James McGovern

A place for my poetry, essays, and photography.

Do not become a child of senseless clay

Do not become a child of senseless clay
Keep your face pressed towards the ever bright
Flash forth like star-fire until the last day

Draw out from your mouth the iron-red sword
Steeling the night with shimmer, hue, flame
Flash forth like star-fire until the last day

When the twisting snowflake dances and dies
It is not wrong, my love, to wish and cry
Do not become a child of senseless clay

If all your days are singly-shaded grey
Let not your leaping heart falter and fade
Flash forth like star-fire until the last day

If all colour is drained from the rainbow
Rest your weary eyes, my poor mortal child
Do not become a child of senseless clay

Scour all dark-fall for the feeblest ray
There are rubies to be found in the night
Do not become a child of senseless clay
Flash forth like star-fire until the last day

The Owl and the Pigeon

I was lying in a springy meadow
Beneath cycling clouds and scented branches
Upon white blanket on green-bladed grass
And there was rippling music in the air
But when it passed, the lull of birds remained:

OWL
Owls do not care for hot, sun-blue breezes.
Crooked bird! who, who do you think you are?
I cry and decry this pigmented sky.

PIGEON
I have stirred you to attend the old light,
You stiff-necked owl, to taste the dirt of Earth.
Come now, and fill your beak with ancient grit.

OWL
Wake me not again. Rodents are my meat.
Now the red stars I shall marshal to war.
I will rubefy the marching evening
And then make love to the moonlicked night.

I tore my blanket to bone-white ribbons:
I cannot endure this counterfeit sky.

The angel with laryngitis

An angel coughs, an angel coughs
And the bloodless are remade
Head-gems assembled in the grave
Bone-houses built for those who prayed

The dead are stirring in the soil
The dead are sprouting from old seed
The dead are flowering from the earth
All blossomed corpses craving to be freed

The angels cough, the angels cough
And all the graveyard lights switch off

All the Gods

All the Gods is a short verse play written and staged before a small audience on 5 January 2015 for a playwriting workshop run by Paul Brown, a writer who has worked on Quantum Leap, Star Trek and The X-Files. As well as writing the play, I also performed the part of Nathan. Mehdi was played by Gerard Krasnopolski. It was written in only a few hours, and I recommend it merely as a curiosity, the result of a brief experiment regarding the possible role of metrical verse in modern playwriting.

TWO MEN are sitting in a train carriage.

MEHDI
He should be back, he should be back by now.
The lights have failed and the carriage trembles.
Look, shall I call the conductor again?
Wait: I could sound the train alarm instead.

NATHAN
There isn’t any point. He isn’t there,
Perhaps vanished to the black void to which
The other first-class carriages were drawn.
I’m sure there is no supernatural cause:
An accident, I think, that stopped the train,
That uncoupled the missing carriages,
That dimmed the lights, and left us in this state,
Purgatoried in this darkened tunnel.
Let’s wait. Let’s wait. What was your name again?

MEHDI
Mehdi. Mehdi Hakim.

NATHAN
A Muslim name?

MEHDI
I wouldn’t say I am a Muslim though,
Just one by name, not by my own belief.
My grandparents were devout. Dad less so.

NATHAN
My name is Nathan Worthington.

MEHDI
I eat those! Worthington Originals.

NATHAN
That’s actually not the name of the sweet.
They’re notGod, what nonsense are we talking?

MEHDI
It’s been almost an hour. Go and look.

NATHAN
I’ll thank you not to make commands.

MEHDI
Sorry. I’ll brace myself and try to see.
It’s awful that I can’t hear any sounds;
A train filled with people, and not a cry.
Do you think they might. . . they might be dead?
Well, I don’t believe in ghosts; if they’re dead
They can deal no harm to me. But I fear. . .

NATHAN
What do you fear?

MEHDI
I fear my own birth.
You know what happened? An orange flash
And something new.

NATHAN
Yes, I remember it.

MEHDI
I fear to remember it. The bold flash—
I know that we—they—do the cruelest things.
I fear. . . I fear. . .

