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Downland Sonnets
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Image by Giles Watson’s poetry and prose
A reading of the sonnets is now available here:


Downland Paths

Downland paths are arched to contours;
their flexed backs maned with broomrapes
and orchids. I have felt them shudder
when I walked them, as though vexed
by flies. Nostrils flare: sullen holes
where beeches have blown over. There are
vast eyelids lashed with stubble; dewponds
are their glazed corneas. A walker risks
being flipped over by a fetlock, when
the wind hits gale-force. There are tracks
which end in hooves. Approach them
from the wrong angle, and they’ll throw you
into a tangle of nettles and whin. You’ll
wear them down, but they’ll not be broken in.

Downland Mists

Sometimes on the downs, day is postponed,
and at the end of the barley-field, mist
melts into a sea of glumes. The vale
is an etching in glass, a glimpsed mosaic
of pale illuminations; there is no horizon,
or there are many. Old swathes are green
trails leading nowhere. The whole scene
might be sedimentary: a slow settling
of silts and silica beneath the glaze.

Time and space condense, precipitate;
earth, crops and air make a smoked pane
of faded layers – whites, beiges, greys.
Spaces yawn. My soul is formed of chalks,
clays and the failing breath of dawn.


How many miles of mist-shrouded ramparts
have I walked, soaked to the knees in dew,
with the solitary crow ever sentinel
ahead of me on a bare branch, the vale below
invisible, or emerging in puddles of light
as though the clouds were melting ice –
and I have melted too – melded with chalk,
gone eye-high to grasses, become a thistle,
a path, a thorn, moulded myself to contours
blurred by stubble, learned the slow and
glacial art of undulations, condensed
life, love and sense into an urchin test
as the crow has gazed, surveyed with his
wise black eye, evaporated into flight?

The Hind Leg of the White Horse

The curve of it is perfect: pure, hammered chalk,
calcium-coloured, cutting out and then conforming
to the line and sweep of the ancient coombe. Sunlight
enlivens it: a whole landscape’s equine embodiment.
Put your ear to the turf: hear the urgent thrum
of his warhorse-heart, white lime coursing through
his pale aorta, and the inrush of downland air
through a blanched trachaea, into loamy lungs.

The downs become an amphitheatre of respiration:
grass-roots get nutrients out of dead bivalves
thrown to ground out of some antediluvian
sea-bottom. Evening sweats out golden oxygen
until the horse’s breath is set to spill, like
powdered dreams, out into space from the holy hill.

The Spine of the Downs

The escarpment lay down to sleep, weary of flight.
Its closed eye became raised ground, flattened
at the summit; a long muzzle probed the Vale.
The furnace in those lungs burned down to a single,
buried cinder, too deep to warm the sward.
The tail, vaned as a stegosaur’s, threshed about
a time or two, then subsided into the Manger.
Great, interlocking vertebrae arched themselves,
making Downs, calcified the whole heaving hill
into solid chalk. The breathing shallowed itself
to a whisper. About the hollow, dewy coombe,
dragon-legends echoed. Twayblades split the turf.

Some days, sunlight stimulates the circulation.
The long spine flexes. The creature almost wakens.

Downland Light
For Joe Thurston

It beams in at a slant, lending nimbus-
fringes to thistles, blades of grass. Land
is prone to tilting; time and distance
turn illusory; perspectives shift, or wilt.
Rooks glint white at a moment’s glance,
lapse into silhouettes. Towns obscure
themselves in vapours. Horizons blur;
clouds confuse themselves with hills.

The Vale folds into verticals, pleats
itself inwards. We can’t be convinced
we’re not at the edge of earth. Chalk
flutes and shadows taper into voids.
Here, one could slip between creases, lose
grip on delusion, lean outward and let go.

The Moon Above the Downs

The moon gave half of herself over
for the chalking-in, surrendering
to the lapwing’s deception. The skylark
eclipsed her, sang, then looped down
to the wind-flattened grass. Hares
caught sight of her, turned bulge-eyed
and bolted crazily, negotiating unseen
mazes. Primeval ways revealed themselves:
paths made by sheep and glaciers. Wind
continued her slow and whittling work,
bearing chalk-dust, spiderlings and seeds
into a stratosphere so immaculate that
the lapwings fluted starward psalms,
and moonglow etched out ancient forms.

