John Smith

John Smith is a long-time friend and poet who lives in Bristol.

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Stage-managed to a high degree
Ravel’s ‘Bolero’, deftly planned
with tight, controlled efficiency
meant riffs of clustered notes arose
from those among the music-stands.

Then silence fuelled expectancy
throughout the quiet Concert Hall;
a spastic tic, the baton flicked
and notes first faintly heard began to strike
from strings so quickly uttered
pizzicatos quickly cluttered
round the snare-drum’s rigid rhythm
underscoring Ravel’s vision.

So many times we listened to
the melody with nothing new,
until, at last, the ‘heavies’ twitched,
and joined the action; brought
an easy, steady increase, which
took levels to the power sought.

About the tenth repeat, we caught
a hint of force from those still waiting
patiently to join the swelling
vigour of the orchestra’s supremacy;
then, finally unleashed, until the cymbal’s chime
announced that they had reached the time
for the trombones’s harsh glissandi,
calling colleagues to the drummer’s beat,
but closing with that harsh atonal shriek.

Then, with artistes standing in their places,
wiping moisture from their faces,
we, too, stood and rent the heavens
with the thunder of our praises.


Recently, my days were dulled.
A neighbour — who’d become a friend —
fell ill, took gentle stock
of five score years and three
— decided it was time.

I’d learned much from her chronicle.

For often I had pressed her on those early years
— joshing she was ‘history on the hoof’ —
and she — to pay impiety —
had, smilingly, recalled for me
her school or church, her work or play.

I’d learned early to restrict my prying:

for strikes and poverty, wars and loss —
had led to stiffened lips — and spine.
But “Jubilee” brought out the painted oblong tins
devoid of sweets but filled instead with sepia scenes of streets
alive with ghosts — all dressed in Oxfam’s best.

I’d learned the graded aims of social worth.

Two up — two down.
The whitened step, the blackened grate,
piano, wireless, bathroom, inside lav.
No holidays on foreign soil, but “oh! the sea —”
on three short days of honeymoon.

I’d learned, too, the trappings of ill-health.

Of camphor balls, and Mentholatum, Thermagene,
and Beecham’s Pills, and Collis Browne.
Small use indeed against the speed of meningitis,
crisis of consumption, or polio, diphtheria
or scarlet fever, whooping cough.

I’d learned — one special day — of man’s first bid to fly.

One, of fifty, in a class that learned of him —
aloft three hundred yards. Remembered,
in the street outside the school, how solemnly the Head
had paced it out, and made them shout with all their might
the name of “Wilbur Wright” from end ... to ... distant end.

I’d learned that flight became her greatest love.

The planes, the jets, and Concord’s sonic boom,
the rockets, loss of gravity, the going to the moon,
the unmanned trips to Mars, the ‘Shuttle’s’
almost humdrum tours in space, the everlasting race
to catch the speed of light — and thus the stars.

I’d learned, towards the end, the simple tenets of her faith.

How,in her darkest hours, she’d looked beyond
with certainty, and planned to search
for Wilbur Wright in some celestial Hall of Fame;
to tell him how, at eight years old and on an English street,
with wonder in her voice, she’d stood and screamed his name.


She is there
I am here.

The rhythm of her life
is known to me,
as mine to her.

I buy the paper
that she favours,
to read the same news

Thrill to the same Ballet
I know she will
have watched

Toss and turn
under the same stars
that disturb her

And friends — dumb in volubility
by their reticence.

She is still there
And I am still here.


Unlettered I,
whose overweening envy soars
unchecked above the dreaming spires,
yet brought to earth
by thrusting first-hand into fires
of labour, love and worthless wars.

Unlettered I,
with sullen cursing still condemn
that random fall of die, when fate
decreed unslaked
my thirst to sip the distillate
of eminent and cultured men.

Unlettered I,
who never will the mob cajole,
or with such eloquence beguile
discerning peers
to cry acclaim, and yet the while,
for such esteem, would sell my soul.

Unlettered I;
no tongue, save that of mother’s womb;
no art affirming upright stance,
no aptitude
that, being mastered, might enhance
this void between my birth and doom.

Unlettered I,
creating nothing, except wealth,
yet served as Captain by these bold
young mortared men
who, double-breasted, take my gold
and, deferential, drink my health.

Unlettered I;
contemptuous of purchased claim
to immortality’s lush prize
must needs resign
myself to fact and realise
that, come my dying, dies my name.


