Hops (Boris Pasternak)

July 27, 2009


Beneath the willow wound round with ivy
we take cover from the worst
of the storm, with a greatcoat round
our shoulders and my hands around your waist.

I’ve got it wrong. That isn’t ivy
entwined in the bushes round
the wood, but hops. You intoxicate me!
Let’s spread the greatcoat on the ground.

(Trans. by Jon Stallworthy and Peter France)


Recent news of a friend landing a job at a brewery on Old Mission Peninsula (upper lower Michigan) got me thinking of this Pasternak poem–the only Pasternak poem I have ever managed to remember. The surprising turn in the second stanza is brilliant, I think, and elevates the poem to something, well, memorable. Read it a couple times, aloud. Let it wash down like a cold oat soda.


I. Scrabble
in memoriam Tom Delaney, archaeologist

Bare flags. Pump water. Winter-evening cold.
Our backs might never warm up but our faces
Burned from the hearth-blaze and the hot whiskeys.
It felt remembered even then, an old
Rightness half-imagined or foretold.
As green sticks hissed and spat into the ashes
And whatever rampaged out there couldn’t reach us,
Firelit, shuttered, slated and stone-walled.

Year after year, our game of Scrabble: love
Taken for granted like any other word
That was chanced on and allowed within the rules.
So “scrabble” let it be. Intransitive.
Meaning to scratch or rake at something hard.
Which is what he hears. Our scraping, clinking tools.

II. The Cot

Scythe and axe and hedge-clippers, the shriek
Of the gate the children used to swing on,
Poker, scuttle, tongs, a gravel rake —
The old activity starts up again
But starts up differently. We’re on our own
Years later in the same “locus amoenus,”
Tenants no longer, but in full possession
Of an emptied house and whatever keeps between us.

Which must be more than keepsakes, even though
The child’s cot’s back in place where Catherine
Woke in the dawn and answered “doodle doo”
To the rooster in the farm across the road —
And it is the same cot I myself slept in
When the whole world was a farm that eked and crowed.

III. Scene Shifts

Only days after a friend had cut his name
Into the ash, our kids stripped off the bark—
The first time I was realy angry at them.
I was flailing round the house like a man berserk
And maybe overdoing it, although
The business had moved me at the time;
It brought back those blood-brother scenes where two
Braves nick wrists and cross them for a sign.

Where it shoen like bone exposed is healed up now.
The bark’s thick-eared and welted with a scar—
Like the hero’s in a recognition scene
In which old nurse sees old would, then clasps brow
(Astonished at what all this starts to mean)
and tears surprise the veteran of the war.

4. 1973

The corrugated iron growled like thunder
When March came in; then as the year turned warmer
And invalids and bulbs came up from under,
I hibernated on behind the dormer,
Staring through shaken branches at the hill,
Dissociated, like an ailing farmer
Chloroformed against thigns seasonal
In a reek of cigarette smoke and dropped ash.

Lent came in next, also like a lion
Sinewy and wild for discipline,
A fasted will marauding through the body;
And I taunted it with scents of nicotine
As I lit one off another, and felt rash,
And stirred in the deep litter of the study.

5. Lustral Sonnet

Breaking and entering: from early on,
Words that thrilled me far more than they scared me—
And still did, when I came into my own
Masquerade as a man of property.
Even then, my first impulse was never
To double-bar a door or lock a gate;
And fitted blinds and curtains drawn over
Seemed far too self-protective and uptight.

But I scared myself when I re-entered here,
My own first breaker-in, with an instruction
To saw up the old bed-frame, since the stair
Was much too narrow for it. A bad action,
So Greek with consequence, so dangerous,
Only pure words and deeds secure the house.

6. Bedside Reading

The whole place airier. Big summer trees
Stirring at eye level when we waken
And little shoots of ivy creeping in
Unless they’ve been trained out—like memories
You’ve trained so long now they can show their face
And keep their distance. White-mouthed depression
Swims out from its shadow like a dolphin
With wet, unreadable, unfurtive eyes.

I swim in Homer. In Book Twenty-three.
At last Odysseus and Penelope
Waken together. One bedpost of the bed
Is the living trunk of an old olive tree
And is their secret. As ours could have been ivy,
Evergree, atremble and unsaid.

7. The Skylight

You were the one for skylights. I opposed
Cutting into the seasoned tongue-and-groove
Of pitch pine. I liked it low and closed,
Its claustrophobic, nest-up-in-the-roof
Effect. I liked the snuff-dry feeling,
The perfect, trunk-lid fit of the old ceiling.
Under there, it was all hutch and hatch.
The blue slates kept the heat like midnight thatch.

