Collected poems, p.10
Collected Poems, p.10Alan Sillitoe
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.
DERELICT HOUSES AT WHITECHAPEL
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:
But Books are eloquent.
AFTER A ROUGH SEA, AT SEAFORD
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:
And stared at by a man who envied him
And craved to follow:
Many do not like the dark
But on a ship at night the lights stay on
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
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.
TORN POSTER, VENICE
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
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
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
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.
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
County-type carnivore female
With view to conversation
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.
SPRING IN THE LANGUEDOC
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
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.
DEPARTURE FROM POPPI
On days of leaving
Rain holds back
Clouds give the sun a chance.
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.
LIVING ALONE (FOR THREE MONTHS)
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
Getting safe home through the storm
Provides no harbour or grandmother’s face;
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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