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This poem is taken from PN Review 119, Volume 24 Number 3, January - February 1998.Two Suites: 'The Poet, the Planxty, and the Bagatelle', 'Planet Wave'
A suite of ten poems based on the music (and lives) of Turlough O'Carolan (1670-1738) and William Walton (1902-1983). It was commissioned by Frances Clarke of Alborada Productions in Southampton and was first performed by Edwin Morgan and the guitarist Carlos Bonell at the Turner Sims Concert Hall, Southampton, on 25 October 1997.
The five O'Carolan pieces we are using are 'Princess Royal', 'Planxty Irwin', 'Planxty Judge', 'Fanny Power', and 'O'Carollan's Concerto'. The Walton music is his 'Five Bagatelles for Guitar'.
1. Patronage ('Princess Royal')
This is the story of Turlough O'Carolan,
That music-making well-loved travelling man
Who flung new tunes at the old Irish harp.
They say his tongue, not just his nail, was sharp.
He swept the wiry strings of his time with vigour,
A free and quirky and convivial figure.
He saw what was to be seen by age eighteen,
Then saw no more; whatever he might have been -
Labourer, blacksmith, farmer - was shrunk at a stroke
To what blind fingers could make sense of: no joke.
Smallpox ravaged his face, as it ravaged the land.
A boy with dead eyes, what could he demand
Of God or man, or woman - ah now, slow:
He learned to bless Mrs MacDermott Roe
Who prenticed him to a harper for three years,
Gave him a harp, a horse, a helper, good tears
Held back on both sides as he left her, 'Godspeed!'
Waving in the blue wind. One good deed
Can buoy us up. He rode off blind but blithe,
Heard music in the very whetting of a scythe,
Cantering through Sligo to camps and fairs,
Then to big houses where he played his airs
To attentive ears and ate and sank his dram
Some thought his playing was not worth a damn
But his composing was: in his nest of notes
He hatched and fed such eager throbbing throats!
He came back many times to his patron's home,
Always made welcome, always ready to roam
Again across broad Ireland to earn his crust.
Only once was that happy bond of trust
Broken, when the lady of Greyfield learned
He had helped her first son to elope: that earned
Black looks, slammed doors, and what was even worse,
He made a song about it! She didn't nurse
Her anger, though, and when he made amends
With a tune to her second son's wife, they were friends
As they were set to be and remained: he sits
In her garden, holds court, smokes, sips,
Jokes, sings, sips again, tells tall tales,
Pats children on the head; laughter prevails,
Not sadness, for blind hands are lucky, they feel
Right to the soul, they understand, they heal.
So he went on his wanderings, many years,
Till nearly seventy, a sick man, he appears
For the last time at Ballyfarnan and the house
Of Mrs Roe, lays down his harp, bows
To her, asks for a bed, and she tends him
Until a darkness worse than blindness ends him.
But if you think it was all sackcloth and ashes,
Long faces, silent footsteps and wet lashes,
You don't know Mrs Mary MacDermott Roe.
She held a four-day wake that as wakes go
Must surely speed the man to Paradise,
With whiskey like rain and songs like roses and cries
Of 'Chorus!' and 'Tell us again!' till it seemed
The very best music O'Carolan ever dreamed
Was resurrected shimmering in the air,
Waiting to be scattered everywhere.
2. Music ('Planxty Irwin')
We heard him say, 'The sun shines bright
When Ballisodare comes into sight.
The bay smiles through the apple-boughs,
And Colonel Irwin keeps open house.
Music-makers are welcome to him,
His dogs are wags and never grim,
He knows (some don't) to fill a glass,
With equal cheer for lad or lass,
He likes to see a laughing eye
And rosy cheek go dancing by,
And though he is a county sheriff
His writs are fair and clear, sanserif.
I've made a song for this good man,
A planxty that will rhyme and scan,
No piddling plinkum-plankum ditty
But plangent sweeps of love and pity,
Sweet echoes of some Roman sanctum,
Plango, plangere, planxi, planctum.'
O'Carolan paused, and filled his pipe,
Touched a plum and found it ripe,
Said, 'Can it really be God's plan,
This decent English Irishman,
John Irwin, does he know the hate
Some say we ought to cultivate
For English laws against the bards,
Smashing music-schools to shards,
Hanging harpers from the tree
To choke our Gaelic minstrelsy?
I play to all those that will listen,
In barn or castle, healthy or sick,
Protestant or Catholic,
And leave to others that may come
The beating of a deadly drum.
These metal strings and willow frame
Convey a past so old its name
Was ancient even to Tara's kings
Or dancers by the fairy rings.
But I can add a pinch of spice:
Vivaldi and Corelli entice
My ears and give a figuration,
Graces I'll add to my creation.'
He knocked his pipe out at these words.
We took our leave, set out homewards.
