For the birds

The birds that build
their homes in trees
raise a family
in the balmy days

I wonder how they feel
in autumn when all the leaves
fall leaving nothing but
the bare branches

how exposed and forlorn
in the wind and the rain
homeless and rootless
until spring comes again

John Lyons

Sunday drizzle

Sunday drizzle

In the stillness
           I hear the drizzle
falling through
           the universe
The birdsong
           is subdued
I see leaves
           gently waving
in the light breeze
           Our star has yet
to appear through
           the grey clouds

A train is running
           in the distance
and I think
           of Emily Dickinson
and the silences
           of Amherst to which
she was so attuned
           We share
the same cosmos
           a common heritage

What is time
           in the grand scheme
of things ?

What is any of it worth
           without love ?


Way of the world

Way of the world

Out of the window
          -an inclined skylight-
in the distance
         a tall conifer
heaves restlessly in the wind
         against a grey sky
A roof hip attached
         to the roof ridge
of the house opposite
          at an angle
of 135 degrees :
         weather-worn tiles
a little moss growing
          all due for renewal

All things have a life
         the birds warbling
in the bushes
         the rose garden
where the birds
         sometimes sing :
the train Emily heard
         passing through
the mountain pass
        and through her life :
the pebbles pounded to oblivion
         on Brighton beach
All things drifting
         towards extinction
All in good time

John Lyons



Out of the window
          -an inclined skylight-
in the distance
         I see a tall conifer
it heaves restlessly
         in the wind
against a grey sky
         I see too
a roof hip attached
         to the roof ridge
of the house opposite
         noting an angle
of 135 degrees :
         the tiles are weather-worn
a little moss has gathered
         they are all due
for renewal

All things have a life
         the birds warbling
in the bushes
         the rose garden
where the birds
         sometimes sing
the train heard
         passing through
the mountain pass
         by Emily Dickinson
who in turn had a life
         the pebbles pounded
to oblivion on Brighton beach
         all things hurtling
towards extinction
         all in their own good time

John Lyons




Some weeks ago on Platform 3          
               at Lewisham station
a working class man
               with a working class ferret
on a harnessed lead
               waiting for a train
to Charing Cross
               and when the train arrived
the ferret tugged restlessly at the lead
               eager to be the first to board
I wondered what business
               the ferret had at Charing Cross
though it was none of my business
               though let it be said
if anyone is interested
               that the word for a group
of ferrets is a business

Male ferrets are called hobs
               but all the girls are known as jills
and the babes as kits
               Though ferrets can sleep
for anything up to eighteen hours
               a day
you wouldn’t believe it
               while they’re awake
because they’re never still
               the pests !

Ferrets have been employed
               to lay wires
or as racers in rural fairs
               but the main use of ferrets
has always been hunting :
               with their long lean bodies
and inquisitive nature
               these mammals
are very well equipped
               for getting down holes
or chasing rodents
               rabbits and moles
out of their burrows

And like the rest of us
               ferrets are composed
of one hundred percent dust
               God bless ’em !

John Lyons

For the inspiration behind the poem’s final stanza, see Emily Dickinson: “This quiet dust was gentlemen and ladies / And lads and girls,” and also the final stanza of “The Color of the Grave is Green”.


Why is the sun so beautiful?

Poetry has innumerable registers and as many audiences. Yesterday I wrote a poem for a class I give to an adolescent with special needs. My student faces a number of challenges, but he is very intelligent and is interested in everything. He also has a gift with words. We have been reading the poetry of Emily Dickinson, William Carlos Williams and Stevie Smith, and part of every class involves a short piece of writing, often in the form of poetry. The poem below was written to demonstrate how the simple repetition of a phrase can give form to a poem: each line was also intended to stimulate a response that would lead to a piece of writing by my student. Before settling down to work, however, he spontaneously spoke the line “Why is the sun so beautiful?” and he went on to describe what he felt about the sun. I told him that that first line in particular, with its combined exclamation and question mark, could easily be the first line of a poem by Emily Dickinson, and congratulated him. Poetry as an educational medium can help to unlock the emotions and liberate the powers of expression. It has this effect on school children and on adults alike. Poetry rules, okay!