NATHAN
Any evil that’s done
Is done, but is not done by you.

MEHDI
Thank you. I’ll try to be strong and go.

(Exit MEHDI.)

NATHAN
The evil that men do. . . they do. Do I
Also have a share in their wickedness?
A man of God, but if all gods are one, or none. . .
I am the lowest part of the Low Church,
I accept that man emerged from matter,
Evolving slowly into purer forms:
Adam and Eve are myths, the snake a fraud,
But what of that fraudulent Devil?
If I wished to find the perfect weapon,
I should but steal and rename religion.
If I sought a thing to kill, to destroy,
To lay low, to war, to bring to nothing,
I would just place religion in the role.
Maybe the malevolent Director
Has made the bitter casting.

(Enter MEHDI.)

MEHDI
I can’t believe, and yet I must believe
The evidence of my own eyes. Oh, God!

NATHAN
What’s happening?

MEHDI
The passengers are fine,
And more than fine, awaiting their deliverance.

NATHAN
What are you talking about?

MEHDI
A sacred sign!
No, listen, listen, let me tell you all.
I stepped into the main part of the train
And was suddenly assaulted by sound
(Although I can hear nothing now)
The train! It glows with sparks and fire from God!

NATHAN
Must be smoke out there; it’s gone to your head
And caused this synaesthetic vision.

MEHDI
I understand your doubt. I was in fact
An atheist until I saw the signs,
Not only sparks and furygreater works!
The healing of the sick, the lame, the blind,
Dead souls restored to life and singing hymns!
The One True God is greater than all men
And has promised me a place in Heaven. . .
And to think that I feared the terrorists,
Feared that their deeds would taint my blameless name.

NATHAN
So there were terrorists on the train?
Come on now, this is all ridiculous.
Tell me what you really saw out there, or else
I’ll think that you have gone insane.

MEHDI
I understand your doubts, I really do.
But God himself is on this train! No, wait!
Do not interrupt, let me tell you more.
The man who was with us, who wore a cloak
And did not speak until the fateful fact
Was not a man, but was the One True God,
Than all the icons greater, yet equal
Still to all the inferior relics.
His name is Christ, Allah and Jehovah,
Zeus and Jupiter, all of these and more,
The mould from which these lesser gods were cast,
And the clay.

NATHAN
I think you’ve lost your mind.

MEHDI
Lost it, yes, and gained a new one.

NATHAN
Look, just sit down and calm yourself, Mehdi.
Soon, I’m sure, the lights will come back on,
The engine too, and then we’ll start to move,
Carried forever out of this great tunnel.

MEHDI
It is sad you have no faith, my friend.
I must go to my Prophet and my Christ.

(Exit MEHDI.)

NATHAN
Do I dare believe? My cosy faithless faith
Restrains me. But what else? My fear? My fear?
Fear of a not-abstracted god, a God?
I do fear it. I fear it. I will go
And yet I will never go. I tremble,
Even as the train lies still. A Christ?
A Christ on this train? Madness! And yet. . .
What do I do? Stay in here, sealed off
From this great, peculiar religion?
My cosy faithless faith. . . shall I meet God?
If so, let me meet him.

William Shakespeare’s Harry Potter

Still from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

The following is the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone as William Shakespeare might have written it. I have used a flexible kind of blank verse similar to the form used by Shakespeare in his later plays. In keeping with current editorial practice, I have used modern spellings. (This is the work of a Harry Potter fan—no copyright or intellectual property infringement intended.)

ACT ONE

Scene I

[Enter VERNON and PETUNIA.]

VERNON
Nocturnal birds and shooting stars by day,
Set free from their shadowed natural bounds,
And emerald-cloaked nomads in the town.
Fie! I’ll warrant ‘tis no natural cause
That sets these dev’lish apparitions loose.

PETUNIA
What is the purpose of this dreadful speech?

VERNON
These omens diabolical I dread,
Aye, dread the place from which they laughing spring.

PETUNIA
What say’st thou?

