Lifesaving Poems: Peter Scupham’s ‘Early Summer’

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I can remember exactly where I was when I first read ‘Early Summer’. It was on the balcony of the squat of my friend Duncan Kramer, in Bromley in the summer of 1984.

The house had been earmarked for demolition to make way for a ring road. It was shared by Duncan with five other art students, each of whom attended Ravensbourne College of Art on furniture/product and graphic design courses. It was perhaps the most chaotic house I had ever seen, with bikes and car repair tools littering the hallways and landing, no locks on the bathroom or lavatory doors (you had to claim occupancy with a post-it note), and a constant mix of competing music (Maze vs. The Average White Band) seeping through the pores of each floor and ceiling.

I used to escape my bedsit in Golders Green to visit Duncan on the other side of the universe, turning up at his door unannounced with a bottle of wine in the hope of being fed and entertained for the weekend. If he was irritated by these raids of mine, he never showed it.

I do think they were some of the most formative experiences of my life.

It was through Duncan that I had first met the work of Seamus Heaney (one winter he walked around with a copy of Field Work in his donkey jacket pocket), and now I was meeting other poets who were not on the syllabus of the English Literature degree I was doing: Anne Stevenson, Carol Rumens, Paul Muldoon and Tom Paulin. They were all to be found between the pages of a tiny looking paperback with an arty cover, The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry, edited by Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion and published only two years previously.

We were sitting on his balcony in our shorts with coffee and the papers, having got up late one Saturday morning, when I began glancing through this little book of poems, intrigued by the artwork on the front cover and drawn in by the lure of reading more Heaney.

To the sound of weekend shopping and ordinary south London traffic I read these precise and uncluttered lines, feeling as though someone had taken a look inside my head and made a snapshot of it for all to see.

It seemed to describe perfectly the liminal world I was living in, right there, with its descriptions of ‘small things’ being ‘lost’, that ‘studious air’ and rescuing bees trapped behind glass. I also loved it sense of threat at the end. How odd to think that a poem about rescuing bees and ‘assaulting’ wasps should move me so. Even odder that it took me nearly thirty years to spot that differentiation. Just as I am not the person I was then, nor can he see what I now know, the promise that days in the sunshine do not last.

Early Summer


Small things get lost now;
There are intrusions,
Defeats in alien worlds.

This is the time to slide a foolish leaf
Under the flimsy legs that ruck
The pond’s tight skin,

Or bury the grassed fledgeling,
Tender for the closed eyes, the ungainly head
On the lax grey neck.

The rambling bee, obtuse and hairy,
Unzips with hid dull purr
The studious air.

He too will need us.
We hoist him to a window, smile
At his diminuendo horn.

Papery moths drift to the light,
Churr in a hand’s cave,
Then out, out.

Later, much later, we shall assault the wasps,
Brewing them in our slow cauldrons
Of honey, vinegar.

Peter Scupham, from The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry

Lifesaving Poems

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