Some things

Some things are important
Some things are not

Some things I remember
Some things I forgot

Some things make me happy
Some things make me sad

Some things really please me
Some things drive me mad

Some things are really boring
Some things are really fun

Some things are best in winter
Some things really need the sun

Some things are quite alarming
Some things are really cool

Some things I do at weekends
Some things I do at school

Some things are good for eating
Some things are good to drink

Some things are really easy
Some things they make you think

Some things are worth the trouble
Some things I couldn’t care

Some things I think of trying
Some things I wouldn’t dare

John Lyons

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

Dead Men Don’t Send Flowers

I had a friend years ago in Nicaragua, where the story was written, whose name was Irma Prego, a great wit and a brilliant short story writer. She would read all my stories and when she’d finished one of them she’d say, “But I want to know what happens next.” Well life is full of stories, full of scripts and personal narratives without endings. Sometimes we do get to know what happened next, there is a resolution, a definitive event or a decision that sends a clear signal that things are over, that the drama has gone off the boil, that people have gone their separate ways, that new lives and new narrative threads have commenced. While it is true that sometimes what you suspect will happen does actually happen, there are other times when life can completely surprise you, people can do an about-turn, have a change of mind, or a change of heart.

Whatever the case, stories are an essential part of life. We tell the stories of what is happening in our families and in our relationships and friendships in order to have an understanding of who we are, in order to place our emotions in context, so that a story is always a kind of reflection on our strengths and weaknesses, a kind of open-ended soliloquy. We read and listen to stories for the same reason: for the community of feeling, for the understanding of our own humanity. We identify with the lives of the strangers we meet in fiction because in fact they are not really strangers. This is one of the great lessons we get from James Joyce, whether in Dubliners or in Ulysses: Leopold and Molly are part of the family, along with Blazes Boylan, Stephen Dedalus, Buck Mulligan, Paddy Dignam R.I.P., and all the rest.

Dead Men Don’t Send Flowers

20_red_roses_bunchEverybody loved Nancy Holden. Nobody wanted her to die and when she did finally succumb to the muscle-wasting disease which over the last five years of her life had slowly reduced her to a cripple, everyone who knew her died a little too. It was an emotional occasion, her funeral. I helped carry her body to the graveside. And when it was all over, Patsy and I drove Dan back to our place. He was in a terrible state. Nancy was only forty-two years old. Dan slumped in an armchair in our living room and refused all offers of food—Patsy had prepared a chicken salad. There’s a time for eating and a time for drinking, it says in the Bible. I guess this is not one of those times for eating, he said. All afternoon he sat there, shaking his head as he poured more whisky into his glass. Forty-two is no age, he kept saying. She had her whole life ahead of her. Her whole life. I just can’t believe it! From time to time Patsy would call me from the room. She was concerned. Don’t you think he’s had enough alcohol for one day, she asked. I knew that she was saying this because she cared for Dan and not because of anything she had against heavy drinking. Honey, I said to her, he’s had enough whisky for a fortnight, but I’m not about to take the bottle from him, not today, not until he drops. Around five o’clock that afternoon he did drop. Not exactly drop. He just passed out. Patsy came in to look at him. His mouth was open and you could see the gold caps on his back teeth. The skin around his eyes was slack and discoloured. Such a sad, pathetic sight you could hardly bear to look.

Dan had once been our mailman. That’s how we got to know him. This was when me and Patsy first moved to Missoula and had no friends there. We’d been living down in California since we got married, trying to scratch a living on a small fruit farm just outside of Red Bluff. Trying and failing. Nothing we ever tried to do seemed to go right in California. The debts just grew bigger and bigger, no matter how hard we worked. Life was closing in on us, slowly but surely like some sort of vast sprung trap with huge, jagged teeth. Before our legs finally got caught forever, we decided to make a run for it. Montana was where we landed. Missoula, to be precise, and that’s where we began to rebuild our lives. Patsy got a job in a nursery and I was lucky enough to be hired by a building contractor. Been working ever since. God bless Montana, is what I say and I know Patsy says it too. Montana saved our lives. The Holdens were a bonus. After a few months they were regulars over at our house and on Friday nights we’d play bridge together. Nancy was the best bridge player I ever knew. She and Dan used to beat us every time. But it didn’t matter. Patsy and me weren’t playing to win. We were just glad to be alive and have company and not to have to worry about sudden frosts, or blight or the rising price of pesticides.

