A Dublin Unicorn
"...his virtue is no less famous than his strength,
in that his horn is supposed to be the most powerful
antidote against poison: inasmuch as the general
conceit is, that the wild beasts of the wilderness use
not to drink of the pools, for fear of the venomous
serpents there breeding, before the unicorn hath
stirred it with his horn.... and by the keen scent he
hath, he can detect a maiden afar off, and will run
to her, and lay down his head in her lap...."
Not by nature simple, as his end might
possibly suggest, the unicorn to
a large extent enjoyed his vocation:
such he called it, this holy business of
purifying the means of life for those
unable to perform it for themselves;
but otherwise he kept for the most part
to the desert, and lived solitary
near the tops of high mountains, feeding as
he found, and going as he liked; content
in knowledge that his life was not without
some use, and pleased to live the life he wished.
No thought of harm occurred to him that day
in the heavy forest when he saw the
virgin; homage came as naturally to
him as cleansing to the deep pools he stirred.
And it was natural, too, to lay his head
in the soft lap of this young virgin, and
look upward to her face in trust and peace:
and then the arrow juddered in his flank.
In that short pause between his dying and
his death, the unicorn made some attempt
to understand the virgin's betrayal:
but died, seeing her tears, still more confused.
When he asked her, it seemed so exciting:
a proof, too, of her purity: for though
they said virginity was more a state
of mind than physical intactness, it
could yet do a girl no harm to have some
positive proof; and especially since the
usual tests seemed to end in the loss of
that which they were calculated to prove.
Exciting, too, rising in the early
morning, and hearing the dogs barking near
the stables, and swaying through the heavy
forest on her mare, behind the hunter;
and even when she was sitting on the
grass, toying with leaves, and the hunter had
withdrawn, she was excited at thoughts of
the kill: but then she saw the unicorn.
Proudly and humbly it laid its silver
head and golden horn down in her lap, and
looked upward to her face in trust and peace:
and then the arrow juddered in its flank.
Her horror made her wish the arrow had
struck her instead, but it was unicorn's
blood upon her thighs; her tears were too late
now, and virginity was meaningless.
To the hunter, it was really just a
job: the church had ordered the destruction
of all mythical, unchristian creatures,
and doubtless those whb gave the order knew
exactly what they were about. He was
engaged, he told himself whenever the
slaughter disturbed his simple peace, not to
question orders but to execute them.
And he took a certain pride in his work;
there were not many knew as well as he
the ways of unicorns and other beasts,
and none so consistent in their killing.
Now, in the heavy forest, he placed the
virgin where she might be clearly seen, and
where he judged the unicorn would seek her;
the hunter then withdrew, flighting a shaft.
Just as he had hoped, the unicorn laid
down its head in the virgin's soft lap, and
looked upwards to her face in trust and peace:
and then his arrow juddered in its flank.
Another unicorn! the hunter said,
Why do I neaer catch the rarer beasts?
Only the creatures of the forest mourned,
and the virgin, whose tears were too late now.
When, well before the first world war, they dug
The London tube, the problem was to find
a place to dump the excavated clay,
though, graded, sand and gravel could be sold.
To Putney commonland by barge and tug
they brought the wormcasts railways leave behind
four feet of clay upon the soil; the way
slimy in winter, and strange weeds' freehold.
When I was six, the problem was to find
a place for the evacuated boy,
out of London danger; they stayed behind,
said Grit, son! and bought me another toy.
Doing the best thing for me, to their mind:
war or parents: which did more to destroy?
Brought very close
Brought very close to death by one world war,
my grandfather chose to die just in time
to avoid being killed by the next one.
My grandmother, wise after the bombing
and seeing benefit in everything,
said, Just as well, for he'd not have stood it.
She did, and showed everyone the neat hole
burned through the old table in the outside
back area by a hissing whitehot
incendiary bomb, but told no one except
my father how she calmly saved her home.
