intimations of Mortality
Poetry Breakfast ~ at home
Brian Patten is our special guest this month. Brian has chosen the theme Intimations of Mortality ~ and as ever we have come up with a wide-ranging selection of poems for us all to enjoy. Brian is a poet that many of us have been enjoying for several decades now; it is a great pleasure ~ and an honour ~ to have him with us in this Poetry Breakfast anthology.
Most of the poetry books referenced can be bought online from the Poetry Pharmacy Bookshop page; and you can contact Deb directly with any queries regarding books not listed, which she may have in stock or be able to find for you.
brian patten’s poems and choices …
NB All these poems will be best read on a laptop or tablet, rather than a phone, if possible. AD
Long, long ago
when everything I was told was believable
and the little I knew was less limited than now,
I stretched belly down on the grass beside a pond
and to the far bank launched a child’s armada.
A broken fortress of twigs,
the paper-tissue sails of galleons,
the waterlogged branches of submarines —
all came to ruin and were on flame
in that dusk-red pond.
And you, mother, stood behind me,
impatient to be going,
old at twenty-three,
alone, thin overcoat flapping.
How closely the past shadows us.
In a hospital a mile or so from that pond
I kneel beside your bed and, closing my eyes,
reach out across the years to touch once more
that pond’s cool surface,
and it is your cool skin I am touching;
for as on a pond a child’s paper boat
was blown out of reach
by the smallest gust of wind,
so too have you been blown out of reach
by the smallest whisper of death,
and a childhood memory is sharpened,
and the heart burns as that armada burnt,
long, long ago.
by Brian Patten, from Armada, HarperCollins, 2009
If I could choose the hour in which
Death chooses me
And the way in which
It will make its arbitrary choice
I can think of nothing better
Than to fall asleep near midnight
In a boat as it enters a new port,
In a boat with a clarity of stars
Above and below it;
And all around me
Bright music and voices
Laughing in a language
Not known to me.
I’d like to go that way,
Tired and glad,
With all my future before me,
For the fat and visible globe.
by Brian Patten, from Armada, HarperCollins, 2009
That Dress, This Shirt
That dress won’t stop you growing older, no matter how you wear it —
Nor will this baggy shirt I wear disguise any more
A stomach growing fatter by the hour.
Now that we no longer have Time’s currency to squander,
Let’s get used to the raw material we are,
Let’s celebrate this far harder adventure
And stop carrying about the dead weight of Ago.
That dress, this shirt; we place them over chairs in rooms
Beside beds that set sail each night without expectation,
With us the crew, held together by love and by the faith
That we are buoyant enough to see any darkness through.
by Brian Patten, from Collected Love Poems, HarperCollins, 2007
I bet the king I could teach the cat to read.
It will take ten years, I said.
“A hundred gold coins if it’s possible.
If not, it’s off with your head.”
When I took an advance on the bet my wife berated me.
I said no man can read the stars,
Or know his destiny.
“The days are brief as grass, my love.
All life hangs by a thread.
In ten years’ time the king or I,
Or the cat will be dead.”
A slight sounding poem, but its message isn’t! BP
by Brian Patten, from The Book of Upside Down Thinking, from you to me Limited, 2018
Brian Patten’s poetry choices …
This is where we invite our guest poet to choose poems by other poets on the theme they have chosen. Brian has chosen two poems: On a Portrait of a Deaf Man by John Betjeman (see below) and Eden Rock by Charles Causley, which you can read and listen to here.
On A Portrait Of A Deaf Man
The kind old face, the egg-shaped head,
The tie, discretely loud,
The loosely fitting shooting clothes,
A closely fitting shroud.
He liked old city dining rooms,
Potatoes in their skin,
But now his mouth is wide to let
The London clay come in.
He took me on long silent walks
In country lanes when young.
He knew the names of ev’ry bird
But not the song it sung.
And when he could not hear me speak
He smiled and looked so wise
That now I do not like to think
Of maggots in his eyes.
He liked the rain-washed Cornish air
And smell of ploughed-up soil,
He liked a landscape big and bare
And painted it in oil.
But least of all he liked that place
Which hangs on Highgate Hill
Of soaked Carrara-covered earth
For Londoners to fill.
