Clive Wilmer


Poesie lette da Clive Wilmer in occasione del "Poetry Reading" tenutosi l'8 maggio 2003 presso l'Aula Stucchi dell'Università degli Studi di Milano

Profilo di Clive Wilmer

Saxon Buckle

            in the Sutton Hoo Treasure

His inlaid gold hoards light: 
A gleaming thicket to expel,
With intricacy worked by skill,
The encroaching forest night
Where monsters and his fear dwell.

Gold forest tangles twined by will
Become a knot that closes in
The wild beasts that begin
Beyond his habitation.
An object for his contemplation,

From which three rivets gaze:
A beast's head, forested within,
That clasps his swordbelt to his waist
By daylight, and before his eyes,
By hearthlight, stills unrest.


Note: The great gold buckle in the Sutton Hoo hoard comes from the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of East Anglia and dates from the seventh century. It is in the British Museum.

Published in The Dwelling-Place (Carcanet Press, 1977)

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Post-war Childhoods

                  for Takeshi Kusafuka

'If there were no affliction in this world we might think we were in paradise.'
                                                -	Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace

You, born in Tokyo
In nineteen forty-four,
Knew the simplicity
Occasioned by a war. 
In London it was so
Even in victory - 
In defeat, how much more.

Knew it I say - and yet
Born to it, you and I,
How could we in truth have known?
It was the world. You try
To make articulate,
In language not your own,
What it was like and why.

Nature returned (you say)
To downtown Tokyo - 
In your voice, some irony
Defending your need to go 
That far: what other way
Of like economy
Is there of saying so?

Your images declare
The substance of the phrase:
Bomb craters, urban grass, 
A slowworm flexing the gaze 
Of the boy crouching there;
Moths, splayed on the glass,
Like hands lifted in praise.

A future might have drawn
On what such things could tell.
You heard, even as you woke,
Accustomed birdsong fill
The unpolluted dawn, 
Heard a toad blurt and croak
In some abandoned well.

They call it desolation,
The bare but fertile plot
You have been speaking of.
You grew there, who have taught 
Me much of the relation
Affliction bears to love
In Simone Weil's scoured thought.

I, too, have images.
A photograph: St Paul's,
The dome a helmeted head
Uplifted, as terror falls.
The place I knew, not this
But a city back from the dead,
Grew fireweed between walls.

I played over dead bombs
In suburban villas, a wrecked
Street of them where, run wild,
Fat rhododendrons cracked
The floors of derelict rooms:
It seemed to a small child
And Eden of neglect.  

If we two share a desire,
It is not that either place,
Still less the time, should return.
If gravity and grace
Survive a world on fire
Fixed in the mind, they burn 
For things to be in peace.


Note: St. Paul's is, of course, the cathedral of the City of London. Fireweed is a popular name for the wild flower rosebay willowherb. Gravity and Grace translates the French title Le Pesanteur et la grace; in English translation there are two convenient puns.

Published in Of Earthly Paradise (Carcanet Press, 1992)

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The Architect at his Mountain Villa

All I can do is take you to the edge
        And throw a belvedere
Out on the void, fenced in with cabled steel,
So there is nothing which you need to fear -
             As fear you will,
Like somebody marooned on a rock ledge.

This is what builders do: compose a space
        For you to live inside
And be in body. They can give no more
Than wood or concrete, stone or brick provide.
             All else they ignore,
Except to make a view out of a place.

What if the view were merely space? What if
        Odd atmospheric freaks - 
Stray clouds, perhaps a viscous film of mist -
Were all that filled it? Floating, the snow peaks
             Barely exist -
Far less than we do, grounded in this cliff.

                                                            Bellinzona, 21.ix.02

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Kitchen Table

       in memory of my Mother

Making a home was
what you could do 
best; and cookery

(the ritual at 
the heart of it) you had
a kind of genius for.

So what I first
recall, thinking of you,
is a creamy table-top,

the grain etched
crude and deep, the legs
stained black, and you

at work, with rolling-pin
or chopping-board or
bowl; then, later,

presiding over
guests or children at each
day's informal feast.

Your homeliness
displaced now, what survives
for me of it

is this: which
now becomes a model
of true art:

bare boards scrubbed clean,
black, white,
good work as grace, such

purity of heart.


