Poems and extracts
FROM: Dancing Out Of The Dark Side (2005)
In one brilliant moment there is your own soul’s breath
searing in baby flesh
and dipping into curious things,
puddles and leaves.
A small hand is gripping your finger,
pulling you into the garden,
where the blossom he taps to see the snowy flutter
is that entranced moment that lasts beyond life
and might have come before it: an infinite
moment that waited for its entrance here.
Dig - dig here. He shows you a centipede -
the vital lightening, a single flame
of gold he’s never seen before.
And neither, you realise, have you.
What the something is that fills your nothingness
is not his showing you how to dig,
but how to love.
Once I sat all day in field and lane
to paint the everywhere pouring green.
Slept out in it on month-long wanderings:
green sprinkled with daisies, and the buttercups' candelabras,
and poppies, with their black hearts, and their red,
that seem so bold but are the frailest flowers,
living one day, collapsing in my hands.
Green crushed under the cattle's hooves and tongues,
strained out of the bodies of flies,
and smearing its juice on the farmer's cart.
Green through which birds hurtle and dive.
Green ripening to yellow sinking from the tip
of the corn slowly as the days turn by.
Green associated with mothers:
it was my mother's name.
I came out of the fields
a green man covered in a cling of seeds
rubbed off the hedgerows. Not quite sane
and awkward in the pubs on summer evenings.
With my smeared paintings,
wanting to be a peasant
as Van Gogh tried to be a priest:
a tunnel, a narrow gate mistaken for a way.
When I came here I had to un-nail the door
and break into its dark. Rain
dripping for years had rotted the floor.
I possessed first a smell of soot and ashes.
I let light in, and, twice, I married,
and left here for Greece
where often I’d blink at the light
and long for some, for this dark place,
just as the Greeks did as a matter of fact,
closing shutters and lurking in siestas.
Did I marry that one for her darkness,
did I turn to another for her light?
Then that light too became ashes.
Shadows of marriage haunt the corners
of house, woods, villages and hills.
Today I took our carpets where the cars
of other townsfolk loop around the tip
on this Bank Holiday: a clearance fiesta.
That house I once let light into is soon restored.
Visible, the wood and stone. Bare boards.
I re-discover the long-walled-up fireplaces.
Tonight – a glass of whisky in my hand –
for the first time again I can smell ashes.
November 24th, Calder Valley
West Yorkshire light today is as clear as Arles,
the hills are cobalt blue and
although it is cold in the wind
sun in the valley brings a smell of pines.
He steps from the slum of his rusting Ford
leaving his music playing.
In baseball cap and cement-clogged trainers
he is more rabbit than 'cowboy' of the building trade
burrowing, wandering, and officially unemployed.
He's moved in next door to live alone.
How do you like it here? I ask.
He stares at the emptiness he's put up with for a week -
trees fan their bright blades through the wood in the light -
then tightens on an important question.
'It's alright now I've a stereo in the car.
I am in the pub taproom where Milton did his ironing
In the quiet hours, but mostly Mrs Buckley’s
and hung it on a “maiden” by the fire
that he had lit and polished the brasses.
Milton Appleyard is who I mean.
A tough and self-contained ex-farmer
fallen on bad, or was it good, times,
he hand-washed and ironed
the undies of his dumpy odalisque
and served her in her hidden place
(their teeth in mild bleach by the bed, fancy that)
then fetched beer in a jug
where Buckley dared not enter and Mrs didn’t
among starched underwear and blouses.
He swept it, scrubbed it, ruled it,
choosing never to leave his bed and board
except to bring warm eggs in from the grass
or hang out washing above the roaming hens.
I catch it fortunately in its near-silence
and warmth of embers trapped from last night.
An hour like those that made their honeymoon;
that time when calls of poultry, curlews, larks
and Buckley’s grumbles invaded their window.
One pint of beer in the early evening
and I could almost live here again –
just as I almost did in the past,
like Milton with “my feet under the table”,
as welcome as any for my wit and my money.
