Variation on the theme of autumn

bare trees

Variation on the theme of autumn                  

What it is to introduce
                   a new text into the world
free from the fret
                   of fear and hate
I have seen the sycamore
                   the beech and silver birch
stripped to their boughs
                   as a wind blew in from the East
and a flurry of tiny birds
                   caught in a sudden gust
before their final departure

This is autumnal abandonment
                   the first shivers of the year end
plumes of smoke
                   rising above the houses
as every step hastens
                   one would hope
homeward to a smile
                   and a warm supper

In the woodlands
                   the last chromatic burst
has been neutralized
                   and expectation now rests
on the buried seed
                   that will rise to pierce
the transparent air
                   in spring

And yet the withered rose
                   it would seem
has outstayed its welcome
                   as nature reinvents itself
in the guise of the poor
                   of the dispossessed
of those by force of circumstance
                   obliged to live
colourless thankless lives

What currency rules
                   this bitter world
of inequalities ?
                   What canker lies
at the heart of communities
                   that disown their own ?
And where are we to find
                   the necessary angels
of the earth
                   those not stiffened
by the pangs of greed
                   those with uncurdled hearts
who believe in the reality
                   of harsh realities ?

Nature is the great leveller
                   and months of austerity
will yield in time
                   to the bliss of abundance
the speech of truth will thrive
                   and the peace of intelligence
will dismount the stars
                   and share the fruits
of their energy
                   among one and all
and nothing will be lost

John Lyons


Ceri Richards – Self-portrait (1934)

by Ceri Richards, oil on composition board, 1934
Ceri Richards, Self-portrait (oil on composition board) 1934

Ceri Richards (1903-1971) was born in a small village near Swansea. He and his younger brother and sister were brought up in a highly cultured, working-class environment. His mother came from a family of craftsmen; and his father, who worked in a tinplate foundry, was active in the local church, wrote poetry in Welsh and English, and for many years conducted the Dunvant Excelsior Male Voice Choir. The children were all taught to play the piano, and became familiar with the works of Bach and Handel. In later years music would be an important stimulus to Richards’s painting – as would his youthful sensitivity to the landscapes of Gower and the cycles of nature. Richards trained initially at the Swansea School of Art before completing his studies at the Royal College of Art, (where in later years he became a teacher).

In this beautiful self-portrait from 1934, the influence of the surrealists is quite apparent, particularly that of Picasso. Nevertheless, the portrait remains very much rooted in Richards’s Welsh background, with the dark earthiness of the colours capturing the tone of the valleys where the artist grew up. It is very much the ‘portrait of the artist as a young artist,’ but an artist emerging from a very specific landscape, which the rugged shapes and the simplicity of the composition evoke so well. It is an action painting in the sense that the subject is proudly presenting the tools of his trade, the palette and brushes which he carries as emblems. The thick black lines enhance the notion that the artist is an accumulation of elements, yet the eye is drawn to the bright complexion and the affirmative expression which underline the pride Richards took in his work and his vocation. This self-portrait is quite simply his coat of arms.

Richards wrote: “One can generally say that all artists — poets, musicians, painters, are creating in their own idioms, metaphors for the nature of existence, for the secrets of our time. We are all moved by the beauty and revelation in their utterances — we notice the direction and beauty of the paths they indicate for us, and move towards them”.

The beauty to which Richards refers is intrinsic in every detail of this self-portrait which so clearly and affectionately references his roots in the Welsh valleys —which he appears to be wearing about his shoulders— and his belief in the rugged powers of art. Former pupils have described Richards as a cheerful, boisterous teacher, and these traits come through in this marvellous celebratory painting which is there to be admired any day of the week in the National Portrait Gallery on Charing Cross Road.