A half-mile down the road, we stopped,
Looked back at the great house outcropped
Like rock against the deep blue sky.
The afternoon was passing by,
Trailing its first long shadows, light
Was straining to keep something bright
As puddles winked with their fool's gold.
Somewhere far off, a faint bell tolled.
But then we heard the harp, clear, fading,
A web of notes braiding, unbraiding,
Reaching to haunt us where we stood
As only twilight music could.
3. Conviviality ('Planxty Judge')
Now Ireland is rich in whispering rain
Which keeps it green in grass and grain,
But then the sky squawks down a flood
To pave the country roads with mud
And soak into relentless bogs
Where the turf-cutters lift their clogs
And squelch a detour. It's wet! You shiver!
You watch the loose banks of the river!
The harpers curse, a stumble, scurry
Towards a light, a house, they hurry,
Not quite yet abominable bog-men,
Dripping at the gate like abortive frog-men.
Their horses droop and steam in the stable.
Rheumatics - well, what's the time-table?
But here's good Tom Judge of Grangebeg,
And his even better wife with that well-turned leg
(So O'Carolan said), standing at the door
With glasses and blankets and a few glasses more
By the fire in the hall, and soon the sound
Of music joined the crack going round.
(Unlike, said O'Carolan, Mr Jennings of Mayo
Whose dram was so mean you could blow it away-o.)
This wanderer likes conviviality,
Hostesses, backgammon, gusts of hilarity.
He likes his friend Charlie MacCabe too,
And one night both had downed quite a few -
It was whiskey laced with ale - and he called for a bet:
The first man drunk would, when sober, get
The whole bill to settle. Charlie was snoring;
Turlough tied him in a sack till morning.
What fumbling, what swearing, what laughing next day
When Charlie emerged, and had to pay -
So the two bards set to composing a flyting,
Like brotherly cubs delightedly fighting.
But not all drinking companions were friends:
When David Murphy for jealous ends -
He had played to Louis Fourteen in France -
Sneered in a tavern with eyes askance,
'O'Carolan fancies himself as the chief;
His tunes are the bones, but where's the beef?'
The blind man's fury was a thing to see:
Nothing could hold him, his demon was free,
Caught Murphy by the hair, dragged him to the floor,
Kicked him along the bar till he started to roar,
Cried, 'Put you some beef in that tune, you dog,
You flibbertigibbet, you fribble, you frog!'
Oh you've no idea, the stories to tell.
But he lived to make music, so it's right and well
We remember his fiery defence of the art
By which he played upon the heart.
He claimed his blind man's ears could fill
With music from a fairy hill,
But what the little people gave
(Or did not give) he'd re-engrave
On strings that only human fingers
Could shake and shape. The cadence lingers
To please, in other times than his,
Wherever love of music is.
4. Love and Friendship ('Fanny Power')
'Love', said O'Carolan, leaning back
In his easy-chair, 'is either barmbrack
Or dripping honeycomb, and both are good,
Dance a wild dance in the greenwood
Or creak the family bed, all's one.
So too is the benediction
Of Plato's love, the glow, the soul,
The rarest and the unforced goal.
I've known them, I've been lucky so.
I don't love all, if you must know.
Jennings and Murphy are a couple of turds -
You won't expect me to mince my words,
I've told you about them both before -
I've a temper, I admit, go over the score
Sometimes, if I'm attacked I attack,
And tight-fisted lords should be tightened on the rack -
Well that's not very Christian is it?
Give me another glass; to visit
A house like this in Galway banishes
Every bad thought; my bile vanishes,
My heart warms. David and Elizabeth,
May the walls of Coorheen to your last breath
Speak of love and friendship, and may she,
Your daughter, you Frances, Fanny, be
A skiff in her beauty over the sea
Of youth into maturity.
I have made, shall make, music for you all.
Set me here on the flags of the hall.
A pouch of tobacco, a pipe, a stool.
I'm not going to make a crying fool
Of myself, but let me feel your faces.
I never forget the benevolent places.
Is that too solemn? Let me sweep the strings.
My mind springs to familiar things.
Does Fanny know I've a wife? Of course!
Six daughters and a son - I'm a little hoarse,
Let me refresh my - thanks - in Leitrim?
I see them when I can, love them, him,
And my Mary who looks after the nest.
What more can I do? I have to wrest
A living wandering through the land
With my horse and a boy and my harp in his hand.
Where I would be without him I don't know.
Die, composing, in the snow?
You never knew I composed on the road?
So many matters are safely stowed
In this brain of mine, till I let them out!
O friends and lovers, what are they about?
Years, years ago, dear Bridgit Cruise,
I wrote songs for you, you were my Muse,
And now you are only in the song,
Nothing is right, nothing is wrong.'
O'Carolan and his man move on.
Fanny Power waves, is gone.
What did they speak of, on their garrons,
Padding through pastures, woods, and barrens?
