shores suddenly closer, a smear of green and brown
with a smattering of fishermen among runnels
silent then gone. It was disorientating
at first. We were drunk on the local wine
and unused to drifting around and waiting.
We were lost without landmark and sign.
And then a new channel opened and a craft
much like ours appeared and pushed ahead.
And then another. Everywhere fore and aft
there were boats and water that fed
still more water. We were everywhere
and nowhere at once in the humid air.
Who can define the river? Who can own
the stream as it moves, as it keeps breaking up
swollen by tributaries. Can anyone drown
in its confluent jargons or make the river stop
to admire itself? The cities it passes through
are habitations of only one kind. I’ve lived there
and walked embankments that were once new
but now are old. They were not an everywhere.
It was maps we needed to locate the voices
of the delta with its birdcalls and inflections,
the marshy ground that lay between places
that were solid with the chattering of fictions.
The boats were full of faces feeding the ocean.
The water moving, becoming the location.
Phalarope, egret, grebe, pelican, bittern
and heron, flamingo, spoonbill, ibis, names
of familiar fauna, the familiar pattern
of speech, the well-mapped language games…
We had endless supplies of thick black coffee
to keep us going. We spread out the maps
and named more fauna, strophe after strophe,
the delta was singing its versions of perhaps.
The river was charted but now the tide rises
and presses on and moves between tongues
of land to emerge in a mouth that blazes
with its own ideas, its own flickering songs.
There’s no exhaustive language. The maps are a start
in gathering up strands of a notional heart.
How admirable they are, these sober gentlemen
with their silver hair and patriotic moustaches,
their straight backs, their handsome, faintly malicious
smiles, their authority, their quiet gravamen.
They are assuredly the very soul of the nation,
who look to assure us and strive to look reassuring,
exemplars of uprightness, objects of admiration,
who have always been there and are the enduring
face of the people for which the nation has fought.
You couldn’t imagine them with a gun by a ditch
surveying a row of corpses, perish the thought!
They wouldn’t murder their despicable enemies,
they’d simply tidy them up like an unfortunate glitch
in the programme then straighten their sober grey ties.
It was the Thirties once again. Shop doors
opened on hunger and long queues for soup,
the poor, clothed by the same half-empty stores,
stood round in doorways in a ragged group;
the unemployed were drunk in railway stations,
rumours of war played on a constant loop.
The Furies were running out of patience
reduced to muttering curses and the lost
were lost in their own preoccupations.
In feral offices, the running cost
of living was calculated down to pence
by those who needed least and owned the most.
Imperial glamour was the last defence.
The cinema played all-out games of doom
on borrowed power. Even our dreams were dense,
crowding us out of every empty room.
We threw each other out for lack of rent
We were the bust remains of what was boom.
And knowing this, that none of it was meant,
not quite precisely as the world turned out
but as a fanciful presentiment,
was of no consolation. None could doubt
what was happening. The sea was emptiness
out of which light emerged. One distant shout
and it was here, the water’s fancy dress
of time as tide, the crowds along the street
jostling to hear a demagogue’s address.
Where else was all the troubled world to meet?
Why was the water rushing to the door?
At whose damp walls were the loud waves to beat?
MAPPING THE DELTA
13 Mapping the Delta
15 In the Cinema Lobby
16 Central Europe
18 The Thirties
19 Blessed Isle
25 Postcolonial Operations
27 After a Line of W.H. Auden
IN DEFENCE OF CLICHÉ
28 Man at a Bar
30 In Defence of Cliché
31 What we talk about when we talk about talking
35 The Boy-King’s Tale
37 Meet Harpo
38 In the Country of the Heart
40 Charge Sheet
41 When the wicked come…
43 Minimenta: A Topography
A DRUNKEN BOAT
46 The Drunken Boat
49 Royal Street
50 In the City
51 At the Corner of the Table
53 City Snapshots
BRUNO SCHULZ, SHE SAID
56 Bruno Schulz, She Said
58 On Angels
59 Nine Meditations on Francesca Woodman
61 Like That Raw Engine
62 A Hard Day’s Night
63 Island of Dreams
64 Sealed with a Kiss
65 Needle in a Haystack
66 You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling
67 Shine On You Crazy Diamond
68 Nowhere to Run
IN WOLF’S CLOTHING
69 The Wolf Reader
70 A Paradise Garden
72 Among Animals
74 Animal Inside
75 The Ghost of a Flea
76 A Vision of the Daughters of Albion
77 Nurse’s Song
78 The Sick Rose
79 Nine Annotations to The Proverbs of Hell
83 On Beauty
84 What She Told Me About Beauty
85 Magic Realism
87 In the Hotel Room
90 Illicit: A Dream Story
93 Mottoes from Schnitzler
97 On Getting Lost
99 At the Train Window
100 The Engine Turns
102 Naming and shaming
103 The Leaves
105 Variations after Sappho
107 It Never Quite Goes, the Sense of Anxiety
109 THE YELLOW ROOM
DISASTER ZONE: FLOOD
120 Listening to the weather
124 A Dream of New Washing
THE MATHEMATICS OF FREEDOM
127 The Definition of Liberty
128 Small Change
130 Nutritional Value
132 The Instruments
134 Hologram as Light
DISASTER ZONE: THE MISSING
135 Disaster Zone
136 A Low Flying Plane
138 The Missing
145 The Books
147 Ice Cap
THE HOTEL OPENS
149 Chord and Ornament
151 A Flowering
153 A Quartet from Finland
154 A Note on Photographs
156 Bright Room
158 Room with a View
160 Filming Death
161 Mourning: a sketch
162 The Matrix Reloaded
166 A Close Run Thing with the Police
167 Leave It to Us
168 Good Dog Voice
A SMALL BOOK OF MELANCHOLY
169 Who Crouches…
171 A Small Book of Melancholy
172 A Hungarian Folk Song
173 A Photograph
‘A brilliantly virtuosic collection of deeply felt poems concerned with the personal impact of the dislocations and betrayals of history. The judges were impressed by the unusual degree of formal pressure exerted by Szirtes on his themes of memory and the impossibility of forgetting.’ – Douglas Dunn, on Reel, winner of the T.S. Eliot Prize
‘A major contribution to post-war literature…Using a painter-like collage of images to retrieve lost times, lives, cities and betrayed hopes, Szirtes weaves his personal and historical themes into work of profound psychological complexity.’ – Anne Stevenson, Poetry Review
'Any new collection from George Szirtes will treat its readers to a unique poetic combination: immense versatility and virtuosity when it comes to form, but also a tireless sympathy that dwells clear-sightedly on shocks, traumas and hard-won renewals from a century of migration and massacre. This volume has typically strong-voiced sequences...But its title sequence truly takes the breath away: a meditation on the love and hatred of knowledge, and why fury against literature did not start or end on Nazis' pyres... Read Szirtes to feel the exquisite, excruciating paper cuts of history.' – Boyd Tonkin, The Independent, on The Burning of the Books and other poems.
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