Poetry

Tearing secrets from yielding flesh

Saturday, 2 June, 2018

It was the Megan and Harry wedding of its day when the poet Vita Sackville-West married the diplomat Sir Harold Nicolson in the chapel of the family home at Knole in Kent in 1913. The society columnists enthused over the 21-year-old bride’s beauty and her magnificent gown. The outfit was made by Reville & Rossiter, whose clientele included Queen Mary, and the wedding expenses were fabulous. Nicolson inspected “over 100 emerald and diamond rings” before he settled on “a lovely one” for £185, and on 14 October Vita Sackville-West settled the bill at Reville & Rossiter, “nearly £400, the wedding dress cost 50 guineas”.

Along with their landscaping work at Knole, Nicolson and Sackville-West created one of England’s most famous gardens at Sissinghurst Castle, but in between the horticulture both indulged in many same-sex affairs during their long marriage, which ended with Sackville-West’s death on this day in 1962. Her most famous intrigue was with Virginia Woolf, who celebrated their relationship in the 1928 novel Orlando. Vita Sackville-West responded with this verse to her mistress:

Lost poem

When sometimes I stroll in silence, with you
Through great floral meadows of open country
I listen to your chatter, and give thanks to the gods
For the honest friendship, which made you my companion
But in the heavy fragrance of intoxicating night
I search on your lip for a madder caress
I tear secrets from your yielding flesh
Giving thanks to the fate which made you my mistress

Vita Sackville-West (1892 – 1962)

R&R


Harry and Meghan and the Whit Wedding

Monday, 21 May, 2018

Once upon a time, Whit Saturday was a popular day for weddings in the UK. This historical fact, however, was unnoticed by the Reverend Michael Curry in his sermon during the Royal Wedding as Whit Saturday was turned into Windsor Saturday. The British poet Philip Larkin would have been bemused.

The Whitsun Weddings is one of Larkin’s best-known poems and it was published in 1964, the year The Rolling Stones released their debut album. Larkin, who was more of a Beatles man, describes a train journey on a hot Whit Saturday. The windows are open and he becomes aware that the passengers boarding the train at its several stops are members of Whit wedding parties. He observes the people and imagines the venues where the wedding receptions have been held. As the train approaches London, his thoughts turn to the meaning of what the newly-weds have done.

The Whitsun Weddings

That Whitsun, I was late getting away:
Not till about
One-twenty on the sunlit Saturday
Did my three-quarters-empty train pull out,
All windows down, all cushions hot, all sense
Of being in a hurry gone. We ran
Behind the backs of houses, crossed a street
Of blinding windscreens, smelt the fish-dock; thence
The river’s level drifting breadth began,
Where sky and Lincolnshire and water meet.

All afternoon, through the tall heat that slept
For miles inland,
A slow and stopping curve southwards we kept.
Wide farms went by, short-shadowed cattle, and
Canals with floatings of industrial froth;
A hothouse flashed uniquely: hedges dipped
And rose: and now and then a smell of grass
Displaced the reek of buttoned carriage-cloth
Until the next town, new and nondescript,
Approached with acres of dismantled cars.

At first, I didn’t notice what a noise
The weddings made
Each station that we stopped at: sun destroys
The interest of what’s happening in the shade,
And down the long cool platforms whoops and skirls
I took for porters larking with the mails,
And went on reading. Once we started, though,
We passed them, grinning and pomaded, girls
In parodies of fashion, heels and veils,
All posed irresolutely, watching us go,

As if out on the end of an event
Waving goodbye
To something that survived it. Struck, I leant
More promptly out next time, more curiously,
And saw it all again in different terms:
The fathers with broad belts under their suits
And seamy foreheads; mothers loud and fat;
An uncle shouting smut; and then the perms,
The nylon gloves and jewellery-substitutes,
The lemons, mauves, and olive-ochres that

Marked off the girls unreally from the rest.
Yes, from cafés
And banquet-halls up yards, and bunting-dressed
Coach-party annexes, the wedding-days
Were coming to an end. All down the line
Fresh couples climbed aboard: the rest stood round;
The last confetti and advice were thrown,
And, as we moved, each face seemed to define
Just what it saw departing: children frowned
At something dull; fathers had never known

