‘Known and strange things’: two poems by Seamus Heaney

I. Postscript:

“I always felt you earned your living,” Seamus Heaney has said, “and your poetry was a grace” (Out of the Marvellous). The poem ‘Postscript’ is the final in his first collection written after being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995. It seemed to come as a gift to the poet: “Now and again a poem comes like that, like a ball kicked in from nowhere. […] before I knew where I was, I went after it” (Stepping Stones, p. 366). The poem opens as if mid-thought, the tone gently assertive:

“And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October when the wind
And the light are working off each other…”

‘Postscript’, The Spirit Level, 1996

He seems to catch the ‘speedy feel’ (Stepping Stones) of the wind, the lake, the Irish west-coast (“wild with foam and glitter”), the swans (“their feathers ruffed and ruffling, white on white”). The opening eleven lines, of what is essentially a poem in blank verse, form a single sentence in which Heaney opens up his gift for marrying the lyrical and the vernacular. His metaphors are so effortless as to seem almost organic, and to grow out of his physical descriptions: “The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit/ By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans.” The poem shifts and becomes weightier at the point at which he pauses to counsel:

“Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass…”


The very physicality of words is at play here like the plosive sibilance of the Atlantic – the soft boom and wash. As is his gift for idiomatic language slipping and losing traction in the mouth, even as it is spoken. In seeking out new meanings, the often throw-away phrase neither here nor there is given new life. The self he addresses is both emptied, then filled, with the experience of the natural world. The poem ends as Heaney describes the “big, soft buffetings” that “catch the heart off-guard, and blow it open.”

II. The Blackbird of Glanmore:

A decade later Heaney wrote another poem in which his experience of the natural world is mediated from inside a vehicle. The closing poem of his collection District & Circle (2006), ‘The Blackbird of Glanmore’ describes a more domestic setting (the Heaney family home of Glanmore cottage in County Wicklow). He addresses the blackbird directly: “On the grass when I arrive, filling the stillness with life… It is you, blackbird, I love.”

The poet moves effortlessly from the present moment (“I park, pause, take heed./ Breathe. Just breathe and sit”) into the past of his own writing-life:

“And lines I once translated come back:
‘I want away to the house of death, to my father

Under the low clay roof.’”

‘The Blackbird of Glanmore’, District & Circle (2006)

This association then allows him to remember his four year-old brother, Christopher, killed in a road accident in the early 1950s when the young Seamus was away at grammar school. “And I think of one gone to him,/ A little stillness-dancer…” The allusion ‘I want away to the house of death’ is to his translation of Sophocles’ Philoctetes, although Heaney may have also been thinking of his own on-going translation of Virgil’s Aeneid, in which Aeneas visits the spirit of his father in the underworld:

“Let me take your hand, my father, O let me and do not
Hold back from my embrace. And as he spoke he wept.
Three times he tried to reach his arms around that neck.”

Aeneid, Book VI, lines 940—42, p. 38

Heaney’s own father died in 1986, and the poet describes his life-long love of Virgil’s poem as intensifying from this time onwards.    

Again, he moves effortlessly through time. This time from the past back to the present by remembering the superstitious words of a neighbour about a bird on the shed roof, ‘I said nothing at the time/ But I never liked yon bird.’ This archaic voice from the past (and with it the bird as ill-omen) are silenced in a near-cinematic moment: “The automatic door clunks shut.” Back in the present, the speaker gets out of the car and describes the aerial or ‘bird’s-eye view’ of himself as “a shadow on raked gravel/ In front of my house of life.” The poem, then, is one of life and death. Of breath and shadows. But far from an ill-omen, the blackbird is a sign of life and renewal.

Interestingly, when Aeneas enters the underworld, he does so at a place called Avernus, ‘place without birds’ (Aeneid, Book VI, lines 320—21). It seems natural that Heaney would associate birds with life. But we don’t need the classics to tell us this. In a strange moment of synchronicity, it is Sunday afternoon and a blackbird appears down among the cobble-stones and gravel as I’m writing. And again this morning after a heavy summer storm last night. A bird I’ve not seen here before. Or perhaps I’ve not been paying close enough attention. Heaney’s lines come back with their undaunted bird-like animation:

“Your ready talk-back,
Your each stand-offish come-back,
Your picky, nervy goldbeak –
On the grass when I arrive,

In the ivy when I leave.”

