George Szirtes

Limit Frame

After Helen Rousseau

Nothing is limited, there is only a frame
that is endless and not without character,
such as chequers or diapers or neat folds
and knife creases, such as one finds
on a tablecloth or a pair of pressed trousers,
say, on a gentleman of advancing years
whose last recourse is elegance, because
nothing remains, and nothing is limited.

And, say, you took graph paper, and limited
yourself to forty-five or ninety degrees because
there must, after all, be a rule to govern the years
that remain, and you hitch up your trousers
in a businesslike fashion that nobody finds
peculiar, you discover that everything folds
back on itself, even your undoubted character
which is seeking its own unlimited frame.

So there you stand in your unlimited frame
that nonetheless frames you, with a character
others perceive as character, though the folds
of the skin deepen into a condition one finds
intolerable, tucked into dogtooth-check trousers
of which this ribbon is earnest, and so the years
pile up, folded over like skin, limited because,
something must, at the last count, be limited,

because only the frame can ever be unlimited,
so one, meaning you, is still framed, because
the limit is in you not in the frame, and years
resolve down to this, to years of old trousers,
to several millennia of archaeological finds,
to knife-blades, knife-marks, elegance and knife-folds,
a timescale utterly beyond framing or character
where the only character permitted is that of the frame.


After Helen Rousseau

Look, there are clouds - or is it waves? -
pulsing through a medium, beneath plain paper
and air, something billowing, and, breathe in,
or breathe out, they are still there, those clouds –
or are they waves? – like a gentle washing away
or washing within, such as you feel on the road
in summer when walking down towards the lake
in your head where the grass pulses like water,

and you think of the paper rising through water
within its own frame, the pulp and the lake
and a sieving out, an opening of the road
onto whiteness, that takes you back or further away
into the distance, jostling with the clouds
that are forever inventing images lodged in
vapour and mind, or just on a piece of paper
where even faint shadows resolve into waves,

and here there is nothing but paper unfolding like waves
blown by the air that moves through all paper
that is something you draw on but also draw in,
just as the mind will constantly picture in clouds
a face, a body or land that is further away
that it can imagine, in which the limits of road
meet at infinity or at the nearest unruffled lake,
though there is no such thing as wholly unruffled water,

no character, no years, nothing, only the water
that billows through paper as if it were a lake,
as if elegance was water pretending to be road,
a road on which there is no walking away
only towards the thing on the paper that is like clouds
that cannot be framed because they’re what we’re framed in,
and so depicted, as things are depicted on paper,
steadily mounting like all-but-invisible waves.


From starting points, through abstraction, to control
is a process that demands a starting point
or else there is little point in starting.

So we begin by starting at a point that lends itself
to abstraction as a well-conducted process
and in that way we seek to take control.

Taking control is the point. That is the process
implied by abstraction, why it is worth starting.
Process is point. Alternatives are pointless.

This, then, is process, the point at which we started,
the reason we abstract the point. It’s abstract,
an abstract point in the process of control.

There’s no point in control, unless we take it
as the final point of a process of abstraction,
a point acknowledged at the very start.

And that is where we came in, at the start,
the point at which abstraction truly started,
and so it is that we are in control.

Canzone Animal

My father sits in the armchair. I watch him blow
out air that fills the room. He’s reckoning
how much air remains to him. I too blow
out air, our two breaths rising blow for blow.
I see his hands curled tight. They are animal
claws, old bones. One gust of wind would blow
him away. He couldn’t ward off the blow.
He is so grey he almost looks like smoke,
a curling wreath of ancient cigarette smoke,
the kind that in his youth he’d gently blow
in front of him, over a plate of chicken bones,
his fingers now very like chicken bones.

Whatever are we to do with all those bones?
Should we take the dust and gently blow
it into the fire? Dust may settle on bones
but these are living organs, living bones
that must for ever be shifting, reckoning
up their own vertebrae, all those fiddly bones
adding up to a figure, a figure not just bones
but flesh and tissue and blood, pure animal,
whole animal, the spirit that we mean by animal.
Touch the hand, the soft pad round the bones.
Can all this vanish in a puff of smoke?
Show me the mirror. Let me see the smoke.

