White Tulip

White Tulip is a garland for the flames, a sequence of memoirs in verse for distinguished family and friends, including the pianist Geraldine Swingler, the historians and peace-campaigners Edward and Dorothy Thompson, and the author’s uncle Frank, executed while fighting with the Bulgarian Partisans in 1944. China, Ireland, Litakovo, Haworth and Thermopylae – White Tulip is a book about love and loss, the living and the dead, History and memory, and the sudden illuminations that force themselves up through the cracks in the pavement.

Cover image: Paul Klee, Vor dem Schnee (1929)

Sample Poems

The Flower Arrangement

for EP Thompson, who went out to pick blackberries and died under his favourite magnolia bush


According to thought
If the mass of an electron 
Were changed by one part in fifty million 
There would be no space, 
No stars, 
No water, 
No flesh, 
No magnolia 
And none of this need ever have happened. 

So can we touch 
The ground 
Of so much possibility? 
Or must we always dream 
Away from the dark 
As the price 
Of being on loan 
From the impossible? 

For it is impossible, the dark, 
We can never go into it. 
We may go out in family groups to pick apples 
Or strawberries, we can go gleaning in pairs 
But only alone 
Can the blackberry 
Ever be tasted. 

So are we mere flames 
And is all this just shadows?

If it is, are there walls 
The shadows play upon? 
If so, what are they made of 
And why can’t we see them? 
If not, how have we gone on 
Fooling ourselves for so long? 
And if we are just flames 
Dancing in darkness 
Does the walk to the magnolia tree take time 
Or are we already there? Is it just 
A dream in the dark that lets us say 
‘No, not us, not now, 
Here are apples to pick, 
there is time to walk in the grass 
Together, there are birds 
There are streams, there are flowers.’ 

Only one hand 
Could have arranged this bouquet, 
Set the black fruit against the green magnolia; 
There was a flower arranger here, 
Skillfully working, 
Cutting and planting with never a mark 
Save when someone misunderstood 
A carefully laid out frame 
Or picked up a scythe 
that had gently been set down to rest. 

And though many can gather the laurel 
Or pluck the early blooming rose 
Only the strong cut magnolia, 
Only the strong grasp the blackberry by the root, 
Turn Death about on his own doorstep 
And say, ‘There, you old fool, I mastered you, 
I slipped your mask and showed your human face 
And made of you a garland for the flames.’

Litakovo

in memoriam Frank Thompson, 
executed June 1944 at Litakovo, Bulgaria


A bugle plays The Last Post, we lay flowers 
And for a moment are as still as you. 

Fifty years ago you gave your life 
For something that I still can’t find a name for, 
Does it matter? 
Only the deadened spirit needs to ask 
Why one should give his whole life, everything, 
The doing answers for itself. It seems 
A monument is sealed 
Wherever youth stands upon honour until death, 
The touchstone of the real. 

Here, no-one comes, no flowers fade, 
Time gathers dust over a soldier’s grave, 
I stand within the shadows 
Knowing you are close 
And are as well as I am when I sleep 
Knowing no more than you do when I’ll wake.

Before the Flood

for EP Thompson


1 
These lines and knots of silver lace 
Mark where light passed by a tree 

And that a tree stood in such a place 
Is proved by them. And whether by luck 

Or skill, it came out a good shot, 
The boyish face is clear of shadow, concentrates 

On the ripe fruit beneath the hands 
While Autumn waits. 

Many times I saw him, as a man 
Pick fruit from a tree, knowing nothing 

Of the boy standing in this calm 
Before the flood-tide broke.


2 
How can a summer meadow seem 
More spacious clipped at two by two 
Than any I have ever seen? 

Perhaps the light, before the flood, 
Knew how to paint a denser shade of white, 

Perhaps the Word 
Was at large 
And the bromide echoed it, 

Or perhaps the cause is a smallish boy 
In knee length shorts and a floppy hat 

Extending his negligent, easy limbs 
On the back of a five barred gate 

As though he had just read Huckleberry Finn 
And was cruising the rivers in state 

Without even a hint of the murmuring flood 
Soon to break over that tousled head 
As the rivers swapped water for blood.

3 
Three boys by a rock face making for a climb. 

Bleached and pixellated this one. I take a glass 
To it, and yes, 

can make out my father’s, high cheek bones, 
His eyes already lamp-sharp, before they’d known 
All they learned he’d never talk about. 

I picture them at day’s end, pleasantly worn, 
Toweling boy’s sweat, every hand and foothold, 
Every minor slip lived over again 
In the vicarious safety of the den. 

Unconscious of the cliffs they’d have to face, 
Of the slipped grasp, the shattered rose.


4 
An older boy in army kit 
Looks down at a dog. It’s bad light, 

His smile gawks – I can’t tell from here 
Whether through embarrassment or fear, 

Janus like. The backdrop’s white 
As though the flood had bleached it out of sight 

And I can almost hear the bleached farewells 
The edges of this frame incarcerate.


5 
Of this family group in Xmas ’31 
No-one now remains. 
The elder of the boys died, 
Exhausted, forthright, resigned 
By an executioner’s gun. 

Waiting, not knowing if he was alive or dead 
The father withered in angst. 
The mother did survive, 
Though not the youthful smile 
She wears on this negative. 