‘The Blackbird of Glanmore’

References in this post:

Seamus Heaney: Out of the Marvellous (Produced by Charlie McCarthy), An Icebox films production for RTE, Ireland.
Stepping Stones: Interviews with Dennis O’ Driscoll (Faber & Faber, 2008)
Seamus Heaney, The Spirit Level (Faber, 1996)
S.H., District & Circle (Faber, 2006)
Virgil, Aeneid, Book VI (SH. Trans., Faber, 2016 – published posthumously)
Sophocles’ Philoctetes, The Cure at Troy (SH, trans., Faber, 1990)
Heaney wrote about his brother in the poem ‘Mid-Term Break’, in Death of a Naturalist (1966), his first collection

NB. I previously suggested that Heaney’s father died in 1987. However, a haiku the poet wrote entitled I.I.87, suggests that he died in 1986.

Featured image: Pexels free photos

Blog content: © Benedict Gilbert 2020

A Gift and a Theft: Thinking Rabbinically in Troubled Times

In The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway forgets his thirtieth birthday, distracted by the climactic events to which he is witness. Unlike Fitzgerald’s fictional narrator, I did not forget when the time came. I celebrated with a small party in the modest flat I shared with my friend – just off Pottergate (a street which leads west out of the city and is as cobbled as it sounds). It was not to be the “menacing road of a new decade.” In fact, it was a good decade, one to be thankful for. As the evening climbed to its heights, and offered what music it could, I danced around the small living room to the Yiddish album, Cantors and Cantorials (Chazanim & Chazanut). My favourite song on this album (and the only one I can really remember now) was the darkly jaunty, ‘Rich Folk, Poor Folk’. According to the sleeve-notes, in this folk song a layman asks the rabbi to explain the Hebrew verse: “Let us all sing a ditty of bread, meat, fish, and all fine things.” The rabbi replies:

“Bread for the rich is a freshly baked roll, and a dry crust for the poor.

Meat, for the wealthy is a roast duckling, but for the impoverished, liver and lights.”

‘Rich Folk, Poor Folk’

Something like, The poor are always with you; a kind of philosophy of acceptance, endurance or perhaps even gratitude in the face of suffering. It also exists within the long rabbinical tradition of scriptural exegesis, interpreting the Torah and other sacred texts. One lesson from this way of thinking is that there are always at least two ways of understanding our experiences. Last month I wrote on Leonard Cohen, and recently the parallels between this folk song and his ballad ‘Bird on a Wire’ have grown more apparent to me. At the key-change, he sings:

“I saw a beggar leaning on his wooden crutch
He cried to me, ‘you must not ask for so much,’
And a pretty woman leaning in her darkened door,
She cried to me, ‘hey, why not ask for more.’”    

‘Bird on a Wire’, Songs from a Room (1967)

The lines may be somewhat of their time, but the voice of the poet remains one caught between poverty and plenty; between suffering and desire. This is pure rabbinical thinking. Even the origins of the song are disputed, with two different versions (Cohen said that his then-lover, Marianne Ihlen, gave him the idea; Joni Mitchell claimed that her painting of three birds inspired the song). It’s interesting that both songs concern a response to wealth, or its lack. In the Gospels both poverty and riches are potentially seen as a prison of sorts (the man at the pool at Bethesda; the rich young man – both of whom move in their shackles. Or, cast differently, have tried in their way to be free).

Leonard Cohen simply presents us with two alternatives and asks us to consider the question of what we may ask of life, or take from it. When Cohen himself was defrauded by his ex-manager, he seemed to receive his near-bankruptcy philosophically. A kind of worldliness—other-worldliness seldom seen in most people. “I don’t recommend this as a spiritual exercise,” he half-joked in interview, “but if it does happen to you, a lot of very important information is delivered to your heart.” Something like Miguel de Cervantes who was said to become more generous the more impoverished he grew. Leonard Cohen was forced out on tour again which, in part, led to his extraordinary late flowering. A gift transfigured out of a theft.

In a time when we seem to swing wildly between division and cohesion, and division again, it might sometimes be worth thinking more rabbinically about things. To consider the possibility that not every question can be answered immediately or definitively. That it is okay (sometimes even wise), to suspend our judgement and learn from our experiences in the fullness of time. To let opinion or reaction cool into something more considered. As the young Irish writer Sally Rooney says in her debut novel, Conversations with Friends (2017), “You live through certain things before you understand them. You can’t always take the analytical position.”

