The first half of this sequence of poems, commissioned by the Cheltenham International Jazz Festival, and set to music by Tommy Smith, was fust performed in the Cheltenham Town Hall on 4 April 1997.
In the Beginning
(20 Billion BC)
Don’t ask me and don’t tell me. I was there.
It was a bang and it was big. I don’t know
what went before, I came out with it.
Think about that if you want my credentials.
Think about that, me, it, imagine it
as I recall it now, swinging in my spacetime hammock,
nibbling a moon or two, watching you.
What am I? You don’t know. It doesn’t matter.
I am the witness, I am not in the dock.
I love matter and I love anti-matter.
Listen to me, listen to my patter.
Oh what a day (if it was day) that was!
It was as if a fist had been holding fast
one dense packed particle too hot to keep
and the fingers had suddenly sprung open
and the burning coal, the radiant mechanism
had burst and scattered the seeds of everything,
out through what was now space, out
into the pulse of time, out, my masters,
out, my friends, so, like a darting shoal,
like a lion’s roar, like greyhounds released,
like blown dandelions, like Pandora’s box,
like a shaken cornucopia, like an ejaculation –
I was amazed at the beauty of it all,
those slowly cooling rosy clouds of gas,
wave upon wave of hydrogen and helium,
spirals and rings and knots of fire, silhouettes
of dust in towers, thunderheads, tornadoes;
and then the stars, and the blue glow of starlight
lapislazuliing the dust-grains –
I laughed, rolled like a ball, flew like a dragon,
zigzagged and dodged the clatter of meteorites
as they clumped and clashed and clustered into
worlds, into this best clutch of nine
whirled in the Corrievreckan of the Sun.
The universe had only just begun.
I’m off, my dears. My story’s still to run!
The Early Earth
(3 Billion BC)
Planets, planets – they seem to have settled
into their orbits, round their golden lord,
their father, except he’s not their father,
they were all born together, in that majestic wave
of million-degree froth and jet and muck:
who would have prophesied the dancelike separation,
the nine globes, with their moons and rings, rare –
do you know how rare it is, dear listeners,
dear friends, do you know how rare you are?
Don’t you want to be thankful? You suffer too much?
I’ll give you suffering, but first comes thanks.
Think of that early wild rough world of earth:
lurid, restless, cracking, groaning, heaving,
swishing through space garbage and flak,
cratered with a thousand dry splashdowns
painted over in molten granite. Think of hell,
a mineral hell of fire and smoke. You’re there.
What’s it all for? Is this the lucky planet?
Can you down a pint of lava, make love
to the Grand Canyon, tuck a thunderbolt
in its cradle? Yes and no, folks, yes and no.
You must have patience with the story.
I took myself to the crest of a ridge
once it was pushed up and cooled.
There were more cloudscapes than earthquakes.
You could walk on rock and feel rain.
You shivered but smiled in the fine tang.
Then I came down to stand in the shallows
of a great ocean, my collar up to the wind,
but listen, it was more than the wind I heard,
it was life at last, emerging from the sea,
shuffling, sliding, sucking, scuttling, so small
that on hands and knees I had to strain my eyes.
A trail of half-transparent twitchings!
A scum of algae! A greening! A breathing!
And no one would stop them, volcanoes wouldn’t stop them!
How far would they go? What would they not try?
I punched the sky, my friends, I punched the sky.
End of the Dinosaurs
(65 Million BC)
If you want life, this is something like it.
I made myself a tree-house, and from there
I could see distant scrubby savannas
but mostly it was jungle, lush to bursting
with ferns, palms, creepers, reeds, and the first flowers.
Somewhere a half-seen slither of giant snakes,
a steamy swamp, a crocodile-drift
in and out of sunlight. But all this, I must tell you,
was only background for the rulers of life,
the dinosaurs. Who could stand against them?
They pounded the earth, they lazed in lakes,
they razored through the sultry air.
if you will, the scrunchings of frond and branch
but also of joint and gristle. It’s not a game.
