While Sitting by Her

While sitting by her sometimes I would eye
Her dextrous fingers plying to and fro
While unbeknown to her, as she would sew
And crochet, knit and stitch and satisfy
Her urge to work for charity, defy
Approaching death with kindness. So although
She had to go, yet why I didn’t know.
I sat beside her and I wondered why.

Meanwhile her fingers plying to and fro
Had been the final part of her to go.
And when her fingers went her work was done.
Before all feeling bar the pain had gone
Those instruments of charity and love,
Her hands, He surely guided from above.

 

 

Gdańsk

We made landfall in Poland for the last
Fog-laden hours we ever spent abroad,
A chilly April day and overcast.
The Long Market: how could I have ignored
Those ancient dwellings riding in the mist
In pastel hues, like houseboats all afloat?
The mist poured on the ground, hard to resist
The other-worldly scene: frock-coat to throat,

A stallman stood, in fustian, cocked hat,
And called to me, Great God! And so did she!
Day-dreaming I, while she had fallen flat.
But had we known that she had MND,
I would have sped to her in awful dread,
And reached her long before the pigeons fled.

 

 

Dystopia

Should we abide our misery in vain,
This dying progress from our birth, or bend
Its destined course? Fool’s errand to contend
With nature’s instincts. Give us all free rein.
Gratuitous constraints cause only pain.
We didn’t ask to mend our ways or spend
Our days performing godly deeds. Why fend
Off evil thoughts and why should we refrain

From back-biting with all our innate spite?
It’s natural to fight our comrades, smite
The feeble, blight the lives of others, slight
Our friends, kowtow to foes with all our might.
Why pity our good neighbour’s sorry plight
When some of us are damned to darkest night?

 

 

A Piano on Ben Nevis

Ben Nevis, and the tallest Scottish Hill,
We clambered up the first time fifty years
Ago as children, and with all the thrill
And derring-do of alpine pioneers.
But bringing us both down to earth we saw
A man ahead of us upon the track,
And stumbling upward painfully He bore
The weight of a piano on his back.

On our descent he’d gained but little height,
Was little further on from Achintee,
But was it just a trick of early light
That morning or his bid for charity,
That bearded in the mist he looked to me
For all the world like Christ on Calvary?

 

 

Peter Hartley is a retired painting restorer. He was born in Liverpool and lives in Manchester, UK.


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27 Responses

  1. Jeff Eardley

    Peter, beautifully crafted verses for a lovely lady and thank you for sharing. The wonderful imagery of “A piano on Ben Nevis” reminded me of the chap on the isle of Arran who, for charity, once hauled an anvil to the top of Goat Fell and recently circumnavigated the island carrying a huge barrel of whisky. People like these are the antidote to the Dystopia you describe so perfectly. Thank you for all these.

    Reply
    • Peter Hartley

      Jeff – Many thanks for your comment and I’m glad you liked the poems. It was in 1971 I first walked up Ben Nevis and saw this man engaged in a Herculean struggle with an upright piano strapped to his back and despite his struggles lower down the mountain he must have made it to the top. Almost exactly 40 years later during a clean-up operation around the summit area the piano was rediscovered a little theworse for wear by one of the volunteers who then wrote to the nationals to see if anybody could shed any light on the matter. I was going to write in with the exact date the feat was accomplished but I was forestalled by somebody else.

      Reply
      • Jeff Eardley

        Peter, a little research reveals that the fellow you saw in 1971 was ex Highland Games athlete, Kenny Campbell, who hauled an upright piano up to 1000 ft before toppling over and giving up. Later, he hauled a 250lb organ up to 1300 ft before tearing a muscle. Six weeks later, he hauled the organ to the top and played “Scotland the Brave” to a party of Norwegian tourists. Thank you once more for this lovely poem about a very special person indeed.

      • Peter Hartley

        Even to this very day the whole summit area of Ben Nevis and Aonach Eagach above the four thousand foot contour is crawling with Scandinavian splenectomists and organ grinders looking for spare parts.

  2. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Peter, as ever, these poems are beautifully written. I appreciate the smoothness of language and the internal rhymes that add to the mellifluous flow of the stanzas. But, more than that, form never outshines the wonder of each work’s observations.