In the same night the proud church opposite
became a gutted smoking shell of stone:
her old eyes laughed as she drew the moral.
At eight years old
At eight years old, one summer afternoon
they took me to the Victoria Palace to see
Lupino Lane, when I would just as soon
have stayed at home in the Hammersmith garden, free.
Afterwards, they made for a nearby pub,
and as they went I heard them speak of war;
I fidgeted; my pants began to rub;
I belched my lemonade outside the door.
Inside they met Lupino Lane, and brought
him out for me; his front teeth were decayed;
I forget now what he said, although I thought
it worth remembering at the time, but paid
him shy-eyed homage as I felt I ought:
for this he bought me another lemonade.
One early potential father-in-law of mine
sang sad songs when he was drunk, tearfully,
spoke of me man to man over port-style wine,
and urged his daughter not to marry me.
Her mother savaged carpets on a line,
all Catholic Irishness, and cheerfully
suffered to have me visit once to dine,
but urged her daughter not to marry me.
This girl took more in love from me than nine
other, later, loves: observing fearfully,
I wondered why her parents should combine
to urge their daughter not to marry me.
Then, seeing farther than I wished to see,
I urged their daughter not to marry me.
This, then, was one such occasion for you:
I was walking back from Richmond along
the grey shingle towpath of my rotted
leaf and knotted condombearing river,
walking back, that is, after seeing home
a not-that-sort-of-girl, in a week of
swollen tides, while an irresponsible
testiculate moon smirked at her floodwork,
and a train laboured in long agony
across the arched girder spans of Barnes Bridge;
then, on seeing the eye of Chiswick Eyot,
I took comfort in this nightwalk's instance:
the untame Thames still inundates its banks
and bears more dead leaves than perished condoms.
for Zulfikar Ghose
Our tidal friendship frees the two it binds
to lend and borrow wholly, to take whatever
is for giving and make no demands:
excludes all falseness and the merely clever.
Your restive people paused to see you born
upon the Indus plain at Sialkot:
my mother bore me where the Thames, as in
pain, hunches in the posture of a stoat.
So disparate, we both call London home,
and close together through our common art:
in silence, drink, and words we use our time
creating, criticism's counterpart:
but when tonight you spoke my dead love's name
a hatred for you spat like a welding flame.
He smashed his hand
in opening a door for her,
and less pain than
embarrassment shrieked through him.
grimacing as if theatrically,
he asked himself
who he thought he was to go
doors for anyone, much less for her.
So: there's this bird with the orange
hair who played piano of a kind
while a unicephaloid
accompanied not far behind.
I'll be loving you. Always,
he sang. One love swore. Though the cow
at least had guilt enough to be
sorry her always didn't mean now.
A Russian seaman then divulged
that there were bad English and good
Russians, oh, and insisted further:
I haf fife times lost my blood!
Smoke incensed the wineheavy air:
two lovers made a winelodge vow:
and I have five times lost my blood
because always didn't mean now.
An Eye for Situation
Sometimes it is you who surprise me,
turning a corner, across the floor,
a sudden facing beyond a door;
at other times it is my preparation
that makes you start at what you see:
we both have an eye for situation.
I know just the concerts that you will attend,
and your comments upon them; your enthusiasm
somehow empty, provoking a spasm
of anger in me when I was with you;
these things I keep, and comprehend
my ignorance of what is true.
Recalling your intense obliqueness,
the unsaid things we knew together,
you would disapprove; whether
you are right I cannot say,
but you would call it treacherous weakness
that I thus take the normal way.
In the ember days of my last free summer
In the ember days of my last free summer,
here I lie, outside myself, watching
the gross body eating a poor curry:
satisfied at what I have done, scared of what
I have to do in my last free winter.
Song of the Wagondriver
My first love was the ten-ton truck
they gave me when I started,
and though she played the bitch with me
I grieved when we were parted.
Since then I've had a dozen more,
the wound was quick to heal,
and now it's easier to say
I'm married to my wheel.