And Christ took the bread
— grown in America ;
ground in France ;
baked in Belgium ;
wrapped in Holland —
and raised it to his nose.

He smelt the slowness of the hot sun;
the wind in the rain;
the stone smell of the milling stone,
and the miller’s sweat.

And Christ took the wine;
a left-behind,
out-of–date bottle
of Beaujolais Nouveau,
and examined its contents.

He saw the flints in the hillside;
the merciless heat;
the smoke pots preventing
frost at night,
and the glint of the sharp knives
tending the vines by day.

        And Christ took a small strip
        of Navaho Indian cloth;
        reduced to a price
        its weaver could never have dreamed,
        and held it to his cheek.

        He felt the big sky;
        the empty prairie;
        the clear streams
        and the distant
        snow-topped mountains.

        Carrying the bread,
        the wine and the cloth,
        Christ walked out
        of the warmth and wealth,
        into the cold dark night,
        past the glittering windows,
        and around the corner.

        Here, on the pavement
        in front of the cardboard boxes,
        he placed the cloth,
        set out the bread and wine,
        and spoke to the figures
        huddled in their self-made warmth.

        “It’s my birthday,” said Christ,
        “let’s have a party.”


The eve of Christmas
and the last, late gift;
a red humming-top

— steadily upright —
warbles its promise
of wide-eyed wonder.

But then —
as at the closing of a door —
the tumult of the toy-shop stills;

my tongue transfers
the sudden iron taste of blood
to linen at my lips.

Uncomprehendingly, I watch
obscene configurations
of the scarlet spread.

I raise my unbelieving eyes
in time to see the red top slow
and topple on its side.


Not ever in those thirteen months
— for I now claim the added time
you lay inside my womb —
were you alone . . . until today
. . . until this nightmare day.

But now you’re out there, on your own;
while here, against my will,
I shuffle round this hateful house
and, weeping, wait outside
a locked and empty room
where echoes of a nursery rhyme
torment my memory still.

                Bewildered by his separate grief,
                your father, in the room below,
                keeps busy pouring tea
                and handing round the ritual fare.
                God knows, the poor man’s tried
                to share his pain, but how —
                just how can I explain?

                How tell I nearly struck him
                when I heard those blunt
                accountant’s fingers tap-
                tapping on your tiny box?
                                … perhaps, if I had married
                                someone else . . .?
                                oh!… just some simple, understanding
                                man who might have thrummed and softly
                                sung a lullaby
                                along that winding path.

But no!

Far better still,
if I myself, a week ago
without a further thought —
had walked, with cold perfection
in my arms, into the warm
and living sea.


‘Hello. I’m four.
My Mummy isn’t here
and I’ve a pussy cat
her name is ...’
        ‘... thank you, Jane, may I take that?
        Hello. I’m sorry, that was ... what?
        No! In point of fact, he’s not!
        Who is that, please? ...

‘But, Mummy, I was only going to say ...’
        ‘... I know, Jane dear, now run and play.’

‘Who was that lady, Mummy,
on the phone?’
        ‘A lady? Didn’t you hear?
         Just someone Daddy knows, my dear.’

        ‘Good morning ... Mr Johnson, please ...
         In sales ... I see ...
        No, don’t do that, I’ll hold.’

‘Mummy, can I take the pussy out?’
        ‘“May”, my sweetheart, “may”, not “can”.
         Don’t you think it’s rather cold?’

        ‘Hello? ... Alan? ... yes, it’s me ...
         No, I’m not crying ...
        Well, you see - she’s just rung here ...
         Can’t you guess?
        Your ‘tart’ of course ...
        I beg your pardon? Use her name?
        I’ll call her what the hell I ... Jane!
        Can’t you see I’m trying to talk?
        Please take that kitten for a walk.’

‘Can I — may I — talk to Daddy?’
        ‘Not now, sweetheart, there’s a pet.
         I’ve not quite done
        with Daddy yet.’


Close to the year’s end, I was waiting for a ‘bus
when a young girl, with bags and packages,
sat beside me without fuss.

Her pretty face, alive with geniality,
— defying guesses to her age —
turned and offered some banality,

and so I matched this social process,
began a cheerful chat
of this and that and all things aimless.

She prattled on and hardly stopping
mentioned Granddad’s failing health,
and thus the object of her shopping.

Without pausing in her chatter, she began
to search among her bags whilst telling me
the highlights of a travel plan.

Of flying first to Disneyland,
to where her married cousin worked. A fortnight’s
gossip, then the three of them had planned

the big adventure . . . three week’s stay,
with yet another distant cousin,
in the brash and glitzy city of L.A.