He would have liked to say goodbye,
Shake hands with many friends,
In Highgate now his finger-bones
Stick through his finger-ends.
You, God, who treat him thus and thus,
Say “Save his soul and pray.”
You ask me to believe You and
I only see decay.
by John Betjeman, from Collected Poems, John Murray Press, 2006. Reprinted with kind permission of the publisher.
Our readers’ poetry choices ~
This monthly anthology ~ our Poetry Breakfast ~ is very much a joint effort: it wouldn’t happen without you sending in your chosen poems on the given theme. Email me if you’d like to contribute.
I’ve been thinking about the May Poetry Breakfast. A difficult concept to interpret. I have browsed through my old Oxford English Verse up to 1900, including Wordsworth, and found a short Coleridge poem called Glycine’s Song which seemed to connect with the theme in a strange way …
A sunny shaft did I behold,
From sky to earth it slanted:
And poised therein a bird so bold
Sweet bird, thou wert enchanted!
He sank, he rose, he twinkled, he troll’d
Within that shaft of sunny mist;
His eyes of fire, his beak of gold,
All else of amethyst!
And thus he sang: ‘Adieu! adieu!
Love’s dreams prove seldom true.
The blossoms, they make no delay:
The sparking dew-drops will not stay.
Sweet month of May,
We must away;
Far, far away!
by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, from The Complete Poems of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Penguin, 1997
47. I Contemplate Mortality
This is not a poem, but I like it and asked Liz if I could include it. (Mistakes in the text box are as found!) AD
Of the dissertations I’ve supervised this year, three were about aspects of death and dying. I’ve learnt a lot, not least that I’m alive.
It was reassuring to have this information confirmed when I Googled my name recently. I was prompted to do this when I discovered that a new acquaintance seems to know more about me than I do. I wanted to check out what he might have learnt, and came across this useful summary of my personal data:
I long for days of solitude with books in a quiet room with a view of the sea. One of the reasons I can have this dream about the sea is that my Primary Income source is not Poet.
The website is also misleading in other respects. It fails to mention my bicycle, my window boxes, and my love of butter, for example. Tut-tut.
It’s reassuring to have my still alive status confirmed, but what the anonymous author of this site fails to mention is that sometimes I find it hard to keep track, to update myself.
I watch the generation below (students, my sons, runners, poets) streaming ahead of me. I want to be with them, engage in what’s now, but my energy flags.
from I Buy a New Washer – (and Other Moderate Acts of Independence), Mark Time Books, 2020. Reprinted with kind permission of Liz Lefroy. Available directly from the Poetry Pharmacy and from other independent bookshops in Shropshire. You can read Liz’s blog here.
I’ve chosen Counting the Beats by Robert Graves ~ which was also one of Paul Henry’s choices a few months back.
Counting the Beats
You, love, and I,
(He whispers) you and I,
And if no more than only you and I
What care you or I?
Counting the beats,
Counting the slow heart beats,
The bleeding to death of time in slow heart beats,
Wakeful they lie.
Night, and a cloudless day,
Yet the huge storm will burst upon their heads one day
From a bitter sky.
Where shall we be,
(She whispers) where shall we be,
When death strikes home, O where then shall we be
Who were you and I?
Not there but here,
(He whispers) only here,
As we are, here, together, now and here,
Always you and I.
Counting the beats,
Counting the slow heart beats,
The bleeding to death of time in slow heart beats,
Wakeful they lie.
by Robert Graves, from The Complete Poems, Penguin, 2003. Reprinted by kind permission of Carcanet Press Ltd, Manchester.
Although Jaan Kaplinski’s poem is about death within life and Eden Rock by Charles Causley (see above, in Brian Patten’s selection) is more of an intimation at what feels like the end of life, they connect, for me, in their enigmatic question of time and memory in a way I have not quite worked out ~ which seems fitting.
You can watch the Kaplinski below; it comes in at 4.15 and he reads two versions, one in Estonian with English subtitles and then in English with Estonian subtitles.
I would suggest My Handsome Cousin by Dana Gioia.
MY HANDSOME COUSIN
I saw you in a dream last night –
Quiet and pale, but still my handsome cousin.
