•April 28, 2015 • Leave a Comment

A moon poem by Langston Hughes. In the present climate it needs little comment: only to note that ‘in the dark of the moon’ introduces a series of sharp inversions to the binaries of darkness and light, followed closely by black/white, and most bitterly, bad/good; all of which might make us doubt we always ‘see’ so clearly the darknesses in language such as ‘gentle’ and ‘protects’.


Southern gentle lady
Do not swoon.
They’ve just hung a black man
In the dark of the moon.

They’ve hung a black man
To a roadside tree
In the dark of the moon
For the world to see
How Dixie protects
Its white womanhood.

Southern gentle lady,
Be good!
Be good!

Our sentimental friend the moon

•February 18, 2015 • Leave a Comment

I’m not sure why ‘Conversation Galente’ by T.S.Eliot has not come to mind before. Appearing in Prufrock and Other Observations (1917) this is a moon poem that knows its past. T.E.Hulme’s moony effort is, surely, an influence (I’ve not checked, but the link between them would doubtless be Ezra Pound). I would also rather like Yeats’s poem ‘Balloon of the Mind’ to be in there somewhere:

Balloon of the Mind

Hands, do what you’re bid:
Bring the balloon of the mind
That bellies and drags in the wind
Into its narrow shed.

This may be wishful thinking, although the Eliot’s poem is composed about the same time: Yeats’s poem is published in book form in 1919. They are both poems about difficulty of self-control: though the will-o-the-wisp presence of the legendary benign ruler Prester John does nothing to prevent the self-control of Eliot’s poem nearly disintegrating. Most obviously, even in its title, Eliot’s verse refers to its French origins. Any number of Jules Laforgue poems with their spoken asides, sombre ironies, and moonlit pierrots lie behind the tone and tenor of this apparently world-weary, woman-weary jesting dialogue. And something in this poem’s bones knows well that such conversational jests and sallies are an echo of the middle ages’ gestes and sallirs,* the kind of jesting gestures of devotion in vocalized verse that got troubadours or trouveres into such trouble.

Mary Binder 1918

It seems fitting to look into the dusty back room of this poem, as not only does it come from the pen of an inveterate borrower, who noted in his essay on ‘Philip Massinger’ that ‘immature poets imitate, mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different’ (The Sacred Wood, 1920); not only this, but the theme involves the inevitable borrowings and cliches of art and the still more inevitable borrowings of speech, typified here by a replayed, desiccated conversation at sour cross-purposes. The very words of the poem themselves seem weighed down by being already spoken, rehearsed on some other night, some other century, burdened all the more as they take on a kind of desperate lightness. Notwithstanding all the hot air the balloon of this conversation barely gets off the ground.

And what could be more cliched than the moon? Excepting perhaps  a work of art about it. Chopin’s Nocturnes or perhaps Debussy’s ‘Clair de Lune’ take a turn only to find that even that most affecting art, music, can ‘only body forth vacuity’. Schoenberg’s moon-drunk Pierrot Lunaire might have something to say here. Mind you, no one in the poem really listens: the conversation is a joust of unerring unhearing pretension whose misogynist flavour is not allayed by its finicking politeness — ‘you, madam’ — or by the sense that the woman takes on the traditional female aspect of the fickle moon, who is thus perhaps obliquely addressed in the final stanza.

What then can we rescue from what comes dangerously close to a self-obsessed affectation of indifference? A sulky adolescent behind slammed door nonetheless complaining that the world does not appreciate him? This is perhaps what an (unsigned) TLS review of Eliot’s first book meant to convey: ‘the fact that these things occurred to the mind of Mr. Eliot is surely of the very smallest importance to anyone, even to himself. They certainly have no relation to poetry‘. But they do, and we must salvage something. We are left with the feeling that these mad poetics might be serious, as understood by that last strangely penetrating question. The poem speaks from the edge of madness. The balloon of the mind is stretched almost to burst. Our speaker knows he will not be heard, but desperately speaks his despair and incoherence in language that has gone dead. At least, being poor, borrowed, and battered, the language he speaks seems to know its deadness. This is little comfort though if he speaks, as he seems to, for a whole culture. If he is mad, this is distressing, and all our indifference pitiable; if he is not mad then language and culture teeter on the edge of meaninglessness. The pierrot figure may not be wearing his costume in this poem but he plays the fool; on the other hand, he is not joking.

