John Richard Heath – Five Poems

John Richard Heath was born in London, England but has spent most of his life abroad, mainly in the service of international development. He has a PhD from the Faculty of Economics, University of Cambridge. He worked for the World Bank from 1990 to 2015, specializing in agriculture and rural development and program evaluation. Since retiring he has led an oral history project on the World Bank career of Robert S. McNamara, as well as teaching at the School of International Service, American University in Washington, DC. He has published poetry most recently in Pendemic and HST.


Interpreter

Lao Jia loitered, lost in
contemplation of a word,
turning it like a pebble
in his palm, new addition
to the trove this foreigner
had lightly broached that morning.

His Chinese fortune was one
page, minutely folded, clutched
close to the heart. Unfurling
the ragged sheet, adding to
the treasured cache. “Nit-picking,”
he murmured, “Pernickety,”
I added. “Means pedantic,”
he adduced, our friendship forged.

Lao Jia licked the pencil
stub. Spareness was the essence.
Pullover full of holes, he
First met us at the aiport.
Aged, tiny canvas tote:
his entire baggage for four
weeks en route to Shangri-La.


Higher learning

Light rain stipples the skylight
as I scale the attic stair.
The frayed ends of diffuse thoughts
meander through mind’s forays
into the Higher Learning.
Up here, books huddle, conspire,
figure how to discomfort.
Plato cowers in his cave,
warms his hands at antique fire,
watching lambent images
trickle over well-read walls,
the Republic in tatters.
At his elbow, a onetime
philosopher king pulls at
scabs, mutters imprecations.
A fly fizzes, bounces off
shelved troves of ancient matter,
inanimate stuff. Pungent
snuff of foxed covers, mottled
pages—maybe some primal
rapture will assail me here?


St James’ Hospital, Balham, London SW12

South of the river, pronounced ‘Bal-um,’
not a fashionable spot. In 1949 Peter Sellers did a
mock travelogue my father liked to imitate:
“Bal-Ham, Gateway to the South!”
(It called for an American accent; dad did his best.)
The hospital itself was born
A year after father—1909—on
the site of a workhouse for juvenile offenders.
Blitz bombs knocked out the boiler house.

There I had my Advent in 1953; went back around 1960,
when the boiler house failed again. They couldn’t sterilize the
instruments so I spent two weeks on the ward
waiting to have my tonsils pulled. From my bed,
through high windows, I watched the rockets leap,
celebrating the fall of Guido Fawkes. Ice cream and jelly for my
tortured throat, quite a treat in those days,
even though rationing had already ended. The acrid smell of spent
fireworks lingered along with the clutch of the last of those
great, yellowy, fogs, thick as phlegm,
girdling the taxi mum took me home in.


Time in the age of corona

I.
The minute hands have fallen
from the faces of both my
clocks: wall clock from Minchinhampton
(English case, German movement,
circa 1880) and
the boisterous clock on the
mantel (provenance unknown).

But still I wind them up. Tock
tick.

II.
Above the daytime bath steam
dissipates in the languid
air as through a high window
on a tall tree I watch the
woodpecker regulate the
world.

Tock tock tock.

III.
Out on the streets souls in their
twosomes converge, correct and
cleave apart, smiles distanced.
Like this is the Afterlife.
Beatific afternoon.

Days slide through on burnished rails.

IV.
Time and chime are out of synch.
Tock tick tick. 3AM and
I’m lying here, sheets wound tight,
waiting for the knell of day.

The clock strikes twelve.


Absence

In the crematorium
vicar did his bit, had the
homily down pat. “Jim was
a quiet man, good father,
gentle soul, kind to others.”

Ineffectual presence
in my life, at his wake my
father was still a stranger.
Friends and family talked of
the price of houses, the bad
run of favored football teams.

Years later I was led to
grid coordinates in the
memorial garden, where
ashes were deposited.

Not a mark on the grass but
a virtual record kept,
his presence logged forever,
a square there all of his own.

His ashes must have lifted
out over chalk downland where
he cycled in the ‘Thirties,
stopping at favored tea rooms.

He blew away my dad did.

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