Rain is falling


Rain is falling

Across the whole of England rain is falling
falling upon the towns and the fields
falling upon the highways and the byeways
falling upon the rich and the poor

falling upon young and old alike
falling upon the fit and the infirm
upon our schools and hospitals
Across the whole of England

the sky is dark and rain is falling
falling upon those who love
and upon those whose lives
are consumed with sorrow or hatred

or bitterness or disappointment
falling upon those who will struggle
to survive and upon those who retain
a spring in their step the rain is falling

on buses and cars and trains and planes
through the polluted city air across the whole
of England the rain is falling everywhere
upon the present and the past and upon

the dreams we hope will last the rain
rains down on the living and the dead

John Lyons

In the midst of a great forest

Armando Morales, oil on canvas (click to enlarge)

Armando Morales (1927–2011) was an internationally renowned Nicaraguan artist, a contemporary and friend of the poets, Ernesto Cardenal and Carlos Martínez Rivas.

Morales was famous for his voluptuous still lives, in particular, sensual studies of apples and pears that evoked the softness of human skin. He later moved on to the painting of the female form, and in 1971, at the Galeria Bonino in New York, he showed a series of stunning nudes in which the fine detail of every muscle, of every inch of skin, reveals an unsurpassed sensuality.

I visited Armando at his studio in Vauxhall many years ago during a brief period he spent in London. On that day he was preparing a huge canvas, and in the course of our conversation many times he climbed a ladder to access the top of the canvas. In one hand he held a magnifying glass and in the other a razor blade, poring over the surface in search of the most minute imperfections, meticulous to a fault.

I have chosen his beautiful woodland study to illustrate the poem below, the title of which is based on the opening line of Dante’s Inferno.

In the midst of a great forest

What treasures I have amassed
        are immune to fire and theft
though I have indeed known loss
        loss of the body and loss of the soul
and live now in a quiet space
        catching the drift of birdsong
of the splenetic spider that plays
        upon its frosty web
I can resist all things
        better than my own changeability
I breathe the air
        but do not breathe it all
I am not proud
        and know my place :
the moth and the fish-eggs
        are in their place too
so too the bright suns
        and the wide golden moon
that shone last night
        so too the phantom dawn
that creeps through the mist
        to smother dreams
What is palpable
        is in its place
What is impalpable
        is in its place
Whether we fall by ambition
        blood or lust
like diamonds we are cut 
         with our own dust
I seek the grail of laughter
        a life that will turn
upon the axle of devotion
        a kiss not singed
by the eventual flame

These are the lanes of death
        where our footfall falls
Here love is a moment
        and pain another
and our mutual friends
        are ash and dust
moth and termite
        here time runs amok
wields a thirsty blade
        cuts to the very bone

John Lyons

The Madagascan Sunset Moth

Madagascan Sunset Moth
Madagascan Sunset Moth

The Madagascan Sunset Moth

Flying by day
           this spineless boneless
innately venomous creature
          is a paragon of brash
invertebrate beauty
           but beauty comes
at such a price
           Native only to Madagascar
it flits from bloom to bloom
           its long proboscis
supping by preference
           on the nectar of white flowers
More choosy still
           are the larvae that
that feed only on plants
           from the toxic Omphalea family
They hatch from eggs
           laid on the underside
of the leaves of these plants
           The white or pale yellow larvae
with bright red feet will
           once they emerge
mercilessly devour the entire plant
           leaf     flower     stems
and all
           before moving on
to decimate another
           of the same family
From tip to tip
           their wings span
a good three inches
            and boast shades of black
and blue and red and yellow
            and emerald green
Patterns of kaleidoscopic effect
           are produced by the wings’
curved scales creating
           optical interference
as light is reflected
           at sharply different angles
Toxicity is their defence
           for though the caterpillars
eat the poisonous plants
           the toxins are not digested :
these remain in their bodies
           through pupation
into adulthood
            To most predators
a most noxious
           foul-tasting moth—
the iridescence of their wings
           a salutary warning

John Lyons

Autumn Thoughts – Molly Rosenberg

autumn leavesIt’s that time of the year again. Clocks have gone back, the temperature is beginning to drop and we are all bracing ourselves for winter. The landscape is unrecognisable from the bright summer days, yet every season has its magic and its mood. Autumn, a sensitive time for nostalgia, for poring over memories by an open fire, for meditation; a season which John Keats has indelibly marked forever as a time for poetry. And so we are pleased today to present a new poem by our dear friend, Molly Rosenberg.