Conversation Galante

I observe: “Our sentimental friend the moon!
Or possibly (fantastic, I confess)
It may be Prester John’s balloon
Or an old battered lantern hung aloft
To light poor travellers to their distress.”
She then: “How you digress!”

And I then: “Some one frames upon the keys
That exquisite nocturne, with which we explain
The night and moonshine; music which we seize
To body forth our own vacuity.”
She then: “Does this refer to me?”
“Oh no, it is I who am inane.”

“You, madam, are the eternal humorist,
The eternal enemy of the absolute,
Giving our vagrant moods the slightest twist!
With your aid indifferent and imperious
At a stroke our mad poetics to confute—”
And—“Are we then so serious?”

* a geste is a heroic deed, an act, and thence a story or song about one, later an idle tale; a sally is a sortie, a military term from Fr sallir, to leap. Both then were once in deadly earnest.

Football at Slack

•July 8, 2014 • Leave a Comment

A departure in honour of the world cup: not a moon poem, but it does have an flying orb, and a final sun. It comes from Ted Hughes’s mordant Remains of Elmet (1979), an elegy in landscape for lost generations made religious by Wesleyan hymns, made to work by industrialized concerns, and then lost in the First World War. The book comes with photographs by Fay Godwin: brooding, magnificent black and white images, some featuring grey gradations of mist, or wet cobblestones, others pairing shafts of light cutting through cloud with shafts of churches and industrial towers black against the sky. Elmet is the old kingdom of West Yorkshire, the Calder valley near Heptonstall, north of Halifax: Bronte country. Like the photographs, most of the poems in the volume are not populated: but this poem is, and by shouts that cause heaven to take note. The lowering cloud over the whole volume lifts just for a moment – to reveal a ‘holocaust’, literally a burnt offering. This momentarily uplifting sporting post is also in honour of the Tour de France, which cut through this same landscape with such colour this weekend. The Tour has moved on to Ypres, perhaps the final destination for some of these footballers, many of whom brought their balls and shouts to the Western Front, explaining I suppose the vocabulary of glares, steel, darkening, glooms, fiery holes, plunging, foundering and even blown balls that underlies and perhaps undercuts the poem’s buoyancy. If someone in heaven is looking on fondly they might also be jealous to take these footballers back, too soon.

Football at Slack

Between plunging valleys, on a bareback of hill
Men in bunting colours
Bounced, and their blown ball bounced.

The blown ball jumped, and the merry-coloured men
Spouted like water to head it.
The ball blew away downwind –

The rubbery men bounced after it.
The ball jumped up and out and hung on the wind
Over a gulf of treetops.
Then they all shouted together, and the ball blew back.

Winds from fiery holes in heaven
Piled the hills darkening around them
To awe them. The glare light
Mixed its mad oils and threw glooms.
Then the rain lowered a steel press.

Hair plastered, they all just trod water
To puddle glitter. And their shouts bobbed up
Coming fine and thin, washed and happy

While the humped world sank foundering
And the valleys blued unthinkable
Under depth of Atlantic depression –

But the wingers leapt, they bicycled in air
And the goalie flew horizontal

And once again a golden holocaust
Lifted the cloud’s edge, to watch them.



•September 29, 2013 • Leave a Comment

This post is somewhat of a departure, though it is also a return. Fewer moons than usual perhaps, but plenty of sun and celestial alignments. And as with oysters themselves the moon assists the lapping of the tides. It is written in part to celebrate a poem by Seamus Heaney called ‘Oysters’:


Our shells clacked on the plates.
My tongue was a filling estuary,
My palate hung with starlight:
As I tasted the salty Pleiades
Orion dipped his foot into the water.

Alive and violated,
They lay on their bed of ice:
Bivalves: the split bulb
And philandering sigh of ocean
Millions of them ripped and shucked and scattered.

We had driven to that coast
Through flowers and limestone
And there we were, toasting friendship,
Laying down a perfect memory
In the cool of thatch and crockery.