I watched a tyrannosaurus rise on its hindlegs
to slice a browsing diplodocus, just like that,
a hiss, a squirm, a shake, a supper –
velociraptors scattered like rabbits.
It didn’t last. It couldn’t? I don’t know.
Were they too big, too monstrous, yet wonderful
with all the wonder of terror. Were there other plans?
I saw the very day the asteroid struck:
mass panic, mass destruction, mass smoke and mass ash
that broke like a black wave over land and sea,
billowing, thickening, choking, until no sun
could pierce the pall and no plants grew and no
lizards however terrible found food and no
thundering of armoured living tons disturbed
the forest floor and there was no dawn roar,
only the moans, only the dying groans
of those bewildered clinker-throated ex-time-lords,
only, at the end, skulls and ribs and hatchless
eggs in swamps and deserts
left for the inheritors –
my friends, that’s you and me
branched on a different tree:
what shall we do, or be?
In the Cave
Dark was the cave where I discovered man,
but he made it, in his own way, bright.
The cavern itself was like a vast hall
within a labyrinth of tunnels. Children
set lamps on ledges. Women fanned a hearth.
Suddenly with a jagged flare of torches
men trooped in from the hunt, threw down
jagged masses of meat, peeled off furs
by the fire till they were half-naked, glistening
with sweat, stocky intelligent ruffians,
brought the cave alive with rapid jagged speech.
You expected a grunt or two? Not so.
And music, surely not? You never heard
such music, I assure you, as the logs crackled
and the meat sizzled, when some with horns and drums
placed echoes in the honeycomb of corridors.
This was no roaring of dinosaurs.
I joined them for their meal. They had a bard,
a storyteller. Just like me, I said.
I told him about distant times. He interrupted.
‘I don’t think I believe that. Are you a shaman?
If so, where’s your reindeer coat? Have another drink.
If you’re a shape-shifter, I’m a truth-teller.
Drink up, we call it beer, it’s strong, it’s good.
You should’ve been out with us today,
it isn’t every day you catch a mammoth,
keep us fed for a week, fur too, tusks –
nothing wasted. Spears and arrows both,
that’s what you need, plus a good crowd a boys,
goo’ crowda boys. Take s’more beer, go on.
See mamm’ths? Mamm’ths’re fuck’n stupit.
Once they’re down they can’t get up. Fuck em.
Y’know this, y’know this, ole shaman-man,
we’ll be here long after mamm’ths’re gone.’
He stumbled to his feet, seized a huge torch and ran
along the wall, making such a wave of sparks
the painted mammoths kicked and keeled once more.
A deep horn gave that movie flicker its score.
The Great Flood
Rain, rain, and rain again, and still more rain,
rain and lightning, rain and mist, a month of downpours
till the earth quaked gruffly somewhere and sent
tidal waves over the Middle Sea,
tidal waves over the Middle East,
tidal wave and rain and tidal wave
to rave and rove over road and river and grove.
I skimmed the water-level as it rose:
invisible the delta! gone the headman’s hut!
drowned at last even the stony jebel!
I groaned at whole families swept out to sea.
Strong horses swam and swam but sank at last.
Little treasures, toys, amulets were licked
off pitiful ramshackle village walls.
Weapons, with the hands that held them, vanished.
So what to do? Oh never underestimate
those feeble scrabbling panting gill-less beings!
Hammers night and day on the high plateau!
Bitumen smoking! Foremen swearing! A boat,
an enormous boat, a ship, a seafarer,
caulked, battened, be-sailed, oar-banked, crammed
with life, human, animal, comestible,
holy with hope, bobbing above the tree-tops,
set off to shouts and songs into the unknown
through rags and carcases and cold storks’ nests.
The waters did go down. A whaleback mountain
shouldered up in a brief gleam of sludge,
nudged the ark and grounded it. Hatches gaped.
Heads smelt the air. Some bird was chirping.
