I—Too much summer too close to home
Warm days in mid September.
Each year summer comes early
and each year we forget and
say what happened to the spring?
as though we ever had spring
on the sandstone coast of this
dry-eyed island, inching its
way north to the equator.
And then whatever we’re call-
ing the season goes and it
comes again in October
and then it’s gone till sometime
in late December, when we
decide it deserves its name
and let it stay. But this year
summer’s prophet comes hotter
and sooner than ever and
you can’t help feeling, on a
Thursday morning on the bus,
edging toward the city,
that this is the future we’ve
fashioned ourselves here to make
progress as slow as this. Way
too much summer, way too soon.
But half past eight today seems
a long way short of midnight.
And in all this beatific
light, which feels like hope herself,
but is not, the girls in their
summer dresses, in their tops
that cleave and plunge and thieve your
heart step out for work as though
for love and someone should tell
them to stop—but, no, not yet.
II—The holiness of the heart’s affections
If there’s something more like mercy
bending in a prayerful easterly fervent
with early summer
I can’t think what it might be
on my doorstep in the godly light
Then my small son comes and leans
against my chest
and I have my answer.
III—The thing with feathers
“Hope” is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—
—Emily Dickinson, “Poem 264”, 1861
The sky fell on the Myall River last night and all along the coast
and in a wide fetch out to sea rain fell too like some
new order of things upon the end of time and somewhere underneath
that vast depression the moon grew round and it rose and it raised a king
tide higher yet than it would have risen on its own and the wind drove the sea
By twelve the river had taken the wharves and by one it had taken the road
and by two it lay down on the steps of the pub and gave in till morning came and
carried the stream back to its bed again and put the world to rights.
And the rain
still floods the morning out of which the river falls and the weather’s
dropped anchor over the town, the future in rehearsal.
I sit above
the river and beside me on the pylon a black cormorant spreads wings
in the rain and looks down on the falling torrent and grows slicker than he was
when he left the water.
There’s just no escaping it.
The bird is the maestro
who’s spent more than he walked on with; he drops his arms when the music dies
and slumps into the uproar.
Surrender’s the only proper posture now.
The rain falls on and the day waxes while the moon sleeps and the future
slips imperceptibly into the past.
Much bigger rivers than this have emptied
into deserts so that I might sit here in frayed linen shirt and weathered
jeans a foot above the tide and wonder how I’m meant to live
with what I know about the salting of the land and the warming
of the air and the rising of the seas and the coming end
It’s hard to make out in the rain among the mangroves
of the other shore, but the vast contraption of the present moment—
the mad machine of modernity herself, the virtual economy of our souls—
what we’ve made of the given world is a delicate and over-wrought conceit,
a monstrous, atrophic piece of industrial plant, which has stood in the weather far
it’s been running forever on oil and faith and oil and faith are failing.
This, then, is the clever and penultimate mess we’ve made of our time on earth:
the more we get the less we have till time herself is running out.
But listen—there’s weather on the river now like Bach on the radio
and one hopes it never ends.
There’s coffee in my mouth and the whole
day, at least, ahead and I look and the cormorant is gone.
Later I come outside and stand again in the perpetual rain and ask
the river how we are hedging our doom.
Twelve pelicans fall from the cloud
and ski for fifty metres to a standstill and something tells me our
landing won’t be as soft.
But what would a river know about doom—in particular,
ours—and what would a pelican do but fledge its young and curse the rain and fish
the river dry?
I sit where I sat this morning and I watch the day drown,
and there’s weather on the river now like a phonecall after midnight and grief
is the colour of the bottom of the sky.
There’s weather on the river now like children
in the playground and mercy’s the lamp in the evening’s tent.
She’s the gelatin scrim
on the face of the water, the daub of forlorn incandescence upon
mangroves and fishing boats, the yellow of the pelican’s eye.
on the river now like cluster bombs on Babylon and fear is the wrack line
on the wrong side of the street.
There’s weather on the river now like a change
in the government and hope is the thing with feathers.
