Posted by: John Looker | 4 November, 2010


A long poem this time, I’m sorry to say. But there is a reason. If you can’t face it, that’s fine. Or you might try just the first ten lines …
and the last two …



We need to make a simple calculation:
suppose at any time of day or night
one percent of the global population

is saying goodbye, catching a train or flight,
uncertain when or if they’ll meet again.
Then sixty million throats are feeling tight,

a hundred and twenty million eyes fend
off moisture, and this must be a normal state,
something to be expected now and then.


That hardly helps!
Consider the soldier going to war.
Pick any such scene from the history of the world.
It’s 1940 perhaps in a city near here
and under a glass vault filled with steam and smoke
a khaki stream is pouring into carriages.
One lad is stopped. He’s held, kissed, and his girl
pours out her promises
with all the resolute optimism of the band
playing in C major.


But most goodbyes are rather more sedate.
Millions of couples are standing subdued
whom boarding pass control will separate;

just as many sons and daughters, with huge
backpacks and miniscule budgets, are leaving
their parents half dismayed, two thirds bemused;

and countless relatives worldwide are heaving
boxes, helping families move away,
while bustling, joking … anything but grieving.


Suddenly the mind slips, the imagination spins,
and we’re shivering on a quayside with a silent crowd
watching a longboat crawl across the tide
to a square rigged ship at anchor.
Brothers and sisters, children, grandchildren,
will wave to us one last time
before this whole precious cargo is carried away
beyond the horizon
beyond sight and touch or news
beyond bearing.


That’s far too maudlin! We’re counting the ways
in which these daily partings may take place.
They could have been by horse in former days,

but now we mostly grab the wheel and race
away with a full tank and a numbed mind;
or close the door and walk, dragging a case.

More piquant still by taxi when we find
the meter measuring our separation;
or bus, at the back staring out behind.


And those who are left behind
will also stare, have always done so.
Tightly framed by a cottage door, a ploughman
who should be in the field with the horse, a mother
with loaves to bake, are watching:
watching a son or daughter steadily climb the hill
with their bundle of clothes towards the road,
towards the growing city,
a moth towards the lamp.


You’re right, we need a sense of due proportion!
And that’s why numbers help. Let’s make three points:


First, the world is shrinking. In two-point-five
seconds the hand-made page, with gothic script
traced by a quill, has reached this hand-held screen.
And hey!: the looking-glass instantly brings
the face and voice ten thousand miles away;
or a thousand silver pieces of eight
will fly us there in only twenty hours.
These facts are soothing. They swim in the mind
like multi-coloured fish in a bright tank
and we nurture them, let them grow. Meanwhile:


we go on living. Each day is a mix
of the routine and the unexpected,
a maze of straight paths and sudden turnings,
a landscape seen first through a morning mist.
There are decisions to make, things to do,
and we know how this fills the mind. There’s more:


for when we pause to think of those who left,
the mind floods with the tenderest concern:
we wish them well, we wish all kinds of good,
health (of course), wealth (why not?) but happiness
mainly and a harvest of contentment.
We want the earth to endow them with gold,
diamonds and jade; we want towns to be named
in their honour; and teams of guardian angels
working in shifts around the clock. That’s all.
© John Stevens 2010


  1. I love the delicate rhyme structure in your three-line stanzas; they really anchor the whole piece. ‘The meter measuring our separartion’ is a gem.


  2. Thank you Nick. I’m very glad you think it works – relieved in fact.


  3. I think this is wonderful. I like the natural voice throughout, the pace and the stop! before you start again. I said goodbye to someone this weekend and managed to bawl all the way back to the car park and for a good way around the M25. And I thank you for pointing out that goodbye is a very special thing.


    • I was uncertain whether this poem worked, so I was relieved to find that you felt that it was worth reading and managed to convey something. And, incidentally you convey a picture of your return from the airport very clearly too! Thank you for commenting again – I have really valued your advice and reactions.


  4. “just as many sons and daughters, with huge
    backpacks and miniscule budgets, are leaving
    their parents half dismayed, two thirds bemused”
    ha! half dismayed and two thirds bemused…
    I think your math is wonderfully off, giving that whole stanza a whimsical feel.
    wonderful poem. I dont think the length is off putting at all.


    • Thanks Evelyn. I’m really glad you liked this poem. It was a big emotional investment for me, but being such a long poem I doubted whether anyone would read it.
      Yes, the math went careering off track there! I was feeling whimsical at this point and thinking about the contradictory emotions parents feel when children grow up and set off.


  5. 🙂 This poem sort of meandered in different structures and made it very lively.
    To be left behind it is not always easy. I said goodbye to my 18 year old son last year for a Highschool year in California, he came back 10 months later. I really hated that goodbye moment.


    • Thanks Ina. Yes, the poem meanders between different forms – it tries to keep emotion under control but keeps loosing its grip – which I think often happens to us all. I’m glad you felt you recognised the feelings when people have to say goodbye.


  6. John, I have written enough long poems, one an epic that was never published, An American Spirit, an American Epic, that I have a special fondness for poems even much longer than this. Some of the epics I have read are so obscure they were dust covered when I started reading them, having found them at a used book store or an antiquated library.

    The truth is that you have a special talent that never seems to flag. You mix up the stanzas enough with craft and substance that the reader keeps reading, and, more importantly, you build toward a conclusion that is effective and a bit cosmic, letting the mind soar out over all the examples you’ve given beforehand. Enjoyed this a lot. Tom


    • Thanks Tom – that is most encouraging.
      I know exactly what you mean about those dust-covered books with neglected longer works – a favourite I picked up at a second-hand shop is The Walls Do Not Fall by H.D. – even though it can be hard to read without sneezing. At the other extreme there’s that brilliant parody of ballads by Lewis Carroll, The Hunting of the Snark which I have on my Kindle as a tonic.
      Would you be willing to send me a copy of your An American Spirit? The theme sounds interesting and I’m sure it would make a good read, knowing your craftsmanship. Besides, these things deserve to be read. My email address is


      • If one of the poets I most respect would read it, I would be honored.


      • By the way, I forgot to say it. H.D. is a great poet. I have always thought that Ethel was influenced, at least in part, by her.


  7. Parting is not sweet, but the sorriest sorrow I know. This exploration of it is quite beautiful and not “too long” by a long shot. Goodbyes can never take long enough! I am overwhelmed. Thank you.


    • Thank you Cynthia. Well, we try, don’t we?


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