And then a rainbow: I laughed, it was too much.
But as they tottered out with their bundles,
their baskets of tools, their goats, their babies,
and broke like a wave over the boulders and mosses,
I thought it was a better wave than the wet one
that had almost buried them all.
we came from, to water we may return.
But keep webbed feet at arm’s length! Build!
That’s what I told them: rebuild, but build!
The Great Pyramid
A building of two million blocks of stone
brought from beyond the Nile by barge and sledge,
dragged up on ramps, trimmed and faced smooth
with bronze chisels and sandstone pads, what a gleam,
what a dazzle of a tomb, what mathematics
in that luminous limestone point against the blue,
the blue above and the yellow below,
the black above and the silver below,
the stars like sand-grains, the pyramid joining them –
You should have seen it, my friends, I must confess
it made a statement to me, and you can scrub
conventional wisdom about the megalomania
of mummies awaiting the lift-off to eternity.
The architects, the surveyors, the purveyors,
the laundresses and cooks, and the brawny gangs
who were not slaves, they would go on strike
if some vizier was stingy with grain or beer:
it was the first mass effort to say
We’re here, we did this, this is not nature
but geometry, see it from the moon some day!
Oh but the inauguration, the festivity, the holiday –
I joined the throng, dear people, how could I not?
The sun gave its old blessing, gold and hot and high.
The procession almost rose to meet it:
what was not white linen was lapis lazuli,
what was not lapis lazuli was gold,
there was a shining, a stiff rustling, a solemnity,
the pharaoh and his consort carried in golden chairs,
the bodyguards were like bronze statues walking,
there were real desert men with hawks, severe
as hawks themselves, there were scribes and singers,
black dancing-girls oiled to black gold – wild –
and then the long powerful snake of the workers
which rippled from the Nile to the four great faces
and coiled about them for the dedication.
And the bursting wave of music, the brilliant discords,
the blare, the triumph, the steps of the sound-lords
bore away like a storm my storyteller’s words.
On the Volga
I fancied a change, bit of chill, nip in the air,
went up into Russia, jogged along the Volga,
quite brisk, breath like steam, blood on the go,
ready for anything, you know the feeling.
But I was not as ready as I thought.
I came upon a camp of Vikings, traders
bound south for the Black Sea, big men, fair,
tattooed, their ships at anchor in the river.
Their chief had died, I was to witness
the ritual of cremation. It is so clear –
dear people, I must speak and you must hear –
A boat was dragged on shore, faggots were stacked,
they dressed the dead man in cloth of gold, laid him
in a tent on deck. Who would die with him?
A girl volunteered – yes, a true volunteer –
walked about singing, not downcast, stood
sometimes laughing, believe me, talking to friends.
What did she think of the dog that was cut in two,
thrown into the ship? Nothing, it was what was done.
The horses? The chief must have his beasts
by his side on that black journey. She,
when her time had come, went into six tents
one by one, and lay with the men there.
Each entered her gently, saying ‘Tell your master
I did this only for love of you.’ Strong drink
was given her, cup after cup. Stumbling, singing,
she was lifted onto the ship, laid down, held,
stabbed by a grim crone and strangled simultaneously
by two strong men, so no one could say who killed her.
Shields were beaten with staves to drown her cries.
Sex and death, drink and fire – the fourth was to come.
The ship was torched, caught quickly, spat, crackled,
burned, birchwood, tent-cloth, flesh, cloth of gold
melted in the blaze that was fanned even faster
by a storm blowing up from the west, sending
wave after wave of smoke in flight across the river.
My friends, do you want to know what you should feel?
I can’t tell you, but feel you must. My story’s real.
The Pope sent a letter to the Great Khan, saying
‘We do not understand you. Why do you not obey?
We are under the direct command of Heaven.’
The Great Khan replied to the Pope, saying
‘We do not understand you. Why do you not obey?
We are under the direct command of Heaven.’
