SONNET Death hangs a long way off. Must I just wait And pass my youth through to my greying days In petty pastimes and misery for ways Of life I dare not hope to live? My gait Is twisted and my speech uncouth. I hate The pity and the distance set around By those who see and dare not know, so bound By other's expectations. Am I too late To live; to study how to learn; to try And fail yet seek another way to give, To gain myself? In this exchange the dry Desert of my poverty may bloom - live In undreamed ways - and the pain of fading Hopes will disappear in life's rich trading. Jonathan Griffith. August, 1977.
My first and only sonnet, and first adult poem, written when I was 40.
I wrote it in the middle of the night and in floods of tears as it reached new and painful places.
I was on a weekend course on Sonnets and their Structure in deepest Oxfordshire and somehow everything connected. It has become iconic and reprinted widely, gathering so much fear and anger, then resolving everything positively.
When written, it was retrospective, (I was already living independently in my own flat) but it’s also ongoing, a constant challenge.
I DRIVE PAST I drive past, encased in practicalities. The girl, waiting my passing, stirs memories, brings loneliness. Open, youthful, untroubled beauty, seeming whole. My incompleteness aches. Could I ask her to walk with me, And tie her freedom with my stumbling? Would she ease and speed my labours, Cooking, cleaning, writing? Could she accept, love, lie with me, Caress my leaping limbs and need my fumbling? Or would I bruise her tenderness, Or grasping, break the wholeness that I seek? Years past I did not know or dare to ask. Fear sealed my longing in dumb words And smiles that, twisting, spoke of things unbearable. Now I know each needs another to be whole; That one with another, equal, Can find a greater freedom, Longings satisfied. Now I know that I am equal, My greatness matching what I lack, My caring over all. Yet still past ghosts, unexorcized, Will seal my lips; And twist my face; And knot my limbs. A strangled longing murders what it sought, In helplessness. Come, weep with me. Set free my life To seek its wholeness joyfully. Jonathan Griffith. April 1981.
The last verse is an allusion to a Co-Counselling group I belonged to at the time, finding it very helpful.
(For many years ‘weep’ would morph into ‘sleep’ as I read it, unhelpfully!)
A HUG "May I give you a hug?" Arms parting, tentative. Here's rich communion. Feeling your weight, Strength, Softness, Warmth; Smelling your scent. My life in touch with yours, And your life sensing mine; Feeling tears and laughter, Fear and relaxation, Close safety, comforting, caring; Acceptance of our joint humanity. Prerogative of lovers? This treasure is for all who care. Beyond words are meanings half forgotten; Past loneliness, and mother's arms, and womb; They touch on our togetherness. We are together, you and I, and him and her; Frail mortals with the strength of all eternity; Rooted deeply in such simple things; Do not forget them. Reaching through the fear that severs us; Embracing; parting; remembering, The me that I am knowing you, and him and her; And being known. There are no words; Only the feeling of how good it is. Jonathan Griffith. September, 1981.
Attracted by the glimmer of pale light, I return to the kitchen in the dark to sit a while by the sink. Through the window the moon is dazzling, catching every scratch and spider thread on the glass in a halo round it. It sparkles on the taps and every reflecting object in the household clutter on the sill.
Yet for all the light, everything is a grey monochrome with only a hint of day-time colour. A string of sodium lights far away link the cluster of yellow dots through the trees on the right where the roundabout is, with a smaller cluster at the cross-roads on the left. I can just make out the slow red and green sequence of the traffic lights. The only full colour catching the corner of my eye is the LEDs of my wheelchair control, themselves dazzling against the deep shadow, but insignificant.
Outside, a series of silhouettes; nearest and darkest, the fence, bushes in Spring leaf each side, a loop of washing line, the bird table. Four hundred yards across the field, just a vestige of its bright green remaining, then the trees. The tall ones still fine tracery of bare branches, smaller ones in solid leaf. To the left, more fields, a bank whiter in a matted coat of last year’s grass, a group of tall poplars round a hidden farm house half a mile away.
Above, the sky, a dark infinity, greying towards the horizon. Thin wisps of high cloud drift imperceptibly away, a different shape each time I look. One star pierces the dazzle; a planet no doubt; no idea which.
Everything is still, windless. A mile away, nearly parallel with the chain of street lights, occasional headlights pass on the motorway, voyaging in a magic land; how many are aware of it spread around them as they go?
Around me, the house creaks as it cools. Faintly, from my bedroom, the litany of the shipping forecast approaches 1 am to be followed by the midnight GMT World Service news, a wider window on the wider world, but mostly politics and disaster.
