A selection of poems from Astonishment
Bloodaxe Books Information
Anne Stevenson is one of Britain's leading poets. Astonishment, published just before her 80th birthday, is her second new collection since her much praised Bloodaxe retrospective Poems 1955-2005.
One of several major British poets who took their work to Bloodaxe following the closure of Oxford University Press's poetry list in 1999, Anne Stevenson has published seven books with Bloodaxe.
Taking its title from Derek Walcott's line, 'The perpetual ideal is astonishment', Anne Stevenson's 16th collection of poems looks back over eighty years of the world's never-ceasing turbulence, setting clearly remembered scenes from her personal past against a background of geographical and historical change. As a poet who has always been anxious to balance imagination with insight and for whom the sound and shape of every poem is integral to its meaning, Stevenson views contemporary scientific advance with fascination and a fervent concern for its ecological and human cost.
As always, her chief preoccupation is with the extraordinary nature of experience itself, and this she explores as a geologist might explore the rock layers beneath an urban surface relied upon by the senses, yet in the perspective of deep time acknowledged to be temporary and passing.
Always what is most astonishing to her is that life exists at all, that the normal is also and amazingly the phenomenal. And although notes of poignant sadness, together with some witty assaults on human folly are sounded throughout this collection, its predominant tone is one of celebration.
You sleep with a dream of summer weather,
wake to the thrum of rain – roped down by rain.
Nothing out there but drop-heavy feathers of grass
and rainy air. The plastic table on the terrace
has shed three legs on its way to the garden fence.
The mountains have had the sense to disappear.
It’s the Celtic temperament – wind, then torrents, then remorse.
Glory rising like a curtain over distant water.
Old stonehouse, having steered us through the dark,
docks in a pool of shadow all its own.
That widening crack in the gloom is like good luck.
Luck, which neither you nor tomorrow can depend on.
For Harry Guest at 80
One day, on the other side of a world war,
on the other side of an ocean, I pored over mother's
bound album of tourist snapshots – England and Italy
months before I was born – then seriously said to her,
"It must have been strange to live in the olden days
when the world was black and white without any colour."
The scene flashed back on the East Coast line as I squeezed
into two tight feet of soiled upholstery. To my right,
a teen-aged nymph hunched over an iPad; in minimal clothes,
she was scrolling for fantasy shoes. Facing me,
two smart young male laptops were open for business,
closed, of course, to the window and to England
passing outside; closed again, inside, to the pressure
of eyes, flesh and feelings inches from their screens.
In the silence of clicking keys, no one looked at me
running the sharp cardboard edge of my ticket through the
uncut pages of a rare, never-read-before Middlemarch,
freeing trapped pockets of breath from the 19th century –
perfectly preserved and collectable, but about as compatible
with the way we live now as trilobites with kilobytes.
What a triumph of mobile technology, the four of us
spanning three centuries in the leg room of a cell,
each on a track of our own, mine certain for the terminal,
theirs heading out into cyberspace, that New World newly
opened, fully colonized already by the dazzling young.
Do they pay, maybe, with upper case Independence
for the luxury of lower case instant communication,
the infallible i of the pad, the pod, the impudent phone?
Summoning the shade of my mother, I said to her,
"This is how we live in the wonderland of the future."
"On a pea-sized, overpopulated planet," she answered,
"in continuous communication with itself? You're welcome to it.
And why do so many of you suffer from earache?
Are you happy living this way – not hand to mouth
but conspicuously hand to ear?" My teenage neighbour
slipped me a pitying smile as she turned off the shoes
and reached for her mobile. Outside the window I watched
four jackdaws jockey for place on a tree stripped to the bone.
They took off in a flock as we passed the aborted woodland.
Sunset. A star from a gash in the fire-coloured clouds
shone bright as an eye through our ghostly reflections.
Then night gave us all, complete in ourselves, to the glass.
Don’t ask the beech tree why the season is
Rusting with the bracken in the marsh.
Let be the finches at their thistly feed.
The tired leaves singly drifting from the birch
Can have no inkling what the reason is,
Or why it is the thorniest bushes bleed
In red haw, hip and rowanberry weather,
When little patchwork quilts of gorse and heather
Fade in the glister of the spider’s stitch.
Will this be the last day? Or this? Or this?
After this winter, will I see another?
On Harlech Beach
Sharpen your eyes looking back from the tide’s headland,
and the Lowry figures on the beach could be movable type –
a p, pink, i, indigo, an x running yellow and tan
in pursuit of a flying stop. What an alphabet soup
the bay makes of them, these large fathered families
downloading their daughters and sons, sans serif and
sans grief, on the centrefold page of the sand.
From which a Welsh double l is detaching itself –
lovers, hand-linked by a hyphen, weaving with ease
through the ins and outs of the waves’ parentheses.
From a distance how simple they look, how picturesque.
Three dots (an ellipsis in action) rush back and forth –
terriers seeking, retrieving, time-free and carefree
as only dogs in illiterate joyousness can be.
It’s a scene to write about. You could walk back
cheering – if not for the human story, for the display
it offers to the pattern-hungry eye –
the body sway of the lovers, a Frisbee caught
by a bronze torso, striped pigments of cloud and sky
brushed by an appearing, disappearing sun;
prone golden mums and their lucky cartwheeling young.
As if this were a playground raised from the dead for them,
the salvaged remains of old beachheads, suffered and won.
Unremarked by the holiday crowd, two faraway swarms –
I would paint them as shadows in khaki and bloodstained brown –
turn out to be birds: an invasion of scavenging m’s
whose squabble of laughter is raucous enough to drown
those boys shouting King of the castle as they kick it down.