Heart work

In this long sequence written with warmth and candour and seamlessly blending lyricism and narration, he sets out to confront the question, ‘What is it full of/the heart?’ Beginning in the Second World War, the sequence advances in diverse and unforeseen directions as it attempts to provide answers. Similarity and difference, the feared and the familiar, change shape. Historical and public events turn out not to be intrusions on private life but the element in which it is lived. Heart work is part memoir, part a quiet and often humorous account of the ‘growth of a poet’s mind’, part anguished contemplation of the struggle to sustain and celebrate sympathetic affection, but always a love poem. It builds, as an oratorio builds, through motif and counterpoint, through dramatic changes of pace and tone, to its surprising finale.

Poetry Book Society Recommendation Winter 2007; Selectors’ Comment:
Desmond Graham’s ‘Heart work’, a single poem in eight ‘books’, is an audacious answer to the question that opens Book One: ‘What is it full of/ the heart?’ In unpunctuated verse paragraphs of fluid, flexible short lines, mostly two or three stresses each – or a couple of heartbeats – Graham builds up, glancingly but urgently, the story of a lifetime’s attachments, from wartime childhood, through early adventures abroad, in Germany especially, marriage, fatherhood (not necessarily in that order), and an affair, onto a newly rewarding sense of freedom and fulfilment. Oblique narration, wry or lyrical, is punctuated by epiphanic moments in the poems’ movement forwards and back in time; different English and European landscapes, the poet’s persona as teacher and writer (deeply involved at one point with an unnamed ‘Poet at War’ who must surely be Keith Douglas, whose ‘Life’ Graham wrote and whose ‘Letters’ he edited) public events and private circumstance, are woven into a pattern that is as much musical as chronological. For although Graham at one point admits he ‘never found out/or why from so early/ my mind could weigh up the price/ adept as a bookmaker/ never a punter/ and my heart/ trying to make up for it/ by paying out/ over the odds,’ ‘Heart work’ is far from a straightforward weighing up, or any sort of accounting for a twentieth-century life. It is, rather, a set of vivid, engaging, life-affirming, colloquial and visionary variations: on the heart as metaphorical seat of the affections, its unpredictable swervings and mysterious purposes; on the actual heart ‘so hard at work/ so literal inside me;’ finally (and memorably) on the vulnerability of both: ‘how can you love/ so dangerously/ without choice?’

Poems from ‘Heart work’

Philosophers in Heidelberg

we climbed

two hundred steps maybe

with snow and ice

and at the top looked over

our own breath

to where snow clung

to the rooftops

and you couldn’t tell

fire smoke from mist

and the path in front

wound towards forest

and snow on snow

if we had embraced

the whole hillside

would have melted

an avalanche of rock

and ice and us

swept off our feet

instead we turned

hand in hand

like Milton’s characters

without knowing

back to the start

of a brand new book

[Book 5]


What can you say

when the gates close

when you are locked tight

as in a siding

no hope of getting off

and the whole night

fills its felt around you

but not warm enough

stuck between

wild weather

and the onward journey

he took out

bread and onion

handed plum brandy

round the lot of us

she reached for

fruit and afters

passed it round

and it was welcome

with a nod

or smile

and afterwards we slept

the whole train


its passage

my eyes closing

to the sound of

‘Churchill’ ‘Churchill’

unsure whether

it was the engine

or my breath

or a neighbour

and whether

that one word

was welcome

or now I was asleep

a curse

[Book 6]


On the same film

where I saw a child

tucked tight and piping

a little fist or clench of hand

or knee bent and moving

stirring like a yoke in egg

I saw my heart

its great lilies mouthing

troubled cargo shifting

big lipped edges leaning

my life on it and hers

I saw what all along was in the engine

dropped its bungee jump

of fear and wonder

galloped towards distant mountains

slept there

sound as partridge

for the night

I button up my shirt

know I am aboard once more

the great wandering albatross

who six times already

rounded the Cape unseen

and barely noticed

still astride and flying

[Book 8]