David Harsent: a poem



The angel of transformative light


On her back, on the bed, arms raised, legs spread,

who did this, who dashed on a smudge

of lipstick, fanned her hair across the pillow, guessed


her wingspan, found a way to make a shadow's shadow

from the hard stark white of pinion feathers

against Egyptian cotton, who thought to allow that fusion


of lust and prayer, that fission, eyebright, fever-race,

then bring you in, a ponderous silhouette…oh…

who gifted her the seven words now cut into your arm

ragged like a prison-house tattoo, who picked the lock

on this door of all doors, who set the cheval glass just so

to give her back to herself, up on all fours, that wide wingspread


mantling her smile and hiding her greed from God? Slow light

when she moves on you like that, smoke-light, water-light.

Leaving, she turns to share a soundless whisper,


a secret lost, white breath on empty air…oh…in the full flush

of her nakedness, faint scent of fallen ash, walls scuffed

with light, her handprint at the cave-mouth.



David Harsent is a British poet and librettist. He has published twelve volumes of poetry. Legion won the Forward Prize for best collection; Night was triple short-listed in the UK and won the Griffin International Poetry Prize. Fire Songs won the T.S. Eliot Prize. His 2018 recent collection, Salt, was described by John Burnside, choosing it for his Book of the Year in the New Statesman, as "a masterpiece". His latest collection, Loss, appeared in January 2020. He has collaborated with several composers, though most often with Harrison Birtwistle. The New York Times described Birtwistle and Harsent as "a team creating alchemy". Birtwistle/Harsent collaborations have been performed at venues worldwide, including the Royal Opera House, BBC Proms, the Aldeburgh Festival, the Holland Festival, The Concertgebouw, The London South Bank Centre, The Salzburg Festival and Carnegie Hall. Harsent holds several fellowships, including Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and Fellow of the Hellenic Authors Society. Homeland, a pamphlet giving Harsent's versions of the eighteen "short, bitter" poems Yannis Ritsos wrote for Theodorakis to set during the Papadopoulos junta, has just been published by Rack Press.