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(Re)Mapping the centres Membership and State

Trevor Harris


Peter Porter et George Szirtes

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1On the evening of Friday 18th September, the conference decamped to an Irish venue in the centre of Tours to hear two of Britain’s best-known poets, George Szirtes et Peter Porter, read some of their work.

2Peter Porter was bom in Australia in 1929, but has lived in England since 1951. Along with Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, he had already established himself in the 1960s, with his highly formal verse and his dry, epigrammatic wit, as one of the leading figures on the British poetry scene. Now in his 70s, Porter is still a major presence. His complete works were recently published, in two volumes, by Oxford University Press.

3George Szirtes left his native Hungary following the unsuccessful insurrection of 1956. He has published a considerable number of works, in both Hungarian and English. His most recent collection is A Portrait of My Father in an English Landscape (Oxford Poets, 1998).

4The poems presented on the following pages are being published here for the first time. The conference organisers and all the participants would like to offer their thanks to Peter and George for their very enjoyable reading and for their generosity in suggesting that these poems be published as part of the conference proceedings.


I stood with words about my ankles
and looked to altar and north light
in Sankt Jacobus, Rubens’ church.

Those reject words were challenging
the rains of a robot faith,
The Counter Reformation High Baroque.

I brought my Art Historian’s half-knowledge
to the scene: not my sort of church, I said,
but guessed there was a message here for me.

The Catholic faith of Flanders –
a kind of woolly stuffing of the ears
of poddy-calves beneath the knife.

The Brewers in the Temple,
the martyrs’ entrails skeined upon
a windlass – calm and civic scenes.

It took photography or something like it
to break my wise composure –
a picture made in 1855,

Coloured daguerreotype or painting?
I couldn’t tell – inside the tomb
two decomposing shapes in open coffins:

Painter and wife quite odourless,
no longer hand in hand among
the garden urns and furniture.

The lid lifts on the Rubens’ style
showing black stained bolts of rottenness,
a God-lit blaze burnt out.

Get a Life, the paintings say,
and let death’s careful fingers wrap
your body for eternity.


Diverted rivers, flock-paper fields,
Glistening shoe-shops like grapes peeled,
Migrating cranes whose mast-high nesting
Fatigues us when we should be resting,
Milk-fed lambs brought into town
By Airships drifting on the Downs –
A magazine-like decadence
That goes on making fiscal sense.

Here horticulture is entailed
For dancers’pension-rights, and veiled,
The folklore of the South imputes
Bad taste to laryngitic flutes.
Calyx and pistil trap the moon’s
Intrusion on sawdust Saloons
While changes to
jus prima noctis
Mean having sex in helicopters.

Our screaming ghosts are sailing dhows
Through soft Symplegades of clouds
And Epirate effusions bring us
Prolixities of ballad-singers.
How did the world get in this state?
Why do beginnings start so late –
The ghosts have gone back to the trees,
Our enemies are on the seas.

The calendar has lost its wits,
High time that God and Man called quits.
Our fat-stock world is on the cusp
And numbers have caught up with us.
Unfairness is the richest spice
Ever to flavour Paradise –
That history’s print is on the sands
Misunderstanding understands.


Variety’s the life of spice words say
Stumbling from the oracle of dreams
Once misled by sound’s confused decay.
This rocky hinterland has only streams
Of consciousness, The Boyg of Underuse
Leads fire-lit dancers on his gamepath haunt:
We gasp, ‘Le radeau, c’est, de la Méduse’,
Our education’s boast become a taunt.

And that’s the lolloping of Heaven’s hounds;
Their hot breath stinks of childhood’s aniseed;
They hunt used condoms in your Prep School grounds.
Ridiculousness is forced to intercede
On every tragic option; fear alone
Maintains its rugose countenance; we die
In earnest but pallidity of bone
Is all the colour of the empty sky.

But don’t complain as poets do too much
That while we’re doomed we don’t rate very high
Among the villains and that none we touch
Is cured of anything. For how could I
(I dare say you as well) be self enough
To earn as Quisling or as Tamburlaine
A singularity: there go the rough
We knew at school, as natural as rain.

The play ends happily – that is, it ends.
It’s left to tragedy to champion hope
And promissory time to make amends.
Sheet lightning (punning on the darkened slope)
Lights up a joking face, abandoned now
By its fair-weather friend, ironic doubt,
But still for closure keeping to its vow
To see the Inward outed by the Out.


