At the start of her ninth decade, S.J. Litherland traces the red threads running through her long life, back to a Warwickshire childhood spent in country lanes and air raid shelters, and before that the ghosts of the Levellers and Diggers, the 1848 ‘Springtime of the Nations’ and the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, whose frail free spirit was famously celebrated in Malevich’s Composition in White. Her seventh collection is also a secret book of England, cricket and Morris dancing, Brummie aunts and Bohemian artists and the long shadow of the war years, a state of the nation archive of a life-long socialist. What seems essential is to keep the pages open, so what is lost, or on the verge of being lost, is not forgotten.
Cover image: Kasimir Malevic, Suprematist Composition: White on White, 1918, Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Author photo: Nye Hughes Watts
A sympathiser advises a friend The lilacs were in flower, heavy, drowsy, boulevards suddenly pleasant. And I suspect the sun was out. You must understand there was nothing we could do. In the square hung the conspirators, dangling effigies – the partying over – how they caroused our masters, the hubbub was like the explosions of military battle to deafened soldiers, we the defeated drank deeply while the victors were clinking glasses. All we could hear was the chink, chink, like raindrops in gutters, of their toasts, and vowed never to let glass touch glass again in Hungary. And so my friend – I remove my drink from your pleasure in my health – in due homage to the twelve – the silence between us heavy, ominous. In my hearing, glasses will never chime. All through the night they were pushing the boat out, the oars of a thousand hurrahs dipped into water, chink, chink, chink, chink, chink, came the replies of the tiny waves. It was terrible music to the demented. The boulevards next day were ashen with pollen. The twelve hung in the sun. You must understand there was nothing we could do but shun the moment, to turn our backs on all that merriment.
The rooms were lofty & across the street our songs drifted as if by coincidence into the realm of Number 6. We weren’t short of breath in 1916 safe in Zurich, we were soldiers of the absurd – Dadaists, refuseniks – chanting timeless choruses of ‘etc ad infinitum’ slowly and solemnly in the cathedral of our cabaret. Across the street at No 6 close by, the Bolsheviks deepened their plans & Lenin at his desk was at work, accompanied by our siren songs, the purposeless fundamental world of laughter, beauty and atoms. We burnt our boats in a bonfire of the vanities, no rules allowed. Our ridiculous hats, our quixotic gestures, lived on the same street, on the Spiegelgasse. We opened a gallery & Lenin moved under cover in his closed train to St Petersburg, the revolution bursting the banks of the Neva; he was never so free, nothing was accomplished and nothing marred, our songs were in his back pocket like bombs.
for Yvonne Leathley Like ex-pats on a sundown terrace we drink Long Island Tea, the colour of shingle; in its cloudy depths lurk the piranhas of vodka, gin, rum and tequila and let us not forget triple sec; once in the blood they slay the unwitting partakers of Tea; in the cocktail hours it will lay you down until 5 in the morning, a night passage without remission; it will leave no trace, no recall, an eternal blankness; this is the allure of Long Island Tea, the colour of river water where spirits contend with lime and coca-cola, wrestle in the cloudy chamber, the glass glistening with icy power. Like ex-pats on a sundown terrace we drink Long Island Tea like a suicide pact like a doomed class observing ritual. Barbados
Through the windows of a dream you were sitting among three. An inconsequential third was next to you, but your rival was this assertive finger pointer. He was standing like someone who has always haunted me, taking charge, his authority an easy coat to slip on and it hung on him tailor-made. In human shape you were in the middle, your eyes still trembling from dependency. Nothing to lift your countenance, without the magus inside. I was carefully folding the fabric of life as it rattled off the loom, folding and pressing each scene into a picture gallery wrapped in cloth. He was standing like a righteous angel blessed with tongues and a message, and surely won the apple of my approval until his lips closed. Your eyes were hovering at the edges of my attention, the past safely bound up like a parcel in my hands, and of the past there was something to tell, and of the three there was only one to choose. A picture in my mind of the Windward Club, on the lee of the island, in Barbados, a place sacred to its undertaking without a border of concrete seating. The cricket field edged by trees and some canopies. It was the apple of my eye. Black faces in leaf shadows, or under awnings. The warm wind blew eddies of applause. England were playing without ceremony. I was struggling with my vision of the loveliness of the outfield at the Windward Club, as you were listening in human shape among three, words sinking into your comprehension like soft rain. A field lightly bounded but still deserving status. Capacious, I offered like a present. Your face acquiescent.