    My favourites are “To Dina” and “Dystopia”. “To Dina” makes my heart ache with its graceful and gracious beauty. Dina’s “fading thoughts” make me appreciate the significance of sharing life’s little miracles with the one closest to my heart, and the raw pain of that gift ending can be felt throughout the poem, especially in the impactful closing line.

    For me, “Dystopia” speaks of the anger and despair grief evokes, and all the questions asked are valid ones I can certainly relate to. I was very surprised to learn upon the demise of my best friend that death made me angry beyond reason. I was unable to cry because of my anger, and that knot of pain within me caused untold stress. I had no idea I’d feel like this. Your poem speaks – the closing couplet, especially.

    I was wondering whether these poems were chosen as a series. The first seems to tie into the last with its mention of “charity”. The thought of Dina’s kind hands being “instruments of charity and love… guided from above” is striking, and the image in the closing couplet of “A Piano on Ben Nevis” seems to continue with that theme. Whether the poems are a series or not, they are all heart-touching, thought-provoking and privilege to read. Thank you!

    Reply
  3. Margaret Coats

    Thought I had seen “To Dina” before, and yes indeed, it’s quite similar to “Coming Home,” which I liked in July. Keep them both! You are amassing a finely crafted collection, Peter, and it’s worth viewing the variations to see subtle changes in mood, thought, and presentation. And of course, to you, they can be varied moments of memory in a composed sequence. Hope that work is progressing well! If these make up a foursome in sequence, charity is the frame (as Susan noted), and thus comments on the scorn for it in the refractory “Dystopia,” as well as on your charity for Dina in the memorial sonnet. Impressive grouping.

    Reply
    • Peter Hartley

      Margaret – yes I told Evan not to include that poem as a slightly different version had already been published before and I offered a substitution, but like a working drawing against the finished painting the yet-to-be-laboured-upon scrap of a poem can be more telling than the polished final offering, can’t it? But well done for spotting the ghastly blunder! I’m afraid you will be far more competent than I in observing subtle changes of mood in these little poems as I am too busy living them. I very much liked your description of “Dystopia” as refractory. It was very much just cocking a snook (do you have that expression in America?) at life and its hardships and saying “What’s the point?” Thank you, Margaret, for your generous remarks

      Reply
  4. Peter Hartley

    Susan – Thank you so much as ever for your kind, thoughtful and percipient comments which are, as always, right on the ball and describe exactly what I am trying to get across within the strictures imposed by fourteen lines. And yes, I have felt angry, like you, since Dina’s death, but the frightening thing is that my anger has not lessened with the passage of time. I am angry that she had to suffer so much in her dying, not only physical pain (though that was bad enough) but mental anguish and humiliating but essential procedures, how among other things towards the end she was able to drink only a specially prepared disgusting pap, a mouthful of which I tried after her death and had to spit out. Typically she never complained of this and seldom complained of anything else as she lost all movement on the outside, ending with the tips of her fingers. And how the disease ravaged her on the inside we never knew because she would not tell us. And I am angry too because I was powerless to help her, not only in the ways that anybody else might, but because of my own particular failings and shortcomings following a severe accident of my own. I am angry because of all the admirable qualities that she possessed but never vaunted so that I accepted them unthinkingly and took them for granted until she was dead, so that I don’t know what I miss most, her or her unstinting kindness. I am angry because the manner of her dying seemed to have been stage-managed by a fiend with all the torments and the cacophony of hell and I was incapable of mitigating her suffering. I am angry because I have found it harder to shed tears than I have over the death of a dog and don’t understand why. And I am always aware that there are fine lines somewhere to be drawn between pity, grief, catharsis and contemptible self-indulgence. The poems were written in sets, some of them, the first above, for example, being one of three, but Evan has tended to split them up and they do mostly stand alone reasonably well. The second paragraph of your comment above is very perceptive and touches a raw nerve, being the subject of another of these bereavement poems of which there are now more than forty. Thank you again for your comment, your personal experience and for your immense and intense empathy.

    Reply
    • Peter Hartley

      Jeff – Many thanks indeed for all that additional information, and for amending a little of my misinformation. I had got it all right at the time and had written a note about it in a book of mine called “Ben Nevis” but subsequently lost it. It fills me now with a sense almost of privilege to have been on the mountain on the same day as this eccentric muscle-bound raving nutter.