As if the sea were entering through the window,
it was that close. Fleck of burning ice thrown
from the rocks it struck, each single fleck blown
sharp-toothed into the house. Meanwhile, below
there were guests waiting to check in, a clerk
to register them, luggage piling at doors.
This was the form of the dream. Polished floors
were swimming in water, a green-grey dark.
From the top of the cliff you could see rain
gathering on the horizon, not yet ready
to fall but on its way. In one room two lips
were joined together, hands resting on hips,
the pair of them increasingly unsteady
as the flood rolled in like an enormous stain.

You wake to a light on the ceiling. How long
have you been awake? You lie next to him
the one you always lie with. Some vague, dim
recollection. Years of memory. The song
of the sirens. The glow of the clock-radio
is green and gentle. Classical music, faint,
barely audible, oozes from it. Something quaint
about all this, your life passing on its slow
unforgiving way. The shape in the bed stirs
in its sleep, rolls over. You hear the sea again.
It is still far off, a slowly approaching train
down a long tunnel that leads to the hotel
and the two lovers, just as his lips touch hers.


One of those wet Junes with the skylight tapping
its fingernails on the thin drum of the house.

Yesterday, in the underground, a dark brown mouse
ran zigzag between live rails, vaguely unwrapping
the present of its small life, and when the train came,
the mouse disappeared beneath it. Along from us
a woman was writing a letter with ferocious
concentration, on her lips constantly moving to frame
the words as the letters appeared. Beside her
an Asian girl was reading Jane Austen, a boy
dived for an empty seat. The war was over,
said someone’s paper. There was little joy
on the faces, it was much as usual. Permanent night
down here. Upstairs the emergence into daylight.



No wind at all. The clothes-pegs on the line
are hardly shivering. An even grey
has closed the world off. It is Saturday
in the quiet towns of the east. A fine
distinction between two adjacent tones
of sea and air carries no distant cries
or the light dust of ground or broken bones.
There are no fresh news in the mouths of flies.

No flies at all. No wasps. No bees. Nothing come
nor gone. The day stands like an untouched drum:
Haydn on Radio Three. Letters in the tray.
It is the spaces in between that are dissembling.
The neighbours are asleep or gone away,
the clothes-pegs on the line still trembling.


One syllable short. How does anything get in
to this stoppered corner of England where
the dust is the dust of the fields, layer on layer,
and the grass is a tight comfortable skin
in the churchyard by a mined monastery?
The lost incomprehensible syllable is stuck
in the throat: the bones’ dying industry
winds down like an old tenement block.

Until it blows. Until the fuse catches the thumb
That triggers it in the distant capital or the screen
by the wall and the fields are suddenly dumb.
Until a faint red seeps beneath the green
among ground elder, earthworms, and the lost
coins of the realm bent and scaled with rust.


5for Francis Gilbert


It was what he wanted to write about
all these years, but they wouldn’t let him. Who?
The bastards of history. The usual crew
of Class, Taste, Precedent, Nostalgia, Doubt

and other capital personifications. But
here was how things were. Firstly the father
melting into the terrace. The damp leather
flying in semi-darkness like lead shot.

But not quite in this order. Who can remember
the first premature taste of adulthood,
the call of downbeat heraldry in a shirt,

the enormity of a crowd like the biggest number
you can think of? Had you misunderstood
your own body, so small and full of hurt?


It hardly matters now. But it was there:
the stadium with its single focus and you,
fragmented, anxious, someone they let through
with gestures of diffused parental care

because you too were to be initiated
into what they were, which made you proud,
yet careful. You were and were not the crowd
its passions high, ironic, understated,

brutal, like an earthquake just beginning
with a drumming of feet and the small roar
rising as teams appeared on the far side.

They dapple the pitch. The notion of winning
and losing hardens into focus. One keeps score
of losses. There’s the small matter of pride.


It’s premonition. The whole thing’s premonition
and there’s the poetry. The lilac team
is (phonetic) D
zha. Do you remem
ber? Time is fracture and compression,

like this line. They’re only names you recall
with a certain vividness. But later
when the ball came your way, like rainwater
in a winter pantomime, like any ball

a challenge, a threat, something personal
and you practised juggling with it or ran
zig zags between markers, you were chosen.

The hours you spent by a suburban brick wall
in northwest London! You were already a man
without a future, as if all time had frozen.


It is what dance is, only with a brief
dumb purpose: courage, grace, power, speed and guile
at the service of pride glimpsed through a turnstile,
accompanied by the sharp, interim grief of any loss. Even a dull game will serve
to keep things ticking over and the great ones
survive in fragments beyond their seasons
in a leap, or run, or tackle, or body-swerve.

But I’m dumb, like everyone else. It is the way
it must be, that you must understand:
it’s what we are, who can’t speak or dare to think

that it or we matter. It’s just another day
in the league. I hold my father’s hand
both of us pitched forward, over a common brink.

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2000

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