Success so huge and wholly farcical;
The women shared
The secret like a happy funeral;
While girls, gripping their handbags tighter, stared
At a religious wounding. Free at last,
And loaded with the sum of all they saw,
We hurried towards London, shuffling gouts of steam.
Now fields were building-plots, and poplars cast
Long shadows over major roads, and for
Some fifty minutes, that in time would seem

Just long enough to settle hats and say
I nearly died,
A dozen marriages got under way.
They watched the landscape, sitting side by side
— An Odeon went past, a cooling tower,
And someone running up to bowl — and none
Thought of the others they would never meet
Or how their lives would all contain this hour.
I thought of London spread out in the sun,
Its postal districts packed like squares of wheat:

There we were aimed. And as we raced across
Bright knots of rail
Past standing Pullmans, walls of blackened moss
Came close, and it was nearly done, this frail
Travelling coincidence; and what it held
Stood ready to be loosed with all the power
That being changed can give. We slowed again,
And as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled
A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower
Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.

Philip Larkin (1922 – 1985)

Today, Whit Monday, was declared a bank holiday in the UK in 1871 but it lost this status in 1972 when the Spring Bank Holiday was created in its place.


Cavafy on the Mediterranean migrants

Monday, 14 May, 2018 0 Comments

One can read C.P. Cavafy’s In the Harbour-Town as a poem about home-sickness or a poem about migration, or both, as the two are often intertwined. In another way, it can be interpreted as a poem that speaks to our times because he mentions “a Syrian harbour” in the same breath as “the great pan-Hellenic world”. Recent reports of a rise in unaccompanied child migrants reaching Greece and Cyprus through the Central and Western Mediterranean Routes make this Cavafy poem sound uncannily prescient.

In the Harbour-Town

Emis – young, twenty-eight –
reached this Syrian harbor in a Tenian ship,
his plan to learn the incense trade.
But ill during the voyage,
he died as soon as he was put ashore.
His burial, the poorest possible, took place here.
A few hours before dying he whispered something
about “home,” about “very old parents.”
But nobody knew who they were,
or what country he called home
in the great pan-Hellenic world.
Better that way; because as it is,
though he lies buried in this harbour-town,
his parents will always have the hope he’s still alive.

C.P. Cavafy (29 April 1863 – 29 April 1933)

Translated from the original Greek by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard.

Harbour town


Cavafy in April on Candles

Sunday, 29 April, 2018 0 Comments

Hosted by the Cavafy Archive and the Onassis Foundation, the International Cavafy Summer School will take place from 9 to 15 July in Athens. “Knowledge of Modern Greek is not a prerequisite, but familiarity with Cavafy’s work is,” say the organizers.

W.H. Auden famously observed that the poetry of Cavafy seemed to survive translation remarkably well, and that it was marked by “a tone of voice, a personal speech immediately recognizable as a poem by Cavafy; nobody else could possibly have written it.” Born on 29 April 1863, Constantine P. Cavafy died on 29 April 1933.

Candles

Days to come stand in front of us,
like a row of burning candles —
golden, warm, and vivid candles.
Days past fall behind us,
a gloomy line of burnt-out candles;
the nearest are still smoking,
cold, melted, and bent.
I don’t want to look at them: their shape saddens me,
and it saddens me to remember their original light.
I look ahead at my burning candles.
I don’t want to turn, don’t want to see, terrified,
how quickly that dark line gets longer,
how quickly one more dead candle joins another.

Constantine P. Cavafy

Candles in Milan


Rainy Day in the Galtee Mountains

Friday, 20 April, 2018 0 Comments

Regular reader and intermittent poet, Liam Murray, is so captivated by this blog’s title and header photo that he has combined the two in verse. The Galtee Mountains pictured above were the fons et origo of our great mother, God rest her soul, and they remain our spiritual home. The Golden Vale mentioned below was a tract of nearby pasture land that represented a form of earthly paradise for mother and father, who cultivated their own fields and gardens as if they, too, were golden. And they were.