Over the Alps, packed deep in hay and snow,
The Romans hauled their oysters south to Rome:
I saw damp panniers disgorge
The frond-lipped, brine-stung
Glut of privilege.

And was angry that my trust could not repose
In the clear light, like poetry or freedom
Leaning in from sea. I ate the day
Deliberately, that its tang
Might quicken me all into verb, pure verb.

One sunny day two weekends ago I went on a meandering cycling trip through Oranmore and Renvyle past the castles and inlets of Galway Bay. My thought was to steer towards the oyster festival in Clarenbridge: I had been drawn there by the poem’s imperative to action, my way of marking the death of Seamus Heaney. As I arrived the festival itself, a tented disappointment of blaring music, had barely begun: the high heels and black ties, attracted by the unseasonal sun, still lingered outside the pub. It was here in Clarenbridge, however, that I happened upon two landscape prints sunning themselves outside an antiques shop. Even from a distance they appeared elegantly conceived; looking closer it was obvious they were beautifully, exquisitely drawn. Both were signed in the corner DEL ET LITH EDWARD LEAR. Now while Edward Lear is really best known as a Victorian writer of nonsense verse and limericks, this reminded me that he was a proper artist too, and most people can recall that his verses are illustrated with whimsical little drawings. The prints were views of Italy, drawn from the hilly countryside surrounding Rome, with those distinctive Italian stone pines familiar from Turner’s paintings like ‘The Golden Bough’, the young Yeats’s favourite picture in the National Gallery, London. Their heavy heads and the softly shaded buildings perfectly captured the end of summer – while the details of the foreground foliage and the delicacy of the draftmanship convinced me that the artist must have had proper botanical training, this being the era of that sort of thing: remembering Darwin’s sketches, and Ruskin’s naturalist imperatives. Moreover, the fact that this was not a second-hand engraving but that the artist had executed the lithograph himself suggested a real dedication to craft, confirmed by the disciplined but easy connection of eye and hand. In fact as it turned out Lear was no ordinary artist: he’d worked since he was very young on ornithological drawings and prints until his eyes gave out. Suffering too from epilepsy and lung disease he had come south, spending much of the rest of his life travelling the Mediterranean and the Near East drawing and painting landscapes with an exquisite range and contrast of colour as well as the bold gradations of tone evident in these lithographs. All the while he was accumulating scraps of nonsense verse, which, slightly to his chagrin, were what made his name when published in London. Perhaps it is the air of melancholy behind their whimsy and exoticism that keeps them nearer to mind than his more painstakingly ‘serious’ art, but he is remembered even now more for nonsense than an evident capacity for sublimity.

Mosada (or Sebbeh) on the Dead Sea (1858)

Mosada (or Sebbeh) on the Dead Sea (1858)

Remarkably, since coming across them in the 1950s David Attenborough had been building a collection of Lear’s bold early ornithological drawings, recently reprinted by the Folio society in a limited edition. Attenborough describes his enthusiasm for prints like that below here, taking an anthropologist’s wry view of collectors. Last year it seems was also Lear’s 200th birthday, provoking an anniversary Ashmolean exhibition that sadly I missed.

Ramphastos Toco, Folio Society

Ramphastos Toco, from John Gould: A Monograph of the Ramphastidae, or Family of Toucans (1834)

So all in all I really should have known him rather better.

The more I looked at the his prints, the more I felt I could not leave them behind, even if the paper was significantly foxed by west of Ireland damp, and it was clear my bicycle panniers could not fit them. I enquired and the nice lady at the shop said she’d let them go at EU80 for the pair, which was pretty much a bargain I thought, given that almost anything framed is worth about that much. There were spaces on the wall ready for them in my new flat. I detemined to return and claim them, and ever since when the clouds clear they have been at my French windows bathing in the sun, which helps bleaches out the foxing. Meanwhile in low light the gradated tones of the lithograph really overpower any discolouration, and beyond this they are simply marvellous, in composition, tone, detail, everything.

