I do think of it as my first poem, but then I also think of 'The Blickling Hall Poem' as that, and sometimes 'G - the Pataphyscial Sonnet', from my even earlier pamphlet Dedicated to you but you weren't listening, in different moods. I suppose there are other candidates too. But here it is, in one of its revised forms. Another of its forms (a recent one) is a sonnetised 'remode' of part one, in a series of sonnets called 'Miltonics'. (See end of post.) Like the first poem of 'Tombland', it was composed on his 24th birthday.
the Agency, the pub,
the coinshops, the new
on his twenty-fourth birthday,
shelters in yards and doorways,
Talbot’s Cafe, where men
play dominoes, set
before repeat afternoon television.
Passing the old man
headed there; his tartan hat
beacon of you-know-what;
as he says to all passers,
‘Are you now all right?’ spastic-
paralytic fingers twitching.
Answer yes to his eyes,
nothing to nothing.
On; to the
watery Back-of-the-Inns, and round
past Tombland at early dusk,
wet leaves stuck to cobbles
under homing feet.
Monday morning gathers
its tired programme
against a late-winter dawn,
church bells eased by crosswind and traffic.
You hear her
gathering the routine necessities for the day;
half choosing this role, it chooses her.
The great shell
of the house breaks open
as she leaves, door slamming.
Silence gathers in the hollow.
You wait as
not yet object and shade,
against a weatherless sky.
the cementless slabs
of the wall
The loose tatters
of plastic bag in the empty window frames
suck and blow….
The wind wants to force an entry,
picking at crevices,
this shell open,
to declare this place derelict,
to fill it
with rushing absence.
But we, the people,
won’t let it,
huddled close to electric fires.
We won’t let it.
It draws them here,
drunks with cider bottles,
the old graveyard now an
open space, a double
tombland, where punks
rehearse their truant rituals
You settle into the seat,
by your snap decision
for the journey.
You speed from the city,
through breckland and
forest. It’s not escape.
It arrests you,
the difference between cities.
Only the transient
flickers, the distance
between cities, release
you. A parallax trick
the image breaks
or the reflection shatters.
After the day, you plunge into darkness and fog, driving into the heart of the forgotten counties. Near Bury St. Edmund, you pull over onto the shoulder, out of petrol, where the unfinished motorway yields to the narrower road.
You join the three o’clock society of the twenty-four hour transport cafe, witness the one-armed-bandit entertainments of the Norwich to London lorry drivers, over their sausages and chips and highway gossip.
You count out the pennies: enough for one cup of tea and a bar of chocolate.
Five o’clock, after an hour of mist and straight, narrowing road, square miles of darkness packed in close, you enter the scattered outskirts of Norwich. Houses thicken, either side of the road. You find the others home, who set off on foot into the freezing dark, hours before.
You go to bed. The first bird sings the ridge of dawn.
They cannot be folded
onto their own history
these places haunted
by my ideas of them
voices rise inhabit dead
arches choirs of angels
above grunting crumhorns
angelus against dirge
1979-80 (revised often since; completed 2007)
This poem was published in its first version in my The Frightened Summer (Pig Press 1981). I would like to dedicate it to the memory of its publisher Richard Caddel, who it is often forgotten, had East Anglian origins. It was also broadcast as part of a BBC Radio 4 programme on cities in the 1980s, produced by Sue Limb.
Here's the 'Miltonics' remode:
Here's the 'Miltonics' remode:
Tombland: How soon hath Time, the subtle thief of youth
‘Wet, golden-leaved pathways. Past
the Agency, the pub, the coinshops, the new
community bookshop… Poet, on his twenty-
fourth birthday, shelters in yards and doorways
Past Talbot’s Cafe, where men play dominoes,
set before repeat afternoon television. Passing
the old man headed there – his tartan hat beacon
of you-know-what – as he says to all passers,
paralytic fingers twitching, “Are you now all right?”
Answer yes to his eyes, nothing to nothing. On;
to the watery Back-of-the-Inns, and round past
Tombland at early dusk, late-autumn afternoon,
wet leaves stuck to cobbles under homing feet.’
Milton Sonnet VII: 1632/1979/2007/Remode 2014