Autumn Thoughts

          Through gold
          Through ruby red
          Burnt orange
          Amber glow

Like us the magnificence of beauty
reaches its crescendo,
as the array of colours overwhelms
the Ravensbourne Valley.
It takes my breath away.
So short a time like our youth
so fleeting.


Beauty turned to nuisance now
like us when our purpose is served,
all will be swept away.

The sharpness of the air pricks
my cheeks.
I wrap myself in the softness
of cashmere.
Relish the feeling of summer feet
now clad in suede as I tread
lightly through these
golden autumn days.

Molly Rosenberg

The poor are always with us

Henley Wetherspoon
Henley Wetherspoon

Jonah, our indestructible blogsworth, is sitting in The Catherine Wheel, the charming Wetherspoon in Henley-on-Thames, on a bright autumn afternoon. He’s just had a brisk stroll down by the river. Trees turning to gold and brown and copper; seen a few herons, some geese, and more swans than he could shake a stick at; then a quick gander at the grave of poor old Dusty Springfield and he’s popped into the pub to kill the massive appetite he’s been carrying around all morning.

So he’s ordered his meal deal: a pint of what he likes and the fish and chips with mushy peas. Now he’s sitting there, sipping his drink, waiting for his grub to arrive, looking around the gaff and generally minding everyone’s business till he catches the drift of two old codgers lunching at an adjacent table:

Tom More: You been reading about tax credit cuts?
Erasmus: Alice in Wonderland?
Tom More:
Just about. Only worse. No laughs in this one; plenty of mad hatters, though.
You British, I dunno. You have an uncanny talent for political disasters. There’s gonna be trouble over this, mark my words.
Tom More:
Whatcha mean?
Poll tax and now tax credit cuts. Political bloody disaster. You people vote in these governments that then proceed to clobber part of the population to death. It don’t add up, sunshine. On the one hand it’s sadism and on the other its masochism. Fifty bloody shades of I dunno what.
Tom More:
But the deficit, the national debt. Something’s gotta be done.
But at whose expense, laddee? Not the working poor, surely?
Tom More puts down his knife and fork, wipes his lips with his serviette, coughs to clear his throat and looks Erasmus in the eye.
Tom More: No, you’re right. Makes my blood boil.
What sort of a country is this? I mean the very notion of working poor is an abomination. It’s a bad joke. Who does these jobs? Teaching assistants, social workers, so I’ve been told, but loads of other keyworkers too.
Tom More:
So what does that mean, keyworkers? Key to what? Key to whom, if you don’t mind my pompous grammar? Are these jobs not important enough to deserve a living wage?
Tom More:
Yeah, you’re right. It’s all wrong. Millions of families on or just below the breadline. . .
About to be clobbered. So many of this once proud nation’s kids growing up in poverty.
It goes quiet as the two old men take a breather and dip into their drinks. And Jonah’s meal arrives. Lovely golden batter on the fish, and the taste, so fresh.
Erasmus: You know, a country that doesn’t care for its young doesn’t deserve to be called a country. It’s a bloody disgrace. Children in need! It’s a bad joke! No wonder the Scots want out.
Tom More:
You’re right, you’re dead right, mate.
Poverty is a social construct, you know that. Nobody’s born poor, it’s not genetic. People are born into poverty or they fall into poverty, but it’s not in their DNA. It’s structured. You take the total wealth of a country, or the total wealth earned by a country in one year and you parcel it up, you decide who gets lucky and who has to struggle. I’m all for the ‘work should pay’ philosophy, but work should pay. These tax credits they want to cut, they’re not charity, they’re really nothing more than subsidies to the employers of the working poor. So to cut them is more than a bit like Alice in bloody Wonderland, “Off with their heads”.
Tom More has a faraway look in his eyes; maybe the beer has gone to his head which he now begins to shake slowly.
Tom More: One nation. . . The party of the family. . . Jesus wept.
Exactly! Suffer little children. . . !

Stations of the Cross

Stations of the Cross

St Francis of Assisi
St Francis of Assisi

On the train from Victoria he sits opposite me in his brown Franciscan habit and sandals. He is balding at the crown but wears a long beard. Forty-three years of age, pale blue eyes, slim and just under six foot, I estimate.

Life is a horizontal fall, a slow motion stampede dustwards.

