Roy Ashwell: Poems 2014


Here is, if you ever needed it, evidence that Roy has been writing poetry for at least the last 60 years.  That is the length of my relationship with him too and I can see in this collection of poems, many of the chapters and even paragraphs of these minutes and days.

This is the first time that I have interpreted and recompiled his work; the first three iterations of his website were almost entirely dictated in his instruction to me as the web designer.  All I had to do was create a structure, a container into which we could tip his efficiently crafted verses.  Making a website for a poet should be easy; after all we just need simplicity in presentation.  The task gets more difficult each time; poets agonise over the similar issues of structure, sense and meaning.

I was recently very touched when, one morning Roy asked me to email a poem to my son Xander.  He owned that he had got up that very morning and put the final touches to a couple of verses that he'd written some time ago but, like many of his kind, left lying for lack of a suitable polish.  This poem he dedicated to his Great Grandson Max, my first Grandchild and Xander's Son, born in 2013.  Max is 60 years younger than Alison, Roy's daughter, born in Cameroon and, sadly died in London 10 years ago.

Roy is surrounded by life and death and to make some sense of his latest anthology, “In this garden”, I have chosen a few of the more than forty poems and arranged them here in an order that makes sense to me, a sort of chronology.  I step outside the 'Garden' only once to juxtapose his poem for Alison alongside that for Max just to demonstrate, if you ever needed it, Roy's continuing delight and fascination in life.

The poems:

For my daughter Alison

At length

Who shapes the garden now?

Almost in sight

A list




At evening time in Islington

For my father, obit 1975

Next of kin

So next morning, the bedside quiet . . .

Letter from the garden

Is it you, then?

For my daughter Alison


When you journey from my heart

Blue morning's maid,

I shall not see with your horizon

Nor hear the music in your land.

I shall not build the mansion of your mind

Nor cut your footholds in the bitter ice.


When you journey from my heart

On your own true road, forget me,

For my ghost has gone before and blessed

The walls and hearthstone of your house,

And when your heart leaps to delight

And courage, my whisper in your blood,

My wishes flying find their home.                            1952


At Length


Always the same: a poetry of beginnings;

for sixty years writing the same poem!

What pleasures, what disgusts!


Now in the sunny window of an evening

blazing with the smoke and rain of a beloved city

this is the chair to which, somehow,  I have come


And think of others, old navigators, old men

With their hands on new maps, Hesperides

Rising in the West, peaks breaking above waves

And children crowding to the bow!                        2013 (for Max Ashwell)


Who shapes the garden now?


Admit so much.

We are voyeurs of the real,

Migrants, maybe, who only stay

To feed and breed and fly.


But we need more of this

I mean these lost places,

Where people rest and speak of

Benign trees, the smell of winter fires,

Ice biting under autumn heat,

Bells ceasing and sounding

Inside  the secret mind.

Almost in Sight


Calling calling

as the fog smoke drifts


or at the wood's end

hidden in leaves

that falling

should with the wind

open falling

open as the door turns

the window to the garden

and to the wood

where smoke fogs all

the gate opens

and all is almost in sight.


And to follow then

into mists into woods into rooms

into language into music

haunted by meaning and then

into every sense and all

that flares within the falling flesh

sight speed speech place.

Ah!  To follow then that

almost in sight and calling.

A List



Chuck medicines away.


Peter, Robin, John.

(No Julian, he's gone).


Food and stuff?  None!

Has the dust cart come?


Look up meanings.


Heredity, Kind. A cure

For lawn clover.


No news, letters, duns.

Cancel charities.

The War is over.



The small black cat.

Pick up the peacock feather.

Put away the left hand glove.


Look up

Ocean, shanty,

The etymology

Of love.


Moving hands and feet

thread these rooms together

balance them on stairs

are busy daily keeping

the basement under the walls

carpet under chairs

and the slates from flying off.

Unpeopled houses drift

dishevelled to the breakers

floors unpinned and treads on end

and lofts staring at the moon.

Now, taps rasp

children murmur like pigeons

under the eaves and

laced to these dependent

stones and flesh

I draw your fingers towards me

tying the last knots.


I listen to the slight and broken tunes

you half sing about the house

or whistle to the thrush outdoors

as if you knew its need

for leaf and food and echo.

You can float a day

upon this inner sound

which enters with the air

and carried there shapes

the pieces of your song

as it falls and starts and fades

with the rhythm of quiet hands,

folding, turning or perhaps

when the bird is doing nothing

tunefully, it is as sleepy lovers’ talk

when one half hears the other speak

and half replies.