No lunar madness in this watching but the chill strikes through the glass; time for bed.
Jonathan Griffith, April, 1998.
CATERPILLAR Undulating sausage of black fur, we watched its passage across the track. Was it blind faith, or knowledge of no other but green succulence to munch somewhere in the future? Or was there greenness on the breeze, or prospect of dark safety for a change of life? We could not know but only marvelled at such purpose in so small a life prospecting across a barren waste of pebbles and dry dust. We left it and continued on our own small journeys through this mystery of life. Jonathan Griffith, 1991.
A KISS John, big man, greying goatee beard, limited abilities, few words, often grumpy, reached out and grasped my bent, contracted hand, drew it to his soft lips and kissed. Kisses can render words superfluous, but that one came full-flowered with meaning, from a void where no words are, and meanings drift naked in the mind. By being all it did surpass all else that greater seems. Jonathan Griffith, 11/2003.
My father used to own and run “The shop where they sell everything” in Liverpool city centre. It was an archetypal hardware shop; two battered wooden counters at right-angles; three walls of shelves stacked with little boxes of screws and hooks and bolts and eyes and rings and latches and pins in every size and colour; a makeshift display of seasonal lawn-mowers or paraffin heaters in the middle of the floor; a maze of dimly lit larger shelves of bigger boxes; and in far recesses, great stacks of industrial toilet rolls, soap powder by the sack, liquid soap by the drum, soft soap in kegs; long bars of soap in cases, every kind of cleaning material for the surrounding offices. For a long time deliveries were made by the shop boy on a bicycle. Then we used my mini van.
It was in the basement of a Victorian, or earlier, small office building. The sales area was under a leaky glass roof in the well of the building. There were two large tanks of paraffin at the bottom of the stairs as you came in and the place stank of creosote and naphthalene fire-lighters. It would not get past fire regulations these days! The taste in the mouth after a few hours probably had carcinogenic properties too.
Stock-taking took a month of evenings and weekends and then several weeks of quiet moments extending the values and adding it up – and all by hand of course. I was excused this for some reason although I spent many years sitting in a cash desk on a broken-backed chair, taking the money from customers. I used a magnificent brass cash register which worked, mostly, with a great crash and jangle. After decimalization we just used the drawer and “no sale”, such was our poverty. I went from there to a six week computer course and eight months later my salary overtook Father’s.
The place had great curiosity value. We had quite a sizeable box of tenterhooks which were probably inherited from the previous owner and which were brought out to marvel at now and then. People often came in asking for something as a makeshift solution to a problem because some antique piece of equipment had finally worn out. We would question them patiently as to what they really needed and go and dig out the original genuine article.
Upstairs, I occasionally needed to use the toilet on the top floor. I hauled myself up on the banisters; quite wide stairs but apart from the landings on each floor, the treads were continuous like a spiral stair on the corners so for 3 steps I just had toe holds. For a long time the stairwell was a standard green and cream then someone inspired the landlord to do it a deep purple and primrose yellow – which probably put the rents up.
I did a painting of that stairway; fascinating curvy shapes and misty sunshine through the dirty windows. It sold well. In the loft Father said there was a hand winch and outside, traces of the loading bay so the place used to have warehousing potential. I imagined little businesses with clerks at high desks, labourers in rough Hessian overalls, and the boss in frock-coat and top hat.
I used to get commissioned by Liverpool Library to draw old buildings before redevelopment, and early one Sunday morning I was tucked in a corner in my electric invalid car in a lane at the back of the old market. I heard the clatter and creak of a horse and wagon coming over the stone sets and an astonishing tableau from the past unfolded.
The wagoner had a facial deformity and wore multiple layers of sacking as protection from a drenching drizzle. He brought a large empty rubbish container which he swapped for a full one stowed beneath the market floor behind enormous, filthy, black, rickety, gates. There was much hitching and unhitching and manoeuvring the great, patient, horse back and forth. The whole procedure, sight, sound, and stench of rotting vegetables plus damp horse, could have taken place several times a day on weekdays and once on Sundays, for the past 200 years or more.
I loved the old warehouses, the newer ones in wide streets but older ones lining narrow canyons which must have seen many jams of heaving horses, men and wagons. When I saw them they were empty and silent, save for the clap and coo of pigeons. I loved the slum houses, still full of curious, sticky-fingered, snot-nosed, children. I do love the grander streets, squares and parks, which mostly still remain, but with their high-roomed residences long since subdivided.
It is good to remember, and to imagine beyond the reach of memory, renewing a timeless affinity with our fellow men.