The moor outside, and this taproom-kitchen -
“the poor man’s study”, as one dialect poet wrote -
is still the same; a stone floor, and a flagged ceiling,
and through the peephole window a damp green light
where crows tossed in the breaths
of thermals over the wood are dancing
but are really just blown on threads of air.
They have nests to steady them somewhere
and I, a pint of Lees’ dark bitter in my hand,
hold a dim thought of not being chucked out at eleven,
of not being chucked out ever - Milton’s ghost.
FROM: Two Marriages (2007)
We would rise and make love out of the sea;
the sea’s blue and its spray fell from us,
my second, Greek wife and I.
Imagine a heat where nothing moves.
Though day and light must have increased and declined
yet I did not perceive it, nor
see change of life nor shadow on the herbage,
nor clouds, nor colour beyond the blue,
much blue, and varied gold and white,
nor sound beyond the even murmurs,
that therefore was no sound,
of insects in far trees beyond the sand
and out of this silence, from time to time, a lunge
of the sea lifting, weary perhaps, anyway gentle,
feminine I would say, strong, graceful,
with a rhythmic mounting, then a falling back,
that Yeats might term “a shudder in the loins”.
And we two making love. I’ll not describe that;
who can? Only before and after are we aware.
Metaphors will have to do. The sea.
Those images I have described.
The sea still heard, from behind our rock,
in perfect rhythm for us, its sigh and fall,
but endless, heard after we had tired,
no not tired but emptied - shared exhaustion’s bliss -
and slept in one another’s sandy arms.
Wake with eyes turned from the truth
of light. Kiss salt from off her hips.
Naked on this beach she’s divested
of her bird-bright elegance from Harrod or Biba,
Paris or London, but not her beauty.
These images I retain today: her pearl skin
and long, Minoan waist
that I’d only seen in Cretan sculptures:
pale stone, like her flesh, unreddening, smooth,
delightful to trace one’s fingers on -
and one’s lips, if museums would let one do it.
After love she’s detached. Yet not detached, really.
Consummated, with an inner stillness.
Men are thought to be so too, but I never was
any less aware nor desiring of her.
Truthfully, she was more aware of me than before - just, not looking.
I wanted it to last for ever,
and little, if I’m honest, did I feel more than that,
not consciously. Of course, I did take in
her beauty (that again), carrying towels and her beach-bag
by the shore of that thrilling leap of the sea -
the pale foam sprinkled, then all dying away -
strolling long-legged for a beer
(that is, an Amstell for me, for she drinks water)
for psomi and octopothia
under a cane-roofed, light-dappled taverna
where the northern tourists have arrived
(for this is early nineteen-seventy-four),
basted with sun oil for the roasting.
Though the quality of a moment at the time
has sometimes escaped me, yet I knew
that this was happiness at aged thirty nine -
more than I’d dreamed of at twenty. (And fitter, too.)
Did I deserve such happiness
of being given to, like this, and loved like this?
At that time I assumed it. Now, I think I didn’t.
Then again: when did love start?
Was it when hit by the glamour of her life:
an international shining, first in Hammersmith?
There seemed no place I’d stop in pursuit of feelings.
But what you know is, you’re a different person,
one that you hadn’t guessed you were,
one maybe better or worse; but clearly
there are as many selves to be as there are loves.
FROM: The Summer The Dictators Fell (2005)
I went to Greece for the first time in 1974, by train. It was called “The Orient Express” and indeed it raced luxuriously as far as Venice. Then it crawled through Yugoslavia, the carriages worsening as it exchanged holiday-makers for migrant workers. The countryside it limped through changed character too, yet it still seemed European.
At the Greek border I burst into somewhere else. I was to make this journey overland several times, usually by coach from Victoria, and the sense never left me of hitting a country different to anywhere that I knew. To call it “magical” is banal and imprecise, yet no other word will do. Partly, I mean by this, what goes beyond the expected and accountable. One could eulogize the light. Or the colour: the blue, the white, and the gold of summer. Or the aura of culture and history that seems so much our own - simply because we have adopted it. But the magic is that which comes when one plus one do not add up to two, they make infinity, where east meets west and north meets south, in Greece.
