‘Here the heart
May give a useful lesson to the head’
— William Cowper, The Task, Book VI, ll85-86
Horsehair. In the 70s in a one-up-one-down
shared with George (upstairs), who ironed
his curly hair straight and favoured the cravat
of Edward Fox in The Day of the Jackal. Back-
to-back on the side of a hill so steep the sheep
had short legs on one side. An arm
dropped down for a sleeping friend.
A room with a cooker, fridge and sink
and plank and brick shelves for reading round
the subject, so many declarations and
Delusions Etc, St Exupéry, The Cantos,
Gauloises tobacco, tea in china. That was
cycling the towpath to the Poly or walking
the other way with a book. A priest
I never thought I’d think of again
from the retreat, the weir trees and a pylon
left over from his own college days,
like Robert Lowell lodging on the canal.
His age now, here I am on the same sofa
an hour by hired van away and three decades
further in just two moves, so much
for Paris and New York. Sofa. Settee.
Here it still is, though worn out really
in the room I call my room. Remember?
Five Pints powdered milk, Angel Delight.
Regulation spaghetti bolognaise and running
round with the hoover. Patchouli cheesecloth,
Don Juan’s reckless daughter, chipping the ice
from an idea or forming the ice
with an office electric golfball typewriter.
Clearing the snow by climbing the slates
to turn the aerial. A bird in the chimney
and Brian Ferret in the cellar. Playing darts
eight hours a day to find I couldn’t play.
Trivial Pursuit when my wife before
she was my wife got 23 questions right
in a row, but married me anyway.
At every question we laughed more.
Then teaching in my teacher’s room at the Poly.
I sat at his desk for an hour just sitting,
under the Twa Corbies poster, when verse
let you look forward from the past,
the endless possibilities of Edwin Morgan.
The college library was a gift and to cap it all
they asked me to update the poetry. Then there was
the staff bar, and booking poets, and listening,
and starting a magazine and knowing
you had to know when to stop. Also the workshops
those sun-struck evenings, all of us
in it together. There was the Zetland after,
and poetry parties at Linda’s and at Trevor’s,
his hurt eyes sleepless like a panda. Yes, and
Gill Rennard and Duncan and his laugh
and Craig Smith, The Whole of The Moon.
There was snooker at Cambridge Rd Baths,
the walk up under the railway bridge
we called Poets’ Walk. That winter I wore two shirts
because I didn’t have a jumper. I remember
Simon the composer, what became of him,
and the other Simon taking off his jumper,
too hot reading The Burning Perch. I know
the miners united will never be defeated and that
we are back in the grip of those bastards.
And then there was the Hand of God World Cup.
I have started shouting at the radio. I bought
a stereo cassette which, when it packed in
so far in the future, my daughter
bought me again from a vintage site.
There it is, by the gnawed arm of the sofa.
I put a tape in and go back further.
On this sofa, go-kart, rowing-boat
(not train or gondola) I scoot down a ginnel,
through a scattering game of three-and-in,
lamp post and gate post the flood-lit goals;
pulled on by oars and by the current,
a lake in the Lake District, and the wide
river in France, with its tiny island of a tree
that we bulls-eye beached up on
in just this kayak, to just this song. We laugh
about the hooting applause but I know
that night you almost drowned in the river.
Half a lifetime later I came to at the back
of a plane over the Alps, cradling
a bottle of oxygen. I remember the cord
round the baby’s neck, it came free
and her heart beat again. And then
there was Mum, even in a home, not sure
if she was tired or just lazy. A watchword,
careful what you wish for, this wall-to-wall
of yellowed intent unread or forgotten,
and times’d by ten since, by fifty.
The window is drizzle, my favourite,
and the ash tree just coming good. This is
a forest I’ve walked in. Among these trees
hours are moments, the forest’s midnight
moment, a way of being when you
stumble into a clearing bright as day
and where you mislay your name
or mistake it, the person you were,
no better, no worse. Dear Sofa, retreat
and dog-house in living memory,
these slow, accelerated days are work
with someone else’s work. I power-nap
through Haydn and the radio, as rich
today as yesterday with the spores
of a million joss sticks. Breathe in.
Dear sofa, when did you stop being a settee?
Not you but the pattern I remember
waking with my face printed with,
thinking it would stay. The earliest settee,
my sister’s because for the first seven years
my sister was my mum. How could I
not know that at forty? They told me
in the small hours in a hospital cafe
like a play. Mum on her death-bed,
now it can be told. Settee, sofa, settee.
Why should I tell you? Only back.
Back there was a picture window
above the valley, it mattered when we moved,
a hoarding on the wall of our end-terrace
paid the mortgage one month in three
and we were both writing, what could stop us.
A tractor was always getting in that field
and the canal ran by not lifting a finger, the same
five miles west with the rattling trains,
the hot air balloons and glider club
the canoeists on the canal and a dozen
ambiguous notes for the milkman,
last thing at night the double decker lit up
like a ship wound its first-gear way
under Scapegoat Hill. Then it was all
midnight walks, the backwards running
race, and apple on the road. Also the day
the frog appeared, the three cats
up against the hearth, waiting for us
to do something. You took it out
and down the path, little Buddha on a coal shovel.
The kids knew Nuns on the Run by heart.
We were young while they were young.
Sofa you fit so snugly between then and
these corner fitted bookshelves, the Oxfam lamp
and two-vol Oxford Shorter. For the excursion,
sometimes I climb the eight-foot ladder
carried home through town from a junk yard.
Which is how I got to be here, shifting it round,
from Colne Bridge to Linthwaite to today,
at random the high Cs because, no wiser
in my purpose, I love to crows-nest
without vantage in Clare or Clarke or Coleridge,
Cook or Corbett, William Corbett my old friend
whom I’ve never met, I read you too,
and then there’s Cowper. Seven Cowpers from
The Centenary Letters to the Poetical Works,
some I’ve never opened and not one of them in years,
and I’m not going to start again now.