Rome from above Porta Portese (1841)

Rome from above Porta Portese (1841)

It turned out the prints I acquired were two from this sequence, ‘Rome from above Porta Portese’ (above) and ‘Frascati’ (below), printed for publication in a book, Views of Rome and Its Environs (1841). This probably makes them not very rare, but if in good condition they’d be worth around £300 each so I decided that despite culpable ignorance of the artist my eye was in shape.

Frascati (1841)

Frascati (1841)

Interestingly, as well as Lear’s work featuring in many collections like the Asmolean and the National Gallery, here is confimation of the Met’s holding of another of the series – handcoloured but not necessarily by Lear himself, apparently.

Anyway, especial thanks to Dan and Sue who helped me pick up the carefully wrapped prints in a car and ferry them home. To celebrate the acquisition we had a fine chowder and crab salad down the road at Moran’s Oyster Cottage, bathing outside in more unseasonal sun. Inside, in the cool of thatch and crockery, it was companionable to imagine Seamus Heaney eating oysters and quickening into ‘verb, pure verb’. After all this was where he conceived ‘Oysters’, a poem he read aloud once more this summer in Galway. In toasting friendship we were also toasting generosity of imagination. In Clarenbridge, Galway, I had found Italy: and all this from a poem which imagines in damp panniers its salty goods returning horseback, ice-bound, to Rome.

An August Night

•September 29, 2013 • Leave a Comment

It is hard to know what to say about death. Words are often dry and inadequate. But one poet, whose own recent death leaves the world the poorer, approached the topic with more adequacy than most. So many of Seamus Heaney’s poems of recent years delve into gaps and moments of memory, as a way perhaps of keeping alive the dead, or of trying to let them go. His method was less grand than Yeats’s summoning ghosts, and sidles up to its subject by sometimes the most unluminous of details. This warm and small moon poem, probably concerning the poet’s father, is imagist in brevity but somehow contains more overflowing subjective feeling than many imagist glimpses. Taken from the collection Seeing Things (1991), it is I think quietly making a claim about certain kinds of seeing, when as here a memory turns strange, and fittingly luminous.

An August Night

His hands were warm and small and knowledgeable
When I saw them again last night, they were two ferrets,
Playing all by themselves in a moonlit field.

Seamus Heaney (1939-2013)


•August 2, 2013 • Leave a Comment

The following moon poem comes from a new collection called Parallax, from the Northern Irish poet Sinead Morrissey, published this summer by Carcanet. It is such a thoughtful poem I hope I might be forgiven for including it here:


A beautiful cloudless morning. My toothache better.
William at work on The Pedlar. Miss Gell
left a basket of excellent lettuces; I shelled
our scarlet beans. Walked out after dinner for letters—
met a man who had once been a Captain begging for alms.


The afternoon airy and warm. No letters. Came home
via the lake, which was near-turquoise
& startled by summer geese.
The soles on this year’s boots are getting worn.
Heard a tiny wounded yellow bird, sounding its alarm.


William as pale as a basin, exhausted with altering…
I boiled up pears with cloves.
Such visited evenings are sharp with love
I almost said dear, look. Either moonlight on Grasmere

—like herrings!—

or the new moon holding the old moon in its arms.

This poem opens the collection, after an epigraph defining the overall title ‘parallax’ drawn from the OED. It’s not hard to think then that the volume, and the poem, should be concerned with differences in position of the point of observation, and how this affects the things we see. Observing an object from different points and measuring the tiny differences in angle is how we tell how far away something is: vital for astronomy, but also for our everyday lives. Humans’ depth perception works because we have two eyes of different positions able to look at the same object – and if you’ve ever tried to play ping pong with one eye closed you’ll appreciate its importance. Parallax, parallaxis or alteration in Greek, has some historical associations with Ireland: Leopold Bloom muses on the term in James Joyce’s Ulysses, while Dougal in Father Ted is given an important lesson about how some sheep appear small, but are in fact just far away. Maybe the title is there to remind us that things which loom large might just happen to be near to us – and things which appear small might be of undiscerned and surprising importance. And making these kinds of observations and judgements can indeed be seen as the purview of the poet.

