Facing South

Alistair Elliot

for Tony Harrison

Happiness, therefore, must be some form of theoria.

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, X.8

Theoria: ... a looking at, viewing, beholding ... ‘to go abroad to see the world’ (Herodotus) ... 2. of the mind, contemplation, speculation, philosophic reasoning ... theory ... II. the being a spectator at the theatre or the games ...

Liddell and Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon

Sat at my desk, I face the way I would
migrate: sunwards along this cobbled lane,
over the poplar trees of Elmfield Road,
across the Town Moor, up the mud-grey Tyne,
screaming with other swifts along the spine
of man-made England, eating airy food
and dozing in slow circles over Spain ...
to the great desert where they still wear woad.

I had to buy an Apollo window-blind
to shut that out – the interesting sky
pours vagueness into the unresting mind
more than the prettiest-coloured passer-by,
more than the cars mysteriously left
unlocked by jolly women and dour men –
so many people unafraid of theft –
I have to watch till they come back again.

I never saw a thief here. The one thing
that pricks our quiet bubble is the roar
of comment from St James’s – the fans sing
inaudibly, but bellow when we score.
Horror seems far away: our car-alarms
play the continuo of crime; we feel
the needles hovering near our neighbours’ arms;
the viruses float in; but peace is real.

We suffer some illusion of control
in watching: so, the passenger keeps the car
safe if she watches the white line unroll;
the watching fans ‘support’ the football star;
watching the world wag past our café chair
gives us a sense of ownership: we share
some of that passing chic or savoir faire,
forgetting we are only who we are.

I must shut all that out. I want to make
these verbal systems in my workshop here.
Watching the world’s a job too big to take:
I want to make small worlds that will cohere.
We have both travelled: south, east, west. I go
north now, quite near, where on the first of May
our earth relaxes and its rivers flow:
there I want nothing but to stay, and stay.

I could fly further; I’ve been free for years,
but don’t migrate, for always there outside
in all the infinite other hemispheres
there’d be more sights from which I’d have to hide:
I’d have to take the blind, to blot out views
that would distract the wandering inner sight,
that pleasure Aristotle says we choose:
the blank I look at as I sit and write.