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Alan Morrison on

Geoffrey Heptonstall

Sappho’s Moon

Cyberwit, India, 2020



Heptonstall’s Aphorisms

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Sappho’s Moon is the swift follow up to Geoffrey Heptonstall’s beguiling debut volume Rites of Paradise (Cyberwit, 2020). I say ‘swift’ but, like that first volume, this second also comprises poems written and published in numerous prestigious journals over a number of years, here collected together for the first time in one book. As I wrote before of Heptonstall’s poetic style, I find much in common with the clear, succinct lyricism of the late Robert Nye, and, indeed, Robert Graves, whom I believe had been an influence on Nye. Take a stanza from the first poem in this book, ‘A Table of Translations’:


A polemic lies restlessly

eager for the insurgence

Ferlinghetti has promised

in words of stardust falling

as white water in the cataract.

His thoughts are timely metaphors.


This is verse of enviable clarity, the enjambments well-judged. I’m also reminded of the precise lyricism of the late Norman Buller. ‘The Magician’s Shadow’ deploys some subtle unobtrusive rhymes:


The romance is familiar:

a question in the fabric of time.

Threads of being are woven

of clouds and a clear sky.

Reality the riderless,

truth a critical simile

harnessed at once to the onlooker’s eye.


The aphorismic ‘Changing, Viewing, Passing’ has an oriental sagacity (again, like Buller) about life observations it imparts:


It surely is the wisest counsel

that water is drawn from the well.

All shall be found within

arabesques of experience,

original but human.

And there begins time passing.

That much is known, but not well.


‘Fortune’s Lodging’ is also brimming with wisdom:


There it began; and ended

here in his belvedere.


Nothing happened by chance.

He had observed in nature

the phases of the Moon,

and the turning of tides

in celestial patterns

the eye can barely see.

He had travelled in search of worlds,

only to return to the beginning

with a fortune spent on travelling

and another gained in knowledge.

There was a purpose in living:

it was simply to seek itself.


Something sublime is beginning to be glimpsed here. ‘The Future May Seem Written’ is another meditative poem with some nice similes—'Ivy on the neglected house grows,/ like a wilful child’—which seems to effortlessly coin aphorism after aphorism:


The future may seem written

for the words are clear,

like Arctic sunlight.


The clocks in succession strike.

Time may sound precise

but the step on the stair falters.


‘Pygmalion’ is a deft lyric—here it is in full:


See the statue smile.

Touching her,

he feels a tremor in the stone.

And her eyes,

they watch the artist at work.

He speaks to her,

murmuring thoughts

He dare not say aloud,

not to the world he knows.

She is art, and understands

what cannot be spoken.

It is felt too deeply,

like the love he feels for his creation.


In ‘Beggar’s Bounty’ ‘(The gods, disguised in rags, experience life on earth)’. There’s some beautifully wrought sibilance in the following lines:


Reflections on clear water,

dazzling Daedalus and son.

Then hearing celestial sounds

in cedar and sycamore.


This short poem closes on the aphorism: ‘There are things to lose/ in the dream of freedom’. In ‘The Bacchae’ we get one of Heptonstall’s many syntactic inversions which, not necessitated by the attempt to clinch an end-rhyme (most of his poems are free verse or only occasionally rhyming verse) there is detectably another prosodic purpose to this: ‘Satin shoes discarded sink into mud’. There’s something of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in the following verse:


The rains that fall on the city

slow the pursuit of men

in search of reason.

Sleep overtakes them.

Without iron and fire

the King is powerless.

All he has he summons,

prepared alone to face the goat-god.

What he sees destroys him.


‘Orpheus Appears’ depicts the perennial figure of the poet as epitomised by the eponymous Greek mythological figure:


On a desolate plain

comes the heavenly song

from the God-gifted one,

lyre in hand,

wrestling with the wind.


The poem closes on the hopeful lines:


Sadness steals through the forest

till the music wakens the world,

opening the eyes of songbirds.


‘Orpheus Descending’ is a striking lyric, excerpted in full:


Centaurs are still in Arcadia,

as still as frost.

Into the fissure of earth

goes this life ephemeral,

deeper than the certainties

of the hermit’s dream.

The darkness alone

sees Orpheus go down

to the rumoured margin

of an exceptional scene,

returning to find nothing

has changed, except hope.


In ‘Sysyphus: Of Punishment’ ‘The stone has no forgiving’. In ‘Antigone: Of Revenge’:


She spoke of restoration,

of changes to be made

in cartographies of the antique.

Moving by implication

into an audacious child,

so unusual in her need

to be undefined.