VERNON
I say’st I fear the Potters’ name,
A name I heard not seven hours ago;
‘Twas spoken by a man in stranger’s garb.
Their son, their only son, is Dudley’s age:
I believe his name is Harry Potter.

PETUNIA
I’ll warrant it, a nasty common name.

VERNON
A common name, but cats are common too,
And yet I’ll swear I saw a cat today
With human aspect, in a map engrossed
As if it planned some hellish feline flight.

PETUNIA
What, have you lost your wits?

VERNON
Nay, ‘tis God’s truth.

PETUNIA
Pray, lock the door and speak no more,
Our sleep can many hellish dreams becalm.

VERNON
Aye, yet sleep can conjure visions too,
Our daily memories distil into
Phantasms abstract, which torment the mind
And cause the soul a wretched ceaseless grief.

PETUNIA
Lock the door, I pray, and go to sleep.

VERNON
Lock the door! A wand against a door!

PETUNIA
The Potters are dead.

VERNON
Dead, but others live.

PETUNIA
You know that evil wizards I abhor,
Yet still I urge thee Vernon, lock the door!

VERNON
I will do it.

PETUNIA
Now let us welcome sleep.

[Exeunt VERNON and PETUNIA.]

[Enter DUMBLEDORE and MCGONAGALL]

DUMBLEDORE
I should have known. Pray let me dim these lights
With this instrument of magic. Then may
You secretly undaub your body and
Reclaim your authentic natural garb.

MCGONAGALL
Ah, ‘tis like a pleasing morning dew
To shun disfeature in my human form.
How did you know ‘twas me from purely sight?

DUMBLEDORE
Your stiff-backed posture was an easy clue.

MCGONAGALL
To be stiff is to sit on walls all day.

DUMBLEDORE
Wilt thou then the celebrations spurn at?

MCGONAGALL
A celebration is a silly thing,
Shooting stars and owls, fie! ‘Tis shameful.
I full dislike this saucy frippery.

DUMBLEDORE
Do not blame them. Eleven years of hell,
And now a heavenly release.

MCGONAGALL
I’ll say.
But too I say they lose their heads in joy,
A fine thing if the day when all turns well
Becomes the day when heaven turns to hell.
Tell me, prithee, is he now gone for good?

DUMBLEDORE
It seems so. We have reason to rejoice.
Here, taste a sherbet lemon.

MCGONAGALL
A sherbet lemon?

DUMBLEDORE
‘Tis a kind of Muggle sweet.

MCGONAGALL
I do not wish for it.

DUMBLEDORE
I’ll say no more,
And leave thee to thy usual marchpanes.

MCGONAGALL
If You-Know-Who has gone for good—

DUMBLEDORE
—Do speak his authentic name, I pray you!
A name, a name, what harm’s in but a name?

MCGONAGALL
‘Tis an easy thing for you to utter;
Of only you was Voldemort afraid.

DUMBLEDORE
Thou smooth’st me. He had powers all his own.

MCGONAGALL
His own through malice, not ability,
Blood-boltered incantations of ill mind,
Unused by you from sense of noble kind.

DUMBLEDORE
Gramercies to the night, which dost conceal
The reddish umbered colour of my face.

MCGONAGALL
I do not seek to holy-water court.
I heard today a new report, which hath
Flown around the land on careless winds,
Resounding like a sacring-bell at mass,
Perhaps a falsing rumour, which dost state
The reason for Lord Voldemort’s demise.
They say—they say the Potters now are dead.

DUMBLEDORE
Alas, the words are true.

MCGONAGALL
‘Ods pittikins! Lily and James deceased!
And murdered by a mighty villain’s hand!
They say he tried to kill the Potters’ son,
Yet met a baffling obstacle and died
In place of the victim. Can it be so?

DUMBLEDORE
We can but aim, yet I would say it is.
Look to the present time: Hagrid is late.

MCGONAGALL
One mystery remains. Why are you here?

DUMBLEDORE
To his aunt and uncle will I bring the boy.

MCGONAGALL
Bring him! To these Muggle candle-wasters?
You have lost your sense! The people here!

DUMBLEDORE
They are the only family he has.

