Six Strands

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”.

 

SIX STRANDS

 

MOUNTAIN

 

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.

 

FOREST

 

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.

 

VALLEY

 

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.

 

CITY

 

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.

 

SHORE

 

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.

 

SEA

 

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.

 

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4 Comments

  1. I liked this one a great great deal…..it’s the kind of poem you can read aloud and enjoy. I think ‘long’ is your style of writing…..

    Reply
    • Thanks, Neel. Nonetheless, I can rarely hold the state of mind I need, the concentration, for long enough. With a novel, you can write a bit, leave it and return the next day or week. With my kind of poetry, if I do that I often can’t recapture the dream. A holiday is one way of doing it. The only other long poems I’d think worth posting, in particular “Empire” which I’ll post in a while, were written on holiday.

      Reply
  2. John Berryman, regarding his very long poem on Anne Bradstreet, wrote that a poet cannot maintain a high level of intensity when writing a long poem as opposed to a short poem. I’m not ready to try writing a long poem myself. Someday maybe.

    Reply
    • It is difficult! Tennyson wrote “In Memoriam” bit by bit over a long time. That worked, I think, because the intensity of his feeling for his dead friend was so great and the gradual change in his mourning corresponded to the progression of the poem. If intensity slips in this one, I think it’s in the last but one section, “Shore”, but returns for the ending. The longest poems I’ve written, this one and “Empire” (not yet posted) I wrote on holiday on my own, so I was able to hold the unfinished poem in my thoughts a lot over some days.

      There is a similar issue about fantasy novels. To create and maintain a weird but credible world like Gormenghast requires immense stamina and concentration, or else the world was in you all along.

      Reply

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