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Backwaters: Norfolk Fields

for W.G. Sebald

by George Szirtes



Backwaters. Long grass, slow speech. Far off
a truck heaves its load of rust into a yard
next to a warehouse full of office furniture
no one will ever use, unless to stuff
some temporary room when times are hard.
Across the fields the sweet smell of manure.

We’re years behind. Even our vowels sag
in the cold wind. We have our beauty spots
that people visit and leave alone, down main
arterials and side roads. A paper bag
floats along the beach, clouds drift in clots
of grey and eventually down comes the rain. 

We’re at the end. It might simply be of weather
or empire or of something else altogether. 


Empire perhaps. Chapels in the cathedral.
Old airstrips. History’s human noises
still revving down a field. Clothes pegs hang
like hanged men. It is all procedural.
Resentment simmers in the empty houses.
The wind at its eternal droning harangue.

I’m wanting to mouth the word that fits the case
but it’s like trying to roll a shadow from
the street where it has been sitting for years.
It will not go. You cannot wipe the face
of the clock or restore a vanished kingdom.
You feel the shape of the thing between your ears.

Your mouth is talking to the steady light
which listens to you and remains polite.


How beautiful the place is. Watch it hold
time still. I want you to tell me what this is,
this place at the back of beyond, in the sun
that retains its distance in a pale gold
mirror, minding its own brilliant business,
not in the habit of speaking to anyone. 

Here is a man who loves cars. He has bought
a house on something very like a hill.
He fills his yard up with old cars. He mends things -
roofs, walls. He’s biblical. He does not take thought
for the morrow, won’t worry when he falls ill.
He goes swooping along on welded wings,

his children unruly, his wife losing heart.
The beautiful is what keeps them apart.


The WI stall. Jams, flowers. White
hair scraped back in the draught of an open door.
The butcher’s. He knows you by name. He calls
your name out. His chopping block is washed bright
by the morning sun. The solicitor
down the street. His nameplate. War memorials

with more names. Rows of Standleys, Bunns,
Myhills, Kerridges. Names on shopfronts: bold
reds, whites and blues in stock typography.
Names on labels tied with string to shotguns.
Names on electoral registers. Names in gold
in the children’s section of the cemetery 

by the railway cuttings. Willows, faint blue
in the afternoon, light gently whistles through. 


Too easy all this, like a fatal charm
intended to lull you into acquiescence.
Think karaoke. Sky. The video shop.
Broken windows. The sheer boredom. The alarm
wailing at two am. The police presence.
Pastoral graffiti on the bus stop. 

Think back of the back of beyond ‘beyond’. End
of a line. The sheer ravishing beauty
of it as it runs into the cold swell
of the North Sea, impossible to comprehend.
The harsh home truisms of geometry
that flatten to a simple parallel. 

This is your otherness where the exotic
appears by a kind of homely conjuring trick. 


A fifteen-eighties mural. A hunting scene
runs right around the room. A trace of Rubens,
Jordaens, a touch, even, of Chinese
in the calligraphic lines. Experts clean
the powdery limewash, two PhD students
from the university, anxious to please. 

A strange dome appears, out of period
somewhere near the top. Even here
there’s something far flung in the code
of a different language, another God
extolling other virtues, a pioneer
morality  just waiting to explode. 

Flemish brickwork. Devastation. Riders
exploring hidden walls with snails and spiders. 


You’re out at the end of the pier. It is winter.
Tall waves splutter underfoot. Gulls pirouette
and dive into dark grey. The radio is alive
with music. Its tiny voices seem to splinter
into sharp distinct consonants. You forget
the time of day. It’s someone else’s narrative 

buzzing beneath you. New explorers come
out of the light to exploit the heart of darkness.
The world is inside out, exposed as never before.
Water and sky are a continuum.
A terrible gaiety rustles the sea like a dress
it must discard. It sweeps by just once more 

then drops across the beach and remains there
in the memory, in ghosted, mangled air. 


How beautiful it is, this silence waiting
on salt. The disused railway lines between
wild blackberries. The faint hum of stray flies
on windowsills. Time is accelerating
down the coast road leaving behind a clean
pair of heels and a whiff of paradise. 

The man with welded wings roars past, in love
with reason. His wife leaves in a freak gust,
their children flying along. Dogs race across
the walls in search of a lost treasure trove.
Gently idling, vast trucks deposit rust
in empty yards with patches of dry grass. 

Broad fields out of town. The slow unravelling
of a long reel where everyone is travelling. 


Travelling through or ending. The damp house
beyond the library where an old woman
has been retreating for some fifty years,
and still retreats towards a dangerous
blind alley, towards a corner, where the nearest demon
might swallow her up leaving no more tears. 

There are none left to shed in the overgrown
garden with its coarse weeds. It is as if
she had been sleeping a century or more,
without a retinue, simply on her own,
growing ever more querulous, ever more stiff
till rigor mortis had frozen her four score 

into zero. Country aristocracy.
The dead fields at their last-gasp fantasy.  


A place full of old women. Hardy, courageous,
muttering to themselves and others in cafés,
engaging unwilling partners in conversation,
accosting young men, making outrageous
advances to middle-aged couples with tea-trays,
embarassing husbands with their ostentation. 

Old men in betting shops peering to check
the odds. Old men, natty in white, creaking
over bowls, with Beryl Cook elegance.
Old men tottering, sticking out a neck
at the neighbour while the latter is speaking.
Old men in the church hall learning to dance. 

The old in their gerontopolis. At home
in sheltered housing, under the pleasure dome. 


How many times do I have to say the word: End!
and still not end. You can’t go further than
the sea, not on a motorway. And what
are you doing here, yes, you and your friend
from Morocco, Uganda, St.Kitts or Pakistan?
Whatever has brought you to this far, flat 

kingdom with its glum farmers? Surely you
don’t think this is America where dreams
are the given, where you swear allegiance
to a new self? Have you somehow fallen through
the net of the world to be lost among reams
of legislature in these alien regions? 

Homing. We are homing to the sea. Back
where we never were, at the end of the track. 


On a high-cloud day, you could drown in sky
round here. You see the gentle swaying
of leaves along a wall. Something under
the water, under the sky-light, in the dry
cabin under the ocean is quietly playing
a music of muted bells in soft thunder. 

It is eating you away until you’ve gone,
like the spider scurrying up its own spit
back to its natural centre in the dark,
And the sky remains enormous. Someone
is watching the house-martin, the blue tit,
the tiny insects making their tiny mark 

in the grass, and the small rain that falls far
across the field as on a distant star.

Norfolk Poems




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