A short anthology...

(Wallace Stevens)

Here am I in Suffolk, UK, ripping open the envelope
From Langhorne, USA, enjoying the confluence of chances that
Booksellers Tom & Rita McCauley live in Pennsylvania,
Not so far from Reading where Wallace Stevens grew up.
I have a whole row of books by him, about him, all the poetry, the letters,
Bloom and Vendler, The Necessary Angel, but not until today

Souvenirs and Prophecies, assembled by his daughter Holly
From the journals of his youth: some of his prolegomena,
Before he slid into his lifelong niche at the Hartford Accident &
Indemnity Co. of Hartford, Connecticut. Scraps of packing paper
Fall from the cardboard case, each listing details of
The Hartford's Mutual Funds, April, 2005... What a witty touch,

What a spirit-lifting wheeze on the part of booksellers
Who have rightly guessed that he who orders Wallace Stevens
From overseas will appreciate this teasing gesture,
An amuse-bouche, as it were, before the feast of Stevens.
Tom McC replies to my grateful email: 'No, we had no idea
Stevens had anything to do with the Hartford –

My wife just uses bits of junk-mail for packing.'
I try to imagine the dry oceans of paper that must float around
The State of Pennsylvania for this to be merely coincidence.
They're souvenirs of what hasn't yet happened, prophecies
From the past, beautiful in all their crumpled dullness,
Like his window's lemon light and the dirt along his sill.

(from Darkness Inside Out)


Passing through one of the little birthdays                                                                            
In nineteen-forty-something...                                                                                                  
The sun was hotter than he could ever remember,                                                               
And from his lookout                                                                                                                  
He could see grass below bleached                                                                                          
To creamy blades, like little patches                                                                                        
Of dried milk, and how the afternoon

Would stretch out in front of him
Along the branch he was looking
Down from, into the fly-rimmed eyes
Of the cows looking up without despair,
Their jaws rolling sideways
On and on... and he could not imagine
How he had ever got here,
Or indeed how he might
Get back down, even now.

(from Darkness Inside Out)


He was alone: a mile each way the beach
was desert with a blue border.
He fiddled the glasses that were his eyes,
he ran up and down the dunes

without moving, he played with terns in the air, their white
plummeting ripostes, and did not mind that he was alone.

He wasn't greedy for the paisley treasures
of air-dancing tortoise-shells, peacocks that close their eyes
to a moonless night, or other, curdy slivers of flight.

To come upon means to invent, they say.
His eye could net them again and agin and be believed,
but was it true the other way?

It was the sea-holly that made him despair
with its bloomed and scratchy leaves

sucking their colour from the waves
beyond Overy Staithe, beyond Gun Hill, on days
when overcasting clouds, flung from The Wash,
scumble dimming blues with greenish greys,

and its roots go down-worming, interlacing dark dune-deeps.

Memory will keep on doing its translations:
as if they were liths of orange

(whose flower-water once candied such roots,
eryngoes that could rouse to edgy sweetness
some merry wives or Essex lasses)

and dripping shimmers off some cobaltic sea,

these leaves were glittering now -- and who would ever believe him? --
with the tangerine metals of scarce coppers

and what he hoped might be the sheeny blues of love
that often flutter past, Eros and Adonis,
lightly touched with lustful mauve.

It was only Icarus he'd come upon, wings unmelted,
still on sea-holly leaves, yet, opening, they
seemed to him at last no small invention, those smalted
fliers pausing there, common as sky.

(National Poetry competition 3rd prize 1988
Flying Blues; Carcanet, 1995)


'Mr Blake, Mr Blake!' I shouted, 'Teach me
how to understand the peepshow of the star-pricked
heavens you write of, the patterns in the wheatfields
with their million listening ears, the sheep-faces
that will look like forbearing owls, the speech-
curve of the crescent moon and the invisible song
that gushes from the thrush's beak all spotty with tune
somewhere in the sepia skirts of the wood!'
And Mr B. fixed his grey eyes on me and
said, 'Do you work with fear and trembling?'
And when I said 'Yes', he replied, 'You'll do!'
I said, 'Mr Blake, is it true that you played
Adam and Eve in your garden here as if Peckham
were after all radiant, reading aloud Paradise Lost,
the two of you, in full undress?' Laughing,
he said not – 'But you must learn to read
with fresh-open eyes if you will find your way,
to read everything, not jkust books and words.
He will read for ever, and a day longer,
who wishes to see the darkness turned inside out.'
And I had this picture in my head of a valley,
fields as thick with corn as pages of words,
and a man lies reading there – one of those bosomy
valleys of Kent which I believe must be related
to the laughing valleys of the Psalms.
What he reads will say, 'Thy clouds drop fatness' –
all over my lovely counties that could be Albion if
only I knew better how to make the fields laugh
and sing. The stones at the bottom of the stream, even.'

(from Darkness Inside Out)


Dear, distant wife, here the bell
does not call us to think on the divine,
leaning on the dark wood of childhood
in clean and singing rooms,
but tolls its signal of terminal release:

men like exhausted fish, played out,
losing the battle with air.
Faith shrinks each second as the coffin's
lowered, the half-alive slowly
hauling in reverse.