‘Odysseus: Of War’ gifts us a sublime metaphor for the mental struggles of the human condition:


So at a crossroads

is a choice between hazards:

to run is cowardice,

to remain suicide.

Thinking aloud, he says,

‘The certainties encircle me;

the wound rests inside my mind.’


The wounded mind. Once again we encounter what I shall term the ‘Heptonstall inversion technique’ at the start of ‘Another Homeric Moment’, which alters the poetic metre to—I think—a trochaic foot, as opposed to the more standard iambic:


Fell the shining spear of Sarpedon

through infinite space unseen,

aimed for Patroclus, moved by fate –

his horse was struck.

Stilled by shock, then rearing,

Pedarus turned away from life.

Untimely end in agony…


There’s particularly effective—though perhaps serendipitous—p-alliteration and sibilance at work in this poem.


Having already remarked on the oriental aspects to Heptonstall’s poetic style—indeed, many of his verses, if split in two, as they often are in sentence structure, could work well as haikus—the second section of the collection is entitled ‘At the Gates of Xanadu—Suggestions of China’. The enigmatic ‘Advice to the Imagination’ ends disturbingly:


Let readers think your tale romance,

unless, as you write, a shadow falls.

Consider the fate of creatures,

punished for being where they may be found.


‘The Dream of Admiral Zheng He’ is another succinct dabbling in the sublime with a hint of Buddhism:


Sailing to the moon,

their compass the stars shining.

What they find is dust.


Consider the Unanswerable Question.

What we see in the sky is a void,

for never can we read a heavenly mind.


Nor dare we delve into the earth

after such an encounter.

Fury tears at our flesh

while leaves of the fall envelope hope.

The wild dogs howl as they come near

to feast on what remains.


The phrase ‘envelope hope’ has a nice homophony. ‘Voices’ makes subtle use of occasional end rhymes and o-assonance to hypnotic lyrical effect:


In their gilded fevers

we knew they were dreaming

of walking on the moon

when horsemen came.


And the waters flowing

through the darkest eye

with ice and iron

housed among shadows,

tasting temptations,

the first of the season.

Then in view the trees

were moving all who remained,

their emotions shaken

by the sight of the fallen

when all we saw was rain.


I am again reminded of the orientalism of Norman Buller’s poetry, particularly in his Pictures of a Fleeting World (2013), in aphorismic poems such ‘In Memory of Li Yui-Se’:


An old man tends the trees

in a distant province.

Warlords are tamed by ripening fruit,

delicate as ivory queens

in a game of xiangqi.


The dust remains on the writing desk

where once a volume lay.

The space will never be filled,

for as a soul departs

there is a shadow still


There’s a constant brocade of mortality in these oriental meditations—as in the haunting ‘A Lady Lamented’:


The room where once she dreamed is open

to the fallen leaves, scurrying

in half-heard words that lie

like dust gathered in shadows.

I admire Heptonstall’s talent at imparting so much in so few words, and such gently confident phrasing, as in ‘A Treasure of the Western Han Dynasty’: ‘A game of sticks and counters,/ unearthed from the tombs, intrigues’. ‘A Dream of Xanadu’ is beguiling in its sublime subtleties:


No-one can imagine the world

seen from the stars,

for no-one has found the path

that leads beyond the mountain heights,

nor yet the trail in the wastes

that is surely heavenward.


Of these things there are whispers.

a song of mysteries is said to be lost.

Travellers who leave never return.

Rumours are many and

as varied as the flowers

growing in a well-tended garden.

In Xanadu the bamboo palace pleases

all who dream of her.


The v-alliterative ‘A Day’s Work Far From the City’ has some captivating images:


All embers of evening ashen,

our vermilion dreams vanish.

Dust in the dawn breeze makes mist

of our company leaving for the day.


Working will mock the song

I heard by night of she

who flew with white wings,

plumed in unforgiving innocence…


‘Reflections on a Window In Lan’tien’ is an exquisite miniature:


Once there were forests

where leaves fell gently.

Now there is carved ivory

encompassing her dreams.



The rain runs down the window pane.

In the kingdom of glass

the river has many streams

flowing from ancestral mountains,


Such imageries immediately remind one of Lu Han’s mountainous coloured ink pictures or Japanese Hokusai’s misty mountain prints. ‘Of Jade and Ivory’ is a meditation on Creation from the child’s point of view:


He thinks toward another life

of jade and ivory,

imagining the journey

through a mind of measureless highways

he gives the name of Nature.

A pattern is proposed

to thoughts that follow

the hand that held the world.


To see as he saw

when his hand touched the paper

making exquisite ideas visible,

a map of the world in motion –

observers may sigh at the irony -

they have seen the Moon

reflecting many moods,

all shades of light and darkness.

