Muir Holburn - Selected Poems

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Love comes to all, a petulant extremist,

A Trojan horse that enters when the gates

Of spirits righteous and impregnable

Loll open to expose a virgin city.

As when the spring dusk makes warm majesty

For winter’s passing from a harbour town,

Above the spires, the cascades of homing hats,

Light fingered air, the green leaves flustering the streetlamps,

The windows’ pose of tight-lipped reticence

Suddenly smashed to make a dance of velvets,

There runs the soundless morse of love’s imperceptible

Expansive communiqué. No country cousin

Whose landscape changes dress with shrill acclaims

That deaden the brain like wild superlatives

Can share the joy which chance emphatic greens

And a shift of air in the arterial canyons

Bring home to men whose home is here amid

The garrulous traffic and the architects’ changeless geometry.

Love comes, imperious and unfulfilled,

Easing and sweetening all the inherited strictnesses,

The imposed attitudes, seeping evenly

Down through the fibrous senses of Miss Bertha Evans

Who hastens busily from the ringing comptometer

East to a sleepless dormitory suburb.

She who has minced so sternly through the years,

Mindful of Father’s military dicta,

Slackens now, under the branches and a pale rash of stars,

Loosens her belt and her brow, takes pausing, superfluous glances

At the sky’s crumbly roses and all the refractory beauty

Of young limbs hurrying, catches the thrill-edged mingling

Of miscellaneous voices. Puzzled and pained

By a cool inrush of phenomena surging and pleading

With her uptilted chin and disfavouring eye,

She halfcraves for a flowing sense of kin

with what is green, upgrowing, rich in hope,

Halfgrappling for strength in the habitual ukase:

Describe and classify and, last, dismiss.

Summon the image of Father, of the old and forbidding;

walk, stately and purposeful, to a remembered burthen:

Knowing of the evils of the flesh, deny them!




Thirty years this glazed balcony has contained

Her mind in all its wincing adequacies;

The lino’s dull polish, the bookshelf and the gas-ring

Have been sufficient; all one could complain of

Is the bruised internal silence, the street’s meaningless nagging,

Lastly the adjacent Lil, whose ripe festivities

Gather the darkened house in convulsive shudders,

Shaking the poise of all right-thinking dreams.

Lil pleasures her hours with radios and whisky,

Trumpeting laughter and acidulous shrieks.

Lil, radiant and grubby, is the attar

Of what behaviour should avoid. Hence Miss Evans’s daring:

‘Miss Hotchkiss, I am loath to seen intrusive.

Your life, to you, is doubtless satisfying.

Nevertheless I cannot withhold the opinion,

Formed after months of prudent contemplation,


That you exert yourself, exert yourself unduly.

From early nights and quiet intonations

You couldn’t fail to gain; at least, young lady,

Your neighbours would be the richer.’

      Chewing and staring

With labouring carefulness Lil Hotchkiss answers:

‘Kiddo, why don’t you let those little plaits down

Once in a way? It’d do you a world of good.’

To which insentient reckless dissonance

Miss Evans will have to think of a reply

When pitying time has dressed the flaming cut.

Meanwhile a hint of her feelings to the landlord

Results in a streetdoor locked by night, but no lessening

In riotous patronage for wayward Lil.




Ah, bitter warm it is! The light extinguished,

She lies upon the bed, her toast untasted.

How strangely dark! The opposite eight-floor building

Has lost its night-time face of shimmering neons

That intermittently squander a tense blackness

And then a coloured haze upon the pavements.

Oh, what a honeybrown quietude prevails!

Even Lil is hushed and tiptoes, and the querulous clock

Has dropped its voice and mutters of inconsequentials.

      And yet, how many nights

Through all the loafing and voluptuous summer

She’s doomed to lie, waiting for resurrection,

Hearing the chatter of indecorous demands,

Unspeakable hopes corrosive to her will,

Working the overthrow of all respected

Tenets and habits. Bitter it is to fight

To hold an Eden that the heart, harassed, would

Lightly surrender, while the poor brain parrots:

‘Never give ground! Reflect upon your Father,

Spotless and terrible and a constant stranger

To soft remorse and pity. Never give an inch!

He dealt in none of the currencies of emotion.

He owed not and he lent not. His mind resembled

Crystals of matchless hardness. Recall his hands,

Dry, shiny, shaped in a corrective gesture.’

This was, perhaps, for Father proper course.

The evidence supports it. Yet who forgets the day

They found him before his death, and what he murmured:

‘Thank God they are taking me home. I have been so lonely.’

