In February 2018 The High Window was proud to republish four poems from John Cassidy‘s classic collection An Attitude of Mind, published in 1978 by Hutchinson. Subsequently John went on to publish two further stand-out collections with Bloodaxe in the 1980s: Night Cries (1982) and Walking on Frogs (1989). The High Window is pleased to present John Cassidy as its featured poet for Spring 2020. John’s book have been long out of print and, hard as it is to believe, the poems were only available in John’s original typewritten copies. Thanks are due, therefore, to John’s son, Noel, who has lovingly retyped them into a digitasl format.
John Cassidy: Three Poems from Night Cries
(a memorial close to the television mast on Winter Hill)
Fifteen hundred feet above the sea
Glinting on cloud-caps thirty miles away
Beyond the Mersey Bar,
The pillar stands where he died.
A short stump of iron, holding
To his memory an inscribed plate:
William Henderson, traveller,
A native of Annan, Dumfriesshire,
On Rivington Moor
At noonday in November
In eighteen hundred and thirty-eight.
On this ground where the clubs
Thudded down, and his head
Broke under crushed defending fingers,
He dropped to the tussocked grass.
Near him, pools of dark peat-water
Grew slow spirals of red.
This is where his life’s track and the ambush
Locked, after whatever wheeling incomputable
Configurations clicked into place
And doomed him, wandering from Annan
Over this clouded hump. It is a suitable
Haunt for the violent. For storms, for men.
Now from the television mast,
From a thousand feet, the staywires
Drop, thick as thighs, and plunge
Into the ground, anchored,
Slabbed with concrete, deep
Under the embedded heather.
The mast drags eyes up its white leap
To the sky, away from his eight-foot
Iron pillar, black, dark as the landscape,
Jutting like a crude thorn. The rage
Of his killing is rooted yet,
In the earth’s bulk and indifference.
He died, the inscription states,
In the twentieth year of his age.
WOMEN IN GARDENS
The quick flawing of an even sky
by a flight of hell-bent pigeons
brings into the mind a helicopter view
of all the houses, and the gardens
dotted with women sporadically
wrestling the washing, and prams
wailing on the shabby grass.
Lives are established like
the small trees on the north
sides of the houses, leaning
desperate for light, straining out
after a rumour of sun, yearly
stretching to top the roofs and break
at last into a dazzle of air.
And year by year the indelible
pressure of children, from pram
to swing to bicycle to car
to disappearance, swift
as the vanished pigeons,
leans on the women under
the droop of trees, the smoothly clouded sky.
They walked away between tall hedges,
their heads just clear and blond
with sunlight, the hedges’ dark sides
sickly with drifts of flowers.
They were facing the sea and miles
of empty air; the sky had high
torn clouds, the sea its irregular
runs and spatters of white.
They did not look back; the steadiness
of their retreating footfalls lapsed
in a long diminuendo; their line
was straight as the clipped privets.
They looked at four sliding gulls
a long way up, scattering down frail
complaints; the fickle wind filled in
with sounds of town and distance.
They became sunlit points; in a broad
haphazard world the certain focus.
Against the random patterns of the sea
Their walk was one-directional, and final.
John Cassidy: Three Poems from Walking on Frogs
GRAVEYARD WITH ORANGE-TREE
One big orange-tree lifts from the graveyard.
When an almost undetectable stir
of air moves the leaves, clear
richly coloured fruit accept the sun.
There is a hanging quiet, unimpaired
by the seep and hiss of water from thin
galvanised pipes coming out of the stone.
On the graves are the framed photographs of
the recently dead. Their faces
are sombre, as if preparing for this.
The clean glass glints over them.
From beyond history the beehive graves
on the tall hillside opposite affirm
their white surviving requiem.
The small church here stares back at them.
It is round, solid, fiercely white as they,
and holds its ground as blankly.
Over the low walls grape bunches
like the hands of marauders swarm
and hook themselves in place.
The afternoon light remains at ease.
These allegiances to the dead
impose their reassurance.
The orange-tree swings an exuberance
of sunlit fruit over roots in the soil
of graves, flowered and tended:
all this pattern of logics, exact and small,
thoughts stretched over the unthinkable.
The riverbed mud
for hundreds of yards
crazed into dried lozenges
crumbles at every tread.
A network of cracks
covers everything up to the centre
where a hint of wet
struggles to seep through
and greases it smooth.
At a fording-place
big wheel ruts trench
across; between them
deep leg-holes where slow buffalo
lurched before the weight
of a sticking cart.
From beyond tall grasses
blowing between riverbank
and distance, the gentle howl
of rattle of an Indian
bagpipe band pushes firmly nearer.
Their white gaiters chalk
the drum-beats; their kilts
swing uniformly under the trail
of wild alien music from cold hills.
On hot tarmac the clack
of boot heels carries them on,
a quirk of history. They march
at right angles to the world,
march, march, the past in their cockades.
The wheel tracks are filling
slowly as the water rises.
When later this month
the rains drive the river through
here, deafeningly, when it churns
over the ford and even slithers
outwards onto the road, then
nothing will counter it.
The current will carry everything
headlong. There will be no trace
of the ford, no crossings anywhere,
no awkward angles holding up history.
Its pitching force will have
no opposites, no rival, no survivors.
My friend the Hungarian poet
lamented the loss of the sea
that border changes brought,
in war, in history,
decades before she was born.
As a nation we are torn,
she said, out of our past
like a difficult birth, and move
noses up, sniffing for sea-mist,
alert in every nerve.
Beyond the Danube Bend
an ocean of grass is rolling
under an easterly wind.
The mileage of dusty maize
and sunflower fields is swelling,
falling, season by season;
and westward, Balaton,
the largest lake in Europe,
three modest metres deep,
covers its shame in haze.
Always there is this itchy
reaching for something other,
the chafing heads of grasses
restlessly mimicking water,
the wind-stirred tetchy
lake impeding its ferries.
Always the wish to be ocean:
unmarked, indefinite, changing,
a further and further horizon
opening, offering, promising.
John Cassidy was born in Lancashire and studied English at Manchester University for five years after post-war army service with an East African regiment. He has served as a literature adviser for North West Arts and has conducted readings and seminars at venues from prisons to universities. He was a tutor in Creative Writing at Bolton University, who awarded him an Honorary Doctorate. He has published collections with Hutchinson and Bloodaxe, and his poems have appeared in several periodicals and many anthologies. They have also featured on BBC TV and radio programmes.