JOHN COTTON 1925-2003
(Read by Bev Cotton)
Obituary, The Guardian, April 2003
From “Here’s Looking At You Kid”
At night the darkening maze of branches
Threatens as the forest broods
They heard it fidget, breathe
And tried to estimate its moods
Read omens as the ghost-owl mothed
Its way across the woods
Such simples ruled them, and the knowing
Pitied their superstitious pain
Reason replacing ignorant darkness
We should not see such fear again
Instead, unlocked the nuclear void,
We dread the innocence of rain.
‘And thither shall I send you, Matthew Goffe’
(Lord Scales, Henry VI, Part 2, Act iv, Scene v)
Words uttered, like the thrown stone,
cannot be called back.
They and their echoes haunt
the caves of dark theatres
where they settle like dust
waiting to be revived
as Matthew Goffe waits
faintly haunting his play.
You’ll find him if you look
in the Dramatis Personae.
A name, like those on the memorial stones
of the long abandoned dead,
dispossessed and open
to the invention of characters,
ready for development like vacant lots.
Hints are there: Matthew, bold, reliable,
a leader, he’ll prop the citizens of Smithfield.
He is sent and dies in a brief wordlessness.
(Which is more than we know
of the man who passes us on the street.)
It is as if Shakespeare was keeping him by
for a play that never came.
You need a character?
I’ll send you Matthew Goffe.
From ‘Kilroy Was Here’
A Poetry Society Choice
Chatto & Windus and The Hogarth Press, 1975
KILROY WAS HERE
the burden of Dido’s lament;
and of those names we see
written or carved
in sometimes improbable places?
Well, the names are there
if not the faces.
Certainly it would seem true
of Bradish’s self-cut memorial.
Against the fear
I was here
plead all the Kilroys of this world:
who left his Greek in Northern India,
and Desaix’s men
who inscribed Dendera.
Then those suitably ephemeral
declarations of affection,
hearts and names
scratched on cactus leaves
on a cliff path in Spain:
Hans unt Beyb;
Teresa y Fernando;
and, touching in its mild chauvinism,
May and Bert, England
“This is the use of memory: for liberation”
T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding
As the plane rises, we watch the island
receding from us until we can hold it
complete in the eye; frame by water, its farms,
bays, hamlets and promontories scaled down
to a comprehensible map below us.
So in the cutting room of the mind
we work to distance experience
to meaningful proportions, to link
those fragments of memory that make us.
Sundays are quiet. Across the railway
the row of terraced houses and the shop
on the corner, its air spiced by bread
and cough cure, and a tin sign advertising
a tobacco not made for a generation.
The sharp click of heels on worn flags signals
a firmness of calf and thigh under a bronzed nylon,
her morning errand bringing humanity
to brick and stone due for demolition.
Some windows already boarded, as if
against a plague that will take all with it.
Even Provident Place is on the schedule.
One winter the canal froze and we walked it,
between locks, to the sound of church bells,
rejoicing in the temporary foot-way
and the luxury of gloves, until
called home by the smell of roast sweet on keen air.
Age is where places have immediate history:
The canal; a pub recalling conversation
that proved a turning point; a bend in the lane.
A poem that might have been written;
or a bus shelter flesh
warm under a fair-isle jersey, her breasts
like plump birds in the nest of her bassiere.
Deep in us all the child whose habits
have survived fidelity and superstition,
and associations that will end with us.
A day’s drive from the Massif Central,
that evening we dine in warm southern air,
the lights of the small town sufficient
On the verandah. Time drifts with the music
from a radio across the way
where a girl waters a roof garden above
a shop. Time for reconciliation
while tired minds eased by good wine find order
as observers of a place not our own.
From London fires spread a premature dawn
for suburbs where a thin rain of shrapnel
removes roof-tiles. For the young the advantage
of deserted streets and the blitz’s black-out
to test the pulses of love. Recklessness or
a fine sense of values? As single-minded
the blood races towards the same warmth
to find a later reassurance
in the bonus of a winter’s sunshine.
Besieged by snow the house stands sentinel
against the night, the young child’s breathing
a tenuous hold on life. Experience
began with the first open blouse; the fruit
that expelled from Eden? Redemption
long bought in domestic fires, the spread of flesh
that estuary towards which all runs
to be lost in the ultimate ocean.
The tide stirs with the child in the cot.
In the bay ships nudge their way to harbour
the toll of bell-buoys a doubtful guide
in fog’s peculiar claustrophobia
that gives even sound a new dimension,
and value to moments of clarity.
Then a face remembered. Though long past
and not known in any real sense of the word
the impression is there and its haunting tugs us.
We dare not look at our real wounds.
The end of the holiday seals off
another year. Younger, we hesitated
over decisions that closed doors. Now doors
slam behind us of their own accord.
Driving home at night we see on the outskirts
the darkness lit by fires where the town’s waste is burnt.
We drive on to the security of street lights,
a familiar haven that has come
to take on significance.