The Past

The poem which follows is, I consider, the best I have written in the last four years. It is dedicated to Robert Beavis, an archaeologist who organised a visit of the Lansdown poets to a dig in Berkeley, which was the starting point for the poem. ( see our website lansdownpoets.co.uk). In certain moods it is difficult not to feel overwhelmed by the weight of misery contained in human history. C.S. Lewis’s remark that there is no sum total of human suffering is a partial corrective, although it does, no doubt intentionally, lead on to thoughts about the most that could be suffered by any one person. This lies behind the line, ‘What was suffered is not transmitted’, but the following phrase ‘Dear absence’ records an ambivalence, ‘dear’ meaning blessed or merciful but also costly. Here is the poem.

 We know so little.
 A stone cries in the night.

Obstinate specks of clay 
eclipse the glitter of brooch and ring.
A clasp no longer gathers unto itself.

We dig, we dig deeper,
touching the subtle fabric
of ancient ties.

A riot of unholy feeling prevented
the cracked vessel from ever being full -
or so we tentatively suggest.

The past hurts and our recourse 
is to firm ground where
business employs and engrosses.

In snatches, letting go daily effort,
we feel both guilt and terror
for crimes which may also be ours.

Mistaken to picture our seed
running through lived lives,
a twist of exempted gold.

Were we taught
or do we know in our bones
the violent history of our kind?

What was suffered 
is not transmitted. Dear 
absence. Distant crucifixion.


Wild. Beyond calculation.
Luminous passion. More life.

Published by davidcookpoet

I am a husband, father and grandfather. I retired from a busy working life as an adult psychiatrist in 2014. My interests are in literature, philosophy, modern jazz and horse racing. I might represent those four fields by Shakespeare, Kant, Charlie Parker and Lester Piggott. Like nearly all of us, I can identify a number of formative experiences, one of which was a psychotic episode in my first year as a psychiatrist. This reinforced an already established interest in mystical experience, and a sense of how little human beings know. My intellectual bugbear is reductive materialism, and I am surprised at the lack of moral imagination of those who promulgate such views. It seems to me they need to consider ,perhaps by exposure, just why totalitarianism is so horrific.

5 thoughts on “The Past

  1. A lovely poem . A background in listening to it ,for me is this . There is a distinction in psychiatry between mental pain and mental suffering .They are seperate entities in experience . Suffering can be named and described. Pain however is often too raw , It is immediately projected into others , either psychologically ,or in violent action . .Suffering ,-diferently- , can be elaborated ,and thereby often eventually transformed into life . So whereas pain is often transmitted to others ( Man hands on misery to man . It deepens like a coastal shelf -Larkin ) , in sufffering “The buck stops with me ” .. Suffering ,however intense ,can be hopeful.

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  2. Thank you, Neil. I think the distinction between pain and suffering is a valuable one. People who have come through a painful ordeal sometimes comment that it was worse for family who had to look on and suffer.

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  3. Dear David Yes a truly moving poem. It struck home recurrently. You can truly be justly proud of it. Getting older brings difficulties that are not just related to physical disability. Thinking back at one’s life, when there is no longer the masking effect of ‘business’, means that one is constantly looking back at the whole. Memories of successes fall away in face of intrusive recall of mistakes and other negatives. We who had busy clinical lives and responsibilities carry a painful load. We took on emotional challenges that others do not have to face either during their working lives nor subsequently in ‘retirement’.

    Best wishes

    Gethin >

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