Here I am, said the old man still young, trapped between ship and shore. I understand that we’re always on the gangplank, having just arrived or just heading for departure. There’s always someone to talk to, someone pausing to put that suitcase down and then rub chafed hands. “I’m heading south, old son. Didn’t work out over there. East, west, home’s best, eh?” Yes, I guess so. And I turn to watch a shimmying flag at a lonely masthead. All to play for across a monotony of waves. No suitcase for the next guy. He’s a nomad under a hundredweight of rucksack, thumbs under the straps. “I’m off to Panajachel to join my girlfriend. The most beautiful place on earth, she says!” Yes, I guess so and I turn to watch the only cloud pass behind the funnel. Fortune favours the bold under a limitless certainty of sky.
‘Songwriters are not poets, Or songs are not poems, I should say. In fact, songs are often bad poems. Take the music away and what you’re left with is often an awkward piece of creative writing full of lumpy syllables, cheesy rhymes, exhausted cliches and mixed metaphors.’ SIMON ARMITAGE
By and large, I wouldn’t disagree with Armitage’s claim. The vast majority of song lyrics exist simply to keep the walls of the song from falling in. There’s always been more than an element of service industry to the work of the professional song writer. Horses for courses is the intention and it’s the overall subscription to the genre/style in question.
For me, only a handful of lyricists’ compositions stand up proud without the superstructure of music around them. Amongst them, I’d nominate Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Ian Dury, Richard Thompson, Bob Dylan…
Now, having set myself up for ridicule and scorn, here’s a group of lyrics that I wrote for my good friend Steve Moorby to set to music. Each one has been fully arranged and, until lockdown, was being played at gigs by the trio we share with fellow songwriter Gemma Moorby, named, somewhat unimaginatively, Moorby Jones.
I don’t know whether they have life beyond the vehicle of the song. But they derive from the same underground source that produces my poems so at worst they have the status of cousins. Here they are, all standing up stark naked, waiting patiently to be cloaked once again in music…
There’s a houseful of lights on the cliff top up high. At the end of the track there it’s shining. And the summer dark swarms like invisible wind all around us where we two are climbing.
There’s sand on our skin and rime in our hair and salt on our tongues as communion. I smile in the dark; I know you’re smiling too as we clamber towards the reunion.
It’s deep into night and we’re stumbling blind with just candles of gorse here to guide us. Voices rising like sparks: friends and lovers above and a world that must shortly divide us.
As we rise into light and our story is told, we take up our place in the chorus, ghosts in the present, ghosts in the past, ghosts through the long years before us.
CHORUS This is where they live, the wise ones, in the gap between each heartbeat, in the space between each breath. There the light will always find them, clear before, no ghosts behind them, cold eye cast on life, on death.
Past is past, it’s just a story, evening primrose, morning glory. What’s to come is just a notion, part still life and part commotion.
On the way we count each second, minutes tallied, hours reckoned. Constellations gliding by; each star numbered in the sky.
Now’s the moment, grain of sand, countless falling hand to hand. Pinch in passing every one or watch them dwindle down to none.
It was snowing hard that day in New York City, drifting deep all the way down Amsterdam. I stopped at EJ’s Diner along West 59th, checking out of limbo, out of winter wonderland.
Davy Jones is crooning in the neon light. Crazy Jane slips off her stool to dance the blues. I’m seeking broken ghosts within the shadows that she throws. Time, old man, I say, to shift your highway shoes.
Yellow cabs and police cars are spinning in their chains, caught within the frozen river’s flow. I navigate the canyons like a pilgrim in his time, walking down from Riverside and a mile or three to go.
Dreams are made in fire and thoughts are made in ice. We burned our dreams in Gramercy that night. Booth looked down and smiled, his hand upon his breast and the snow came down between us and took away the light.
On East 11th I’m standing like a tracker out of trail, but Biaggi’s slinging pizzas hand to hand, and the lights above O’Halloran’s spell out ‘Home is in the heart’ and like St Paul, Damascus bound, I think I understand.
True love’s like a compass with its needle spinning free, from magnetic north to east, to south, to west. If your heart can be your lodestar and you let it spin its fill, magnetic north is where the needle comes to rest.
Light spills out like honey on the sidewalk in the dark and the door to Benny’s Bar-and-Grill swings open. Lovers who were strangers are now lovers once again and the song up on the jukebox is ‘The Circle is Unbroken’.
CHORUS Too much of distance, too long of time, too many stations from the old borderline. Two drifting solo like boats out at sea, to the edge of forever, from our same old used-to-be.
Right from the beginning of lockdown in March I started writing again. Two sequences of poems, each on a linking theme, are still under way and several single poems got themselves written too. Here are three of them, all very much in first draft form…
SHIP AND SHORE
Here I am, said the old man still young, trapped between ship and shore. Now, I understand that we’re always on the gangplank, having just arrived, or just heading for departure. And I know too that there’s always someone to talk to, someone pausing to put that suitcase down and rub chafed hands. “I’m heading south, old son. Didn’t work out over there. East, west, home’s best, eh?” Yes, I guess so. And I turn to watch a flag shimmying at a masthead. All to play for across a monotony of waves. No suitcase for the next guy. He’s a hero under a hundred- weight of rucksack, thumbs in the straps. “I’m off to Kasol to join my girlfriend. The most beautiful place on earth, she says.” Yes, I guess so, and I turn to watch the only cloud pass behind the funnel. Fortune favours the brave under a limitless certainty of sky.
