HENRY MARSH POETRY

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From A First Sighting, 2005

READINGS

from Henry Marsh at public readings

Evening at Gearraidh Bhailteas

A First Sighting

Waking

 

 

Maroons

 

From A Turbulent Wake, 2007

 

 

Figure in a Landscape

Betula odorata

Tegenaria domestica

Seasonal

Moment in Blue

North Atlantic 1941

Eriskay

Ebb Tide

For Emily

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dawn – South Uist

Betula odorata

In care

Rosa canina

 

 

From The Guidman’s Daughter, 2009

 

 

Wind Song

Encounter

Sleepless

Autumn Spider

At Fotheringhay

At Falkland Palace

 

 

 

Sleepless

At Fotheringhay

 

 

Figure in a Landscape

‘S luath ceum fear na droch-mhnatha
air a’ mhachair Uisteach

Squall-swept – the machair.
Hunched against rain – where
is the wife of the man who walks
without a coat? There is nothing
between his head and the Atlantic.

The horizon is a fiery ring.
To the east, the wind searches
the rocks of Ruigh Choinnich.
What is to be found? A bodach’s
mantle is enfolding them.

Now he is walking the track
in an under-light of gold. Shadows
of barley are rippling like water;
the grass is in delicate agitation – 
irises are restless blades.

He reads from a loch how light
returning to the light fulfils
a luminous purpose. Perhaps
he was beguiled by surfaces.
She is as deep as water.

He walks till twilight folds
behind him. A lapwing cries out
in his turbulent wake.
How long can summer hold
against the mind he carries?

top



Tegenaria domestica

Low-slung
                  between high-tensile
springs
            you’re built for racing
                                               you scrap
of scuttling
                   intention. What
                                            purpose
did I deflect? And are you
                                           burdened
by the failure as you
                                 crouch
                                            in your bird-cage
on a bit of dark
                         in the pattern of the carpet?

Like mice – it’s the dart
                                       at speed
                                                      the instant
angles
           no skidding or
                                   veering.
And the blur of super-
                                    coordinated legs.

They tell me you search
                                       for the grey
sheets
           of a lover – always
                                          so near –
but strung
                 where we never look.
                                                    Death
is the price of spider-love –
                                            then
leisurely dismemberment.
                                          When
in the muffling dust
                                 she chews the fat
in a silent, spider soliloquy,
                                             does her verse
create
          or transcend
                               melancholy?

I catch you in a tumbler. As you stand
                                                               on an old
envelope, familiarity
                                   makes you
                                                     almost
safe. Your legs are
                               broken
                                           quills
with a few sparse hairs.

                                       There’s something
 vulnerable
                  in beauty.

                                   But the eyes!

From a battery of cameras – black
                                                       pin-head
polyps
            undersea –
                               your brain collects                                                        
and pastes
                  the pieces
                                   of a spider world.

Imprisoned now
                          within an endless                                                      
glass
         horizon
                      your monitors display
a nightmare –
                       a multiple
                                       ghost
distorting
                 in a circus
                                  mirror.

                                              I carry
you out
             to the Autumn
                                      evening’s
                                                      wind
and rain –
                 make
                          your life difficult.

Find
        your way

                        from there.

top

 


Seasonal

St John’s Church

Through the austerity of winter nothing
so grand as a voyage, rather taking
a few tentative steps towards loving
the world a little in a landscape
where even the inanimate things
are shy as children, turn their eyes
away. For a moment the wine in the glass
catches the firelight, becomes
almost accessible, and in the lane,
snowdrops are struggling to disclose
themselves near a dog, blind in its barking,
agitated by a passage that was never a threat.
In the endless, wishful inventiveness
of our compulsions, we need intruders
to justify our scenes. So a song,
wailing in its loss, invites complicity,
flaunts the spell of its recessive mirrors.

