A Vision

earth

I first came across this description by J.B. Priestley in a wonderful book of his called, Man and Time. It is an exploration of time from different points of view; scientific, literary and religious. It is beautifully illustrated in colour. He was fascinated with phenomena such as pre-cognition and dreams and wrote his famous ‘time-plays’ such as Dangerous Corner to dramatise various anomalies and theories. The poem is based on one of Priestley’s own dreams.

A Vision1

I am on top of a high tower, looking down. I see thousands of birds

flying in separate flocks; one flock is a cloud of curlews,

one is a murmeration of starlings, one is a squadron of swans.

Gradually as I watch, the flocks fuse and become a vast aerial river

of birds; a river in the sky, a river of multicoloured feathers and wings,

a pulsating river, now spiralling, now circling, now cascading.

I hear a gentle honking, cooing and twittering as the river draws nearer;

I feel a cool draught of air on my cheeks.

*

I see generations of birds; watch them break their shells as they are born,

watch them flutter into life, mate, weaken, falter and die. Wings grow

only to crumble into dust, bodies are sleek and then bleed and shrivel.

Thousands upon thousands of flickering bodies flap wings and moult

feathers in heaps until the heaps form multicoloured hillocks of down.

Scrawny heads crack open fragile shells and the naked birds quickly grow

feathers, quickly fly and mate again and again only to bleed, shrivel and die.

I feel sick in my throat. What is the use of all this struggle to exist?

It would have been better if not one of them, if not one of us, had been born.

I stand on the tower; a man alone and in despair.

*

Now the thousands of birds become one multicoloured mass spread out

like a never-ending flower-bed on a desert sand. Time is running so fast

that the mass of birds is motionless. The desert seems an oasis of all

colours; blues, reds, yellows, purples and greens; the desert is a plain

sown with bird-bone-flesh-and-feathers. And along this plain, flickering

through the bodies themselves, there passes a tiny white flame, trembling,

dancing, then hurrying on, flickering through every particle of coloured

bird-bone-flesh-and-feather. Now it comes to me in a rocket-burst

of ecstasy that this flame is life itself and that nothing else matters;

nothing else could matter because, compared to this flame, everything else

is a shadow.

*

I am still in the tower and now I see a river of people.

Some are swimming, some are drowning and some are losing

their heads; and arms and legs. I see the water is thick with excrement

and blood. Bits of buildings, decapitated trees, vehicles and boulders

hurtle along with people and body-parts.

Time speeds up and the river flows faster; the bodies, boulders,

trees and buildings merge into a new mysterious form, gigantic,

like a whale, and the river convulses and surges like a tsunami.

Time goes even faster and I see the Earth

as if from the moon. And I hear a voice roaring like a lion:

“Who shall inherit the Earth?”

I am looking down from my moon-tower.

The Earth still looks beautiful; mottled, like a guillemot’s egg.

*

1Part-found poem: source; J.B. Priestley’s, Rain Upon Godshill, p304 William Heinmann Ltd, 1941.

The Blind Girl

I wrote this for another poetry website.

John Everett Millais’ The Blind Girl

First of all I sat for the blind girl. It was dreadful suffering, the sun poured in through the window. I had a brown cloth over my forehead which was some relief but several times I was as sick as possible and nearly argued. Another day I sat outside in a hay field, and when the face was done Everett scratched it out; he wasn’t pleased with it and complained about the showers.

Smoke from Everett’s pipe got in my eyes so I had to shut them. He told me to keep them shut. He told me not to see the beggar boy on the toll road; he told me not to see the three crows feeding on a dead rabbit or the adder by his own left boot. I laughed and said I could still see with my eyes shut. I could smell the acrid smoke rising from a factory chimney; I could hear the donkeys coughing in the field; I could hear the boy weeping. He told me to be blind.

The concertina was lent by Mr Pringle who had a daughter who had died. It was hers. He said we could keep it as it would never be played again. I smoothed my orange skirt and rested the concertina on my lap doing my best to be blind. It was difficult to keep my eyes shut on such a beautiful day. Everett said there was a double rainbow so I had to look. Everett wasn’t pleased as he was doing the face again. I stretched out my right hand and touched a wild flower growing in the grass. I knew it was a harebell as my little finger fitted inside just as if it was a thimble.

The next day the weather seeped into our drawing room and the double rainbow arched over the carpet. I had my eyes open and could see a painted lady fluttering at the window pane. I could hear concertina music softly playing.

[Part-found prose poem: Source/ Effie Millais’ journals]

To My Father

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I’ve been trying to write a long poem in tribute to my father who was a Wordsworth enthusiast. Needless to say, I have found it very difficult and don’t know what to make of my attempt. This is the beginning. The good thing about a blog is you can float ideas to try out. This is not a finished draft; merely a first attempt!

*

Is it for this an un-bridged chasm yawned between us?

