Let the Poetry Begin!
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Lysander, in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, famously says, ‘The course of true love never did run smooth’. Should we fall for the wrong person, this could be considered the biggest understatement of all time.
The bumpy process of falling in and out of love is only too familiar to most of us. It is painful to be spurned by someone you are in love with, someone who doesn’t want your devotion, avowals of true love and, worst of all, your looks of hangdog powerlessness.
I can look back and remember that feeling. I wrote this poem many years ago as an antidote to rejection. I went through all the anger, frustration and grief of the spurned lover before I wrote it. Afterwards, I felt better quite quickly. The very act of writing was empowering. I was back in control!
You suck my marrow
like an oyster
shucked from its
You gulp my briny
swallow me whole,
la belle dame
sans merci -
no thank you!
In time you’d
a big green
choking on me,
Everything about weddings is stressful. You are attracted to someone - that’s not too painful. Then you fall in love and realise that you love someone enough to want to live with them, for ever. It’s getting harder; you’re losing your independence, your freedom but can’t seem to help yourself. You both indulge in the rituals of human romance, accept the pains of acceptance and rejection. You change your minds, panic, and make up. Then there’s the sex thing; it should be simple, but there are painful traps for the unwary. You get engaged, spend a fortune on the ring, tell your parents and wait for the thunderclaps!
As for the lead-up to the wedding day – the pressures are enormous on both sides. Surely you shouldn’t spend so much on a one-use dress! The stag night and hen party don’t come cheap. The flowers, the champagne, the hotel and catering will bankrupt you. And, what about the wedding invitations to send, the people to invite but keep apart, the choice of bridesmaids? Caught up in this merry-go-round you both wish it would end - and soon. Even the wonderful ceremony, the inevitable limelight, the endless speeches, take their toll. So why do it? Why put yourself through so much debilitating pressure?
The answer is that once you’ve embarked on the long march to the altar, there is no choice. Once started you may as well resign yourselves to the fact that becoming husband and wife, husband and husband or wife and wife is an endurance test. It is only after the wedding day that you can relax. When all you’ve wanted for such a long time is to be alone with each other, it will such a relief to disappear together and take stock of things in each other’s arms. From then on everything will be easy! Won’t it?
My sister, Angela, is a very skilled needlewoman. For a family wedding some years ago, she sewed the couple a beautiful quilt. To me, it was a symbol of their love and loyalty to each other, but also, a physical shield, where they could be together, free from the demands of an inquisitive world.
When the wedding feast
is in full crush and mingle,
when the ties are slung askew,
and clean, white shirts
are stained with festive food,
and folk have lost that pious
when the banquet hall is full
of loosened corset chatter,
then the change begins.
The cold, white, wedding cake gives way
to dark delights of nut and glace fruit,
the bridal veil, now tossed aside, awaits
its crumpled fate behind some drawer.
and, spread upon the marriage bed,
its silken pattern woven fine with skill,
the handsome, hand-wrought wedding quilt
becomes a secret trysting place,
of cotton thread and love-worked lace,
where everything is soft and sweet,
and rumpled sweethearts safely meet.
For Liz and Chris
I recently and quite unexpectedly made contact with John Vallins, my English teacher for several years while I was at King’s School Bruton in the 1960s. I still have five short essays marked by John when I was in the third form, aged thirteen and fourteen. Most of them were marked favourably and gave me a real impetus to my otherwise woeful academic work. I felt that, at least, I could write a decent English essay!
John also taught me in the Lower Sixth form, before going elsewhere, eventually becoming headmaster of the celebrated Chetham’s School in Manchester. Chetham’s specialises in teaching very gifted young musicians, and John would have been an ideal head, as he was himself a viola player, an excellent teacher of English and a fine communicator.
