John Greening

from THE SILENCE

Sibelius lived in Järvenpää, Finland until he was over
ninety, But he released 
virtually no music from
his forest home for the last thirty years of his life 
and
‘the Silence from Järvenpää’ became as much of a
talking point as the 
music. Continually pestered about
an eighth symphony, the composer battled 
alcohol
addiction, depression and above all self-criticism.

Red on White in the squares of the capital. Here, terrified
women.
The young ones get on his nerves. But how can he send
them out
into this red blizzard to play red snowballs? He hears a
shot
and writes a tranquil phrase, goes about whispering in
German.

There have been death-threats. Within the circle of their
sun they’re free
and warm, however: three degrees and nature weirdly
abundant.
The wooden sledge he bought for the children is useless
now, abandoned
outside the house, beside those bloody spots from their
rowan tree.

Now here come the snow men, marching in, demanding
passes,
raiding their store-room for carrots and coal, searching the
place for weapons.
But they never ask the crucial question. Or touch, as it
happens
those final revisions on his desk, their hidden
overwheling forces.
*
As if any of this matters. Appease the gods with fine cigars.
Gaze at the night and its absent moon. While, for art, forget
it,
and wonder instead about his hair. Perhaps he should
simply cut it
off to a parody of Nero or one of Hollywood’s fading stars.
*
Press on to the lake and the mute swans gathered at the
end,
out of reach, but ready to fly, given the word ‒if only
he knew the word. He feels he is being watched: the
steady, sternly
attentive eye of something hidden that has colonised his
private land.

Swedenborg claimed that angels begin to interpret human
speech
whenever we free our thoughts from material things, their
own language
incompatible with sounds, he said, although the universe
hinges
on an ‘established harmony’. The walk, this light, that
sparkling reach

stirs movement between him and the unmoving swans,
so easy to believe in. Take those distant creatures,
then, as guardian,
keep them nigh as sudden murderous clouds roll in, a
Freudian
knot of gloom that’s out to unswaddle his innocence.

Let them do their silent dance on the pin in his head where
he’s hung
music like a mighty glacier, high and ready to move, mould
everything ready for survival. He feels himself grow old
with every scratch he makes. He sees himself take the
wrong

path, prints cross and overlap, go back where they began.
The angel-swans float on as ever inaccessible
to him or hunters, poachers, soldiers; unless the
impossible
flypast happens, the vision; the completion of the
Aristotelian chain.
*
He trembles. It will not stop, yet three great works remain
standing while half the world is rubble. Their all-clear
sounds
above the concentration camps. He trembles. It never
ends,
the climb to the cone. Lava, ash, fire in the very rain.

Will he pass the third gate? Another kingdom, migration
of refugees, of cranes, their oboe cries. Something special
for his finale, adagio? After all, adversity is a measure
of strength. He goes on. He will survive, as will his nation.

John Greening is a poet, critic and editor who has spent much of his life teaching adults and young people — in Scotland, in the USA, but chiefly in Cambridgeshire. Two years as a volunteer in Upper Egypt led to his first collection, Westerners, and there have been over a dozen others, including Hunts: poems 1979–2009 and most recently To the War Poets (Carcanet). He has edited a new edition of Edmund Blunden’s First World War memoir Undertones of War (OUP, 2015) and a major poetry anthology, Accompanied Voices: poets on composers from Thomas Tallis to Arvo Pärt (Boydell, 2015). Music is one of his preoccupations (he worked for a while at BBC Radio 3) and a song-cycle based on his poems was performed by the Dunedin Consort at Wigmore Hall. A reviewer of poetry for the TLS since the mid-1990s, John has published critical guides to Elizabethan love poets, Yeats, Hardy, Edward Thomas, Ted Hughes and poets of the First World War. His Poetry Masterclass emerged from creative writing workshops he ran in Cornwall. He is currently collaborating with Penelope Shuttle on a book about Hounslow Heath. He has also written plays including one about the Lindbergh kidnap (staged in Asheville, USA), and a modern masque composed for the fellows at Hawthornden Castle when he was a writer-in-residence there. Among other awards, John Greening has won the Bridport and the TLS prizes, and in 2008 a Cholmondeley Award for services to poetry.

John Greening is a poet, critic and editor who has spent much of his life teaching adults and young people. Two years as a volunteer in Upper Egypt led to his first collection, and there have been over a dozen others, most recently To the War Poets (Carcanet). He has edited a major poetry anthology, Accompanied Voices: poets on composers from Thomas Tallis to Arvo Pärt (Boydell, 2015). John has published critical guides to Elizabethan love poets, Yeats, Hardy, Edward Thomas, Ted Hughes and poets of the First World War. In 2008 a Cholmondeley Award for services to poetry.