From a rucksack he takes a packet of chocolate-covered raisins and tips five into his left hand: one by one he devours them, a half-decade.

Sensitive appetite is the passive power by which one is moved to some immediate response presented by the senses.

A professional-looking, large-beaded rosary hangs clipped from his rope belt and the wooden cross sways as he returns the remains of the raisins to his bag.

By the monastery path, the brittle leaves crushed underfoot. Time drops in decay.

From a bottle of water he takes a short sip, consults his mobile, which is not a smart phone and looks nervously around the carriage.

In the monastery garden, everywhere visible, time’s disfiguring touch.

Next he produces a paperback, Carlo Caretto’s Love is for living; reads a paragraph, marks his place with a label, closes the book and closes his eyes, raising a clenched fist to his breastbone.

Intellectual appetite: the passive power by which one is moved to a more reasoned response to particular objects as presented by the intellect.

He is still for several minutes, quite motionless, lost in his meditation. His eyes open. Signs of a visible sadness, a loneliness, a tangible longing.

It is not happiness but the divine will that grounds moral norms.

He reads again, now grasping and tightly twisting his beard, as though he wished to wrench it from his face. Then eyes closed, clenched fist once more at his breastbone, a deep sigh.

We need to have the power to restrain the natural appetite for happiness so that we can will as He would have us will.

The minutes pass.

Time and the world and all things dwindle.

Now he returns the book to his rucksack and sits with eyes shut and an inner focus on the heavens, and on his sacrifice.

Frost will paint the pines in winter and snow will settle on the simple wooden crosses that mark where they lie.

Down from Victoria, counting the twelve stations, the daily cross he bears, on his way back to Our Lady of the Angels.

Prayer cannot detain the torrent of descending time but one can pray for a light footfall.

Upon arrival he is the first to dismount, and as he leaves the station he halts to glance back over his shoulder at the shadow that has been following him, shadowing him throughout his journey, shadowing him throughout his life.

These are the shadows of dreams, the shadows, doubtless, of unborn time.

But he sees no one, and so he hurries off, burying himself in the distance, in the echoless darkness.

11 October 2015

Ernesto Castillo – 4 poems

ernesto castillo salaverry
Ernesto Castillo

Ernesto Castillo Salaverry (1957-1978) was born in Managua, Nicaragua; he died barely two months before his 21st birthday, fighting against Somoza’s National Guard on the streets of Leon. His poetry reads like a diary of the daily struggle against the dictatorship, interwoven with love and nostalgia. Days before his death he wrote a letter to his parents:

Sunday, August 27, 1978.

To all those who love me, and among them, especially you.

I had thought not to write these lines, because you know I do not like goodbyes, I believe that every separation is temporary because when several people are together, when they love each other in the way that we love each other, it is impossible to forget each other, and at happy times, in the sad moments, we are together, sharing, as we have done so often. You are always with me. You are in the rain, you are on the streets mingling with the people, accompanying me every time I go to work. When I talk with colleagues, and we touch on family matters, matters of love, I just smile, because I have the good fortune to have your support; I am happy to know that you understand the need to fight; happy because the training I received made me aware of the need for change, for the revolutionary transformation of an unjust society.

In addition to having you, I am not alone; colleagues who work with me are very fraternal, we live together in danger, we share the same ideology, and our Sandinista convictions make us brothers. The people, the workers, the taxi driver, the newspaper seller, the cornershop keeper, they all accompany me. They trust me, without even knowing me, they love me, they have great faith in me, in us.

For you, for them, for Nicaragua, I am willing to fight to the end.

I cannot say that I don’t miss you, that would be a lie. I’d like to be with you, sharing every moment, enjoying every word, every gesture, every look. Today it’s not possible, but we must sacrifice ourselves, and I confess that I find it hard, we must fight in these conditions so that thousands of families can come together, so that Nicaraguan mothers do not continue to see their children murdered by the National Guard.

I’m not afraid, I know I’m going to brush with death, and I’m not afraid. You, and an entire nation, are with me. I love you.


