(and once more, WordPress defeats me. The poem is in couplets. Visualise it in couplets, hear the line breaks)
You used to say there was magic in these stairs—
pistons turning, hammers getting to work,
springs being fixed onto the wings of birds.
I used to tiptoe because, under my feet,
there were clouds about to burst
and one night I dreamt I stamped so hard
rain fell and buried the village like Pompeii.
I still remember the step that kept
all the loose bits of storm, the one where trams
and buses went to be repaired
and the one that held curfews like ice about to break.
You used to say if we opened them up
we’d see men throwing wood onto the sun,
find out where waterfalls began,
but this chill has nothing to do with water.
Why did you never tell me about the one
that hid black ice? Or this one that sinks
under me now like a landmine, leaves me frozen
while everyone else carries on up to your room
to say goodbye and I cannot move?
Part of the magic of this poem, for me, is the way it understands how children imagine, how they are formed by chance encounters and stories whose tellers never imagined the impact they might have, and how our childhood is carried in us, and how we can be startled back into it, and in some ways become as powerless as a child. The framing narrative is kept implicit..you used to say …. these stairs …everyone else…..your room.The detail is kept for the stories of each tread, the fabulous tales told to a child who will never forget them. And then there’s the power of the image of one rooted to the foot of a staircase and its narrowing closed off perspective. I love the way poem pivots on that one line .why did you never tell me? In its control and contained love and grief it does everything I want in a poem. Lovely
Finally, a poem about friendship to finish what, out there, in what politicianns like to call “the real world” , has been a horrible year. Thank you to all the poets who have been guests on the cobweb this year, and constantly reminded me that what survives of us is love.
The Night Surveyor: Dartington Gardens
(For Ben Okri)
After the farewell party we grabbed a bottle
and, on your suggestion, headed into the gardens,
pitch dark, rustling leaves, I don’t know how many came.
Giggling, without a torch we found the Tiltyard,
above us Cassiopeia, a slumped Great Bear.
Now be our night surveyor you said.
I declared to the six (or were there seven?):
‘The Cypress is twenty metres from the twelfth Apostle;
the fountain, two chains, fifteen eleven
Starlit dunes of Devon fields gleamed above trees
as we crossed silvered lawns and I announced:
we are four hundred feet above the sea
then led them up endless steps, finding risers with gentle kicks.
There’s this place of seven echoessomeone whispered
someone counter-whispered: No there’s only six.
Full fathom five.. I shouted from the bastion.
No please not that one surveyor you murmured,
O trees of dark coral made? – ‘No try something else.
Some bow or brooch or braid or brace, lace, latch or catch…
No echo but a leaden voice climbed inside my ear.
Over Staverton, or Berry Pomeroy’s lowly thatch
hung Jupiter, no Venus, or was it Mars?
One shouted: I embrace the universal me,
voice cracked and small beneath shades and stars.
Two melted into trees: We remaining passed round wine.
The town below lolled in sodium as if bathing
and you yawned Get us back surveyor, I think it’s time.
I counted steps. Shadows rose and fell in bands.
Feeling for damp and stone, plotting silhouettes
and shadows, gradually we became a chain of hands.
I really like the filmic quality of this, a film by Peter Greenaway…the draughtsman’s contract. The story of the bunch of tipsy chums stumbling around in the dark under a huge starlit sky, stumbling over silvered lawns, declaiming of bits of Shakespeare, the absurdity of it that gradually comes to its senses, and back to earth as The town below lolled in sodium. I love the way the declaiming poet comes back to the role of the measuring and sensible surveyor and the group of friends who became a chain of hands. The whole thing is witty, elegantly constructed, and ultimately life-affirming, lyrical and loving.
So there we are. Thank you to all the cobweb guest poets of 2018. I hope you all have a happy and successful 2019.
Why not make a start by submitting your poems about food, or food related poems, or poems with taste and flavour and possibly a recipe for a better world to The Fenland Reed. It’s a handsome journal edited by lovely folk. Go on. You know you should.
Here’s your link. https://www.thefenlandreed.co.uk/submissions