He cut my hair into shapes of a Japanese fan. I am unrecognisable to myself. He said I am the slow master of Lenin. He is a fast bowler who never smiles. We are barricading ourselves within moving walls. It was not a dance. It was life or death. We had to move quickly. We were strangers introducing ourselves. I was lissom with dark hair onto my shoulders. He was a revolutionary stylist. We talked theory as we ran from room to room. He cut my hair as if I were a mannequin. As if I were someone to shape. I looked haunted by scissors. What have you done I asked him. It was done. The mask I was given I could not remove. We had met in a dream tantalisingly a step ahead of those without. There were pursuits of a kind. I am French for princess. French for teacher. French for woman. French for betrayal. Who was he? This chrysalis of my imagination? Who am I? I am shorn and bereft. He said I am the slow master of Lenin, why not the fast I quipped. He showed how fast. It was an act of love swift and to his taste. My hair cut into blades like grass awry in the wind, like treason.
Where was the glamour? The hotel had stained carpets and German food for breakfast. We searched for cafe au lait and croissants. I remember Paris in the 60s and the wonderful aroma on the streets. I still can’t believe outdoor tables and waiters weren’t waiting for us. We hunted down La Maison de la Poesie, a purpose built bunker. Even the white house with Picassos was full of quickly moving on tourists. We were at one with the modern drift of consumers. We could have turned all this into poetry but failed to write even a letter. I remember you stomping back up a street in your shorts. Some moment of temper propels you. Where could you go with your head full of Apollinaire and no Left Bank or Bohemia to abide in? We ruthlessly went to churches. In Montmartre there was a woman singing and banks of candles. There were spats about the exchange rate not in our favour. Only in a recommended restaurant did we find Paris. You marvelled over pigs’ trotters. I ate pale slices of duck with clusters of tiny onions. I could hardly imagine the devotion of peeling them with patience. Even the pudding could not compare with the delicate transparent beads I had crossed a channel for. We are in the Communist quarter, you declare, and turn a corner to a street market full of bundles of herbs. Harissa has to be bought and the word on your tongue is fiery and Moroccan. A bottle of Cassis to lace the champagne you no longer drink. But it’s more a chance to remember those touches of glamour to replace the fizz. You are down to recipes as you stroll the stalls. I wish I could pick them all up and take them home for you, the pursuit of these gourmet touches in a poor backstreet for anyone and everyone.
On the iron-grey sea a single black sail, vela, an unlit candle; like the dying wish of Odysseus who could not rest from travel. He lost his fireside companions: they all said No and put their feet up. He’s on his own, crossing a strip of bone-white sunlight like a splinter silhouette of the lone sail in a pirouette of a ballerina, arm and leg raised, in contemplation apres-spin. Even in the dark sea, the sand bleaches through like the skin of the woman we saw mottled from burns, patches of tan and bone-white. The rocks gnaw at the sea edge, grinding spittle. The hotel is keeping us tidy. Straw parasols in rows, the guests are mindful to park their towels, guard their spaces, walk everywhere not in haste. The bright pool has been captured from the sea, tamed like a house cat. Today we can hear growls of the ocean, the waves prowl, extend white claws. We stay in the harbour of ourselves, the hotel with blinds, German TV in all the rooms, and our faces like locked doors. Clouds are drawn to the sun like prudent parents, screen violence on skin, hover tenderly with so grey towels edged by bone-white needlework. The sky is scratched by chalk. I swim nerveless in hotel waters. A skeletal boat on the horizon is like a death ship or my future foreshortened. Would Odysseus pay the bill for his shipmates, shipwreck plans for drinks in the bar, and take his old age out to sea, strike the sail, alone, and by sparks of stars find his way home? Home not being the hearth or hotel, but the wilderness beyond; not imitating death, plenty of time for that, an eternity.
