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Poems


New Bedford

They still go out from here, the fishermen,
although you have to search these days to find
their rust-stained craft among the pleasure-yachts,
the pristine, white vacation voyagers.
They go with gasoline, of course, not sail,
not stars and sextants now, but satellites,
yet still the circling stormfronts when they stray
and still the waves' cold welcome when they fall.
That much has stayed the same since Melville's day:
out on Acushnet from New Bedford port,
back two years older, and a whaling man,
scarred, crown to sole, like Ahab, by the hunt,
ashore again, but not on solid ground.
Because it's always there, the enemy,
the one you would give everything to kill,
the one you cannot bear to live without,
greater than you are, guessed at, never grasped,
something with teeth, your lances in its side,
hidden in darkness, whiter than the snow,
silver in shadow, lightning in the sea.

Cromer Pier

The crowds are out today. The carpark full,
queues at the chipshops, throngs along the rail
outside the Hotel de Paris to watch
the waiters' race, the runners spilling beer.
The winner gets a six-pack and a kiss
from young Miss Cromer, in her princess frock,
pulling her sash straight for the camera.
Behind them, on the pier, the fishers fish,
the walkers walk, the ice-cream vendors vend.
And all is as it should be, and has been
a century and more since engineers
pitched out this frail, gratuitous promontary,
this bridge to nowhere between sea and sky.
Down at the eastward end, a silver dome,
a theatre held at arm's length from the shore
as though to prove a point - that shows go on,
perhaps, that songs are stronger than the storm,
that art can stand against an angry sea.
The kind of strutting, wanton showmanship
that builds a monastery on a mountaintop
and dares both hell and heaven to come and see.
Next to the theatre, another hall,
the lifeboat station, whose proscenium arch
is open to the weather and the waves,
the shifting stage whose audience is the air.
The lifeboat, balanced on the slipway, waits,
like one of those collection box displays;
the single penny of a stranger's soul,
will send it, calm, where God would fear to go.
A summer Sunday. On the promenade,
the old recall their childhood holidays,
and find the town grown smaller with the years.
The young, whose only scale is sea and sand,
think nothing ever changes. In the fair,
the carousel's stiff, painted cavalry
revolve to music never heard elsewhere,
and pennies rattle in the dark arcade.
The nearness to the edge, the nothingness
that makes all things that live seem more alive,
perhaps that's why we come. Perhaps that's why
we set this cast-iron causeway in the sea,
as far as we can get from solid ground,
to hold the stage and slipway side by side,
as close to the horizon as can be.

Piano Solo.

She took my hopes away in plastic bags,
not even bothering to wrap them first.
All my ambitions too she packed away
in cardboard boxes, none too carefully.
My pride, she left it out for passers-by
to ponder on the pavement in the rain.
And all my thoughts, each phrase and syllable,
in notebooks, theses, marginalia,
she took, until the house that we had shared
was cleansed of every crumb of sustenance
as though, at Pesach, of all leavened bread.
Only the upright piano stayed behind;
too heavy, with its solid iron frame,
to carry out, and not at concert pitch,
beyond all tuning, sticky in the keys,
its varnish scratched with now-grown children's names.
I play it, and the sound is sharper now
than when soft furnishings would deaden it.
It's clearer than before: the empty rooms
are, to these solo tunes, hospitable.
I play it badly, but I always did;
there never was a time I played it well.
These days I'm learning, not proficiency,
but not to mind if sometimes notes are wrong.
The playing is the purpose, and for that
better to have a broken instrument.
And silence is a better audience,
and solitude is better company,
and emptiness, I find, is all I need:
the dusty stripped-wood floorboards resonant,
sun through uncurtained windows on the keys.


Rough Guide

It happens inevitably,
like water finding its level:
every time I open a travel book,
I sail past the capital cities, the sights,
and dive straight into the backstreets of the index
to find that in France, Iím Breton;
in New Zealand, Maori;
in the U.S.A. - depending on which part -
Iím Navajo, Cajun, or black.

Iím the Wandering Welshman.
Iím Jewish everywhere.
Except, of course, in Israel.
There, Iím Palestinian.

Itís some kind of a complex, I know,
that makes me pick this scab on my psyche.
I wonder sometimes what it would be like
to go to these places
and just enjoy.

No, as I wander the continents of the guidebooks,
whatever chapter may be my destination,
the questionís always the same when I arrive:
ďNice city. Now whereís the ghetto?Ē

Midwinter

No breezes move the branches; no birds sing;
December's frost has turned the world to grey.
The earth in winter trusting for the spring.

The silver hedges where the dead leaves cling;
the clouds that shroud the winter sun away.
No breezes move the branches; no birds sing;

The bitter cold that makes your fingers sting,
forms icy mist from anything you say.
The earth in winter trusting for the spring;

No life, no movement now in anything;
no difference between dawn and dusk and day.
No breezes move the branches; no birds sing;

The solstice of the year, when everything
is balanced between increase and decay.
The earth in winter trusting for the spring;

No sign of what another day may bring;
the seeds of hope are frozen in the clay.
No breezes move the branches; no birds sing.
The earth in winter trusting for the spring.


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