Published in Of Earthly Paradise (Carcanet Press, 1992)

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Fonte Branda in Siena

			Ruskin, Praeterita III, iv, §86
			      Dante, Inferno xxx, 49-90

Fonte Branda, wrote Ruskin, I last saw
under the same arches where Dante saw it.
He drank of it then
                               and every time the near
pentameters of his prose recur to me,
I too see the place again:

the loggia of red brick, in white stone
the jutting bestial heads 
                                       and within,
shade and the still pool.

Whenever the Englishman went there, he would find
rage at injustice,
true words that pinion falsehood and cupidity,
bitterness in the sweet spring, the hiss
of white hot metal plunged in the cool water
as he drank. 
                    I think of that sad face,
the charred brain behind it, the word-flow.
And in my thought, as if toward the calm
of memory, he stoops to drink.
And every time he stoops the Florentine
in his pink coat, not crowned with laurel yet,
moves into range
                            much as another's words
return to the quiet mind.

They do not see me there. But the place names
hold them in view - Siena, Fonte Branda - 
by brimming water, on the point of speech.

                                                                           c. 1986

Published in Of Earthly Paradise (Carcanet Press, 1992)

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The Holy of Holies

                 then broke in and found nothing.

She took me by the hand. A desolate place,
a place of stones, being unmade and made:
dark gashes in the earth with, all about,
stagnant pools, so churned up the terrain;
and standing alone, a stark new office-block,
half-built and bare, its concrete white in the moon.

From destruction we may draw consolation:
that there's no escape from fate,
not for great works or even holy places.
Nevertheless, that so ravishing a building,
its materials alone - concrete and cedarwood - 
so sumptuous, the stone so smoothly cut
so closely joined

                              Think of that 
and, thinking of the place, how deep inside, there
in the Holy of Holies,
you can lose what you are, 
desire to, fear to 

                            As I Flavius, 
a soldier of fortune, not myself a Roman,
in this epoch since the fall,
trafficked with a lithe avatar of the goddess
Astarte, Aphrodite, whatever name,
in the region of King's Cross.
She it was
who led me through that place to the tall block
as yet unfinished, so that it seemed a ruin

the sanctum, the broken chancel, the lopped shaft
holier than it would have been

before it, bare and empty, a white lodge,
a simple cube of space, and we went in.
One window, the moon seen through it, and the night
unseasonably warm, she threw her dress aside,
breasts and shoulders silvered by the moonlight:
she was so beautiful I could
have gone down on my knees but, as we stood there, 
I ran my fingertips along her mouth, caressed
her nipples, the dome of her belly, the dark fuzz:
I thought and measured, seeking
the exact gentleness to weigh the value.

These two together.

saw the temple burn in Jerusalem,
saw it fall, with ravines for its foundations,
the superstructure not unworthy of them,
their depth, their great magnificence, their strength.
Nevertheless it fell, 
the Temple of Solomon and the house of wisdom
waxed marble and scented cedarwood 
at the touch of flame. 

The torches carved a space out of the darkness, 
a recess of twenty cubits, up till then
screened by a veil and unapproachable,
inviolable, invisible to all.
In it stood nothing whatever, it was called 
the Holy of Holies

         lose what you are
              fear           desire

         made darker still by the white ray:
she turned away from me, as if to bow
to the moon's face, but leaned on the rough sill,
so that her breasts hung softly in my hands

then the flames flared and leapt,
I pushed lightly and the entrance gave

                                            c. 1995

Note: This poem alludes to the destruction by Titus of the Temple in Jerusalem. It draws especially on the account given by the Judaeo-Roman historian Josephus.

Published in The Falls (Worple Press, 2000)

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Kaspar Hauser

Who wanted to be a horseman
Who wanted to be what his father had been before him

Who had no father, who had no mother
Who could not ride
Who sprang fully-formed from nowhere

Who knew the floor of a stable
better than he know the world or knew himself
Who could not tell who had fed him or sustained him

Who lacked speech
Who could not put into words
where he had come from or what was to be his end
Who could not describe the world
Who could not define it

On whom the sins of the fathers were visited
Who was innocent, who was fallen
Who now was to eat bread in the sweat of his face

Who was sub-normal, moronic, mentally disabled,
an inspired visionary, a wolf-boy, a child of God

Who had quickened in his mother's womb
to be flung wailing into the world
Who had fallen from nowhere
and found himself nowhere

Who could not say who had killed him
or why he had had to die


Note: In 1828 a sixteen year-old youth named Kaspar Hauser was found wandering in the streets of Nuremberg. He was unable to speak but carried a message with him, which said: 'I want to be a horseman like my father.' [The German word Reiter can mean cavalry-officer as well as horseman.] He was taken in by the local pastor, who began teaching him to speak but in 1833 he died a violent death: it is normally assumed that he was murdered, though he might have committed suicide.

