(Commissioned by the JAM on the Marsh music festival in 2020 to accompany a performance of Faure's Requiem in St Leonard's Church, Hythe, Kent, to commemorate the losses of the Covid pandemic)

These stones were set by what you cannot see:
by faith and fear,
abstractions now that move no masonry.
Only music now can fill this space,
belief’s long-widowed bride,
the slowly-fading shade of certainty.
In the hard acoustic of agnosticism,
we attune to the eternal’s elegy,
epiphenomenon, not epiphany,
attentive still, though in absentia,
as God may be.  


After the play, the ghost light on the stage.
The scent of faith’s pressed flower on the page.

A sun-bleached poster for a vanished show. The yellow grass after the travellers go.  

The forest shower when the rain moves on.
The signs still point the way. The place is gone.  

But in the night that has no mariner’s mark, a dead star’s light is better than the dark.  


They tell you it gets easier with time.
The tired trick of teleology
still promises completeness up ahead,
as though you somehow learn the more of life
the closer that it brings you to the dead.  
But this is a pilgrimage to poverty,
life leaves you one day poorer every night
and further off from wisdom every day,
and all you learn is that no answers come,
though that might count as wisdom, in a way.  
This is the end of searching, when you know
that revelation has no
and, standing in God’s presence as they do,
before the only answer they should need,
even the angels have their questions too.


In the end it is the flesh that fails, not you.
Though pain may try to tell you otherwise.
You could have loved more - true.
So could we all.
But you loved as much as you are suffering now.
The books will balance finely:
loss for love,
remorse for your omissions.
You have paid.


What a letting go this Lent has been.
The appetite is not deferred but dead;
the knife not sharpened to a sheen
but snapped instead.
I am glad of it.

To know I am not needed
is a fugitive's amnesty,
and it feels a lot like absolution
to accept absurdity.
Never to be missed
and not to mind
is a mirror shattered
that always showed too much
and was not kind. I do not know if this is wrong.
I know it to be true.
I might have called it failure;
it could be freedom too.


There will be a time for them:
a Sunday, perhaps.
No tasks.
No visitors.
No calls to make.
It will be neither summer nor autumn,
winter nor spring.

And there will be all the time,
all the time in the world,
to go to them again,
those places that you left unwillingly,
vowing you would return,
time to meet again the ones you loved,
and missed the moment that their story closed.

So many years you want to live again.
So many things that time has put away.
There will be time for them one Sabbath day.


This emptiness has no reproach for you.
What you withheld does not diminish it;
it grows no greater because of what you gave.
The terms it gives are unconditional.
For mercy, any measure is enough,
So set your shortcomings as surety,

and failure as fulfilment

and make the one transaction of
your trust:
the debt of living is redeemed with dust.



Cromer Pier

The crowds are out today. The carpark full,
queues at the chipshops, throngs along the rail
outside the Hotel de Paris to watch
the waiters' race, the runners spilling beer.
The winner gets a six-pack and a kiss
from young Miss Cromer, in her princess frock,
pulling her sash straight for the camera.
Behind them, on the pier, the fishers fish,
the walkers walk, the ice-cream vendors vend.
And all is as it should be, and has been
a century and more since engineers
pitched out this frail, gratuitous promontary,
this bridge to nowhere between sea and sky.
Down at the eastward end, a silver dome,
a theatre held at arm's length from the shore
as though to prove a point - that shows go on,
perhaps, that songs are stronger than the storm,
that art can stand against an angry sea.
The kind of strutting, wanton showmanship
that builds a monastery on a mountaintop
and dares both hell and heaven to come and see.
Next to the theatre, another hall,
the lifeboat station, whose proscenium arch
is open to the weather and the waves,
the shifting stage whose audience is the air.
The lifeboat, balanced on the slipway, waits,
like one of those collection box displays;
the single penny of a stranger's soul,
will send it, calm, where God would fear to go.
A summer Sunday. On the promenade,
the old recall their childhood holidays,
and find the town grown smaller with the years.
The young, whose only scale is sea and sand,
think nothing ever changes. In the fair,
the carousel's stiff, painted cavalry
revolve to music never heard elsewhere,
and pennies rattle in the dark arcade.
The nearness to the edge, the nothingness
that makes all things that live seem more alive,
perhaps that's why we come. Perhaps that's why
we set this cast-iron causeway in the sea,
as far as we can get from solid ground,
to hold the stage and slipway side by side,
as close to the horizon as can be.

Piano Solo.

She took my hopes away in plastic bags,
not even bothering to wrap them first.
All my ambitions too she packed away
in cardboard boxes, none too carefully.
My pride, she left it out for passers-by
to ponder on the pavement in the rain.
And all my thoughts, each phrase and syllable,
in notebooks, theses, marginalia,
she took, until the house that we had shared
was cleansed of every crumb of sustenance
as though, at Pesach, of all leavened bread.
Only the upright piano stayed behind;
too heavy, with its solid iron frame,
to carry out,and not at concert pitch,
beyond all tuning, sticky in the keys,
its varnish scratched with now-grown children's names.
I play it, and the sound is sharper now
than when soft furnishings would deaden it.
It's clearer than before: the empty rooms
are, to these solo tunes, hospitable.
I play it badly, but I always did;
there never was a time I played it well.
These days I'm learning, not proficiency,
but not to mind if sometimes notes are wrong.
The playing is the purpose, and for that
better to have a broken instrument.
And silence is a better audience,
and solitude is better company,
and emptiness, I find, is all I need:
the dusty stripped-wood floorboards resonant,
sun through uncurtained windows on the keys.

The Mountains.

Your silence angered me,
meeting my questions with a stony face,
remaining impassive before my pain.
The emptiness of the sky,
the coolness of the wind across the moor,
the indiscriminate heather scents,
and, like an angry son, I cursed your stark indifference.
Now, when I come to you,
carrying my cares to the high country like sacrifices,
my breath shorter,
the path more rocky,
it is your very silence that I seek:
the quiet counsels of the mist among the ferns,
the wordless empathy of the earth's touch,
and I appreciate, now, the wise restraint
that keeps its silence before man's complaint.


Grau ist alles, was dauert
Am Ende des Tags, die Wolken im Tal.
Sie bleiben, wie die Zeit auch erschauert.

Die Flut vom Hafen ummauert
Die Flechte, die am Felsen nagt ihr Mahl.
Grau ist alles, was dauert:

Die Dämmerung in die Straßen gekauert
Der Regen malt die festen Schiefer fahl.
Sie bleiben, wie die Zeit auch erschauert.

Im Regen die Reviere, versauert
Und die Asche der Öfen von Flammen kahl.
Grau ist alles, was dauert:

Das Meer, in dem die Flotte zaudert
Die Möwe flegelnd über dem Kanal.
Das bleibt, wie die Zeit auch schaudert.

Dies Haus aus Stahl, darin ein Quader trauert
Gehaun aus Schwärze und weißem Strahl.
Grau ist alles, was dauert.
Das bleibt, wenn auch die Zeit erschauert.

(Translated from the Welsh by Volker Braun)






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