I must admit I turned a couple of cartwheels
when I found these letters. Mongol chutzpah,
I thought, something new in the world, black comedy
you never get from the solemn Saracens.
Why not? Heaven has given them the earth
from Lithuania to Korea, they ride
like the wind over a carpet of bones.
They have laws, they record, they study the stars.
They are a wonder, but what are they for?
I stood in waves of grass, somewhere in Asia
(that’s a safe address), chewing dried lamb
and scanning the low thundery sky,
when a column of Mongol soldiers came past,
halted, re-formed, were commended by their shaman
to the sky-god Tengri who was bending the blue
in order to bless them. Instruments appeared
as if from nowhere, a band, war music
but very strange, stopped as suddenly,
except for the beat of kettledrums as the troop
moved forward. Were they refreshed, inspired?
Who knows? But oh that measured conical bob
of steel caps, gleam of lacquered leather jerkins,
indefatigable silent wolf-lope!
Were they off to make rubble of some great city?
I think they were off to enlarge the known world.
They trotted out of sight; the horsemen followed;
a cold wind followed that, with arrows of rain.
Even in my felt jacket I shivered. Yet –
yet they were there to shake the mighty in their seats.
They were like nature, dragons, volcanoes. Keep awake!
Are you awake, dear people? Are you ready for the Horde,
the page-turner, the asteroid, the virtual sword?
Cliffs of Patagonia, coldest of coasts,
and the ships sweeping south-west into the strait
which was to be Magellan’s: like St Elmo’s fire
I played in the rigging, I was tingling, it was good
to see the navigator make determination
his quadrant and his compass into the unknown.
A mutiny? Always hang ringleaders. He did.
One ship wrecked, one deserted? Right. Right.
On with the other three. This channel of reefs,
a wild month needling through, cursing the fogs,
crossing himself as he saw the land of fire,
Tierra del Fuego, flaring its petroleum hell,
then out at last into what seemed endless waves –
Magellan stared at a watery third of the world.
West! West and north! What squalls! What depths!
What sea-monsters I watched from the crow’s-nest!
The starving and parching below, the raving, the rats
for dinner, the gnawing of belts! Magellan held
his piercing eye and salt-white beard straight on
to landfall, to the Marianas and the Philippines and
to death. I shuddered at that beach of blood
where he was hacked to pieces. Would you not?
And would you not rejoice that his lieutenant
sailed on, sailed west, sailed limping back,
one tattered ship, sailed home again to Spain
to prove the world was round. And they would need
more ships, for it was mostly water. A ball
with no edge you could fall from – that seemed fine.
But a wet ball in space, what could hold it together?
Every triumph left a trail of questions.
Just as it should, I told the geographers.
Don’t you agree, folks, that’s the electric prod
to keep us on the move? Don’t care for prods,
put your head in a bag, that’s what I say.
Well, I’m given to saying things like that,
Great Ferdinand Magellan,
sleep in peace beneath the seas.
The world’s unlocked, and you gave us the keys.
In the Baltic there are many waves,
but in Prussian fields I saw, and did not see,
the wave of thought that got the earth to move.
Copernicus’s Tower, as they call it,
took its three storeys to a viewing platform,
open, plenty of night, no telescope though.
I used to watch the light go on, then off,
and a dark figure occlude a star
as he would see the moon do. Moon and sun
swung round the earth, unless you were blind.
No. Earth and moon swung round the sun
and earth swung round itself. Mars, Venus,
all, a family, a system, and the system was solar.
Who was he, and does it matter? No stories
are told about this man who kicked the earth
from its false throne. Luther called him a fool
but Luther was the fool. He had servants,
rode a horse, healed the sick, heard cases,
administered a province, but his big big eyes
smouldered like worlds still unadministered.
Big hands too – but he never married.
War swirled round his enclave, peasants starved,
colleagues fled, he stayed in the smoking town –
something of iron there. A play lampooned him
but nothing could stop this patient revolutionary.