I previously wrote on Leonard Cohen (June 2020), here: https://benedictgilbert.com/2020/06/02/be-not-afeard-the-isle-is-full-of-noises-my-search-for-leonard-cohen/

Poet of suffering and desire
‘Rich folk, poor folk’ (“Die Negidim un die Kabzonim“), a song of poverty and plenty

References in this post:

Chazanim & Chazanut, (Pearl; Pavillion Records), 1988; (the song and was recorded by the tenor Mordechai Hershman in 1920, the year he emigrated to the United States)

Allan Showalter reports the story about Joni Mitchell’s influence on ‘Bird on a Wire’: https://allanshowalter.com/2019/03/04/leonard-cohen-and-joni-mitchell-just-one-of-those-things/

Interview with Leonard Cohen in 2007 (SVT/NRK/Skavlan, 2016): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T2pFG9WoxfU

William Eggington, The Man who Invented Fiction: How Cervantes ushered in the Modern World (2016), an excellent blending of biography and literary criticism

leonardcohen.com, Copyright © 2009-2020 Sony Music Entertainment Canada Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises – in search of Leonard Cohen

Joni & Leonard:

I have just discovered that Joni Mitchell wrote two songs for Leonard Cohen: ‘Rainy Night House’ (1970), and ‘A Case of You’ (1971). This is not news, but is thrilling nonetheless. I’ve carried both these ballads with me for a good twenty years, and suddenly the lyrics come back in sharper focus. Better known, I think, is that Cohen wrote ‘Chelsea Hotel’ (1974) for Janis Joplin, and more obviously, ‘So long, Marianne’ (1967) for Marianne Ihlen, when the couple lived together on the Greek island of Hydra in the 1960s.

The temptation is to enter the cool shuttered room behind the sun-lit threshold; to raise the latch of biographical intent. Last summer I met my sister in Athens. She was leaving early the next morning, I was heading on to Hydra (Idhra). Although slightly sceptical about literary tourism, there is something about the act of pilgrimage that I sometimes find hard to resist. I would hike into the hills, take a donkey ride (there are no vehicles on the island), and read a book about what really happened to Van Gogh’s ear. And visit Leonard Cohen’s house. That was the plan. But it wouldn’t be a pilgrimage exactly…

Marianne & Leonard:

Shortly after I returned, Nick Broomfield’s documentary Marianne and Leonard was released. I stepped off the sunny pavement into the Picturehouse theatre. Would the latch be lifted behind the dark shutters? The film is well-worth watching for its interviews and archive footage of Cohen and Ihlen, and for the music, of course. It is beautifully shot, although (I thought) somewhat self-indulgent on Broomfield’s part. The opening voice-over comes close to self-parody. It seems to reinforce the myth of the poet-muse dynamic that Polly Samson is said to unspool in her more recent novel set on the island, A Theatre for Dreamers (2020), in which the couple appear as minor characters. Clarisse Loughrey has it perfectly when she writes of Marianne and Leonard, “It’s as if the film wants you to think of Ihlen as Penelope, waiting faithfully for Odysseus to sail home.”

Broomfield seems to dwell on the excesses of the 1960s and 70s, although he ends the film with Cohen’s letter to Ihlen on her deathbed, which shows his (Leonard Cohen’s) real care for Marianne: “Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.” The final frames of the film, the sea lapping a sailing boat, are overlain with Cohen’s voice, reading from his poem, Days of Kindness:

“I pray that loving memory
exists for them too
the precious ones I overthrew
for an education in the world.”

Leonard Cohen, Days of Kindness (1983)

If this demonstrates his regret, there was worse to come. By far the most tragic event for me was Ihlen’s son, ‘Little’ Axel’s fate – abandoned by his father (the novelist Axel Jensen), given hallucinogenics at 16, and confined to a psychiatric institution – the real tragedy of the film.


Back on Hydra, I take a day-trip on a boat to a small cove called Bisti. Onboard, I befriend a Greek woman, Josie. Or, she befriends me. (She shows great hospitality by buying me a delicious dinner of grilled squid despite being between jobs, and next day helps me find Leonard Cohen’s house). We climb above the port-town, paved alleys full of half-stray cats stretching themselves out in the heat behind the large ochre-coloured house (a museum). Behind that, the Greek painter, Tetsis’ old studio. Finally, behind the studio, an empty white-washed alley, the scarlet-bright bougainvillea. Leonard Cohen Street, the blue plaque says at the end of the alleyway. The house shuttered-up and giving away no secrets in the strong light where morning gives way to afternoon.