Downland Harvest

Whittled down to stubble, the cut straw reveals
the hills’ taut musculature, as though the blade
were practised in the art of making-plain.
The thin skin of earth is stretched, tight
as drum-leather, over every flex and distension.

A bird in flight might pick out striations,
bunched tendons, and high on the escarpment,
ancient scars, soiled and grassed over: the only
angular things for miles. Hillsides are fusiform:
gigantic lines and curves, laid naked, draped
for life-class, one scored with an arching, bleached
tattoo. Cold water-courses source themselves
in groins; armpits bristle with husks of oats.

Have patience – wait – and feel the respiration.

Downland Thorns

They cling to places that can’t be tilled –
ramparts, edges of escarpments, sullen slopes –
and thrust out thorns with a wise misanthropy,
as if to say, "Axe me, and I’ll spill blood."
Only the wind is obeyed: it sculpts them,
wakes them, withers them in the sere,
and when they die, uproots them, rolls
their gorgeous torsoes down the coombes.

Others have a gnarled agreement with gales,
thrust deeper roots, fleck the frozen air
with withered haws, their sagging arms
laden with the sodden wool of lambs.
They earn the permanence of stones,
stark as menhirs guarding ancient tombs.

Swallows at West Kennet Long Barrow

There were dull susurrations in the clouds,
and a stirring in the ripened wheat,
the burial mound sagging under its burden
of wildflowers. Those great sarsens
were dark sentinels, lichen-mottled
and looming at the threshold of the tomb.

As I probed, the swallows flecked out
like smuts stirred from a dormant furnace,
whirling into the atmosphere, the quick,
dissonant chit-chits of their distress
borne thinly on the wind, rising and
plunging whole fathoms, out of fear.
I withdrew. Rain fell. I turned to dust.
Like struck sparks, they swept into their nests.

A Thistle at Avebury

Rampart, ditch and stone have been here
four or five thousand years; the butterflies,
bees and hoverflies were pupal soup
just days ago, resolving themselves into
miracles of wings and compound eyes.
Tourists are more ephemeral, clouding
like midges, dallying at the Cove, humming
around the Barber Stone, fleeing for pubs
and buses – but it’s the thistle I’ve come for,
with its chalk-riddled roots, stem fibrous
as a hempen rope, and that serried armoury
of spines. I crouch, admire, shudder.

It’s already higher than the smaller stones,
spiked for survival, determined not to die.


Let your eyes slip out of focus, and the blooms
are lilac interpunctions in a meadow almost gold.
In a wind, they turn to blurs, and bumblebees
must cling with all six claws, their eyes knocked
by pastel-coloured stamens. The unopened flowers
are a stippled green. Petals break out at their edges,
turn spatulate. At the centres, half-formed corollas
are crosshatched with stamens. Fat spiders crouch,
expecting hoverflies, and haired stems are astir
amongst the longer grasses. Walk through them: a spider
drops insensate; butterflies flit to more distant
flowers. The heat-haze wafts and sways.

Come closer. Stand beside me, with that quietness
of yours, in the gilded meadow all splashed with sky.

Downland Poppies

The sepals fall. Petals flare, crumpled
as tissue-paper torn from a gift, and a thin
fringe of anthers scatters pollen on the wings
of hoverflies. Landscapes recede: chalk
fresh dug for drainage, a blurring slope
of blue-stemmed wheat, a hedgerow marking
a road, recumbent breasts of downland hills
and wind-sculpted beech hangers, all slipping
out of focus. The petals flake away like
filo-pastry, scatter their wilting crimson
on the heated earth, and the haired stems
lengthen, catch themselves in wind, knock
against the sky. Seeds pour out like smoke,
or black ashes from an urn half-unsealed.

The Meadow

The drier blades are brittle as grasshoppers’ legs,
the swathe hissing in the heat. Yellowhammers’ voices
punctuate the lazy hums of bumblebees, tweezering
the air with needled crescendos. Purpled knops,
yellow rattles, bright orchis-smudges, sky-echoing
scabious and cranesbills, bow under the weights
of insects: marbled whites, ringlets rich as chocolates,
tortoiseshells flashing open, and pairs of little
skippers, dropping their hindwings as they drink.
Lizards still themselves, heartbeats visible
beneath their skins. Snakes bask on tussocks.
A burnet-moth slips out of a chrysalis, half-way
up a grass-stem, as my soul begins to flit across
the meadow, lit up with memories, ephemeral as a skipper.

Downland Sunset

It all smashes into silhouette.