I heard them knock at the door of his death-chamber
to bring him the book of his life’s labours
but I doubt if he saw it – he gave no sign –
that tremendous title On the Revolutions
(and what a pun that was) of the Heavenly Spheres
floated above the crumpled haemorrhage and sang
like an angel, a human angel cast loose at last
to voyage in a universe that would no more stand still
than the clouds forming and re-forming
over Copernicus’s Tower.
I looked from the roof
till it was dark and starry, and I knew my travels
were just beginning: the Magellanic Clouds
wait for those who have climbed Magellan’s shrouds.
I had had enough of stars and silence.
It was midsummer, and I made for India.
Where would I get some life but India?
I joined a boat, and was soon blistering
across the Bay of Bengal to a seaside town
of some fame, what was it called, Puri,
yes, Puri of the festivals. A test case
I was told. Test of what? Oh you’ll find out.
If I wanted people, there were plenty of them,
tens, hundreds of thousands, filling the streets
with chatter and movement and colour and slowly
making a magnet of the courtyard of a temple
where they clustered jostling in ancient expectation.
With a rumble, with shouts, with drums, with blowing of shells
an enormous cart rolled out, what, sixteen wheels,
a car for a god, a car for the people to draw,
and draw it they did, with their god on board,
that giant tottering legless fearsome one
they dragged as if drugged, they were high on devotion,
milling, chanting, pushing, stumbling, trundling –
trundling what, on those great spokes, to the sea?
I can hear the roar even yet, mounting up
through waves of heat and dust, it could curdle blood
or it could twine your roots with the roots of the world.
‘Who is Lord of the Universe? Jagannath!
Who is Jagannath? Lord of the Universe!’
The juggernaut rolled on, and made its path
over so many bodies no one could say
who had been shouldered to the ground
or who had shouldered themselves to the ground,
embracing the relentless axle of the divine.
I could not say. I did not want to say.
Shining eyes, shouts of ecstasy,
stench, stampede, shattered shinbones,
sun-splashed awnings, sweat-soaked idols
swam before me like sharks, like shrieks
from an old incomprehensible abyss.
The axle squeals without redress of grease.
I write it, I read it, I revere that sea
which blues the heaving earthly hemisphere.
I was swooping low over those waves one day
when my eye caught a tiny triangle of island
some instinct told me to investigate:
volcanic, a mere scrub of greenery,
but interesting in its defiant aloneness
thousands of miles from the nearest land.
I spoke to the inhabitants. They were curious.
They were mighty voyagers, or their ancestors were
not now though; there was some great past,
fragments only, drifting through memory.
I found them quite a merry people.
They preferred tattoos to clothes.
They shot their legs out in shameless dances.
What use is shame in mid-Pacific?
Whoever they were, they were not the ones
whose gaunt and awesome faces stared at – not me
but space and clouds and things unknown
unless to those who carved them.
Hundreds of statues, six-men-high and more,
standing, leaning, lying, trying
to break from the earth like Polynesian Adams –
but not Polynesian, they forbade identity:
pointed nose, thin lip, jutting chin
said nothing but Power! Mystery! Vision!
What force moved them from their quarries,
those many tons, across the rough of the island?
They were not moved, they moved, I was told.
Step by step, rocking from side to side,
they reached their appointed places.
Everyone knows that, I was told.
It was evening now, evening of what some would call
Easter Sunday. I climbed a hill near the coast,
gazing across those vast waters not vaster
than tracts of mind new-visited and glittering.
On the horizon, the first ship from Europe:
trinkets, missionaries, trousers, smallpox, guns.
The Lisbon Earthquake
A continent’s western edge, high ships in harbour,
huge harbour it was too, a haven for all,
a hallowed circle for that All Saints’ Day
of a still, half-gold, half-sombre November:
the bells clashed and clamoured, the churches were
the candles were packed thick as forests, the voices
packed themselves into trembling glades of praise.
I watched it all, watched the end of it all.
