Leading A Charred Life: Seven Short Songs

George Szirtes (b.1948)
John Latham, Observer IV, 1960


I had thought to have been charmed                                                                            Not framed:
Had thought to be disarmed
Not blamed.

But life hangs fire as if suspended
As if it had been slyly ended.


We cannot altogether escape the fact
The facts are something that can’t be quite escaped.
But something is wrong in both thought and act:                                                        The act is thought, and act and thought are shaped.


Had I behaved better than I did …
Had sky been lighter, detail more compact …
Had escape ever been possible …
Had I but thought, were it still feasible to act …


Someone is raising a hand at a bus stop.
Someone is waving to someone on the other side.
We watch the smile light briefly on a face.
We watch our loved ones make their way through space,
Then space rolling in like a tide,
Entering a bus, a house, a shop.


Sometimes the beauty of wood is overwhelming.
We love that which seems warm yet indifferent.
So things burn down, so wood turns to coal,
So coal begins where trees are rife.
So we survive. We lead a (ha ha) charred life.


There is the terrible vehicle of darkness
That runs over us in hope.
There is my hand, there are your fingers.
We hang by our fingertips. We cope.


If poetry were just a matter of the air
Playing around the heart
We’d feel a powerful gust beneath our lungs
And call it art –
And art would do, or be, at least, a start.


The poem is taken from Bad Machine published by Bloodaxe Books (2013)
ISBN: 978 1 85224 957 1 Copyright © George Szirtes (by kind permission)

Performance Notes:

Instructions are on the score, but to clarify – the atmospheric ‘wind among the
reeds’ effects must be subtle and controlled, with well-observed dynamics. The
arrows clearly denote the exact stops and starts for this.

Portamenti need not be synchronised, but a mere ‘slide’ is to be avoided.

The piano opening (itself only mp) must not be overwhelmed by the choral ‘breeze’ effects.

At the very end, the choral sigh must be exactly on the arrow, and must not sound