MCGONAGALL
Family, I’ll grant you—family—foh!
Not men of quality, but lewd and large,
Of metaphysics they are unaware!

DUMBLEDORE
A letter I have wrote, which satisfies
His family on every needed point.

MCGONAGALL
A letter! A world in but a letter!
Motley-minded missive—pray forgive me—
This gentle peat to wax amidst such fools
While every other child doth know his name.

DUMBLEDORE
Zounds! Famous before he can speak or walk!

MCGONAGALL
Thou are right, of course, but whence comes the boy?

DUMBLEDORE
My just and loyal Hagrid brings the child.

MCGONAGALL
Dost thou think it wise to trust the man with
Such a moment task? Trust him not o’erparted?

DUMBLEDORE
I trust Hagrid with my life. Hark, a sound!
Look to the West—from thither doth he come.

[Enter HAGRID.]

DUMBLEDORE
Whence came that hurtling motorcycle?

HAGRID
It is not mine. ‘Tis borrowed from a friend,
One Sirius Black, and now I do hold
The baby ‘gainst my skin: he fell asleep
As we were high-soaring over Bristol.

MCGONAGALL
Dumbledore, you mark that scar?

DUMBLEDORE
I mark it.
Forever shall that mark remain, perhaps for
Some greater future use or purpose strange.

HAGRID
I pray you, let me bid the child farewell.

DUMBLEDORE
Be at peace.

HAGRID
Goodbye, pure child! Here, let me kiss your cheek.
A sad result! Poor James and Lily dead!

MCGONAGALL
‘Tis true, but we still must leave ere daybreak.
Now take courage, for fear we shall be found.

DUMBLEDORE
Let me have the child. Into his blanket
I’ll place the letter missive and exeunt,
Come, we have no further business here.

HAGRID
Thou hast spoken well. Now I must leave you,
God bye to you, I bid you both good night.

DUMBLEDORE
Adieu, my friends, and I shall see thee soon.

[Exeunt MCGONAGALL and HAGRID.]

DUMBLEDORE
And now I must return these captured lights,
Let them illumine this most collied night.
Good luck, dear boy! I fancy that I hear
Hushed voices, and thankful glasses raised
To Harry Potter praise, the boy who lived!

[Exeunt DUMBLEDORE.]

A sight-seer in a distant land

I watched the man fall from the orange sky
Luggage in hand into the blizzard-land,
The fog-white place where cherubs beg to die.
With paths of snow as sharp as sand
The land is filled with blood and hail.
Fractals of ice assault the pale;
His glad eyes glitter in the gale,
A watcher of the white, white trail.
We hear a voice from reddened heaven say:
“This is my customer, whom I have sent;
If you harm him, you shall most surely pay.”
He waltzes through the mist and snow content,
Bulletproof, from galling war immune,
And flies back home, whistling a simple tune.

‘O tell me the truth about love’ (W. H. AUDEN)

To rework one of Christopher Ricks’s ideas about religious poetry, all good comic verse is accusable of being doggerel, but what differentiates it from bad comic verse is that the accusation does not stick.

Some say that love’s a little boy
And some say it’s a bird,
Some say it makes the world go round,
And some say that’s absurd

The narrator appeals to popular opinion for an answer to her question about the nature of love, but she finds herself disappointed by the bewildering array of responses. Yet something more than mere received wisdom lurks behind the nursery-rhyme simplicity of the first lines; a figure of classical myth is hiding behind a mask of triviality. Just as Cupid was reduced from a muscular youth to a chubby child during the Hellenistic period, so the poet diminishes him further by stealing his name and turning him into a mere ‘little boy’. After realising that she can find no truth in conventional opinion (she gives up after asking the next-door neighbour), the speaker turns to the reader for help.

Does it look like a pair of pyjamas,
Or the ham in a temperance hotel?