Published in Selected Poems (Carcanet Press, 1992)

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Bottom's Dream

                                        It shall be called 'Bottom's Dream', because
                                                                          it hath no bottom...

I was a weaver, and I wove
The moody fabric of my dream.
By day I laboured at the loom
And glimpsed the image of a love
		       I now know bottomless.

We were young men. We played our parts.
We schooled ourselves in the quiet wood.
By night the moon, who draws the flood,
Tugged at the rhythms of our hearts
		       And they were bottomless.

I loved a girl who was a boy;
I took my stand and beat my breast.
Yet what was I but fool and beast, 
Who did not so much speak as bray
		       In bombast bottomless?

I trusted I had mastery
Until one night, being left alone,
I snorted at the wandering moon
In terror of the mystery,
		       Which seemed quite bottomless,

And out of that she spoke, who had
No voice, although she stirred my sense,
Who touched me, though she had no hands,
And led me where you cannot lead
		       Since it is bottomless.

I tried to speak: again I brayed.
I pinched and scratched my face: coarse hairs
Were crisping over cheeks and ears.
And when she drew me in, she made
		       The whole world bottomless.

Nothing possessed me. So she said
Do not desire to leave this wood.
Among the mossy clefts I hid
With petals where she pressed my head,
		       Desire being bottomless.

A most rare vision, such a thing
As who should say what such things be:
My terror turned to ecstasy,
The one much like the other, being
		       Both of them bottomless.

And then the change. The sun came up
Brash as a brassy hunting-horn. 
I woke and, yes, I was a man.
Was I myself though? Self, like sleep,
		       May well be bottomless.

New moon tonight. Another dream
To act. They laugh at our dismay.
Oh but it's nothing. Only play.
Except we just don't feel the same,
		       For play is bottomless.

And so the story ends. My eyes
Are sore with weeping, but I laugh
(I who was seen to take my life),
For, having been an ass, I'm wise
		       And bottomless. Bottomless.   


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Profilo di Clive Wilmer

Clive Wilmer is Associate Teaching Officer at Fitzwilliam and Sidney Sussex Colleges Cambridge and an Honorary Fellow of Anglia Polytechnic University. He is also a poet, critic, translator, editor and broadcaster. Five volumes of his poetry have been published, of which two are in print: Selected Poems (1995) and The Falls (2000). He has written and lectured extensively on the work of John Ruskin and certain of his followers. In particular, he has edited the Penguin editions of Ruskin's Unto this Last and Other Writings and William Morris's News from Nowhere and Other Writings. He is currently working on a new Oxford edition of Ruskin's Praeterita, and is Principal Tutor on the Ruskin Foundation's new project, The Ruskin Journey: the Roots of Tomorrow, which begins in the March of 2004. From 1995 to 2000 he was an active member of Ruskin To-Day, which co-ordinated events for the Ruskin centenary in 2000. He also conceived and helped to plan the Ezra Pound centenary exhibition, Pound's Artists (1985), at the Tate Gallery, London, and Kettle's Yard Gallery, Cambridge. In collaboration with the Hungarian poet George Gomori, he has translated a great deal of Hungarian poetry into English, notably the work of Miklos Radnoti and Gyorgy Petri. Their selection of Radnoti's poetry, Forced March (1979), is about to be republished in a revised and enlarged edition. In 1998 Clive Wilmer was awarded the Endre Ady Memorial Medal for Translation at the PEN Club in Budapest. From 1989 to1992 he presented the BBC Radio 3 programme Poet of the Month; the transcripts of his interviews were collected in the book Poets Talking (1994). He is a frequent contributor to a variety of periodicals, notably the TLS and PN Review.

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