Heaven on Earth


Now that it is night,

you fetch the wash

from outer space,


from the frozen garden

filmed like a kidney,

with a ghost in your mouth,


and everything you hold,

two floating shirts,

towels, tablecloth, a sheet.


ignores the law of gravity.


Only this morning,

the wren at her millinery,

making a baby’s soft bonnet,


as we stopped by the spring,

watching the water

well up in the grass,


as if the world

was teething.

It was heaven on earth


and it was only the morning.


I first came across ‘Heaven on Earth’ in the Poetry Book Society Anthology 1986/87, edited by Jonathan Barker (Hutchinson, 1986). As people of my grandparents’ generation used to say, it did not look a very likely volume. The front cover, mimicking newspaper sellers’ headlines for final editions (do those exist any more?), promised poems ‘UNPUBLISHED IN BOOK FORM BY Philip Larkin, Graham Greene AND MANY OTHERS’. The words were eye-catching, but the design looked as though it had taken two minutes. Nevertheless, I bought and devoured it. Or at least most of it.

This was in that period of life when I knew poetry was what I wanted to do but absolutely no idea about how to go about it, who to speak to, or write to, or contact. As I have said before, the burning of your loneliness in those days is matched only by your hunger to get going and find out what you know you don’t know. So the falling of this rather unprepossessing book into my hands around Christmas of 1986, with names like Dannie Abse, Wendy Cope, U.A. Fanthorpe, Ted Hughes, and Hugo Williams on the back, was something of an event.

The book contained poems I would later go on to find in individual collections: classics as diverse as Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Miles Away’, Ian McMillan’s ‘Cracking Icicles in Totley Tunnel’ and Seamus Heaney’s ‘Clearances’. Derek Mahon was in there. And Larkin’s ‘Aubade’.

But the poem that stopped me in my tracks was this one, nearish to the end, looking slight and unpresuming. It shared a page with two very short poems by Peter Reading, one of which was about rusting supermarket ‘trollies’.

I still don’t know how or why we fall in love with some poems and not with others. I do think the social setting in which we find poems is an influence (who recommends what, and when). Just as important are the things we bring, consciously or not, to the moment of discovery. Age has something to do with it, and, as I say, things like loneliness and hunger. Accident also plays its part.

And before you know it you are off and running, pursued and pursuing the rhythm and knowledge and assumptions set up by an innocent phrase such as ‘Now that it is night’. I do think he had me by that point.

The poem comprises three sentences, which more or less say: this is what is happening now; this is what happened earlier; this is what I think about it. If I wanted to be more litcrit about things, I’d argue that it is a kind of template, in its way, for much contemporary poetry. After a while, you can begin to see the moves.

But I did not know that then, and reading the poem again this morning I did not know it again either. I knew what was coming, but was still persuaded by the dream of its narrative to stay in the moment and find out for myself. And I was glad I did, for nearly thirty years later it still abounds with pleasures: the ‘ghost in your mouth’; the ‘frozen garden/ filmed like a kidney’; ‘the wren at her millinery,/ making a baby’s soft bonnet’; the delayed pun of the water ‘welling up’, which carries emotional freight without drawing attention to itself because it possesses what Lowell called ‘the grace of accuracy’.

The poem’s other delayed pun, hanging out to dry as it were at the end of a line, is the noun ‘spring’, described later in the rich leap of ‘as if the world/ was teething’. I categorise such small and intimate pleasures among those when I know poetry began to speak to me unfiltered by the voices of teachers or the pressure of exams. All this time later, it is still new to me, leaving me wanting more.