A Five-Gated Well Poems by Rowan Williams
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.
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,
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
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.
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.
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