But when the slates came off, extravagant
Sky entered and held surprise wide open.
For days I felt like an inhabitant
Of that house where the man sick of the palsy
Was lowered through the roof, had his sins forgiven,
Was healed, took up his bed and walked away.


I can’t resist sending this fitting conclusion to last week’s “Glanmore Sonnets” excerpt. “Glanmore Revisited” appears in a slim volume called Seeing Things which I’ve been working through the past few weeks. Heaney, especially in his later poems, is attempting to write a poetry of illumination, a poetry in which wonder and surprise are held “wide open.” The language grows generous, celebratory. It should be read out of doors, in the open air.


Vowels ploughed into other: opened ground.
The mildest February for twenty years
Is mist bands over furrows, a deep no sound
Vulnerable to distant gargling tractors.
Our road is steaming, the turned-up acres breathe.
Now the good life could be to cross a field
And art a paradigm of earth new from the lathe
Of ploughs. My lea is deeply tilled.
Old ploughsocks gorge the subsoil of each sense
And I am quickened with a redolence
Of farmland as a dark unblown rose.
Wait then…Breasting the mist, in sowers’ aprons,
My ghosts come striding into their spring stations.
The dream grain whirls like freakish Easter snows.


I dreamt we slept in a moss in Donegal
On turf banks under blankets, with our faces
Exposed all night in a wetting drizzle,
Pallid as the dripping sapling birches.
Lorenzo and Jessica in a cold climate.
Diarmuid and Grainne waiting to be found.
Darkly asperged and censed, we were laid out
Like breathing effigies on a raised ground.
And in that dream I dreamt—how like you this?—
Our first night years ago in that hotel
When you came with your deliberate kiss
To raise us towards the lovely and painful
Covenants of flesh; our separateness;
The respite in our dewy dreaming faces.


The “Glanmore Sonnets” are a cycle of ten odes (Heaney called them “marriage poems”) that are every one of them marvelous. They first appeared in a little book called Field Work. Here are the first and last from that cycle. If you care to read the rest, you can find the full text here. On moving to Glanmore, Heaney once told an interviewer: “I wanted the kids to have that sort of wild animal live that I had. They were like little rodents through the hedges…I wanted that eye-level-life with the backs of ditches, the ferns and the smell of cow dung, and I suppose I didn’t want to lose that in myself.”

Like Wordsworth, Heaney was drawn to hallowed places, and their sentience. Glanmore is the estate in County Wicklow where he took his family in 1972 to escape the troubles of Ulster, as well as (perhaps) some of his own inner struggles. In Glanmore Heaney hoped, as the first line of the poem seems to indicate, to open new ground in his own writing.

If you were exchanged in the cradle and
your real mother died
without ever telling the story
then no one knows your name,
and somewhere in the world
your father is lost and needs you
but you are far away.

He can never find
how true you are, how ready.
When the great wind comes
and the robberies of the rain
you stand on the corner shivering.
The people who go by–
you wonder at their calm.

They miss the whisper that runs
any day in your mind,
“Who are you really, wanderer?”–
and the answer you have to give
no matter how dark and cold
the world around you is:
“Maybe I’m a king.”


I had the good fortune last week of attending a poetry reading in the cloister of the church we’ve been attending for some months now. The last reader of the evening read from William Stafford, and I was reminded of how good his poems are, especially when with patience and affection. You could tell the reader had spent a long time with the poems, probably years. Stafford is the kind of poet you could spend years with.

I like Stafford very much, not least because, in addition to writing really good poems, he lived admirably, at least from what one learns from reading interviews and his essays on craft. I also like his sensibility regarding the process of reading and writing poems. Stafford liked to invoke a few lines from William Blake to indicate how one goes about writing or reading a poem–processes not so dissimilar as one might think:

I give you the end of a golden string
      Only wind it into a ball,
It will lead you in at Heaven’s gate
      Built in Jerusalem’s wall.

“The stance to take, reading or writing,” Stafford tells us, “is neutral, ready, susceptible to the now; such a stance is contrary to anything tense or determined or ‘well-trained.’ Only the golden string knows where it is going, and the role for a writer or reader is one of following, not imposing.”

In “A Story that Could Be True” the string leads us to that bright but brittle subject of possibility we wake to every morning of every day of our lives. Given play, the limitless possibilities–what could have been, what should have been, would could yet be–are as thrilling as they are cause for grief. Stafford gives the best possible answer to that desperate question “Who are you really, wanderer?”–an answer you have to give because, beyond the imagining mind, the mind open to possibility, there is little else with enough force to hold back the “dark and cold/ …world around you.”