A Love and its Sounding [Paperback]

A Love and Its Sounding

Chris’s verse biography of T.S. Eliot, with companion essays and a foreword by Anne Stevenson. In a review Frances Young called this poem ‘a work of extraordinary originality and generative power’ (Reviews in Religion and Theology). A version of this poem, set for eight voices, was performed in Manhattan by Ground-Up Productions (2008).

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In my black hat

Thora Dardel sees her portrait by Modigliani for the first time in forty-six years.

I am not the woman you see sitting in the corner
at the private view. My name is Dardel.
In nineteen nineteen, in Montparnasse,
I was painted by the dying Modigliani.
He sketched me in a café. He devoured me
with his eyes. He took me
to Rue de la Grande-Chaumiére, number eight.

I see you hesitate. Yes, how faded I have become.
You ask whether he was good to be with, this Amedeo?
Ah no. He drank continually, and spat blood,
and still if Jeanne had not been there, and the child,
he would have consumed me.

I could see her in a small painting behind his head –
a long oval face with almond eyes,
heart-stopping, lovely, cursed eyes
that cursed you as you looked at them.
The flat smelled of coal dust.
As you see I wore my black hat
and kept my hands in my lap.

I have lived in Paris, and Stockholm,
and Montevideo. I have family who love me.
But tonight at last it is clear.
I am not the woman you see sitting in the corner
stiffly, slow-speaking, preferring her own company.

I am that young student,
in thrall to a dying painter,
in love with Nils Dardel,
sitting in my black hat
with my head on one side

and I always shall be.

Coming to terms

Where are these terms
they are telling me
I must come to?

What they are saying to me
is that I am not as they are
(they thank their God)

But I could be – will be –
when I have come –
as they put it – to terms.

I nod my head
I do not say
(for this would make them uncomfortable)

That terms is a place
I do not want to come to
for that would be to say

that you are gone
that this colour of sky
the streets at evening

empty, endlessly walked,
this sound of dawn
this scent of waking alone

are the real colours, sounds,
scents of things,
without you there.

That my dream
in which you lie by my side

and tell me again of your love
and kiss my heart better
is a dream.

Terms is a place
of present tenses
laboriously corrected to past.

It is down a long tunnel –
once I get in there I might lose sight
of the lines of your face.

Coming to terms would mean accepting
that others have felt this before
and will again.

that these conversations
in which I tell you everything
are only one-way.

Terms might even be a place
where I had parted with your clothes
packed up your books, your music.

Terms is a far-off country
It lies beyond
many stilted storytellings.

I do not choose
to come there.

Reprinted from Rain falling by the River (Canterbury Press, 2017)

West Highland Sonnet

There is a sort of sadness, always, to these
glaciated landscapes. The hills lie scoured.
Recent ice, slow-dragged across corries
and cols, dumping debris thus devoured
on drab moraines, leaves a scarred sense,
weaves a slow traumatised song
much attacked by dissonance, dense
like late Beethoven, bleak, deaf-sung.

The Black Cuillins are the Grosse Fuge of the set –
strange, spiky, insistent to the edge of sanity
as to what must be – structure, at its limit,
shatters, leaving movement the only unity –
the theme, jagged, leaping, which redeems
a scoured sadness driven to extremes.

West Highland Sonnet

Woman in blue reading a letter

A young Dutchwoman, big with child.
We see her from the left, facing the light,
Clutching in her hands a single sheet of paper.

Vermeer has so arranged the space, the light,
The stillness, the shape of the face of the woman,
That our imagination streams to the paper;
We would like to snatch it from her hands,
To know what will become of her and the child –
Whether she has been blessed, or summoned, or left.

Good fiction would seem to demand she has been left,
That these fine chairs, this generous Delft light
Will not keep company with her and her child.
So we sigh, so we prepare to follow the woman
As she loses her looks, the smoothness of her hands,
Doomed to the poorhouse by the single sheet of paper.

Or we can choose what is on the pale cream paper.
We can summon the text from dozens of samples, left
Us by Mrs Woolf, Miss Austen, Henry James. It is in our hands.
We can suffuse the letter with the pure light
Of resurrected love. Or we can arrange that the woman
Is destroyed, by three short lines that speak of another child.

Such is our power, as imaginers. We give her one child,
Or two, or four. We send her the fine laid paper
From her lover in Amsterdam, or from the other woman,
Who also lives in Delft, third street on the left,
And hates her for the gentleness with which light
Falls on her young face, for the grace of those slim hands.

She is stillness itself. She keeps her hands
Close, almost resting on her blue jacket, her belly big with child.
Behind her is a map. Against its parchment a white diamond of light
Which is the folded head of the fateful piece of paper.
The map is of America. At its extreme left
Uncertain chartings of Baja California. Perhaps the woman

Is an explorer. So poised, studious, she is a woman
Ahead of her time. She holds possibilities in her hands,
Dreams of some Van Diemens Land. We are left
Any number of conjurings with letter, woman, child.
But she alone can be sure what is on the piece of paper,
For she has lain long with Vermeer, in that generous Delft light.

