The Manhattan Review
The Manhattan Review
Established 1980

Archive > Vol. 17 no. 2


George Szirtes



The third floor window
overlooked fighting. It closed
on its own comfort.
The bodies were white
with lime and the trees were bare
in the boulevards.
The map was spread out
as big as the world itself.
The night too had shrunk.
In the small station
a straggle of refugees
with gifts of luggage.
The barn at midnight.
A solemn trade-off: grave goods
for the vanishing.
Life is not a walk
across a field, but this was
a field. Life at night.
How the cold sang. Mud
frozen under snow. Murmurs.
Whispering. Silence.
A dark copse of trees.
Suddenly torchlight. The call
of another world.
They have deserted
themselves. The field they have crossed
retains their lost bones.
Arrival is all,
no matter where. To arrive
is to have come through.

The night airplane
with its whirling propellers
diving into light.
Warm woolen blankets,
grey army issue. Headache.
A cup of strong tea.
The night coach. Headlights
and women squatting. Relief
in small spreading pools.
Sleeping and moving.
You are the stillness inside
your own spinning head.
Everything distance
can bring you it has brought you.
Welcome to distance.

Suddenly the sea,
snarling, implacable, dark,
dream-troubling, constant.
Understand the sea,
that it brooks no argument
and does not listen.
You pick up a shell
and put it to your soft ear
to hear its hard words.
Where has the sea been
all this time? Where have you been?
Why has it found you?
You are an island.
Donne was wrong. We are islands,
The sea keeps thrusting
its hands and tongue out at you,
half contempt, half grief.
Nothing beyond it,
the sea does not recognize
its limitations.
All limitations,
you recognize yourself in
the sea’s lack of them.
When the sea begins
to speak you are quiet. Now
you may speak again.

Here’s the comfort zone:
an off-season boarding-house
and the full English.
Here’s the promenade
with its amusement arcades
and head-churning tunes.
The Winter Gardens
with its wrestling. The packed hall.
Beer and pools of rain.
Learning the language
they spit their harsh consonants
into the damp wind.
Learning the language
a comical dog scampers
after the late rain.
Learning the language
one stubs out his cigarette
on the teacher’s leg.
The foreign ladies
and gentlemen have gathered
for a homely snap.
Foreigners meeting
on the narrow stairs. Where now,
they ask. Where ever?
The sea is burning
in winter sunlight. Language
dips its tongue in it.

Suddenly London.
It’s safe. It doesn’t exist.
It is its suburbs.

Suddenly gardens
with hedges and a railtrack
you could vanish down.

Suddenly the steep
slope of cuttings and a train
behind the garden.

Suddenly too much
of trains. And then the fogs
begin to roll through.

You cant see yourself
or anyone else. You are
the fog you’re lost in..

The Ladykillers
advance. Ealing comedies
close in. Strange laughter

bubbles through the bones.
You are kicking a football
in the school playground.

We are invented.
We are bringing our products
to market, glossy

as gloss paint. Danger
is a lit match in a shed
behind hydrangeas.

Our manners wither
in the suburban summer.
We don’t understand

the way things work here.
Nobody invites you in.
You stand in the door

in the pouring rain.
It’s the summer of kindness
but it’s still raining

and we stand talking
while behind in the dark hall
private lives move on.

We grow private lives.
Untended back gardens sprawl
like open secrets.