I thought it must be you on the train tonight

just after five o'clock and London breathing out.

You sat down loose on the coloured seats;

plain but a broad clean jaw level to the hairline

and hair itself cut in a bell.  No make-up, no ring,

spectacles on a string, a cheap pair

tied to an anorak bandaged with badges

but all routine; none signalled savage

discontent or passionate charity.

Text in your right, pen hooked in your left,

not writing yet. Fingers capable, neither thin nor fine.

Then you marked, read a line, looked sideways

at the mirrored faces flying past

out there beside us in the dark.

Now we stop;  getting your things together, yes,

it is you; that face shaken by grief to loveliness,

your eyes open on the dark but lighting us within

when you came downstage

to speak the last lines of the play.

Flat shoes, a big rubbed leather bag,

a slow, light movement, distant and familiar

as if one's own voice spoke back from the night.

Already six o'clock.  No show tonight.

At evening time in Islington

An aunty cruised on the piano overhead.

Downstairs my father put away his Slazenger

And, quite the Go for 1922,

Stepped out from College Cross

A Rajah, the Union Chapel’s own, off

To join the the fancy dress dance of the world

Walking towards my mother’s body

And to me who have gone out

Further than either before tonight

I reached this chair.

For My Father, obiit 1975


If you were here tonight, if you should come

Expectedly to stay,

We would talk a little about the world,

More about your grandchildren, much

About your father and how

You loved his steadiness,

His knowledge of horses, dogs and soil,

But most about our old holidays,

My mother’s ways of charming us,

Your jokes, your dances once,

The cricket fields of very long ago.


And tomorrow, if the wind were right,

I’d drive you to the hills.

We’d walk a mile about their tops

Turning the vale beside us,

Your bird sight tracing how

We had threaded fields and woods

To come up there.

We would see the old graves,

The green forts on the downs,

The farms like castles and the sun

Going westward like our journeyings together

In the fifty years that we have nearly shared.


I could find the way up there and home again 

And the rooms would be warm for you,

If you were to come.

Next of kin


A box of your ‘personal effects’ has come.

Not very large in size or hard to open.

Yes, my hands will open it, my eyes see

Pieces of a uniform, a belt, an epaulette,

A silver disc with numbers rubbed smooth

From you wearing it.  No money,

Photographs with heads like rows of pearls,

The regiment that disappeared last winter.


And one unrifled truth.  In a pocket my letter to you,

Words not very hard to read like ‘tomorrow’ and ‘love’,

Words I posted towards you

Reaching out for your vanishing body,

Unknown words for only you to read

Before you became nothing but one

Of the thousands of dead brothers who have gone.

Then it was not so hard to write such words.


A box open forever.  Impossible to shut.

So next morning, the bedside quiet........


So next morning you walk out as you have always done

But it is not quite as before.

The paving stones are buttered with leaves as every year

And in the playground

The children are in their winter overcoats but make no sound.

Your foot steps are as light in age as in infancy

And silent too.

The same over-arching sky is the same steady blue

When you turn into the High Street.  

All as it is and you fancy you could sing

That song, the old one about highlands looking over the sea

And a small boat.

But that you don't do.


When people pass or you pass them, their faces do not change.

From cares or smiles.

They look beyond you down the long avenues of their own days.

You turn to watch them go.

Nearby is a little gate you recognise from all the miles and miles

Of walking on past it,

Quickly or sauntering, curious or dismissive,

But now it is open

And you turn aside and enter it.



Letter from the garden


The blue cracked seat in our arbour

looks westward, small noises crowd about me,

birds opening up,

magpie, ringdove, late blackbird,

all of you have my ear till others

rustle past to talk of what

I may remember when you've gone.

I turn the chatty water off.


StillI I want all this.

I mean, the lost corners

shared with benign trees

and the smell of winter wood fires

the sharp ice under spring heat,

sky brim full of rainy light;

a steeple and steeple bells that

arrive on time to chime conclusion

where there is none.

This nearly forever is

nearly all I know.


Is it you then?


Is it you then? I did not know it was so late.

But come, you cannot know one number from another

in this street, one neighbour from the next.

All are waiting for you, prayer-full or angry.

Some have had their cases packed for years,

others, and I for one, sit with empty pockets

and then in you come utterly indifferent

to what we thought we were till now.

For most of us, as the lieder said,

you are less feared than strange,

a derangement of ordinary manners.


So, how to greet you, shadow on the glass?

Let the same gesture that bows you in

take me out.  But, is it you then?

I did not know it was so late.