And as I watch she turns
and beats her wings and then she walks and then she runs and then she rises
like some plump and indefatigable martyr up into the unending
rain and she passes under the bridge and tracks the river down to the sea,
a thing she’s always done and never stops at all.
IV—A prayer for my daughter
For Lucy Beatrice
There were thirteen winds and a symphony
in F; there were six or seven varieties
of rain the afternoon you came;
there was a lullaby and a mountain range,
a vivid orogeny of birth that shaped itself
like earth in her own making beside us,
the chart of your ecstatic arrival.
In the room we kept the radio on and
it was seventeen-eighty-four all hour,
the time of the composer’s life,
and the orchestra of the age of the enlightenment played
for you were coming to us out of darkness
into the afternoon of a warring world sometime late
in the Holocene, this doomed and beautiful era of men,
and a woman cried—Here I am,
even deeper in the labyrinth—and outside
in silence the sky drew itself together,
fell dark and broke open and on those thirteen winds,
one for every angle of the hour and one for all eternity,
and between the strings of the harp
of Orpheus you came.
You fell out of the afternoon among us,
violent and serene and longed for as rain and lovelier.
You came in F and in B-flat and B-flat again
and I think you are what Mozart knew,
the lightness and the grace and wit;
and I don’t know why the world didn’t stop.
But nothing stopped and fire did not cease and the music kept on
and the rain. And tonight in fire season you sleep
beside me and I pray for you. The city is spectral
in the black summer sky and the air tastes of passing planes and woodsmoke
and it is too late to pray, like the poet for his child, that beauty elude you
and I would not have prayed for that, for beauty is truth and you are true.
You have the gift of joy and calm and I think you will be bold
and courteous and bright and yourself entirely.
So I pray that we have left the world enough alive
to keep you and I pray the storms
that saw you in are not the only kind
of weather the future has in mind,
nor yet the fires that burn the edge of summer tonight.
And I pray the light you carry outlasts you
and that goodness finds you everywhere and every time.
This is no longer the world in which it makes much sense
to hope you find your one dear perpetual place,
but the kind of thing Yeats meant I mean for you, Lucy,
translated a long way south and a long way forward in time
from where, already, the centre did not hold.
Though things might fall faster and faster apart, may you not.
May you go on falling only and ever in love.
For you are Beatrice, too, my girl,
and already four times and more beloved.
And I pray the love you get is at least half
as good as the love you give,
which will be candid and pure,
which will lead men all the way down
to the end of themselves and back to the beginning again.
I pray for you, my girl, what I see in you already,
and I pray that it’s enough.
I wish for you the radical innocence
of the very start of things
and I pray that it never wears thin.
I pray for you the thirteen winds, the adagio in A, and the rain.
I pray for you yourself.
My suite makes many allusions to music and to other people’s poems and stories.
1. I take the title of my suite from Olivier Messiaen’s piano quartet of 1941.
2. “So Much Water So Close to Home,” to which I allude in the title of the first poem, is the title of a Raymond Carver story.
3. “The Girls in their Summer Dresses”: a story by Irwin Shaw.
4. “The holiness of the heart’s affections”: phrase from one of John Keats’s letters.
5. “A Prayer for My Daughter” is the title of a 1919 poem by W B Yeats. I make references to that poem (and his “The Second Coming”) in my own, written for my newborn girl as Yeats’s was for his.
6. The Classic FM playlist for the hour between 3pm and 4pm of 20 July 2006 explains some phrases and images in my “Prayer”:
• C Stamitz, Symphony in F, Op 24 No 3, London Mozart Players, 14’47
• Salieri, Rich for a Day: Here I am, even deeper in the labyrinth, Cecilia Bartoli; Orch of the Age of Enlightenment, 5’44
• Mozart, Serenade in B flat for Thirteen Winds, K361: Adagio, Sabine Meyer Wind Ensemble, 5’24
• Mozart, Piano Concerto No 18 in B flat, K456, Richard Goode; Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, 28’43.
7. “composer”: the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth was celebrated in 2006.
8. “beauty is truth”: Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn”.
9. “Beatrice”: I have in mind, of course, Dante’s.
10. “adagio in A”: the Adagio in Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A major, written very close to his death.