Lifesaving Poems: UA Fanthorpe’s ‘Atlas’

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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.

Atlas

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)

Lifesaving Poems

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’

26 comments

  1. Scrapiana

    Nicely framed. Thank you. I first saw this poem in my old college magazine a couple of years back; Fanthorpe attended the same seat of learning (though long before me), and so it was published alongside her obituary. I adore the way it manages to encompass WD40 and whole canopy of the heavens. Hope you don’t mind that I have tweeted a link to this post today: National Poetry Day 2013.

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  2. portiasc

    I remember Ursula Fanthorpe with a smile. She was a receptionist at the Burden Neurological Hospital where I worked, and was a fascinating lady who ran her reception superbly. We were always treated to a poem in our dept Christmas card. As always, this poem shows immense insight.

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    • Anthony Wilson

      Thank you so much for commenting on my post about ‘Atlas’. I’m delighted to hear from someone who knew her. I was given her book of Christmas poems this year, and they are wonderful, as you will know. With thanks and best regards, Anthony

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  3. Jazz Cookie

    Anthony, thank you so much for including this poem. I have just forwarded it to the sweetheart with whom I’ve recently been re-united after forty-plus years. We are not young! He will love it as much as I do and we both understand the nature of love so skillfully expressed by Fanthorpe. Best wishes for a happy and poetic 2014.

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    • Anthony Wilson

      Thank you so much for leaving this comment. The more I hear about Ursula, the more she comes across as a wonderful person. I hope the poem went down well at your mother’s funeral. It’s a good choice.
      With best regards, Anthony

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  5. appelfever

    I shall be reading this tomorrow, on behalf of a friend, at our Book Club Poetry evening. I loved your story and shall be reading this as well – I hope you don’t mind. Your story and the poem are very thought-provoking. Thank you. Best wishes, Jenny

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