

  Under blistered sills.

  Well-fed and grey,

  Lord as much as can be done

  From his high perch –

  Swoops when he decides to go,

  Down, not up,

  A common pigeon of the Town.


  Claptrap, I said. Don’t like this school.

  Or probably much worse. If I’d learned

  Nothing else I cursed like a sailor.

  But five years old. Yet good, as good as gold:

  They think I’m a fool?

  Why am I here? They can say what they like.

  They show me the swimming pool.

  I get pushed in. It’s cold.

  My arms ache. I hold the bar,

  Then aim for the other side. Not far.

  Definitely don’t like it. Suck my thumb.

  Don’t suck your thumb!

  Scratch my nose. Don’t do that!

  She tells about The Wooden Horse of Troy.

  Even I wouldn’t have hauled that toy

  Through the city walls like that.

  She gives out bricks. We have to build.

  Two suns blind her glasses.

  Build, she says, build!

  So I build a town. It gets knocked down.

  Shall I throw them? Watch that frown.

  She reads of Abraham from the Bible.

  God says: Tie your son up on a pile of stones

  Then slit his throat to show you love me most.

  Isaac doesn’t like it but his father

  Lifts the knife. Just in time God tells him: Stop!

  I believe you now, so drop the knife.

  Make up your mind. Abraham cuts him free:

  All that way for nothing.

  My father did the same to me.

  After school I longed to climb a tree.

  But he held my hand

  And at the bottom of the hill

  He set me free.


  The year comes to an end

  Like a shutter in September.

  Close the door on the new moon

  And at the evening meal

  Drink to the gift of life.

  Mosquitoes come inside from cold,

  Fragile letters on white walls

  To mark the year’s end.

  Water the garden, for there’s no frost yet

  To melt in liquid on the flowers.

  The spirit makes a full stop

  When the New Year in Jerusalem begins.

  Summer cool on every cheek turns suddenly to autumn,

  And grates that smell of soot in England

  Wait for the heat of winter,

  And New Year to turn

more degrees upon the circle.


  Fire is always hungry –

  As long as someone feeds:

  It eats as if to melt the earth

  And those who live on it.

  All hunger threatens me,

  And fire devours forests

  More fiercely than the passion forests hide:

  And fumigates pure heaven.

  That’s why I have a love for water,

  A cool annihilating ocean

  To devour the terrible devourer

  And show the moon’s white face in passing.


  You ask for a statement on Hiroshima.

  All right:

  If there’s blood on the returning arrow

  Bend the wind and suck

  Till it becomes a flower.

  Soldiers planted them among the rocks

  And plucked chrysanthemums.

  Who wanted peace before Hiroshima?

  Mothers water soil with their tears,

  And gardens thrive.

  Don’t let the Book of Memory close.

  Stand among the flowers and read:

  There will be no more ruins.

  A statement on Hiroshima from me

  Bleeds a peace

  That brings more arrows.


  Fanatical non-smoking teetotal fruitarian,

  Bearded, early fifties,

  Good walker, plays chess –

  But finding life dull,

  Wants to meet big bosomed

  Class conscious

  Fox hunting

  County-type carnivore female

  With view to conversation

  Or conversion.


  Coming down first thing I see

  The house in a lake of frost and mist,

  Bare trees as in a battlefield

  From which bodies have been moved.

  By afternoon Life’s all we’ve got,

  No more over the horizon.

  Mottled flame on a sure bed of coal

  Burns out in the parlour grate,

  Me at the desk creating lives:

  No strength to break my own.


  Say good things about the dead,

  You’ll never see them again.

  That tree I just pulled down

  Was dry from top to bottom.

  Five years ago the taproots hissed

  And a bullfinch sat on its highest twig

  To eat the sky.

  The tree drew clouds to climbing buds.

  The brittle trunk snapped in two places,

  Fell horizontal in the bracken

  Broken by soil too thin,

  And ivy fed off its over-reaching.

  Say good things about that tree.

  A young one near at ten feet high:

  Bullfinch talons hold it down,

  The poison kiss of ivy laps its base.

  I scare one off and rip the other,

  Drag the dead tree clear for winter wood,

  Thinking good things about the dead

  That only the blind of soul won’t love.


  Rows of vines, cleaned up and tended

  Like military graveyards in the north;

  A magpie horseshoes back in guilty flight

  Or at a yellow cartridge in the scrub.

  A bee clings early to a flower

  As if it might be last year’s flame.

  Warm grit under belly: a snake

  Takes time to cross the sunny track.

  Thyme and sage and olive died by winter

  When they pledged undying love through storms and fevers

  (Final and official when they said it)

  Not knowing that undying love dies soonest.


