Archive for the ‘Poems’ Category

The nature of all fiery things: Richard Holmes & John Gray play Twister with Humphry Davy & György Faludy

Thursday, April 14th, 2011


Humphry Davy, the Victorian inventor of the safety lamp for miners and, in his later, knighted life, President of the Royal Society, was also, for most of his extremely busy existence, a dedicated amateur poet.

Why you should care about that?

For no particular reason, to be honest but yesterday I was talking about science, and about poetry, singing the less than coherent praises of John Gray’s latest work, The Immortalization Commission.

Even while I was writing that post, something in the back of my ridiculously cluttered and ill-lit mind kept telling me I had read another book, not that long ago, that had been full of science and poetry as well…

… and, a bit earlier today, I remembered what that had been. I even quoted from it on this blog, some time ago, by the way.

Yes, it’s Richard Holmes’s magnus opus, ‘The Age of Wonder’, with the equally magnificent subtitle ‘How the Romantic generation discovered the beauty and terror of science’.

A truly wonderful book – but let’s get back to one of the book’s many entertaining characters, the chemist and inventor Humphry Davy. (Here’s a helpful Wiki article, if you want a quick fix introduction.)

So, yesterday, I ended with a poem by György Faludy – and yes, indeed, today’s post is no more than an addendum to that earlier one – and we will close the curtain on this current instalment with a poem by Sir Humphry Davy.

Not because it’s a great poem. It isn’t. Yet it hits upon something John Gray talks about in his own book: the way people seek out signs and theories that confirm their anthropocentric delusions:


‘We trace analogies; as if it were

A joy to blend all contrarieties,

And to discover

In things the most unlike some qualities

Having relationship and family ties.


Thus life we term a spark, a fire, a flame;

And then we call that fire, that flame, immortal,

Although the nature of all fiery things

Belonging to the earth is perishable.’


‘My wrist-watch was a table laid for twelve': Exploring humanity’s timeless need for meaning & control

Wednesday, April 13th, 2011

(Philosopher and poet meet under the same sky…)

I could easily file today’s post under the categaroty ‘Quote Of The Day’ – and I will start with one – but, thanks to a book I will discuss in a few moments’ time, it contains multitudes.

First, that quote:

‘Science and religion serve different human needs – religion the need for meaning, science for control.’

So, yes, I just finished reading John Gray’s latest book, ‘The Immortalization Commission’.

It’s by no means a perfect book. It is too meandering – to the point of dragging on too much in certain places but like any river, it has long stretches of an almost timeless, sheer alien beauty, and places where it’s glorious (or simply lovely) to stay a while and enjoy the moment.

The book is both argument and song: demanding and, at times, aloof – like a sermon in some ancient, forbidding cathedral – but there is always the promise (and the presence) of a choir, that fills the known and unknowable spaces with beauty and wonder.

It deals with Victorian obsessions & Stalin’s insane depravity, while it also offers generous helpings of earth-bound poetry. It’s both a series of snapshots, of madness lost in and defined by the all-encompassing chaos as it is an argument to forego the irrational demands and claims of both faith and science.

Gray also includes part of a poem by György Faludy, ‘Soliloquy on Life and Death’, which the poet wrote in 1952, in a Hungarian prison.

I will copy it here. Read it before you order a copy of Gray’s book of your own – but, above all else, enjoy:


‘Drunk on the emptied wine-cup of the earth

I grasped at people, objects and at thoughts

as drunkards cling to lamp-posts for support.

And so my world became a lovely place,

became a gallery bedecked by stars

and draped with three-dimensional tapestries,

a warehouse stacked with bales of wonder where

my wrist-watch was a table laid for twelve

and seconds passed in heavy honeyed drops.’

‘And the men who hold high places must be the ones who start
To mould a new reality closer to the Heart’

Echoes of fleeting ghosts: On footnotes, Andrew Motion and Wilfred Owen

Saturday, March 5th, 2011

(More about Andrew Motion here…)

Yesterday’s column was about a poem by Andrew Motion. I spent most of the rest of that evening (and this morning) rereading his anthology, ‘Selected Poems 1976-1997′. So, the rest of this weekend I will keep on talking about poetry, and about Andrew Motion’s poems.

