“The Last of England,” “Hawthorn,” “Surveillance,” and “Fells Point Songs”
By Andrew Motion
September 5, 2017
The Last of England
Three o’clock in the morning
in this hotel whose name
I cannot remember.
Am I screaming now
am I making any sound at all?
dozens of knives and forks
in kitchen drawers
lined with soft green baize.
Imagine the shoe-shine boy
already skimming his tin of polish.
And rows of new-laid eggs
waiting at room temperature.
But still the ship will not sail
the glittery liner whose name
will come to me in a moment.
Still it is
moored to the solid earth.
Bound to the stifling earth
while vast wheels of stars
continue to spin overhead
refuses to meet the horizon.
In memory of Private James Crozier
executed in Picardie, 27 February 1916
There is no question of day breaking
suddenly—one minute slow darkness,
the next sunlight like a blind drawn up.
There is seepage. A thing not happening
because it happens too gradually to show.
Although in either case what is revealed
remains the same: a tipped-up half-acre
confined by fence posts and barbed wire;
the brown weight of a recent cloudburst
smearing down grass at the steepest angle;
one clump of last year’s unraveling clover;
a skyline of trees like exclamation marks;
and staggering at dead centre a hawthorn
managing to hold its ground but barely.
The hawthorn has been cringing forward
like a seriously shy child who never meant
to be the subject of this or any photograph.
A child who in the space of a few yards grew
into an adult and lost control—boiled-up hair,
flapping rags of a trench coat, damp muttering
How did I get here, who am I, why am I here
alone, but still beautiful as battalions of cloud
parade overhead in their dull grey uniforms,
keeping the allowance of light to a minimum
which is enough nevertheless to show sharp
spikes of frost prickling the hawthorn’s hands
clasped to its face even when a breeze arrives
and seeks to loosen them, fails, and sweeps on.
Except no one can ever find this beautiful now,
things being as they are, not that the hawthorn
would yet have stepped on its delicate tiptoes
out from the hedge and down the wintry grass
when dawn broke on the 27th February 1916,
not that its icy spikes and stiff gesticulations
would have appeared to Private James Crozier
as the last evidence of Picardie and the world,
the hawthorn and beauty impossible to consider
would only have come to pass in the aftermath,
when parent trees on the skyline took a chance
and ushered or let creep forward one of their own
to stall and dither and dishevel out in the open,
to fall and die here in due course still unregarded.
Punctual as the evening star
a Baltimore Police helicopter
snoops over my head at sunset
and through its open door a searchlight
points to me as someone
who in passing came to stay.
My day done
and with it the wharf-wreck
that saw George Keats brother of John
step down with a host
onto these cobbles under this sun
the broken spars
where he escaped the burden of society
and slipped beyond The Daily Grind
towards the Mississippi and the West.
That sun today
that crashed sun
reflecting off the bay
to double in the brightness falling still
divided up the air in silky strings and so
also made way for Domino
and Under Armour
and the iron-filings multitude
of ships and docks and cranes around the bay
to slither through
and after them a clipper and its crew
all busy with their afterlives
I also saw
appear and disappear.
But you know The Wire,
everyone’s seen The Wire,
and let me tell you
when last week a traffic light
turned red in the middle of nowhere
my car was surrounded
before I could disappear.
I was listening to Kathleen Ferrier
singing Das Lied von der Erde
when they smote on my window.
But no problemo.
I was given a safe passage
after sharing a moment
the beauty of those notes.
‘If it’s windy you think you’re going fast
but you’re not moving you’re at 500 feet
and the searchlight definitely helps out
when you can’t find what you’re wanting
such as a suspect fleeing officers who lies
in a park and throws leaves over himself.
It’s a different ballgame from ground level.
You can see his body shining like a torch
under a blanket in the dark. You see heat
coming out. Or you have an officer hurt
and you control the scene and every light.
Downtown is a heart and streets are veins.
I watch the traffic flow and calculate its rate
a patient expert after months of training.’
What else was there to find today
when I turned from Jerusalem
along Gunpowder Falls through trees
too close to enter otherwise
if not those maples and their shade
that blackbird on its throne of moss
that mushroom sunk beside itself
brown trout crisscrossing bearded stones
like tricks of dusty summer light
and something I could never see
that watched me through a froth of leaves
and bided time until I reached
the end of where I meant to be
then owned again the way I came.
On the Eastern Shore of Chesapeake
a pelican pumps his elbows
and the blossom on my myrtle shakes.
The same soft wind has set me upright here
and fireflies wait on me or would
if I did not already wait on them.
Workmen in yellow hats like little suns
set in the windows of the new hotel;
the chandeliers light up; the beds are made;
the kitchen stoves burn off their film of dust;
and soon the bright Reception will sign in
its first night-cargo of new guests to stay
in time that runs in parallel to mine
and look, when they turn outwards to the world,
at me and others strolling by as part
of something not quite real, that only lives
while they are here to see it, then becomes
the sum of everything they know and may
remember of the streets and squares where I
continue with the things that pass away.
Fells Point Songs
The turtle dove
the love emblem
but no wonder.
At street level
it forgets its feet
and looks broken
a toy and all wrong
when taking flight
on scratchy wings
(rust in the works).
Then the beak spills
and my heart aches.
All together now
spivving in a cloud
then parked solo
on my window sill
to check his oil
a mimic starling
rehearses his tricks
with slippery sucks
and a miniature tilt
of his knowing head.
Then his is just
as he wants to be
in my very own voice
letting rip at me.
This humid night
in a heavy fall
of wisteria snow
the nervous light
these fireflies spark
might be the gleam
the pinprick start
of a widening crack
that ends in a tomb
where thieves arrive
to shatter the seal
on centuries gone
and a lantern reveals
Andrew Motion is the Homewood Professor of the Arts at Johns Hopkins University and a former poet laureate of the United Kingdom.