Oxford days

Magdalen College

Oxford days

What are years
       and days and hours
as you stroll hand-in-hand
       through the streets of Oxford
on a late November Sunday ?
       What is history
and education and knowledge
       and where will it all end ?
Humanity is in the earth
       and it rises and falls
with the generations
       in the spice of summer
and the shiver of winter
       in the shimmer of ice
in the gutter

She of the stars
       and he of the stars both
washed up from Ireland
       both longing
for the red ripeness of love
       Rose and wisteria
and hydrangea in the quad
       in Magdalen College
and tight tiny buds
       already formed on many
of the trees and bushes
       in Addison’s Walk
Nature is conserving
       it resources
silently rearming
       in preparation
for the spring offensive
       when explosions
of leaf and flower
       will reassert its authority
over the territory

We are self-made
       and out of the earth
and out of love
of heavenly bodies
       who admire the deer
as they carelessly
       stare back at us
species under the same spell
       of carbon and oxygen

And time —
       what of time
in the grand scheme ?
        Time is the quarry of passion
and dust is the only secret

John Lyons



Albert: a deafness not of hearing

Albert: a deafness not of hearing

In a little village of the Midi
you can see an old man, in his eighties,
confined to short walks with the aid of a stick,
taking regular gasps of breath as he proceeds,
like a champion swimmer ready to touch home
              after a gruelling race.
Test him in English as though he were Winston Churchill
he has Churchill’s physique
his baldness and gruff voice.
He will reply in tones that remind you of Churchill,
a thirties’ English which he learnt in the thirties
                       in England.
He will tell you perhaps
         of the young schoolmistress
who fell in love with him
                but he had come to England
to learn English, not to fall in love.
He will probably tell you of his visits
                                        to Speakers’ Corner
in Hyde Park where every cause of the day could be aired.
Then the years in Paris teaching English
                                                         and Spanish
but mainly teaching English to arrogant
young Frenchmen who felt so superior
although no Speakers Corner existed in France.
A career of antagonism, bearbaiting
             (there was something
                                       of the bear about him)
              in retirement and
As if wishing to defy his countrymen
he reads his favourite novelist
                     translated into Italian
the young man at Speakers’ Corner
the depleted library, half the books
thrown away in a fit of gloom, given to his housekeeper
to be burned with the rubbish, now regretted
                            done in depression.
Educated by accident; the Scottish woman who lost her wombripener
to German shells on the fields of Flanders, forced back
to this same village with three young sons; his nephews.
Learning English from her (till sixteen merely
passing exams through her – a shepherd)
leaving for Paris thanks to her
                                                  to begin,
                                                               or to end.
Notice finally his deafness, the left ear hoisted
into view, like the old trumpets, but serving
little purpose, little motivation to listen
except to his own voice,
       as he pours you a cognac,
                             a deafness bottled up and matured
a private delectation.


Sophie grown old

Sophie grown old

Like a new invention, Sophie
      you were ushered into the world;
given all the care and attention
      of the new-found; trained
for perfection, till all
      stepped back and admired
the beauty, the goodness
      the gifts.

You lived a little,
      saw much suffering
brought peace where you could,
      hardly noticing the changing
colour of your hair
      the yellowing skin,
life spreading its surreptitious

You loved a lot
      were for a while loved back
and forth
      but with a merchant love capable
only of despair, and then
      you were left alone.
But though your life ceased
      you continued to grow old,
with a mind that swayed
      to a weakly magnetic north.

      if that exists for you,
you have been placed in a drawer
      along with other uncrossed oceans
which have outgrown their usefulness,
      lost all novelty.

You rarely stir the dust about you
      nor do many come to inspect
you in your hidden place,
      to take you by the hand
and press a little warmth
      into your cold, lost world.
We all grow out of fashion
      but never outgrow love.

John Lyons


Unless the seed. . .

Unless the seed. . .

On one side
            the long neatly trimmed box hedge
                        a fragility of shimmering bronze
            in the fast fading half-light
                        of this misbegotten winter’s day

On the other
            by the lap-panelled fence
                        an apple tree – perhaps a Bramley –
            from which all but two crisp leaves have fallen
                        but to which twenty or more

            still cling on for their dear fruitless lives
                        roundly reluctant to detach
            to tumble gravely to the ground
                        to take their chances in the damp

fertile soil
            Soon it will be dark : soon
                        the endless agony of the long night
            will grip those prone to despair while
                        ravenous couples gorge on scraps

of unrequited love
            Outside the unkempt lawn is marked
                        with narrow trails blazed by frisky cats
            and foxes that gently indent the lush green grass
                        as they ply their necessary trade

John Lyons


Pilgrim’s Progress


Pilgrim’s Progress

Why not state the obvious for a change
           that we are all solar powered
for example
           or that we are all astronauts
launched into orbit at the hour of our birth
           that there is no such thing as outer space
that even the inner space of consciousness
           is hurtling through the solar system
at an unthinkable speed ?