Now in summer the edges are blurred,
if only because the lazy self is slurred
into the landscape by the dazzle of countless
claims. But in this church, light
through light is offering itself at points
of proximate access. Lilies, sculpted
in momentary reception, like snowdrops
in the lane, at least endorse a place
of possible meeting, while stone lifts
in arches that define white calyces.
But gargoyles whisper of absurdity,
constrain the monumental summer.
Yet moving in and out of light
you step beyond complicity to read
what’s inarticulate in words of stone
and season. You find yourself in all –
or lost in stubborn, eccentric elements.

top



Betula odorata

Virginal girl-grace – she shifts
and sighs in a rainy wind.
Ten years ago I rescued
a seedling from the glaur dumped
by a new path struck
for walkers. Brown birch,
they say – have they seen the dark
smoulder in her limbs, that spirit
of place made substance?

Compelled, each spring
I’ve thrown away more
garden-centre candy – 
her delicate beauty reigns
with the steel of the feminine.
Her lost kingdom is anemone,
cowberry, magic agaric,
hart’s tongue beaded
in the spray of a cascade.

Already love-wise, she knows
the rending beauty of modesty,
how subtlety seduces.
Year by year, she works
her slow transfiguration
of the dumb earth at her root
into the song of her coronal.
Let be, she and her sisters
would transform the world.

top



Moment in Blue

You catch Picasso’s Woman Ironing
as if through a leaded window. You wince
at the ache in the skeletal shoulder

from the iron’s heavy plod. Her head
is an intolerable burden, her eye a void.
Though protected by rags, her hands seem

hardly safe from the scorching metal.
A woman in labour delivers the weight
of her world – and our complicity in it.

In a final vertigo the frame vanishes –
you enter the blue of her winter room.
It’s hung round the edge of a doorway –

so the crowd is made to flow faster.
Few are stopping to look. 
The hanging protects their innocence.

top



Evening at Gearraidh Bhailteas

Grey skies bestow
their own graces.  In muted
light, purple vetch
and finger-rooted orchid
retire in modesty,
while buttercup and yellow
silverweed are bright,
alternative, emergent
stars.  Above the miles
of white, deserted beach,
three gulls pass
in close formation, intent
on their patrol.  They break right,
swooping and yammering
over grey rocks.  A dozen
oystercatchers dibble
in the wash of the tide.  The grey
sea has a closer horizon
than the land.  Its gentle arc
is held within the wide arms
of the endless bay.  To complete
an improbable perfection,
by the road across the machair,
in a hint of peat-reek
carried on the edge of the wind,
a man is mending a tractor,
singing in Gaelic a song
whose melody follows the contours
of the Uist landscape
close as a limpid burn.

top



North Atlantic 1941

What did it mean, docking at the quay
in Brooklyn, Liberty’s torch dark
against the sky? Did you scan with relief
the blue-paved bay of dreams?
Death, wrote Wittgenstein,
is not an event in life – small
consolation for the dying. We just
got on with it, you said,
as if the sluice in the steel trap,
the haemorrhage of bodies’ heat
in the lifting oil and flotsam,
the opening jaws of the Atlantic,
had been censored even from your nightmares.
Or was it, that the buzz that betrayed
a horror survived – the Officers’ Club
on 42nd Street, the glitz, the girls –
resolved into another frantic drowning
in the canyon rivers of Manhattan?

top



Waking

From the beach near Smercleit
on this calm day you see
that the fingers of land and ocean
are interlocked.  In April,
the hustle of waves and batting
wind distracted
from this bed-rock relation.
An intimacy is sustained
whose limiting possibilities
never vary.  But
shapes change with the tide’s
rhythms and the vagaries
of light and water and season
perpetually transfigure.
Even as we look, grey
gneiss, olive wrack,
white sand and shifting
tones of azure, call
into question the abstraction
of sameness.  And so
you lay by me this morning
the same and never the same,
a warm, fragile sentience
overwhelming in the mystery
of what is most familiar.

top



A First Sighting

Some careless geometer has tipped
his set-squares into the Sound of Rum.
Yet order still prevails –
for pairs of black triangles ride
in tandem, more or less aligned
to the north. A hundred yards to port
they gently cut the tilting glass.
 
Basking sharks, the captain says.
A shoal of twelve. For a moment
inner and outer, word and world
mesh.  Who knows how
long this fish has lurked in the murk
of the mind, mostly invisible, a wraith
summoned by the odd book or report.