4 poems by Ernesto Castillo

The list of revolutionary
martyrs is long;
I know that the road
to Liberation is painful;
but if I fall,
another will take my place
and maybe fight
longer than me,
and his work combined
with what has been done,
may finally achieve

The streets wet with rain
reflect the night.
I crawl along the path
as though trying to prolong
the steps that must take me
to my death.


September 1978

Some are for your sister;
let her enjoy them
if she likes them ,
if not,
let her accept them,
because it was she
who created them;
not all,
just some.
The others are scattered
in women’s names
I’d already have forgotten,
had I not written them
in my poems.
The last ones,
the most recent,
are yours,
I wasn’t sure before.
These poems
and these feelings
are yours
because you earned them.

Thanks for having given me your kisses,
your moments of joy and loneliness
thanks for sharing
my problems.

I can only leave you my poems
and my memories, the memory of the silent
nights with my hands running across
your body and my eyes glistening
as our mouths met.

I see you rereading my letters and poems,
remembering the why of each sentence,
trying to revive my love in every
one of those pages.

I’ll leave my sensation of loneliness,
because where I’m going you cannot reach me;
and in your sleepless nights
you’ll remember that I can never
come running to you, that you’ll no longer
even have my distant presence,
because my body
will be eaten by worms
that will erase every trace of your
kisses on my neck.

Time will turn my bones to dust,
everyone will forget me, but you
will sometimes feel the urge to cry;
a veil of sadness will overwhelm you
and my memory will reappear in your eyes.

Translations by John Lyons

Following the United States occupation of Nicaragua from 1912 to 1933, during the so-called Banana Wars, the Somoza family political dynasty was installed, and, with US backing, would rule the country until the final dictator was ousted in the 1979 Nicaraguan Sandinista Revolution.

In the 1970s the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) had begun a guerrilla campaign with isolated attacks which led to national recognition of the group in the Nicaraguan media and solidification of the group as a force in opposition to the dictatorship. The Somoza regime, was defended by the National Guard, a force highly trained by the U.S. military, that used torture, and extra-judicial killing, intimidation and censorship of the press in order to combat the FSLN attacks. In 1977, mounting international condemnation of the regime’s human rights violations led the Carter Administration to cut off aid to the Somoza regime. By the end of January 1978, civil disobedience had turned into a full-scale popular uprising throughout the country, ending in July 1979 when Somoza abandoned Nicaragua and the first Sandinista government was installed.

Here we go round the mulberry

white mulberry
White Mulberry

The silkworm is the larva or caterpillar of the domesticated silkmoth, Bombyx mori. A silkworm’s preferred food is white mulberry leaves, but it may also eat the leaves of any other mulberry tree. It is entirely dependent on humans for its reproduction and does not occur naturally in the wild.

Sericulture, the practice of breeding silkworms for the production of raw silk, has been underway for at least 5,000 years in China, from where it spread to Korea and Japan, and later to India and the West.

The poem below was inspired by these verses from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam:

You have formed me of earth and of water,
What can I do? Whether I be wool or silk, it is
You that have woven me, and what can I do?
The good that I do, the evil that I am guilty of,
Were alike predestined by you; what can I do?

Here we go round the mulberry

silkworm cocoons

The low
         branches of morus alba,
                  with its wide spreading crown
         and scaly orange-brown bark pocked
                  with lenticels to oxygenate and

         toxic gases, and lush orbicular-shaped
                  leaves with serrate margin:
         dioecious flowers–the narrow male,
                  one to two inches long, the plumper

         at barely an inch–boys and girls
                  in slender zigzag come out to play.
         Twigs with silvery white filaments
                  draped with fleshy multiples of drupes,

         fruit, akin to the blackberry, from June to August
                  maturing. The larva fed on this foliage,
         its spittle passing through spinneret lips
                  so hardening to tensile-as-steel silk,

each cocoon
         wound with a single mile-long thread, the oven-
                  baked pupas, soaked in boiling water, whence
         five strands spun on wooden bobbins, the yarn woven
                  into the cloth of kings. So do not

         to consign Emily Dickinson’s breath to dust,
                  nor the intemperate slobber of Walt Whitman’s
         leaves of grass to the furnace, in all modesty
                  our poetry too is nothing less than solidified saliva.

13 April 2004