The sun-lit threshold: Leonard Cohen’s Hydriot home

Leonard & Joni:

There are stylistic differences between Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell that are worth noting. Joni Mitchell has long been known for her confessional style; observed, open. Jenny Stevens describes her song, ‘A Case of You’ as “a dialogue with her former lover.” It opens:

“Just before our love got lost you said,
‘I am as constant as the  northern star.’
And I said, ‘Constantly in the darkness. Where’s that at?
If you want me I’ll be in the bar.’”

Joni Mitchell, ‘A Case of You’ (Blue)

(And biographically speaking, there was no doubt wisdom in her turning away). Cohen could also write directly from experience himself: ‘The Famous Blue Raincoat’, ‘Suzanne’, ‘Chelsea Hotel #2’, but he more often wrote in an abstract, symbolic style. In poetic terms, he was more the descendant of Yeats or Lorca (after whom he named his daughter), than, say, Robert Lowell. His song, ‘Waiting for the Miracle’ shows a typical kind of veiled autobiography:

“I know it must have hurt you,
it must have hurt your pride
to stand beneath my window
with your bugle and your drum,
while I was up there waiting
for the miracle to come.”

Leonard Cohen, ‘Waiting for the Miracle’ (The Future)

(Not to say, his knowing Jewish humour, a certain resigned melancholy). It’s a kind of confession, although what is being confessed remains opaque. It could serve as a description of his relationship with a number of women – perhaps especially, Marianne Ihlen foremost among them.  Crucially, in his late work, he distils the kind of excesses Broomfield exposes, into something beautifully honed, transfigured, and at times near-Psalmic (‘If It Be Your Will’).  

I did not reach the island’s heights, or ride the donkeys (they looked worn out and forlorn – I felt for them); or see behind the shutters. Nor did I wish to, really – though I’m glad I made the trip to the island. As I looked around one corner, he seemed to disappear around the next. It’s as well in these moments to turn back towards his golden voice. As he said himself:

“You’ll be hearing from me, long after I’m gone.
I’ll be speaking to you sweetly from my window in the Tower of Song.”

‘Tower of Song’ (I’m Your Man)

References & links in this post:

Jenny Stevens, Joni Mitchell: Where to start in her back catalogue, The Guardian, 20 May 2020
Clarisse Loughrey, Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love review: Too wrapped up in the old obsessions with male genius, The Independent, 25 July 2019
Nick Broomfield, Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love (Key Media distribution; Lafayette Film production, 26 July 2019). 
Polly Samson, A Theatre for Dreamers (Bloomsbury, 2020)

Leonard Cohen, Poems & Songs (Everyman, 2011)
https://www.leonardcohen.com/albums Copyright © 2009-2020 Sony Music Entertainment Canada Inc. All Rights Reserved.
https://jonimitchell.com/music/ © Siquomb Publishing Company

The point about poetic style is based on Andrew Motion’s observations about Philip Larkin’s poetry

‘The darkness within; or else the light’: Normal People – Television Review

Normal People: Intelligent, organic story-telling

There’s something of the fairy tale about this Irish series based on the novel by Sally Rooney. During the summer of their final school exams, Marianne Sheridan (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell Waldron (Paul Mescal) fall into an intense affair. She lives in a large, loveless house with her mother, a solicitor, and older brother, while Connell’s mother Lorraine (Sarah Greene) works as a cleaner for the Sheridans. There are echoes of Ian McEwan’s Atonement about the set up. This is modern Ireland, though, and the obstacle is not so much social class as other pressures – she is defensive, spiky, vulnerable; he is popular, both masculine and diffident. Both are drifting, and drawn towards each other.  

Episode One opens with the intimate style that characterises the early episodes. We follow the back of Marianne’s head as she walks quickly down the school corridor. The pair are seen together early in the episode (framed separately through the glass door of her mother’s house), but take only oblique glances at one another in school. She acts out in class and is unpopular. He is one of only a few students to show her kindness, though mostly when alone with her. Marianne takes most of the close-ups at first. They begin to orbit one another, while other students at times blur into the background. The structure, too, can be dream-like – cutting from them sitting together on the school bus, to him emerging from his car on her stately cedar-lined driveway – as one thing leads to another.