Another of John’s great loves was for the game of cricket. John coached the First Eleven which, at that time, included my twin brother, Jim. I well remember one Saturday morning sitting in the classroom suffering a lesson on one of our set books, ‘Samson Agonistes’, by John Milton. The other John was in a cheerful mood and was waxing lyrical about the plight of Samson, betrayed by his wife Delila, who has cut off his hair and thus deprived him of his superhuman strength, and has then been blinded by the Philistines and thrown into a prison cell! Samson who has previously boasted of killing a thousand men in battle with the jawbone of an ass, was feeling very dejected at this point in the narrative.
Meanwhile John Vallins was enthusiastically declaiming the lines to us. Obviously, he was enjoying the drama of the piece, but it was quite clear that he had another drama on his mind; the First Eleven was playing later that morning. It was obvious to me that John was looking forward to the cricket as well as living the drama, as he was miming cricket strokes as he recited the text, scoring runs all over the field. What a joyful moment for cricket! Such a bravura performance! Meanwhile, it dawned on me that Milton and cricket could be loved equally. I already loved cricket!
so many runs
Oh dark, dark, dark,
click of tongue
crisp off drive
amid the blaze
to finest leg
stylish cover drive and
wristy follow through
dark as womb,
of the room.
Robert Eshelby, 17th July 2022
For John Vallins
I love the idea of commitment in human relationships; that two people can live together in a bond of love and grow together.
I tried to put my feelings into words, but I’m afraid I started to sound like a very poor imitation of an agony aunt and gave up trying. I did get as far as deciding that a good marriage, in the sense of two people living together in a permanent relationship, was dependant on such staples as kindness, sensitivity, and an ability to share their lives without any sense of domination of one partner over the other. Suddenly, I remembered Geoffrey Chaucer!
I read ‘The Franklin’s Tale’ when I was at school. It is the story of a ‘courtly love’ romance between Arveragus a noble knight and Dorigen, his fair damsel. Chaucer’s Franklin has very definite ideas of what holds a marriage together. Arveragus is determined that he will never try to dominate Dorigen. Instead, he will obey her and follow her will in all things. Dorigen replies that, given such freedom, she will do her best to avoid marital war or strife and promises to be a humble and true wife, and offers him her heart.
The Franklin, who is telling the tale, is a humble man who is very impressed by the aristocracy and its courtly love antics! He tells his fellow pilgrims that lovers should obey each other if they are to stay together. Love will not survive mastery (domination),
“Whan maistrye cometh, the God of Love anon,
Beteth his winges and farewell, he is goon!”
He continues, that, in his mind, love is a free spirit and that neither men nor women want to be dominated. Instead, people should be patient with each other because patience can achieve much more than violence. Stoicism and courage in the face of adversity are far better than complaining about each other’s shortcomings. His couple find a nice compromise in their marriage. Arveragus declares that he will be,
“Servant in love, and lord in mariage.”
Not a fair division in the eyes of many today, but a good try, nevertheless!
So, there it is: a recipe for a happy marriage. It works well for Arveragus and Dorigen, for a year, until he decides to go across the sea from Brittany to England, for two long years, to show off to the world his prowess as a bold knight. At this point their difficulties start. It is ironic that problems in their marriage only begin when Arveragus puts his own fame and fortune before his love of Dorigen!
Arveragus and Dorigen are tested to the limit in ‘The Franklin’s Tale’. Finally, the couple triumph through love and mutual respect. I like that!
The fusion of lovers
provokes a state
of marital singularity,
where two become one,
not as one
but actually one,
So, love is less,
and less may lessen.
Best let our minds
our hearts aspire,
that we may flourish
side by side,
Thus, one plus one, or,
you plus me,
and then that fraction more.
Like two strong plants,
in one soft bed,
And when we, upward,
stretch for joy
we’ll find our tendrils
and, in the course of time,
For Ruth on our fourteenth Wedding Anniversary, 2012.
With all my tender love,
I read my poem, ‘Desert Piece’, recently (see below), to try to remember the young me. The poem felt so sad and desolate, that I felt I needed to redress the balance and write a poem of hope. After all, failure at twenty-one doesn’t have to mean failure for ever! Actually, it made me doubly determined to carve my way and to create a curriculum vitae that was, at least, interesting.
