I heard ‘Atlas’ before I read it. I was in a tiny, tardis-like medieval church, at a rather posh wedding in Winchester.
Outside it was one of those perfect English summer days, clouds moving at walking pace, sweltering and benign. Yet tragedy stalked the minds of many of us involved in the service. A close family member of the wedding couple had recently died; the father of bride was seriously ill. Rumours of his inability to make it up the aisle abounded.
We were not to know it until the speeches in the marquee, but into this atmosphere of joy and reserve was to arrive one of the filthiest (and funniest) Best Man speeches any of us would ever hear…
To get there we had had to make arrangements. Relatives were persuaded to look after our children. A B&B was booked; outfits and presents were shopped for.
But I still think the main event of the day came half-way through the sermon in the wedding service itself. ‘I hope you don’t mind,’ the vicar said, ‘but I think this can best be expressed by reading you a poem’ (what a wise man).
He was talking, of course, about love. One of the readings had been St Paul’s hymn to the same in his letter to the Corinthian church. The poem he was now reading seemed much less familiar and twice as fresh. There seemed a clear-eyed, not at all romantic (or Romantic) appraisal of the facts of the matter. Some of the language (dryrotten jokes?) seemed perilously close to cliché (which was precisely the point).
In a day that seemed to contain, as in so many English summer days, more than its fair share of tension and release, the poem appeared as unlooked for balm and blessing. Most crucially it created a long moment in which all of the day’s private sadness and public celebration could be held equidistant from each other, not so much for close examination but rather to allow acceptance to take a tentative foothold.
A moment of breathing, of in-filled lungs, returning us to a larger moment, to each other and to ourselves.
There is a kind of love called maintenance
Which stores the WD40 and knows when to use it;
Which checks the insurance, and doesn’t forget
The milkman; which remembers to plant bulbs;
Which answers letters; which knows the way
The money goes; which deals with dentists
And Road Fund Tax and meeting trains,
And postcards to the lonely; which upholds
The permanently rickety elaborate
Structures of living, which is Atlas.
And maintenance is the sensible side of love,
Which knows what time and weather are doing
To my brickwork; insulates my faulty wiring;
Laughs at my dryrotten jokes; remembers
My need for gloss and grouting; which keeps
My suspect edifice upright in air,
As Atlas did the sky.
UA Fanthorpe, from Safe as Houses (Peterloo Poets, 1995)
If you liked this, why not try Naomi Jaffa’s ‘Some of the Usual’ or Ann Gray’s ‘Mercifully ordain that we may become aged together’