Angela Leighton

Angela Leighton

As well as books of literary criticism and many critical articles and essays, Angela Leighton has published poems in various magazines, including The Guardian, TLS, Poetry Review, Stand and The Reader. Her two collections, A Cold Spell (2000) and Sea Level (2007), have been warmly reviewed by, among others, Anne Stevenson and Elaine Feinstein, and are available from Shoestring Press.

As the daughter of an Italian (Neapolitan) mother and an English father she is well placed to understand the historical and visual allure of the Mediterranean, and many of her poems evoke its landscapes. In this selection it is the sea which reflects that southern place, rich in history and myth. ‘The Diver’, for instance, is the picture not only of a literal diver, observed from a distance, but also of the Greek fresco at Paestum of the soul diving into the Underworld. The Mediterranean is a place of stories layered one upon another, reaching back through historical to prehistorical time (‘Bay of Naples’); but the sea is also universal, and tells us something more generally about ourselves (‘At Passoscuro’, ‘A Strand’). Its fluidity and rhythms might also evoke something of that music of poetry which these poems hope to capture.

Angela Leighton is currently senior research fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge.

The poems below were first published in ‘A Cold Spell’ (2000) and in ‘Sea Level’ (2007), both published by Shoestring Press.

Bay of Naples

Love-advertising sky, asterisked with stars—
how this tense, graphic, summer night,
chafing with cicadas in the twisted pines,
rolls its prolific print-run of suns,
its slow, staggering prehistory of lights,
on the tiny calendar of my eye:
August 1995.

Startling to think of nothing but starlight,
its endless, spreading, catastrophic time—
then suddenly carbon, graphite, diamond,
and life, a wild chance, prize, pivot,
sly turn, twinge of the heart,
our nuance of nothing in the dark—
our date, our pass.

I grasp, for balance, the balustrade
above these frank cliffs, falling where
the lamps of fishing boats resin the water.
Across the bay the wedge of Vesuvius,
childish cuneiform, dark indicative,
stamps the memory of our exploded star
on that inflammatory horizon.

At Passoscuro

The sea splits at the seam as it comes in—
a heaving sealskin, zipped with foam,
that breaks with a great slap on my face,
and a muscle of wave weighlifts
the sand from below.

Out there, a spirit-level of ships;
here, a bear-hug. And something else
that drags, crosswise, with a sinewy, sly
will of water set on going
under, under.

My toes grip a lumbering landslide.
My arms are full. Up there,
the round gold watch of the sun
races pulse and waves and tides
to the finishing line.

Baroque for Bernini

This full-dress dreamer on a tumbled couch,
fazed fantasist, open-mouthed voyeuse,
fronts, flat-out, her mounting vision.
One hand dents her offered breast,
another indicates love’s bowels of fire.
Inspired, obsessed, she’ll come in time
to feel the undulating lie of her desire
as truth’s soft touch, light brush.

What a rowdy show of faith and drapery,
spectacular apparel, fabric of exaltation—
tassels like bell-ropes to a flush of cherubs
massed in the worked-up heaven of her eye.
This fashioned ecstasy, rumpled marble,
done to the last hot ruck of stone,
leaves the spirit dreaming by the metre,
heaven riveted in art’s hard matter.

Waving to Anne

(for Anne Stevenson)

Today the ferries are writing on the sea.
Island to island, the lines open—
white, feathery incisions on the blue skin.
Already they’ve chalked up five crossings.

Those signs survive, scrambling the slow
alteration of waves churning over
themselves, spuming smoketrail, entrail—
as if the sea had to memorise its lines.

It looks so easy, heading for islands.
Ischia, Procida, Capri peg
the shivery ligament stretched between—
sea’s nervous, underwater dream.

You approach an island in the sea’s time only,
ceremoniously slow—oars lifted,
engine idling, slipping the rhythm
of coming, finally, willingly, giving in.

It seems so simple, drawing a line
from here to there, across the cold
that runs under everything, cold climbing
the surface, stairs of it rising, circling.

Another ferry leaves. It cuts and clear
a white, hurt afterstroke that keeps
swallowing itself, concussing into
froth, long shot, shot silk.

I wave to you, who know how maps
come after journeys, each one new;
how lines draw into quiet islands,
seas inflect: flight paths, scar tissue.

A Strand

Small waves fall over themselves, getting nowhere.
The blue’s brimful, complete. It takes sky in.
Sans titre. A line, simple. Colour, steeper.

Here, at the edge such blueness tears like paper,
marks where one country ends, another starts,
spills and drags a white, uncertain border.

Why should we want to come so near, on land?
The day’s warm sand accommodates live shapes,
odd hips and elbows, fitting reverse plans:

my five-point hand, the palm’s exact depression,
shallows of arms, the valley of the skull,
flatlands, notch and cast of a spinal column.

Nearby, the blue dilates, puts out white claws.
We are the tip of something unexplored.
It comes quite near, sometimes. But mostly draws

a blind over and over. Land shelves, and goes
deeper to mountains no-one names or knows.
The level-headed sea saves us from those.

The Diver

The unbreathable space will take him in,
sea, pocket his body quickly out of the sun.
He will not disturb its perfect coherence,
its tooled surface,
classical, protean, wind-worked hair–
the blue fluting’s optical illusion
of going, always, somewhere.

He will not break the way sea breaks
up, anyhow, in the ears of caves,
runs itself out in waves
over sand or shale.
He will not change its whispering way
of saying nothing: shh, shh
suspiria, something (listen) thrown away.

It is colder than he is.
And suddenly slow, slower than heartbeats, tightens.
He will assume
its dress, address of lost constellations:
pisces, aquarius. It makes room in its roomlessness.
Slow, lightened guests will go down
curiously flowering, still restless.

Is it a blessing? The heavy element
shuts mouth and ears. He will not hear
himself speak, only the sea’s interminable volumes.
Those, wherever they unfold ashore, encounter brakes–
and will not record,
except by the tiniest, risen margin,
the difference he makes.

The Prisoners

Caro m’è ‘l sonno, e più l’esser di sasso     Michelangelo

How shall we bear it, these blocked imaginary feet,
hands gloved in the earth’s unforgiving crust–
half-formed, half-known, intaglio, rock art, stone,
a clamp of matter closing round our hopes?
Will someone chisel the asking lie of our limbs,
crack the stump of this founding paralysis–

and bring us to term, to light, groomed and finished?
Our metamorphic shapes are ghosts of stone.
Fast in the marble’s cold anatomy, heavy
at heart, our mineral blood stops at the start.
We cannot lift a hand or force a foot.
Landlocked — in us life’s gravity cries out.

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Poetry in this post: © Angela Leighton
Published with the permission of Angela Leighton