The earth dreams like a dog in a basket,
twitching; it likes to show it is alive.
At the first tremor, people look at each other,
they are not fools, they know what is happening,
but with no more warning than a crash
the sculptured roofs fell on the worshippers,
leaving a squirm of screams, blood, blazing wax.
Those who could run, ran, ran to the sea
to save them, but save them it could not:
it rose in a wall of water, a wave of waves
that roiled and howled and brought a great drowning,
mantillas, black suits, copes of purple, swaddling-clothes.
That was a fado
I heard it in the wailing of the wounded.
It rose like smoke from fires that would rage for days.
It tore the Enlightenment to tatters.
It made philosophers of men on stumps.
I saw a small crowd and spoke to them.
Throw away your candles, I said. It’s a new age.
Study the earth. Listen to its plates grinding.
Power is yours, not up there – I pointed –
you have a long trek, and tears, but
it is your own trek, your own tears,
you must never freeze-frame your fears.
Clear the rubble. Mourn the missing.
Keep one ruin for remembrance sake.
Tell old Tagus a new Troy is at stake!
A woman nodded, took flowers, strode ahead.
It was November First, the Day of the Dead.
Darwin in the Galapagos
It was a cool day for the equator
as I clambered whistling over the clinker.
Clouds had brought a shower across the shore.
Grey black scoured and pitted rocks
glistened, and so did an iguana
eyeing me lazily with its wet crest bristling.
I saw the drag-marks of a giant tortoise –
what a dogged message thrusting into the thicket!
And the air was bright with birds, well, bright and dark –
green, brown, yellow – little birds, finches
flirting their few inches, drenching the freshness
with a spray of chatter and chirm, with a charm
peculiar to these islands, these Incantadas
I met a young man in a floppy hat
who stopped and smiled; he too had charm.
‘My finches,’ he said, ‘you are watching my finches.’
We sat on an old stump, I cherish the moment.
A man both ingenuous and ingenious,
a genius indeed, enthusiastic, shy,
well no, not really shy, but modest,
that was a type I could talk to for ever.
‘These finches – all different,’ he said.
‘They have become separate species, and why is that?
They had some ancestor in Ecuador
but here their beaks have changed to match their food –
small seeds, big seeds, nectar, and do you know
there is one that makes a tool of cactus spines
to ferret grubs from tree-cracks? Oh
I can hardly sleep for excitement!
Nothing is immutable, life changes, we evolve.
Process is gorgeous, is it not!
Process is progress, don’t you see!’
He taps my arm, his eyes shine. I agree.
Time breaks in great waves as we speak.
And look, a finch on the back of a tortoise
as if it had been listening
lifts its beak and begins a singing
so piercing it gives no end to that beginning.
A wheezing fan hardly disturbed the flies.
A crutch stood in the corner. Hoots from the harbour
brought Marseilles into a stifling hospital
where the gaunt drugged gun-runner lay
sweating and groaning with his bandaged stump
staining the sheets as he muttered and turned.
I listened. I knew who he was.
This dying trader had once been a poet.
Can you once be a poet, and live? Well, can you?
I wanted to swim in his delirium.
I did, I did swim in his delirium.
‘ – ten thousand rifles, they were all stacked
but I was swindled, Abyssinia swindled me,
is it slaves next, or stick to tusks and spices,
I can still ride the sands, trafficking trafficking,
get to the gulf, the sea, the green, oh my thirst,
I cannot drink, Venus with her green eyes
is rising from a green copper bath,
she is bald, larded, ulcered, she is dripping
with verdigris and I am thirsty I want I want
absinth, absomphe, my green, my demon, my dear,
and I am hungry but all I scrunch is coal and iron,
I even scrunch walls I am such a monster,
Djami, Djami, what sort of boy are you,
bring me my pipe, where is my white shirt,
you must not laugh at my grey hairs,
Paul, come back, I shall be good,
do you really believe you can ever
find anyone better to live with,
I shall jump on you, we shall roll together,
Paul, I need you, I love you,
the pain, this pain, someone is crunching my leg
in an iron boot, I expect it is God,
what are we born for, write poetry, nah – ’
A wave of traffic broke loudly outside.