I've trunked it north, I've trunked it south
on wagons good and bad,
but none were ever really like
the first I ever had.
The life is hard, the hours are long,
sometimes I cease to feel,
but I go on, for it seems to me
I'm married to my wheel.
Often I think of my home and kids,
out on the road at night,
and think of taking a local job
provided the money's right.
Two nights a week I see my wife,
and eat a decent meal,
but otherwise, for all my life,
I'm married to my wheel.
In all faith, we did our part:
generated punctually, prepared adequately,
and swam in the approved manner
in the appropriate direction;
did all instinctive things well,
an exemplary start.
But then the barrier: unexpectedness
(They did not tell us this).
To go back impossible, unnatural:
so round; many times;
we tired ourselves.
Where were the promised homes,
embedded in the soft wall?
Or the anticipated achievement
so momentous, fulfilling?
So we died:
what else was there to do?
But in all faith, we did our part!
In pieces, crockery acquires a beauty
that it did not have before; fragments
lie embedded in the clay, their colours
and shapes sudden and moving to the eye,
colours and shapes changed by weather and
the heat of ashes; this turquoise and primrose
floral border, for instance, would have seemed
unbearably trite complete, and willow
pattern excites (no piece like any other)
when broken up and scattered. Shattered roof-
tiles and flettons have weathered to a soft
warm ruddiness, and glass, green and clear,
glass, too, is changed: even a jamjar mouth
is beautiful after being splintered
by the weight of other rubbish,
twisted by the heat of clinker intermixed.
Clinker, ashes, leaves and branches mostly;
and batteries, bolts, oyster shells and cables,
rainpipe, a pair of scissors, a zipp fastener,
grinding wheels, a marble washstand top,
springs, fuse insulators, a metal drug
phial, some rubber hose, odd socks, a pair
of army boots laced together, a rusted
toy train, umbrella stays, and inner tubes;
a gas-mask filter, car parts, a soapdish,
torn coalsacks, slate, part of a tiled
surround, a teapot, switches and contacts,
a woman's shoe, the twisted spring of a
lever-arch file, film spools, a spatula,
and tins; for polish, cigarettes, sardines,
milk, talc, oilthese alone recognisable
by their shapes, the myriad other types
rusted into nonentity, the edge
corroding last of all; who was it said
the path of civilisation is paved with tins?
for a singer of chaste songs
A candle in a draught
burns unevenly, wastes
its substance in half its time.
Thus I for you, my time
segmented in your tastes,
wronging my fragile craft.
You and Spring came on the same day
to my bleak room:
the last snow shook through the morning
by midday you were come and the
infirm snow gone:
I noticed forsythia out
on the steep bank:
your musician's long straight fingers
and lakegrey eyes:
but that night my bed was still as
cold as winter.
For a Girl in a Book
Kim, composite of all my loves,
less real than most, more real than all;
of my making, all the good and
some of the bad, yet of yourself;
sole, unique, strong, alone,
whole, independent, one: yet mine
in that you cannot be unfaithful.
Of Responsibility towards the Young
Solicitous of my charges, I avoid
keen pubs in streets where these my children live,
seeing a kind of grace (to hell with Freud)
thus in the limits of my will to give:
Sir, rolling home threeparts Canuted,
half a rolling gallon under his armpits,
walking straight, but after having saluted
three brazen cats and a crone with waishigh tits.
What was it like to
live then? We asked him,
who had lived through it.
Bad, he said, it was
not good. I envy
you missing it all.
He seemed bored by our
more in our women.
A Country Death
And when her husband died, of course she went
to live in the country with her married
daughter; there the air and food sustained her
well enough, but she missed the London streets.
Her son-in-law was not rich exactly,
but he had to spare, and knew of fallow
places where lamp-posts went when finished with,
knew what they did with them when they were old.
So, incongruous amongst the Sussex elms,
the lamp-post came and stood before the house,
a London exile itself; alight at
dusk, it was to make her feel less homesick.
