They came over the snow to the bread's
pure snow, fumbled it in their huge
hands, put their lips to it
like beasts, stared into the dark chalice
where the wine shone, felt it sharp
on their tongue, shivered as at a sin
remembered, and heard love cry
momentarily in their hearts' manager.
They rose and went back to their poor
holdings, naked in the bleak light
of December. Their horizon contracted
to the one small, stone-riddled field
with its tree, where the weather was nailing
the appalled body that had not asked to be born.
by R. S. Thomas
from Laboratories of the Spirit (1975)
Outside a surfeit of planes.
Inside the hunger of the departed
to come back. ‘Ah, erstwhile humans,
would you make your mistakes
over again? In life, as in love,
the second time around is
I confront their expressions
in the embers, on grey walls:
faces among the stones watching
me to see if this night
of all nights I will make sacrifice
to the spirits of hearth and of
roof-tree, pouring a libation.
‘Stay where you are,’ I implore.
‘This is no world for escaped beings
to make their way back into.
The well that you took your pails
to is polluted. At the centre
of the mind’s labyrinth to machine howls
for the sacrifice of the affections;
vocabulary has on a soft collar
but the tamed words are not to be trusted.
As long as the flames hum, making
their honey, better to look in
upon truth’s comb than to
take off as we do on fixed wings
for depollinated horizons.’
by R. S Thomas
from No Truce with the Furies (1995)
She is more white than the sea’s
Purest spray, and colder
To touch. She is nourished
By salt winds, and the prayers
Of the drowned break on her. She smiles
At the stone angels, who have turned
From the sea’s truth to worship
The mystery of her dumb child.
The bay brings her the tribute
Of its silences. The ocean has left
An offering of the small flowers
Of its springs; but the men read,
Beyond the harbour on the horizon,
The fury of its obituaries
by R. S. Thomas
from Not That He Brought Flowers (1968)
Fun fact: The poem refers to Cape Clear Island off the coast of Ireland. Clear Island or Cape Clear Island (officially known by its Irish name: Cléire, and sometimes also called Oileán Chléire) lies south-west of County Cork in Ireland. It is the southernmost inhabited part of the island of Ireland and has a population of over 100 people. Officially it is a Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking area), and most inhabitants speak Irish and English. Archaeological sites on the island include a prehistoric cup-marked stone (moved to the island’s museum), a fulacht fiadh at Gort na Lobhar, a neolithic passage tomb at Cill Leire Forabhain, several standing stones around the island, a promontory fort at Dún an Óir, and a signal tower dating from the Napoleonic Wars. The island also has a number of early Christian sites, and is reputed to be the birthplace of Saint Ciarán of Saigir. The ruins of 12th century church are close to the main pier.
Lived long; much fear, less
courage. Bottom in love’s school
of his class; time’s reasons
too far back to be known.
Good on his knees, yeilding,
vertical, to petty temptations.
A mouth thoughts escaped
from unfledged. Where two
were company, he the unwanted
third. A Narcissus tortured
by the whisperers behind
the mirror. Visionary only
in his perception of an horizon
beyond the horizon. Doubtful
of God, too pusillanimous
to deny him. Saving his face
in verse from the humiliations prose
inflicted on him. One of life’s
conscientious objectors, conceding
nothing to the propaganda of death
but a compulsion to volunteer.
by R. S. Thomas
from Experimenting with an Amen (1986)
Always the same hills
Crowd the horizon,
Of the still scene.
And in the foreground
The tall Cross,
Aches for the Body
That is back in the cradle
Of a maid’s arms.
By R. S. Thomas
from Pietà (1966)
I wait in the evening air.
Sea-birds drop down to the sea.
I prepare to sail from where
the docks’ derelictions are.
I stand on the deck and stare,
slack hammocks of waves below,
while black shapes upon the pier
make the furthest star seem near.
Now the funnel’s negations blow
and my eyes, like spaces, fill,
and the knots of water flow,
pump to my eyes and spill.
For what who would choose to go
when who sailing made no choice?
Not for one second, I know,
can I be the same man twice.
The straw coloured flames flare still,
spokes over the long horizon,
and the boats under the hill
of Penarth, unload and move on.
by Dannie Abse
from Tenants of the House (1957)
Fun facts: This was written in 1957 and the former working docks, which by the time of the poem were ‘derelict’ and I myself recall in childhood walking through along the barrage, were redeveloped (‘gentrified’ wouldn’t be an understatement) in recent years into the Cardiff Bay area filled with bars, restaurants, the Wales Millennium Centre, the Senedd and BBC buildings amongst many other developments. Penarth is an affluent town, within walking distance along the coastline, south west of Cardiff .
It’s just how it is, it’s the way of the ages;
years pass away, and friends pass away
and you suddenly realize the world is changing
and the fire of your heart is fading away.
Once the horizon was sharp as a knife,
a clear frontier between different states,
but now low mist hangs over the earth –
and this gentle cloud is the mercy of fate.
Age, I suppose, with its losses and fears,
age that silently saps our strength,
has blurred with the mist of unspilt tears
that clear divide between life and death.
So many you loved are no longer with you,
yet you chat to them as you always did.
You forget they’re no longer among the living;
that clear frontier is now shrouded in mist.
The same sort of woodland, same sort of field –
you probably won’t even notice the day
you chance to wander across the border,
chatting to someone long passed away.
by Мария Сергеевна Петровых (Maria Sergeyevna Petrovykh)
translated by Robert Chandler