My second reaction was bewilderment at the savagery that lay beneath. In 1974 the “military Junta” was in power. It had been so for six years, and apparently considered itself invulnerable – in the very year in which, as it turned out, it was to be destroyed. Ars longa, vita brevis. I met it in force at the border, when panic ran through the train as the cool guys in powder-blue uniforms came on board. The Greek passengers, mostly migrant workers or students, were ducking and diving. They grew frantic as the train slid from one border post to another. Illegal imports of cameras and tape-recorders were hidden, if foreign travellers could not be induced to smuggle them. I understood then why my fellow passengers had previously been so generous with a crate of lager.
How this ferocious complex of police and army officers had arisen, received strikingly different explanations according to whether one asked “The Right” or “The Left”. So did the whole modern history of Greece since the early-nineteenth century expulsion of the Turks. But nothing was more certain than that everyone held an opinion. It was humorous, cynical, and cautious if one was “Left”; arrogant if one was “Right”. The foreign books about Greece also offered opposing views. One might be reading of different countries. I divined a chaotic political history. Divisions had exploded early, during the Revolution that had driven out the Turks after four hundred years of static occupation. (Four hundred stagnant years! I wondered whether this was really so, or was it in part at least consequent upon the blindness of an over-Hellenised viewpoint that had no sympathy with Islam?) These divisions were still fighting one another, unresolved. The Right Wing that culminated in the Junta believed that all was settled, the country was returned to a military aristocracy and a compliant peasantry. But it was not so. The tenacious spirit found among fishermen, exiled artists, construction workers, not to mention those in prison camps - those who read history differently - ensured it would not be so.
I was in Greece because I had married an Elenida – a Greek woman. This marriage was exciting in a peculiar way all its own. Especially as this too was chaotic from the start. While reflecting the outer reality of Greece, it also sprang out of both of our natures. As I see it now, she and I lived out incompatible forms of personal chaos for five years. I often tired of trying to steady it and my wife, too, in her way, tried as hard as I did. Thirty years later, I realise how little I appreciated her endeavours, even as I enjoyed their domestic fruits. Just as, I believe, she did not appreciate my efforts to keep hold of whatever I might be able to believe in from one day to the next; in some decision in her welter of impulses. I was often told that this was “very Greek” and that I did not understand it.
But it is mostly not my intention here to describe a marriage. I have attempted that before, and found yet another chaos about me; a muddle of subjective anger and suppressed love, with a delusion of objectivity that I thought necessary to effect a cure; unable to sort out which was which. Some would suggest that we both might have benefited from psychotherapy. That might (or might not) have short-circuited the process that has taken me thirty years of introspection. At the time, I felt I could comprehend her chaotic soul better than my own. Now, I think I understand my own better than I did hers.
As so many English discover with shock and conflict: I had also married into a family whose mores were incompatible with mine. As with so many others, I feared to drown in its possessive kindness - and in my incomprehension. It is part of the character of Greece – and a factor that connects its modern with its ancient world – for most matters to seem over-stated. At times (I hope I am understood to be writing this affectionately) my life in Greece seemed like a lunatics’ playground. I believe Greek life was always so. And anyone who views ancient drama with different eyes is looking at it through a too-civilized glaze.
In the end, it was not my wife who joined my tribe, but I who joined hers. There she performed at full tilt, while I ultimately felt myself a mystified outcast from my generous-hearted, new family. I suffered homesickness - yet it was to no greater extent than that to which I revelled in being there.
People often say, “I never knew that I was happy. I wish I’d known it at the time.” I have always been aware at the time of being happy; of moments that have been intense or beautiful. My loving amazement was for a country where Nature was so fulsome, where the spring was an orgasmic spasm, and the sea almost always a shade of blue, even in winter. A place in which I could pluck oranges, lemons, quinces, figs and grapes from the trees. Where country people were generous with all that they possessed. They too were filled with that same fulsomeness of Nature – even in their manner of dining noisily out of doors.