Three tons of fish – a weighty
congruence. But the difficult things –
like love, or God or magisterial
death? The Geometer’s full knowledge
must always be too late.
I watch you standing at the rail – and think
of all the paths that never cross.

top



Eriskay

From the photographs of Bernard Kissling
Threads of song they spun
and carried on their backs, rich
with harmonies of summer infused
from flower, root, leaf
and crotal from the rocks.

They measured time in lullabies
of spinning, the thump and lilt
of waulking, and always
with the counterpoint of wave and tide,
the movements of the seasons.

What strange compulsion
in the photographs – lost lives
in black and white, of quiet
smiles and seemingly
modest serenity.

Where are the acid passions,
the brutalities, the maniacal,
raking seas, the fishers
gnawed and broken, wrapped
in shrouding tangle?

Woven, perhaps, in the darker
tones of song and story,
above all, in the plangent
beauty that carries us far
beyond nostalgia.

You see in the eyes their difficult
passage – winter wolftime,
to spring and harvest, island
to island through calm
or turbulent seas.

top
 




Ebb Tide

On the harbour pier that holds the bay
    in the crook of its arm a small
crowd has gathered. Their eyes stray
    into the murmuring conversation
then turn, agin, sea-ward. The wind
    is restless on the ebb. A pair
of worthies suck on pungent briars.
    Their quiet talk sidles
from mouths holed by pipe stems.

Their theme is genealogy. Three men
    have drowned in the eight knot
current. There is nothing to be seen.
    Though you might say that the tide
scowls and wrinkles between us
    and the rocks that rise in the swell
like the back of some ancient animal.
   A wee boy holding
his mother’s hand – awed, bewildered.

He sees no wreckage. The world is
    as it was – though the knowing
engages a different looking. It’s the failure
    to find significance that is
significant. Though the tide-race will
   ever afterwards provoke
anxiety. Gulls slap along the timbers
   seemingly unaware of that momentous
voyage into the nothing to be seen.   

top
 




For Emily

29th March, 2005

Flat on your back you fret
for the womb-curve.
You’ll settle for being held.
In your sleeping, we arrive at the edge
of what we are willing to believe.

All night your mother
was alert for endless confirmation,
wondered at the blessing;
tremors of doubt passed
like shivers under a March sun.

You are the completion
for which we strive. Our threads
unwind in silly knots. Pray
that you come to view our loving
damage with compassion.

Your mother reaches to touch
her mother’s joyful assurance.
As for grandpa – the room shifts –
a gentle but decisive displacement:
it’s time that he grew up.

top
 
 
 
Wind Song
Take from this wind the songs
of scarred rocks, shot silks 
of fine rain and sun-burst 
revelations, the folding 
agitation of yellow flags 
and buttercups in nodding, curt, 
acknowledgement of what passes, 
three grey ponies bowed
under the spume of their manes,
and charged crests running
the spine of the Atlantic horizon.
Then at dawn, through the whoom
and whine, the wind’s polyphony,
I wake at a cuckoo shout and see
the yellow dancers, their bend
and flow, that stubborn, fleeting 
resilience. And turn to what I have, 
our moments in this turbulence. Hear 
the delicate breath of your sleeping
and think of all I never say.
For I am like the wind’s damage –
but dumb to sing a simple yes. 
top
 
 
 
Encounter
‘Bonjour. Je m’appelle Emily…’ 
Solemnly, she’s addressing a toad 
in her one morsel of French. What strange
impulse moves this three-year-old? 
Bent by a forest track,
she’s parting the glittering grasses
with a twig. Instinctive politeness? 
A sort of reverence for a creature 
whose world, she knows, is beyond 
the limits of her understanding?
She gives her one resource – 
disclosure of her precious name.
What power she offers in her innocence –
the single word that an ancient spell 
might always have been prepared for.
And suddenly you see how a princess
might deserve her prince – that leap
into simple consideration.
But stubbornly brown and warty
he shuffles on. She skips away.
Oh child, child how can I carry
the burden of your wisdom?
top
 
 
 
Sleepless
Uibhist a Deas,
                         I saw you from Balranald,
I saw your hills
                          and the sea, blue-black 
and turquoise.
                       I ran to the south,
                                                    as the sun
fell behind the machair 
                                     I ran                                          
to Cille Pheadair.
 
