The following poems appear in John Greening’s new collection, The Silence, published by Carcanet in June 2019.
from The Silence
Sibelius lived with his wife, Aino, in Järvenpää, Finland until he was over ninety. But he released virtually no music from their forest home for the last thirty years of his life and ‘the Silence from Järvenpää’ became as much of a talking point as the music. Continually pestered about an eighth symphony, the composer battled alcohol addiction, depression and above all self-criticism. JG
All night the sound of trees falling from the weight of snow. What are they trying to tell him? They know it can all be too much, the bearing of silence, its transfiguring power. And now the futile search across a snowfield, following tracks, finding a hopeful spoor that leads nowhere. Here, his six ways meet, converge into a single path beyond the drift: a tree falls with a crumbling, crumpling thud (it is the only sound) and further into the dream he emerges at a clearing. The site of a forge. He imagines the blaze within, the anvil, the hiss of red shoes kissing water, but above all the hammer, hammer, hammer. Silence will not acknowledge this, does not remember a blacksmith, his smallest spark. It has eliminated every noise.
A furious row. Sometimes he thinks they ought to separate until Diogenes wheels his wartime searchlight round and shows precisely where he’s gone wrong. Then picks out a dazed creature wandering in the desert, where it’s been fasting, where it has been forgotten since its birth. Look how it squats on Hatchet Mountain, his bastard fourth, skinny saint, fed four times a day by the devil. The glockenspiel ahead rings in another year. Con sordini. (Mutes).
‘Unless his drinking destroys us first, his work is my sacred mission. That I had to lower myself when I married him I do not resent though others delight in reminding me. Such values hardly count – his work does, our children – in the face of this social revolution. Lives have been smashed apart. But we are free. Gently I knock and bring him his tea (he hides the bottle he thinks I haven’t seen). ‘Liberty, equality, fraternity,’ he smiles, laying down his pen and listening to what I tell him about the flags in town to mark our new president’s return, about machine-gun fire raking the capital. I also mention my health. But he has to work on what’s light, saleable (revisions to his masterpiece must wait), while dark clouds gather over our house. We do not go out for fear of what might happen (my brother spoke in support of the people and found himself in a prison cell with six prostitutes). There’s much I do not tell him because he has to clear our debts. He calls it slavery. I comment instead on the early morning’s purple sky-line and remind him that a lovely leg of smoked lamb has been sent by an a capella singer he knows. Our silver wedding is soon but too much is uncertain. I leave him working on his own. To work in peace is all he wants. All any of us want.’
Partridge he loves. And grasshoppers. Swallows’ nests. He hates that taste of metal. Today he buries himself in a full page picture of a winter landscape, and says he can smell the snow, distinctly. He cannot bear to touch cotton sheets.
A chess game carries on around him: he won’t discuss White moves or Red, though they’ll shout ‘When are you going to write something for us?’ and he’ll offer a marching miniature from his kit, not what they need. He cannot fight. At the edge of the ice white birds are rocked by waves. Safe in his head, the fifth, the sixth, the seventh. Elsewhere, a black and endless war without opus number. Ideology has no cure. But nor has art. Miniatures, miniatures. Debts must be paid.
Smoke-rings above the Wienerwald, where a voice proclaims: ‘I don’t comment on his work because I don’t understand it.’ Infinite repeatability means that what has ended can always start again. ‘Tighten the ring-road’, it hums.
(The full poem appears in The Silence)
Out of a forest more silent than strictest vows, through walls that once confined a royal line, to see Eleanor, with Henry, Richard, and John’s queen, lying on stone, untroubled by a twitter of nesting from the cloisters that raise serene white eyebrows at something still keen to escape the knot
of box hedging. Noon. The world sends its chimes. The abbey reaches out to recover its lost hours.