Blackbox manifold

Issue 15: Todd Swift

Donald Davie, Collected Poems 1971-1983

          A poem after reading a Donald Davie Carcanet collection

Severity to such things: 1971-1983

painfully exact

Donald Davie

by way of tact

So 2015 - July 1.


now what is moral, what

merely excess in language

has a place in this garden,

this garden in Dial M for Maida Vale.

Hot days crush roses. Here

we have examples of this.

Count four crushed, bruised, defeated

pink rose bushes, beaten as

at Waterloo.

This being time

and history being in time

just as this heat is in this garden;

so we must note Greece

defaulting. Broken by creditors.


Pound would have a livid field day.


A famous Attic Light.

Reason, drama, art.

We were shaped by a Greece

we now break like ice.

The way we enmesh

ourselves in difficulties,

by custom, by design.

By birth.

Language, financial controls, thought.

Shaped, and shaping, murkily

as if divers in blooded waters


In years, this will mean very little.

The bloom come off the resonance.

A serious book, the Davie,

but the purple cover image

is of cyclists on amusement rides.

An air of seaside provincialism

comfortingly reflects

poems that ‘continue to address

the British readers’. Addresses

don't always reach persons

no longer residing there.

Lost property ensues. Broken

messages. I think of 1971-1983

as a quaint period now

of TV we rarely remember,

or do so with rising panic

finally recognising the illicit behaviour

at the core of British broadcasting culture

paid for by the British viewer.


Time seems a trough between waves.

They batter some port; some beach;

indefinite because unclear the need

to specify that which has no import,

recedes as any rumour, or disproved lie.

It’s unclear the past has much value

if it needs protection from being lost;

what no longer adheres or pertains

remains limitless, like air, unloved

too, though, in its blithe evanescence;

the lyric protrudes like a riding accident;

one could record the exact

topographies, where once present;

where clouds gathered; precipitation

came and went, occurrence.

Topographies, values, levels of seabed

to hillside. The light that alters

the day and then again nothing,

as no day has precedence over any other

except for the visitor to that place.

Compare hawk to pigeon

in your outdated guidebook to

THE SHIRES. So many lives still

and quiet at this hour (five to seven

in the evening). Battles, museums

celebrating what barely happened

in retrospect; it all shimmers; is vague;

is a rumour, a whisper, a ghostly trace,

a closure and a moment of rain.

England, has been, going, for

awhile; the rose bush

tempered by the heat. Heat rising

mid-summer like a killing bird

among the quietude. A rustling

never ends, the styles or forms

of tree in leaf; money continues

to go about its vast estates.

In my English words, an I, a lord

no less, or more, of conquest.

A Greek tonight at Piraeus,

feels the disdain of elemental forces;

a combination of crushing power and distant

disdain. At times, Roman, or Chinese,

American, Russian, French, German

even British - out from central command

it rolls, a thunder that is heard

before the violence of the sky is created

to be seen and made sublime.

Politics as natural disaster -

natural disaster

no human nature can alter

or decide. Fate, empire, under the sea

in a tangle of monstrous properties;

red blooms from the wounds

of war, rolling to the shore.

The rose bush withers, regardless,

remotely spoken for,

or to, or by, power, a poetry

of reference, of studied indifference.

Baseless continuation of what will harm

or sow; the gardener’s tantrum

or sleep forgotten; the shears in sun

on the lawn, attractive.

REFERENDUM. To decide delays

only the moment, not the full sea's breakage.

Dive, with constraint, lucid

or chaotic and afraid; how one speaks

makes only the words different;

beneath the waves of heat or cold

the petals ruin equally. Force being true.

Meister Egghart

manned the abandoned forts

of the farthest plains

upon which the Emperor

had affixed his indifference

by swinging a dead pig

and blooding the map elsewhere.

So Egghart was alone

isolated in his prayer adventures

left to wander

crumbling parapets. Below, jackals

prepared to feast

on a priest. In his head,

heart and soul, Meister

Egghart sensed the beauty

of an entire other world

superimposed just to the right

of our world. In this bright

alternative realm

the jackals were golden retrievers

the Emperor a naked Venus

and these endless wastes

miles and miles of rain forest;

the fire in his groin

never ached; and the ass brayed

the purposeful catechisms of true love

each morning at cock-crow.

Great Malvern

For my grandfather Stanley


He comes late in the day to the town

near the ancient bare hills,

Blue Bird Café, Christian bookshop,

Elgar statue, and estate agents.

No we cannot drive you to the viewings

because once a woman was killed

that way, meet us at the houses.

You must drive yourself. He doesn’t drive.

So he goes without any viewings

about no business there, in the darkening

air of January at four, because

he has no business among these people;

dawdles like a schoolboy in another

shop selling old books sold by the old.

Malvern is dying almost as the sun will,

in stages, first decline then later return.

To discover yourself wander among strangers,

or so he says when in doubt. 


It’s all sad in a lonely widower way –

his walk back down the long hill

to the station branches endlessly; once

he stopped at a high stone wall, for

a Girl’s School, and felt great pressure

on his coat, as if a gale sought to throw

the man he appears to be up among

the silver birches, like a lost exotic bird.

Up in a room of books and music, none

of it of any interest to anyone living now,

he had found himself in a pew, praying

for the dead, as if they could ever know

his needs, which are few, but feel legion.

His needs, really, are sustainable,

and resolve down to an idea of love

formed in that endless long ago

where half the ones he loves are gone,

as if life was a ship always turning over

and letting the old people drown.