The sustained barrage of questions makes the speaker seem somewhat childlike, but the diction (‘temperance hotel’, ‘Patriotism’, ‘railway-guides’) makes an accurate reading involving a child-narrator highly improbable. It is more likely that the speaker is not supposed to appear as a child, but as a childish adult. The weird conceit of a child-in-an-adult’s-body crops up years later in the Pink Floyd song ‘Mother’, also created by the use of repeated interrogatives:

Mother do you think she’s good enough—for me?
Mother do you think she’s dangerous—to me?
Mother will she tear your little boy apart?
Mother will she break my heart?

Neither speaker appears to be truly mature, or to truly understand the nature of love—they seem to long for a real adult to intervene, to guide them across ‘the thin ice of modern life’. It seems, however, that the figure in Auden’s poem is simply donning the guise (or disguise) of a child. The speaker is clearly well-read, particularly about the nature of love (‘Our history books refer to it’), and her travel has given her experience of love (‘It’s quite a common topic on / The Transatlantic boats’). And she is surely raising an eyebrow or smirking in the fourth stanza:

Does it howl like a hungry Alsatian,
Or boom like a military band?

It is difficult to believe the narrator when she professes full ignorance of what love feels like:

Will it alter my life altogether?
O tell me the truth about love.

Incidentally, the actual expression in the poem is ‘O tell me the truth about love’, but it was published in a 1994 pamphlet called Tell Me the Truth About Love. Although it seems that Auden never gave the poem a title, Oxford Essential Quotations (2014) refers to it as ‘Oh Tell Me the Truth about Love’. The variety of versions of the phrase, differing both in spelling and pattern of capitalisation, illustrates the often relative or sacrificial nature of truth—when typing out my essay title, I had to make a choice between being true to one of the titles, or true to the body of the poem. One of the remarkable things about the poem is that it throws up not only such a great multitude of interpretations of love, but also of truth, and of itself. Is the narrator being truthful when she asks for the truth? It is precisely this self-consciousness questioning of questioning that makes the speaker seem more like a philosophical theorist than a juvenile adult. The poem, in its disordered multiplicity, is virtually a direct opposite of I Corinthians xiii. 4-7 (ESV):

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

It is as if someone has tapped the Apostle on the shoulder, demanding: ‘O tell me the truth about love’, and he has been only too happy to oblige. With his usual blend of rhetorical flair and ham-fisted didacticism, Paul tries to quantify agape by stating in blunt terms what it is and isn’t (he never gives such treatment to eros, believing that it ‘is good for a man not to touch a woman’). Auden’s speaker works with the English language’s ambiguity about love, never specifying which type, or types, she is talking about. It is somewhat ironic that in her reticence, preferring to raise silly questions than to make up silly answers, she seems rather more knowledgeable than Paul. The speaker’s voice is bewitching, and the poem stands up, perhaps wobbling, to an accusation of coarseness. In its sheer refusal to try to tell the truth about love, the poem tells the truth about love.

The Trivial Demon

We tread softly in the garden of solitude
We dare not stir the leaves
He sits and watches through the trees
Eyes glittering from the eaves
This minor demon steals around
The jade-like stillness of these woods
To embitter our hard-won soil
To sniff out beauty and despoil
To uncreate our love and toil
Although his judgment must be near
For now we can but love, and fear

The Weather-Glass

A miniature sun, encased within glass
Mirrors its own ungenerated light.
At night, the replacement bulb is off-white,
Reflecting a reflection of a reflection.
The Weather-Glass is my ecosphere—
Sunlight fills me up; I photosynthesise.
The glass shields me from contained rain;
Domed lighting cannot strike.
When snow flakes in the sphere, I hibernate.
The Weather-Glass keeps me warm and dry;
It will keep me safe until I die.

The Goat King

Is this not the mighty Egypt
(The sun lights the defined mountain of God)
Which I have built up with my own strong hand?

It was said, and yet unsaid, but thunder
Struck—Kingdom fled from the blasphemous king
And stole his jewelled crown.

Yahweh had heard, and he took out his paint,
Feathering the skin, the nails clawing,
The godlike sketch furiously redrawing

And dropped him into an unfurnished world.

Now, bearded like a goat, the old king yelps
Each night, at the heavens, begging that God
Restore his former seat, and kill the sheep.

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