I would lie down here – and you could do anything you wanted to me. Do you know that?

The series is co-scripted by the novelist, Sally Rooney

They begin their affair in Episode 2. The series has attracted some criticism for the sexual content, but also praise for its sensitive handling of young romance. We might expect this level of nudity to be more typical of the big-screen. Personally, I thought the tenderness and intimacy somewhat reminiscent of Nicholas Roeg’s 1973 film, Don’t Look Now. Daisy Edgar-Jones, in particular has a great expressiveness that suggests a real tender vulnerability; versatile and self-assured, like a younger Saoirse Ronan. As things develop between the characters, her eyes become more child-like, her dialogue is all soft assurance-seeking; insecure, articulate (“I hope you don’t find it too hard trying to resist me,” she asks him, and “Is there anyone you have a crush on in school?”) In a careful touch, Marianne is seen reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, Never Let Me Go, a haunting tale of orphaned-love.

Paul Mescal and Daisy Edger-Jones as Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan

Paul Mescal too delivers a great performance as Connell. Caught between his friends and her, he is hopeless and lost – out of depth in his own feelings. His speech becomes more clipped as his character withdraws; only his eyes and slightly down-tuned mouth suggest his inner-conflict. His dialogue is stilted (“I would miss you if you didn’t want to see me anymore. I would be upset, alright?”), and becomes at times little more than swallowed syllables. By contrast her articulations, “I’d never pretend not to know you,” and stronger still: “I would lie down here – and you could do anything you wanted to me. Do you know that?” have the ring of Wuthering Heights about them. Some beautiful photography of the Atlantic west-coast captures this allusive quality – by turns gently sun-lit and overcast – as the couple’s relations subtly shift.

Who among us hasn’t done something shameful? As Episode 3 built towards an inevitably betrayal, I thought of lines I’d written myself: Crouching, I warmed my outspread hands, like Saint Peter, quietly. As Dickens pointed out, we often let ourselves down for the sake of those whom we don’t much like anyway. This is an excellent series, with the ring of truth about how intense, generous, and cruel youth can be; how conservative, and forgiving. It credits the audience with enough intelligence to let the story develop organically. Both characters are fatherless, but it is up to viewers to decide what significance, if any, this might have for them as these stories remain largely untold.

My only caveat would be that Normal People loses some unity of time and place, and with it the intensity of the first three episodes. From Episode 4 onward it becomes, at times, more soap opera than independent film – a kind of war of attrition between the characters, charting the ups and downs of their undergraduate affairs. This might better suit the BBC3 target audience of 15—25 year-olds than an older demographic. But then, it follows the narrative of Sally Rooney’s novel across several years of the characters’ lives. As the series goes on, the nudity dramatises a certain innocence and its loss. But the early episodes are beautifully shot. Overall, it’s a great series with superb central performances, and brilliantly scripted in dialogue awash with its Irish idiom (“What was going on there – with yourself and herself?) It will more than repay the time spent watching it.


From my upstairs window I see the post arriving. It’s the upbeat Polish woman. She seems to enjoy life, and does not bother with gloves. The front cover befits a bestseller and shows an illustration of two young people embracing inside a half-opened sardine tin; Sally Rooney looks out from the inside back-cover with the pensive face of a young Angela Carter. This bodes well, I think. I peel back the pages, the first line echoes: Marianne answers the door when Connell rings the bell.

Links, credits, references:

The early episodes are directed by Lenny Abrahamson. The series is produced by Catherine Magee, and written by Sally Rooney & Alice Birch, based on Rooney’s novel, Normal People (Faber, 2018).

The series was produced by the Irish Film Industry and Screen Ireland; an Element Pictures Production for the BBC in association with Hulu (2019). First broadcast in the UK on BBC3 (26 April 2020).

The title of this post is from The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.

Featured image: Wikipedia, (Title Card) Fair Use: Owner: BBC Studios, Hulu

“The Blood-Stained Banner:” Bob Dylan review – ‘Murder Most Foul.’

Bob Dylan’s recent release, ‘Murder Most Foul’ (March 2020), tells the story of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963 (a time when Dylan was just setting out on his own mercurial career). The song seems to echo his elegy for John Lennon, ‘Roll on John’ – the closing song on his most recent album of original music (Tempest, 2012). He describes how America went from the “Aquarian Age” to “the Age of the anti-Christ”, and cuts between flashes of the shooting itself, to a bewildering catalogue of Twentieth-Century Americana, likening the country to a dog with no master.