I wanted a wave of the sea, real air, gulls.
I left the sick smell and the old young man.
Poetry burned in him like radium.
The Siege of Leningrad
Enormous icy Ladoga, lake for giants,
cracked quietly in the fog and under the cracks
artillery threw across a whistling darkness.
I hunched into my furs, made for the city.
On the outskirts, black figures crouched
to scoop up water from broken pipes
below the snow. Over the snow
sledges loaded with the dead
were dragged by the half-dead.
A gaunt dog slunk near. Bury them quick!
Hunger is in his ribs and he cannot howl
but he can eat! The millions besieged
can eat, five ounces of bread a day,
two glasses of hot water, a rat if caught,
then gnaw some leather, wrap in rugs,
wait for the droning overhead.
Music: what was that! I passed a hall,
peered in: huddled crowd, breath, baton,
dim flash of brass. Crashes of Shostakovich
crushed the frost and raced through the blood.
How could those hearts ever surrender?
Pinched noses and grey flesh, all right; they starved;
starved, thousands; but kept schools open,
hospitals, factories, pipeline under Ladoga,
Peter the Great’s children, yes, Lenin’s children,
say what you will, they held the line. They live
in the memory of poets and of those far ones
like myself who visit everything
but do not always stand in awe like this
as shells shriek through the innocent flakes
and print the north in blood.
wave after wave of bombers darken the sky.
That night the great observatory was hit.
The eye of Pulkovo searching for Barnard’s Star
went blind as the lake its frozen companion
that guarded it and was guarded by it –
until the pain should be melted and the people
sing in the harmless moon of their white nights.
The Sputnik’s Tale
One day, as I was idling above the earth,
an unexpected glint caught my eye,
whizzing silver, a perky sphere with prongs.
I knew it was time for such things to appear
but this was the first: man-made, well-made,
artificial but a satellite for all that:
a who-goes-there for the universe!
I came closer: the gleaming aluminium
sparkled, hummed, vibrated, its four
spidery antennas had the spring of rhe newly created.
It seemed a merry creature, even cocky.
It had a voice. I said hello to it.
‘Can’t stop,’ it cried. ‘I am in orbit.
Join me if you want to talk. Beep.
Travel with me, be the sputnik’s sputnik.’
I flew alongside. ‘What have you seen?’ I asked.
‘Wall of China, useless object that.
Continents. Tankers. Deltas like pony-tails.
Collective beep farms everywhere. Oh and
the earth like a ball, mustn’t forget that,
proof positive. And a blue glow
all round it if you like such beep things.’
‘You haven’t always been bound in a bit of metal?’
I asked. ‘Damn sure I beep haven’t,’ he replied,
colour chasing colour across his surface.
‘I was a bard in the barbarous times,
Widsith the far-traveller. The world was my mead-hall.
Goths gave me gold. I blossomed in Burgundy.
I watched Picts prick beep patterns on themselves.
I sang to Saracens for a sweet supper.
I shared the floor with a shaman in Finland.
Good is the giver who helps the harper!’
‘I have nothing to give you,’ I said,
‘but truth. You have three months to live
in this orbit, and then you are a cinder.’
He darkened. ‘You may well be right.’
But remembering Widsith he flushed into tremulous light.
‘We’ll see. Beep. We’ll see. Beep. We’ll see.’
How many people can be happy?
How many people can be peaceful?
Half a million in that field full of folk
I counted as I wandered through the morning.
This was the Catskills, not the Malvern hills,
but something good was breathing there.
Was music the magic? A million eyes
lifted young faces to gantries and amplifiers
banked like some gigantic stage-set –
well, a stage-set it was, a self-written play
rocked in waves of rhythmic clapping,
whistles, announcements, cheers, planes passing.