Some weekends I would head off hunting with Dan. He knows Montana like the back of his hand. The best hunting I ever did in my life was alongside Dan Holden. Teal, geese, pheasant, any kind of fowl you care to mention. And those weekends we were away, Nancy would move in with Patsy. She had her own bed made up for her in the spare room and over the bed she’d draped one of those colourful Indian ponchos she’d bought on a trip she and Dan had made to Guatemala. Patsy and I used to call that room Nancy’s room. God knows if we’ll ever call it anything else, even though she’s no longer with us. The poncho is still there along with some books of hers. Nancy was a real cultured woman and poetry was what she enjoyed reading most. Kind of strange that the men could be out in the country pumping leadshot into the wildlife while the women were back home swapping recipes and listening to Verdi and the like and reciting Emily Dickinson and Amy Lowell. Still, that’s life, I suppose, kind of strange, but never dull. What I liked about Nancy was the fact that she never looked down on anyone who had less education than herself. Patsy and I for instance, and Dan too. Looking at the pair of them you might have thought that she had married down. But that was not the case. Not at all. Dan has qualities all of his own. People marry for different reasons, and yet the only valid reason is when two people love each other. Nothing lasts without love. That ought to be obvious, but somehow, considering how many marriages fall apart these days, it probably isn’t anymore. Tramping through the sagebrush out on the benchland with our shotguns over our shoulders, Dan would often talk about himself and Nancy. Isn’t she something, he’d say to me, isn’t she someone really special? Yes she is, I’d say to him. She’s one of the best and you’re a lucky man. That I am, he’d say proudly, nodding and smiling at me as he thought of Nancy. She was a petite lady—barely five foot, I’d say—and she wore her crimped, honey-blonde hair in a long cascade that reached down her back almost to her waist. And she had fine features. You could almost see the culture in her bones, in her small, delicate mouth, in her sharp, inquisitive eyes. And Dan adored her. From the moment her illness was diagnosed he devoted as much time to her as was humanly possible. They may be the last years, he’d say to me, but I want them to be the best, the most comfortable of her life. Do you understand that, Ray? Yes, I’d tell him, I know just what you mean and you’re right. Nancy deserves nothing but the very best. And Patsy and I did what we could. Naturally we had to cut down on the hunting trips, but the two of them still came over to play cards, right up until the very last weeks of her life. And Nancy. . . Jesus, that lovely woman was an inspiration. She never complained, she never lost her good humour. She was determined, it seemed, to die the way she had lived: with dignity and patience. Sometimes Patsy would cry after the Holdens had gone home. She’d lie in bed and tears would stream down her face as she thought of what was happening to her friend, her sister—Nancy was like the sister she’d never had, the older sister with everything to give. Jesus Christ, she’d say to me, it just isn’t fair. Why Nancy? If life were about fairness this would be a very different world, I’d say to her. We might never have had to leave California, we might never have met Dan and Nancy. Life is swings and roundabouts. I said these things not because I thought they could be of any comfort to Patsy but simply because I had nothing else to say. And Dan, she’d say. What about Dan? Dan is such a good man. How is he going to cope when he’s all alone? Do you think he’ll cope, Ray? I didn’t know the answer to that one. Who can tell? But I remembered the way he used to speak about Nancy when the two of us were alone and to me it seemed most likely that he would not cope that well. This is not what I said to Patsy. To Patsy I said: Sure, sure he’ll get by. It’ll take time but he’ll make it. I’m sure he will.

A few days after the funeral, a dozen long-stemmed red roses were delivered to the house. It was a Saturday and I’d just finished installing a new radio-cassette player in the car. I looked up from the newspaper I was reading. Patsy tore open the little envelope and glanced at the message. It’s not signed, she said. And then she was thoughtful for a moment. I know these lines, she said, I’ve read them or heard them before. It’s from a poem. Listen to this. And she read me the message:

   Nobody knows this little Rose –
   It might a pilgrim be
   Did I not take it from the ways
   and lift it up to thee.