Bride and groom honeymooning
           on the beach
starry eyed as they gaze up
           at their ancestors embroidered
into the night’s rich tapestry
           and thankful for a marriage
literally made in the heavens

Who taught the galaxies to sing
           who taught the stars to cry out at birth
or to die with a whimper
           who put poetry into the mouths of babes
and beauty into the eye of the beholder ?

Cryptic messages wherever we look
           the restaurant in the Miami Airways motel
shortly after Hurricane Andrew
           ‘Food to go’
as we are all here to go
           consumed on the hoof
pilgrims bound for an unknown shrine
           a pause in our journey to tell tales
to sing songs
           to while away the hours
until we reach our final destination

Thirteen ways of observing
           four and twenty blackbirds
baked in a pie
           wasn’t that a dainty dish !

John Lyons

The kitchen – a preliminary sketch

The poem below was written in Spanish many years ago and it was partly inspired by a reading of several works by Gertrude Stein, in particular her stories, Three Lives, and her long prose-poem dedicated to the home, Tender Buttons. Having been written in Spanish it benefited from the sounds and rhythms of that language, some of which have been lost in the English translation. 

The kitchen – a preliminary sketch

The kitchen is the household’s nest and home’s soul
it is the homely heart of hearts and so much so that
we must admit that without a kitchen there is no home
       just as without a heart there is no body
new paragraph

And it doesn’t matter whether it has a gas or electric
or even a wood stove the kitchen is always
the great engine the main driver that powers a home
it is the turbine the dynamo and the source and origin
       of all domestic and experiential energy

In the kitchen the plants and flowers and wood all feel at home
       cold cast iron and tender marble at home too
       at home cork and wickerwork
       surrounded by glass and ceramics
and everything just as natural as can be in the kitchen with only plastic
and polyurethane and anything at all synthetic feeling a little out of place
       surrounded by so much vegetable
       and human nature

Here technology counts for little
in the role the kitchen plays in home life
because every technological device has a single purpose
to fulfil an ancient task in the newest
and most efficient manner nothing more
so that while not exactly redundant
technology is indeed par excellence expendable
and so much more so
than the cry of a cockerel or a lark
       at the crack of dawn

A kitchen has its own rhythm and its own music and in that
it resembles a poem a poem perhaps hanging on a kitchen wall
amid photos of grandparents and great grandparents as though a recipe
for the preparation of some stuffed eggplants
because in reality poems too are stuffed in so many different ways
with so many different sauces to give them a particular flavour and
likewise certain recipes too are followed to carry them off
so that poetry and cooking
       -in practice and in situ-
       are two quite similar things
although on the other hand
       totally different and no comparison

In a kitchen to come up behind someone who’s peeling potatoes
or rinsing vegetables under cold water running
over the sink can be a real treat because the person
with their hands full cannot defend themselves and one can
hug that person from behind or give them a peck on the neck
or do both simultaneously and there’s nothing
the poor person can do with busy wet hands
but let out a scream and laugh and try to turn around or dodge
but most of the time it’s in vain because from a kiss
which by the stars is bound to be bestowed
there’s no escape because it’s fate
and no one escapes their fate as we all too well know
although rarely do we know what exactly fate is
especially our own random luck
our destiny or that of those we most love
       because that’s life
       with a destiny but unpredictable
       as though there were no destiny
       at all

And notice that a kitchen occupied by one person barely counts
as a kitchen because the nature of the kitchen requires the minimal presence
of two so as to classify as a real kitchen
and the reason for this is that the kitchen is a place of sharing
and by definition solitude’s not something to be shared
so it fails to qualify as a kitchen but rather undermines it authority
or at least removes authenticity and I’d go as far as to say takes away the taste
from the food served in that room that I daren’t
even call a kitchen given that it’s occupied nothing more
than by one person alone and that’s not sharing
and by failing to comply with the rules of the kitchen
       is hopelessly disqualified

