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Lay for the Day 24th March

1838: the National Gallery in London’s Trafalgar Square opens to the public.

(Note: “Martin’s” is the church of St Martin in the Fields, on the east side of Trafalgar Square. The paintings referred to are Paolo della Francesca’s Baptism of Christ and Cézanne’s Card-Players.)

On the National Steps

At every stroke the bells of Martin’s ring
the blue-grey plaza of the evening air
is crossed and recrossed by the birds that turn
in shrieking, flowing coils. The night at hand
impels them; to protest or take its part,
they crowd against the failing of the light.

From breathing fictive space and painted air
our feet move weighted and our heads are light,
as though by one yet greater master hand
compelled to stand still at the stair’s top turn,
and watch as round the column, whirling ring
on ring, the waves of starlings crash and part.

Each of its galaxy a millionth part,
each star there flickers darkly on the turn;
whose little-finger-knuckle brain, and ring-
bound staring eye, steer a body so light
its weight would barely register in hand,
the bones and plumage reinforced with air.

We’ve seen him within who came to set light
to the hard earth, wading the stream, the ring
of eternity glimmering in air
unseen, it seems, by all but one, whose part
shall be to make a way and die, to turn
and pour the water from his raised right hand.

We’ve seen the players too who wait their turn,
each like a Bible studying his hand,
that casual group that time will never part
from brush-strokes freely ordered as an air
of Bach’s, harmonic summing of the light
that dances round a common pastime’s ring.

We leave them with a touch of hand on hand.
Together we belonged, but when we part
we’re exiled from the timelessness of light
in a world where “Well – I’ll give you a ring”
is all our connection. You, with an air
of loss, watch the crowds into which we’ll turn.

Then turn again and through the darkened air
let ring the words, strong as your voice is light,
“You’re part of me. I’d sooner lose this hand.”

John Gibbens
from Zeus’s Camera

The Lay Reader: an archive of the poetic calendar


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