Laughing to music in a playground fair
we have dimpled the tide of a thousand spume-soft hours,
drifting careless to each successive morrow.
We have slept our fill in a garden full of flowers,
of Time’s meticulous clockwork unaware:
and are suddenly disinherited by sorrow.

Listless we rise and stagger to the shore.
There are no swift ships behind us, no siren song.
Only the open book of childhood lore
serves to remind us of our path along
the unknown forest and its distant streams,
from which the only return is in our dreams.

Before us loom the citadels of truth.
Their stern simplicity bids us confess
sometime we must shake off the dew of youth.
But they are ringed with hoops of barbed-wire mesh,
and we are frightened in our nakedness
and cling to the seaweed tucked about our flesh.

For we are scared of personal encounter.
It is not the sharp retort that makes us falter,
not the advance we know has not been planned.
Nor in the strange exchange of ignorance
are we foot-faulted in the vital dance.
We fear the breath of angels in the land.

They bring us tidings all our life is wrong.
They brand us reprobate or smooth pretender.
Shining through friends they ape our greatest fear,
the thin articulate cry we cannot bear
the agony of incomplete surrender.
Their form is sweet and beautiful their song.

And we can neither flee them nor confess
that we have sinned. We know we are not vile.
Nor can we conjure freedom from denial –
the courage of convictions makes us care.
Time answers all such quibblings with a kiss,
and goes on building castles in the air.

In hurt bewilderment we pluck the leaf
of Nature’s beauty. All may yet be well.
Give me the cloak, the sword, the actor’s mask!
Perhaps in love we will not come to grief.
But when the lights dimmed and the curtain fell
a quick relief was all we dared to ask.

Always the wind is sharper, dark the air.
A storm is present in our every thought
that harps on others. Only they can give
the calm it is our blessing to receive.
We save ourselves by pride and leaps of doubt,
the hopeful revolutions of despair.

And though we swerve with intellectual ease
and check the coloured dots of happiness,
and flick then to kaleidoscopic games,
we cannot ease the source of our distress.
We learn to stitch a tapestry of names
and regulate the path of life’s disease.

I have a friend who lectured in Cape Town
and shouted Freedom till the sun went down.
Now locked in darkness every day is free,
an isolate of lawless misery.
Her edge is rusted over with disgust,
and all her life is crumbling into dust.

My grandmother was gay and battle-eyed,
and she could talk a bird down from a tree.
But in old age her guts were picked by pride
and all her heart was haunted by mistrust.
She murdered lives and lived in enmity,
and all her life has crumbled into dust.

And she who cares for children, warms the house
with gewgaw jam and pride-of-apple wine,
who roughly strokes the garden, loves the sun
and tyrant pickle of contentedness –
she struts the aimless track of dog-like lust,
and all her life has crumbled into dust.

We stepped into a soft decaying stream.
Gently I poled you down the avenue.
We stopped for lunch, and talked into a dream
punctuated by swans. We scarcely knew
each other, but we knew that what we saw
was lovelier and more real than ever before.

“The best of a bad job is all we make of it.”
Thus Eliot: is his witness not enough?
“There lives within the very flame of love
a kind of wick or snuff that will abate it.”
And are we to advance with bat-like eyes
into a spider world of compromise?

We found it pleasant mutually to yearn
for postulates and adjuncts to our pleasure.
To cheat for sweets, to pander to our leisure
we thought was highly suited to our theme.
Our one delight, that perfect, swan-like dream
was choked with seaweed. Pray, pray that we learn

to learn the network of experience
not in the terms and concepts that we know
but those it gives us; play we learn to forget
the tricks and counter-tactics of defence,
the implications of accepted debt.
In spring we pray the garden learn to grow.

I sought a truth that was not there to find
and banged against the backcloth of my mind,
and swore in ecstasy, and bit my brain,
and smashed my soul in scarlet mists of pain
and beauty: where I dreamed that words were breath
and life the cold and violet dust of death.

And woke to stare at daisies in a wood
where starlings beat an endsong to their lives,
and good men garbled lullabies of good,
and wise men darted past like butterflies.
An air of calm acceptance blew the leaves
into a tidy pile of memories.

Anger has lost its hold here: all our intent
is to defend the rules we have not broken.
The growth of wit is all our argument –
and is there not a premiss left unspoken?
What is it that enchants this gentle city?
My heart is filled with bitterness and pity

at all who forge the parchment of release.
But winds are whispering I have flown too high.
The sun has touched my wingtips into grease,
and I shall sing a rainbow down the sky –
do not forsake me O my darling girl.
It is because of you I am unwell.

Oxford 1963

Written for a poetry prize (it didn’t win) this was the first time I suppose I “stretched my wings” as a writer. It says something about Oxford University then and I believe now. It was also written for Frances who said simply that it was too long. Mawkish as the relationship may have been it was an awakening of a kind, and I’m not sorry to have commemorated it in a way.
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