Steve Whitaker, Literary Editor

Poem Of The Week : Wine By Stephen Littlejohn


Dusk. A pair of swallows tumbles over the lake.
A breeze picks up, ruffles clumps of daisies
by a quiet pier.
A heron stoops into the darkening air.
Between cafés, a narrow

alley catches the setting sun, yellow stucco
turns gold, terracotta tiling soaks up light until it glows like
blown embers; window glass glints.
The nine o'clock arrives, its
ramp clanks against the concrete slipway.

A white, rusty Cinquecento scuttles
onto the cake-like boat, other passengers on foot
mount the marzipan stairwells to perch, camera-necked
along the upper decks.
Dusk. And the light shifts again, thickens.

Snowdrift marbles the mountaintops, craggshadow
deepens to blue, bluegrey, blueblack.
Night seeps in from behind.
The lake trembles
in crushed silk and beaten silver,

a necklace of lamplight
around the shore - half a dozen elegant
latticed iron tables, a vine-slung gazebo,
a half-dropped parasol caught,
as if forever, in pale amber.

But the moment passes. The evening shift drifts in;
a nervous candleflame folds and unfolds
in the breeze, an uncorked bottle stood to breathe leaves
carved shadows crossed
on the tablecloth, a griddle hisses.

Somewhere the wine has barely settled in its glass
before a delicate hand
has wound it tighter than a wrung cloth
around the rim. Now it begins,
the night leering in like a moistened tongue.

Image by G. Poulsen from Pixabay
Image by G. Poulsen from Pixabay
The ‘half-dropped’ parasol in Stephen Littlejohn’s fine poem of elegant inertia is totemic; it is fixed, like Larkin’s ‘steamer’, in an infinite present, in the pinioned suspension of a fly in amber. A pivotal point in a poem of close, considered, observation, the slow perambulation of the narrator’s mind’s eye roves an Italian lakeside tableau, whose backdrop of mountains overshadows the town that clings to the water’s edge, and renders the ‘necklace of lamplight’ a distant chain of twinkles, as inconsequential to the night sky as a twitchy candle’s flame.

Heavily stylized, Littlejohn’s atmospheric quintains are cinematic in scope; they await the appearance of a denouement, a shattering physical or emotional occurrence that must somehow follow the relishing of a glass of wine in an evening’s breeze. ‘Now’, the narrator says, ‘it begins’, as if a thing of beauty, or its obverse, were the natural corollary to an otherwise perfectly orchestrated and calibrated scene.

Such effortlessly-worn urbanity, such perfection, is studied. Delivered in startling and compelling images, Littlejohn’s skilled use of metaphor, of compound words and of alliteration enhances a sense of ornamental excess, even of unreality: the ‘crushed silk and beaten silver’ of the lake are refulgent mirrors to the rococo kitsch of the boat; the ‘blown embers’ of terracotta tiles are burnished to within an inch of irony. And in the final stanza, we are served the darker inflexion of suggestion, in lascivious counterpoint: ‘Now it begins, / the night leering in like a moistened tongue’.

‘Wine’ is reproduced here with the kind permission of the author.