A bumpy lane, an aching hip? -
The little things all fellowship
Is bonded by, sighted or blind,
Finding, or breasting hills to find.
5. Dublin and the Dean ('O'Carolan's Concerto')
Now it is goodbye for a while to rural scenery.
O'Carolan is off on a visit to St Patrick's Deanery.
Any invitation to play for Dr Swift
Got him tingling, just to be there was a gift.
In any case he loved the Dublin sounds,
The crowds, the talk, the street-cries, yelping hounds
And rumbling carriages, a complex buzz
He'd make concertos out of, see if he does!
'Ah, Doctor - Dean - Jonathan - it's a fine night!'
Said Swift, 'Come in, friend Carolan. That's right!
A well placed moon right over the Castle. Your eyes
Won't see it but it's there, looks good. I advise
Brandy, claret, harp, crack, in any order.
My brilliant footman - I'll ring - patrols the border
Of hospitality with quite the watchfullest sense
You can imagine. Saunders gets recompense,
Peak rates, deserves it. None of your Wood's Halfpence!
I've written him into the ground. There's no defence.
His mint of base bad English coins was good
For the rascally mintman, not for Ireland. Could
London care less? It won't do, my friend.
I feel very Irish. It's Dublin now to the end.
Have some French-Irish brandy, I won't say smuggled.
These are devious days. I've struggled, you've struggled.
You're blind, I'm giddy, fell off my horse
Last week, never mind, it's a riding course
I've given myself, builds up physical resources.
You know I'm writing a book about men and horses?
- I saw you drunk once, horseless, at the roadside - '
'Clerics don't die of thirst!' O'Carolan replied.
'Admit you really do yourself quite well,
Protected by the firm cathedral bell,
With cook and maid, valet and groom, two grooms
For your three horses, and these not small rooms
You swung your predecessor's cat from, I'm told.
Think of me in sleet in a sheepfold!'
'Sheep, sheep!' cried Swift. 'Sheep are eating men!
Comfort never cocooned my iron pen.
The poor are starving in the fields. Why not
Prepare some suckling infants for the pot?'
O'Carolan shouted, 'All right, take my seven!
You think they'll gape in shock, the gates of heaven?'
'They'll gape,' said Swift, 'for any honest man
Whose heart-strings tremble, and who does what he can
With the weapons he has, a law, a book, a voice
For those too many that never can rejoice.'
O'Carolan nodded slowly, 'Maybe so.
Water, not hide, the outrage; make it grow.
Write it all down, don't wait till judgement day.'
'I won't,' said Swift. 'Now take you harp, and play.'
1. Out from Oldham
Down came his father's sharp hard ring on his knuckles
As he stood in the choir-stall and sang a wrong note.
He gave a yelp. What sort of music was this?
A boy in Oldham thinking of music,
Not very good at singing music,
Not very good at playing music,
But dead keen on music,
Rimsky-Korsakov, why not -
What could he do in damp smoky Oldham,
Fill ledgers in a cotton-mill, go grey in a bank?
Sometimes the wavering blast of a brass band
Would wind among the chimney-stalks.
Coal-carts clattered through cobbled lanes.
The foundries flapped and glared towards the moors.
And that was about it.
Escape! Sick on the train to Oxford
(His dad had drunk the train money, but he made it),
Scrapping his Lancashire accent at Christ Church,
Skiving, failing exams, but
Loving the quadrangles and the bell-jangles,
Oh yes, and the promenading and the posing.
And the modern. Oh god how modern everything was!
Stravinsky, jazz, Poulenc, the Sitwells -
Edith turning poetry into music,
Sacheverell quoting Trotsky,
Osbert laying a hand on Walton's knee
Till he said, That's not my cup of tea -
But that was modern too.
And they bore him off to Renishaw,
The country house to end all country houses,
Vast, rambling, grand, antediluvian,
Lit by gas and candles,
Where he snored in the frowst of a four-poster,
Banged a dusty old Bechstein to bits,
Listened for ghosts
With his hosts
Or ghostly clankings from the far-off pits.
Moons of Renishaw! Oxford towers! Violence of fathers!
Beau monde of Chelsea! Salons and silences!
Where is the boy that rolled his marbles in a northern
Here he is in Swan Walk with the Sitwells, smoking thin
dark stupefying cigars, guzzling bags of black cherries
and aiming the stones at passers-by from his attic
window? What is he up to?
He likes the good life but he is up to what he would always
be up to. He is writing his music. He is writing a
fanfare and a hornpipe and a tango and a lullaby and a
waltz and a terribly dashing tarantella which will all be a
terrible scandal in Twenties London and make his name
2. The Italian Villa
Jewel of Ravello, Villa Cimbrone,
Stones panting, languor of light,
Alleys and arbours parting for lovers,
Lizards darting, cool colonnades,
William and Alice in sunshine and shade.