Of this family group in ’31 
None now remain. 
Trailing your foot in the sand 
You outlived them all, taking a long walk 
On the short beach of these recollections. 

Now you have joined them in that place 
Where no-one tastes their memories 

But offers them as fading images 
To become, for this instant, ours.


6 
I come back to the tree. 
You have not moved, 
But stand in dappled shadow as before, 
Caught in that pose as though eternity 
Held you against the light for a better view. 

Any year of our life 
I could have seen you with a basket in your hands 
Climb for ivy, strip an apple bough – 

Many times we picked together 
And always in silence. Now I see 

That we were not so distant in our age, 
It was the flood that stopped me reaching out 

To the boy in these old pictures 
And the silence was his shout.

Soldiers

Go tell the Spartans, passer-by, 
That here, obedient to their wish we lie. 
Simonides (Thermopylae)


I come to protest the deaths of soldiers 
    huddled in barracks, sweating in trenches 
dragged from their farms, their factories 
    a gun, a gas mask and a mess can 
a khaki coat you are no longer a man 
    you are a goalpost, a snooker pocket 
a bullet through your brain 
    just deuce, a match point, a black potted 
when exactly did you lose the right to live, 
    when your call-up papers landed on the mat? 
or when they were put in the post? 
    when your name was written into the lists? 
or when the midwife hauled you from the howling womb 
    looked between your legs and pronounced you man, guilty as charged? 

I will not waste time protesting the deaths of children 
    which is an industry, whole factories, industrial estates 
already thrive on, every day whole forests are felled 
    whole oceans of synthetic tears are wept dry for them 
their cute, muddy or preferably bloodstained faces 
    are stacked in libraries back to back like celluloid corpses, 
are whisked off optical-magnetic media, telegraphed at the 
    speed of light 
every editor is hungry for more and each has their favourite 
    and I will not waste time protesting the deaths of women who are all innocent
even though year after year they go to the polls 
    and vote first, second and third preference for Death, Death, Death 
yet they miraculously remain innocent, 
    yes, it seems that no matter how much power they have 
to vote, to choose, no matter how punctually their demands 
    must be fulfilled 
their innocence astonishingly expands to cover all 
    like a pink blanket, soft and warm 
exhaling a faint whiff of TV dinners and contraceptive foam 

guilt lands on the shoulders of the soldier 
    a khaki doll, wind him up and he’ll crawl through hell 
tick tock, regular as a clock 
    you, the customer, can choose, mean look one or fierce look two, 
did you ever see a frightened soldier doll? 
    guilt lands as white hot uranium splattered into his tank 
as cluster bombs blowing off feet and arms 
    ten thousand country boys blown to one column inch at Kandahar 
fear, pain and shit in his pants
    is that your finger on the trigger, brother, or mine? 
is that your guilt on my shoulders, brother, or mine?
    and your name? Oh really? I also am Unknown.

today I want you to forget about innocence, 
    about women, children and other icons 
whose deaths will still be there tomorrow to comfort you 
    who will keep you safely indignant for years to come 
and spend just one day thinking about soldiers. 
   Thank them for their age-old courtesy, their habit 
of not cluttering up your newspapers with their complaints 
    of not ringing your private telephones off the wall 
but just quietly shuffling up the line 
    collecting a gun, a gas mask and a mess can 
iron rations and an honorary doctorate in dying 
    and reflect 
that though there are, indeed, enemies 
    there are no enemy soldiers, 
so that the guilt may finally be lifted 
    and their crushed souls rest in peace. 

    In peace.

As for Forever

for Dorothy Thompson


1
The infant heart 
Leaves the hand of darkness 
Like a boomerang slipped from the hand of a hunter 
Flailing and turning 
Upwards and outwards 
thrashing the fleeing blood 
Gathering its harvest of light 

Gradually turned 
By tiny imperfections mounting air 
Into a returning arc, 
Its last and bravest beat 
A sharp slap 
Into the hunter’s waiting hand.


2 
Your things come back from the ward 
Packed neatly, as ever 

A pair of slippers, reading specs, 
A purse with loose change, 

A sponge bag, 
A thriller, hardly begun 

Plot suspended, 
Characters waiting, 

Patiently bookmarked, 
To be opened again in the next world.


3 
Death is not the end 
But the farthest wall 
Of the hall that houses us. 
As for forever, 
We can only imagine it. 

Without birth there is no death 
Without death, no birth; 
As the newborn know nothing 
So the dead regain all innocence. 

The living give birth to the newborn 
And the living give death to the dying; 
Birth is dangerous 
For mother and child, 
So also is death, 
For the dying and those gathered at the bier 

For all must be given and forgiven 
In that last, strange, courageous beat, 
As the heart completes its arc.


4 
I return to the house where you lived, 
Strange, now, these streets 
That no longer lead to you 

But, purged by the departure of great spirits 
Gleam now, blackly 
As though freshly swept by rain. 

To sit now, watching these things 
Transform themselves from being yours 
To being mere discards of the dead 

Quietly shedding your memory, to become 
Boot-sale bric-a-brac, 
the flotsam of time.


5 
You died in your sleep, they say, 
Meaning in the depths of night 

Although I know you did not sleep 
And that that last beat of your heart 
Was a gift for us, 

A final word, 
A fist enclosing flowers.