Outside all is gray, unutterably drear.
I turn away; eyes fall on a calendar
Open at the month of September,
Picturing a vase of sunflowers.
Dark-hearted, bold, brazen, beauteous
In bronze and brilliant yellow.
Painted by one
Born under pallid, northern skies,
Rarely visited by sun.
Who, fully alive did not become
Till faced head-on by the southern sun,
Like the bursting ajar
Of a lighted, furnace door.
It is all there, in the sunflowers:
Night-black crows circling, children jeering,
Mistral uprooting, brothel beckoning.
Nature's wondrous, infinite ways,
Gauguin's cool, dismissive gaze,
The fever, the heat, colour ablaze,
The driving, the force, the impetus,
The loneliness, the aching-ache, the anguish.
DEATH OF A HIND
Cold, pale February
The hunt is thundering by.
Sad, gray morning,
The hind will die.
Wild cry of terror
Borne on the wind.
Oh! see where the bracken
Is stained with blood.
All winter long
Safe and warm.
She carried the calf
That now is torn...
Out of the gaping wounds,
And with her entrails garlanded
Fed to the ravening hounds.
Headlines poker-seared the news
Into my heart.
The Hood sunk - all hands lost,
Except for three,
None named Billy.
When the telegram came
Your mother went white
As a church candle, trembled,
Groaned, but did not cry,
Nor did I.
Down, down, I fled to our river
And stared long at the oily water
We used to cross on the ferry,
As children, then sweethearts,
Hand clutching hand, so tenderly.
Seabirds cried your name aloud,
Or so it sounded.
The wind brushed soft against my face
And moaned as if deep-wounded,
But how could that be?
Seaweed drifted northward, perhaps to the sea
That witnessed fate's severance of you from me.
Ragged, grayish sheaves which so abound,
In time, may weave my drowned love's shroud.
Howling, wild howling deep inside,
Like a trapped and hungry wolf deprived of prey.
When in a long mirror with naked, pitiless eye
I survey the wreckage of what now is me,
And aghast! Remember how I used to be.
Blade slim, straight as a spruce fir,
Not willow bough bent, as here.
Unaware that the power and strength astir,
And surging like a torrent through my frame,
Daily weakens, and once departed will not come again.
My youth haunts me in a traje de luces
O brilliant suit of lights! Like gold made animate,
A bull taunts me, like dark and dreadful night;
Its ragged wounds spurting blood, bright
As poppies, spatter the horn driven into my side.
Brave and fearless bull, I seek pardon
For the death my sword in you did summon.
But all your being was sentient when you died,
Whereas the wreckage I have now become
Drifts, drifts aimlessly on a sluggish tide.
The shell-shock man is off again
Running from lamp-post to lamp-post,
Running out his pain
From lamp-post to lamp-post.
Children stare as he flees past,
Veined, blue eyes aghast,
They are not aware
Of the terror there.
Nobody touches him
Or treads in his wild path,
Even the policeman turns away.
What could he do or say
To one whose mind was blown,
Lurching from trench to trench
Upon the Somme?
Fitful the sun, biting the wind
Against the miner’s pitted skin,
As he climbed the green hillside
To the chapel. Like teeth in senile gums,
Crooked and discoloured, all the tombstones,
Except for one, pristine, not yet scarred by time and weather,
Heading the grave of his young daughter.
Fleetingly lit by sun, fretted by wind
The daffodils, planted in her memory
At which he stared with raw intensity,
Willing, willing them to part, and she bestir,
Rise, and run toward him, as of old,
To jump into his arms, unheeding what she wore
Would be blackened by his sooty pit-gear.
Clouded the sun, the wind piercing chill
On his pitted hands and cheeks, wet suddenly
By a Welsh downpour, drenching, spattering
With myriad tears, each drooping daffodil.
He turned aside, went back down the green hillside,
Drained, bereft of hope, of dreams long-harboured,
Buried, all deep buried now – with Angharad.
SLEEPLESS ON A SUMMER EVENING
The woman stares from her pillow
At the slipper moon in the sky,
Feels her husband turn heavily,
Hears her children move restlessly,
Listens to the wind’s insistent cry.
Rises from the bed
Goes down the stairs,
Unlocks the door and steps
Into the cool night air.
O night cool air
Brushing with velvet hands
Her fevered skin!
Feels beneath her feet
The tender grass,
Feels upon her cheek
The wind’s caress,
Lifts her arms to heaven
And begins to dance,
And dance, and dance,
With just the slipper moon
And stars, for audience.
Again we hear what has by now become familiar
The hum of German bombers, Heinkel and Dornier,
And their escort fighter-planes.
On a gun-site in Kent we are waiting
Waiting for them to appear.
Battle-dressed gunners on the monstrous guns,
Battle-dressed young women feeding into instruments
Vital information, including range and height
Of the attackers, to intercept their flight.
Starless in the sky, but soon emblazoned
With lethal, fiery stars of bursting shell
As gunners, at the firing officer’s command,
Swiftly release their deadly load.
The detonation shatters the ears,
Like being scalped while still alive.
Cordite stings the whitened nostrils
And to smarting eyes brings tears.
In the eye-piece of the predictor,
With blurring vision, I see tongues of flame
Shooting from a crippled escort fighter-plane.
It plummets wildly, but rising compassion
Is checked by a lightning recall of the Blitz.
Our house, our home, falling all about us!
The hideous grating noise, choking dust, icy numbness.
Being dug out, everything gone that was here but yesterday,
And momentarily reliving it to myself I say,
Sorry Hans, Wilhelm or Franz – but touché.
SWIFTS IN SPAIN
Are they aware these swifts
Who silently scythe the pine scented air
They are in paradise?
Unlike poor, fettered, encumbered man
Who the heavens can closely scan
Only when encased in metal vice.
Are they aware these tireless swifts
Playful as loving brothers in the air,
How wildly, blessedly free they are?
Never earthbound, never, never to bear
The shackles of tedium, loss, and pain,
Or the ache for that which always lies too far.
Are they aware of colour as they fly?
The luminous cerulean of sky,
Trees of olive green and vibrant viridian,
Quivering in the ardent caress of sultry sun.
Oh may you never be other than strangers to all that is mundane,
Rapturous in flight, unaware of summers that will not come again.
PHANTOM SPITFIRE PILOT
This is a most lively day in spring
To be on a coach trip to Kent.
All the apple and cherry blossom will be out
In tumultuous tides of pink and white.
The youngest person in the coach
And the most important, is the driver.
All the passengers are old age pensioners.
A few have dozed off; others are livelier.
I am one of those, or would be
If memory had not stirred deep buried pain,
Taking me back over half a century
To when happily traversing a winding Kentish lane.
But then it was September and soporific the air
With the lulling scent of hops, and roses wild
Draped all a-tangle with old man’s beard
Over bedraggled hedgerows brushed by butterflies.
Oh now I see you quite clearly phantom
Spitfire pilot with eyes of speedwell blue
Cycling along this lonely, tree-shadowed lane
With me balanced on the cross bar in khaki.
Soon you will disappear lean, good-looking phantom
With tender eyes of speedwell blue.
But never from my heart which lasting homage pays
To you, and all the young, selfless and valiant few.