She paused a moment in her babbling,
and from a single carrier bag
withdrew the target of her scrabbling.

‘To match his eyes, I’ve searched the town’,
she said, as nimble fingers soon displayed
in glowing royal-blue, a dressing gown.

I quickly gave approval of her choice,
with fulsome praise for her good taste;
she thanked me, but a tremble in her voice

alerted me to eyes that brimmed with tears
as dreams of travel vied with love
and made so plain her deeper, inner fears.


One early afternoon,
as autumn sun attempted
to impart a final bloom,
the apple tree was stripped.

My daughter — tall at sixteen —
helped by handing apples down
to fill my waiting nests
of paper — quite the simplest
way of keeping soft skins free
from injury.

But, as the tree was bared, absence
of her customary smile
led me, with a father’s licence,
to ask if all was well.

And soon the tale came tumbling out:
a boy — a special boy — who’d hurt
by dancing with a friend too long;
how everything at school was wrong,
and why should she not visit pubs
and raves and late-night clubs?

I stood, surrounded by that summer’s yield
which I’d protected from the slightest bruise,
with love the only wrapping for my child
against the waiting world’s abuse.


Throughout the day she moves
between the stacks with silent grace:
deft fingers pushing, pulling every
spine to flush concurrence;
and at the checkout desk
her eyes are never raised
from stamping dates; and had her clients
queued in Disney-wear they would
have passed unnoticed.

Once, a quiet moment caught her,
coffee cup in hand, digestive in the other —
and as her dexterous fingers
revolved successive rounds
her tiny teeth abraded each new
circumference — I wondered
at the time, did this mark the first
spark of social nonconformity?

On chilly days angora is her choice,
while winter favours wool
in many muted shades. Come spring,
plain clothes predominate
with sometimes tailored slacks
paired with high-collared blouses
of prim and proper pristine white.

But on those sweltering days
of summer sanctioned by our English
skies, her wardrobe undergoes
a change to cooler cotton, and down
her back, straps, arched over
bare shoulders, fall straight to join
the fabric at her narrow waist.

Bordered by this architrave,
a scene of pagan art, wrought
by an artist who, from edge-to-edge
with inks and needles, charged
with rampant life — that seemed
to propagate, even as one gazed.

Vines of every hue of green
coil sinuously upward, while
vibrant coloured Calla lilies,
Hibiscus, Iris, Lotus blooms vie
with plumages of Cardinals, Canaries
and tiny hovering Humming Birds,
each scaled harmoniously
that as she moves from task to task
such motion seems to animate
and make appear — and then to vanish
amid that verdant vegetation.

Not content with this array
of blooms and plumes, the artist,
had infused perspective — so subtle
in its inference of depth, that all
who looked within this silent scene
might lose themselves.

And each year then, at summer’s height
I ask myself: is she at last inured
to every set of startled eyes
which, as she passes, wing her way,
and if not so, what deviance
of temperament is evidenced.
by this unveiled insurgence?

For none is ever seen
— unless one counts the hinting
of a smile, or the millimetre
higher her chin is raised.


When — slick canalled — my soft-suppled bones
responded to a rhythmic, ‘push; push; push’
what chance of my replying, ‘no; no; no’
in terror at an exit to a place so unlike
from that so rudely torn?

Here, fierce light burned and blinded me, while
sounds I had but faintly heard assailed unfolding
ears; and, with a gulping rush of foreign breath
delivering loud dissent, revealed my new world’s
cruelty – as everybody watching clapped and smiled.


After the train, the truck;
after the suitcase and carrier bag;
after the shouting and organised chaos,
I thought of the scarlet

After the suiting and fitting,
which made us anonymous;
after the marching and stamping in rhythm,
I thought of the scarlet.

After the bedding and eating utensils;
after the boots and khaki uniform;
after the shower and shouted instructions,
I thought of the scarlet.

And after the bugle
had sent us to bed,
I lay in the darkness,
and dreamt of the scarlet.

Of Inkerman, Blenheim, Cambrai
and Ramillies, rhythms of drumming
and always the horses,
the pitiful horses.

Of the thousands and thousands
of dying and wounded —
the blood of the English soaking
their scarlet.

And I thought of the choice that was
given my brother — Borstal or Army —
and wondered just why he had
chosen the scarlet, ‘till I finally slept

through the tossings and turnings
of nightmared strangers,
with thoughts of tomorrow
and visions of scarlet.



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