A Five-Gated Well   Poems by Rowan Williams


1.  Landscape


The river swings slowly on the clay;

like a track in the cloud chamber, the old road

of Roman ghosts and lost dominion,

fingered with grass and mud, still carves the fen.

The little shrines of clunch and rubble sit,

shuttered against the needles of a draught

that treads the cloud chamber like a legion.

As if the first settler here was winter,

a slow craftsman of the shining wires

and filigrees, laying bright frost on black soil.



2.  Divinity


Frost on black soil: when the first clerks,

wrapped tight, caps drawn down,

first intoned the dry music, blew on the sparks


And rolled from the furnace the glass spires,

twined close and polished hard,

the castle of the schools, they kindled other fires,


Slow-burning, flaring at last around the boards

of White Horse Tavern chambers,

as the restless Word scorched off its cords.


But the scrubbed reformed sky still yearns for motions,

deep vortices, storm towers,

for journeys into Plato’s paradise, devotions


Like the draught’s needles piercing the glass of sight,

stitching philosophy

into close music, into a formal velvet night


Of bowing constellations.   Hung on the walls,

two centuries’ worth of weaving,

the warm needlework of Greek that calls


The clerks to stir and dance again with the Word’s

sounding, returnings,

filling the sky’s towers, nesting and circling birds.



3.  Natural Philosophy


Nesting and circling: vision catches

this or that landing place, guesses

this or that current down which to glide,

maps out the architecture

of stone and air alike.

The eye in flight, steadily as the river’s

curved arm, traces a single horizon

behind the crenellations and the little shrines,

and a young Christ’s man steps on board

for the long voyage to damp islands

where the forms heave out of water

inch by inch into defining light.

Back home the sculpting wind cuts deeper,

frost cracks down to the joint

of bone and marrow at the heart

of matter, the split anatomy of power

flowering for life and death.  Life’s letters



are decoded, rescued from the floods

of blood and breathing, hung in dry waterfalls,

stuttering an episodic song, the marks

and pauses of an aboriginal art.



4.  Humanities


Marks and pauses: where we cannot speak

we must not, where we can we must,

and watch for the dishonest leak


Of casual silence where the white drifts

would bury needful spare, unsparing words

of scrutiny; or of casual talk into the rifts


of emptiness that mirror the uncrowded sky.

Power tends to corrupt, the patriarch said,

casting a patient, unmerciful, Germanic eye


On the soft histories we love to tell

(as if our past were beautiful and frozen

in what we say, locked in the cell


Of our control).  Even in the cold

marshland, there is the heat of protest:

this is a critic’s landscape, shaped to hold


The black no less than the bright,

and the sharp stripped trees no less

than the water: night


Where the stars’ little wounds pour streams

of slender clarity, no less than days of mist

and the mumbled theatre of waking dreams.



5. Townscape


Waking dreams: across the lakes

of glowing grass, the Disneyland

pinnacles drape themselves with ice.

Into the nest of grass, timber,

Tudor brick and stone, the straight

fen tracks run silently, treading

like a legion.  Yellow-grey houses,

small clay ovens against the winter,

stare at the postcard castles from time

to time: quizzical, grateful,

suspicious, knowing they are needed,

shrugging at the mind’s obsessional

drive to forget where it belongs

and what it owes.  And the Roman roads

fortify themselves in glowing glass

where the academy as it passes

reads silicon reflections.  Roads, houses,

river, ice-framed sanctuaries,

all of them framing the human eye,

discovering the human eye

within the human eye’s fathomless black soil.


© Rowan Williams 2009