Belated Response to R.S. Thomas

Imaginative truth is the most immediate way of presenting ultimate reality to a human being... ultimate reality is what we call God. - R.S. Thomas


Well, it’s true enough
as far as it goes

but exceptions always prove
the unforgiving rule

In the sparse, cold
hinterland of doubt

the sliding faith’s
reluctant groove

erodes the sands
of languages

and makes a space
where you and I can go

spanned across the bay
as Norse or Celt alike


thus I am happy
to walk this path

you also trod
to wring out verse

where Saxon oars go
four beats to a line

a coracle on a river
reaching southward like an arm

infiltrating and dividing,
while at the empty junction,

lines slip away into
the middle distance

and strangers talk all night
to get no closer


Still, you must do something,
I suppose

so paint as black as night
the stalls at Derwenlas

to raise uncomprehending
bruitish eyes to heaven

And any one of us can raise
a golden-headed son

oblique to our chosen tongue
in a thinly papered manse

and scatter pearls before
our swinish kin

and that is what the church
might call a living

Fisher King’s Last Stand

Heroes are rare - James Baldwin

It’s the gradual gentle things that slip away,
It’s only later you notice the lack.
One morning during the trial I woke
to her repeated absence for the first time,
a wound beyond reason becoming a grail.

This head I bring you, Peredur, is not 
what you’d expect, but you’re a purer fool 
than I could ever be, and she was loved
beyond explicable reason; thus guilty
I underwent the psychometric testing,

It’s no good to be weeping by a stream,
even if slaughtered enemies drift by,
fly-christened, dishonoured by eel and pike.
The balladeer sings of the ghosts in the water, 
and I have lost my touch and hers

Because she was not meant for me I bear
this constant wound, which says I am no good,
and renders these dominions under curse.
The clumsiness in I how act and speak
is taken as a measure of my thought,

Which can, in otherwise contrariness,
cover the fields like a river in flood,
like a hare at pace under blazing sun
but rests now, wounded under camouflage,
ready to spring like a bird from a trap
to rail at the moon, howling like an orphan

In the lashing rain you face the cliff
and know you do not have the strength
to either climb or fall. The light is fading 
and your valour, curled like a drenched wren
in a feathered ball weighing less than a soul,
is not enough to keep you honest now.

The heart breaks again at the point where
you’re forced to choose: to ascend, heroically,
against the slippery god-like face of rock
or let yourself down and be mortal,
and even Christ could not let that cup pass

In the broken, unrepented morning 
this is how King Pellam’s Land is lying, 
where you have come looking for something, 
but only finding barren wastes and me

Peredur, I see once more my younger 
self in you, coming all this way
for a grail you know can never be found

I cannot tell you what to do or say,
but ask the healing question, cure the wound

The Curve of the Load

I want this love for one to stand for all
a wooden staff embedded in the ground
to bud as tree and fruit with myth and lore
I want to know this once before I fall

I want to see that what I was before
when I was on the wave beyond her call
was not as lost as what I thought I found
between the give and take of something more

I want to know the echo of the sound
ring true across the limit of the shore
she is the falling man before a stall
the fall of man towards a higher ground

she is the rest of grace and still I fall
through leaf and bough toward the rooted ground
through wisdom that I could not know before
she is the rest of grace, and that is all

Black Country

He dammed the river needlessly
it overflowed in spate
did she calculate or carelessly
forget the weir gate?

the syllables were spilled and washed
the torrent sluiced the bier
she levelled blame, and he, abashed,
held back from drawing near

but language was his barrier
and water, spirit borne,
grew tongues until philosophy
was anvil, mare and corn.

Birmingham Hymn

Integral force of prayer
compounds base firmament
elevating sacrament
to fiery heaven, where,

holding locks surprised
God's tower is defended,
Time is wrecked and ended,
sparkling, Christianised.

Love or nothing

No verse ever gets it right and
says exactly how these things are,
if ever any language does

Words do not come at our command
and like the light from distant stars
show each thing only as it was

And even there the light is wrong,
the trace is clumsy in the touch,
and love is never caught in stone

For your sake stop my mouth and song,
which says too little or too much,
and pare my language to the bone

That love at last might find a voice
that touches both the peak and trough
and steadies each in balanced thought

To know when love is not a choice,
to know when love is not enough,
and know when love is all, or nought.