  A stiletto of light insidiosed

  morning into the black room

  pushed by a man stricken

  with medieval pox

  galvanized, Vitus-minded,

  a jump-reaction to rip

  the paysage like a painting into shreds

  with halberded hands

  when the shutters swing out.

  A slight refraction of the haze

  mars the hills and villages of dawn:

  when I read the Divine Comedy at twenty

  I didn’t know that thirty years will

  pass before my fingers turn the page

  to nightingale and stonechat voices

  plaiting their song

  into an anthem of the Casentino.


  On days of leaving

  Flowers come

  Rain holds back

  Clouds give the sun a chance.

  Driving away,

  Blue sky fills the rearward mirror

  Before a bend is turned.

  Paradise draws off, a glint of flowers

  Ahead, clouds like robbers gather

  To discuss the lay-out of a forest.

  Go in, trees starken:

  The only land is Travel,

  Recalling sun and flowers never met.


  When you live alone

  No goldfish or canary to adorn

  The baffle between room and sky;

  When you live alone –

  Reveille out of bed at the alarm:

  A dim pantechnicon of dreams

  Darkens up the cul-de-sac of sleeping

  Suddenly a flower of smithereens;

  Do ten-minute jumps so that the heart

  Won’t burst at running for a bus:


  Set breakfast: appetite’s topography

  Of battlefield hurdles, to infiltrate

  And leap the parapet to wideawake;

  Dump supper et cetera;

  Then do your day;

  And when dusk threatens

  A fresh skirmishing of dreams

  You (like a soldier between campaigns)

  Devise a meal before lights-out

  And bivouac –

  When you live like such –

  The person that you are turns two

  Divides into a body and a voice

  One moment stentor and the other glib

  (Morality contending: talks

  To the stack of flesh that cannot speak)

  But only to hear the voice’s tune

  Flagging words both ears must listen to:

  On the activating of what’s gone

  The switching on from plasmic and bewitching times

  Where you thought yourself in love but weren’t

  Or when you said: I love, but didn’t

  Or would, but couldn’t:

  But no denying love’s starlined coordinates

  Crossing the heart of positively did:

  The onrush, the complete positioning

  Of being in love, and loved,

  When the one same voice and body sang

  The breath of passion into memory,

  Into death via love –

  The faces, her face, the truth

  Of love that lasts forever but could not:

  Yet giving life along the way

  Through mist’s uncertainties

  Because it was and did.

  Living by yourself, you talk,

  Reshaping the heart

  To fill the empty spaces

  Out of spaces that you one time filled,

  Making the alone-day,

  Breaking the day like a stone.


  Landfall after the storm, going home through

  White waves crumbling along the shore

  Like piano keys pressed by invisible fingers,

  Blue sky unfeeling what the sea does

  To your boat, winds and subtle currents

  Insidiously concerting.

  Getting safe home through the storm

  Provides no harbour or grandmother’s face;

sp; Waves turn you back as in a mirror breaking,

  Each cliff falling on the soul

  Like an animal with endless teeth.


  No wonder Job loved God.

  He lived. God let him live,

  Gave seven score years beyond his testing.

  Job knew excoriations on his skin

  Catastrophe dimmed one eye then the other.

  He bounced words against God

  But never despaired.

  In gratitude God let him live

  With friends and fatted kine

  And fourteen thousand sheep.

  God tested him, and let him live.

  Pearl died without a Book,

  Silent words flitting like dust

  Till the dust inside her settled.

  No winds could fan the dying fire into life,

  She felt the dust settling,

  Eyes from her wasted head saw the dust falling

  And through the dust she saw me,

  Cleared it with a smile to say goodbye.


  At twenty-two he was an older man,

  Done sixty raids and dropped 500 tons on target

  Or near enough. Come for a ride, son:

  Hi-di-hi and ho-di-ho, war over and be going soon.

  He opened a map and showed the side that mattered,

  Thumbed a line from Syerston to Harwell.

  Our bomber shouldered up the runway

  Cut the silver Trent in May:

  Three years in factories

  Made a decade out of each twelve-month,

  From the cockpit viewing Southwell Minster

  Under a continent of candyfloss,

  Fields wheatened green recalling

  Chaff blown and remaining corn

  To soften in my sweetheart’s mouth,

  Then into a hedge and crush the dockleaves into greensmear.

  The pilot banked his hundred wingspan south:

  How much magnetic, how much true, how much compass –

  Work the variation through,

  Two hundred miles an hour and a following wind,

  Harder to get home again over lace of roads and lanes

  Plus or minus deviation for a course to steer

  Red and black on spread map at the navigator’s table,

  A smell for life of petrol, peardrops and rexine.

  Run a pencil down from A to B –

  Now on the fortieth anniversary I reinvigorate

  The game which formed my life’s dead reckoning

  Impossible to fathom as in that bomber I assumed I could –

  Everything mechanical and easy to work,

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