In memory of the medieval city of Coventry, destroyed 1940 The lamp of the full moon enters the sky, the opening movement of invading night, the rising moon at the appointed time searches Coventry under the moonlight. The three spires’ high needles, the parks all quiet, the shopping streets with blinds down, the cobbles silent, the workshops and back alleys all dark, at the centre the spike of the cathedral like an arrow in its heart, the Bayley and the tucked in skirts of its ancient lanes, the black and white timbered cottages and fine houses like shadows of history leaning together, all banded inside the line of the old city walls, tied with the knot of an invisible girdle, the encirclement like the outer circle of a target. How like a gunshot the wailing sirens alter the calm. Starlings sprung from the eaves fill the air with patterns of alarm. Coventry, its face woken to the lamp of the moon, still complete, travelling to the universe like a ray. A drone interferes. Across the sky wingtip to wingtip an iron mantle. A drone eight miles away to a child not asleep in a shelter. The city still whole, still breathing, like an innocent face, a still turning page, all history in place as the avenger drones the Moonlight Sonata twinned in tone to the prelude of Guernica in the afternoon. Over the cathedral the sign of the crosshair as bombers usurp the sky, the birds, under their wing a new city of fire, the core tied in ribbons of flames like a gift to the people of Coventry, everything familiar already a ghost rising in smoke, the loss of a thousand years left to the light of the morning, the moon calling on the night to remember, the moon of Goya and Picasso, warning of the ambush, the reprisal, the lamp extinguished like a lament, a broken promise, a sonata. Eight miles from the city, the All Clear brought out families from their shelter, into the not yet dawn of November, the siren calling like an alarm clock to the unsleeping. Awaiting them a baptism, like a blessing, for half the sky had turned scarlet and before her father lifted her up onto his shoulder, before a word, before they saw spearheads of the flames, she tasted in the closet of her chest the breath of their foreboding. You’ll never forget this, her father wishes. Like something she was born to or born for. The cathedral was blown apart to the walls as if its heart failed by the morning for old and new living together like strata. On its own debris and dust the city gags. The island of the centre had vanished as if the day was confused and delayed to put back yesterday. The city of Godiva parading ruins like a beggar in rags asking why am I so punished. The day did nothing but rain on dead Coventry, like a lament, a requiem, a kaddish.
‘S.J. Litherland’s latest collection, her seventh, is a delight. Her consummate control of language allows her undiminished passion, intelligence and imagination to blaze on every page. Perhaps her physical muscles are “waning like skies at dusk”, but her poetry muscles are lithe and limber, and her poet’s eye as diamond sharp and unsentimental as ever. Breathtaking.’
‘Litherland armours each poem with a carefully chosen form, but the abstract painterly quality of the book is expressed most in block-shaped poems that hang on the page as if in a poetry gallery. The Stationary moments are staged throughout, as much emblematic as photographic... in carving stone, Litherland has packed her poems with feeling... blooms brilliantly.’
‘one of the finest poets I have come across in recent years... a masterclass in poetry.’
‘resonates off the page addressing the reader with clarity and leaving echoes of historical reconstruction which can be felt in our NOW.’
Ian Brinton, Tears in the Fence
‘splendidly enthusiastic poems about the English landscape, especially Warwickshire, and about cricket, especially Ian Bell. Litherland is sophisticated, resourceful and imaginative in exploring those things which matter to her, amounting to a spiritual steer (‘message’ would be the wrong word) as powerful as it is deft.’