I know I turned away from your literary conversations

and when you wrote your annotations, but be sure, that now

I venerate your Everyman hardback. Now you’re no longer

able to converse with Wordsworth or with me I’ll try

and bridge the widening gap. I’ve paid homage today

by gluing the loose spine and placing your book on my altar.

*

You didn’t annotate De Quincey’s quip, that Wordsworth’s legs

were certainly not ornamental so I wonder if you smiled

when you followed De Quincey’s meandering steps. Did you

chuckle when you read that beside a tall clergyman

Wordsworth’s figure appeared “mean” and he walked

like a beetle, even edging his companions off the highway?

Once you attached a grapnel around his eyes and underscored:

there was a light as if radiating from some spiritual world

the light that never was on land or sea.

I’m in concord here and throw a rope to the other side, hoping

I can narrow the distance. I’m following a convoluted path

here and now but recognise your footprints: your battles

en route and with the dimming light. Some footholds

afford some security and I can rest awhile. I travel on

and glimpse a finger-post pointing to a deep ravine;

I hope there’s a permissive path beyond the gorse.

*

I was a toddler trailing clouds of glory when you read

about your hero’s legs. Like his, yours conquered many a peak

and cut a path through scrub and gorse. Years later I came to myself

in a dark wood: I knew I had lost the way. If only I had

talked to you about Dante’s Labyrinthine Way!

Your furrow then was straight and certain, a bulwark against

the distractions of the world. You underlined in pencil;

he was guarded from too early intercourse with the deformities

of crowded life. In the ensuing years your naming of parts

obscured both our paths. You named the poetic faculty

as the highest good. I find your longer sentences difficult

to follow even with a magnifying glass. You turned his Ode

around and wrote horizontally. There is little that’s fugitive

but his spots of time became your asterisks; his radical ideas

your ‘toning down.’

I lay down my words in the shadow of yours;

I underline the verses next to yours and tomorrow I’ll copy out

your longer passages before they fade from view. My hands

touch the edge of both our worlds on this cold day.

A double underlining for the powers of reason and nature

thus reciprocally teacher and taught – you can be my guide

even at this late date. I know that, a voice without imagination

cannot be heard. Is it for this that I am searching for the signs?

Wordsworth’s Mysticism

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Grasmere

This is a version of a mini-essay I did for an online course designed by Lancaster University on FutureLearn. My late father was a Wordsworth enthusiast so this is partly a tribute to him. I have a few of his books on Wordsworth and have enjoyed reading my father’s many annotations he made in pencil.

Although Wordsworth became an orthodox Anglican in his later years this should not be held against him or detract from his championing of the ‘indwelling spirit’ throughout his life but especially in his younger years. He is not as radical as William Blake but, nevertheless, there are passages in The Prelude where he is preoccupied with a mystical view of reality and that necessary inner spiritual transformation of the individual.

We are all familiar with his ‘nature-worship’ which goes by the term ‘pantheism.’ Perhaps this is epitomised in his Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, and especially in the lines:

And I have felt

A presence that disturbs me with the joy

Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime

Of something far more deeply interfused

[. . . ] A motion and a spirit, that impels

All thinking things, all objects of all thought,

And rolls through all things . . .

However, we should not limit Wordsworth’s beliefs to nature-worship alone. I would argue his broader views have a lot in common with Blake (“to see heaven in a wild flower”), the English Mystics, St John of the Cross, and even Eastern traditions such as Buddhism and Taoism. As with all mystical traditions, a universal ‘Love’ is at the centre of his worldview. In common with Blake, he also elevates “Imagination” to a position where it is co-joined with selfless Love.

Here is a passage from Book 14 of The Prelude (significantly, the 1850 version is not much altered from the 1805 version):

Imagination having been our theme,
So also hath that intellectual Love,
For they are each in each, and cannot stand
Dividually. — Here must thou be, O Man!
Power to thyself; no Helper hast thou here;
Here keepest thou in singleness thy state:
No other can divide with thee this work:
No secondary hand can intervene
To fashion this ability; ’tis thine,
The prime and vital principle is thine
In the recesses of thy nature, far
From any reach of outward fellowship,
Else is not thine at all. But joy to him,
Oh, joy to him who here hath sown, hath laid
Here, the foundation of his future years!
For all that friendship, all that love can do,
All that a darling countenance can look
Or dear voice utter, to complete the man,
Perfect him, made imperfect in himself,
All shall be his: and he whose soul hath risen
Up to the height of feeling intellect
Shall want no humbler tenderness; his heart
Be tender as a nursing mother’s heart;
Of female softness shall his life be full,
Of humble cares and delicate desires,

Mild interests and gentlest sympathies.

The independence of the individual is unambiguous here and has something of the broad sweep of Walt Whitman.

Be tender as a nursing mother’s heart” has an exact parallel in a Buddhist scripture which reads as follows:

Even as a mother protects with her life

her child, her only child

so with a boundless heart

should one cherish all living beings;

radiating kindness over the entire world;

freed from hatred and ill-will.