Must be from Dan, she said breathlessly, her face flushed and yet smiling. Only Dan would think of sending those words. I think they’re taken from one of Nancy’s books. God bless him, it’s his way of saying thanks. Don’t you think it’s a charming verse, she asked. I do, I said, yes I do. And I did. I’m going to call him, she said smiling. I’m going to call him right now and invite him over. Today or tomorrow. He can stay for lunch or for dinner. Poor Dan! You do that, honey, I said. What I love about Patsy: she’s all heart. Wisest move I ever made, marrying her. Lesser women would have walked out on me, the way things were going in California. It took courage to stand by me. Patsy has loads of courage, loads of sticking power. Call him now, I said. And tell him hello from me. Say how’s he doing. Then I returned to my paper. More bad news. Lay-offs up and down the country. Hard times and getting worse. I was glad my job was secure. And glad too that I’d gotten out of farming. Farmers were getting it in the neck all the way along the line. Jesus Christ, I thought as I read on, who’d be a farmer in this day and age. Who would?

About ten minutes later Patsy came into the room carrying a tall vase with six of Dan’s roses. She set the vase on the mantlepiece and took a few paces back to admire the flowers. Aren’t they gorgeous, she said. I put three in the bedroom and the others in Nancy’s room. That’s nice, I said. That’s a real nice gesture. She gave me a sweet, kind of nervous look. You call him, I asked. No reply, she said. I’ll try again later. But I could see she was disappointed. Come here, I said, finally casting aside the newspaper. Come and sit here. She walked over and sat on my lap. Could be he’s gone away for a few days. You never know. It can’t be easy. Living in that house. Then it struck me that these were not the right things to say at all. Patsy’s eyes filled up. I pulled her closer to me and began to stroke her hair, her fine auburn hair. She twisted around and hugged me tightly. For a while I just stroked her hair with slow, easy motions, trying to help her work the grief out of her system. Then gently I unfastened a few buttons on her blouse and reached inside. Her skin was cold.

All day Sunday Patsy tried to reach Dan but there was no reply.

And Patsy wasn’t sleeping. I’d wake at two or three in the morning and find her gone and when I looked for her, she’d be in Nancy’s room, lying on the bed reading one of Nancy’s books or sitting in the easy-chair with the Guatemalan poncho wrapped around her, blankly staring into space. I’d have to take her by the hand and lead her like a child, back to bed. And she was jumpy in the mornings, the least thing upset her and all she could talk about was Dan Holden.

Come Saturday she said to me: Ray, I don’t know what’s going on but this thing is driving me insane. It’s no good, I can’t seem to think straight anymore. And then she gave me one of her determined looks. I’m going on over to Dan’s place, see for myself. God, Ray, you don’t think…what if he’s done something foolish? Patsy, I said, not believing what I was hearing. No, no, she insisted. These things do happen, they happen when people get down, I know they do. They do things you might never imagine. I want to go, I have to go. Ray, please! I’ll admit, when she put things in that light it did make me think. She could be right. So we drove over there. But there was no answer when we tried the door. I strolled around to the back to look for signs of life.

I peered in through the kitchen window. Everything was neat and tidy. Nothing that might alarm you. But it was a strange feeling, gazing into someone’s house like that. An empty house but so full of memories. Hanging over one of the kitchen chairs I spotted a brown woollen shawl that Nancy had often worn when she visited us, and there were other things, like cups and dishes and jars, homely things that brought back so much. The times we’d sat around that table in the kitchen and talked! Just talked. The pleasure of talking of life, of love, the future, the way you do with close friends. Where the future is not the important thing, just the talking about it, the sharing of dreams, of hopes. And Patsy. Patsy had probably heard a hundred poems read to her at that same table while Dan and I chased Canadian geese through the great outdoors. I joined Patsy at the front of the house. She was staring up at Dan and Nancy’s bedroom. The curtains were drawn. He may be inside there, she said in a whisper. You really think so, I asked. You honestly think Dan’s the sort? Anyone, she replied. Anyone’s the sort if the pain is bad enough. How can you tell? Being brave is just a mask. There comes a point when the pain just takes over, forces you to choose the lesser of two pains.

A dozen red roses were lying on the doorstep when we arrived. And there was another unsigned card. We assumed the flowers were from Dan. Who else?