Wealth and beauty
Art and nature
In arms of blue
Sky and bay
Marble and bronze
In flight for ever
Scent of thyme
Like a dream
Alice and William are leaning
From the belvedere in the evening,
Comforted by cicadas
And clumps of painterly pines,
Imagining the cliff-fall
Stupendous down below,
Not having to imagine
The sumptuous cascades
Of purple bougainvillea.
They go back hand in hand
In silence to the villa,
Each half dreaming, but the dreaming
In Walton's head is like music
Alice, Alice, Lady Alice, high-born patron, holder of
Renter of palaces, successor in Cimbrone
To Garbo and Stokowski (darlings of the paparazzi
Who lingered to see if their idols would return) -
Alice the protector
Alice the prodder
Pushed the composer
Into his room
To make more black notes
The composer sighing
Continued his task
A woman the sea
And through the night of the fireflies
And the starlight and the bats' flight
And the staring unsleeping statues
And the sultry shadows the shaman
At his piano above the crypt
Watches his concerto growing
Warm southern glowing
And not without the scuttling
Scherzo of a tarantula
To keep romance on its toes
Like the old thorn of the rose
And the shaman cannot know
That his lady, his Alice, must go
To the shades with the tarantula
Of cancer as her companion
Within the decade, but played
Will be the music, arrayed
In folds of love, he has stayed
In the working villa of love,
While far off in America
Heifetz listens and waits
You don't ask 'Where's the beef?' in Argentina.
Walton could take a chop, but this was something else.
Frying, roasting, sizzling - one smell rolled
At midday from windows and doors in Buenos Aires.
And building workers, look at them:
Grinning over ramshackle grills, gristly
Scaffoldburgers, heat, meat, eat, sweat, great!
What's the music of chomping?
What's the music of hooves?
Susana! Your bride-to-be!
What have you done with Walton?
She's taken him to her father's big raunchy ranch
Where you can't count the cattle the sheep the horses
Or the gauchos with their ponchos,
Or the unwritten rules of old Spain.
She's modern: drives, rides, golfs, types, shoots!
She has seen a play in the sodden jungly opera-house of
She has thrown Molotov cocktails at the Peronistas.
She married William Walton and had a reception for two
thousand guests in the warm night garden filled with
kisses and lanterns.
'Don't do it!' her mother had sobbed. 'He's
Twice your age and an Anglican heretic!'
'Don't do it!' her father had growled. 'A
Feckless musician! You'll get no dowry!'
'Don't do it!' said William's friends. 'She's a
Silly Argentine secretary who'll do you no good!'
But the fruits of disapproval
Were white chiffon and thrown rice
And thirty-five years together.
See them on their Blue Star
Back to England
On that ship
'Oh' said Susana
'I can't eat this muck'
As they steamed and plunged
But William was a tease
William had a ruse
To raise their spirits
And give their dreary
To think about
So when night locked
Their cabin door
He leathered the floor
With his belt and buckle
Oh what looks
They got next day
To join the party!
And Susana wondered
If she'd ever see
See the old estancia
Estancia of the cowboys
Cowboys of the pampas
Pampas of Argentina
Argentina of Evita
The bad and the good
But she never would
And a new life beginning
slow steep paths donkey paths small clatter of displaced
through the heat-haze white sails below slow across the
hot springs not far off linger for a slow bask
in the ambience lying back the clouds too move slowly
over and away
What's this house then, hill house, rock house,
House of stone in the midst of stones,
House without whitewash, alien to locals?
Has it erupted from the lava-beds? Hold on,
Come closer, it's new, it's built, it's engineered
Into the hillside, can you not hear music?
Can you not smell the myrtle of La Mortella
Home of the Waltons, haven of art and quiet?
There is a tremor of butterflies, a tremor of fountains.
Creepers are slowly exploring the terraces.
Tree-ferns, yuccas, aloes unslumber themselves
Stiffly into the essence of a tremor
As a light breeze parts the curtain of heat.
The house has a mini-funicular
To the swimming-pool on the hilltop.
The water shimmers in the intense light.
Slide gently into the tremor, or at night
Drift yellow as a carp through its underwater lamps.
mosaics majolica terracotta lintels of lava ancient
Pulcinella in the hall for welcome wine on the terrace
sipping slowly as the sun goes down a tremor of keys
from the piano-room a slow tune
Suddenly it is May and there's a great noise on the island,
It is time to shelve the music-paper and take to the streets.
The statue of Saint Restituta, black African dressed in gold,
Bobs slowly between the crowds towards the sea,
Blessing and blessed by a band playing older strains
Than Walton's. He listens, watches, mingles.
At twilight, a thousand candles float on the bay
To answer a thousand oil-lamps in the hills.
At midnight, fireworks bring light to the sky.
Rocket after rocket falls in the slow curve
Of a dying rallentando. So where's Walton?