You’d think the beech branches had turned
to cracks in the enamel – fortuitous breakages –
and gradually the sun scorches its course
down the glass, obliterating smaller twigs
in a network of explosions. Sometimes
it is eclipsed behind some impossible knot,
thicker than a trunk, where the hanger-trees
have coalesced – or perhaps a whole channel
has been bashed out into blackness – great
ruptures in the pane, snaking like rivers
with inky oxbows, whirlpools and ominous blots
of beechwood. If you could walk through soil,
you’d see: questing roots do much the same to chalk.

All poems Copyright Giles Watson, 2013.

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carlo scarpa, architect: fondazione querini stampalia, venice 1961-1963. entrance bridge.
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Image by seier+seier
fondazione querini stampalia, restoration of the palazzo ground floor, venice 1961-1963.
architect: carlo scarpa, 1906-1978.

ruskin poetically named the ground floor of venetian palazzi the sea story. it is exceptional in architectural history for having its formal entrance towards the water for arrival by boat, but has in general suffered from flooding, the loss of venetian culture and inevitable changes in traffic. in the fondazione querini stampalia, a renaissance palazzo left by will to the city as a museum and public library, the sea story was used mostly for storage, and its entrance faced a narrow alley, barely acknowledging its former greatness or its current civic importance.

when one of scarpa’s students became director of the fondazione, he called upon his old professor to clear things up. what scarpa did has been uniformly lauded as one of the finest examples of modern restoration, yet by 2013 the very elements we celebrate could as easily be described as failures.

the floodings and the lack of boats were answered by scarpa by inviting water itself into the building. at high tide, the sea enters through the gate, and we, the visitors, traverse the building on raised, concrete walkways. the relationship of venice to the water, this strangest of ecosystems and cultures, was never captured more intensely than here.

with the main entrance reserved for the sea and the old door to the alley out of the question, scarpa made the incredible decision to enter the building through a window – like a thief. as is true for criminals breaking in, when you enter without using the door, you leave the question of what is going to happen inside wide open.

scarpa used this freedom to be unapologetically modern in spite of and in contrast to the historical context which created the layered clarity, the building is now famous for. but it could as well be argued that it fits the fondazione itself which is open late and at odd hours, and works as an alternative to more conventional institutions.

like the partisan monument we looked at earlier, in which the onlookers are placed on pedestals, passively looking down on the statue of a murdered and tortured woman, the idea of entering through a window should be seen as another of scarpa’s great reversals – a reversal of function and expectation, closer perhaps to the uncertainties of modern literature than to architecture. I have at least one more of these to show you.

most importantly, scarpa had demonstrated, right in the heart of the city, that ruskin was wrong when he concluded that restoration invariably killed the building it was aiming to rescue. here was a new path, of its own time but with an attitude to history and place that was both knowing, respectful to a degree and endlessly playful. ‘the rate at which venice is going is about that of a lump of sugar in hot tea’, the very english ruskin once wrote. well, not if scarpa could help it.

my photo shows the light-weight bridge he leant against the window of entry. legend has it that the aging le corbusier, sailing under it, shouted who is this great artist?

so far, so triumphant. now, where was the failure?

and it is a small complaint, I know, that a student handing his old professor a commission is illegal by current EU law if there is as much as a cent of public money involved. regardless of any claims to genius, scarpa would have had to win his jobs in some form of competition or tender had he been alive today. we would never even have heard his name, as anyone who has studied his method or indeed his competition entries will testify.

it also isn’t hard to understand why scarpa’s idea of letting salt water into your client’s house – however controlled – never became the model for restoring the many troubled sea stories of venice. it was a happy one-off and one which we will never see repeated. that he was even able to propose it may help us understand why he lost so many jobs. did you know scarpa worked on the ca’ d’oro, the finest of all gothic palaces in venice, and was kicked out?

finally, I urge you to look at the new, third stage of the querini stampalia restoration, recently completed by mario botta. his spaces are entirely divorced from their wet surroundings, and their perfectly controlled climate could as well have us in dubai as in venice. I hurried through them with a feeling of mild claustrophobia, and wondered at how far we have come since scarpa’s intimate treatise on context, culture, climate and history.

botta’s work includes a new way in, leaving the bridge to the window as a mere appendage, an empty gesture unless you know the background. in painful irony, you enter through a gift shop, predictably loaded with scarpa books for the fans.

the scarpa set.

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