Kennedy: A revenant king returned to haunt the living (Image: Wikipedia)

In his book, Why Dylan Matters, Richard F. Thomas argues that Bob Dylan continues the classical tradition – especially of the Roman writer, Ovid – in his late trilogy Time Out of Mind (1997), Love & Theft (2001), and Modern Times (2006). He points out that both Ovid and Dylan were forged in empires on the edge of decline. Ben Beaumont-Thomas in The Guardian describes ‘Murder Most Foul’ as “a ballad set to piano, strings and light drums.” The song is driven by Bob Dylan’s voice more obviously than the loose musical time-signature (“a recitation set to music” as Alexis Petridis has it). In fact, Dylan seems to favour something like the metre of the classical-epic poets Homer, Virgil and Ovid. To speak technically for a moment, he uses hexameter, a line of six main stresses that traditionally signals heroic or elegiac subject matter – reinforced here by the relentless rhyming couplets sustained for the whole 17-minute duration of the song. Consider these driving rhythms in lines from the song’s opening:

            President Kennedy | was a-ridin’ high,
            A good day to be living | and a good day to die

A line of such equivocal suggestiveness that it could easily have come straight out of the mouths of the witches in Macbeth. The song title itself asks us to recall Hamlet’s suspicion that his uncle has murdered his father to assume the crown: murder most foul, strange and unnatural. Dylan varies this poetic rhythm to suit his needs – as he will – opening up the line at times, but this metre remains more or less the heartbeat of the song.

In the first half of the ballad, he shifts from a third person narration of events to inhabit Kennedy’s voice directly. Like Hamlet’s father, Kennedy is the revenant king come back to haunt the living. And like Old Hamlet, is only fleetingly present to us in snatches of dialogue:

            Wait a minute boys, do you know who I am?
            Of course we do, we know who you are

And again, he returns to speak later in the song. His voice is heroic, both steady and tragic:

            I’m riding in the back seat, next to my wife
            Heading straight on in to the afterlife
            I’m leaning to the left, got my head in her lap
            Oh Lord, I’ve been lead into some kind of a trap

He seems to relive the harrowing moment of death without actually describing it, as if not grasping exactly what is happening to him. Dylan then describes the aftermath in grotesque detail: “They mutilated his body and they took out his brain./ What more could they do, they piled on the pain.” (Curiously, F. Scott Fitzgerald uses a very similar strategy to narrate the tragic collision in The Great Gatsby­ – a sort of looking away, followed by explicit detail). Dylan perhaps does this here to mark the lasting trauma of the event – “I’m never gonna make it to the New Frontier.” He then shifts into a wider voice. He laments the loss of a more hopeful, compassionate post-war America. The America he dreamt of in the early folk music he was writing around this time:

            We ask no quarter, no quarter do we give
            We’re right down the street from the street where you live

A pitch-perfect summary of the contradictory American longing for self-reliance and cold economics, set against the lost dream of folksy goodness. Dylan has described this new release as a gift to his fans. The final part of the song becomes an invocation of the American Songbook. Ben Beaumont-Thomas suggests that this America in decline is “offered salvation of sorts in pop music: the Beatles, Woodstock, Charlie Parker…Stevie Nicks.”

And of course in the song itself – Dylan’s dirge for the 1960s and for our own time, does exactly that – consoling his fans; certain to take up its place in his own late songbook. It’s a great song – an expansive song that won’t stop growing in our own troubled minds.

The song is available here:

I also review Dylan’s song ‘Key West’ from the same album, here: https://benedictgilbert.com/2020/11/14/that-bleeding-heart-disease-bob-dylan-key-west-review/


Richard F. Thomas, Why Dylan Matters (William Collins, 2017)

Ben Beaumont-Thomas, “Bob Dylan releases first original song in eight years, 17-minute track about JFK, The Guardian, Friday 27 March 2020:https://www.theguardian.com/music/2020/mar/27/bob-dylan-new-song-kennedy-assassination

Alexis Petridis, “Bob Dylan’s 50 greatest songs – ranked!” The Guardian, Thursday 9 April 2020: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2020/apr/09/bob-dylans-50-greatest-songs-ranked

Lyrics available at: https://www.bobdylan.com/songs/murder-most-foul/
© 2020 by Special Rider Music