In the fifty plus years that have passed since 1968, I have had many successes and not a few failures, and have learnt that in life you win some and you lose some! With this in mind, I thought that I would use the Australian outback as a theme once again and find a real positive in its mystery and its contrasts, its rain forest and its deserts, its mountains and plains, its drab and its colour, its wet and its dry. Australia is a continent of stark differences. There is life in the dry centre, where logic says that there should be none. Bush fires destroy everything, but they also prompt the germination of new growth in a regenerative cycle that has taken place regularly over millennia. When the monsoon-like rains finally fall on the centre, following years of drought, there is life a-plenty in its wake. After the flood the desert becomes a sea of wildflowers.
Recently, thanks to global warming, there has been an excess of fire and flood in Australia, often arriving unexpectedly and causing heartbreak and disaster for its inhabitants, human or otherwise. Traditionally, life goes on. For me, the outback will always be a country where triumph and disaster go hand in hand. It is a land of extremes, where people, animals and vegetation just keep going, riding the onslaughts, living their lives, and delighting in their unique environment. Surely that is an image of optimism and worth a poem!
There is hope in the centre,
in the dry, scorched desert,
In the dusty billabongs
and ancient mountain ranges,
there is life.
Rustling creatures, powdered red,
commute with industry,
prowl with intensity,
slither with certainty,
bandicoot and lorikeet,
cockatoo and crocodile,
modelled by millennia,
mingle in the dreamtime,
Aussies to the core.
Too, there are people,
old as the hills, wise
in their ways,
who know their land,
share their sand,
And there are seeds.
waiting for the ten-year rain
to slake their thirst.
suckled by the centre,
for the warm, wet wind of India
to flood the gravid floor,
ignite a desert fire.
Sturt’s rose and suncap,
dandelion and marigold,
king cup, poached eggs,
pussy tail and parrot pea
will blaze on damp earth,
and set the central sea
aflame with flower,
raging and roaring
like a blacksmith’s hearth.
I wrote ‘Desert Piece’ at the age of twenty-one. It was my first poem as an adult. I was feeling very depressed about life in general and life in Australia in particular. Two years earlier I had arrived in Queensland with my parents and twin brother, Jim, determined to make a success in my new home.
My school experience in a Somerset public school had been less than an overwhelming success. I disliked the system, which was designed to subdue the individual and to promote obedience and uniformity. Going to Australia, the land of huge spaces and individualism, seemed perfect for me.
I wanted to go to university, to study English and, above all, I wanted to be an operatic tenor! My first move was to get into Queensland University, in St Lucia, Brisbane. I enrolled with the Queensland Correspondence School and did a crash course to pass my Senior Public Examination in five subjects in just over six months. I had no conflict with teachers to distract me and passed with flying colours. Unfortunately fate then stepped in.
I was called up at the age of nineteen for National Service in Australia. Only one male in ten was balloted and Jim and I were among the lucky ones! I volunteered to apply for officer training in Portsea, Victoria for eleven months, and was accepted. As a twin, Jim could then do six years in the Citizens’ Military Forces as a part-time soldier. I didn’t particularly want to be a soldier, but it was the start to a career, and I badly needed a career. For reasons best known to my training officers, I found myself a bit of a square peg and resigned, after ten months, before they could kick me out! I behaved impeccably, but apparently, lacked leadership qualities! Oh well!
I was back where I had started, but a year older and totally lacking in self-confidence.
It seemed to me that the dry outback was just the right image to describe me! I wrote this poem as a way of expressing my feelings of frustration with life and felt better afterwards. Years later, I realise that, while poetry can’t fix the world, it can release ideas and images which are both therapeutic and insightful. As with most things in life, things got better with a bit of hard work and application. The good thing is that I am left with a poem to show for it. Better than a medal!
