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Planet Wave. By Edwin Morgan

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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.

 

Hear,

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

(30,000 BC)

 

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

(10,000 BC)

 

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.

 

Water

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

(2.500 BC)

 

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

(922 AD)

 

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 Mongols

(1200-1300 AD)

 

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?

 

 

 

 

Magellan

(1521 AD)

 

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,

I’m free.

 

Great Ferdinand Magellan,

sleep in peace beneath the seas.

The world’s unlocked, and you gave us the keys.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copernicus

(1543 AD)

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Juggernaut

(1600 AD)

 

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.

 

 

 

 

Easter Island

(1722 AD)

 

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

(1755 AD)

 

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

packed,

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

singing, fading.

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

(1835 AD)

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Rimbaud

(1891 AD)

 

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

(1941-1944 AD)

 

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.

 

I watched

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

(1957 AD)

 

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.’

 

 

 

 

Woodstock

(1969 AD)

 

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

almost heartbreaking,

bright and fighting.

 

 

 

 

The Twin Towers

(2001 AD)

 

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

(2300 AD)

 

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.

 

Like glass

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.

 

 

 

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