Your hair was thick and glossy black.
Your breath was earthy whispering in my ear.
“I’m not dead,” you told me. “I’ve been away.
I’ve come to show you the house I’ve bought.”
We walked together through the empty rooms.
Each one was smaller than the room before.
“And this,” you smiled, “will be the nursery.”
I thought of your children, now full grown,
Who know you from old photographs,
And of your widow, beautiful but gray.
I wanted to ask where you had gone,
But you spoke first, “It’s time to go next door.
Let’s see the house that will be yours.”
My choices are ~
Never Give all the Heart
Never give all the heart, for love
Will hardly seem worth thinking of
To passionate women if it seem
Certain, and they never dream
That it fades out from kiss to kiss;
For everything that’s lovely is
But a brief, dreamy, kind delight.
O never give the heart outright,
For they, for all smooth lips can say,
Have given their hearts up to the play.
And who could play it well enough
If deaf and dumb and blind with love?
He that made this knows all the cost,
For he gave all his heart and lost.
by W. B. Yeats, from In the Seven Woods, Salzwasser-Verlag Gmbh, 2017
Here are my suggestions for the theme, Intimations of Mortality.
My life’s stem was cut
My life’s stem was cut,
But quickly, lovingly
I was lifted up,
I heard the rush of the tap
And I was set in water
In the blue vase, beautiful
In lip and curve,
And here I am
Opening one petal
As the tea cools.
I wait while the sun moves
And the bees finish their dancing,
I know I am dying
But why not keep flowering
As long as I can
From my cut stem?
Eight years past my own three score and ten, I gaze at my cherry trees and wonder …
A Shropshire Lad 2: Loveliest of Trees
Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.
Now of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.
And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.
by A. E. Housman, from The Works of A.E. Housman, Penguin, 2010
The wry humour of Roger McGough ~ another one I just had to learn by heart.
‘You’ll soon grow into it,’ she would say
When buying a school blazer three sizes too big.
And she was right as mothers usually are.
Syrup of figs. Virol. Cod liver oil.
Within a year I did grow into it
By then, of course, it was threadbare.
Pulling in different directions
My clothes and I never matched.
And in changing rooms nothing has changed.
I can buy what I like and when
New clothes that are a perfect fit.
Full-length mirror, nervous grin,
It’s me now that’s threadbare, wearing thin.
by Roger McGough from Defying Gravity, Viking, 1992. Reprinted by kind permission of the poet.
The Avalon Plum Tree
It started with the seedling tree
white petals budding from the pith.
Then slowly fruiting green as olives
wearing the young scent of marzipan.
Tardily recasting through russet, orchid,
dusty slate to the colour of a poet’s sea.
I’ve always been a fruit watcher
And now I turn my watch to you.
Slowly bruising under thinning skin and self,
a wrinkling stem letting only air and water in.
An unfaithful mind, a forgetful heart,
bletting in the warmth of the sun.
The hardened head that used to protect,
now soft and accepting of the breeze.
I make jars of windfall jam.
Memories suspended in sugar.
I was lucky enough to hear Esther Morgan at the Poetry in Aldeburgh festival a few years ago.
If it’s true our spirits survive
for as long as anyone utters our name,
a kind of recalling
that keeps on hauling us back to this world
perhaps I should hold a service of forgetting
towards the end of a hot summer’s day
pausing half-way across a set-aside field
to let the coastal wind whistle through me
while your great, great-granddaughter passes the time
stripping seeds from the flowering grasses.
And two last ones, Long Distance II by Tony Harrison, from Selected Poems, Penguin, 2013 which you can read here, and Transformations by Thomas Hardy, from The Complete Poems, Macmillan, 2002, which you can read here.
Here is my contribution ~
I am—yet what I am none cares or knows;
My friends forsake me like a memory lost:
I am the self-consumer of my woes—
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shadows in love’s frenzied stifled throes
And yet I am, and live—like vapours tossed
Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life or joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;
Even the dearest that I loved the best
Are strange—nay, rather, stranger than the rest.