Palimpsest – A Prayer

I have been in your in-tray all my life
Though I did not know it
And thought I wrote
My own itinerary
In my own alphabet
On the rough, second-grade vellum
You had provided.

I cannot read those old destinations
Now – nor have I love enough
To regret them. I can only peer
Into the bare, summary logia
Running from future to past across
My much-corrupted palimpsest.
Your Aramaic style is good, although
They say you could not write,
And knew no Greek,
And told good stories,
Lived and died them.

Hold up the parchment, Lord,
Scrape the surface clean.
It is scored through and through
With failed love for virtue,
Obscuring the Kingdom’s character-set.
Inscribe me a song to sing –
And give me the prodigal’s part;
I know by heart the song
Of the other brother.

Write in light, Lord,
That I may still read
When my blood cools,
Still remember
When my song fails,
Still catch sight of you
When I sit to write,
Or share
In breaking bread.

Promising the Moon in Hell

(from Beyond the Bitter Wind: poems 1982-2000 [Shoestring Press])

There must be a minor circle of hell, I think,
where the occupants, free from boiling oil
or sulphur, unprodded with pitchforks,
distant from Satan’s icy rage,
are immersed instead in grant applications.

Fifty copies must be sent. In each
the applicant must promise
that in the course of the project
speeding locomotives will be overtaken,
work of peerless genius brought to birth.

The great and the good must appear as referees
(not, in hell, such a problem to contact them).
The perfect padded envelope must be found
at the bottom of a vast basket
of similar envelopes. No material

of any human interest may be enclosed.
At terminals and desk-top publishing packages
they sit, their crime on earth
too much unregenerate desire
to set their mark upon the world

as poets, scholars, persons of letters.
And every form comes back the same:
Application Excellent. Funding Denied.
Fifty copies must be sent. In each
the applicant must promise…

Ash – Six poems for a borrowed Alsation puppy

1. Early morning walk

First mists of sunrise.

I struggle with the gate into the top field –

you have already surged your puppy mind

through it (having whined and wriggled

round and under)

go headlong for the slope.

Exercising forethought,

I wonder if one of those shapes

on the ridge is a bull.

You saw your first cow

yesterday, cannot be expected to know.

You do not look back

to the vast view of morning,

oak-crowns through the mist,

the gift of morning. You yank me on

beyond fog and forethought.

2. Ball under chair

Ball under chair

stretch a nose

stretch a paw

bark at it

stalk it –

pretend to ignore it

try another toy


seek help.

Much the way I came

to prayer.

3. Asleep

Asleep. A bundle of paws

fat and tawny like those of lions.

Ears twitching faintly,

Ash sleeps the sleep of the young

gathering their strength.

His head is heavy with learning:

a first greenfinch,

smell of our river.

As I watch

stomach and rump begin to shiver,

dreams set in;

pose changes. The head thrust forwards,

paws back, gathered in pairs,

imitating a caveman’s antelope

or a heraldic supporter

asleep at his post.

4. Even earlier walk

At this appalling hour,

light only barely lifting

mist pockets off hedges,

I notice secrets

(wrestling with frozen binder twine):

a fox pursuing his purposes

past a line of statue cattle,

a buzzard, low, incessant,

far mew from his noonday soaring,

scours the rabbit graze.

Not so secretly the same three coal tits

as every morning

start from the same thorn bush;

you point ears at them

as though they had just been created

without your approval.

Three plunging fields later

we straggle back

into the first sun

which studs dewed leaves with brilliancy

and one of us is tired.

5. haiku

Rain. The stinging, blind

soak of it. Rain, the one thing

puppies don’t notice.

6. Memories of Ash

Your bark – three times the weight of you.

The things you chewed.

Your wearisome jealousy, whining

at the least hug we gave each other.

The depths of your puppy-sleep after a good walk.

Most of all one leap

at a stick hurled

twenty feet above you.

It cartwheeled into the wet hillside;

you shoulder-plunged after it

as dogs do. But first you jumped

your whole body following its line of flight

weightless of care or calculation:

joy can be.

Chris’s recent presentations

Chris’s recent presentations include:

  • Addressing the 2022 Methodist Conference
  • The 2022 Boyle Lecture at St Mary-le-Bow, London
  • A reading at the Church Times Poetry Festival, Sarum College
  • A reading at Regent’s Park College, Oxford, with response by Professor Jakob Lothe
  • A workshop at Columbia University Creative Writing Program.
  • Two sessions at the Greenbelt Festival
  • The 2016 Gowland Lecture at the Science and Religion Forum Conference, Birmingham