poems by Philip Holmes Professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering
The following poems are selected from Lighting the Steps: Poems
published in 2002 by Anvil Press Poetry, London. Copyright 2002
by Philip Holmes.
The Delegates Go to the Great Wall
Manufactured in Japan, the minibus
is packed with us – distinguished visitors –
who set off, speaking of equations, spaces, spectra,
while villages bounce past in dust or tumble
up the chaotic, shaven hills, which suddenly
ten-roofed pagodas magical as fairy tales
punctuate with startling green tiles.
Bicycles and tottering, pedalled loads
of sand, cement, steel reinforcing-rods,
chickens, melons, TV-sets, caged crickets –
pulled and pushed by feet, hands, and the much-repaired
vehicles of those nations once most-favoured –
slow travel to a dusty crawl between
the perfect fields as small as living rooms,
which rooms here are smaller yet.
The hills are bulbous now and fields die out.
Few trees remain apart from those fresh-planted
in ordered rows against the stripping wind
that brings the Gobi’s dust into Beijing and,
without those trees, would take its soil far East.
Look: up there now, the outcrops snap their teeth.
But no: it is the Wall! A dragon's backbone
zigzagged in calm sunlight on six thousand
li of hills: the edge of government and so
the very world. We are informed, with criticism
of the former ways but not without a certain pride,
that a mason’s body, or a soldier’s, or a peasant’s
lies beneath each stone. And so we have arrived.
Minutes past the stalls of teeshirts, ivory, cloisonne
and Fujifilm, we are climbing, ladder-like, this Wall,
here populous with giggling families and soldiers
pictured, posed against the freshly-mortared blocks.
But iust beyond the first watchtower’s square,
slabs tilt into the earth between the unrestored
fce walls, and crowds pass out of mind.
Only the wind, already in September cool,
perturbs a thousand miles of northern grass
bringing a murmur of the salt-pans and the desert.
Behind our backs the Middle Kingdom seethes
in plan and contradiction. Noon’s coal dust settles
from a million cooking fires on the sultry courts
and gardens and the fantastic lions on the eaves.
Facing these northern hills that shade to blue,
It’s easy to return a thousand years and be
a small official, a district magistrate once more
devoted to the law, sometime a dilettante
too fond of wine and art; perhaps a tax-collector,
part of the larger state: in any case, secure
within its boundaries that make of chaos, sense.
Or seem to. There is a process: axioms, evidence
assembled, proof and theorem follow. One must digest,
repeat the Classics, pass all exams, and (should the Heavens
will it) remain in favour, even prosper. Yet it is best
to stay some distance from the centre: powers sits
uneasily in the close air: a fit or freak of weather
can overthrow a generation's work and be one's end.
To the city-born this province is the end.
The Empire is the only order that I know.
The hills run off towards what has no name.
My opera is the wolf and crow. My former friends
address their rituals and policy a thousand miles away,
ignorant of the barbarians massing on the plain,
whose fires at night are many as the stars.
Exile and silence at this outpost on the Wall
have given need and means to think on what
has brought me here, what keeps this province
and its people scraping the wretched soil to yield
Lords and Emperor their share. Wall-soldiers
shiver in the autumn wind, but the ideals and all
the State’s beliefs I have held close are colder still.
So let them go. But how then construe the world
and men without that one order? Better to keep it,
for ‘the people are like children who must be so
corrected.’ I can turn away or turn a closed eye
against ‘unfortunate necessity,’ who have helped
the Governor, my friend, sated after a fine meal,
judge a child who stole a cup of rice.
Loss and confusion tumble on the sudden wind,
rattling the cherry’s leaves. A burst of rain darkens
the stones. If my page stay blank, or I should sit
too late, cold at the open window, it is to let
that chaos in which has no place as yet. Close
behind my back the rules unravel and a larger fate
takes shape to sweep us all towards the night.
I I I
Noon’s heat resumes the air. Hermit, sage,
reformed Red Guard, peasant-capitalist and Commissar
prepare themselves for rest. In the Forbidden City,
in the Emperor’s Hall of Time, exquisite instruments,
the regulators of affairs, his clocks, the gifts
of Kings and Tsars, stand stopped in dust,
the same that dries and cracks our lips today.
A chainsaw or a tractor irrupts and interrupts
this reverie and then the guides appear, gesticulating
to us to rejoin the group. Reconstructing, China makes
no room for solitaries, least of all among her visitors.
The bus and lunch and Thirteen Tombs will wait
no longer. Leaving the wind and empty hills behind,
we’re taken on to see the crowded balance of our day.
The old streets have gone and the black town
centre’s pointed, clean and priced beyond belief,
and the light without falls sweet on the green grain.
Summer breathes on the country. Tree crowns
unfold a cultivated picture of the place, where days
once lay down for years in the streets of a black town.
New plans overlie the locks and boarded station
but by the grey sheds the coal’s grit leaves
still on my palm a few sharp, black grains.
Gardens among the docks and bricks cleaned of stains
have made most desirable these tall warehouse walls.
Even the street's names have changed in the new town.
Paint blisters on the last gate. Behind this one,
perhaps, stood a house, a room I called ours.
My fingers brush lightly the splintered grain,
and the street with its quite ordinary traffic returns
to eyes swimming against the sun, before which
old friends are gone from sight and the towns
turning to light fade with the golden grain.
When it seems that part of my life
must have belonged to another, someone
more suitable, deserving what notice
has fallen my way and knowing precisely what to do
next; it’s as if I woke half way here, to days
couched in these alien symbols
with which I might pretend a certain facility,
adept at seeming to manage them,
but not (it now becomes clear) well;
for I find myself walking on stage to applause
from the darkened hall, bowing, and about to sit
at the open instrument, innocent of every note.
Theory and Practice
Leonardo’s fabulous machines
in metalpoint and pen and softly washed
flex and flap their varnished wings.
Suspended under or within them, knuckelled,
near-bewitched, thought-pilots pedal the mind’s air;
their small, bound figures furiously churn or row
with forces greater than his theories would allow,
but every struggle’s fitted neatly to the page
among capstans, angels, levers, blocks and flowers.
‘I can master water or the whirlwind’s rage,
fix likenesses in bronze, on walls, in wood;
I have built winches, cranes and cannonades
to satisfy a Prince’s every wish. I can
interrogate the least element of nature’s art,
and plot the vortices of river, age or heart.’
The contract gained, decked with honours due,
he will retire to a crabbed solitude
and cultivation of those arts which quite belie
these grand and foolish claims.
For Ilana, 1990
Our smallest daughter said
that all night dreaming filled her head,
keeping her warmer than the covers
bunched about her bed.
Why not? When she’s awake,
from rooms apart we hear her busy voice
building another family with all its troubled love
and complicated noise.
Entering the Cloud Layer
As flaps go down and the engines throttle back,
into the cloud tops,
know the exact moment when,
breaking the double window-glass, I could
out and jump that forty feet
land half-stunned on vaporous cliffs,
their turf as springy as a California lawn.
song excites the hedges in that street
shadow columns tilt across a wall
from grounds of a house set back too far
white leaves substantial in the air:
world in negative, steaming before the rain.
It’s as if a future held in trust and closed
suddenly divided to allow one past,
entering, I’d straighten to look up
from that other place, past shifting coasts and bays,
the wholly-polished, clear absence
still descending through.