I long for scenes where man hath never trod
A place where woman never smiled or wept
There to abide with my Creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept,
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie
The grass below—above the vaulted sky.
by John Clare, from Major Works, Oxford University Press, 2008
A poem written by Helen Dunmore in the final days of her life, which ‘glows with clear-eyed calm’ in the face of death, has been revealed by her publishers, a day after the 64-year-old writer died.
Hold out your arms was written on 25 May 2017, and shows Dunmore facing the terminal stage of cancer with courage, resignation and calm. Poet Ruth Padel said: ‘This last poem, quietly sensual and subtle at the same time, luminous and utterly gentle, glows with clear-eyed calm and breathes secure love for her family for nature.’
Dunmore addresses death directly, likening it to a mother tenderly caring for her child and to a bearded iris, ‘lovely and intricate’. The imagery is warm and comforting, as the author imagines herself as a young, shy child, waiting to be lifted by her mother and taken home. ‘She will pick me up and hold me / So no one can see me, / I will scrub my hair into hers,’ she writes.
Hold out your arms
Death, hold out your arms for me
Give me your motherly caress,
Through all this suffering
You have not forgotten me.
You are the bearded iris that bakes its rhizomes
Beside the wall,
Your scent flushes with loveliness,
Sherbet, pure iris
Lovely and intricate.
I am the child who stands by the wall
Not much taller than the iris.
The sun covers me
The day waits for me
In my funny dress.
Death, you heap into my arms
A basket of unripe damsons
Red crisscross straps that button behind me.
I don’t know about school,
My knowledge is for papery bud covers
Tall stems and brown
Bees touching here and there, delicately
Before a swerve to the sun.
Death stoops over me
Her long skirts slide,
She knows I am shy.
Even the puffed sleeves on my white blouse
She will pick me up and hold me
So no one can see me,
I will scrub my hair into hers.
There, the iris increases
Note by note
As the wall gives back heat.
Death, there’s no need to ask:
A mother will always lift a child
As a rhizome
Must lift up a flower
So you settle me
My arms twining,
Thighs gripping your hips
Where the swell of you is.
As you push back my hair
– Which could do with a comb
But never mind –
‘We’re nearly there.’
(25 May 2017)
I am also much moved by Jane Kenyon’s Let Evening Come ~
Let Evening Come
Let the light of late afternoon
shine through chinks in the barn, moving
up the bales as the sun moves down.
Let the cricket take up chafing
as a woman takes up her needles
and her yarn. Let evening come.
Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned
in long grass. Let the stars appear
and the moon disclose her silver horn.
Let the fox go back to its sandy den.
Let the wind die down. Let the shed
go black inside. Let evening come.
To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop
in the oats, to air in the lung
let evening come.
Let it come, as it will, and don’t
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come.
He looks me straight in the eye,
ninety years old,
folded into his favourite chair
and tells me he doesn’t want this,
to watch himself die, to have the doctor
plumb any further in the depths of his scarred lungs.
He, who himself spent so many years
holding the chests of others up to the light
to forecast the storms gathering there,
the squalls and depressions
smudging those two pale oceans,
rising and falling in the rib cage’s hull.
Here then is the old curse
of too much knowledge, driftwood
collected along the shore of a century.
He settles himself in the chair
and I say what I can, but my words are spoken
into a coastal wind long after the ship has sailed.
Later he shows me to the door
and as he stands in its frame to wave me away
we both know there has already been a passing,
one that has left a wake as that of a great ship
that disturbs the sea for miles either side
but leaves the water directly at its stern
strangely settled, turned, fresh
and somehow new,
like the first sea there ever was
or that ever will be.
Washing my mother’s hair
She’s bird thin,
fragile as her brittle smile,
her teeth suddenly too big for her mouth
lips thinned, clumsy with Vaseline
to stop the cracks showing.
Only last summer she broke
the world record in Running for the Bus
carrier bags thumping at her varicose legs
then fanned herself with the Radio Times
all the fifteen stops home.
Now her spine is hooked into a question mark
from which her head tries to look up.
She doesn’t have to bend at all to get her hair
into the wash-basin.
For the first time in my life,
and hers, I pour the warm water,
the baby shampoo, the best conditioner I could buy,
rub the blushing whiteness of her scalp gently
while she holds her flannel
calmed to her eyes like she taught me to.