An anxiety gathering

in the air of the streets.


There are some nice homophonic echoes in this poem: ‘ivory’/’journey’/’irony’, ‘Moon’/’moods’ etc. The poem arrives at a juvenile vertigo:


The illusion of stillness fools no-one

in the living world all that lives has movement.

We ask what compares with the motion

of the stars in heaven?

And then there is the sun.


In ‘Seconds in China’ there are some great sibilant phrases such as ‘spiders and spectres’ and ‘silken cities’. Again Heptonstall plays poetically with infant wisdom:


A child asks of people:

‘How can they know what they want

until we show them?’

He is thought by many to be wise.

There are those who are not so sure.

All that shall remain of them is bones.


There’s follows a wonderful flourish of Chinese life:


A time of acceptance is approaching.

in certain seasons

there are no more desires.

Old men alone are wakened

by the chatter of monkeys

for whom victory is a game

to be forgotten at sunrise.

Dogs, like merchants, gather

in the square by the statue

of a mounted warrior.

The monument is European,

and may not survive.

A time of absence is approaching.


Rumours are as wild as jasmine

whose petals fall far from the stem.

Storms beat against the window glass,

tapping out a message

sung simply each time:


Every second in China

Something significant happens.


There is a gnomic quality to much of Heptonstall’s poems—take this passage from ‘Of Calm First Light, Growing’:


A foot falls on a delicate shell

All in nature is there,

taken by the discovery

seen to be a world in flight

when life itself is broken

in an unsuspecting science.


The third section of the book is titled ‘The Stratford Variations—Suggestions of Shakespeare’. ‘A Plantagenet Web’ contains many plosives, k-alliterations, and inversions:


A king himself may be victim,

and not only the princes.

Many deaths are unexplained.


Innocence is easily devoured,

a mere matter of regret

when the killing is invisible.

In shadow the trap is set,

the delicate craft of capture

a shaft of sunlight shows.


From the intricacy of the real

a history of stratagems.


 ‘A Roman Holiday’ touches on the living apotheoses of emperors into gods:


There is fire in the heavens

and the murmuring of gods.

A ghost walks from its grave.

A poet is torn to pieces

by an angry Roman crowd.

This is not the usual spring.


A god who fails is dust.

Another wears his laurel crown.


‘Malvolio’s Epiphany’ is a studied depiction of the eponymous vain steward for Olivia in Twelfth Night:


He of somber plumage,

maunciple no more, but master

of virtue rewarded by love.


She is, he reads, so coy

in her cryptic letters.

He thinks he is favoured

by his desire to serve

the one he calls mistress well.


‘The Queen of Egypt’ is a short monologue by Cleopatra: ‘I am amused to be thought divine/ when secretly stained with intimate blood’. ‘Venetian Whispers’ contains the sagacious trope: ‘All that I have known is no more/ than this, my forfeiture,/ which is to some a virtue’. ‘The Storm’ is a worthy take on The Tempest from the point of view of the shipwrecked. Othello is the subject of the short ‘The Moor of Venice’—it closes enigmatically:


A sea crossed to a coast

of unexpected contours.

In glim light all is Africa.


The word ‘glim’ means a candle or a lantern. ‘The Fool’s Apology’ forms aphorisms inspired by King Lear:


There may be a purpose found

when all that can be happens.

Until then there is the forest

where stealth is the watchword.


They see an old man’s madness

that summons the spirit of night

as the wolves reach the city limit.

The king and his daughters,

two of whom are treacherous,

are told in many tales

The fool is he who tells it well.


‘The Poet’s Hand’ closes on an epithet to the perennial figure, or is perhaps a tribute to Shakespeare himself, who was after all primarily a poet (most of his plays were part-composed in blank verse and/or rhyme, Richard II and King John were written entirely in verse):


The poet’s hand warms at the candle

as the light of his art fades.

If you seek his memorial

then read the life in words.

They were spoken in the fields of youth

before he found taverns to his taste.

Words have no season but always.


The fourth and final section of this book is titled ‘Metro—Suggestions of the City’. In ‘City of Words’ it is indeed certain words and their associations that dominate the poem making its themes—‘shadows’, ‘stranger’, ‘wounds’, ‘rumour’, ‘anger’:


Who calls the strangers’ case

in a city of shadows?


Truth may take every room in the house,

only to be homeless again

now a hard hand directs us.

Some may find a private place

in the light of experience,

the engine of imaginings

written in unsupposed styles.

We seek the stranger within.


Beneath the streets sleeps the anger.

Behind the anger is the blade

glistening in the low light…


The walls are whispers

from the world of chances

that float like feathers.

