Could I write a long poem? I wasn’t at all sure. The example in my mind was Eliot’s “Four Quartets” – not one very long poem like Tennyson’s “In Memoriam” or some of his Arthurian stuff, but a connected sequence. A walking holiday (the Wye Valley Walk, Welsh Borders to Mid-Wales) and in particular the long train journey back gave me the opportunity. Without that, I think I’d have struggled to retain the necessary mood and mindset. MY tentative answer to the question I posed myself is, “I can”.
Little grows here. A scratch of stunted grass
And one surprising flower almost hidden
Simple and small like man, one shrill small bird
Breaks from a tumble of rocks and disappears.
Everything starts from here. A drop of rain
Will find its way to a river, a grain of grit
Will join a field or a burial ground.
Standing alone here on a better day
You can see steeple, orchard, river, inn
A sharp blue lake with bare scree shores,
But touching nothing, all’s another land.
Now the false friend of cloud is sidling in
Whispering to forget the distant things
But if you do, you’ll lose the near things too
It’s time to go.
From a distance you can see the tracks, well beaten
Or largely abandoned, curving to the edge
And disappearing in the forest cover.
Outside, it’s possible to plan ahead
Plot an approach, but from within
As damp leaves slip along your face
Tracks subdivide and vanish, trees close in
Woodpeckers screech from this tree, maybe that,
Strategies dissolve. Acclimatise, accept,
And you will see the tracks made not by feet
But by a trail of scent, or snaking high
From bough to bough, or those continuing
Favoured by fabled beasts now long extinct.
To escape the forest take no guidebook in
Follow the tracks you find and think of light.
The curve and cleft of the land speaks of the river
Before you see it. Straggles of bush and tree
Mark out the living and the long-dead streams
That struggle towards the river. Rich men’s houses
And ruined forts overlook it. Roads patrol it
Alongside; where they turn and cross it
Like sudden strike of knife, men cluster
And buildings grow. From stately homes
Lawns slowly slope to quirky boathouses
Now often shabbily ruined; coils of brickwork
Show where squat barges took on coal or corn.
Fishermen are drawn here, dragging themselves away
At last to dinner or to death.
Everything in the valley, house or meadow, stands still
Then dies or changes, living by rebirth.
The river moves incessantly forever.
Something started here
For a reason: the river was fordable
The tracks of cattle drovers drew together
The lie of the land and the weather were right for spinning
A governor found the distance from his palace
Just right for horses. Growth has a beginning.
Those origins are hidden, bulldozed, built on
Reinterpreted in guide-book and in myth
Slums and fine houses grow and are destroyed
The stonework of the bridge lies underwater
The factory’s become a heritage centre
From crumpled streets the tanners and the whores
Have gone but left their memories for a while
In street-names till some government
Dedicated to the pure and nice renamed them after
Generals, or trees that once were said to grow there.
Old stinking alleys strangled for office blocks
Ghostly survive in sections of quiet close
Or shopping trolley dumps round parking lots.
The city forgets; flexes; reinterprets.
People are born and die, the language changes
Suburbs seep out. Some time the city will end
Inventiveness, sweat, tears, frescos swallowed up
Slipping into decline, houses left empty,
Grass in the streets, but here and there a core
Churning more slowly and uncertainly;
Or suddenly in a fire that by scorched shadows
Commemorates the impertinence of daily life.
Unpeopled, not quite dead, the city will still be seen
In humps and ditches against the flow of land
By rumour, legend and a blackened buckle.
What brought you to the meeting place of worlds
Will not take you away. The residue of waves
Vanishes in the tideline, packed sand dries.
Intricate shells settle and feet crunch on them
Starfish and bulbous salty seaweed stranded
Mix with resilient plastic bottles for all needs
Canister, shoe and anchor. When the waves come
As they will, some sea-gifts will be taken back
Along with flag and key brought from the land.
But many things the sea takes and returns
Come back smoothed, curved, transformed
Or crusted round with jewels
Studded with limpets, fronded over with barnacles;
While what the land takes and does not return
Crumbles and joins the melting-pot of soil.
We living on the shore, in port or hut, find swirling
Around us a confusion of languages
Uniforms, trades – together they
Mingle and change like rain.
The shore itself may shift: heavy engineering
May turn a sea-view to an expanse of green
Or battlements of holiday hotels; a silting river
Strangles a rich port slowly; while a night
Of sudden storm can wash away sea-walls,
Spinney lagoon and village, settling down
The shifting zone beyond their memories.
Still there’s a shore.
Sometimes there’s nothing left to say
But to listen, to learn the rhythm
Of wave and current, and the life unseen
Now seen. Featureless we call it
Really a mass of colours, feathery forms
Birth death and rebirth. At its border storms
Drive ships, a starlit night reflects off silent breakers
At dawn above them stands a distant mountain.