He is talking to an English poet with weatherbeaten face.
They stroll slowly along, in the not very dark
Darkness, William and Wystan. They are speaking
About exile, but Willie is the listener.
'Half a year here,' says Wystan, 'half in New York.
Half in the melting sun and the orange-groves,
Half in the traffic jams and the walkups.
Ischia's just what I need, I tell myself,
I've a cat and a dog, and Chester, and scandals
Fairly regularly to add spice to the dish,
Or salt to the wound, whatever the metaphor
(I love metaphors, are there any in music?),
And I write every morning and drink every evening
And life is like a thermal spring, but but,
But, my dear, is it good for me, is it good for you?
We're northern Englanders both,
What about roots? Are there roots?
What about the cold? Get braced?
There's a slow slow liquefying,
A Mediterranean meltdown.
I'm thinking of Austria,
And goodbye to the Mezzogiorno.'
But Walton was not quite persuaded,
And he and Susana stayed on
In the island of content
With music and friends and views
Of slow cloud over
His own ashes lie
Deep in a broad boulder
On the hillside of the myrtles.
Anteroom after anteroom after anteroom
Till at last you zoom
In on the tray of champagne flutes
Playing so sparklingly
Placed so painstakingly
Polished so scarily -
You've hands like hobnail boots.
Every dog must have its day.
Lord Wimborne asks the band to play.
William and Alice slip away.
It's a red herring. No, really.
Walton has painted it, stuck it
On a modern painting he does not like.
It stinks, he says. Yes, really.
Thunder-sheet triangle viola tremolo
Fanfare for ghosts lovers hosts
Princess Imma of Erbach-Schönberg
Marquis Camillo Casati Stampa di Soncino
Prince and Princess Ludwig of Hesse and the Rhine
Prince and Princess Said ibn Hussein
Walton puts a banana in each trouser-pocket
When he dances with Anne Armstrong-Jones.
Sitwell days! Was it all a façade?
Well it wasn't sad, and they weren't mad,
And the polka was glad, and the jazz was trad,
And yes it was sad, just sweetly sad,
A part of it was, bitter-sweet, just a tad.
Why is this man, in the cream and pink robes
Of a gorgeous doctor of music, holding
His velvet hat with such gingerly solicitude
At the coronation where his own music is playing?
He is keeping his miniatures of whisky from chinking.
Lord Berners had a horse
In his drawing-room, fed it
Buttered scones. Strange? Not at all.
Stephen Tennant had a tortoise,
Liked to walk it along the Mall.
Auden bought a cake for Stravinsky
Which he placed in the loo, not the hall.
And Walton knew them all.
Said the Recording Angel, I have heard
This Lancashire composer could be blunt,
And it was no stunt, he was really upfront
With the verbal dunt, made up limericks too.
It says here (flipping open his laptop)
'Karajan is the most dreadful shit'
'I know bugger all about the organ'
'I'm sick of writing ceremonial balls'
- That's all right, said the angel, he has guts.
He knows this life is more than comic cuts.
And in Oldham town
Where his life began
They have fixed the memory
Of this sphinx of a man.
Red gold and blue
The stained glass shines
With scores and letters
And bold designs.
The boy who left
So long ago
To breathe the world
Is a window
For all to read
But none to know.
This sequence of poems, commissioned by the Cheltenham International Jazz Festival, and set to music by Tommy Smith, was first performed in the Cheltenham Town Hall on 4 April 1997.
In the Beginning
(20 Billion B.C.)
Don't ask me and don't tell me. I was there.
It was a bang and it was big. I don't know
what went before, I came out with it.
Think about that if you want my credentials.
Think about that, me, it, imagine it
as I recall it now, swinging in my spacetime hammock,
nibbling a moon or two, watching you.
What am I? You don't know. It doesn't matter.
I am the witness, I am not in the dock.
I love matter and I love anti-matter.
Listen to me, listen to my patter.
Oh what a day (if it was day) that was!
It was as if a fist had been holding fast
one dense packed particle too hot to keep
and the fingers had suddenly sprung open
and the burning coal, the radiant mechanism
had burst and scattered the seeds of everything,
out through what was now space, out
into the pulse of time, out, my masters,
out, my friends, so, like a darting shoal,
like a lion's roar, like greyhounds released,
like blown dandelions, like Pandora's box,
like a shaken cornucopia, like an ejaculation -
I was amazed at the beauty of it all,
those slowly cooling rosy clouds of gas,
wave upon wave of hydrogen and helium,
spirals and rings and knots of fire, silhouettes
of dust in towers, thunderheads, tornadoes;
and then the stars, and the blue glow of starlight
lapislazuliing the dust-grains -
I laughed, rolled like a ball, flew like a dragon,
zigzagged and dodged the clatter of meteorites
as they clumped and clashed and clustered into
worlds, into this best clutch of nine
whirled in the Corrievreckan of the Sun.