And a rhetorical question would be
where else can one find such an intimate and innocent
formal and informal promiscuity in a house than in the kitchen
and that is largely due to the fact that a main ingredient of a main kitchen
is miscegenation
or rather the confluence
of a huge variety of ingredients in a single dish
because to tell the truth when the culinary art
is practised seriously very rarely does the kitchen not assume something
of the atmosphere of the General Assembly of the United Nations
when a host of products from various flags around the world congregate
all of which are destined in accordance with the talent
of the person in charge of the cuisine to melt into
a unique combination into a single unified taste though there might
persist a plethora of minor or secondary flavours
       underlying the unicity of the dominant flavour
       and that’s why all prejudices have to remain
       out of the kitchen so as not to impede the peace process
which is cooking within the confines of that space
that is indeed a kind of sanctuary
for all human rights and values
of respect and democracy and friendship and affection
       and quite simply love

Moreover as if this weren’t enough the kitchen is a place
where many alien things are always mislaid
and where other equally alien things are always found
a phenomenon that is repeated so often
that it gives the impression that the kitchen is a magical space
with frankly surprising powers of attraction
and it’s impossible to hear the question
where’re the keys or the newspaper
without thinking with an almost pathological automatism
of the probability that the blessed newspaper quite certainly
is in the kitchen not far from the cup and glasses
and perhaps beneath the keys to the car
       or to the house itself

And that’s why friends prefer to be in the kitchen instead
of anywhere else even after the meal they’ve just
ingested because the host or hostess will constantly
have experienced the following and that is that after filling
their stomachs friends want to fill their soul with delicacies
no less nutritious than an oven roast or a fried fish
or a plate of rice with shrimp or chorizo
since it’s true that the human species
       cannot live on bread alone
       but on daily conversation and dialogue
       and the exchange of ideas and impressions
       and tastes and sometimes even mild or strong
       disagreements and opposing politics and it seems
that being surrounded by utensils and pots and heavy porcelain
lends to some if not to most people
an unparalleled sense of security so that rarely do they
accept the suggestion to file out into the living room
while the leftovers are put away and the dishes washed
and the stove is cleaned and the coffee has been filtered
because they fear that they’ll lose that frank and warm
human quality that is
       the necessary environment
       of a fine inexhaustible kitchen
       whether here
       or in Timbuktu
       and in saying all this
       I feel I’ve said so very little
       and that I’m really
       just getting going

John Lyons

© 1990, 2015



Ralph Waldo Emerson – The Poet

Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ralph Waldo Emerson

One of the seminal essays on the central role of poetry in society was written by the American poet and lecturer, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882). In his essay, entitled simply “The Poet,” and published in 1844, Emerson passionately defends not only the poet’s artistic vocation but places poetry at the heart of cultural life. His central thesis is that human society is incomplete if it lacks cultural expression: “For all men live by truth, and stand in need of expression.” Man is only half himself, the other half is his expression; words are actions, actions are words!

By extrapolation, Emerson’s arguments can be applied to all forms of artistic expression including music, theatre and the plastic arts. The artist is representative not of his individual wealth but of the commonwealth. Below, is an edited extract from Emerson’s essay, the complete text of which can be accessed at http://www.bartleby.com/5/110.html. It follows from this that poetry, and the arts in general, should be central to the curriculum of young people and should be given pride of place in our schools.

The poet (an adapted extract)

The poet is the sayer
           the namer
and represents beauty
           He is a sovereign
and stands at the centre

For the world is not painted
           or adorned
but is from the beginning
Beauty is the creator of the universe
           Criticism is infested with a cant
of materialism which assumes
           that manual skill and activity
is the first merit of all men
           and disparages such
as say and do not
           overlooking the fact
that some – namely poets –
           are natural sayers
sent into the world to express

The poet does not wait
           for the hero or the sage
but as they act and think primarily
           so the poet writes primarily
what will and must be spoken

For poetry was all written
           before time was
and whenever we are so finely organized
           that we can penetrate
into that region
           where the air is music
we hear those primal warblings

Poets of more delicate ear
           write down these cadences
and these transcripts though imperfect
           become the songs of nations
For nature is as truly beautiful
           as it is good or as it is reasonable
and must as much appear
           as it must be done or be known

Words and deeds
           are quite indifferent modes
of universal energy
           Words are also actions
and actions are a kind of words

Ralph Waldo Emerson


A few words for a cold Sunday morning. Poetry is in the rhythm as it is in the wind, in the coalescence or energies that keep the world warm and alive on this frosty morning. The silence of meditation, the white canvas across the land. On days such as these we search for warmth. We wrap up well in our coats or lie longer in bed under the covers. But whether at home or out and about, what we seek is human warmth, a smile, a hand held, a kiss, the clench of love, anything to remind us that this too will pass, that the cold season will shift into spring and on into summer and that patience will get us through these challenging times.