[part of the ‘loving-kindness verse’]

Book 14 is a fitting climax to Wordsworth’s Opus Magnum and achieves philosophical and psychological heights which not only illustrate the prospectus of Romanticism, but recapitulate his earlier ideas rather like the last movement of a symphony. I am in awe of The Prelude and look forward to comparing the three versions in the Norton Edition. I recommend it to anyone who has not read it in its entirety!

Skylark Between Generations

I listened to, and watched, skylarks at Corbridge on Sunday. Along by the River Tyne.

 

I set off with a sack of cares upon my back;

though the sunshine bathed my face with warmth;

and after spotting goosanders in the river

ended walking an inch above a sandy track.

*

I started out in bright sunshine

my mirror-mind besmirched with black.

My mood began to lift when I heard a tune:

a skylark singing a song I knew was mine.

*

My distant uncle heard the self-same sacred word

cut down in youth along with many men;

he answered another’s call but to his cost;

a soldier who sang about a wonder bird.

*

As I watched the dark envoy soar

I made a vow to John there and then:

to live my life in homage to his memory,

and to aspire to reach the other shore.

 

 

 

 

Remembrance

cenotaph

My father lost two older brothers in the war; both were in their early twenties. This must have had a profound effect on him which at the time I didn’t fully appreciate. As far as I can tell he wrote this poem in his late sixties or perhaps even in his seventh decade. It was published in a Quaker booklet in 1975. (He and my mother joined the Society of Friends [Quakers] in the 1950s.)

Remembrance Days

The toy soldiers stiffly stand

the picture horses prance;

Established Persons of our Land

assume the ritual stance.

*

As dank November drizzle falls,

Cenotaph an ageing ghost,

sharply a brazen bugle calls

living and dead to a Last Post.

The stale and spectral pageant past,

strained puppets break their string;

the tired flag creeps up the mast,

and swinging London resumes her swing.

*

But a distant summer day I see,

an anxious schoolboy, when my mother

steadied a hand against a tree

and told me I had lost a brother.

So comes it every drear November

I cannot stiffen to command;

so many days when I remember

a mother’s voice, her deathly hand.

 

Fred J. Nicholson

1903-1990

The Bare Bones

skeleton

I can’t remember if I’ve posted this one before! (Oh dear; I’ve just checked and see I have posted it before! Oh well, I suppose it can stand a repeat?)

The Bare Bones

They never lied to me – my parents:
Santa Claus wasn’t real and tooth fairies
didn’t exist. The guinea pig that died
didn’t go to heaven. I remember
holding my father’s hand in a museum,
gazing in disbelief, once the secret was out,
at a dog’s skeleton, a bird’s and a frog’s.
At seven my first occult knowledge;
a treasure I carried inside me.

A human skeleton was the jewel
wrapped up in a balaclava and raincoat.

Inside, where it was warm, I took it out
and learnt by heart each part – humerus,
radius, femur, pelvis and patella – counted
all the ribs to see if any were missing;
learnt that 24 vertebrae made up a spine
that kept me upright. A hinged framework
for nerves, arteries and softer innards.

When I looked at my mother and father
I knew they were hiding something.

A Father’s Tale

gemini

It is a Father’s Tale

Time out of time I carried you in your dressing gown

downstairs out into the moonless night.

We gazed at a thousand suns studding the sky;

meandering along back lanes I lifted your arm

to point at Orion, drifting above rooftops.

We drew a ‘w’ and a triangle in the dark bowl,

traced a hunter’s belt and coloured in a lion,

a charioteer, a plough and a little bear.

I didn’t know then that you’d drift out of reach

when I reached for the thousand and one stories

to keep you listening – to keep you where

trolls, giants and goats sleep under bridges.

 

A Gravitational Wiggle

GreenBankTelescope_nrao_940x655

 

(A poem I wrote a while back published by Poetry Kit, UK)

On the morning of 14 Sept there was a slight wiggle in the arms of the twin Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory Detectors.

It was the day the kindly Evangelicals warned us:

you were in the kitchen but didn’t notice the minisculeripple

in your mug of coffee. I was driving to work when the SAT-NAV

brieflystuttered sending me dangerously close to a catastrophic event horizon.

A black cat crossed the road and blipped strangely in and out of existence.

Most people however, didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary:

brown eggs boiled, CDs played and twelve-sided coins were freshly minted

ahead of their release into the wideruniverse.

“It is impossible to make a forgery.” The most beautiful thought

the Royal Mint had ever had. I had an existential crisis the day after

when a black hole suddenly appeared in my bedroom. At least

that’s what I thought it was until I realised it was merely an unspecified amount

of darkenergy leaking out of a radiator thermostat. Now, I’m getting used to

living my life backwards. I’m looking forward to being born again.