His need now was only for a driver to link

Malvern’s scattered houses hid among firs;

homes like strangers dispersing after a pause

to hover by the victim on the pooling corner.

No sea or violence here, in this Priory, this shadowed

village under a high bare hill, burnt cold yellow

in the disadvantaged light, lowering into a bath

of darkness, as if it held onto added railings for safety.

The old grow older, the high trees grow stranger,

the absence of any names he recognises

in the whole region make the wells and wildflowers

almost familiar in comparison, the walking trails,

as if he was only a visitor come for the waters

when Shaw might be holding forth with Waugh;

though his grandfather, he was reliably informed,

was born somewhere among these closed doors,

the locked embers of the sun turning off, away.

The sun is the ageing relation who dies one day,

but you remember them again in how you awake

to revisage yourself in a mirror they bequeathed

you in their contested will; but proven

finally to be valid. So it all comes across to you,

the last one of the line, the bare Swift in the bald

tree, broken by a fist of wind, a thrown stone,

small now and flapping with fading ingenuity,

stiffening under the combing fingers of last lights.


No one visits dying birds to offer them last rites,

they wither in anonymity, as icicles pass on

their tendencies to go to another state, ungrieved.

Most of nature swells and spasms uncalled for,

unproclaimed, these hills and their spawn

throb with a kingdom unbannered. It all praises

itself instead, has to look inwards, reclaims

a sense of being birthplace and grave in one

returning circuit, a walk you could do in an hour,

on foot, following the waymarkers, faces

that do not flash with appreciation or recognition –

you are him, and he is entirely abandoned here,

might as well be from another county, or year;

almost that century before the last one, go on

back into the musty folds of half-eaten mothy trim.

It’s just being on your own, widowed at eventide,

when the lightship flounders on night rocks.


English has been Germanic in structure

for more than a thousand years, comforting,

though the glaciers that melted on this plain

were tens of thousands older; the water has nothing

in it. This is what makes it good said the doctor

who sold the town to the world; absence,

he discovers, losing his way many more times

slowly, is a reminder of goodness. How peace

and silence try to speak our tongue, and fail

nobly. The evening hums with a thought it has

no mode to express, as if locked behind the windows

of the second-hand clothing shops for charities –

for the starving, the prisoners, the cancerous –

we give used things away to what we don’t want

to ever be. We lock up what we offer when night

reminds us we are sleeping creatures, at last.

Malvern shuffles to other lighted spaces inside

and the wandering without neighbours,

homeless if only because unhomed, unaddressed,

has no locksmith to open up the evening,

the facades become facades after all. Open

places close, even the Christians lock up

their chocolate cake, which was stale.


At the station the London train sits for hours

and no one comes to board. It is like a play

that failed. Not a dream only, but also a dream,

this unstaged tableau has the momentous

incidents of a less important fantasy, ages

even as it sinks into being a schedule forgotten

to occur; a book without pages; the printer

out of ink and all the settings smashed by a king

who hates to be spoken to by words.

It has a false truce feel to it, a true false truce,

holding a lost love gone back to being found,

in the way that flowers are in and out

of the ground, the way our names carry us

out of our homelands and townships, up

across seas, to places with other names,

and suddenly being called once, by mother,

father, brother, sister, would add range

to the solar fling, silver the paling edges of light;

but no one calls out your name now, not allowed

in case someone might die in the risk

of stepping out to a lost self, identity

has slipped here into the wells and shadows.

No beauty is greater than going about

without purpose, locating a new rental

in the broken down fields, stones where Swifts

once fled and hid among the waterless stars,

in which, not being water, everything is,

our names, our new needs, and the dead,

who will give us a call, and whistle to train

the conductor to send the engines rolling

down gale-force tracks all the way to London.

What We Knew and When

Ah though we saw the world’s fastest man

we shall not be fast

though we read so many books we felt

like paper and thoughts

we are not paper and won’t be thought

when we run slowly

over the line that is not book

or track; and when we shared a rose

to compare the scent you had

to the one I had, we knew

neither of us would have such perfume

when we slowly ran into the ground

of brooks and lime and black inky soil.

And when we rooted out

our old photographs of being wed,

you all in white, I in magician’s black

we counted the guests who were already

dead, not for any lack

on their part, of trying to be otherwise

but just because, as we knew

it did not matter one jot or iota or pin drop

at all at all whatsoever

what we had done or drawn or sang or sewn

or dashed or browned or blued or blown

or ripped or bruised or danced or tongued

or ranged or banged or singed or soiled;

all our toils and when you bothered me

by cleaning my ears out with a pen,

as if my skull was a dirty poem

you wanted to harvest for something

with a nib; we knew, all along, darling

didn’t we, as we drew lots

and made lists and paid off debts

(for what, for who, like an owl)

it was all more than vain, it was weak;

it was flimsy, it was a few

seconds of running faster than fast

then eons lying fast in a pine box

where no one talks

about what we never couldn’t do

which is go elsewhere better above

such pinions and disappointing news;

we had wanted to park our horses

in a higher, sunnier Mews.

Todd Swift is British-Canadian. He is the Director of Eyewear Publishing. His PhD is from UEA and focuses on style in modern British poetry of the 1940s. His latest collection is The Ministry of Emergency Situations: Selected Poems from Marick Press, USA (2014). His poems have appeared in Poetry (Chicago), Poetry London, Poetry Review, The Moth and Blackbox Manifold, among others. He is married and lives in London.