Muir Holburn - Selected Poems

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Were human hands so milken soft before?

Was human smile so rich with brandy-fyre?

Was momentary lull so pregnant cool?

May this fulfilment seek no fresh desire,

For I, torn gashwise, like a dribbling fool

Know there is nothing greater, nothing higher

Than this glowing quietude . . .



That we might

That we might warn you

That we might warn you, they said.

We shall not paint the tranquil dead,

But the raw flaming cut, shivering wrecked,

Or tortured eyes that never more shall see

Where filtering waters down mossed forests flee

And through green maidenhair in crystals bubble,

Where proud steel cities rise from burnt dust rubble.


If they live shall be aware of pain,

Misery – a grey acid lying in puddles along the gutters all day,

And no one at all to drain them away.



If they live not shall be made aware

Only of lightning itch, sharp brilliancies,

Or phantom figments floating ceaselessly

Along harsh violent roads - restless parade!

Their plaintive shrieks like lacerating saws—

‘Ha ha! Very nice indeed, lad, these new cities, brand bright cities’

This sulphurous sun, this steaming moon

Which fills the night with lava fumes!’


That we might

That we might tell you

That we might tell you, they cried.

The marbled peace of those that died

Is not for you. Instead the tremulous cries

Of these that feel the iodine and lint,

Black Army salve with clockwise pressure plied,

The stiff cold block bound deep between the thighs,

The frozen touch of scalpel edge and splint.

In the afternoon between raid signals,

They placed his taut brown drill in the mangled grate,

The threads erect in a trellis of earthblood crust,

A tangle of matted vein and metal splinter;

They lit it with almost reverential match.

Nurse Beverley and the Corporal both were pleased

Because the purple wisp curled swift away . . .


This dark smooth square of floor.

(Light grey when they open the door)

Low punched lead walls to keep out the whistle whine.

Ceiling of eight converging blocks,

Occasional whispers, electric clocks,

Poultice of vinegar-ice on the forehead

Bluish white sheets rustling with fragrance:

There’s the knee and the calf and the sense of numbed cramp, and the–

What lost?


What won?

Qui sait, mes

chers cama-



Look–Mother, Christ!

See–See–the Shelley tea-pot

      in the cupboard–

In the rosewood cabinet at Beechfield!


He’s feverish, Doctor–yes, yes he’s feverida;

Hysterical, Doctor–yes, yes, hystericici;

Delirious, Doctor–aye, aye, deliriosim–


Press snows pristine to cheeks

with blades tattooed–


Fragile silver pencil mark

Glints in the opal light,

Nearer thinner sharper brighter

Pinground penetrating full

Of purple fluid

Nearer come–

Sudden stab through taut sallow skin,

Pierce down by muscular lymphe and gristle;

Stop! Drop! The red flow!

Catch in in the enamel basin–

Dry the scarlet stain on the fragrant sheeting.’

Thank Mary for no to-morrow, no to-day,

All a pastiche of golden yesterhours.

This, I assume, is the Eternal Dream Time?

But where do the Roundheads fit in?

Napoleon and Eugenie?

The Tuileries and Cosse-Brissac?’

The Corn Laws? Ramillies? Oudenarde?

Couperin and Cimarosa?

Cairene mosques of the fifteenth century?

 A Norman Keep? The pallid Ethelbrethren?

  Hengest? Seneca? Sallust?– on a summer afternoon

   The clap of cricket bats and distant cheers?

    A panelled study lined with Caedmon’s lays?

     A litter of Greeks? Ice Ages? Java men?

      “The World is Round Like an Orange.”

       “Six yellow beads and four blue-mauve make ten.”

        Castles in the sand? The good king’s daughter?

         The one strand river?


Curse Sun!

Curse Mass!

But bless the shadows that the twain create,

Bless O bless the mulberry halfshades, the neutral tones,

Graceful, granular, slim, transcending.

Bless this tent of fawn grey-pearled.

Stranger, is this the Shadow World?


Were ever human hands so mother cool?

So gently fused–the evening and the day?

I linger at the Toll Bar of the Rainbow–

Was ever everything so far away?







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