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Words in the Dark 3.

from ‘Self-Portrait as a White-Collar Worker, 1981-2016’
in Then and Now – Opus 1

Third in a Series of Three.

(Illustration by Alan Dixon)

THE POEMS AND prose in these three columns are from my work-in-progress, Then and Now, and consist of extracts from a sequence, Self-Portrait as a White-Collar Worker, 1981-2016, which forms part of the work and whose persona is presented – through his poetry and also translations – as developing over time as the events of his life affect him.  The extracts are all taken from Then and Now – Opus 1, which is to be published by Shoestring Press in 2023.

The first volume of Then and Now to appear was Opus 3, in 2018.


Words in the Dark.

“Herwegh, you iron lark!
Like a jubilant bird on the wing,
In holy sunlight you’ve vanished!
Is Winter really banished?
Is Germany decked with the blossoms of Spring?”

– Heinrich Heine, To Georg Herwegh

They’ve all gone home. Across the road
The office lights flick quietly out
As Friday evening lightens the load
On all our minds. The latest bout
With time is over. Time has slowed.

Yet boss and secretary must
Still push through patient traffic-jams
Where car-horns, exhaust fumes and dust
Tire harassed mothers pushing prams
With infants who can only trust

That what gets done to them is right,
Or not too wrong, and not a joke.
Striking a momentary light,
I blow a cloud of heat and smoke
In the rough direction of the night.

Four storeys down the lights of cars
Follow-my-leader through the dusk –
As soldiers come from / go to wars –
Or all good students wore subfusc –
Or punk kids follow their punk stars:

All do what everybody does.
I pay my bills – don’t stretch my wings –
We’re here because we’re here because
We’re good at putting up with things.
And life feels like it always was

The human race heroically
But blindly doing as it’s told:
Which must be what I cannot see
At our window – as when, five-years-old,
Our school-class stood excitedly

With thousands lining the road between
The airport and more important places
In that run-down city to see the Queen
Who, travelling on to see the races,
Blessed us from her limousine…

With laughter, aching legs and tears,
Waving one hand, one shoulder touching,
For what seemed hours we practised cheers
In rows by height, like soldiers, clutching
Blue New Testament souvenirs.

Across that road I might have seen
Up a narrow, evil-smelling jigger
With crumbling walls one place the Queen
Would stop. O cathedral! better, bigger
Than either playground or canteen –

Provided you were good. Or tried
To be as good as worthless sinners –
Worthy of punishment for Pride
And other sins concealed within us –
Could be on that blackened riverside.

More sherbet, liquorice, plastic toys,
I thought, rewarded the good as gold
‘Above’ than in Santa’s grotto! “Joys
Await you there. Here all grows old,
Then dies. Be prudent, girls and boys,

‘Lay up treasure in Heaven!
Life will pass away.
Lay up treasure in abundant measure
For the great Accounting Day.

Lay up treasure in Heaven!
Though men shall be poor,
Thou shalt reign with the Son of God
For evermore.’”

Minds moulded by “the old, old story
Of unseen things above,
Of Jesus and His Glory,
Of Jesus and His Love”,
Driven on by welcome punishment,
Our lives seem spent on Purgatory –
“Tell me the old, old story
As to a little child,
For I am weak and weary
And tempted and beguiled”:
That sin-heap from the Fundament
Of Man ’s a fertile promontory,

We think, from which like twinkling planes
Those blessed with ultimate success
Take off. Their fame, which never wanes,
Dazzles us. Failing to progress,
We fret – and take still greater pains,

As if choirs of ecstatic businessmen
And millionaires in flashy ties,
Exalted by their acumen,
Sang down to us from some Paradise
Of stars and superstars “Amen!”

And so the Queen – like God, whose power
Was also supervisory –
Seemed very good. After an hour
She passed us by. Her stringency
Would turn the milk and honey sour,

And yet we cheer her when she passes –
Defender of the status quo
From heresy. The cruel sun-glasses
Of boss or generalissimo,
Beaming upon the obedient masses,

Stared from her bright black carapace.
But there was never such a God.
And a pale, stubborn, empty face
And white-gloved hand, waving the rod
We kiss, were all her signs of grace…

And now? High time I went – helped put
The kids to bed. But I won’t refuse,
Firstly, another cigarette
And swig of the boss’s top-notch booze;
Until I reek of smoke, booze, sweat.