Accordingly the first line of the poem does juxtapose things far and near. Associating as it does a beautiful cloudless morning and a toothache it throws together, with faint comic timing, a classic poetical observation and a (too?) intimate personal detail. The tone is allowed because we are overhearing Dorothy Wordsworth noting down observations in her journal. We know this because she says her brother William is at work on ‘The Pedlar’, a poem itself concerned with far and near and autobiographical reflection. But although quirky, the catholicity of Dorothy Wordsworth’s observations seem to be part of the point – to the extent (with their short sentences and shorthand &s) they make the poem we are reading live, they are an example for poets to follow. William’s weary corrections on a poem never completed to his satisfaction mean, for the time being at least, he misses the kind of things a poet might be expected to notice. The poem seems to subscribe to the idea that Dorothy Wordsworth was as much a poet as her brother, something any reader of her Journal (OUP, 1991, mentioned in the collection’s notes), would find convincing. ‘Parallax’ then implies the existence of a male and female perspective; perhaps in the relative attention given to small things, but also in the relative scrutiny their work has attracted (even by the devoted Dorothy Wordsworth herself).

All of which makes the title of the poem interesting. For any Irish poet to title a poem with a date implicitly associates it with other dated poems – from the rousing national ballad ‘Who fears to speak of ’Ninety-Eight’ to Yeats’s extraordinary trinity of poems ‘September 1913’, ‘Easter 1916’, ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’, all of them concerned with sometime violent public events and the value of art. This poem’s date, 1801, is more readily associated with the Act of Union between Great Britain and Ireland, and all of the troubles that came after. Again though the poem ‘1801’ reminds us there were other things happening in 1801 – and that if we look again we might see them, in their ability to alter consciousness, as of equal, or even greater importance. If even William Wordsworth didn’t quite see this – ‘dear, look’ – we’ll have quite a bit of work ahead of us to do so. Reading this most carefully observed volume might be a good start.

So to the moon, the thing we are directed to observe. Pale as a basin, William Wordsworth is perhaps also a little moony, but presumably doesn’t actually see this moon as Dorothy does not in the end direct him: ‘I almost said dear, look’. We do, though, and twice: the surprising ‘herrings!’ I have to imagine as moonlight playing on the lake water (rather than ‘lapping with low sounds by the shore’ as in Yeats’s ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’), and the observation of the last line is so beautiful and surprising and yet inevitable it perhaps needs little comment. Still, O yes: as the nearest big thing to the earth, the moon attracts the largest maximum parallax of any celestial body. We can observe the moon from different ends of the earth, high above or on the horizon, and unlike for the faraway stars such angles of parallax are easily measurable, as much as one degree. Lunar parallax in particular not only tells how far away the moon is but something about ourselves. My Australian-born mother always remembers being surprised that it was not just a story but northern hemisphere moons actually do seem to have a man in them: to see him smiling in the southern hemisphere you have to turn upside down and look between your legs. So there really are more ways to see the moon than anything else in the heavens, especially if you see it in a lake; which indeed the moon’s position as an inveterate poetic symbol for so many things would suggest. It would be daft then to try to pin down the symbolism of the poem’s final line, which suggests something generative, cradling. Only that not simply concerning this moon but as a whole, both poem and collection certainly remind us to look at things differently. Poetry though is not just about our own observation: and Parallax is carefully framed and focussed to show us there is always more than one view.

Dark leopards of the moon

•February 17, 2013 • Leave a Comment

A lesser-known moon poem from a poet nonetheless well known for his poems about moons. Despite the deliciously mock-decorous tone of ‘those most noble ladies’ the title and the closing lines make it clear this is an impassioned lament about the vanishing of the images and visions and creatures of the imagination. On the other hand the loose unravelling lines prophesy a coming freedom – and control – in the poet’s verse.

Lines Written in Dejection

When have I last looked on
The round green eyes and the long wavering bodies
Of the dark leopards of the moon?
All the wild witches, those most notable ladies,
For all their broom-sticks and their tears,
Their angry tears, are gone.
The holy centaurs of the hills are vanished;
I have nothing but the embittered sun;
Banished heroic mother moon and vanished,
And now that I have come to fifty years
I must endure the timid sun.

W.B.Yeats (1915)

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