Read an Excerpt
Mervyn Peake Collected Poems
By R.W. Maslen
Carcanet Press LtdCopyright © 2008 R.W. Maslen
All rights reserved.
Birth of Day
Th'invisible scimitar of Morn,
Again had passionately torn
And slashed the Sky's pale neck;
Way down aye far within that East
Where paleness reigns, and pale stars cease
The Sky's wide bowl to deck.
There where the long and cruel blade
Within those livid heavens had made
Its deep sweeps, in the Sky –
Blood in the gashes, welled; and grew;
Intensified; diffused; and blue
Slate coloured clouds stole by.
Above those dark and sepia hills –
Intensely deep, the Great Sky thrills
In a welter of Blood and Grey;
And in that welter of living fire
Be-jewelled and robed to his heart's desire
Was born – young Day.
The crash of the turbulent sea is around us, about us, below;
The green ice shimmers above us, as we steer through the
The sun is a blood-red disc that reddens a Polar sea –
And the Viking men are abroad again,
Bending the stout pine-oars again,
Exploring the wonderful world again,
Questing an unknown sea.
The 'Winged-hats' nod to the rowing, their rugged faces scan
The ice-green land of perpetual snow, unknown to the ways of
The oars dip deep in the brine, and the shields along the side
Clank, as the ship bursts for'ard again,
Bucking her nose in the Polar rain,
Cutting through unknown seas again,
Testing an unknown tide.
Proud, though torn, is her bellying sail, with the Crimson Eagle
Proudly erect is the Dragon's head, though its colour had long
But the ship is hardy and tough, and the men are hardy as she,
When their Viking ships are abroad again,
Daring the uttermost wrath of the main,
Exploring the wonderful earth again,
Daring the wonderful sea.
I am too rich already, for my eyes
Mint gold, while my heart cries
Is there no rest from richness, and no peace
For me again?'
For gold is pain,
And the edged coins can smart,
And beauty's metal weighs upon the heart.
How can I spend this coinage when it floods
So ceaselessly between the lids,
And gluts my vaults with bright
Shillings of sharp delight
Whose every penny
Is coloured money?
Storm, harvest, flood or snow,
Over the generous country as I go
And gather helplessly,
New wealth from all I see
In every spendthrift thing –
O then I long to spring
Through the charged air, a wastrel, with not one
Farthing to weigh me down,
But hollow! foot to crown
To prance immune among vast alchemies,
To prance! and laugh! my heart and throat and eyes
Emptied of all
Their golden gall.
If I could see, not surfaces
If I could see, not surfaces,
But could express
What lies beneath the skin
Where the blood moves
In fruit or head or stone,
Then would I know the one
And my eyes
Would give the worm
No hollow food.
If I could hear
Beyond the noise of things
That stir the seed of sound,
And know the springs
Of Eden flood the round
Chasms of my twin shells, and beat
Old water-hammers on the hidden drums,
Then would I know my music wells
From the hot earth, and comes
Astride the long sea-organ
Of man's ocean.
If I could feel
Beyond each slender
Movement of her head, that trails
A track of earthless clay
The rhythm titanic
Whence the tender
Gesture drifted, like a feather
Fallen from the downy throat
Of some winged mother,
Desolately, to fail and flutter,
Falter, and die
In the rented room –
Then would I plunder splendour
At the womb.
If I could feel
My words of wax were struck
By the rare seal
Of crested truth,
Then would I give bold birth
Rivers of song.
Where is that inexhaustible,
That secret genesis
Of Sound and Sight?
It is too close for me,
Unexcavated by these eyes
In the lost archives of my heart.
Palais de Danse
Can you not see within that small
And callow head, a brightness far
From this dance hall?
Is splitting like the chrysalis,
And when she stirs
A caterpillar moves.
Can you not see through her twin panes
Of coloured glass
That dusky room within
Her house of powder'd clay?
O stranger, stay,
Do you not see
A barbarous glory?
Observe her, one of that bright million
Wherever the blood roars and the limbs sing:
Unknown to her
One foot is tap-tap-tapping on the floor:
Her neck supports a brittle
And thoughtless miracle
Deadened with chalky pollen.
Like a white stamen with a burning anther
Is drooping from the flower tropical
That has two petals
Of dead, wet scarlet.
The sons of swingtime with their feet tap-tapping
The hollow platform wait the millionth moment
When to let loose on us the tinsel tiger.
Arise the fag-end boys from the tin-tables,
And slide into the hollow of the rhythm.
The crimson jazz is bouncing on the boards!
Where is she now?
With a small shiny man,
Into the marrow of the Congo drums.
Here, are the stiffen'd hills, here, the rich cargo
Congealed in the dark arteries,
That hold Glamorgan's blood.
The midnight miner in the secret seams,
Limb, life, and bread.
Here, are the strong hands hard,
And furrow-palmed alike
With the grasped pick.
These are the men; they chance
To the fresh seasons of the sun and moon,
And where no winds are blown.
In the portentous dark
They make their stake,
And gamble with the spark
Of the non-dead.
Is of the seeping gas; they pin
Their faith in props, and wear
Their labour on the skin,
As soldiers home
From the hot battle come,
On hands and head,
Arise to the light
Here, are the gentle women with black lashes,
And here the infant in the shoulder-shawl.
With every man his bright bird at the throat,
And every girl a mavis at her heart,
Under the hills of coal.
I see the weary mountain and the mine;
Here lies the doldrum army, stranded men,
Rusting the shovel.
Yet these are they that knew the cage at morning,
They trod the fiery dew-shine at the cock-crow,
Through the Welsh fields to pit-head, line, or level.
For them the glimmering evenings and the voices;
They ran their darling dogs across the valley;
The callow nights upon the gun-grey mountains;
The street-lamp singer and the easy laugh
Defied at sundown the consumptive's cough.
Remains no lure along the hill-rich river
Now that their hands hang loose with barren creases
That feel no pick, only the cigarette,
For the once strenuous fingers.
The swarming stars gesticulate like torches
Across the vaulted coal-mine of the sky;
The virile sunlight's irony
Burns on the grey pit-head
Like a mouth toothless, and dead,
And the sleek greyhounds
Mock with their streaming speed
That root the pavements of the grievous street.
At every door a ghost; I saw them lean
With tightened belts and watch the sluggish tide,
Through the long hours at the riverside.
Their shoulders prop the lintel-posts at evening –
And then, I heard them sing,
And loose the Celtic bird that has no wing,
No body, eye, nor feather,
That indestructible, that golden thing.
(c. April 1937)
Heaven Hires Me
Heaven hires me; and my payment is in those
White instants of repose
Between the seething of my brain's all-coloured
Flora of woes,
Fauna from hills unhallowed.
While guilt grows
Stronger as I grow older
And lose love –
How break the terrible girders of the grove?
Yet; heaven hires me, and my weakness is
Threaded with alchemies.
Great Fowl along the combers of the sky
Undulate on such wings as suck
Breath from the pockets of far cliffs, and prise
The rocks apart with draughts that clear the muck
Out of a sickened sky. Heaven hires me still –
Though I do spit upon the marble face
And carve my name upon a seraph's breast
To testify to my unclean disgrace
The guttersnipe of dreams. Along the west
White gods move slowly, and the golden scales
Upon their breastplates twinkle momently
Now here, now there along the rim of Wales.
Though I do squander a largesse of un-
-Uprooted glory, yet heaven hires me still.
Though I do darken hourly the sweet sun
Of love and ruth – yet, hell
And heaven, so conjoined do make me.
(c. April 1937)
The Metal Bird
Job's eagle skids the thin sky still,
Her shadow swarms the cold Welsh hill.
The hawk hangs like an unloos'd bomb
And fills the circular sky with doom.
To-day across the meadow
There runs another shadow
Cast by a grizzlier bird that swings
Her body like a scythe, nor beats her wings,
A bloodless bird, whose mother was a man;
A painted bird of steel – a skeleton
That sheers shrill-naked to the screaming bone,
And bears her sexless beauty to the town.
O hawk with naked eyes!
O bloody eagle circling the dark skies!
Our century has bred a newer beauty,
The metal bird from the cold factory.
(c. April 1937)
Excerpted from Mervyn Peake Collected Poems by R.W. Maslen. Copyright © 2008 R.W. Maslen. Excerpted by permission of Carcanet Press Ltd.
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