      Reply
    • Susan Jarvis Bryant

      Dear Peter,
      Your poetry, coupled with your comment, has had my brain whirring with a chaotic maelstrom of emotion. Out of the utter mess in my head, I simply have to give this thread of thought to you in the hope it may help: Firstly, the anger. I believe I felt anger because I was unaccepting and afraid – unaccepting because I didn’t believe my friend should have died in the cruel way she did and at the age she did – it seemed so unfair. I believe I was afraid because I feared the days ahead without her grace, wisdom, love and presence. I didn’t feel qualified to cope without her huge input. It’s very early days for you and (from my personal experience) anger takes its course. I know it hurts. I now know what the term “lump in the throat” means. I was afflicted with what felt like a physical lump that only a flood of tears could remove… but, I couldn’t cry. I think tears are a gift of release from the pain. I too have cried instantly upon the death of a pet. That’s because I accepted that my pet was ready to go… tears will come… when you’re ready.
      Also, anyone who can read the thoughts of their beloved indicates a special bond that goes beyond words. Dina knows your heart. She knew she wanted to be at home with the one person who knew her heart. Your love shines in every poem. It’s tangible… and it always was to Dina.

      One final observation. I think your last poem could be improved if the piano were replaced by a Tyrolese bugle and a harmonica. I’m surprised you didn’t use this opportunity to slip those shunned instruments by Evan in the interest of your fans!

      Reply
      • Peter Hartley

        Dear Susan – important matters first. I am beginning to get the feeling that Evan is more excited than he can ever possibly express at the prospect of publishing my concerto for bugle and stringed barn owl, which I think is why he has maintained an appalled silence ever since the prospect was first mooted. If he knew of my propensity for the pipes he would be queue-jumping to get on my wailing list. I think what clinched it for Evan was the fact that a bugle has a conical bore as opposed to the trumpet which has a cylindrical bore, but if he wants the audio book now HE can come crawling to ME. I understand exactly what you mean about the unacceptance of death. I was in denial for many months – she was always there, whether upstairs or downstairs, though as a quadriplegic how she got between the two I don’t know. I’m sure writing helps with catharsis, and regarding the death of a dog as opposed to a person it is true to say that there is no human entity, barring a neonate, who can be as innocent as the most Machiavellian scheming pantogenocidal pet gecko. It is the innocence of the animal: therein lies the pathos. And it is the pathos more than anything else that generates the tears. The pathos. Tell me the name of a man who fell a thousand feet to his death on 9.11 and he is a statistic. Tell me what he ate for breakfast that day and the pathos skyrockets and that man becomes a fully rounded person, you and me, a pitiable human being, so too his family and friends.

      • Susan Jarvis Bryant

        Peter, you always give me plenty to think about and I always gain insight and wisdom from your poetry. All I have to say is, never stop pushing the unorthodox when it comes to instruments – I’m a very patient woman. As for your latest poems, I feel they’re helping more people than you know… me included. Thank you, Sir!

  5. Joe Tessitore

    Dear Peter,

    Your poetry is almost too painful for me to read – I am remiss in not commenting on it earlier.
    It brings tears to my eyes and pulls my heart from my chest.
    What would be devastating to the likes of me, you carry with the most exemplary dignity.
    May He grant Dina eternal rest and may He bless you and keep you.

    Joe

    Reply
    • Peter Hartley

      Dear Joe – In my longish answer to you yesterday I’m afraid my butterfly mind took me off on a side tack about four-letter words and much else besides and, unforgiveably, in the end I forgot the most important matter: to thank you for your exceedingly kind words and your prayers for Dina and me. I don’t know about my exemplary dignity though. Some of these little verses are excruciatingly sad enough to have had ME in tears, and at least two of them were rejected by Evan, I think, because they were too desolate.

      Reply
  6. Sally Cook

    Beautiful and sensitive words.As yoiu know well, Love is the most important thing there is.

    Reply
    • Peter Hartley

      Sally – Thank you for your kind words. Regarding your second sentence, though, I believe that if you put fishnet tights, stilettos and half a ton of slap on a 48, 21, 39 Labrador retriever in one corner of a room and a dog biscuit in another I’ve a pretty good idea which corner another Labrador retriever will check out first.

