Timothy Murphy: Twice Cursed

Bristling with fallen trees
and choked with broken ice
the river threatens the house.
I’ll wind up planting rice
if the spring rains don’t cease.
What ancestral curse
prompts me to farm and worse,
convert my woes to verse?


from The Deed of Gift (1998) (p.21)

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Anne Sexton: Her Kind

I have gone out, a possessed witch,
Haunting the black air, braver at night;
Dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
Over the plain houses, light by light:
Lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
I have been her kind.

I have found the warm caves in the woods,
Filled them with skillets, carvings, shelves,
Closets, silks, innumerable goods;
Fixed the suppers for the worms and the elves:
Whining, rearranging the disaligned.
A woman like that is misunderstood.
I have been her kind.

I have ridden in your cart, driver,
Waved my nude arms at villages going by,
Learning the last bright routes, survivor
Where your flames still bite my thigh
And my ribs crack where your wheels wind.
A woman like that is not ashamed to die.
I have been her kind.


from Selected Poems of Anne Sexton (1988) (p. 18)

Thom Gunn: The Gas-poker

Forty-eight years ago —
Can it be forty-eight
Since then? — they forced the door
Which she had barricaded
With a full bureau’s weight
Lest anyone find, as they did,
What she had blocked it for.

She had blocked the doorway so,
To keep the children out.
In her red dressing-gown
She wrote notes, all night busy
Pushing the things about,
Thinking till she was dizzy,
Before she had lain down.

The children went to and fro
On the harsh winter lawn
Repeating their lament,
A burden, to each other
In the December dawn,
Elder and younger brother,
Till they knew what it meant.

Knew all there was to know.
Coming back off the grass
To the room of her release,
They who had been her treasures
Knew to turn off the gas,
Take the appropriate measures,
Telephone the police.

One image from the flow
Sticks in the stubborn mind:
A sort of backwards flute.
The poker that she held up
Breathed from the holes aligned
Into her mouth till, filled up
By its music, she was mute.


from Boss Cupid (2000) (p. 10)

Keith Douglas: Aristocrats

‘I think I am becoming God’

The noble horse with courage in his eye,
clean in the bone, looks up at a shellburst:
away fly the images of the shires
but he puts the pipe back in his mouth.

Peter was unfortunately killed by an 88;
it took his leg away, he died in the ambulance.
I saw him crawling on the sand, he said
it’s most unfair, they’ve shot my foot off.

How can I live among this gentle
obsolescent breed of heroes, and not weep?
Unicorns, almost,
for they are fading into two legends
in which their stupidity and chivalry
are celebrated. Each, fool and hero, will be an immortal.

The plains were their cricket pitch
and in the mountains the tremendous drop fences
brought down some of the runners. Here then
under the stones and earth they dispose themselves,
I think with their famous unconcern.
It is not gunfire I hear, but a hunting horn.


from The Complete Poems of Keith Douglas (1978) (p. 139)

John Betjeman: Archibald

The bear who sits above my bed
A doleful bear he is to see;
From out his drooping pear-shaped head
His woollen eyes look into me.
He has no mouth, but seems to say:
‘They’ll burn you on the Judgement Day.’

Those woollen eyes, the things they’ve seen;
Those flannel ears, the things they’ve heard—
Among horse-chestnut fans of green
The fluting on an April bird,
And quarrelling downstairs until
Doors slammed at Thirty One West Hill.

The dreaded evening keyhole scratch
Announcing some return below,
The nursery landing’s lifted latch,
The punishment to undergo:
Still I could smooth those half-moon ears
And wet that forehead with my tears.

Whatever rush to catch a train,
Whatever joy there was to share
Of sounding sea-board, rainbowed rain,
Or seaweed-scented Cornish air,
Sharing the laughs, you still were there,
You ugly, unrepentant bear.

When nine, I hid you in a loft
And dared not let you share my bed;
My father would have thought me soft,
Or so, at least, my mother said.
She only then our secrew knew,
And thus my guilty passion grew.

The bear who sits above my bed
More agèd now is he to see:
His woollen eyes have thinner thread,
But still he seems to say to me,
In double-doom notes, like a knell:
‘You’re half a century nearer Hell.’

Self-pity shrouds me in a mist,
And drowns me in my self-esteem.
The freckled faces I have kissed
Float by me in a guilty dream.
The only constant, sitting there,
Patient and hairless, is a bear.

And if an analyst one day
Of school of Adler, Jung, or Freud
Should take this agèd bear away,
Then, oh my God, the dreadful void!
Its draughty darkness could but be
Eternity, Eternity.


from The Best Loved Poems of John Betjeman (2006) (p. 17-8)

D. J. Enright: All’s Well That Ends, or, Shakespeare Unmasked

I’m afraid he’ll have to go.
He won’t pass muster these days.

Black men he didn’t like: he made them
Proud and gullible and jealous and black
(Good fighters, but otherwise out of their depth).
He didn’t like women, but neither
Was he a frank and manly homosexual.
‘Woman delights not me: no, nor man neither…’
As for Jews, his complaint was that they were
Interested in money, were not Christians, and
If you pricked them they bled all over the place.
They deserved to have their daughters make
Unsuitable marriages.

(Put like that, Jews sound like a lot of us.
I shall have to rewrite this bit.)

A very dangerous man.
Think of all the trouble caused by that
Thoroughly offensive play of his, Coriolanus.
One night it wounded the feelings of the fascists,
The next it wounded the feelings of the communists.

He was anti-Scottish: it took an English army
To settle the hash of that kilted butcher
Macbeth. He made jokes about the Welsh, the
French, the Danes, the Italians, and the Spanish.
He accused a West Indian (or possibly Algerian)
Of trying to rape a white girl unsuccessfully.
If it wasn’t a base Judean he displayed
As criminally careless with pearls, then
It was an equally base Indian. Thank God
He hadn’t heard of the Australians!

To be sure, he was the servant of his public,
A rough unlettered lot, who rarely washed
And dwelt in the polluted alleys of London
Or the corners of slippery palaces. There wasn’t
A drama critic of independent mind among them.
Even so, he must bear most of the blame.
He could have stayed in Stratford and led a
Quiet and useful life.

Worst of all, he believed in good and evil,
And mixed them in a deliberately nasty
And confusing way. A shifty character,
He pictured the human condition as one of
Unending and uneasy struggle, not to be
Resolved in haiku or even a television
Debate. He made difficulties, he made
Much ado about nothing.

Now that we’ve stripped him clean
Of his poetry, we can see him plain.

Plainly he’ll have to go.


from The Faber Book of the Theatre (1993) (p. 242-3)

Les Murray: The Widower in the Country

I’ll get up soon, and leave my bed unmade.
I’ll go outside and split off kindling wood
from the yellow-box log that lies beside the gate,
and the sun will be nigh, for I get up late now.

I’ll drive my axe in the log and come back in
with my armful of wood, and pause to look across
the Christmas paddocks aching in the heat,
the windless trees, the nettles in the yard…
and then I’ll go in, boil water, and make tea.

This afternoon, I’ll stand out on the hill
and watch my house away below, and how
the roof reflects the sun and makes my eyes
water and close on bright webbed visions smeared
on the dark of my thoughts to dance and fade away.
Then the sun will move on, and I will simply watch,
or work, or sleep. And evening will come on.

Getting near dark, I’ll go home, light the lamp
and eat my corned-beef supper, sitting there
at the head of the table. Then I’ll go to bed.
Last night I thought I dreamed – but when I woke
the screaming was only a possum skiing down
the iron roof on little moonlit claws.


from Les Murray: Collected Poems 1961-2002 (2002) (p. 3)