The Hundred Acre Wood

exit pursued by a bear

So bring the rain, Red Leader, bring the rain
For nothing now can ever be the same
And nothing now can come to any good
It’s Khmer Rouge Year Zero
In the Hundred Acre Wood

Agent Orange is a rumour on the wind
And evangelists insist that all have sinned
Who knows where common decency once stood?
It took the Fifth Amendment
In the Hundred Acre Wood

Where Mick Jagger has a gun across his knees,
The tracker dogs are nose up to the breeze
And Tigger, Pooh and Piglet are hiding in the trees

Groovy Bob is sober, Brian Jones is pissed,
The Kindred of the Kibbo Kift half-heartedly persist
To try to fill a vacuum where once stood Robin Hood
Green Men going native
In the Hundred Acre Wood

Teddybears array beneath the flagging Hindu sign
Of a sunwheel god, ecstatic and malign
Oaths and avowals based on soil and blood
Will stand a thousand years
In the Hundred Acre Wood

The lacerated worm forgives the sullen plough
Iconoclasts take potshots at every sacred cow
And membership of the National Trust cannot save you now

Old Possum tries his hardest to ignore 
The desperate, frantic rapping at the door 
His harried mind cannot compose the sentences it should
From Dog Fox Field on Margate Sands
To the Hundred (S)acre(d) Wood

While racist background static continues night and day
Dog-whistling to the herrenvolk as they come out to play
It’s just another chapter in a tale where none are good
Paid on both betraying sides 
In the Hundred Acre Wood

The helicopter gunships smile on those below
Camouflage becomes them in a way they couldn't know
We shout our drunken raucous way through Hal-an-Tow

The earth compelled the service to be read by candlelight
For those who wrecked themselves in nothing more than spite
The nine men’s morris is filled up with mud
And prayers have been said backwards
In the Hundred Acre Wood

And nothing now can come to any good
So bring the rain, Blue Leader, (although I doubt you could)
Having drained from us our reason 
Forgive us now our treason
In the Hundred Acre Wood

And curse the waters of the rising flood
Shantih Covid Shantih
Shantih Brexit Shantih
Shantih Fucking Shantih
In the Hundred Acre Wood

The Busby Babes

Too young to know these lads and think them great,
I had to rest on what my uncle said.
Coaxed with beer in Altrincham pubs, he’d wait
until their vivid ghosts had filled his head;
not black and white, like newsreel films I knew,
but proud before the Stretford End in red,
an average age of barely twenty-two
yet strong enough to frighten Real Madrid.

How good they might have been no one can state.
Perhaps the game was never better played
than by the players in that tragic show,
abruptly ended in the Munich snow,
when they had run their hearts out in Belgrade,
February 6th, 1958.

Triptych From an Imaginary War

i. Child-king amongst his subjects

Slapping him on the back
the old boy with the pitch-fork twang
tells him to have his pick of the girls
The girls, slouched in the cottage door,
do not know how to take this,
and that night, dumb with terror,
say nothing when he comes
This angers him;
he petulantly rides away at dawn,
having first ordered the castration of the yokel,

And works off his temper
by invading France

ii. Shakespeare and co.
It's a dirty job, but someone's got to do it;
maintaining a presence, that is,

Unopened bodies lie in their bags
at border outposts where
no lieutenants come
to pass their orders round
They should have been identified and buried,
they should have been recorded and dispatched
They should not have been
sitting in the meadow by the river
quietly quoting poetry
That, is carelessness,
that, is how things like literature start

iii. The Song of Macmorris
She was willow when the grass was green
and the orchard of her country
was covering, blessed and sweet

She was hawthorn when the bier froze and mummers in their element
were iron hard to dragon thaw
She was the blossom of cherry trees
when ghosting drovers and airmen
rattled the squalling year
She was russet when the hill fell soft
in the turning from ripe to raw
when she was nature's country 
and its civil war 

King Horse

Horse thinks he remembers two things from the past

He finds it hard not to see the meadow as a battlefield,
the shimmering ghostly troops
a heat wave after Michaelmas
the crack of fire,
bushes of gunpowder charging from the copse

At this point, she will dismount and lead his muffled clop
through the drifting snow and the lung-shadow trees

He knows the night will be thin;
the tail lights of aeroplanes will wink above the stable,
their insect buzz betrayed
by false forgotten weather

And on waking, he will recall his second memory

His blank nobility
before the bridle is fitted
kindles spectral light
refracting from the corners
of rooms with mirrors,
standing orders and judicial wigs

I watch her on horseback in the unpolluted field,
where my clot of thoughts
do not obtain their promised words

Pictures in my mind become
falling distant objects;
Time is down as she rides by,
her newly broken horse
a high-born, kingly creature,
whose stance under burden
proclaims reincarnation

Even in these notes
there is something of the reinvented horse;
a transformed air,
charged with spirits and mayflies

And as far out as the edge of sense
such weights and measures break us,

Yet this furlong of light
is where we belong:

An acre of space
with a memory horse
loose in the unfenced heart