Before I return to him, this:

What I dislike about the Norton anthologies we used in college – apart from those awkward cigarette paper pages – was the amount of footnotes in these books. Some of those footnotes were useful enough, providing us with bi(bli)ographical, geographical and historical detail but too many were, or what felt to be, obsessively intrusive: almost like the editors were showing off.

There were always these perfectly ordinary words & phrases that came with a footnote explaining that this, that or the other referred to a line written by some other, dead poet.

These were not, for the most part, instances of those famed Homeric ‘wine red seas’ but, let’s say, a perfectly straightforward mentioning of ‘high roofs’ would have one editor or the other swoon in perfectly obscure recognition of another high roof, in another poem – and this was just annoying. Even if this later poet had smiled while writing his or her ‘high roofs’, with the fleeting echo of another roof in his or her head, this did not warrant such a clunky reference. It weighed down these words and shackled them like unfortunate and heavily handed ghosts.

I have to admit though that I’m also guilty of playing with echoes. In my own poems I associate freely with words and images used by other poets. What I hope for is that these echoes are unobtrusive: that readers who don’t recognize the references won’t even notice any form of intrusion and that those who do will do so with fleeting half smiles.

What I would not like is some bloody editor explaining every little thing.

Anyway, I was reminded of those Norton footnotes while I was reading through the Andrew Motion anthology. I bought it, some years ago, in a second hand book store and the former owner had littered his or her copy with pencilled notes – and though I tried to erase these squirrelly signs, I can still see quite a few of these ghostly silhouettes, whenever I read the book.

Most of these notes are inoffensive but some show that old Norton touch. Like the one in the long and marvellous poem ‘Lines of Desire’.

In one strophe the reader cleverly identifies a quote (‘Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!’) as a line from a Wilfred Owen poem – but modestly, not even using one of the dead poet’s own exclamation marks in his or her discreetly pencilled “ —> Wilfred Owen”.

In a following strophe, there are the lines

‘Yes, I fell in love with a soldier

seventy years younger than me,’

and here’s the former owner of the anthology again, with his or her ever eager pencil, encircling the word ‘soldier’ and adding, at the end of the line, “ —> Wilfred Owen?”

Which is silly – and way too heavy-handed. When Owen wrote his poems, of course he did talk about his experiences in the Great War but not in a self-obsessed manner. If anything, he was the exact counterweight to today’s reality TV celebrities, who always need to be the loud & ugly & pathetic centre of the whole universe. Owen was more self-effacing: when he wrote about (the fate of) soldiers any echo of himself he found there was just a reminder that everybody is the centre of his or her personal universe and that the poet was no more the centre of a poem than a corpse, or a rat, or the dying sigh of some anonymous soldier.

So, no, my ghostly pencil-paced, careful pre-owner, Owen would not have been very pleased with your need to stamp his face on that seventy years’ younger soldier. He would have preferred you to fall in love with the image of all those soldiers he tried to portray in his poems – and you would have honoured him more if you had.

End of lecture.

Okay, one footnote…:

Dulce et Decorum est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime. —
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, —
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

(More about Wilfred Owen here…)

What hope she had survives her here: Inside the Anne Frank Huis

Friday, March 4th, 2011

We don’t even know exactly when she died: at the end of February or in March 1945.

I was reading Andrew Motion, earlier this evening – an unrelated poem, ‘Inside and Out’:

And shadows we stayed, or tried to,

knowing, before it fell, that night

after night would discover us still

caught in our absolute lives.

Then, I remembered the Anne Frank poem – and I had to read it again, even though I knew it would discover me still haunted by these three years of whispering and loneliness.

It’s probably a breach of copyright, to post the poem here but I hope the poet and his publisher will forgive me…

… in the same way that I hope that whoever reads this will also want to read more of Andrew Motion’s poetry.

Anyway, here’s the poem:

Anne Frank Huis

Even now, after twice her lifetime of grief
and anger in the very place, whoever comes
to climb these narrow stairs, discovers how
the bookcase slides aside, then walks through
shadow into sunlit rooms, can never help

but break her secrecy again. Just listening
is a kind of guilt: the Westerkirk repeats
itself outside, as if all time worked round
towards her fear, and made each stroke
die down on guarded streets. Imagine it –

three years of whispering and loneliness
and plotting, day by day, the Allied line
in Europe with a yellow chalk. What hope
she had for ordinary love and interest
survives her here, displayed above the bed

as pictures of her family; some actors;
fashions chosen by Princess Elizabeth.
And those who stoop to see them find
not only patience missing its reward,
but one enduring wish for chances

like my own: to leave as simply
as I do, and walk at ease
up dusty tree-lined avenues, or watch
a silent barge come clear of bridges
settling their reflections in the blue canal.

