In the Great Rift, the wildebeest wheel and run,
Spooked by a pride of lions which would kill,
In any thousand of them, only one
Or two were they to walk or just stand still.
They can’t see that, nor can we see the tide
Of land go slowly out on either side,
As Africa and Asia come apart
Inexorably like a broken heart.
We measure everything by our brief lives
And pity most a life cut shorter yet.
Granddaughters get smacked if they play with knives,
Or should be, to make sure they don’t forget.
So think the old folk, by their years made wise,
Believing what they’ve seen before their eyes,
And knowing what time is, and where it goes.
Deep on the ocean floor, the lava flows.
The Falcon Growing Old
The falcon wears its erudition lightly
As it angles down towards its master’s glove.
Student of thermals written by the desert,
It scarcely moves a muscle as it rides
A silent avalanche back to the wrist
Where it will stand in wait like a hooded hostage.
A lifetime’s learning renders youthful effort
Less necessary, which is fortunate.
The chase and first-strike kill it once could wing
Have grown beyond it, so some morning soon
This bird will have its neck wrung without warning
And one of its progeny will take its place.
Thinking these things, the ageing writer makes
Sketches for poems, notes for paragraphs.
Bound for the darkness, does he see himself
Balanced and forceful like the poised assassin
Whose mere trajectory attracts all eyes
Except the victim’s? Habit can die hard,
But still the chance remains he simply likes it,
Catching the shifting air the way a falcon
Spreads on a secret wave, the outpaced earth
Left looking powerless. This sentence here,
Weighed down by literal meaning as it is,
Might only need that loose clause to take off,
Air-launched from a position in the sky
For a long glide with just its wing-tip feathers
Correcting for the wobble in the lisp
Of sliding nothingness, the whispering road
That leads you to a dead-heat with your shadow
At the orange-blossom trellis in the oasis.
Some older people like the ship so much
They pay again and go wherever it goes —
Which means that for a large part of the year
They just steam back and forth across the Atlantic —
Until they die, while other older people
Are there for one performance after another
Of The Sound of Music. They know every word.
“How” they smile wryly as they sing along,
“Do you solve a problem like Maria?” If
They conk out before the interval, are they
Removed? Surely the mark of the habitués
Is that they’re dead already. When I noticed
That my club was full of men who had become
Stuffed armchairs and oak tables for school food
I resigned to save my skin. They liked the place
Too much. They thought the ship’s Entertainment
Officer was entertaining. They were dewy-eyed
Instead of loud with scorn when Liesl’s suitor
Expressed in terms of chaste and tender love
His youthful urge to get into her pants.
Dull death, the minimum of information —
Where entropy, to steal a phrase from S.J.
Perelman, fills every nook of Granny —
Will come when it will come, but while we’re waiting
Beware the lapse into familiar comfort,
All outlines softened. In that cloud lies proof
Your life was lost on you, though I suppose
It isn’t only easier but better
To echo an ecstatic singing nun —
Transfigured like Bernini’s St Teresa
At the mere prospect of an edelweiss —
Than to puzzle out the dialogue of, say,
Act I, Scene IV of Cymbeline, which no-one
Has remotely, since the day that it was written,
Enjoyed or even partly understood.
And are there no more thrills? In the fjord
The wrinklies crowd the rail to hear their voices
Come back from walls of ice. Couples hold hands.
So quick to guess their last heat is long gone,
How sure are we the failing is not ours,
Our cold contempt a portent of the void
Which is the closed heart and begins within us?
It doesn’t always take time to go nowhere.
The Same River Twice
A bad call, Heraclitus. Men are always
Stepping twice into the same river:
The river of our feelings, which will never
Much change, though we endeavour all our days
To tame them, and indeed unless behaviour
Improves on instinct we are lost, and those
We love will suffer for our naturalness —
A virtue only when it does not close
The pathway to a cure for the distress
Engendered by our energies. The aim,
Or at any rate the outcome, has to be
Knowledge of self. Without that, nemesis
Waits in the water, every time the twin
Of how it looked the last time you stepped in.
Surely you see now that you gave your name
To the easy option. Nobody disagrees
About the infinitely shifting texture
Of the world. A malefactor loves the haze
Of boiling chance that blurs the total picture,
The fog you stand in up to your stiff knees,
Looking so wise, as if you’d solved the structure
Of all causality, when you, in fact,
Left out the thing we needed most to know —
That our character will leave us free to act
In contradiction to its steady flow
Only through our regretting that the river,
Though never still, is still the same as ever.
No man steps out of it, not even once.
Neat name for the machine
On which the lists were done:
Quietly ordered violence.
Feathers by the ton.
Great name for the device
On which the lists were made:
A pop-gun fusillade,
A muted rat-tat-tat,
The excuse already ripe:
We knew nothing of all that.
All we did was type,
And corrections in those days
Had to be done with x’s.
You couldn’t just erase
And start again: wrong sexes,
Wrong spellings…it took ages.
Just to get it right
Meant black spots in the pages:
Blurs of a foggy night.
Unspoken and unsung,
Those names that didn’t matter.
Just written, pitter-patter.
For all those in absentia
Sub rosa eloquentia
List, oh list
The rest is silence
Put to silence
Zum schweigen gebracht