The universe had only just begun.
I'm off, my dears. My story's still to run!
The Early Earth
(3 Billion B.C.)
Planets, planets - they seem to have settled
into their orbits, round their golden lord,
their father, except he's not their father,
they were all born together, in that majestic wave
of million-degree froth and jet and muck:
who would have prophesied the dancelike separation,
the nine globes, with their moons and rings, rare -
do you know how rare it is, dear listeners,
dear friends, do you know how rare you are?
Don't you want to be thankful? You suffer too much?
I'll give you suffering, but first comes thanks.
Think of that early wild rough world of earth:
lurid, restless, cracking, groaning, heaving,
swishing through space garbage and flak,
cratered with a thousand dry splashdowns
painted over in molten granite. Think of hell,
a mineral hell of fire and smoke. You're there.
What's it all for? Is this the lucky planet?
Can you down a pint of lava, make love
to the Grand Canyon, tuck a thunderbolt
in its cradle? Yes and no, folks, yes and no.
You must have patience with the story.
I took myself to the crest of a ridge
once it was pushed up and cooled.
There were more cloudscapes than earthquakes.
You could walk on rock and feel rain.
You shivered but smiled in the fine tang.
Then I came down to stand in the shallows
of a great ocean, my collar up to the wind,
but listen, it was more than the wind I heard,
it was life at last, emerging from the sea,
shuffling, sliding, sucking, scuttling, so small
that on hands and knees I had to strain my eyes.
A trail of half-transparent twitchings!
A scum of algae! A greening! A breathing!
And no one would stop them, volcanoes wouldn't stop them!
How far would they go? What would they not try?
I punched the sky, my friends, I punched the sky.
End of the Dinosaurs
(65 Million B.C.)
If you want life, this is something like it.
I made myself a tree-house, and from there
I could see distant scrubby savannas
but mostly it was jungle, lush to bursting
with ferns, palms, creepers, reeds, and the first flowers.
Somewhere a half-seen slither of giant snakes,
a steamy swamp, a crocodile-drift
in and out of sunlight. But all this, I must tell you,
was only background for the rulers of life,
the dinosaurs. Who could stand against them?
They pounded the earth, they lazed in lakes,
they razored through the sultry air.
if you will, the scrunchings of frond and branch
but also of joint and gristle. It's not a game.
I watched a tyrannosaurus rise on its hindlegs
to slice a browsing diplodocus, just like that,
a hiss, a squirm, a shake, a supper -
velociraptors scattered like rabbits.
It didn't last. It couldn't? I don't know.
Were they too big, too monstrous, yet wonderful
with all the wonder of terror. Were there other plans?
I saw the very day the asteroid struck:
mass panic, mass destruction, mass smoke and mass ash
that broke like a black wave over land and sea,
billowing, thickening, choking, until no sun
could pierce the pall and no plants grew and no
lizards however terrible found food and no
thundering of armoured living tons disturbed
the forest floor and there was no dawn roar,
only the moans, only the dying groans
of those bewildered clinker-throated ex-time-lords,
only, at the end, skulls and ribs and hatchless
eggs in swamps and deserts
left for the inheritors -
my friends, that's you and me
branched on a different tree:
what shall we do, or be?
In the Cave
Dark was the cave where I discovered man,
but he made it, in his own way, bright.
The cavern itself was like a vast hall
within a labyrinth of tunnels. Children
set lamps on ledges. Women fanned a hearth.
Suddenly with a jagged flare of torches
men trooped in from the hunt, threw down
jagged masses of meat, peeled off furs
by the fire till they were half-naked, glistening
with sweat, stocky intelligent ruffians,
brought the cave alive with rapid jagged speech.
You expected a grunt or two? Not so.
And music, surely not? You never heard
such music, I assure you, as the logs crackled
and the meat sizzled, when some with horns and drums
placed echoes in the honeycomb of corridors.
This was no roaring of dinosaurs.
I joined them for their meal. They had a bard,
a storyteller. Just like me, I said.
I told him about distant times. He interrupted.
'I don't think I believe that. Are you a shaman?
If so, where's your reindeer coat? Have another drink.
If you're a shape-shifter, I'm a truth-teller.
Drink up, we call it beer, it's strong, it's good.
You should've been out with us today,
it isn't every day you catch a mammoth,
keep us fed for a week, fur too, tusks -
nothing wasted. Spears and arrows both,
that's what you need, plus a good crowd a boys,
goo' crowda boys. Take s'more beer, go on.
See mamm'ths? Mamm'ths're fuck'n stupit.
Once they're down they can't get up. Fuck em.
Y'know this, y'know this, ole shaman-man,
we'll be here long after mamm'ths're gone.'
He stumbled to his feet, seized a huge torch and ran
along the wall, making such a wave of sparks
the painted mammoths kicked and keeled once more.
