Poems

First Photo

In memory of Jimmy Winn

There I took my first photo: dark-haired, keen,
My father folds my sister in one arm.
He smiles and hears the click of the machine,
The world of oil and men assumed like a blazer,
A blue pullover or a sweet-foiled razor.
Later we visited a cousin’s farm
Where one brown room was waxed and Sunday-clean,
But half sunk in the hen yard was a broad
Dull knife whose purpose came and left me awed.

I found his warm, accustomed, skilful hand,
And all was made all right in his broad features,
And everything seemed measured out and planned.
Thirty years later and our fingers tap
As I am passing him a folded map.
I cannot bring a bucket of rock-pool creatures
And have him beam at me and understand,
But it dies hard, wanting someone to say
All will be well, with the power to make it so today.

*

The Last Walker

‘Atheism is, of course, defined by lack…’

I inched and slid by darkened bulbous outcrops
On Grasmere Common, chilly, late and slow,
Towards a window’s far unswelling glow.
My halogen head-torch blinded every trace
Of Easedale Tarn and blue-backed mountaintops
But lit the plumes I huffed from awn-sharp air,
Old packhorse slabs and one unravelling lace,
So I switched off the blunt myopic glare

And a thousand stars came out at once, thick, rife,
Some low as lightbulbs, some a few photons strong,
A staggered, glamorous, unrequiring throng.
They burn and blaze till bursting they disburse
Carbon and oxygen, the quick of life.
Meteors leapt as if synaptic wit.
The pure cool forces of the universe!
I gazed and felt no trace of deficit.

*

Heaney’s First Collaboration with Eminem

Or, From Digging Potatoes to Digging Swedes
Or, A Bog-Standard Rap

‘There is this guy Eminem. He has created a sense of what is possible.’ Seamus Heaney

I was born at the family stack down at Mossbawn
And my legs went to frogspawn (as I later told Hobsbaum)
When I saw a real phat frog (you listening dog?),
Ran off like a girl and fell in a bog,
Met a man from Grauballe who’d pissed his tribe off
And brought back the springtime allegedly (cough).
When I was young I was all earth and fire
(I once missed a comet! Man, I musta been wired)
But then I got down with light and water and brim
And writing my new bag, pantheist hymns,
And the lupins keep growing in my back yard
And my hair’s like a cloud and I don’t talk too loud,
And the wolves came down on the fucking fold
Like benevolent Swedes, and all’s right with the world.

*

My Grandfather’s Measure

In memory of Albert Peters

His spool tape measure is imperial only,
Palm-sized, nut-brown. He died at fifty-two
But is unfolded from a box of letters
Sent to his daughter Joyce, my mother, who

Was safe in Scotland, far from bombed West Wickham.
This one, in bashed-out type, gives at the top
Of bright blue paper, crisply edged as ever,
The home address as: ‘Daddy, the wood shop.’

Ironic notes my mother trained me in
Reveal their sources; her sardonic wit
Had roots in days when Beckenham resembled
‘The ruins Cromwell knocked about a bit.’

My grandfather worked in rescue parties: here
They’ve tunnelled in. Despite their skilful hurry
They find ‘the man and woman were both finished.’
He says he’s used to it, and not to worry,

Then turns to news of Spot, her dog, and cricket.
Next month, her mother’s urging him to buy
A luxury shirt. ‘I said it was too dear.’
To spur him on, she’s bought a matching tie.

‘I told her that I’d have to leave the house
Without my trousers on, so I could show
All of the shirt and get good value from it.’
Their registers of love and humour glow

And live: the grandfather I never met
Fills me with laughter. Seventy-five years’ span
Now disappears like rapidly spooling ribbon.
I feel I have the measure of the man.

*

In an Oxford Antiquities Shop

Roman oil lamp with erotic scene

Such images left moderns mortified:
A man and woman rear in ecstasy.
This oil lamp was a talking point and guide.
Now blurred by time, near where the flame once played,
The figures keep a kind of privacy,
And grow more universal as they fade,

Showing the dreaming and imagining,
The sameness and distinctiveness of lovers.
Over a thousand pounds for this old thing!
I pass thick colleges while hurrying home,
And find you waiting deep within the covers
Where soon we are rebuilding ancient Rome.

*

In the Garden

Neptune, open-mouthed, discredited,
Spouts from the fountain on our rosy wall.
This August evening air is equable.
I fetch a bottle from our earthy shed
By swags of grapes that hang in green and red,
And from our complex wrought-iron chairs we call
The talkative cat, watch campanile-tall
Hollyhocks nodding to us from their bed
Then pick some berries. How can I begin
To thank you for all you give and understand?
Icebergs have shrunk to icecubes, topped with gin.
House martins sew the sky. A bumblebee
Goes stumbling round the blue hibiscus tree,
Coated in pollen like a boy in sand.

*

(First published respectively in The Times Literary Supplement,
The Spectator, Oxford Magazine, New Statesman, The Dark Horse and
The New Criterion)