Photo credit: (Wikipedia), Stoughton, Cecil, Oval Office 1963 (Cecil William), 1920-2008, Photographer – U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Link

The Burgermeister’s Daughter (Young Rembrandt’s Love Song)

My steps ringing the flagged square at Leiden.
A hurried sky of quickening cloud – you know
How we Dutch adore the fleeting light.
A touch of brushwork. My long apprenticeship
Of wooden, ungilt frames: these heavy fumes,
My sweet alchemic paints. Out of this
Coarse, oak-green world and harvest fields,
I’ll ring the dark gold light: guilders
For the Burgermeister’s daughter. I’ll tease and pry

His fingers from my Saskia’s shoulders.
That sable, fur-lined cloak. I’ll shape his likeness,
Claim his loss, when – please God – her fingers
Will soften, with the work of man and woman.
And gently stroke her rounding smock. I
Remember, then, my Oma – a baker’s wife.
Still girlish. Her downy cheek abrush with dust and light.

This poem was written for my brother and sister-in-law’s wedding in October 2019.

Sighting foxes and meteor showers

In the prison of her days

A ‘half-tame’ young vixen has taken up residence in the now-closed flower garden of my local park. Passing, I stopped to look. In broad daylight, she was being kept in food (peanuts and sausage meat) by an Italian couple, while a Japanese woman produced a half-packet of Jacob’s cream crackers from a bag folded in her hands. Watching closely, you could see the fox adapting – each quizzical tilt of the head rewarded. As I watched, though, my interest cooled at the gradual depreciating-creep as she gave up a corner of her wildness for trinkets. Even the nearby pigeons looked plump and sanguine in her presence; only a sceptical magpie kept its distance.

A ‘half-tame’ connoisseur of sausage meats

In his book, Being a Beast, Charles Foster points out that foxes and dogs belong to different genera, having “parted company about 12 million years ago.” Dogs, he says, have spent the last 50,000 years adapting to human beings. He contends, however, that foxes have the “raw mental processing power of dogs.” Foster goes on to say that adult foxes are “aggressively possessive about food.” Arguably, it is this huge appetite to survive that drives all mammals. In The Odyssey, Odysseus and his men seem to be able to endure everything except hunger. The historian Yoval Noah Harari suggests that human beings did not so much domesticate crops, as were domesticated by them, as farming lead to a shift from nomadic existence to permanent settlement. And therefore, a more traditional theory runs, to the city; to civilisation itself.

And I sometimes see a falling star…

The near-certainty of seeing something can sometimes seem to diminish its value. For two nights running last week, I searched for the Lyrid meteor shower. I followed advice to gaze into the north-eastern sky after midnight, towards the constellation Lyra. Some remaining light pollution one night; cloud-cover the next. With almost no other human company at that hour on the heath, I circled home – looking for a sign. Into that night-walk appeared six foxes. Urban foxes are common in London, but I’ve never seen so many in one dark hour. And out of this stillness, I heard new sounds. The first, a real bark – whether dog fox or vixen, I couldn’t say. (The poet Alice Oswald describes the vixen as “a woman with a man’s voice.”) The second noise, two cubs ‘play-fighting’ under a streetlight – yelping. Imagine! And, for the first time a few weeks ago, I heard the unearthly electric wail of coupling foxes in the long grass (nature’s other great hunger). I stumbled onto the plaintive scene like young Actaeon on the sight of Diana bathing. A human voyeur on a kind of vulpes interruptus.

I will have to wait until next year to see the Lyrid shower – her bright eye – the sudden brush between Hercules and Cygnus. But I’d sooner wait and be caught off-guard. Perhaps because we know we must give ourselves up – to all in life that would tame us.

Venus in the clean night air; and, strangely, something I missed at the time, top right…

All of this brought to mind a poem I’d written in the winter, Starveling. It’s posted in the POEMS section of this site:


References in the post:

Charles Foster, Being a Beast (Profile Books, 2016)
Yoval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Harper, 2014)
Alice Oswald, ‘Fox’ in Falling Awake (Jonathan Cape, 2016)
The sub-headings are from Auden’s elegy for Yeats, and Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘Exposure’ (more on this later…)

A Young Novice Turned Old Master: Reflections on the poetry of Derek Walcott

Photo credit: Bert Nienhuis (Wikipedia)

Life in brief: born in St Lucia in 1930. Educated on the island and in Jamaica. Walcott made his home in Trinidad and divided his time between there, where he established the Trinidad Theatre Workshop, and the United States. He taught in the US, Canada, and the UK, but did not take up a post as Professor of Poetry at Oxford, following personal controversy. He was married three times and had a son and two daughters. He died in 2017, having been awarded the Nobel Prize in 1992.