Smokes were smoked and backs were stroked.
A man died and a child was born.
Adam and Eve stood naked in a brook.
I should put this in a book.
Rain game, oh did it, thunder and mud.
Put on ponchos, caps, capes!
Bless and exorcise the flood!
Navajo rain-chant sweeps the crowd.
Weather was not the climax though.
What were we all waiting for?
When the clouds had passed and the bands
and songs were ready to be packed away,
in the unspoken expectation, electric,
an instrument rose like a dragon,
a guitar spoke like a dragon.
Starry and scary was the jangled spangle,
not blazing with blandishments that banjaxed banne
a banshee brandished it in the vanguard.
When Hendrix plucked, it was the mane of a lion.
His fingers did the work of several hands.
But through the growling and through the whining,
through the slurring and through the piping,
through the grovelling and through the soaring,
the tune kept surfacing
bright and fighting.
The Twin Towers
For the Mercantile Exchange and the Commodity Exchange,
for the Cotton Exchange and the Coffee Exchange,
for the Market Bar and the Sky Dive,
for the Windows on the World at the 107th floor,
for the Miro three-ton tapestry and the Calder stable mobile,
there was suddenly no more time, my friends,
there was suddenly no more space.
For those therein, my dears, for those therein
it was twisted metal, scalding jet fuel,
smoke, fire, fear, baffled frenzy.
I saw it, but you must imagine it.
Think of those who escaped stumbling down stairwells,
think of the ones who escaped only into the air,
leaping hand in hand from highest windows
to be broken rather than burned: the pity of that.
Can you think of the pilots too, in the last moments
of that accurate blaze of impact as the towers loomed –
were they praying, crying, shouting, silent, counting –
can you place that final union of flesh, steel, glass
in the scale of sublimity proper to terror –
high, is it not high? You must say so!
The shock-waves were a tocsin for the overweening imperium;
let them take note, let them think how others live.
But tall towers may be arrogant, or they may not.
I shall become very cross – oh yes, I can be –
if I hear the word Babel. Advocates of lowliness,
keep off, creep off! There is a soaring thing
you will never stunt or stamp into the earth.
Like the broken comb of a geisha girl
which she has angrily thrown onto the road,
the ruined shell of half a tower
stood rakish against the sky
as if it was the monument it should become,
to let cascades of fine black hair unbound,
cascades of unbound weeping, fall
onto that deadly desolate ground
for two thousand heads and more
that never will be found.
On the Way to Barnard’s Star
I heard of a stramash in Ophiuchus.
The constellation, the spreadeagled hero
clutching his serpent, was pulsing and blushing
like a giant squid. What was going on?
I will tell you what was going on.
Worlds were being lost, were being born.
I tingled at news of an expedition.
We were a band bound for Barnard’s Star,
the smouldering ruby, second nearest to earth,
cool, slow-burning, oh it will be around
long after this sun has run out of helium.
It had, or was about to have, a planet.
(Who can say what time is at such distances?)
We travelled not far off the speed of light –
six years in our lusty photon-rider
would take us to the coasts of the red one.
What did we talk of? What did we not?
Destiny and will, great darkness and great light,
the fiery train of knowledge, the pearl of hope.
Meteors swept past us like battle-shot.
Clouds of gas were almost forms – almost –
but there were no gods, and we had good
blood in our veins, in our good brains,
and in black places too, in memory,
it stiffened there, where there was no grace,
blood, spilt, never to be effaced.
We drank to the dead. We blessed the unborn.
The computer blew its extraordinary horn
to tell us we were arriving, had arrived,
in bursts, were slowing, were slewing
past the dull red glow of Barnard’s Star
down to its planet, slowly, in blurts,
landing at last on waves of grass.
the green blades never waved, a river
in the distance shone but never ran,
laburnum – it was not laburnum –
dropped hard gold. The powerless stillness
was waiting. Help it. ‘Open the hatch,’ I said.