Poetry is in the steps that words take, how they move through the mind at a trot, or flow smoothly like a river or rush over a wintry weir, driven always by the passion for life and by the sustaining energies that come directly from the sun. November. The month of remembrance and of memory, of those who are in the cold cold ground, of those who move warmly above it. Memory, the living gallery of moments and places and feelings and faces and sensations and hopes and dreams and love. 


From Holly Hill to the river’s edge
           a chill November day
with an icy wind
           soughing among the alders
and the damp chrysanthemum petals
           blown about the garden-ways
beneath a low grey sky

                      a sluggish tide
slapping the charred beams
           of the abandoned jetty
           the air thick with decay
                      and obsolescence

The future too has its backwaters
           where light will gather in
dark pools of neglect
           who bathes in these waters
may be lost
                      lost forever


La Recoleta – tomb of Evita Perón


On one of my many visits to Buenos Aires, I visited the famous La Recoleta cemetery, final resting place of so many of that country’s great and good.

When Evita Perón died in 1952, her husband, Argentine President Juan Domingo Perón, ordered her body to be embalmed and exhibited to the nation in a glass case. Three years later, when Perón fell from power, Evita’s corpse became a heavy burden for the subsequent regime that wished to prevent her place of burial in La Recoleta from becoming a cult place of pilgrimage.

Kidnapped by the Army Intelligence Service, for weeks the body was secretly driven around the streets of Buenos Aires, and was later hidden for months in the back room of a cinema. At one stage the body was allegedly subjected to all sorts of passions when it was stored at the home of a captain who had lost his mind. The true location of Evita’s body became the subject of much speculation following the publication in 1995 of a best-selling novel, Santa Evita, by Tomás Eloy Martínez, which propounded many new stories and myths about the posthumous escapades of Evita’s body.


La Recoleta

Here lies
           the body of Eva Perón
                      or so they say, in a low key grave
           that lacks the pomp and circumstance
                      of her new neighbours, some of whom

are determined
           to sit our their time until the day
                      of judgment, in ornate mausoleums
           lined with grey granite slabs; some with
                      tiny windows looking out on the streets

           at the frenzied sweep of doomed human traffic;
                      some with en suite bathrooms
           from which dull rusty piss seeps, endlessly.
                      Wealth and illustrious military power

are buried
           here, the owners of a past Buenos Aires
                      and a long gone Argentina. In this dusty
           city of death, laid out in monotonously meti-
                      culous streets and avenues, tourists

           stroll through a gaping emptiness that awaits
                      us all; and with a shudder they quicken
           their pace as they exit once more through
                      the huge entrance gates, taking large gulps

of life.
           And on the white external wall an unknown wit
                      has scrawled in huge red letters
           DULCE ETERNIDAD (sweet eternity)
                      and whatever we believe, we are

           to know, whether in hope or in despair
                      whether in faith or simply fatigue.
           Here lies the body of Eva Perón, though some
                      say not. Here lies the truth, or a lie.

John Lyons

2 August 2005



Notes Towards a Garden of Eden


Notes towards a Garden of Eden

In poetry we find
             an age of innocence
a return to the garden
             and to the first idea
when all was simple
             and honest and good
Belief in the immaculate
             beginning is restored
and wood-doves sing of peace

Poetry is before the fall
             and it speaks with the power
of tameless waves
             driven by the endless
shunt from ventricle
             to ventricle :
poetry is blood language
             in which the unabashed rose
may blossom with impunity

Poetry perhaps
             from the remnants of stars
from fatigued energies
             revitalized on the breath
quickens a new birth

Poetry feeds on the ashes of existence
             it resurrects dead thoughts
it drives them over the universe
             spreads fire
from its unextinguished hearth :
             among mankind it scatters
words from undead lips
it trumpets its prophecies

There are no withered leaves
             no shrivelled buds on the branch
nor will the stars be overshrouded
             by despair
Life is irrepressible
             so too is love and charity
and faith and hope
             and peace comes dropping
and poetry is the pulse

John Lyons