A deep horn gave that movie flicker its score.
The Great Flood
Rain, rain, and rain again, and still more rain,
rain and lightning, rain and mist, a month of downpours,
till the earth quaked gruffly somewhere and sent
tidal waves over the Middle Sea,
tidal waves over the Middle East,
tidal wave and rain and tidal wave
to rave and rove over road and river and grove.
I skimmed the water-level as it rose:
invisible the delta! gone the headman's hut!
drowned at last even the stony jebel!
I groaned at whole families swept out to sea.
Strong horses swam and swam but sank at last.
Little treasures, toys, amulets were licked
off pitiful ramshackle village walls.
Weapons, with the hands that held them, vanished.
So what to do? Oh never underestimate
those feeble scrabbling panting gill-less beings!
Hammers night and day on the high plateau!
Bitumen smoking! Foremen swearing! A boat,
an enormous boat, a ship, a seafarer,
caulked, battened, be-sailed, oar-banked, crammed
with life, human, animal, comestible,
holy with hope, bobbing above the tree-tops,
set off to shouts and songs into the unknown
through rags and carcases and cold storks' nests.
The waters did go down. A whaleback mountain
shouldered up in a brief gleam of sludge,
nudged the ark and grounded it. Hatches gaped.
Heads smelt the air. Some bird was chirping.
And then a rainbow: I laughed, it was too much.
But as they tottered out with their bundles,
their baskets of tools, their goats, their babies,
and broke like a wave over the boulders and mosses,
I thought it was a better wave than the wet one
that had almost buried them all.
we came from, to water we may return.
But keep webbed feet at arm's length! Build!
That's what I told them: re-build, but build!
The Great Pyramid
A building of two million blocks of stone
brought from beyond the Nile by barge and sledge,
dragged up on ramps, trimmed and faced smooth
with bronze chisels and sandstone pads, what a gleam,
what a dazzle of a tomb, what mathematics
in that luminous limestone point against the blue,
the blue above and the yellow below,
the black above and the silver below,
the stars like sand-grains, the pyramid joining them -
You should have seen it, my friends, I must confess
it made a statement to me, and you can scrub
conventional wisdom about the megalomania
of mummies awaiting the lift-off to eternity.
The architects, the surveyors, the purveyors,
the laundresses and cooks, and the brawny gangs
who were not slaves, they would go on strike
if some vizier was stingy with grain or beer:
it was the first mass effort to say
We're here, we did this, this is not nature
but geometry, see it from the moon some day!
Oh but the inauguration, the festivity, the holiday -
I joined the throng, dear people, how could I not?
The sun gave its old blessing, gold and hot and high.
The procession almost rose to meet it:
what was not white linen was lapis-lazuli,
what was not lapis-lazuli was gold,
there was a shining, a stiff rustling, a solemnity,
the pharaoh and his consort carried in golden chairs,
the bodyguards were like bronze statues walking,
there were real desert men with hawks, severe
as hawks themselves, there were scribes and singers,
black dancing-girls oiled to black gold - wild -
and then the long powerful snake of the workers
which rippled from the Nile to the four great faces
and coiled about them for the dedication.
And the bursting wave of music, the brilliant discords,
the blare, the triumph, the steps of the sound-lords
bore away like a storm my storyteller's words.
On the Volga
I fancied a change, bit of chill, nip in the air,
went up into Russia, jogged along the Volga,
quite brisk, breath like steam, blood on the go,
ready for anything, you know the feeling.
But I was not as ready as I thought.
I came upon a camp of Vikings, traders
bound south for the Black Sea, big men, fair,
tattooed, their ships at anchor in the river.
Their chief had died, I was to witness
the ritual of cremation. It is so clear -
dear people, I must speak and you must hear -
A boat was dragged on shore, faggots were stacked,
they dressed the dead man in cloth of gold, laid him
in a tent on deck. Who would die with him?
A girl volunteered - yes, a true volunteer -
walked about singing, not downcast, stood
sometimes laughing, believe me, talking to friends.
What did she think of the dog that was cut in two,
thrown into the ship? Nothing, it was what was done.
The horses? The chief must have his beasts
by his side on that black journey. She,
when her time had come, went into six tents
one by one, and lay with the men there.
Each entered her gently, saying 'Tell your master
I did this only for love of you.' Strong drink
was given her, cup after cup. Stumbling, singing,
she was lifted onto the ship, laid down, held,
stabbed by a grim crone and strangled simultaneously
by two strong men, so no one could say who killed her.
Shields were beaten with staves to drown her cries.
Sex and death, drink and fire - the fourth was to come.
The ship was torched, caught quickly, spat, crackled,
burned, birchwood, tent-cloth, flesh, cloth of gold
melted in the blaze that was fanned even faster
by a storm blowing up from the west, sending
wave after wave of smoke in flight across the river.
My friends, do you want to know what you should feel?
