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)
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.