                             And the base of the cloud
became the sweep
                             of your shores,
                                                      the piled
cloud your amethyst
                                 and purple mountains,
a Uist of the clouds 
                                set in a sea
of orange light,
                          its reefs  
                                       and archipelagos
in running gold.  
                           Time and the eye
stretched wide                              
                        stretched
                                       into the heart’s 
peace.
 
           But in the night I cried
put away your beauty,
                                     turn away,
and let me sleep.
                           Oh mistress,
                                               mistress – 
when I close my eyes
                                   they burn
                                                   with your light.
 
But the dawn is blessedly bleak,
                                                    confirms
you a creature of time. 
                                     Like the rest of us.
top
 
 
 
Autumn Spider
The spider in the bath 
is stubborn. What drives him
up the glacial curve
to the point of losing traction?
He sees that walking upright
on the planet is perverse, condemns
to an infinite circularity – 
how odd to live
with your head stuck in the blue,
to dangle upside down,
absorbed as a fly sucking
on a sugar-weeping apple.
In daring aerial experiments
he explores alternative perspectives 
sustained by impossibly thin
ropes. Studies the obscenely
hairy, downcast human
crowns and the queer way
their limbs flick forwards.
His dream is to complete his arc
and walk upon the stars. 
top
 
 
 
At Fotheringhay 
February, 1587
Spent chestnut flowers, flooding
   the gutters. Hawthorns swaying,
heavy in fretted lace. Your looking
    is careful, as if you half 
expected some hint encrypted in the day 
    to open and disclose an anguish, 
a tremor at the root or in the enigmatic
     mirror of the Nene. But
nothing speaks except tranquillity.
                          *
    They brought her in September.
She watched the mists drift trees 
    along slow horizons,
lost herself in October’s amber afternoons,
    its bitter-sweet deceptions, 
saw parables in light and water, the abyss 
    descend beyond the edge 
of comforting reflections. Each dusk
    drew her further into the dark.
Cold passed like spirit through the stone, 
    settled in more vulnerable bone,
took shapes in sleep that stretched
    into the gestures of the proximate dead.
Waking, she’d sail free on the gold
    and scarlet of winter mornings, 
foundering in the lapse to a grey day.
    Bowed, on her knees, did she read
that prophetic gesture as she breathed the ash 
   of penitence to a cold flame – 
and reached at joy? Held tight
   in that knot of circumstance,
her dignity defiant, she wrested her meaning 
   from a stubborn February dawn.
That endless, fleeting night, elusive
   as the scent of flowers, she’d touched
on moments of serenity, drifted in Carver’s 
   silver labyrinth – O good Jesus…
O sweet Jesus…
And the edge
                     falls.
                             Between
                                            word
and word.
                 As jackdaws
                                      racket 
in spare chestnuts.
                              And hands  
                                                are drenched
that help her hold      
                             her crucifix.
 
It falls.
            Between night and night.
As a body
                  dances its mandatory figures.  
As a river fills
                        with light.
 
It falls.
            As kites, forked 
                                     on the wind, 
swoop
           at gobbets on the midden.
Witnesses
                  grip their souls 
                                           as a white
cropped head 
                       continues
to mouth
                unintelligible mysteries.
top
 
 
 
At Falkland Palace
2008
Red Tod’s lassie – a girl 
who’d wear breeches at tennis
or skelping after deer hounds. 
You can see the frozen faces, 
black affrontit. She’d climb
to the priest’s room. The stones
are worn as if by tides. You might
be walking on her shadow.
He’d sit, crow black, 
under the dazzle from his window. 
Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.
Fingers pressed together, 
behind the venialities, he’d imagine 
her circle of Hell. Did he find,
by that light in her face, few
sins of intention? But animal spirits, 
tied down by the jesses? Perplexed, 
he’d see how our strengths can destroy us.
And late the struggle to be wise.
He remembers her tawny eyes,
and the Maries capering, their laughter
ringing in the winter courtyard.
It cam’ wi a lass and it will gang
wi a lass. Then he turned his face
to the wall. Only the wind sings
in Knox’s rubble; round gables, 
blackened from a Rough Wooing. 
In that February dawn old Scotland
limps away. She carries our 
language in the wallet on her back.
A sad tale for the Gaberlunzie Man.

© Henry Marsh 2008-2012