(You can find more about Andrew Motion here…)

The river and the river: A love song

Tuesday, February 1st, 2011

(Vlatava river, through a tram 9 window)

It’s five days now since I returned from Prague. I still miss that old stone monster as much as in the moment that the plane took off from Ruzyne Airport.

Ah well. So, this is for Prague – and a certain lady I left behind (again.)

Marry me

Down by the river,
where we stopped
to greet the sleeping swans,

bats twinkle darkly,
on and off,
between the trees,

like hesitant and twisted
twins of stately blinking,
distant stars.

(I look at you.
You smile – and all
that I can think is,

Marry me.
My love,
please marry me:

My doubts, my fears
and all those years
I lived without you.

Marry me.
My love,
please marry me:

My fierce and lonely pride,
the places where I used to hide,
before I knew you.)

The swans and trees still sleep,
the bats move like those trembling flecks
on an old movie screen,

where lovers kiss on a deserted bridge
and hold on to each other,
while the credits roll.

Let us go then, you and I, brave and uncaring, like true poets

Friday, January 28th, 2011

There’s all kinds of stuff you can say about poetry (writing) and most of it would be as useless as a full Brazilian on Mrs Doubtfire.

One of the things I believe is that you should write poetry as if you would write a diary: with no thought of other eyes, nor judgement – and you must do so, not feeling free to write as you do, but with no thought of any other option.

So, let’s go and visit three poets who are brave and uncaring. Here goes:

Silvia Plath’s ‘Stillborn’

These poems do not live: it’s a sad diagnosis.

They grew their toes and fingers well enough,

Their little foreheads bulged with concentration.

If they missed out on walking about like people

It wasn’t for any lack of mother-love.

O I cannot explain what happened to them!

They are proper in shape and number and every part.

They sit so nicely in the pickling fluid!

They smile and smile and smile at me.

And still the lungs won’t fill and the heart won’t start.

They are not pigs, they are not even fish,

Though they have a piggy and a fishy air —

It would be better if they were alive, and that’s what they were.

But they are dead, and their mother near dead with distraction,

And they stupidly stare and do not speak of her.

Selima Hill’s ‘Portrait of My Lover as a Cockroach

You kiss me

like a scratchy little cockroach

scuttling across a concrete floor

in a wedding-dress

Jane Hirshfield’s ‘The Groundfall Pear’

It is the one he chooses

yellow, plump, a little bruised

on one side from falling.

That place he takes first.

Long for rain (and sleep, and Prague, and you…)

Wednesday, November 24th, 2010


Right, I’ll be on the road for a good part of the day, tomorrow – so, I’ll write this now – and put it on hold, so that anyone out there desperate to read his or her daily entrance will be able to do so.

Me, well, when you read this (on the Day Of The Posting, that is), I’ll probably be in bed.

My schedule of the day having been: going to work at 23.30, coming home at 9.00 – getting a cab to the airport at 9.30, arriving in Prague at 12.00, going to the nearest bar soon after I’ve dropped my luggage at Marta’s place (who will be at work, damn her…!) and then, as I said, and after a few beers & Fernet, to bed…

so, like yesterday, I will leave you with yet another old poem. It’s one from a collection of poems you can actually still buy if you follow this link…

Enough from me – apart from that poem. See you later.

Long for rain

The herbs are doing well,

on my small balcony.

It’s raining now,

after a week of sun,

when I had to water them

each day.

I don’t know why I’m

writing this to you –

maybe I am homesick.

Maybe, like those herbs,

I long for rain.

Here’s (Pope) Johnny: Breakneck speed it ain’t

Tuesday, November 23rd, 2010

Oh well…

Pope Benedict caused surprise by taking as his example a male prostitute who used a condom to protect his client. But in so doing he avoided breaching his church’s opposition to artificial contraception: birth control not being an issue in male homosexual relations.”

so, here’s to the Pope going to Hell in a handcart with

Breakneck speed

Fireflies and flowers and mummified pharaohs:
everything’s dying with breakneck speed.
All of our moments are dying around us;

we’re shedding our breath with our skin.
Mozart is gone and so is next century;
now is the skull within.