I’ve trudged the dry outback –
a rolling patchwork back-drop,
scrubby dust and flies,
the country talking in their shivering wings grizzling.
I’ve seen sun’s fried egg on blue
snap the bouncing dust-ball
and so, too, have I been
sucked of moisture, spat
and fallen, dried sand, to the ground.
We arrived home at 3 am on Easter Monday 18th April, this year, following a five- hour drive through the night from the ferry terminal at Caen.
As we unlocked the gate, to drive in, we heard that sound again. It was unmistakeable, the nightingale had returned!
We stopped in our tracks, amazed. All the tiredness of our drive evaporated, as we listened. Ruth recorded the song on her mobile phone. The church clock of St. Vincent Sterlanges, a mile away, can be heard faintly, striking three, through the birdsong, 2 mins 48 secs into the recording. We went to bed smiling very soon after.
What struck me during the next few weeks, was that the nightingale seemed to sing both night and day to attract a mate. Its song was always beautiful, but, after a few days of incessant singing, it began to sound desperate, and my heart went out to it. It was as if the bird was destined to sing until it found a mate or perish in the attempt. (The effort of singing through fifty per cent of the night causes it to lose much of its body weight, which has to be replenished by vigorous eating during the day, according to Wikipedia)
I was reminded of Moira Shearer in the 1948 film, ‘The Red Shoes’. Once the young girl tries on the beautiful red shoes, she dances sublimely, ferociously well. The problem is that she can’t stop dancing, nor can she take off the red shoes.
Day after day and night after night, we heard the singing, feeling a mixture of joy and sadness, until his voice became a background to other events in our lives. Finally, we didn’t hear it. It was like looking at a faint star in the night. Full on, we didn’t notice it, but caught in the periphery of our vision, knew that it was still there.
No doubt, our songster was successful in finding a mate, and has reared its chicks in our garden. Strangely, our human concentration span was so short that we quickly stopped noticing the nightingale’s very obvious presence.
I’ve called this poem ’Rossignol’ which is the French name for the nightingale. Incidentally, it is also an old Languedoc term for a singer or someone with a pleasant voice.
Footnote: As I finished writing this, I went outside into the garden to collect something from our Garden Room. Once again, I heard the song of the nightingale, less strident, less frequent, and more comfortable. Could it be that it has found love, at last?
You catch my breath
with your love song,
rattling, chirping and fluting,
a capella, bravura, coloratura,
guttural, chuckling, swooping
and sweeping centre stage.
Incognito, you bow and bob,
to hedge and tree and furrowed field,
inimitable, indomitable, unconsolable,
night and day you plead.
Such talent, such devotion, such élan!
Until, like dancing droplets
trilling in some lonely stream,
your voice becomes a thought
your misty song a distant dream.
For my daughter, Kate. And for my grandson, Alexander, born today.
It was in Spring that we first heard it and couldn’t believe our luck. From an ordinary tree not two minutes into our regular daily walk from home in the heart of the Vendee, came the compelling sound of a bird in full voice. We stopped without a word, standing in the middle of the quiet lane, craning to catch a glimpse of the bird.
“Is that…”, we both whispered, “Is that a nightingale?”
We knew it had to be. There was a power and a virtuoso athleticism to the song, which marked it out from other birds we were used to hearing on our walks. Finally, as if acknowledging our admiration, the nightingale took a bow, appearing to us quite boldly, for the first time, at the very top of the tree. There could be no doubt of his identity. I say ‘his’ because, later, on looking through our bird guide, I gathered that it is the male who sings to attract his mate. She may take him or leave him, depending on whether his arpeggios, turns and roulades are sufficiently enticing! We listened, as he ran through his simple encore.
We walked on in silence. We could still hear him.
does not dress-up to kill.
He wears, instead,
a simple fustian suit
of undistinguished brown,
as, hidden high, he chants
and swoops, beckons, taunts, seduces,
plagues us with his shimmering song,
whisks our feet from under us,
and offers us a simple choice,
“Hear my song,
Or pass along!”
