Sunset on the River
I didn’t think about the light until you
told me this path along the river Lea
was where you used to run with your friend Jan.
It was one of your centres of the world.
My hand closed over the camera I’d slipped
into my jacket and forgotten about,
and I took photographs of you, smiling,
with the houseboats and the lock behind you.
Then the evening sunlight slanted almost
horizontally across the land and lit
the bare slim trees, with their slanting branches
lifted like skinny arms of eager children
tinged green and golden with the rising sap,
and now spectacularly more golden.
I took one more picture of that light, rising
it would be as true to say as falling
on the trees and your hair and smiling face.
We walked on, keeping an eye on the time,
and the moment merged with the flow of moments,
until we saw the pictures properly,
days later, on the screen. I was surprised
how well that golden light had been recorded,
which at the time I didn’t dare expect.
In fact it looked an even deeper colour,
and for a moment I thought it was better
than being there had been, until I realised
that good as they are, and I’m glad I took them,
the pictures lack not only the fresh air,
the context of the walk, the sense of presence,
but the brightness of the living daylight,
which is both softer and more powerful.
Seagulls at Play
The clifftop path takes a big step sideways
above a rocky cove beset by gulls.
It’s a breezy morning. We stand and watch
as the birds angle wings to rise and circle,
float on invisible currents up and down.
They seem to be doing it for the fun of it,
children running from swings to roundabouts,
but silently, without haste, gracefully,
like pensive adult skaters on a lake.
It becomes clear the summit of the cliff
must be the top of a steady flow of air
funnelled up and round by the rocky sides
until the wider space where we are standing
slackens the pressure as a loosened string
might let a bundle of sticks fall sideways.
I see one gull – I’m sure it’s the same one –
spiral to the spot where I’ve been standing,
position itself, lift its tail towards me,
showing the neat soles of two webbed feet
as if to be inspected, and glide off,
disappear from sight, and in a minute
come back and do it all again, climbing
unseen steps to slide down after pausing
at the top to ready itself and savour
the anticipation, then letting go.
I savour it too, those lifted tail feathers,
the trim pink feet lined up like tiny shoes.
And off, and down, and circling up and back.
All the other gulls are banking, wheeling,
their long and elegantly tapered wings
creating silent rhythms on the sky
above the sparkling sea, turquoise and purple.
As I watch them at eye-level sailing
so nonchalantly, without visible means,
for a moment I think I could step forward,
holding my arms out wide, and be like them.
There’s a robin in our garden again,
hopping close whenever we’re out there working.
This one’s different from the one last year
which increasingly seemed to be trying
to say something urgent as if time was short,
but kept his dignity like a dying prince.
This year’s is more artlessly confiding,
like a child putting his hand into yours.
The feathers on his back are ruffled-looking.
He’s not so young that he doesn’t seem to ask
that aching question the other seemed to ask,
without being able to say what it is,
leaving us with the responsibility
of having a pain brought to us to heal,
just the confiding question and the ache.
All we can do, and we do it separately,
comparing notes afterwards, finding we’ve each
responded in the same way, is talk to him
as if he understood, reassuringly,
about what’s happening and what we’re doing.
He hopped up on a dead gooseberry bush
I was digging out and looked at me sideways.
Isn’t it a strange thing, I said to him,
pausing from pushing the garden fork in
and levering the stem out by the roots,
to be alive and conscious, and not know why?
He’d helped me see that we had that in common.
Churches in Toulouse
There is a height in stone that seems to rise
above not trouble so much as the meanness
of trouble, its accidental quality.
I thought nothing could transmute my grieving
so well as the lofty Romanesque arches
of the vast Basilica Saint Sernin,
especially the way the semi-circles
spanning the nave are echoed by the glimpsed
smaller arches along the corridored
clerestory, as the rising and falling
of voices must have echoed on all that
labyrinthine stone before winding at last
through the labyrinth of the ear and spirit,
or as water finds ways round and over rocks
in a broad stream in the Pyrenees. I thought
no space could rise above the illusion
of accident, disfiguring sorrow,
so well as those heights – plainchant, mountain, river,
Romanesque – but it’s neither the Garonne
I think of today, nor the Basilica;
it’s a museum that was once a convent
in the same city, its uncluttered ceiling
delicately crossed at the curved centre
by ribs of gold brought to a focus, crowned
by a single elegant knot like a thought,
a compassionate comprehensive thought
that resolves everything without reaching
for resolution, fusing height with depth,
acceptance altering what will not alter.
The Real Thing
You’re perfectly fine now – well, like me, still
recovering from our strenuous week,
but fine compared with how you seemed to be
yesterday morning when I heard you call
help me, please, and I thought maybe a spider
needed removing, or something was stuck,
or would take two people to shift. From your voice
I couldn’t tell it was anything more,
and that you spoke undemonstratively
because you were on the point of passing out.
Which you did, eventually, after sighing,
groaning oh dear and looking strangely white,
by which time I was sitting next to you.
When you fainted finally I missed it,
hoping you were gathering your forces,
wondering whether you might be dying,
wishing I’d never not been nice to you.
Later the doctor, who was reassuring,
you told me, said it had been a true faint
and I wondered what a false faint might be,
but it was satisfying somehow to have
the authenticity of yours confirmed.
You said that when you opened your eyes at last
you were grateful to find me there with you,
which was, as I said then, and say again,
a feeling very much reciprocated.
A Good Home
She was smiling from the start, almost speechless,
gradually more able to respond
to our cheerfulness and our reminders.
Our acted-out brightness didn’t feel false,
just the appropriate way of being,
like a whole-body wave from side to side
painting the sky, so as to be seen
by someone on a hilltop opposite.
Transfixed by my part in the pantomime
a neat elderly gentleman, looking well,
stood in the spacious, bright refectory
a few feet away, framed by a high arch,
seeming, I thought, wistful, as if excluded,
and wanting to join in. I smiled at him,
not really surprised when his expression
didn’t change. That questioning blankness
must have become his permanent address.
We carried on warming our friend to life,
and her smiles crested as laughter. Friends’ names,
more than half forgotten, triumphed in her mouth.
A motherly nurse came and spoke with us.
Another approached the melancholy man,
asked him if he’d like to sit down and led him
patiently to a table behind me.
Meanwhile our conversation was ending.
It was time to go, but we left uplifted –
our friend was being so well looked after.
It’s true that she won’t stay that stimulated.
The most normally intelligent thing she said
was when we first arrived and asked her whether
we could sit with her a while. She laughed. ‘All day!’
John Freeman’s collections include White Wings: New and Selected Prose Poems (Contraband Books), A Suite for Summer (Worple Press), and The Light Is Of Love, I Think: New and Selected Poems (Stride Editions). A new collection is due from Worple in the autumn of 2016.