I know of a fine homestead built with the craft
of prisoners shining at their exercise;
the rooms cool and spacious with cedar,
fitted with all the fineries of England,
the delicate superior ballast

of our voyage to this under-world.
Imagine them: they were never ours,
such china, such radiant fabrics,.
What grace and ceremonial will suit
the burying of their makers?

At dawn the bellcote summons convicts
blinking and spayed by their labours
from their distant pig-sty; stumbling,
they finger sores where the iron's chewed.
The view from the house is shielded

by a line of foreign trees: so
discreet and civilised, the master
will not let the mistress see them
sweating, working Surrey out of Eden.
Can you imagine pigs manacled

to a Dorset wall by night? I shout
'Let them all rot!' silently to myself.
So discreet and scared.
How visions are by changing views made
insufferable; I watch hours of ships

tacking into time past.
Or is it exile's vision of the future,
the past revising its list
of lamentable manoeuvres?
The shadow on the prison sun-dial

pointing north creeps no nearer you
than I can, my back against infinity.
I practise a smile. My sour muscles ache
in my cheeks. My laugh turns tail.
I wait here at the end of England's

tether, the stale scum of settling minutes.
If only I could reverse the globe's
infamous gravities and let my spirits rise
unnaturally upwards to their antipodes,
to your lovely smile that leans sideways

across your face, to your hooded
and responsive valleys; let the woods
moisten me in a wet September dawn,
the raindrops poised on each twig,
as if History wept for us, wide-eyed.

(from The Loveless Letters; Chatto & Windus; 1981)


The white lights flickering, the gash of vermilion -- but there's more
of blackness in dwindling summer -- it's long past spring,
long past my greening -- even the lit heaven, the blinding gold,
is clouding -- they used to mark spring once by an early Clouded Yellow,
that lovely dancer they began to name a Butter Fly --
saw a late one last August on a patch of vetch, a field just north
of Cool Arbour Lane -- there's a name! --arbour or harbour,
it's all the same to me --an old sky trapper makiong for the shade --
I'll be stretched out on a white sheet like a Sooty Ringlet
or a closed book -- There's a pattern -- never found it --
we come out into the green world like someone's brighter notion --
Mother Harris was no golden chrysalis -- meet our winter
too soon, Vanessa, don't we? --  Some little brilliance, perhaps --
if fortune gets out from under the clouds -- otherwise -- only other why's --

This bed -- this river bank -- the floor moves --
stop, Putney! -- softly, Lambeth! -- I fight the gauze --
oh they net me, Vanessa -- I feel my life coming off like
pretty scales before I'm pinned, boxed under glass --
the last laugh: can the lepid change her spots? Forgive me --
Now where's Camberwell gone, that took me in her vivid lanes?
All summer I hunted down a Grand Surprize -- caught him at last,
the handsome waver -- and me the smart aurelian leaping about
under the sallows -- oh beauty, Camberwell!

It's late for a fly, Vanessa -- don't stay too long by an old man
who'll not see a cloudy shine in April again, nor a creamy morning
when the dew's like a quick drench of Thames over the fields --
Black and beautiful night arrives on wings -- no good fearing
blackness -- I see the white lights fluttering -- and how
your brightness vermeils my eyes --- always you pattern the mysteries
else I wouldn't have pinned you all, drawn and painted to the end --
you showed me how we murder to copy life -- I never
read you right, never -- the why's of our little flight over
this queer planet -- dear Scarlet Admirable,
imago of my real desire, my coloured art -- show me if you will
how the blossom rises in a winged quadrille --

[Moses Harris was a noted 18th century aurelian i.e. lepidopterist, and illustrator of lepidoptera]

(1st prize winner in the Peterloo poetry competition, 1989;
Flying Blues, Carcanet, 1995)


(i.m. Leos Janacek  1854-1928)

(iv)  Madam, the source

Is it a path or a stream? I love these lime trees,
the flowers blown and falling

that will need sweeping, and the leaves, later.
We can sit for hours, too easily, surrounded by good ideas

going brown. Is it a path or a stream?
Madam, when in 1917 I saw your tears,

your child in your arms, your husband away
to war... It must always come from life, he said,

refusing a ride back home on the tram, all its Brno names
rattling away in German.

The notes don't just sit down on the keys!
Madam, these letters of mine, these small black notes...

Tunes that hit like water. I too need a town with a river
through it like a throat, and the voices rushing,

sawing back and forth, bows on the strings. Intimate life.
He was right, the old maestro, ready to climb the path

up through the forest, to put his palm to the trickle
where the river starts: it is so slight but gathering,

like a child pulling a wooden cart over cobbles,
like the song of the goldfinch which breaks every day

through the bars of her owner's cage, like your voice
through its tears, the shout in the street

before the bullets and the bloody fighting.
It all begins in life: he showed me

how a cadence of love, of pain, speaks and dies;
how strongly its memory rivers into song.

(from Darkness Inside Out)

All poems copyright ©  Rodney Pybus 2012