I can't tell you, but feel you must. My story's real.
The Pope sent a letter to the Great Khan, saying
'We do not understand you. Why do you not obey?
We are under the direct command of Heaven.'
The Great Khan replied to the Pope, saying
'We do not understand you. Why do you not obey?
We are under the direct command of Heaven.'
I must admit I turned a couple of cartwheels
when I found these letters. Mongol chutzpah,
I thought, something new in the world, black comedy
you never get from the solemn Saracens.
Why not? Heaven has given them the earth
from Lithuania to Korea, they ride
like the wind over a carpet of bones.
They have laws, they record, they study the stars.
They are a wonder, but what are they for?
I stood in waves of grass, somewhere in Asia
(that's a safe address), chewing dried lamb
and scanning the low thundery sky,
when a column of Mongol soldiers came past,
halted, re-formed, were commended by their shaman
to the sky-god Tengri who was bending the blue
in order to bless them. Instruments appeared
as if from nowhere, a band, war music
but very strange, stopped as suddenly,
except for the beat of kettledrums as the troop
moved forward. Were they refreshed, inspired?
Who knows? But oh that measured conical bob
of steel caps, gleam of lacquered leather jerkins,
indefatigable silent wolf-lope!
Were they off to make rubble of some great city?
I think they were off to enlarge the known world.
They trotted out of sight; the horsemen followed;
a cold wind followed that, with arrows of rain.
Even in my felt jacket I shivered. Yet -
yet they were there to shake the mighty in their seats.
They were like nature, dragons, volcanoes. Keep awake!
Are you awake, dear people? Are you ready for the Horde,
the page-turner, the asteroid, the virtual sword?
Cliffs of Patagonia, coldest of coasts,
and the ships sweeping south-west into the strait
which was to be Magellan's: like St Elmo's fire
I played in the rigging, I was tingling, it was good
to see the navigator make determination
his quadrant and his compass into the unknown.
A mutiny? Always hang ringleaders. He did.
One ship wrecked, one deserted? Right. Right.
On with the other three. This channel of reefs,
a wild month needling through, cursing the fogs,
crossing himself as he saw the land of fire,
Tierra del Fuego, flaring its petroleum hell,
then out at last into what seemed endless waves -
Magellan stared at a watery third of the world.
West! West and north! What squalls! What depths!
What sea-monsters I watched from the crow's-nest!
The starving and parching below, the raving, the rats
for dinner, the gnawing of belts! Magellan held
his piercing eye and salt-white beard straight on
to landfall, to the Marianas and the Philippines and
to death. I shuddered at that beach of blood
where he was hacked to pieces. Would you not?
And would you not rejoice that his lieutenant
sailed on, sailed west, sailed limping back,
one tattered ship, sailed home again to Spain
to prove the world was round. And they would need
more ships, for it was mostly water. A ball
with no edge you could fall from - that seemed fine.
But a wet ball in space, what could hold it together?
Every triumph left a trail of questions.
Just as it should, I told the geographers.
Don't you agree, folks, that's the electric prod
to keep us on the move? Don't care for prods,
put your head in a bag, that's what I say.
Well, I'm given to saying things like that,
Great Ferdinand Magellan,
sleep in peace beneath the seas.
The world's unlocked, and you gave us the keys.
In the Baltic there are many waves,
but in Prussian fields I saw, and did not see,
the wave of thought that got the earth to move.
Copernicus's Tower, as they call it,
took its three storeys to a viewing platform,
open, plenty of night, no telescope though.
I used to watch the light go on, then off,
and a dark figure occlude a star
as he would see the moon do. Moon and sun
swung round the earth, unless you were blind.
No. Earth and moon swung round the sun
and earth swung round itself. Mars, Venus,
all, a family, a system, and the system was solar.
Who was he, and does it matter? No stories
are told about this man who kicked the earth
from its false throne. Luther called him a fool
but Luther was the fool. He had servants,
rode a horse, healed the sick, heard cases,
administered a province, but his big big eyes
smouldered like worlds still unadministered.
Big hands too - but he never married.
War swirled round his enclave, peasants starved,
colleagues fled, he stayed in the smoking town -
something of iron there. A play lampooned him
but nothing could stop this patient revolutionary.
I heard them knock at the door of his death-chamber
to bring him the book of his life's labours
but I doubt if he saw it - he gave no sign -
that tremendous title On the Revolutions
(and what a pun that was) of the Heavenly Spheres
floated above the crumpled haemorrhage and sang
like an angel, a human angel cast loose at last
to voyage in a universe that would no more stand still
than the clouds forming and re-forming
over Copernicus's Tower.
I looked from the roof
till it was dark and starry, and knew my travels
were just beginning: the Magellanic Clouds
wait for those who have climbed Magellan's shrouds.
This poem is taken from PN Review 119, Volume 24 Number 3, January - February 1998.