THE ANARCHIST CAFÉ
Anarchists should open cafes. Spill the ill-assorted chairs and tables onto the pavement. Go heavy with the red paprika, shower down the black pepper. Have trans and Gypsy waiters to glide between the tables, taking orders couched as poems. Decorate the walls with graffito pics of Emma Goldman, Patti Smith, Pete Kropotkin, Allen Ginsberg. Sit the refugee next to the barrister. Welcome dogs of all persuasions. Usher in the teenage truant. Request that anyone in uniform slip into all-encompassing rainbow robes. Feed the snap-trap eager-beaver TV MPs vegan burgers ‘til they go all Paulo Freire, shouting, We are new in heart and soul, come to change the way things are!
GRIEVING (from and wait for an echo)
a man has his hands on his face the heels across his working mouth that sound is told in an animal’s voice one brought down but not yet dead he has to enunciate the pain so he selects a sort of cataract of vowels to drain the airtight sack of his grief his wordage is of the blown foxhole the riven trench i heard once of a soldier running along the duckboards his jaw taken away by shrapnel the story was of the sound he made he who once knew words
We all of us – well, many of us – carry through from childhood certain key interests or preoccupations. Living under what was then the London Airport flightpath, I grew accustomed to seeing at comfortable height pretty much everything that left the ground and traveled from it. I still feel a frisson of excitement when I hear the sound of a piston aircraft engine. And if it’s a Rolls Royce Merlin… But this is to lapse too much into a time when the machines of war were just the whirling hardware of excitement and adventure. Now it’s their shape and sheen, the pure aesthetic of form. Taken in the moment, it can just about transcend function.
Here are three poems about aeroplanes. They can be found in my first collection, Ancient Lights .
OUT OF THE DUST – 1913
The strangest of times: a skein of geese crossing the bedroom window, heading west and no body of water within seven miles. I am playing the pagan – sleeping late amongst the Sunday morning bells. Heaven is a cloudless sky in late September, harvest past, leaves on the turn.
At first I think I hear the binder, wheels beating, turning at the headrow, but the fields are bare. Such a beating, a clattering. More geese searching for a lake in this land of furrows? Or the rector in his Wolesely come to seek me out?
And then my window darkens into the shape of wings, jagged wings – Weston mill uprooted, reeling across the fields? Certainly a hurricane of sorts in the throat of this beast squatting low over the beeches, dabbling its feet in leaves, roaring in a black updraft of rooks.
An aeroplane, fearful in the untried air – nothing like the rising bird it mocks. This is a man, dressed in wire and canvas, climbing out of the clover. This is a godless man ascending, out of the dust, towards the light.
A DREAM OF AEROPLANES – 1940.
It’s a fire next time in scripture. And when it came it was sky-borne. Some had said at first that out of it might come a cleansing; out of the sky might fall a fire
bright and holy, prophecy fulfilled. September, and I trimmed the ivy round the lych-gate. It was lifting tiles clear of the joists and my gardener was still in France.
That was about as close as the war had come – censored letters, rumours, like an invisible tide you can hear at the edge of the world. Little to see beyond uniforms,
gas masks in boxes, gummed paper stretched over windows. And then, that afternoon, flying west and in and out of cloud, the planes, a geometry of crosses. I watched and all around
the earth stood still. The organ voice of their passing scattered rooks, rippled the water in the rain-butt, rattled a latch. And then we carried on, conscious only of a sniff
of autumn in the air, the planes forgotten in an empty sky. That evening we were told of the bombing – docks ablaze, the tram wires down, parish halls as hospitals. But still it came
from the wireless voices, morning papers and the travellers’ tales at the village bar. Birds trilled; I picked a sprig of yarrow for my hat, and rain rushed across the lead roof of the transept.
The the Messerschmidt came. Not quite, as they say in comics ‘out of the sun’: it was a dismal morning stacked with cumulus. But we can all remember from our kitchens, hayricks, lonely bedrooms
(I was in the vestry hanging surplices) the sound – a falling cadence, like a voice that begins in the throat but can’t find words. ‘Despair’, it would have said. We heard it, all of us.
But no one saw the plane come down, just the gout of fire that coiled and spun above the oasthouse. Then, when they searched the fields around, those Home Guard amateurs
(the lads who filled my pews at evensong), they found a booted leg, bloodless, like a spare part brought along in case of need. Little Sammy Scase took the joystick home and his granddad scraped
the handle clean. (‘Viscera’, the vet said later in the milking parlour). Then it rained again and the army came to haul away the wreckage. And no-one paid for Vincent’s oasthouse.
FLYPAST AT OLD WARDEN – 1998
Even now, here, this past before my past leaks down the long conduits, the time- channels, weed-locked with
my own memories. Back then, on corner bombsite, in the air-raid shelter under the apple trees, that past before our past
bellied up, breathed in our faces. Churchill, Hitler, Uncle Joe bowled down cinema aisles and into our infant dreams. Parents’ stories,
shed headlines from old newspapers feeding the living-room fire, comics swapped in playground corners, Belsen photoes, shifted sideways through
a conspiracy of desks – war-echoes blew like late rumours from a world still turning out of darkness. Our legacy was smoke from fires still burning.
And now, trailing tails of smoke, red, white and blue, the parachutists turn and turn in a blank sky. The last Lancaster, Spitfire, Hurricane tug their trinity
of shadows over the aerodrome, over the lifted faces of the crowd, across the eyes of old saluting men, remembering. Their past before
my past speaks in the beating engines, the ghost-passage of three black crosses over September fields, heading east to the world’s edge.