All credit to the giver; but still this
old woman's life was fretful, and her death
had nothing of the peace for which they hoped:
what do you do with them when they are old?
Rhiain the Gas, the Welsh introduced her,
a girl who so much looked like her on whom
my life had foundered that I could not help
but offer her a kind of love at sight.
Rhiain once received me in her office
at the Gas Co. opposite the college,
to show the male her independent state
and corner him on her own territory.
The trouble was that just as she appeared
so much like her, so she behaved the same.
Ah yes, said Iolo, some weeks later, We
should really have told you about Rhiain.
Porth Ceiriad Bay
Descended to the shore, odd how we left
the young girl with us to herself, and went
straight to examine the stratified cliffs,
forgot her entirely in our interest.
You marvelled at the shapes the clockwork sea
had worn the stone, talking keenly, until
the pace of this random sculpture recalled
your age to you, and then its anodynes.
And so you turned, pretending youth, courting
the girl as if you were a boy again,
leaving the wry cliffs to their erosion
and me to my observant solitude.
The very young and the very old, always
in their rueful growing thrown
together, stood silent on the blackveined road
by the mountain's granite haunch:
a woman and an auburn child
beside the castle in a field.
They held the key, and I might freely enter,
though the place was dangerous,
they warned. The Tudor gatehouse barely stood, its
mortar turned to powder now,
creepers the binding of its stone,
wild bees its keepers in decline.
The brazed key opened a door within a door
into a broad flagfloored hall.
One spreading room had carved armorial shields
and gryphons beside the fire;
but, gatehouse apart, the stonework
was early nineteenth-century fake.
Not that this deceit was to be held against
the castle, for it was not:
its shabby pathos made me forgive all its
pretences, rather as I
forgave a fading woman's use
of powder and of too much rouge.
Formal rooms upstairs had been subdivided
by economic owners;
ashamed and relieved at faith to origin,
I was most myself in the
servants' wing, where rats and the rain
seemed less to have provoked decay.
And soon my infused imagination ran:
I would own this castle's corpse,
and give it life again; a posited wife
to love and play hostess to
continual gatherings of friends beneath
its grey roof's slate and lead.
I would have parties on the lawns (now little
better than stubble fields) and
fill the music-room with ancient instruments;
a gryphon-guarded firlog
fire on winter nights would fellow
our civil conversation's flow.
Perhaps I would farm, too, run sheep upon my
bluescaled mountain . . . .
away, I even asked the woman at the
cottage where I took the key
who owned the castle and its lands,
and what its chance of changing hands.
But as I took my notebook out to write the
castle-owner's name, the book
recalled to me conditions of my living,
the terms of my sacrifice:
for poets are forever poor,
and wealth's the pleasure of the boor.
I could no more own Madryn Castle than I
could take anyone to wife:
that is, except becoming something, someone
else than what and who I am.
So this as well exchanged for art:
yet mine the bargain's better part.
Nine stages towards Knowing
Why do we lie
Why do we lie, she questioned, her warm eyes
on the grey Autumn wind and its coursing,
all afternoon wasted in bed like this?
Because we cannot lie all night together.
Yes, she said, satisfied at my reasoning,
but going on to search her cruel mind
for better excuses to leave my narrow bed.
Too many flesh suppers
Abstracted in art,
in scholars detail;
absorbed by music,
by sad trivia;
all to efface her,
whom I can forget
no more than breathing.
Somewhere some nights she sees
curtains rise on those rites
we also knew and felt
I sit here desolate
in spite of company
Love is between people
And should she die?
And should she die tonight,
with this three years difference
as well between us now?
Or no, be maimed perhaps
and bearing pain, to live
on damages for life?
In any case, I wish
her no good, whom I loved
as Brunel loved iron.
All this Sunday long
All this Sunday long it has snowed,
and I weighted with the old grief
struggling to unseat her from my mind.