Rainy Day in the Galtee Mountains

The gathering clouds announce a change
The Galtee Mountains turn a shadowed blue
Quieter birds in hedge rows sense the mood
Distant rolling thunder fills the ear.

Clouds carrying rivers of rain
Continue to flow across the plain
Bushes shake in windy salute,
In the moist filled air across the Golden Vale.

The deluge pours on expectant fields
Blades of grass glisten; laced with rain drops
Sails of cloud continue to unfurl,
Above it all the sun still shines.

Liam Murray

Cullane Garden


Done is a battell on the dragon blak

Wednesday, 28 March, 2018 0 Comments

Easter approacheth. Time for a preparatory poem and our choice is a masterpiece of Scottish medieval verse, Surrexit Dominus de sepulchro (Christ is risen from the grave), by William Dunbar (1460 – 1520). This is one of the greatest of early Easter poems in English and it has one of the greatest of all opening lines: “Done is a battell on the dragon blak” (The battle against the black dragon is done). The theme is the Resurrection and Christ is cast in the role of a noble knight.

Some of the language is easily decrypted but the gulf between our 21st global century and Dunbar’s early 16th-century Scotland is apparent. Here’s how he depicts evil:

The auld kene tegir, with his teith on char,
Whilk in a wait has lyne for us so lang,
Thinking to grip us in his clowis strang

In modern English, this can be rendered as, “The old sharp tiger with his teeth ajar / Which has lain in wait for us so long / Hoping to grip us in his strong claws.” Those “clowis” give bite to Dunbar’s language, which is a miscellany of elemental sounds and delightful alliteration: “Whilk in a wait” is wonderful. By the way, here’s a modern translation of the poem. And now, a snippet of the original:

Surrexit Dominus de sepulchro

Done is a battell on the dragon blak,
Our campion Chyrst confoundit has his force;
The yettis of hell are broken with a crak,
The signe triumphall raisit is of the cross,
The divillis trymmillis with hiddous voce,
The saulis are borrowit and to the bliss can go,
Chyrst with his bloud our ransonis dois indoce:
Surrexit Dominus de sepulchro.

Dungin is the deidly dragon Lucifer,
The crewall serpent with the mortall stang;
The auld kene tegir, with his teith on char,
Whilk in a wait has lyne for us so lang,
Thinking to grip us in his clowis strang;
The merciful Lord wald nocht that it were so,
He made him for to failye of that fang.
Surrexit Dominus de sepulchro.

The Dragon Blak


Synge Prelude

Saturday, 24 March, 2018 0 Comments

On this day in 1909, the playwright, poet and collector of folklore John Millington Synge died. He was just 37 years old. Synge was a key figure in the Irish Literary Revival and one of the co-founders of the Abbey Theatre, and it was in thanks to the Abbey Theatre that he entered history. The occasion was the 1907 Abbey premiere of his wonderful play, The Playboy of the Western World, and the surrounding events exposed the sordid absurdity that has powered so much of Irish nationalism.

One source of audience hostility to the play was that the plot combined an idealization of parricide with an unhappy ending, but what triggered the violence was Christy Mahon’s comment about “a drift of chosen females, standing in their shifts itself.” The very mention of an undergarment led The Freeman’s Journal of Monday, 28 January 1907 to condemn the play as an “unmitigated, protracted libel upon Irish peasant men and worse still upon peasant girlhood.” Rioting ensued and the police had to enforce security during each performance, making nightly arrests of outraged nationalists filled with hatred of an artistic expression that did not reflect their chosen insanity.

The Playboy of the Western World has survived time and terror and Synge’s poetry remains true to the landscape that gave him so much happiness during his short life.

Prelude

Still south I went and west and south again,
Through Wicklow from the morning till the night,
And far from cities, and the sights of men,
Lived with the sunshine, and the moon’s delight.

I knew the stars, the flowers, and the birds,
The grey and wintry sides of many glens,
And did but half remember human words,
In converse with the mountains, moors, and fens.