Jonathan Griffith. 12/2003.
OF SPACE AND TIME Within the compass of our human mind, a clear awareness of two infinities we cannot grasp. Two worms, hinting at more than we can know, so spelling our defeat, our small mortality. Space and time, such simple things, taken little by little, a few minutes, a yard or two, measure out our possibilities. Yet the 'before' and 'after', beyond space, beyond time, the less than nothingness beyond imagination, does threaten with extinction, all that solid seems, the span wherein we live. Other infinities are glimpsed; divinity, rare beauty, laughter, love and sorrow; but all these have no measure, no tick, no inch, no span. Yet with them is the key to understanding. With them a void within a speck is ample; an eternity of less than a moment is enough, for you and me, yes, all the world to be alive. Unmeasured. Be. Jonathan Griffith, 2/2004.
Take a white Easter Bunny, splashed decoratively with scarlet, wearing a huge grin and with one paw raised high in salutation.
Or look far across the field, fresh green with newly sprouted wheat, and see small brown shapes with white bobtails, romping in the low evening sun.
This Spring I’ve been able to eat many of my meals sitting at my kitchen window, watching the changing panorama as the season has advanced. Lacking an introspective social circle around the table at mealtimes, I have looked outward and found another nourishment.
All animal life is there; a herring gull attacking a passing heron; two pairs of disembodied white legs proceeding rabbit-ward, this being a neighbour’s cat, otherwise camouflaged; the early nuptial flight of a pair of butterflies, fresh from hibernation.
Quite early, a large maternal bumblebee blundered past. Later, one evening, I noticed it creeping under the barge board on the back extension and now it’s often there, no doubt nesting productively, after delving in the intimacies of my narcissi. Once I noticed her emerging in the early morning sunshine.
Those narcissi are an annual joy, planted many years ago, in great variety. They come into flower in overlapping sequence. Before them I enjoyed snowdrops, crocus and early polyanthus. Now the first tulips are adding another repertoire of colour and shape.
The Spring was very mild in February. I noticed a new pale blue five-petalled flower under the bare hawthorn hedge. Searching my wildflower book, it was clearly a Greater Periwinkle, two months early. ‘Periwinkle blue’ now has a clear definition to me. A later frost killed the flowers but now, in April, they have returned, half hidden as the hedge greens.
The seasonal changes in bird activity are an endless fascination on a fine day. In the field, near the rabbits, there’s a pond, fringed by a few large trees and low bushes. Considering its size, it attracts a surprising amount of mallard activity. The drakes are so competitive and then respectfully attentive when their suite is accepted. Mallards are masters of the long glide, wings drooping, towards a landing, slowing at the last moment to the slightest splash in the small patch of water. Often this is done in close formation, two and three together.
Other birds are different. Pigeons get vulgarly insistent in various degrees. More subtle, there is a merest hint of awareness between a pair of birds working the garden together. One of the most exquisite birds to my mind is the long-tailed tit; so small a body and such long feathers, handled with such nimble acrobatics, searching every cranny for morsels of food.
Such Spring morsels perhaps as are in evidence after dark inside the kitchen in the form of size 00 spiders. Going about my business, my eyes suddenly focus on these dots with legs, utterly intrepid, ah, the recklessness of youth, proceeding sideways along a completely invisible thread, one end of which is quite often secured to the top of my head or similar escarpment. The heat I generate must create a mini thermal current which gathers in any passing spider silk, cast forth in proverbial optimism. Carefully, I dislodge each one, depositing its occupant and owner in what I hope is a safe place, only to notice it having another go a few minutes later.
I am a patient man, little does it know or care!
Jonathan Griffith. April 2004.
An afternoon in Chester with my friend Sue who lives with autism. These days she is much calmer.
RIVERS Stream of words, distress, anger. Parking the car by the river, to listen and talk. So much despair, the search for answers. The bank piled with driftwood from the recent storm. The current swift and deep. There is no answer. The words, ideas, recycle. Many water fowl, ducks, geese, a swan. Some scramble, begging, hopeful. How can this be? A problem, no answer? A pair of cormorants drying wings on the pier between dives. Such anger, blame; such guilt, self-loathing, binding, entangling. The sun low, dazzling, light dancing on the water. Blinding. Accusations, spreading distress, empathy soaking up rage, infuriating. Sun setting, pink, gold, blue, winter trees reflected clear, bent slightly in the current, evening resolution while the flood speeds by. No peace within the mind consumed, blind to the external world. Storming revives in frustration, as we drive home. Jonathan Griffith, 2005.