The wise ones wait.
When I was about twelve years old, my class had to learn poems by heart. These poems have stayed with me and remain vivid. One was called ‘The Destruction of Sennacherib’ and was written by Lord Byron, about the siege of Jerusalem in 701 BC, in which the Assyrians not only lose their battle, but also one hundred and eighty-five thousand men. The first two verses of the poem describe the massed forces of the invaders and their pitiful state after the fight.
“The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold,
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.
Like the leaves of the forest when Summer is green,
That host with their banners at sunset were seen:
Like the leaves of the forest when Autumn hath blown,
That host on the morrow lay withered and strown.”
There was a field of sunflowers growing behind our house this Summer, which reminded me of the tale of Sennacherib. Over a period of months, I watched the thousands of plants grow and flourish and the flowers become more and more prominent, until they opened. By Summer there were thousands of splendid sunflowers. Come Autumn they ‘lay withered and strown’, awaiting the harvester.
I love sunflowers. I think that they are magnificent flowers. But it didn’t take too much imagination to compare their rise and fall to that of countless populist armies over the centuries.
Lofty sunflowers, Summer’s burnished zealots,
crouch, defeated, chastened in the field.
Once, extrovert, in serried rank, they gleamed,
in uniforms of green, resplendent gold.
Their grace brought knowing smiles
to groups of ramblers, panting, pink,
their glasses moist, with haversack and stick,
who faced the heat in matching rain-resisting coats,
in shorts and ankle boots, and floppy hats.
mocked the mustard army, on parade,
craned, to catch their all-consuming star.
It didn’t take a poet’s inward eye
to see the gallant troops of Waterloo,
infatuated Volk in misty black and white,
who stretch, a nation deep, in blind salute,
‘Hail Sun! Hail Sun! Hail Sun!’
But that was then.
Today they lounge, collapsed, in disarray,
listless soldiers, careless on parade.
Their tarnished bascinets, now set awry,
reveal the home-spun faces of defeat.
Examining their boots or placid sky,
they cannot see the stranger passing by.
The honour, glory and the power have gone.
Old greenwood forests have moods, which speak to our senses. We all know how wonderful it is to see the fresh buds of spring on the trees, the songs of birds as they sit busily on branches high above us, and the flurry as they fly ahead at our approach. In spring all is renewed. Animals procreate, birds nest, new growth peeps shyly from the forest floor. Summer and autumn too, have their seasonal joys. It is not difficult to feel optimistic when the sun shines lazily through the foliage or we walk ankle-deep in dried leaves, at once entranced and bewildered by the season’s new patterns.
But, winter, and woodland can test the boldest of spirits. They remind us of our own mortality, of the relentless passage of time, of our own ageing and the coming of old age to those we love. On the other hand, most of us can see that winter doesn’t have to be the end of things. In many ways, it is a new beginning, and we only need be a little patient to see the signs of new life coming stealthily all around us.
The woodland’s breath is rank.
Dead trees like rotting teeth,
gape, sweet and musty with decay,
as we approach.
The fallen trunks like cold Crusaders,
long dead, lie in posey prayer,
sightless, gazing at the vaulted,
high cathedral sky.
Beneath our feet, the leaf mould,
damply, springs and sighs.
The velvet greens of mosses,
cushion-plump and odious,
cloak the stumps and boles
of oaks and birch and beech.
Fat toadstools, sulphurous, pink, and brown,
infest the forest floor.
“All things must pass”, it seems to say.
“All things must fade and die away.”
But my feet dance, on beech-nut mast,
for there I see,
beside the crumbling, ivy-covered tree,
a fresh-sprung snowdrop nod his head to thee.
I was born in England soon after the war. I moved , with my family to Australia in 1966, where I was a soldier (briefly), a public servant, an opera singer, and an English teacher.