And she says Oh that’s lovely. Just what I need.
That’s right, give it a good rub. Oh that’s just lovely.
Sure and I’ll be a new woman.
And I rub and chat quietly
and joke with her in a put-on voice:
Has Madam done her numbers for the lottery yet?
and Will it be Torremolinos again this year, Madam?
and other things that mind-numbed hairdressers
say to their ladies.
And nothing at all about how much
I love her. And how very strange it is
to be feeling her wet hair between my fingers
for the very first time and how worried I am by the deepness
of the scoops in her neck
framed by stirrups of collarbone and how
I’ve never seen her breasts before and how
surprisingly plump they are sitting on the stark
twin ladders of her ribs.
But she still has plenty of reserve left
and asks me to call the nurse to see to her b.t.m.
– the bedsores and the simple wearing thin of herself –
but as I help her into a clean nightie I catch sight
of her mons
hairless and pink and looking so strangely new
and suddenly I’m glad to go and get the nurse because
suddenly I can’t speak and I can’t see where I’m going
and my Mum is dying and I’ve
got to come to terms with it
and be sensible and
look after my Dad and
all I want is for her to wash my hair and
tell me a bedtime story and
this very old bent lady with teeth
that are suddenly
for her mouth.
by Char March, from The Thousand Natural Shocks, Indigo Dreams, 2011. Reprinted by kind permission of the poet.
My Mother’s Atlas of Dolls
Unable to travel, my mother makes us
promise to always bring back dolls
as if glass eyes could bear sufficient
witness to where she has not been,
the what of the world she has not seen.
She gathers them – cloth and porcelain
pageant – on her whatnot, makes them
stand regal on white doilies, waving
like queens from their high balconies.
Miss Colombia, Miss Holland, Miss Peru
are just a few who observe, unblinking,
the new world about them. I think
of how we arrange the dead like dolls,
set their arms in precise positions,
how we touch their unseeing eyes;
and how they lie so sweetly still
within their perfect boxes.
It may have been the dolls that taught
my mother how to die, how to travel
once again, how to wave goodbye.
by Kei Miller, from The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion, Carcanet, 2014. Reprinted by kind permission of Carcanet Press.
Greenwich Foot Tunnel
For his coffin
he chose the irises
his mother brought him
in a dream.
I’m thinking of him
now as I descend
at Cutty Sark
this is how it
might’ve been –
dying, being torn
from the day
to walk beneath
iron – leaving
reams and reams
Attempting to shout:
Stop! I need those!
(need those, echoing),
knowing a word
that won’t find
the tip of your tongue –
like untrodden snow –
relief. Then letting go.
by Kitty Donnelly, from The Impact of Limited Time, Indigo Dreams Publishing, 2019. Reprinted by kind poermission of Indigo Dreams Publishing.
The first poem that I thought of was one by Brian Patten, that I know by heart. I read it probably 25 years ago and, for some reason, it’s stayed with me.
Alone, tired, exhausted even
by what had not yet happened
passing a cemetery on the outskirts of London
I saw an angel dip its hand into a grave
and pull out a fistful of cherry blossom.
by Brian Patten from Grinning Jack, Paladin, 1992. Reprinted with kind permission of the poet.
Thank you everyone!
Thank you to everyone who has contributed to this Poetry Breakfast anthology ~ it has grown into a lovely, moving and thoughtful anthology. Special thanks to Brian Patten for the inspired theme.
There is no charge for these poetry blogs but they do take a huge amount of time. If you would like to show your appreciation by chipping in to my ‘coffee and paperback book fund’ you can do so here. If you don’t use PayPal you can email me for other ways to do this.
So, please send in your poems for the July Poetry Breakfast, when our guest poet will be Sheenagh Pugh from the Shetland Isles. Sheenagh has chosen Absence and Edges for the theme, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what comes in! Click here to send in your poetry choices by the end of May (or before) please.
Feedback very much welcomed in the comments section, all the way at the bottom of the page.
Thanks everyone ~ hope to ‘see’ you at a live Poetry Breakfast soon!
(yes this is still the right email!)
Keep in touch!
For all the latest news about forthcoming events and to see the latest blog posts, sign up below.