This was England
May 31, 2013
If I could write a poem about the English, I would start here
on the South coast where my childhood ran with a guaranteed
history and bright future forecast, surrounded by large men
and women sucking on ice creams slipping down their cones,
and kids lining the old dock walls with crab buckets, transparent
plastic buckets with ‘crab bucket’ written on them, lines hanging
the kids’ patience, what are you meant to do on holidays?
Fishermen working the boats exchange injuries to the Queen’s English
with mates on the wharf beyond the cut where the Ship Inn stands
and Puffin Cruises offer discoveries on an old lifeboat from the Canberra.
Postcards are infused with colour from when summer was summer,
they guard doorways leading to pasties and Made in China tat.
I don’t understand souvenirs, how do they represent fun?
Wind surfs the pale feathered reed beds yanking about
male Reed Buntings, the café umbrellas wobble above
the rounded Art Nouveau battlements gleaming in the first sunshine
in weeks. In the foreground, a heron, head upside down
between its legs, unfurls its wings in homage to the sun
and more worshippers litter the chalky path, Peacock butterflies
that lift, dance ahead and settle, only to be unnerved again.
Kids surround the lock with excitement, the thrill of the hunt for tiddlers,
tossing seaweed by-catch. We walk up and over the shingle bank
a pale sea is lapping white cliffs and the bleached Needles, almost shiny,
a soft shingle bank, pale clouds erode serenely like a Bach fugue unravelling
– not one black face has appeared all afternoon.
Walking the path to Silbury Hill, expecting a climb, not a wired off
monument, the largest monument in Europe, the most expensive.
Over four thousand years of wear and tear repaired with chalk infill,
management squirrels away touch, a canopy of care for further
incarnations, sites churches fixed to, so in the meantime
photographs make do with replicas of distance and symmetry.
Cresting the long hill opposite is West Kennett Long Barrow,
skylarks hover over a dark green, thick crop, wind-rippled,
a Yellow Wagtail rules the tomb’s roof and a raptor
fingers the gyre. Wyn with the glasses says it’s a Black Kite,
I’m skeptical but we know the Reds so well from Chiltern valleys.
You enter through giant entry stones, in over a thousand years
less than fifty burials found, incomplete, the elite get rearranged.
On the wall of the end chamber offerings have been renewed,
Bluebells and Buttercups. We seek alignment to the past for a future
while almonds and raisons and half a biscuit litter the floor.
As I leave two swallows abort their entry and then we see it,
the nest at arm’s reach height, in the first chamber on the left.
Young lambs shelter in the lea of Avebury’s giant stones
providing perspective on might and innocence and the cold wind
blowing in from the dark end of the cosmos, Murillo and the afterlife.
The stones rampage through the heart of the village
and photographers emerge, one old gentleman asks his wife
to pose as if pushing one over, a middle aged man
packing all the gear lines up his shots like a sniper.
It’s generally accepted that you get what you pay for.
The sun has not warmed up the stone I press my hand
against, touch the closest to magic. Knives that sliced strips
of sacrifice have gone to ground, thoughts lashed to mechanicals
are now satnavs and contraptions that amass the digital archive.
A skylark rises vertically in front of me lifting song high
into the sky above White Horse Hill, voice in spate pouring
onto crows, onto small blue butterflies and into the earth,
and it’s been a terrible couple of years for life.
Two men lye on the grass filming themselves messing with
some gadget aimed at RAF Brize Norton, or the five wind-turbines
churning the air – or the valley’s vast agricultural geometry.
I ask what they are doing (a poet is naturally curious),
they were field testing the latest gizmo in surveying
against background algorithms, grass blades, sheep shit.
The beautiful flowing horse is only visible from the air,
but like a Zen rock garden you can just be in the presence
or see what you can see, the eye, the abstract legs running.
The sculpture is probably an ancient machine for worship,
or identity, possibly totemic – similar to Celtic horse designs
or a sozzled tribal celebration, in some sense an awesome figure
sculpted by simple tools, antlers tearing away the turf
to reveal the past’s bone-dust-chalk racing away.
Last stop Wantage – for refreshment and imperial Victoria sponge,
King Alfred’s birthplace where I was taught history began.