Summer days and nights

whitman house
Walt Whitman’s birthplace, Huntingdon, Long Island, N.Y.

Summer days and nights

As I sit under the willow shade
           a little bird is leisurely
dousing and flirting himself amid the brook
           almost within reach of me
Evidently he has no fear of me
           and takes me for some feature
of the neighbouring bank
           of coarse bushes and wild weeds

The last three days
           have been perfect
heavy rains at night
           with thunder and lightning
But I’m writing this
           sitting by the creek
watching two kingfishers
           at their sundown sport
strong beautiful
           joyful creatures
their wings glistening
           in the slant of the sunbeams
as they circle round and round
           dipping and dashing
the surface of the water
           occasionally testing their wings
on longer stretches
           up and down the stream

Walt Whitman

(adapted from Specimen Days by John Lyons)

Walt Whitman was born in Huntington, Long Island, New York, on 31 May 1819. In honour of his bicentennial I have been working on passages of Specimen Days (1882) which, among other things, record his lyrical observations of the natural word around him. Although written in prose, many of these passages are absolutely poetic and I have tried to draw out this poetry with a little subtle editing.





The common English oaks
         cast a towering shadow
over the platform
         at Barnehurst station
the pedunculate oaks
         with their sessile lobed
spirally-arranged leaves
         twisted into rhyme

Time has again gone up in smoke
         as autumn has drained
their lush green leaves
         to the colour of tobacco
Clad in thick fuses of ivy
         from head to toe
these trees are doomed
         as their lifeblood
is slowly sucked away
         No glorious spreading crown
for these emaciated specimens
         no monstrous girth—
their acorns litter the ground
         cracked and crushed
under relentless waves
         of commuter feet

Time feeds on time
         a parasite that will
one day bring these trees
          crashing down to the earth
and so these rugged branches
         will rot back into the soil
from which they once emerged
         ash to ash
dust to dust
         But the minerals
will rise again
         the resurrection
of the molecule
         is not an article of faith :
oak leaves are indeed
         hands reaching out
to future hands

John Lyons

The pianist

Evgeny Kissin

The pianist

Home in the early hours
         along the lonely path
from the railway station
         the temperature has fallen
the dew is descending
         and the grass is furring up
with a delicate frost

and I remember his hands
         as he felt his way through Brahms
felt his way through his feelings
          tentative and yet decided:
the instruments of passion
         at his fingertips melody
which he caresses as the lover
         that lies within
gently phrasing his affections

Leaning in he extracts a cascade
         a stream of notes picked
from the calm domestic world
         that surrounds him
the rhythm shifts but the identity
         doesn’t change
He has nothing to reveal
         he is the revelation
on a walk through the woods
         here a rose there a robin
an eagle soaring above a stream
         of crystal clear water
He has become
         part of the world narrative
a rich fragment
         a billowing love song to life
and to natural beauty
         : here children play
you can hear their laughter
         as they race down the hill
here love goes hand in hand
         surges in moments of ecstasy
and subsides into peace :
         the piano has become a carapace
he bears the weight
         on his shoulders—a shell
a habitat          an exuberant
         meteorological space

Lost within a score
         he leans back
adjusts his cuffs
         and shakes his wrists
to loosen the remaining
         notes that lie within him
Faith and hope and charity
         the variegated satisfactions
of a domestic universe
         an impassioned partnership
in which he has dissolved into Brahms
         a marriage and a resurrection

and so the frost falls
         and the night sleeps on
until lovers
rise from each other’s arms
         into the new day

John Lyons

The poem above is based on notes taken during a brilliant performance of Brahms’ Three Intermezzos Opus 11 given by Evgeny Kissin at the Barbican theatre on 10 March 2016.

Good care of souls

city fragment.jpg
City fragment, John Lyons (oil on canvas)

Good care of souls

Good care of souls
           in the hands
of the poet
           in the words

Let us terminate
           our season in hell
and go forth
           in joy and charity

Let us dispel
           those mists
that keep us
           from seeing

what is
           before our eyes
In order to be one
           we must first separate

so as to conjoin
           in love’s singularity
A cloud
           has enveloped my days

but with a vengeance
           the sun will return
and with it spring
           with all its blossom

and blithe airs
           and you will shine
in all your inexhaustible

John Lyons

Why would I not ?

Life script, John Lyons (20 x 20 cm, oil on canvas)

Why would I not ?

Of course I take it personally
           whether you love me or not
whether you betray me or not
           whether you fail me
or fail to understand me or not
           I bear the soul of a private man
ploughing by day the furrows
           of city streets in which squirrels
run rampant and gold is amassed
           in steely towers of greed

So I live and die for words
           for unsolicited acts of tenderness
for the beauty of light on water
           for the delicacy of moonlight
that pierces the night sky
           Of course I take our lives seriously
your life and mine : and tell me
           why would I not ?

John Lyons


The primeval sea

sea of colour
Sea of colour, John Lyons (40 x 40 cm, oil on canvas)

The primeval sea

The primeval sea
           awash with colour
the underbelly
           of creation
whence all life
           whence all love

See how the light
on the shifting surface
           restless ocean
restless life
           colours that coalesce
wave upon wave
           here where the sun
sets and rises
           and where the surf
pounds on the shore
           so mimicking
the passionate pant
           of our human breath

John Lyons

Reading the coffee grounds

Coffee grounds, John Lyons, photo 

Reading the coffee grounds

A fine autumn day
           with a brisk breeze
and magpies
           ten of them
playing catch me if you can
           flying under and over
the garden table and chairs
           There are dandelions in the grass
and a few late blossoms
           in the bushes—
most of the berries
           have been eaten

and I’m sitting here 
looking out of the window and staring
           into the empty depths
of my morning coffee mug
           Nothing there now
but the dried grounds
           and I try to read the pattern
traces of light appearing
           out of a dark cloud
She loves me
           she loves me not
she loves me
           I’ll know
soon enough
           that’s for sure

John Lyons

Revised text.

Found art, at the bottom of my cup!