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David Harsent: two poems

The Angel of Furtive Eschatologies

Hand-in-hand to the boneyard... that half-heard

seamless note – the city's tinnitus – gone

as if she flipped a switch, nothing between you

and the image she allows of the bloodless dead

clawing their coffin lids. The thought amuses her,

just as she smiles at headless stone angels

in the rising mist, at Death is dead not she,

at the drum-roll of thunder that celebrates your arrival.

Her hand carries a chill. She calls on the dead for a dance

which you somehow see, subtle music in bones

as they go between markers that bear their names,

until she sends them back. None of this is cruel

or evil: as you remember the dead so the dead

remember you: things are what they are: she allows

sight of them whole and undisturbed; or their wounds

showing livid and wet; or a bar-code of illness

die-stamped at the quick; or where

they gain themselves, remade, in the sight of God.

Now, in this dry storm, faux-apocalypse, you tremble

to join the dance. She will play for you on a bone aulos.

On the way back she will touch you, softly, to slow your heart.


The Angel of the Skyborne Mirage

She catches you in the corner of her eye and reinvents you

as a refugee soul in need of some measure of love,

drawing you in and into the scope of her wings,

the close edge of passion, her body dark angles and deep

scents in which you might suffocate and will, later, in dream,

that feather-cradle, that aphrodisiac musk... The mirage

only sustains by your belief in her and hers in you:

sometimes cloudwrack, unfallen rain, patterns of light

refracting to a hall of mirrors that returns you to yourself

as victim or lover or starveling or vengeful child;

sometimes a web of streets abandoned

to patterns of light that blur to reachless distance;

sometimes a long perspective of rivers and bridges,

skies pearl and featureless, the water showing patterns

of light and the image of a man in torn reflections.

She works these changes, and more, in God's delay.

If you find dust and ash on the heel of your shoe

you have come back (be sure) to where you most belong.

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 been published by Rack Press.

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