The Flight of the Sparrow

‘My lord, although we cannot know
The mysteries of the afterlife
The span of time we spend on earth
Appears to me to be like this:
Imagine sitting in your hall
In winter, feasting with your chiefs
And counsellors – your faces glowing
From flames that crackle in the hearth.
Outside, the wintry night is lashed
By winds and driving rain and snow.
Suddenly a sparrow darts in
Through a door, flits across the hall
And flies out through another one.
Inside, cocooned in light and warmth
It can enjoy a moment’s calm
Before it vanishes, rejoining
The freezing night from which it came. 

Such is our journey through this life.
But as to what’s in store for us
Beyond the doors of birth and death
We are completely in the dark.’

by James Harpur

from The Monk’s Dream
Anvil, 1996
Copyright © James Harpur 1996

James Harpur had two new collections of poems out in October 2007, but this is from an earlier book, The Monk’s Dream. It is a good example of his skill in using an anecdote to telling poetic effect – the vignette of the sparrow comes from Bede’s A History of the English Church and People, 11:13. Harpur’s style combines plainness, i.e. under- rather than over-statement, and elegance. His two new collections are The Dark Age, with poems focusing on the “dark ages” of Europe and the struggles of early Christianity; and Fortune’s Prisoner, a translation of the poems from Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy.

Born in 1956 of Anglo-Irish parents, Harpur studied Classics and then English at Trinity College. He now lives in Co. Cork, Ireland. As well as his three collections of poetry from Anvil, A Vision of CometsThe Monk’s Dream and Oracle Bones, he is author of Love Burning in the Soul: The Story of the Christian Mystics, from Saint Paul to Thomas Merton (Shambhala, 2005).

Anvil Press Poetry was founded in 1968 and publishes English-language poetry and poetry in translation, both classic and modern.

This is the last Weekly Poem for 2007 – a very Happy Christmas and New Year to you all.

The Bus Driver is Accused of not Wearing Uniform

Traffic Court, Spanish Town, Jamaica.
11:45 am. Judge Marianne James presiding.
How does the defendant plead?

Your honour, I plead guilty to half
the offence – I had on a blue cotton shirt
buttoned up and tucked in

to brown pants, your honour. What’s so wrong
in that? Brown pants like the kind
men wear on Sundays,

the kind we travel in –
dignified looking pants your honour
that Gloria just iron the morning.

Is not the navy blue Government
tell us to wear – I know. But the material
they give us so weak

it always sporting holes. I won’t drive
in rags, your honour! Mi mother raise me
better than that.

So I plead guilty to shame
and good manners – splashing cologne
on mi chest each morning and

never boring mi ears or growing
mi hair wild like them criminals today
who jump on buses

to hold knives against wi neck.
I notice I don’t see them
in court today, I guess

bad bwoy never out of uniform;
always wear the same dirty merino
and cut up shorts, proving

that him come from nowhere
and answer to nobody. Your honour,
I plead guilty

to a pair of brown pants
and having old time ways that say
a man must leave his house

in clothes that don’t tear,
clothes he can wear proud
on his Judgement Day.

by Kei Miller

Kei Miller was born in Jamaica in 1978. His first collection of short fiction, The Fear of Stones, was short-listed in 2007 for the Commonwealth Writers First Book Prize. He is also the editor of Carcanet’s New Caribbean Poetry: An Anthology.  Kingdom of Empty Bellies was his first book of poetry; There Is an Anger That Moves will be published by Carcanet in October 2007.

The Heaventree Press is an independent poetry press based in Coventry. For more information on Heaventree and to buy Kingdom of Empty Bellies, please visit the Heaventree Press website. 

On a Photograph of Air Raid Wardens, taken after All-Night Bombing of the West End: 1940

It could almost be a detail from Vermeer
as could the catch-light of their helmets
domed and gleaming, pictured here
among the ravaged London streets:

two wardens, one with a decorated china jug
and pouring tea out for the other
who warms rough hands around his mug
as if either might have asked Shall I be mother?

At any moment anything may happen –
somebody’s world become a heap of stone
or something precious be forever broken,
an orphaned child found wandering alone –

as it still happens, as we check the TV screen
for daily close-ups and a body count
rather more Goya than Vermeer, obscene
in every detail he’d record in paint.

This is what we witness, surrogate wardens
of remote streets, far enough removed
to keep watch from our homes and gardens,
feeling our tender consciences reproved

by unknown victims of a different war,
of ideologies beyond the reach
or comprehension of this decent pair
who stand here in the street together, each

intent on what they celebrate, those small
residual habits, tender domesticity
incongruous and brief, a welcome interval
allowed for kindness, pouring a mug of tea.

by John Mole

John Mole writes for both children and adults. “On a Photograph of Air Raid Wardens after All-Night bombing of the West End: 1940” comes from his latest collection for adults The Other Day (Peterloo, 2007), his first volume since the warmly-received Counting the Chimes: New and Selected Poems 1975-2003 (Peterloo, 2004) which includes the poet’s own selection from nine previous collections plus 30 new poems.  Writing in the T.L.S., Bernard O’Donoghue praised John Mole for having written “some of the most engaging poems of the past quarter-century.”  John Mole is a jazz clarinettist and is currently the City of London’s Poet-in-Residence.

Peterloo Poets was founded by Harry Chambers, still the Publishing Director, in 1976. Its masthead is “poetry of quality by new or neglected poets”. Peterloo publishes between 8 and 10 volumes of poetry a year, runs an annual poetry competition – the 2008 competition will be the 24th – and, since 1999, an annual International Poetry Festival.

“From time to time it has seemed to me that the Peterloo Poets series is a haven of poetic sanity in a world of modish obfuscation.”
Michael Glover, British Book News