1. To a minor poet
Where are the days you spent on earth,
all the joy and anguish
that were your universe?
The river of years has washed them away;
now you survive
as an entry in the index.
Proudly they gather, the gods’ gifts, immortal.
Of you, dark friend, all we know
is that one evening you heard the nightingale.
Walking fields of asphodels, your slighted shade
must think the gods harsh
but the days are a tangle of paltry needs
and is there really a blessing richer
than the ash of which oblivion’s made?
For others the gods kindled
a persistent light: see
how it shines in every crevice, finds every flaw
and in the end shrivels the rose it treasures.
They were kinder to you, brother, passing you by,
leaving you to the nightingale in the garden
in the thrill of a dusk which will never darken.
2. To whoever is reading me
You’re untouchable. Haven’t they told you,
the powers that control your every move,
that dust is certain? Or did you imagine
your stepping into it could slow the river?
The slab has been ordered, you won’t
be reading it. Date, time and place
already inscribed, a well-judged epitaph.
And not just you – everyone else is a dream
of time, neither deathless bronze nor shining gold.
The universe like you is a shifting stream.
You’ll be a dark shade walking
to promised darkness, the route is fixed.
In a sense, you could say, you’re already dead.
There’s only one thing that doesn’t exist – oblivion.
God, who saves the metal, hoards the dross
and files in his prophetic memory
moons yet to shine with those long gone.
Everything is there. Every reflection
from dawn to dusk you left behind in mirror
after mirror, and every face you’ll go on leaving.
And everything is fixed in its place
in the eternal memory of the universe.
Corridors like labyrinths, the sound of doors
endlessly closing. . . but only
from the other side of the setting sun,
should you ever get there,
will you see the archetypes and the splendours.
4. To the son
It wasn’t me who fathered you, it was the dead:
my father, his father, their fathers before them
tracing their way through a maze of loves
all the way from Adam, from the deserts
of Cain and Abel, a dawn so distant
mythology blocks the view. And here
they are now: flesh and bone, their feet
in the future, their breath on your shoulder.
They crowd around, I can feel them press,
we, you, those yet to come, the sons
you’ll conceive, the latest of the line,
the red line of Adam, and I am
all the others too, eternity hurrying
in the bones of time. . .
5. To a Saxon poet
The snows of Northumbria have felt
and forgotten the print of your feet
and the nights are uncountable that lie
between us, my ghostly brother.
Slow in the slow dark you’d work
your metaphors of swords on the seas
and the horror in the pine woods
and the loneliness the days brought.
Where should we look for your face
and your name? In the halls of oblivion.
I’ll never know how life was for you
when you were a man on the earth,
you who followed the hard paths of exile
and now live only in iron verses.
Suddenly the evening clears
and a delicate rain is falling.
Falling or fallen. For there’s no doubting
that rain happens in the past.
Whoever hears it has remembered
the lucky day that gave him
a flower called rose
and its strange particular red.
This rain like a blind on the window
brightens in a forgotten suburb
the black grapes on the vine
of a vanished patio. The evening rain
brings me my father’s voice,
my returning father who never died.
7. A poet of the thirteenth century
He goes back to the laboured drafts
of that first sonnet, the name not even
invented yet, the random clutter of the page
with its squabble of tercet and quatrain.
Painfully, he polishes his awkward lines
then gives up. Maybe, from the horror
of the future, a faint trill
of far-off nightingales has reached his ear.
Or has he realised that he’s not alone
and that Apollo, the mysterious and surprising,
has released in him an archetype,
a clear-eyed greed with which to snare
what the night disguises or the day reveals:
the maker and his maze, enigmas, Oedipus?
8. A compass
Everything comes down to a word in a language
someone or something, night and day,
is writing in an infinite confusion.
This is the history of the world, Carthage
and Rome, you, me, everyone, my life
which is beyond me, its torment
of chance, mystery and secret codes
and all of Babel’s discords.
Behind the name the nameless lies,
today I felt its shadow settle
in the clear blue compass needle
stretching to the limit of the seas,
like a clock seen in a dream
or a bird suddenly moving in its sleep.