Across Howrah Bridge

On the banks of the Hooghly River
there’s a huge banyan tree
the biggest in all Asia
– it’s two hundred and twenty-five
or more years old
and ever since 1923
there’s been a sort of hole
where the main trunk should be
– on our way north from Bhubaneswar
I found this sprawling woody creature
its branches propped by vertical
tubers – aerial roots painted white
and all supporting something with no centre
– a tree that isn’t a tree quite
like the doubt in ‘literature’

The Lonely Tower

‘WANTED – Coastal farm, site, derelict house, period house, stable yard, outhouse, lodge, mortello. Must be on sea. Immediate cash settlement. Box Z 0490.’

Either incognito and desperate
or more likely a small developer
dreaming the obvious
they’ve neither the form nor the substance
only the theme
– but what a theme it is
– John Melly’s breezeblock bothie
in the dunes above Dooey Strand
a windy look-out post
from the Emergency
the Lone Man’s House
at Ballyeriston
(baled hay in every room
blank uncurtained windows
dust sealight burp of the fields
doggy bones on the kitchen floor)
that coastguard station
– roofless since the state’s founding
set on the hillside
above Portnoo post office
an entire deserted village even
where the road gives up its potholed ghost
in a wilderness of scree and ironstone
– from the dead martello
down to the shed on the cement pier
most any building
in this squally clachan
could quicken into newness
– you can write them out in a verse
or jump in a lorry
rammed with cement and timber
then bash bash bash till the day
when you paint Wavecrest on the gatepost

The Firhouse

There’s nothing else handy
only this bit of blotting paper
I’m trying to make notes on
with a gummy fountain pen that either dries or blurs
as if it knows this poem (if it is a poem)
will never quite get written
but right now I have to put down something
about this curious house off a main road
maybe a mile or so from a dormitory village near Gotham
(bit sinister that name but it’s better than Bunny)
the house is set next a clump of fir trees on a small hill
and looks out over a wide flat valley
where nothing much ever happened

it has coppercoloured rooftiles
that seem like they’re made of baked felt
the walls are cream snowcem
and the roof’s pitched just a shade too steep
though you could say the angle of it
echoes the shape the fir trees make
– diagramatic like the TV aerial
clamped tight to the sentrybox chimney
a roofslope cut into by the Velux window
that makes another angle when it’s opened

whoever built this liked squares and triangles too much
and they were obsessed by fussy additions –
the outbuildings are a mess permanently unfinished
like furry shoeboxes stuck together
the rosebushes are packed tight the way they are in a nursery
the garden’s jammed with overgrown Christmas trees
and webby fernspray cypresses
a sign at the far end says CONIFERS

isn’t there something strained something perky but daft
about this bit of rural real estate this homey place of business
like a pocket telephone exchange out on its own
but warmed and protected by the fir trees?
there’s a dormobile parked to one side
and hosepipe trailing across the lawn like a cable
planes land in the airport down in the valley
cropsprayers floom over huge fields of yellow rape
there’s a big bendy river
and on summer days all the colours come out loud and clear
like a Festival of Britain painting

I’ve been sitting here for the last half-hour
in my muddy VW
watching the house from the lane
– it has a sign by the gate saying Keeper’s Cottage
and now I feel like a man obsessed with the woman who lives there
a man who should be at work and either feels guilty
or looks suspicious or is somehow out of place

there she is at the kitchen window washing dishes
while I’m inventing an excuse to call
– D’ you sell conifers? I ask when she opens the door
she’s fortyish with pale skin and sisalish hair
wears a grey mohair jumper eyes blue
a speck of yellow sleepyolk in the left one
Conifers! she laughs Oh we used to
I keep telling my husband to take that silly sign down
He’s given up on the trees?
We stopped them last winter there just wasn’t a market
I’m sorry to bother you now
she forces a smile and shuts the door

walking back to the car it’s like I’m on the edge of a secret
something to do with a closed door and the word they
a sort of riddle
who was it said take it from me son
they never invite you in?
but why should you want in? why should there be
some little puja room you have to come inside of?
only there’s times you notice that slight subtle difference
in the emotional weather
a cut-off point or an absence
because really you’re a stranger and who wants a stranger
in their own house?

from now on in
I’ll be writing in a vacuum about a vacuum
there’s no such thing as society
only men and women living together
on the great open site of human freedom
so in the east midlands of England
you’ll find the first and last frontier
and then face the question – could anyone write it?

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The Editor
London Review of Books,
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Vol. 13 No. 8 · 25 April 1991

Can Tom Paulin (LRB, 7 March) and I possibly be thinking of the same banyan tree? The one I visited stands in the Botanical Gardens across the Howrah Bridge from Calcutta, and I especially crossed the Hooghly in order to see it. A placard stated (I am relying on thirty-year-old memories) that it is the oldest tree in the world and that it was already extensive at the time of Alexander the Great’s invasion of India. It is indeed a magnificent grove, the central trunk long gone, but with horizontal beams running in every direction supported on sturdy columns, such that the experience of being inside it resembles being lost inside a surreally alive temple. The poet seems to have underestimated the tree’s age and has not given it the poetic evocation which it well deserves.

William Driscoll
Xaghra, Gozo, Malta

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London Review of Books
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London, WC1A 2HN

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