After a lengthy period of not writing any poetry at all, I was delighted to be ambushed late last summer by several poems – or rather opening salvoes from them – more or less simultaneously. I was in Paris, sitting on an accommodating bollard facing the left portal of Notre Dame waiting for the family to emerge from Notre Dame Cathedral. Out of habit I had my notebook with me and lacking any other source of words, I was leafing through the dusty pages when the various figures, sacred and profane, crammed beneath the triangular gable above the double doors begun to speak to me. Resistant after years of firm if undogmatic unbelief (if an absence of an ideology can be said to be undogmatic), there was no sense of my being, somewhat late in the day, washed in the blood of the lamb. But it took few moments before I recognised the process as being the first few stammers of a poem in the making. So down went the hesitant utterances and, very gratifyingly, the old routine got under way again. This modest skirmish was repeated several times as, day-by-day, we made our way around the city. A Gare d’Orsay poem is still on the blocks, as is an autobiographical piece about my days and nights wandering the Boulevard St Michel as a too-cool-to-live 18-year-old dumped for summer on a posh family living in decidedly un-bohemian Neuilly.
What follows is the product of a series of unconnected health checks that took up the remainder of the summer holiday after our return from Paris. Passing over weeks through profound anxiety into a state of strangely benign indifference, I pondered the nature of hope and from these reflections the poem below emerged, its current form only taking shape hours before posting it to these pages.
When Pandora opened the lid of the box, hope alone
in quiet defiance hid beneath the rim. And then grown bolder
she tucked in her shabby lot with the dust and destruction
and blew out into the world.
I met her in a strip-lit corridor. She looked pale –
more patient than doctor. Strange that here between
the hand-wash stations and the drug cupboards
hope should look so hollow-eyed.
The lights too harsh? Or the expectations too high?
Hope was one before me in the supermarket queue.
So sad her choices, scattered like bewildered strangers
finding themselves unaccountably in the same place.
Quick-fix items for a moment’s solace, sugar-heavy,
full of shallow promises. And that newspaper,
the pauper’s almanac, with what and who
and where and why folded like open secrets
into its temporary sheets.
Sometimes it seems that hope is a vapour
caught inside my clothes. I catch its tang as old-time
barroom fag smoke, a miasma I trail in spite of myself.
So I stand upwind of stiff breezes, or where
the pavement airshaft lifts it inside cleansing steam
past the balconies, past the windows, past the rooftops.
But for others it’s like some weird cologne;
they turn as I pass and follow in my slipstream.
We fashion, at such times, a chain of dreamtime links,
rattling our reckless certainty through the halls and corridors,
the bedrooms and the cloisters, the wards and cells,
the arrival and departure lounges.
Hope as phantom, hope as hive-mind drone, hope as marsh-gas…
Hope is, in truth, a tumour close to the heart, inaccessible
to the stoical surgeons with their probes and spatulas.
It feeds at the fuse-point of the white and red, the coming in
and the passing out. And even when it seems as though
for you a night sky like no other folds down your light into itself
as if the stars themselves are going out, hope will metastasise.
It animates electrolytes; it floods your wilderness of roots and shoots:
it melts the filaments of heartbreak and despair.
Hope has you at your open window, watching the black smoke rising
in spite of the rain. Hope has you at the garden gate
whilst beyond they’re beating down the bracken.
Hope has you, wedged between your shrinking bones,
wrapped inside the great stiff leaves that are now your skin,
and you still vigilant for the flapping door, the ticket-of-leave
and the steady light beyond.
HOPE SPRINGS out loud: