Blackbird

Virginia Rounding: Author/editor/proofreader

A blackbird alone in the dying sun’s footlights
sings to a backdrop of indigo blue;
for the sound of its voice, for the sake of the singing,
it plays out the longest day of the year.

Perched on the rooftop, stop-out blackbird,
late home, carousing, careless of time,
emptying its throat till its heart is empty,
scattering the tune like stars in the street;

unnoticed by drivers cocooned in their vehicles,
by comfortable viewers with volume turned up:
only the walkers of dark hear this singing –
the carolling bird in summer’s midnight.

©Virginia Rounding, 1993

First published in Poetry Nottingham International, Autumn 1995

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How should people of good will live in this fractured time?

Here are some bullet points to consider, some suggestions of how to survive with integrity in an environment which seems to have become inimical to good sense, tolerance and civilised values:
 
  • Listen to others, be polite and attentive, while holding firm to what you believe to be right.
  • Do not provoke, or allow yourself to be provoked, but don’t feign agreement when you disagree.
  • In general, keep quiet, until you know it is the time to speak.
  • If asked for your opinion, give it – straightforwardly and unapologetically.
  • If people do not understand you, or cannot hear what you are saying, walk away. (Do not ‘cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you in pieces’ [Matthew 7:6].)
  • Do not engage in pointless abuse.
  • Do not crow when you are proved right (this might not be until after you are dead anyway).
  • Maintain a quiet dignity. Do what is honourable, just and true.
  • Remember that, even when you are justifiably and absolutely convinced that you are more right than those on the other side, you are still a fallible human being and never entirely right about anything, never able to see the complete picture or fully understand yourself, let alone anyone else.
  • Be careful in what you read, and how you read. Keep exercising discrimination. Do not be taken in, or succumb to the temptation to believe in/accept easy answers.
  • Stay centred. If you decide to participate in ‘this twittering world’, as T.S. Eliot so presciently described our milieu in Burnt Norton, do so with care and try not to lose yourself in it.
  • Do not become desensitised. Do not become so detached, so accepting (through familiarity, tiredness, or despair) that, when the moment of individual testing arrives, you fail, or just fail to notice its arrival.
  • Stay fully alive to the moment, do not turn away from it or refuse to live in it. Be your best self, so that your truth will come into play when it needs to, whatever the personal cost.
  • Recognise the moment when we have to go to war (literally and/or figuratively).
 
Two texts to ponder, in relation to the above:
 
From T.S. Eliot’s Burnt Norton:
 
Neither plenitude nor vacancy. Only a flicker
Over the strained time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration
Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind
That blows before and after time,
Wind in and out of unwholesome lungs
Time before and time after.
Eructation of unhealthy souls
Into the faded air, the torpid
Driven on the wind that sweeps the gloomy hills of London,
Hampstead and Clerkenwell, Campden and Putney,
Highgate, Primrose and Ludgate. Not here
Not here the darkness, in this twittering world.
 
 
And J. Russell Lowell’s great hymn, best sung to the tune Ebenezer:
 
 
Once to every man and nation
Comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood,
For the good or evil side;
Some great cause, God’s new Messiah,
Offering each the bloom or blight –
And the choice goes by for ever
‘Twixt that darkness and that light.
 

Then to side with truth is noble,
When we share her wretched crust,
Ere her cause bring fame and profit,
And ’tis prosperous to be just;
Then it is the brave man chooses,
While the coward stands aside,
Till the multitude make virtue
Of the faith they had denied.
 

By the light of burning martyrs,
Christ, thy bleeding feet we track,
Toiling up new Calvaries ever
With the Cross that turns not back.
New occasions teach new duties;
Time makes ancient good uncouth;
They must upward still and onward
Who would keep abreast of truth.
 

Though the cause of evil prosper,
Yet ’tis truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold,
And upon the throne be wrong –
Yet that scaffold sways the future,
And, behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow,
Keeping watch above his own.

St Bartholomew’s birds

Churchyard

A congregation of cacophonous starlings
chatters vivaciously in the tops
of two trees only
and because of the birds’ blackness
against an indigo sky
and because they have chosen
for conversation a graveyard
by an ancient priory church
alongside its sister hospital
their chattering seems ominous,
filled with dark knowledge.

Birds whose ancestors witnessed the writhings
of martyrs burning in Smithfield,
now your excitable chorusing
arouses patients in the neighbouring wards
who stare into the night
from deep illuminated sockets:
are you celebrating the survival
of your kind and of your city,
recounting stories of the blitz?
or is your raucous cackle
of untold tribulation still to come?

 

©Virginia Rounding, 1991

[First published in Agenda, March 1992]

History of a relationship

SBG

My first visit I barely made acquaintance,
dragged along by a medic and musician boyfriend
in the hot summer of ’76;
while he discussed diapasons in the organ loft
I drooped around the pillars,
glad of somewhere cool.

My next encounter, more than ten years later,
I was ‘depping’ for a friend who sang.
Late November; I parked in Smithfield
and counted down the minutes to rehearsal.
Then I stepped into caressing darkness
and fell in love with mystery and shadow.

So began the years of Sunday evenings,
rarely unaccompanied by apprehension:
How many sopranos will there be tonight?
Can I cope? Will the final sung Amen collapse?
The organist be charming, irascible, or both?
For three months once I left,
but a longing pulled me back.

I meant to leave entirely when I gave up singing
but somehow never did,
that unpredictable organist, by sudden dying,
recalling and reminding me that love of place
can be as strong as love of persons,
make similar demands. I’m held now
in a firm and mutual embrace.

 

©Virginia Rounding, 1996

[First published in Awaiting an Epiphany]

Edward Cooke

Edward Cooke

Doctor of Physick, philosopher, you hold a teasing pen;
what wisdom would you give us if your hand could move again?

Scientific formulae, concepts to explain our mind and frame? –
the spread of human knowledge still your worthy aim?
Or would you spell out now the name above every name?

Have you entered on eternity, the everlasting life
our creeds proclaim? Is heaven true? – an end to strife
when death severs soul from body with her knife?

No point in asking you; you’ll never tell.
Unlike the quick, the dead keep silence well.

 

©Virginia Rounding, 1966

First published in Awaiting an Epiphany

Three Stories from the Book of the Foundation

 

Seal SBGGODRIC THE BUTCHER

One day, as was his custom, Alfune from the Priory
was visiting the butchers one by one,
asking them for gifts to feed the poor;
he decided to approach a man named Godric,
famed as very stern and niggardly of mind.

When Alfune saw that Godric would give nothing,
being moved by neither fear nor love of God,
nor any human sense of shame,
he prayed for Godric and his hardened heart
and broke out with these words:

‘Oh you unhappy man! I beg you, wretch,
to lay aside your stubbornness;
give me just one morsel of your meat
and I swear you’ll sell that heap before the others,
losing nothing by this act.’

Exasperated by the old man’s importunity,
Godric turned towards his cheapest heap;
he chose a single piece of meat
and flung it at the priest,
calling him a vagrant.

At once a citizen drew near,
wanting meat for all his family;
just as Alfune had predicted,
he bought that cheapest heap
and took it all away.

butchering-pigs

MIRACLES

One day, towards evening, darkness at hand,
a light sent from heaven gleamed over the church
and remained for the space of an hour.

The sick lay prostrate, begging the mercy of God,
and calling on blessed Bartholomew.
The lamps glowed redly,
nor was God’s love far away.

For one man rejoiced with a cry of delight
at the cure of his aching head;
another man walked, a third heard again,
the limbs of a fourth healed of ulcers:
and all the people thundered praises to the saint.

bartholomewBulgarini

HUBERT’S VISION

There was in the congregation of the canons
one Hubert of distinguished birth,
advanced in years and wonderfully gentle.
In old age leaving all for Christ,
he had been admitted to the brethren
and directed all his zeal to loving God.

BVM

Once as he was praying at the altar
in the oratory which bore her name,
the Mother of Mercy appeared to him
and spoke to him with honeyed lips:
‘Here will I received the brethren’s prayers and vows,
for ever granting mercy and my blessing.’

 

©Virginia Rounding, 1996

 

 

 

 

First published in Awaiting an Epiphany

 

 

 

Portrait of an Old Man

i.m. Miron Grindea

Miron Grindea

A sultry afternoon; I identify the house;
walk twice round Emperor’s Gate
not wanting to be early …

A tousled grey head from an upstairs window:
– Who’s that? Are you the plumber?
“I sent some poems; you called me.”
– You haven’t come to mend the sink?
Well, never mind… I step inside the entrance,
have no idea which door to choose.
Querulous, the voice calls out again:
– Wait downstairs! I’m coming …

 

… that’s a portrait of me by Picasso,
and here I am with Jean Cocteau …
there’s a dedication from Chagall …
fifty years of Europe have visited this flat …

My wife’s out playing the piano …
I can’t go on alone, cancer, and too old …
Do you know someone who could help me?…
they all mysteriously disappear …

Have you been published in magazines? –
I mention the names of editors.
– Yes, he’s an alcoholic; as for him …
I try to help them when I can …

 

Next time I’m shown into the upper room
where chaos is revealed:
a round table piled with paper,
a dozen efforts at an editorial,
some previous helper’s notes ignored,
a scribbled card from Iris Murdoch …

– I used to see Eliot from this window,
he lived in the mews with his wife …
I spent half an hour with his corpse in the church …

I’m trying to write my memories … look …
and this one’s on the Jewish question,
Why does anti-Semitism exist?
… that may need more than just one article …

What can we do? I’m so embarrassed …
Can you put it on computer disk?
but what exactly shall we put?…
Edit this, but don’t change anything I say …

The Queen subscribed to ADAM once …
I reminded her when I got my MBE;
she looked vague and non-committal … English … –

You insist we sit together on the bed
to watch John Major make a speech.
You stroke my leg. The heat and hopelessness
make me too inert to move it.
You pour me sherry later;
I feel we’re celebrating
though I don’t know what.

 

Then phone calls:

– Will you take me to the ICA tonight?
You’re doing something else? well, what?
I’d put my hope in you …
– Listen to this letter, is it idiomatic?
Would you say very here or not?
Do you think so?… I prefer my version …

I left my ansaphone switched on,
didn’t return the call immediately …

– I needed you yesterday, it was urgent,
they’re taking me to hospital in half an hour.
Why didn’t you call me back? Another mystery …
Stop all this hypocritical politeness!
We know I won’t get better …

 

©Virginia Rounding, 1996

The Smalpaces

Smalpace heads

Smalpace monument

Percival and Agnes stare from neighbouring frames.
She outlived him thirty years, as her lined face tells.
Stern in starchy Tudor collars, how remote they seem,
as though their eyes would barely recognise our world.

Yet underneath, their naked bodies tell another story
and inform the formal faces with more sympathy,
till hers seems sad, not stern, and his enduring:
seeing them lie dead has made them live.

Supine on a narrow couch, no throne
or wreathes for them, they leave no narrative,
unclothed, they’ve put aside all earthly glory
and rest unmoved by ritual, sermons, hymns.
Exposed through time, they illustrate surrender
of their bodies to the grave, their spirits to eternity.

Fragile, beautiful, such nakedness could be of any age,
including ours. Now we hear the man and woman speak:
Behowlde youre selves by us, sutche once were we as you
And you in tyme shal be even duste as we are now.

 

©Virginia Rounding, 1996

[First published in Awaiting an Epiphany]

The Vision of Rahere

Rahere #3

At the shrine of Rahere the cowled monks read
the same pages from Isaiah for eternity;
little heads cluster like buds around the canopy
and a winged creature with bestial but not unfriendly face
recalls the monster who seized Rahere in dream
before Bartholomew appeared to issue his commission.

With our worldview, sophisticated – so we think – by modern medicine
and psychology, we’re likely to dismiss such visions
as malarial delirium, chemical disturbance in the brain,
imagining Rahere through fever and a medieval fear of hell
hallucinated the encounter which guided him to Smithfield,
unconsciously bargaining with God for his salvation.

Whatever really happened, whatever ‘really’ means,
the fruit of Rahere’s vision can never be denied:
here lies King Henry’s jester, first prior of this church,
in the holy place he founded, adjacent to his hospital,
and for the work of healing practised here for centuries
the name Bartholomew is honoured through the world.

 

©Virginia Rounding, 1996

[First published in Awaiting an Epiphany, 1997]

My friend Walter Mildmay

Mildmay

what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead …
[T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding]

Mildmay, in the dark you look ornate
but barely comprehensible, and so dead;
the tokens you’ve chosen to be remembered by
far less eloquent than the naked Smalpace bodies.
Your heavy marble out of place amongst the stone:
you intended to impose.

But now you know – if you know anything –
that evidence of the world’s approval
counts for nothing after death.
It is your soul that matters now,
not how many kings and queens you served
or colleges you founded.

And since you know, and cannot even answer back,
your boasts reveal unguessed humility.
I recognise you now: we’re kindred spirits.
Instead of shields, I’d spread my poems round a monument,
listing where they’d all appeared, the prizes won:
I’d never be content.

You meant to brag, show off, belittle me;
but wiser dead than you ever were alive,
we’ve had a conversation. You’ve reminded me
how trivial is the heaping up of honours,
of how success slips through our fingers
like the dust we must become.

 

©Virginia Rounding, 1996.

[First published in Awaiting an Epiphany, 1997]