      Reply
  7. David Watt

    Beautifully thoughtful and touching pieces. Thank you for your heartfelt words.

    Reply
    • Peter Hartley

      David – Thank you for the very kind remarks. We can do no better than write “heartfelt” words can we?

      Reply
      • C.B. Anderson

        Yes, Peter, we can. We can write words that will resonate throughout the ages and not through just the echo chambers of our own personal grief. You were a better poet when Dina was still around to put her hand on yours.

  8. Peter Hartley

    Dear Joe – I suppose it means those poems are doing their job then. When writing poetry I am still of the old-fashioned belief that we should be trying to create a finely-sculpted thing of beauty, or attempting to evoke that vision in the mind’s eye. It means that four-letter words will find no place in my verse: not because of the concepts they represent, solely, but because the words themselves are ugly for me (and if anyone thinks a word can’t be ugly per se, compare the words calm and shriek). But for me, also, a thing of beauty cannot be a joy forever unless it is also tinged with melancholy. Just look at the women in the paintings of J W Waterhouse (it doesn’t really matter which one – they’re all the same). Now THAT is beauty, and that creature would be a thing of beauty were she to grace us with red eyes, a lachrymal tsunami and snots dangling elegantly from both nares. But she is miserable too, and hers is the sort of beauty I try to capture in poetry. One of these days though I am going to commit literary felo de se and slit my own throat.

    Reply
      • Susan Jarvis Bryant

        Evan –

        What about Peter’s blasted Tyrolese bugle?

        Susan

    • Peter Hartley

      No, CBA, we can’t. And if you think YOUR words will resonate throughout the ages I think it just barely possible that you may have overestimated your own genius

      Reply
  9. James A. Tweedie

    Peter, Better late than never to comment on the deep emotional impact the Dina poems had on me as I read them and Even more so as I read them again more slowly. The pain must indeed run deep for you to be able to sustain the level of intense pathos from the beginning of each poem to its end. Perhaps I have not experienced that measure of loss since I have to fight against the temptation to relax the tension in my writing just so I can emotionally catch my breath every so often—an emotional relaxation that sometimes hints at bathos—a temptation you completely avoid in these intensely personal, high impact sonnets. No doubt these poems have led more than a few readers to shed tears on your behalf . . . and on behalf of Dina and in tribute to your love for her.

    Reply
    • Peter Hartley

      James – Thank you once again, as always, for your comprehensive appraisal of my work. I often suspect that commenters like you and Susan teach us all far more than our poetry can ever teach you. And I know that experience you describe as akin to bathos because any of us, intending to be serious, sorrowful or tragic can be waylaid in midstream by humorous thoughts or irreverent jokes. The latter would occur to me typically after the consecration of the Host, or during any quiet bit really. At midnight mass on Christmas Day we would have the statutory half-dozen drunks breaking wind up and down the scale (C sharp I seem to remember) till they were chucked out by the organist. Even the spell-chequer on this keyboard would have the most confirmed agelast chortling sometimes with its frivolous fatuousities and improper suggestions. But when it’s really serious we don’t feel like laughing for long before the mood of general depression is restored. You have a genuinely happy mien: I laugh once a fortnight, so it’s easier for me.

      Reply
      • James A. Tweedie

        Dear Peter, You are by far the most witfully melancholy man I have never personally met (I almost wrote “twitfully melancholy” which also seems not inappropriate). On a scale of 1 to 10 I’d rate you somewhere around B flat in a Phrygian mode (ie. exotically complex and curiously beautiful—a sentiment that could also be applied to much of your poetry). Keep laughing, my friend. I know you can do better than fortnighly. I have no doubt that Dina loved you, at least in part, because of your smile.

  10. Peter Hartley

    James – C sharp in hyperphrygian mixolydian mode I think you’ll find. I learned the names of all these modes when I was still at school to impress the Geography teacher when I found out most of them were named after regions of Turkey. Impressing the music teacher was an added bonus, as was a passing knowledge of the locations of St Paul’s epistles, (Galatea, Ephesus etc) and the fact that she was the only female member of staff.

    Reply

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