Yet winnowing our past I cannot find
a snow-gilded scene however brief:
thus do I wilfully increase my load.
Razed the room in which
we made so much love:
I try to re-place
it in space against
the windracked planetrees:
my eyes quarter air.
Able at last
Able at last, she writes,
to see things as they were,
I wonder we were so blind
to think our trust could bind
instead of just defer.
I shudder at her fall,
for that was, from the heights,
not how it was at all.
Arrived at the place
Arrived at the place
to which I always
said I was going:
comfortless for lack
of her who chose not
to travel with me:
too aware of my way
to wherever next
is also alone.
Knowledge of her was
earned like miners pay:
afterwards I sought
friends knowledge of her:
now I need to know
nothing of this girl:
she whom once I knew
as my tongue my mouth.
Conditions of Living
Living a whole life has three conditions:
absorbing work which demands and brings fulfilment,
a group of friends with whom to excahnge minds,
and a full love to be lost in all the time.
Of these I have the easier two,
but lack the third in lacking you.
The gave proportion to this Square by walls
patterned with glass, due space between each stack,
lined stucco fronts, and subtly pitched roof-falls:
yet, one side, left a gap a house-wdth wide
through which one has a Prospect of St. Pauls.
This I resemble, in that, till you died
my life was ordered but now has a lack
through which I have a prospect that appals.
Concentration may be less than total:
the disposition of crockets on a
Gothic finial, a fat woman's gait,
the way quartz intrusions scar a mountain's
jowl, and speculation on the local
incidence ofsayfoot and mouth disease:
all these are safely objects of remark,
others and all these may well engage a
safe proportion of my mind when driving:
but how dangerous then to think of her!
They'd plug the point of entry (just above
an eye) with wadding, and be grateful for
the length of hair which could be combed to hide
the missing half of head; carefully shaved
and lightly made up, he'd bear a likeness
friends would recognisethough most would notice
that his parting now fell quite differently.
None would mention the deadly fact of love.
For a long time I chose to let myself
doubt that he was her lover after me:
now I accept it, and hate him for it.
His wife talks wryly to me: I think I
see resemblances to her, imagine
these are why he married this other girl.
Does he hate me for having her before,
like a trapped thief hates the damning witness,
as I hate him for coming after me?
Wren defined the London air with spires,
restored a city gored by mindless fires:
So I on ruins try to build the new,
define the void left thoughtlessly by you.
I have no children:
But tonight a poem came
in which a small child,
my daughter, appeared at the door
of a half-lit room
wherer late one night I wrote
at a heavy desk.
And though interruption
was hardly welcome
I took her to myself,
just as the poem,
comforted this daughter
until she found peace.
The poems as the children
come as they will come.
Cwm Pennant: A Sequence
'Why did you make Cwm Pennant so beautiful,from the Welsh of EIFION WYN
O Lord, and the life of a shepherd so short?'
I could see a tower flagstaff about a mile away,
as, swinging left at Dolbenmaen and holding the long car
onehanded against a gracile curve, its uncapped sliver
completed a crenellated outline above the trees.
This was the first thing noted by my tutored eye until
I passed the great unhung gatestones into this most secret
valley, and saw its strangeness and its beauty for myself;
and wondered at such consummate privacy existing.
A chapel lay untithed and empty, since now far fewer
people than a century ago live in Cwm Pennant;
uncommon birds may nest here safely, and this valley is
the only place where certain effete ferns are known to grow.
The house where David lived grew squarely out of rising ground;
a longhaired fawn bitch barked and circled slowly round the car,
while a dog with unmatched eyes unmoving marked my progress
through the implemented yard towards the door and welcome.
They had a quiet family pride in their mountain farming;
and if they ran bulls naturally and used few chemicals
it was because they had found which methods suited their land,
and not for traditional or reactionary reasons.
But they told me there are still some stubbornly romantic
families in the valley which claim descent from the fairies,
and they also spoke of several witches yet in practice
in the mountains: for that's the kind of place Cwm Pennant is.