And even in the depth of their embracing of joy and tragedy. They dived into it shamelessly and publicly. They washed it away in dark waters, and rose ready for merriment, restored to receive further blows from fate. Thirty years later, I realize that I felt an outcast largely because of my own negativity. The tragedy is that I have had to adjust my kharma elsewhere, in a different place. Thirty years have gone by, and although probably none of that family will read this book, yet, if dedicated to anyone, it is dedicated in humility to them.
That summer of 1974 reached a climax in which a septic Greece was lanced. At that time, when the country fell into the abyss and was reborn, there were days when a writer seemed a useless person. One thinking about his feelings, and feeling his thoughts, suffering and articulating an anxiety for his soul, that was shameful in the context of real anxieties and grief – that is, bodily ones. The chaos around me got into my writing. I completed little at the time, and almost everything that I wrote, in the form of frustrated notes, ended up in box files that I have kept unopened for thirty years. …
… When I had sweltered to the crest of the hill, my ankles bleeding from the thorns, I found myself staring over an unrecognizable valley. All I could see was the top surfaces of olive trees, beyond them the white mountains. I realised that I was lost. There was no one around, no habitation, no landmarks that I could distinguish, and I had no map and no compass. I was disorientated, and hardly capable of moving in the heat.
A concept of Nature that I had cherished for the whole of my life slid away at this moment. An English and Wordsworthian notion of Nature as friendly, sustaining and loving, vanished in one epiphany. Nature was terrible…
My immediate need was for shade and rest. Like a sun-mad, Biblical prophet in the desert, or like one of those driven, semi-lunatic saints I had read about in Gibbon, I fell upon a few feet of shadow. It was a bed of gravel that had been weather-pounded in the lee a rock: a place bare enough for me to espy any snakes or scorpions. I settled to wait for the day to cool, meanwhile hoping to entertain myself with my thoughts. I had often indulged the fancy of living in a lonely shack by the sea, spending my days staring out the eternal verities; pebbles shaped by eternity the only art I wanted to accompany me. I ate a couple of my figs. Then I lay back on my gravel bed, my rucksack for a pillow.
No thoughts came. The truth was that I was too frightened. I needed to rest and to avoid the sun, but exactly for how long could I do this before the speedy twilight of the south turned to darkness that would render me even further trackless and lost? The retsina was still making me drowsy, yet my sleepless mind settled only on the memory of the last human beings I had met. My last possible friends had been the children who had mocked me; also the proprietor of the taverna, who while I ate had sat on the step, a mattock in his hand, and casually chopped the head off a hen that strayed near. The carcass had fluttered and convulsed while he dangled it for five minutes by its legs, and nearby I ate my way through goat’s meat and cold chips. My smiling, new friend Kyrie Maria seemed a million miles away.
As I was staring into the whitened, summer sky, I experienced the same vertigo as when I had been earlier looking at the stars. It was a giddy sensation of being no more than an iota of dust in the sun, spinning through the bleached mist of afternoon light. It was so strong that I clutched at the stones, and pressed my back into earth and gravel, praying that it would hold me, and in fear of falling off the world.
I closed my eyes. I slept for a short time. When I opened my eyes, I saw an eagle and its mate swing in overlapping circles above the valley. Their circles must have been a mile in diameter. They crossed the far ridge, covered another valley, then returned to each other, with hardly a wing beat among the thermals, and no cries. To my mind then it seemed that the great mountains of Crete, where I had so easily lost my bearings, fell away or moved closer to one another - themselves weaving and wavering, circling around the eagles that seemed motionless. As the world does, indeed, circle around eagles.
The more I stared upwards, focussed on whichever eagle happened to be above me, the more I was, literally, lost to the world. My mind and spirit floated in a vertiginous space, in hunger, thirst and fear. It was a space that freed me from this planet. A space that paradoxically drugged me with happiness, with a largeness of spirit, in proportion to my feeling smaller in bodily significance, in an infinite Universe…
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