There are no morals and there is no prayer
against or to Entropy.
Fireflies and flowers and mummified pharaohs:

it has been tried in bronze and steel
and cold concrete dreams –
yet all is dying with breakneck speed.

(Now watch the butterfly…)

Touch the soft skin covering the vein or
make sculptures of winter breath.
Blow the smoke of your cigarette into a ray of light,

that leaks through a crack in the roof of the barn.
Know these are mirrors and mirrors are liquid:
forever changing and dying worlds.

Put a finger on your eyelid and feel
the fluttering eye behind the prison door.
Know this is nothing and nothing can save us

but we can cheat and enjoy
these feeble few seconds, while we are
here, dying with breakneck speed…

… or something like that – and no, that was just an old poem that has been gathering dust in the binary archives, for ages. Not really relevant to today’s (or any other) topic. Just like the Pope himself, I guess – and yes, anything to play this old record again…


The Devil went down on Georgia (or: The sympathy vote)

Saturday, November 6th, 2010

This is something I wrote, some twenty years ago:

Bottom of the ninth

God is out drinking;

the Devil is asleep.

The angels linger in the outfield;

who is there to guard my sleep?

Why am I regurgitating ancient doggerel?

Fair question – and here’s why.

I just finished reading the damn thing. It’s good.

Buy it.

Borrow it. Hell, steal it.

Just read it.

Slow journeys

Friday, November 5th, 2010


I call to you,
I call to you:
the child,
the children;
the moments we were so alive
and without thought.

The magic of moments;
the curtains that moved with the night;
the curtains that promised all fear
and protection at times.
The witch and the teeth
and the moments of praying.
The gathering night
and the magic,
so fearsome and true.


The well-used deck of playing cards;
the crease that like an avalanche
ran through the two of hearts –
and all those signs and
mangled cards.
The games we played:
I turn a card –
and now you love me,
now I hate you.


And the night;
those first dark promises
of joy and death.
Before I knew
the full vocabulary of lust,
I dreamt up demons
and sweet torture.
Waking up with sudden
cooling white and swamp stuff.


Fear, at times,
does not need words.
I knew I was doomed;
I knew I was tainted.
I had a world of hurt
and an amazing lack of trust
to feed me to these nights
and to the light,
that if it caught me
would proclaim me
to be monstrous.


All of the darkness and fear,
all of those moments
that I was afraid.

But I was also so often in love.
There was Jacqueline –
and yes,
I was nine years’ old.
I had no language for love,
so I dreamt of saving her from lions
and tribes of cannibals –
and I also dreamt of
dancing round the fires,
partaking from her naked,
roasted body.
I was the saviour and the demon,
feasting on my virtue and her flesh.


Then there was no doubt.
I was the age of monsters,
invented and included every day –
fear and play a dance of moments:
what’s the colour,
what’s the smell of what is right,
when all that happens
is new and fearsome
and strange and oh so bright.

And how I loved and how I feared
in all those moments.


And loving,
growing older,
tainted with this knowledge:
lies are lifelines;
lies are safe –
I committed endless sins
against the light,
against the bearings
of my still and shallow soul.

I lied to fuck;
I lied to be alone.
I lied and was quite happy for a while
to curse and to deny
the shadow and the light.

And I denied the Gods
that wait for us
to listen to the flesh
and to forgive and dream of love.


I’ve wasted worlds
between the child I was
and what I now,
so slowly, am becoming.
And I remember.

And still there is time
to forgive what I was:
the years of waste
and the years of pain –
where I hurt and I loved
from great distance.


I have grown less heroic now.
And when I say I do remember,
there are no ravens circling
some tall, dark midnight tower.

Now I love and live,
not for effect or for perfection,
not in denial or greed.
I’ve done a lot of miles and breathing
and I know now
I’m not wise or special –
and I’m not done with learning yet.

But I’ve learnt to think and feel and love;
and that’s enough for now.
To know the truth
and the lie of the land.
To love and to grow
and to learn
to take each breath as it comes,
without pride,
without shame.


I listen to my footsteps;
I’m learning to be quiet.
What’s left is still
a lot of catching up to do
with my heart.

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