An old hillfarmer up the valley,
David told me,
believed electric light an evil
when darkness falls, then a man should sleep,
the old man said;
right or wrong, such attitudes (with him)
will soon be dead.
This lean fivefloored tower was built
to give a father's sons
scholarly solitude and peace,
a study-floor to each;
but trees had long ago engaged
the tower's lichened height,
and were within a year or two
of hiding every sign
of its existence on the hill,
but for the gaunt flagstaff;
outwardly the fabric was sound,
founded upon outcropped
slate in which pyrites glinted
against rusty oxide:
inside, however, looking up,
the few joists were patterned
against the summer like broken
teeth in an unwashed comb,
and the doorless and windeyeless
weeping walls stared glibly.
Stone treads wound safe and square inside
the shell towards the lip,
past architraves embossed with each
son's Oxford college arms;
heraldic beasts with weather-smudged
features maintained shy guard
on leaden remnants of a roof;
stones fell within a flue.
making the dry silence; a post
office van scuttered down
this valley of Cwm Pennant like
a spotless ladybird.
The top stair offered abeyance;
at my feet a spider
ran across his dusty network
to paralyse a bee;
I freed the captive with a twig,
and the spider retired:
two disrupters of his peace who
bore him no benefit.
His disappointment, the tower's
desolation, and my
chosen solitude, aloofness,
my mind, and I stilled at the thought
that disappointment might
transmute solitude to glib and
David said: You must see my dog working.
He's one in ten thousand: that is, I'm told
that one eye blue and the other one brown
is found only once in ten thousand men;
and just you watch him fetch those sheep to me.
On the command the lean dog left his flea,
and shot across the field towards a pen.
The sheep ran over a low wall and down
into the far corner of the next field.
David said: He knows I'm only joking.
Salmon are fairly easy fish to gaff,
provided you have once located them;
and the sporting men who call such methods
foul conveniently ignore in their
own fishing the element of deceit:
concealing hooks in something meant to eat.
But arguments like this would hardly help
dissuade the water bailiff if he caught
you, so you palm the two-inch hook until
the last moment (that, meeting him by chance,
you could then quietly drop it when you wish)
and cut a stick when you have found a fish.
You see a place where flowing tails have fanned
the gravel clean, and know that underneath
the bank just there the fasting salmon lie.
The handforged hook you socket to the stick
and wind its cord quite loosely up its length,
but, striking, grasp the end with all your strength.
David and I would hold each other safe
by turns while one hung down the rootboned bank,
his hair streaming in the Dwyfor's current
and move the gaff (oh slowly, slowly!) down
and beneath the salmon's gunmetal flank
till nothing of it could be seen but shank.
Since I could never judge sufficiently
the gaff's refraction in the running stream,
I hooked no salmon; but when David did
my part was then to leave the bank with it,
slewing and bucking against the barb's bite,
and run as far and quickly as I might.
Then he would follow, seize and stun the fish,
and, one grey eye out for the bailiff, bring
it to the high-roomed granite farmhouse where
his parents and his sister, he and I,
would celebrate this ending to a life:
the salmon I had sought still suffered life.
The insularity of Cwm Pennant
ended at a slatewall bridge over the
river from which a statesman took his name
and we our salmon. From there any peace
deserted me, and I began to think
I knew why people left this pure valley:
such peace is useful only when related
to a larger world; and life is never short.
And I was leaving, too, the unwinking
catseyes borrowing my light to guide me
away and towards another winter of
chosen discontent, substituting
loyalty for love: and do not condemn,
pause to consider the alternatives;
then believe that for everyone, even for
unsuspecting salmon, life is never short.
However propitious the scenery,
the dull charade is much the same: the same
problems demand solution, but any
one is never solved, just superseded
in urgency by one of the others;
and solitude is not the same as peace.
Who would wish extension of such pain, since, in
particular, a shepherd's life is never short?