Consider the hope of the hanging man.

He dreams of seas in storm.

His words are wounds:

an autumnal afternoon,

anniversary of war.


What rumour is heard,

returning to source:

raw like a wound…


Better voices speak in the rain

washing those elegant walls.

The woman in her café corner,

accustomed to silence,

smiles beneath the sunflowers

painted on a sea blue wall.

Children are amazed by the rainbow

they follow all the way home.


In ‘The History of a City’ we have recapitulation of an earlier trope—'when all that can be happens’ in ‘A Fool’s Apology’—in ‘All that we imagine happened’. These poems appear to evoke and describe a Mediterranean living environment and one assumes the poet, who presently lives in Cambridge, once lived abroad. There’s a nice sense of images reflecting each other in ‘Boston Squarer’: ‘We are about to eat from the sea/ A fish caught at first light’ is reflected in


Now, girded in moonlight,

she takes upon her the shimmering

of something appropriate to the hour.


There’s an ambiguity as to whether those lines refer to the fish or the poet’s partner. The poem closes on the imagery of eighteenth century ghosts:


We walk through the square

where another ocean flows

among the ghosts of merchants

who raise their tricorne hats

as stoutly they stand, eternally

alert to the changes of tide.


‘Ghost Walks’ is the longest poem in the collection, covering nearly three pages, set out as a sequence, a note under the title reads: ‘[1816: Coleridge collapses in Bath a moment’s walk from where Mary Shelley is writing Frankenstein, or the New Prometheus]’. There’s some beautiful imagery: ‘See how Palladian shadows fall/ when imagination walks by’. Shadows, ghosts, strangers and reflections abound:


In the cool of the Salamander:

a shadow from the street light,

and the approaching tread

through the stonework echoing

the sound of unfamiliar feet.

On hearing again,

they may not be a stranger’s

Or there is no-one,

even as the conversation turns

to further reflections.


We hear of how the opium-addicted visionary poet Coleridge’s maid would change his sweat-soaked sheets/ after a night of visitations’—though it was a ‘person from Porlock’ who famously interrupted his hallucinatory visions of Kubla Kahn Khan’s pleasure domes, as famously memorialised in Stevie Smith’s ‘Thoughts about the Person from Porlock’. There follow some cadent, beautifully judged lines:


Below the window elegance strolled,

planning an evening’s quadrille.

The poet’s thoughts were measureless

to others, at times to him.

Words were written in candlelight

that the day could not tell.


In the city of his fears

there ran dark waters beneath.

Only the damned may drink.

Their cries for mercy sounding

from abandoned places

where no pleas are heard.


The word ‘measureless’ of course echoes a line from ‘Kubla Khan’: ‘caverns measureless to man’. The final two verses focus on the simultaneous composition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein:


Prometheus steals the gift of fire,

angering the gods who punish him.

Another secret science reveals

that life itself might be created

in an unnatural Adam.


A spirited mind understands

how all may read

of the man-made man.

Daring to tell the truth,

Mary Shelley writes of a dream

known of old to the wise,

now received by all who live

outside of Eden, in the imperfect world


The phrases ‘unnatural Adam’ and ‘man-made man’ capture well Frankenstein’s abomination. From Bath to ‘Berlin’, and some more memorable aphorisms—‘The government elects its people/ as the walls erect their stones’—and lyrical flights:


An artist draws a circle of chalk

and Berlin becomes the moon

with dust on which a poet walks

as an innocent to the gallows,

as a book to be forever unread,

as a song without music,

as a thought without words.


There’s a Blakean feel to some of the imagery:



When the beasts have fled their cages,

making for the forest night.

And the sky is void of stars

until the sun’s rising

from memory and the eternal record


‘A Crown for the Queen of Elsewhere’ has many beguiling gnomic passages:


Paper fell on Lexington,

floating down graciously,

a leaf from a lover’s book

someone had scattered.

In the city are many unlikely things

pleased to remain so.

Travellers wait for ever,

like children in the line of fire.


The gilded lyre birds fly

through the midnight lives

in sight of Union square

and desire is indifferent.

many dreamers wake alone.

This city may be at war….


‘South Kensington’ is a beautifully judged short lyric piece which I excerpt in full:


In Thurloe Square a flower falls.

The fragrance of the tea she takes

is blown with the dust

in the four o’clock lamplight

when an outer door opens.


A finger poised on the cup

is a pen on parchment

about to make its mark,

A marvel not yet seen

as she waits for someone.

Thoughts of mine move me

when I think of her waiting

even now to go somewhere

Within unspoken expectations.