These words have endured, a threat to every rampart.

‘I have been lonely too, but who will carry me home?

Who, even, will one day enter to gather the frail reliques,

Dispose of the remains, shake the dust from the curtains,

Finalise the impermanent tenancy? Who?

‘I have been lonely too. I would reach out

To build another world from the grasp of a hand.

But who comes to one whose speech is tuned so surely

To keys of solitude, whose hair grows greyer

with every hour’s grey passage, whole pale thoughts

Embrace each other like the buds of impossible roses

Snapped in their green state from the surging stem’




The night strolls on untroubled. It exudes

A kind of holy savour. A world of good

(The repellent skin has withered from the phrase)

Hovers, a teasing promise, on the spring night’s

Gathering crispness. How can one rise from the dead

Into the heaven of life, a world of good?

And how to thaw the pack ice and to sail

Out to the temperate oceans? There was a girl

Who did so once, obeyed a mystic code,

Went supperless to bed (just as I did),

Lay with the eyes fixed heavenward, or in that

General direction, possibly breathed a prayer

To some parched saint, Hilda? Margaret? Agnes?

Even this I will attempt: ‘Oh, send, oh, send

Running among my neat heaps of costly rubbish,

Some one, some thing to set it all ablaze!

Despatch a direction-finder, establish a distant shelter,

For who can suffer to work alone on the mountains

And lie at night exposed to all inclemencies;

So I beseech you, send the delivering hand

To intercept me now, not down the distant,

Winding, improbable corridor of the future.

Oh, lend a receptive ear to this imploring,

And yield the delightful vision, the soft adoring.’

Prayer is a labour, even to the adept.

The dim light vanished and Miss Evans slept.




Caught fitfully between a pair of dreams,

Miss Evans sighed. The honey’d midnight hour

Suddenly dropped, as from a saintly grasp,

A gift of glory, heat and tenderness

That broke upon her being as a wave

Upon a yearning beach, broke, broke again,

And then swept back to leave a trail of flame!

What cries to roars ascending shattered her ears

In a converging thunderclap of bliss.

Her hands first raised in token of resistance

Clutched at a vision swaying in the gloom.

Oh, blessed prayers! From all the resounding deeps

Of all the chilly years her being echoed,

Spilled like a swollen lake down tremulous valleys.

Then one by one the reasoned arguments,

The terrible imprecations, the Father’s portrait,

Grim as an early Dobell, all were seized,

Engulfed, devoured, and their ashes hurled

Out into utter darkness. O work – be done;

O flames, subside; O voiceless tenderness,

Pity and strength, like sunlight on a shallow pool,

Surround, suffuse, suffice me.




How large the balcony has grown, how soft the bed,

How sweet the air that hangs in scented layers.


How strange, how right that the adjoining neons

Should now, so late, return to sudden duty,

Scattering dusty colours on the walls!

And now a movement, now a low voice speaking:

‘Sweetheart, you’re lovely. How about a kiss?’

(The rough places shall be made smooth, the vulgar be exalted,

The trivial shall carry oracular implications.)

She turns. The speaker starts, begins to gabble

Soothing incomprehensibles: ‘Cripes, lady, I’m sorry.

There must be some mistake.’ (Thank God for man’s

Imperishable humour – some mistake!)

‘I come to visit Lil, Lil Hotchkiss, know ‘er?

The door was locked. I climbed the balcony,

Her balcony I thought. Jeeze I was born to bungle

Where I’m not wanted.’ (O sweet irony!)

‘See ‘ere, you ain’t no chicken, but y’ good,

My oath, y’ too damned good for stuff like this.

I’d better go away now.’ (O thus brief are all

High visitations.) ‘Look, grab ‘old of this,

bye-bye, sweetheart. Thanks.’ Out of her world,

The figure stumbles. Passionately remain

The image, the flames and all the ineffable music.




The militant sun has overthrown the night,

For the first time she turns to welcome it.

She finds the neat coverlet rumpled, and in her hand

Clutched hot a leaf of money which replaces

The lock of Father’s hair in the Family Bible,

For nothing earned with such excess of bliss

Could ever be expended. Breakfast aside,

She smiles at Lil, who lolls in her open door,

Long haired and drowsy, then begins the journey

Downstairs and out beneath the singing branches

Westward to the comptometer and all the friendly faces.

And as she steps she hears a clear tune welling

Up from the inward ear:

‘Awake, arise, my love, and fearless be,

For in the heart of every man who loves

I have a home for thee.’


. . . .








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