Four storeys down the lines of cars
Go crawling on – from here to home,
As armies straggle back from wars –
Or all roads lead away from Rome –
Or Wise Men tire of following stars.

– Who chooses which lines he’ll live along?…
The phones on both sides of the road
Are silent now. What sort of song,
As Friday evening lightens the load
On my mind, would not feel tired and wrong?…

An Georg Herwegh’

Herwegh, you iron lark!
Like a jubilant bird on the wing,
In holy sunlight you’ve vanished!
Is Winter really banished?
Is Germany decked with the blossoms of Spring?

Herwegh, you iron lark!
So high through the sky you fling
You quite lose sight of earthly curses:
Only in your verses
Lives the Spring of which you sing.

Material-minded through and through,
The takers now have taken over
So thoroughly that any who
Is still a giver, liver, lover,
Had better be a liar too –

As Heine was. An honest man,
He might have said, is one who knows
More or less when he’s lying – an
Unhealthy running saw to those
Whose mores are more puritan.

Flattering, complaining, wrangling, he
Waged life like a one-man guerrilla war
Against a Romantic century:
Destroyed but undefeated, he bore
A lot of painful poetry –

Whose purest patterns neither win
Nor lose but grow in each of us.
But the worst comes to the worst within.
All do what everybody does.
Are these the wages of our sin?

And why should we feel life always was
Redeemed by putting up with things?
I’m here because I’m here because
I pay my bills. My grubby wings
Were formed and clipped by unwritten laws.

The “age demands” role, meaning, style:
Words slip and slide. From behind the fence
Of past and future we revile
And praise in our own self-defence.
The window reflects my defensive smile…

But beyond our worn-out fantasies
Other forms move – of time, of space.
If our oldest stories mould what is,
If the only facts in such a case
Are feelings, dreams, appearances,

We must re-dream ourselves. Like cars,
We twinkle loudly through the dusk,
As whiz-kids follow board-room stars –
Or I and others wore subfusc –
Or soldiers leave for wars – wars – wars…

Though, now, across this darkened road
I see a tailor’s dummy, white
And blind, lean from a black explod­-
ed window. But I hope to write
Until my mind and life have slowed.



“Herwegh, you iron lark!”: Georg Herwegh (1817–1875) was a guitar-toting poet and militant radical. Heine regarded simple-minded socialism with almost as much mistrust as German nationalism and wrote this poem, which he handed to Herwegh personally, after the popular success of the latter’s Gedichte eines Lebendigen (Poems of a Living Man) in 1841. Three years later Heine published his own commentary on related issues, Deutschland. Ein Wintermärchen…

Heine was born in Düsseldorf in 1797 and spent much of his young manhood in Hamburg. Inspired by the July Revolution of 1830, which deposed Charles X, the last Bourbon king, and placed the citizen-king Louis­-Philippe on the throne, he moved to Paris in 1831. As early as 1835 Heine’s reputation as a radical had become sufficient for the German authorities to ban his writings, and he was to spend the rest of his life in Paris, where he died in 1856. In actual fact, the complexities of Heine’s politics present, as his biographer J.L. Sammons put it, “a rather knotty problem of interpretation”. One of the most outstanding examples of his own ‘political poetry’ is the more than 500 quatrains of his semi-fictitious ‘travel epic’ Deutschland. Ein Wintermärchen, which he wrote at the beginning of 1844 after spending two months in Germany. This classic of humorous and satirical literature describes – entertainingly – ambivalently – sadly – some of his experiences while travelling and in various cities, including Hamburg, where he visited his mother and other members of his family, as well as his publisher, Julius Campe. Heine had powerful enemies in Germany by this time, however, and in December 1844 the King of Prussia issued a warrant for his arrest. Even so, Campe managed by every means available to publishers at the time to outwit the authorities and keep Heine’s books in print and readily available. Not that this prevented Heine from quarrelling with him almost uninterruptedly…One of the fascinations of Heine generally is that he refuses to keep still – is deliberately (and delightfully) difficult to pin down…After the persona’s boss has advised him to the effect that “Poetry’s a mug’s / Game. Forget it” (see the end of ‘Prologue – Difficulties of a White-Collar Worker’ in the first part of this series), he adds an Afterthought:

“Or, if you really must, why not choose something great
And preferably entertaining –
Look in your bank-book
And write! – to translate?”

The next section of the complete version of Self-Portrait as…, accordingly, consists of a translation –

(ll.1-48, 77-120)

November it was. And the cloudy skies
Grew daily more down-hearted;
The wind tore at the leaves on the trees;
And off for home I started.