Back in the living room, Patsy was standing in front of the flowers. She didn’t hear me come in. I watched as she reached out and began to pull petals from one of the roses. She was muttering something under her breath. When I cleared my throat noisily to let her know I was there, it made her jump. She span around and looked at me but she was not smiling. She looked more beautiful than ever. My own rose: a tall, pliant body which I so loved to dress and undress, to caress, to bathe with, to lie with, to love. I held out my arms and waited for her to walk towards me. Instead she closed her eyes and sighed. She raised a hand to her right cheek and bowed her head. A silence opened up between us. I wanted to tell her about the florist but couldn’t speak. My hands were shaking. She needs to be alone, I thought, alone with the flowers. Perhaps I should just slip away and call the police. Something had to be done. I knew that now. On her face a haunted, remote look. I needed her and she was nowhere. I looked down at her feet. There were rose petals on the carpet. Patsy reached out and took another flower from the vase. One by one she pulled at the petals until the stem was stripped bare, and all the time her lips were moving, silently. Words, but words not meant for me.

Dead men don’t send flowers. Not in Missoula, at least, and the officer laughed at his own wit.

That night she slept in Nancy’s room. I lay awake thinking of Nancy and of how much pain her death had brought upon us all. How the world without Nancy was not the same place and never would be. One person and all that difference. Nothing lasts forever. Nothing endures. And Patsy, where was she? One confusion after another. I wondered too what had become of Dan, why had he sent the roses, and what did it all mean, and most of all I wondered how long it would be before Patsy returned to my bed.

John Lyons, 1992

Herman Melville – all cut up

Herman Melville

In the 1960s, encouraged by the American poet and painter Brion Gysin, William Burroughs began to experiment with a cut-up technique of writing. He would take a page from a novel by Graham Greene, for example, and cut it into four columns A, B, C and D. He would then rearrange the columns in an order such as C, A, D, B. and glue them to a sheet of paper so that he was able to read the text across the lines of the page CADB as though the words had been written in that order. What interested him was to see what new images and combinations were created in this new arrangement of words.

In an interview, Burroughs stated: “Any narrative passage or any passage, say, of poetic images is subject to any number of variations, all of which may be interesting and valid in their own right. A page of Rimbaud cut up and rearranged will give you quite new images. Rimbaud images—real Rimbaud images—but new ones.”

Some months ago I tried a variation of this technique. Instead of cutting up pages, I consulted a concordance to the work of the American writer, Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick. I searched for usages of the words, ‘bone’, ‘dust’, ‘love’, ‘dream’ and ‘rose’. The text below is a compilation of those references as they occurred in my research.

Dust on the moth’s wing

She was bone of his bone
and his very bones
are as whispering galleries
He laid her bones
upon some treacherous reef
with the bones of the drowned
Not dust to dust but dust to brine
he is dust where he stands
he had dead dust for ancestors
the penalty we pay for being
             what we are—fine dust

Did I dream a snow-white skin
firmament blue eyes :
this beautiful maiden
who thinking no harm
and rapt in a dream was a dream
We dream not ourselves
but the dream dreams within us
How the firefly illuminates its body 
for a beacon to love
Long he cannot be
for love is a fervent flagellant fire
love is all in all—all three : red rose
bright shore and soft heart
             are full of love

Loved one love on
who fell into the very snares of love
Love the living not the dead
great love is sad
             and heaven is love

Dreams dreams golden dreams
: noon dreams are day dreams
Are all our dreams then in vain?
What dream brought you hither Romeo
And sweet Juliet what dream is it
that ails your heart ?
We are but dolls of joy and grief :
breathe grow dream die
             —love not

This earth’s an urn
for flowers not for ashes
Brush your tears from the lilies
and howl in sackcloth and ashes
as thoughts of eternity thicken
Duration is not of the future
but the past : we must build with
the calendar of eternities
Sad rose of all my days : a song sung
             on lips of dust

He’s seized the helm
eternity was in his eyes
Dash of the waves against the bow
and deep the breath of dreaming
Such perils that lie
like a rose among thorns
Her delicate white skin
tinted with a faint rose hue
             like her lips
like rose pearls that once bruised
against my aching skin
             left love stains

Your rose, my sweet
I unfold its petals
and disclose a pearl
yet the full-blown rose
is nearer to withering
than the bud : and Emily asked
             how far is it to hell ?

John Lyons