She waits for him, I see


Note the o-assonances—‘Thurloe’, ‘flower’, ‘blown’, ‘four o’clock’, ‘outer door opens’, ‘poised on’, ‘someone’, ‘move’, ‘somewhere’, ‘unspoken’—which give a sense of slowness and flow to the poem. O-assonance permeates the next poem, ‘York’, too:


And walled within the civilized difference

the descant of choristers,

preserved in patterns of stone

so that histories speak

in several tongues,

each thinking the others barbarous.

There are old incantations

of wounds that words never heal.


Again we have the juxtaposition of ‘wounds’ and ‘words’. It’s interesting to note that the word ‘barbarous’ or barbarian from the Greek bárbaroi actually originated as an onomatopoeic term drawn from ‘bar bar’ which represented the sound of incomprehensible foreign languages to the ears of the Ancient Greeks. This short exquisite poem closes on a resonant image:


The rumours pass from hand to hand.

The streets of a city are whispers.

Consider the hope of the hanged man,

or a traveller on whom the fragments fall.


Here the a-assonances are particularly effective: ‘hanged man’, ‘traveller’, ‘fragments fall’. ‘Elsewhere at the City’s Bounds’ has a beautifully lyrical close:


The birds that fly to the forest

are souls ennobled.

They hear her singing

beneath the moon of Araby.


The b-alliterations work beautifully here: ‘birds’, ‘ennobled’, ‘beneath’, ‘Araby’. ‘Metro’ gifts this line on motion and time:


This history is passing

through the flow of the crowd

toward the end of the line

in the face of departure.


‘Firebirds’ is another strikingly aphorismic poem:


Scorched feathers clouded the scene

when the flames moved like sea waves

to the shores of another land

far from the dream of Parnassus.


The heat that chokes the throat

burns the song before it sings.

No living creature could hear

the passing of the lost.

Every future was fallen

as the firebirds fled.

There was a haze at noon

and the midnight embers glowed.

What remain are mere shadows.

What they leave behind is everything.


‘Memento’ returns us to an orientalism of tone and image:


This time the trees are still

in Lenten-like denial.

A bitter tranquillity

rests on remembrance.

A gathering of birds will scatter

at the sound of lives abandoned.

Though a final word falls

when no-one has spoken.


There is too something of Robert Frost in Heptonstall’s sagacious meditations:


The trail you follow is the things itself

unmasked of metaphor, revealed.

The well-worn track of reality

that seeks a meaning imprisoned

in the stone that serves to block the way.


‘Providence’ is wistful meditation on innocence and growth:


She told her dream stories

to the wild swans,

for those family quarrels

were springtide storms.

But in a girl’s memory

are many kinds of fall.


Tearfully she would learn how

the blossom does not return

once the tree is shaken,


So she would hear the sound

of the city-bound express.

its some-time-soon promise

flashing past her innocence revealed.


Then there were no more seasons

but of her own making…


The final poem in this assured collection has the immediately poignant title of ‘John Berryman’s Recovery’—poignant, since Berryman, a lifelong alcoholic and depressive, and son of a suicide, committed suicide by jumping from Washington Avenue Bridge in 1972. Here Heptonstall imagines Berryman eternally suspended mid-leap/fall in a sense which seems to anticipate the immortality of the soul—I excerpt this beautiful poem in full:


Berryman may be found dreaming,

the poet conscious of words

sounding from heaven where

I do not want him to die.


Drinking his depression to death,

the old man is a child again

as the drunkard seeking sobriety,

there being so many futures

with all the ways of recovering.

No life is certain in itself:

Berryman is the poet falling,

never reaching the ice-still river

if an angel intervenes,

raising him up to understand

a certain life and a wilder one

in homage to ancestral music

becoming his Dream Songs.


Imagining his choice

caught between bridge and water,

the poetry, like paper, flew

from the heart of a broken man

to the whole of a life.


Then there was no more.

What was there remains

for us to follow down

into a mind making sense

at last of all the words

that might be and surely are.


The line ‘if an angel intervenes’ brings to mind Clarence’s crucial interception of George Bailey’s suicide attempt by jumping off a bridge into an ‘ice-still river’ in Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life (1946). It’s a fitting poem to conclude on, echoing as it does so many of the themes of this collection: time, mortality, the writing life, words and shadows, impermanence, perpetuity.


With Sappho’s Moon Heptonstall once more proves abundantly his accomplishment as a lyrical poet in the vein of Roberts Graves, Frost and Nye, and the late Norman Buller. But what stands out the most, for me, is Heptonstall’s talent for producing aphorisms which appear as sporadic pools of gnomic wisdom throughout his poems.


Alan Morrison © 2022

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