John Millington Synge (1871 – 1909)

Wicklow


Firelit, shuttered, slated and stone-walled

Tuesday, 13 March, 2018 0 Comments

Faber & Faber has announced the publication of Seamus Heaney: 100 Poems, a collection of the late Literature Laureate’s most treasured and celebrated verse. Publication on 28 June will coincide with the opening of a major new exhibition, Seamus Heaney: Listen Now Again, curated by the National Library of Ireland and presented in the Bank of Ireland Cultural and Heritage Centre, College Green, Dublin.

This snippet is from Heaney’s The Glanmore Sonnets and it conjures up memories of happy winter evenings spent beside the fire in the home of Denis and Mary Grogan.

Winter-evening cold.
Our backs might never warm up but our faces
Burned from the hearth-blaze and the hot whiskeys…
As green sticks hissed and spat into the ashes
And whatever rampaged out there couldn’t reach us,
Firelit, shuttered, slated and stone-walled.

The Grogan fireplace


Dublin Airport locked in frost

Saturday, 3 March, 2018 0 Comments

This is from Audenesque (in memory of Joseph Brodsky) by Seamus Heaney, Nobel Laureate in Literature. The great airport “unlocking” may take place later today.

“Repetition, too, of cold
In the poet and the world,
Dublin Airport locked in frost,
Rigor mortis in your breast.
Ice no axe or book will break,
No Horatian ode unlock”

Dublin Airport


The soft silence of a Winter’s Day

Friday, 2 March, 2018 0 Comments

Victor Hugo once said: “Winter changes into stone the water of heaven and the heart of man.” And while that may be true, all that is wintry is not necessarily cold and those wintertide winds often evoke warmth and memories of kindness. In this newly-composed poem, published exclusively on Rainy Day, Liam Murray of Lucan reflects on what lies beneath the drifts and beyond the icicles.

Musings on a Winter Day

Occasionally there is a soft silence,
On a Winter’s Day
Nature’s elements agree a moment’s truce
Unwanted sounds harmonise in silence
Tranquillity becomes the overriding presence

Nature stands still
We embrace the serenity of the moment
Like soundless snow flakes
Descending from the heavens
The landscape embracing each one.

Is there is such a thing as time?
We remember our yesterdays
So it’s not an illusion of nature
Yet closed eyes can feel an eternal presence
If the beating heart is ignored.

We see the flowers come and go
The flow of time seems real
Does all this happen in the eternal now?
That apparent change can occur within
A never changing present.

Liam Murray

Lucan Village


Kit Marlowe loved at first sight

Monday, 26 February, 2018 0 Comments

We don’t know exactly when the rock-star English playwright, poet and translator of the Elizabethan era Kit (Christopher) Marlowe was born, but he was baptised in Canterbury on this day in 1564. It was a notable year for letters because William Shakespeare was baptised on 26 April in 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon.

In his brief life, Marlowe was described variously as a spy, a magician, a counterfeiter, a tobacco-user and a heretic. A warrant was issued for his arrest on 18 May 1593, possibly on charges of blasphemy, and ten days he was stabbed to death in London by one Ingram Frizer. Christopher Marlowe was just 30.

Why was he killed? Theories abound:

  • Jealous of her husband’s homosexual relationship with Marlowe, Lady Audrey Walsingham arranged for the playwright to be murdered.
  • He was killed on the instructions of Lord Burghley and Sir Robert Cecil, who believed that his plays contained Catholic propaganda.
  • Queen Elizabeth ordered his assassination because of his scandalous conduct.

The ultimate theory, of course, is that Marlowe didn’t die, and went on to write for Shakespeare. And there’s no doubt that Christopher Marlowe could do the business. Some 500 years later, this remains as true as it is sublime.

Who Ever Loved That Loved Not At First Sight?

It lies not in our power to love or hate,
For will in us is overruled by fate.
When two are stripped, long ere the course begin,
We wish that one should love, the other win;

And one especially do we affect
Of two gold ingots, like in each respect:
The reason no man knows; let it suffice
What we behold is censured by our eyes.
Where both deliberate, the love is slight:
Who ever loved, that loved not at first sight?

Christopher Marlowe

Kit  Marlowe