Birthday 55


First I thank words. A rickety clambering population
of tiny stick-figures, always on the move:
who line up and execute perfect team-movements;
who step up informally to introduce themselves,
each quite at ease, an old or new acquaintance,
complex characters all. Seen up close, going about
whatever it is that they are constantly at
with such intent somehow, such power in their pockets,
it is hard to believe the blundering human animal
made this quirky, gifted, engaging race
of miniature workers and idlers. From far off
they may look discomposed, a trifle awkward . . .
but see as they link arms, as deft as you like,
a nonchalent gathering. These were my first friends:
I would puzzle them out, my finger on the page;
I would rhyme them with the names of other children;
and in the mist-forest of my silent self
they were always to be found, like familiar trees.

How far you have come,
syllables, sound-bubbles,
announced on the air
at first, like dogs barking –
that now have become
the invaluables
of Earth. Her wealth
is all in your working.

Nomads of time
you tell of a journey
going out to the All
and back to its cause.
All the stars
you immortalise.
Whatever is:
a space-epiphany –

a lost world of worlds –
you fly out towards.
From the hot ground
you rose, burning fields
of need. Still a dog’s bark
shudders out far back . . .
still a deep pulse beats
in a poem’s words.

What a gift this is. Angels of life dart by me,
pure distillations from the minds of billions
that in some nature spoke the tongue. All round me
they course, they clamour of persons, of love and honour
and worship, of the uneven head-to-head
in the skull, the battle with the corroding moment;
and details of bits of flint and bits of metal
surround me too; and the steep-down heaven-to-Earth Niagara
of shouts and roars, of cries and conversation.
They dart, they dart by me; it is as if one settles
and then flies off, each time a poem is done.
If there is God, then these words are god-given
that go to making poems; and so I offer
a thanks of folded hands. What birth can be
richer than this, that there are miracles
of life that is gone, still present as one speaks,
a life again and new, to leave Time standing?
To make of words angelic substances?


This is a birthday of high noon. I slept
a little late; and who’s to say at what time
I shall retire? Then for the light I am under
I am content to be outside, not huddled
in aching walls of the home, against the sun.
And when should be a better time to say
a thankyou for one’s gifts, than on a birthday?
I name a few. One’s a surprise of being:
a zany encounter in a meeting-of-creatures,
an act of knowing, that leads out on a highway
on which is run the light year of civilisation.
I was in the classroom. For that freedom-of-knowing
of faces that look on beyond my days,
for that stepping-round an exuberance of bodies,
for that being-with-minds when minds were photon-fast
to be, to see, to be, and all to change –
for the right to exercise a teacher’s care –
for such a livelihood my life was fortunate.

How did I get to work
down London’s street?
Train bus underground bike car motorbike
and feet.
What did I do all day
in the school grounds?
Register break duty argufying threats detention –
the rounds.

What next, sometimes all night,
all weekend taking?
Marking exams tests homework classwork marking
How did I keep it all up
near thirty years?
Coffee helped doughnuts after school in the pub cheese rolls
and beers.

What of the central work?
How did I teach?
In a way I would pass the time of day
with each.
How did I get away
from it all? I repeat:
Train bus underground bike car motorbike
and feet.

A language and its people are the same.
To be mechanically “an English teacher”
may be in store in the dense-programmed future,
a dinky brain-chip placed in the recipient,
until an instant word-flow has its way.
And then what people will we be? The process
of word-encounter tangles in the person;
so that the flower of literacy, across
and deepening in a school, is good to see.
The colours range and touch all sides. Innumerable
moments of individual wakening happen;
again and again a competence re-buds
among its fellows shining; while each one
is never still, unfolds itself again.
So in this light the flat sweep of a school
is now an Earth-swathe chattering in its richness;
as words and children re-create the impossible,
a beautifully kept wild garden, in a school.


A birthday of words. To unwrap the gifts of work –
poetry, teaching – now seems like the prelude
to a holy time, a moment of knowing, as if
I took the sacrament of bread and wine
(that I never did). Now, quite simply, I savour
the blessing of love. This is no solemn church,
no learned priest lifts God’s cup to my lips,
nor do I recognise a god to whom
I must owe gratitude – but Life itself.
The privilege of fatherhood speaks first.
Now that my sons are off and free, in my mind
a kinetic show of energy-photographs
takes place at will. I can recall them to me –
the brick-game gurus, story-detail experts,
the connoisseurs of swings, the skateboard-masters –
and moments of repose, and comic dialogues –
and the great separate weather that took each
out to his freedom, up to his own day.

There is a birth
far harder than that first emergence when
a new damp form took breath and cried.
Mother and father holler from the side,
frantic with their notions of the worth
of this or that direction to be taken –
shocked blind, shaken –
at girls becoming women or boys men.

Hurt to see hurt
they may not comfort, but increase. It seemed
that someone screamed,
yet not one person, but the family –
as each of you, in turn, forced a way free.
A pain that nothing could avert
those teenage years,
and still is ringing in our ears.