  1.  ‘Days I have held, days I have lost’

“The classics can console,” the poet counsels in the final line of his 1976 poem, ‘Sea Grapes’. “But not enough.”

This is not to say the classics weren’t indispensable to him. In this poem, he calls out Odysseus, “the adulterer hearing Nausicaa’s name in every gull’s outcry.” Several decades later, Walcott’s 1992 Nobel Prize for Literature followed the publication of Omeros, his own epic version of Homer’s Odyssey.

His poetry has been described as “a territory that is at once parish and universe” (Selected Poems) – something that connected him to his friend and contemporary, Seamus Heaney. Both stored the Wordsworthian ‘seed-time’ of place and memory (like the sun’s heat in a sailor’s hands); growing outward from self to world entire. The Russian poet, Joseph Brodsky went further: “He simply has absorbed… all the stylistic idioms the north could offer… He is the man by whom the English language lives.”

Walcott’s life spanned the late-colonial period to our own shifting times, and like Heaney, he saw a world transfigured in his own lifetime. His first published work dates back to his youth aged just eighteen, in which he reflects on “this, my prone island” (‘Prelude’), referring to his birth-place of St Lucia. The same incredible body of work reaches out right into his early eighties. In his final, late flourishing, White Egrets (2010), he tells of meeting a lost love, both of them wheelchair-bound: “like a crumpled flower… her devastating smile nettled in wrinkles.” Lamenting his memory, “where a boatman left me, a half-century ago… she like a deer in her shyness.” He uses yet more classical echoes here to acknowledge that he is “stalking an impossible consummation,” as the poem’s title says – ‘Sixty Years After’. He concludes: “Now the silent knives of the intercom went through us.”

2. We are not above such things

“All art,” Walcott says, “has to do with light.” Having briefly described the brilliance of his poetry (in the full sense of the word, full of light), I am reluctant to now describe my own small imitatio. Still, here goes! …This impressionist poem grew out of a poetry workshop I held with my students. Each week I read several poems by a range of poets I loved or liked, or thought interesting. In the case of Derek Walcott, these included the short lyrics ‘Midsummer, Tobago’, and ‘Love after Love.’ (If you want to write, he advises, study the masters). Drawing on these and other poems, between workshops each Wednesday throughout the autumn term, I would sometimes experiment by writing poems after famous poets; encouraging my students to do the same. And so the poem came about.

Finally, a few things to know about Walcott: as well as a poet (playwright and theatre director), he was also a painter. He swam in the Caribbean Sea most days. In the opening section of my poem, I pick up on these ideas of the poet as painter and swimmer (that is, explorer); as well as the breadth of his career and his mastery of poetic form. Into this iconography, I then weave the tragic events unfolding in the Caribbean, as Hurricane Dorian devastated the Bahamas last autumn. In the penultimate couplet, I try to lift the poem above its specific focus, into a wider sense of suffering, and enduring hope. The collective voice of the final lines should suggest our common human experience. And as recent events have shown, we simply don’t know what may befall us. After all, we pass through, not above, our experiences, and (we hope) emerge integral; perhaps changed. In The Odyssey, Odysseus himself – the archetypal hero – often sits down and weeps as he re-lives all that has happened. But, as Walcott suggests, the poetry is the consolation.  

Odysseus: a complicated man (British Museum. Troy: Myth & Reality)

The poem, Hurricane Season, was first published in The New European (#189), Thursday 2 April, 2020. It is posted in the POEMS section of this blog. I hope you enjoy the poem and find some resonance in it. Do leave a comment below, letting me know what you think of this article or the poem.

References and links to Walcott: Derek Walcott, Collected Poems: 1948—1984 (Faber & Faber: 1992); Selected Poems (Ed. Edward Baugh; Faber: 2007); White Egrets (Faber: 2010)   

Derek Walcott discusses his painting and poetry (posted) 5 June 2017.

Derek Walcott reads his poem ‘Sea Grapes’ (Posted) 19 March 2019

Love after Love, by Derek Walcott, read by Tom Hiddleston (Posted) 16 July 2016

Blog content: © Benedict Gilbert 2020