And as I came to German soil
My heart seemed to be drumming
Harder and faster. In fact I think
The tears had started coming.

And when I heard my native tongue
I felt so moved for a minute
I thought my blissfully bleeding heart
Would spill all the blood that was in it.

A girl was singing to a harp.
She sang with warm emotion
And tuneless voice, but I felt played
Upon by her devotion.

She sang of love and the pain of love,
Self-sacrifice, re-union
Above the clouds in that better world
Of wholly happy communion.

She sang of this earthly vale of tears,
Of the joys we cannot capture,
Of the life to come where the soul shall feast
In eternal radiant rapture.

She sang the old Forbearance Song,
The Lullaby of Later,
Which keeps the whining lumpen poor
From turning agitator.

I know the method, I know the text,
And I know the likes of the author;
I know that they secretly tipple wine
While openly preaching water.

A new song, a better song,
Companions, I shall write you!
And here and now on earth we’ll build
A heaven to requite you.

We want our happiness here and now
On earth: we don’t want hunger.
Let lazy bellies squander the thrift
Of hard-working hands no longer!

For human kind down here below
The bread we produce is ample –
And roses and myrtles, beauty and lust,
And garden peas, for example.

Yes, garden peas for everyone!
Come pile up the pods on the barrows.
And leave the promised Bread of Heaven
To the angels and the sparrows.

And while the little singer played
And panted after election,
The Prussian Customs Police undid
My bags for an inspection:

They poked their nose into trousers and shirts
And hankies, and fumbled for hidden
Laces and knick-knacks. And for books
Whose Knowledge was Forbidden.

O blockheads! poking in my bags
With dumb official diligence:
To confiscate the contraband
Of the mind requires intelligence!

There I have needlework finer than
Any of Brussels or Mechlin,
And once I’ve got my needles out
You won’t hear yourselves for heckling.

And I carry knick-knacks in my head,
Jewels to crown and enthrone one,
The holy gems of a future God –
A great, as yet Unknown One…

And in my head there are many books:
In fact, more plainly stated,
My head’s a singing nest of the sort
You’d like to see confiscated.

Believe me, in Satan’s reading-room,
Les paroles ne sont plus dangereuses:
They’re twice as dicey as Hoffmann von F.’s
Unpolitical verse!

– A fellow-traveller starts to praise
But somehow in me arouses
Even more distrust of the Prussian State’s
Long chain of customs-houses.

“This customs-union,” he explains,
“Will characterize our nation –
Will help our divided Fatherland
To full Unification.

“It regulates each outward
Or material undertaking;
Whereas our spiritual unity
Is of the Censor’s making.

“He regulates each inward
Error, correcting sinners.
A United Germany we need –
Without us and within us.”

– To which (if I might be permitted a note to this note) is appended:

Hoffmann von Fallersleben (1798-1874), a popular poet “dismissed from his Breslau professorship in 1842 for his ironically titled Unpolitical Songs. He became for a while the Beatnik poet of nineteenth-century Germany, travelling from tavern to tavern with his guitar [as fashionable then as now, apparently] and simple and humorous but biting songs… Heine came to abominate him: he took Hoffmann as a symptom of the destruction of poesy by democracy, a process in which he considered political poetry to be a transitional phenomenon” (J. L. Sammons, Heinrich Heine: A Modern Biography, 1979, p.255).

W.D. JACKSON’s five books and two pamphlets are all parts of his work-in-progress, Then and Now, on the subject of the individual’s place in history. This column is also a part of that work.  His most recent book, Opus 3 (Shoestring Press, Nov. 2018)was reviewed in The Fortnightly, and was one of Frederick Raphael’s TLS Books of the Year in 2019.  A review by Chris McCully in PN Review 253 can be read here (under Altered Distances Vol 54, Nos. 1-2, ‘Special Features’).  Shoestring has published a new pamphlet, Aesopean (with woodcuts by Alan Dixon). The Fortnightly archive for W.D. Jackson is here.

ALAN DIXON was born in Waterloo, Lancashire, and has been exhibiting his prints since the 1960s.  Shoestring Press published his 73 Woodcuts in 2011 and Wood and Ink in 2013.  An exhibition of prints at the Redfern Gallery, London, was held to coincide with the launch of his most recent collection of poems, The Wall Dancer, Shoestring Press, 2017.

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