The pain was yours –
and joy was yours, ours the anxiety –
as each of you roared out, becoming free.
We moaned and jabbered – coming down to earth
at last, at length, we may forget
the helpless, dry-eyed tears
our bodies shook with – when you broke the net,
those teenage years.

Now I am in a room, by poems’ unlocking,
from which a badgering ghost of wants and needs
for others’ futures is kept out. I see
a hidden hall of day. Two men are talking.
Now or in ten years’ time or after my death –
for no degrees of the clock are here, no seconds,
but a new sight and sound. The fact of existence
is present in a syllable of light.
Then darkness; a rushing-by; a shutting-out;
I am back within the consequential minute.
Now on the blind outside all the world’s blazing
in a perfection of the elements:
the stars that I cannot see shiver in lit-up
rock-masses; and a glint of being burns
in the last dot of dust. As if a message
of some great clarity were passed along
an absolute, undisappearing line:
a note of well-being, of both and all.


Where is it taking me, the timeless road?
An immense and futile journey of Creation
(marked-off by milestone years in one direction)
has somewhere on its course a small diversion,
a dancing way, the path of poetry.
Such entertainment stems in the rich grass,
all interleaved with such significance
as there may be – it seems they cannot die,
these hardy seeds. Out upon the long road
all down, all down, there spreads a miracle
of loveliest wildflower to defeat the milestones.
Now I shall tell of woman’s love. A tumbling
snow-avalanche; a great tree’s soaring branches
roaring its leaf-flood; and the complete quiet air
soft-occupying the space about the globe;
and the tenderness of dew; and the clear-skied calm
at night of the moon and stars; and the wheel of giving
by day, the burning providence of the sun.

I did not know
a place to turn to from a closed position;
and sheltered numbly at the world’s cold wall.
I did not understand
that any fool could grow
into a kind of workable condition.
I started late – yet it was all
so long ago.

I must remember – so the tune
goes round and round.
At any rate I found
a louder music – the unuttered name,
the burning glance,
that daft crescendo – till the volume came.
How it has damned me and derided me,
the courtship-dance!

And how I burn now with the scores of women
that rage still in me like a symphony
to lightning’s baton, of the crashing sea.
Now it is over
and I give thanks for one sweet, constant tune,
so lightly and so long
a life-friend’s gift, the song
of one who was my wife and my true lover.

Two periods of the Earth have scorched my day.
Cold-surface childhood with white heat within;
and a tumultuous era that gave birth
to forms of life until the human came.
Now I can be. And now until I die,
whatever drama otherwise evolves
upon a stage of post-meridian sky,
all’s set within an age of faithfulness.
What is this light that has embraced the air?
Now there is one, my ally and companion,
who does not look into a different heaven,
who from another land and generation
invests far other strengths in this concern:
the poetry that can be. In words, in children,
in women, in men, there’s a beat of the blood
present to her; and she would hear that sing.
And none of this is why I love. Now we
will share life’s passion, laughter’s mystery.


My deepest thanks are last. A painter’s script
has written out tidily in miniature
the articles of what I am – a deed
that stays unread, still fresh – a shining line
created out of God knows what old paint-box!
And two, in fooling, guaranteed the letters
that shape themselves to words that life can use
in fine deliberation. To my parents
a formal thankyou for the chromosome map –
and on my knees, this once in life, my love.
Together scarcely longer than the time
it takes a match to strike – in a dark void
was each to me; and I knew of them later.
Suddenly the investiture of Earth
as if from nowhere, crowns a flickering second
of life-awareness. I see an origin:
the casting-about of a deer’s head, or a startled
fish-disappearance; and tree-bark, stones, dust-sky.

Where is it from
the poetry of being?
Out of what silence,
out of what storm
of crazy cross-winds
in a witless bansheeing,
is there a breath
to let a word form?

Where is it from,
the poetry of being?
Where the pure hearing?
Where the dear sight?
Where the mind’s vision?
Where the thought’s thrilling?
Where the heart’s music?
Where the word’s might?

Where is life’s beauty
travelling on to?
After what violence
will it go free?
Out of what storm,
out of what silence,
will it outlast us,
still beauty be?

Two separately know an epic tale
beyond time’s telling. Poem and narration
are heard as if in clear-print clarity
by each, the scattering fragments that are all
that any hear. Can a sense of the whole
(carried by new lines, carried by repetition)
lodge accidentally in the young heart of age?
To have known two individuals for so long
who are my father and mother, and who love me
as an adult with his chosen wayward being,
is my child’s-fortune – and to know they flourish,
this is the greatest blessing of the day.
Now like a child I have said my thankyou –
who knows to whom? – but as I see it, to you,
the people who will read and hear these words.
The few rich gifts that I have opened here
I have spread out for your enjoyment also,
who give and do not know it. All are invited.

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