But maybe that is all we do see – smoke
curling into a face, illusion, phantom bones.
We read shape into everything and smoke
is apt to read shapes into, cloud and smoke:
both incidentals. Put lips together and blow.
You know how to blow? Then blow away the smoke
and see what remains, that nothing after smoke,
that nothing hardly worth the reckoning,
that, all the same, we must be reckoning.
The shadow moves across him, much as smoke
drifts over landscape where some animal
is grazing quietly, being nothing but animal.

Perhaps he is that grazing animal
we glimpse through fog that may be drifting smoke.
There is in his eyes a trace of animal,
just as there is in mine. What frightened animal
is scampering there on delicate bones
in the distance? Then which is the true animal?
The one that grazes, or scampers? What animal
does both? And that field across which high winds blow
bending the trees? Will the armchair too blow
away? What is it to blow away an animal?
Even animals come to a final reckoning.
Time is not infinite even by animal reckoning.

Words turn round, recur: invite a reckoning.
We sprinkle words like dust. Intelligent animal,
shrinking in the armchair, beyond reckoning
of words, here’s what words have to offer: the reckoning
is in language which is itself a blur of smoke,
a mirrored cliché full of blind reckoning.
But what else, dear animal, can reckoning
achieve apart from this structure made of bones
and syntax, accident and echo; brittle bones
of sound, the tongs and bones, the reckoning
of syllable on syllable, the rhythm, blow on blow,
of pace and run, till we come by that final blow.

The chest rises, the lung dilates. Suck and blow!
Keep moving, thoughts; listen out for bones
whispering in the flesh, their song like smoke,
their words those befitting the fleet animal
glimpsed in the distance, leaping into reckoning.


The problem of continuity – of syntax, to think of this is to think of something else

Ways of moving:
Pulse of wind, press of wind (as in fingers of wind gently pressing against eardrum), swandip, swanbulge, swanstretch, peeling (as in gull peeling, as in off the horizon, breaking into bribs and blebs,

sussuration, sibilance, hissing, severance, slobbing, sisterance, haw, ha, hm, hrum, squak, squirk, settling, the sudden cry of a low- flying plane

sinking, mellifluous, aggregated, bled, sucking, defiant, drowned, eaten, desired, uncalled for, high and mighty, scrubby,
billowing with tesserae

hair, skin, bullet, scraped, dinged,
screaming, phlegmatic,


Fribbles and tangles, bouquets, knots,
serrations, military ranks, globules, bristlings,
efflorescence and inflorescence,

hem, frill, armour plating, shipsteel, steelsheen, massed ranks of
stone jackets, yomping gear subtly coded,

Auxiliary languages:
Driftwood letters from the destroyed alphabet, such as lower case f, i, j, c (as if there might be a word, or series of words, a sentence perhaps under the stones and boulders to be constructed.)

Homages: human offerings, (the deodands):
bright helpless bits of blunt blue,
startled yellow, intimated pink,
the fadings, deformations, ephemeralities,
evidences, beginnings of a palette.

Food: the floating egg,
hundreds of thousands,
soaked bread

Broader concepts to be dragged kicking and screaming into language: the concept of a straight line of cloud pressing lightly down on its bed of language, still working out its etymologies.

Minimenta Postcards to Anselm Keifer

Rubble, Light and Voice


Concrete and rubble: the Word
Produces its monuments.
Monstrous overheard
Conversations. Lost tenements.
Attics open to the elements.


We were leaving the wreckage.
Soon it was dark and the queue
Lengthened into a sleepless dream
We had somehow to live through
And, finally, to redeem
As if night itself were the passage.


A lost glove hanging on a fence,
A shoe without laces by the roadside,
The hand’s abstraction, the foot’s absence:

Marriage of invisible inconvenience.
Bridegroom stripped bare by the Bride.
Lost glove. Lost fence.


The rubble was the frightening thing.
So much had fallen and the rain
Was as much inside as outside.
Tiny pebbles were pretending to sing
To keep fear off. And then more rain
With nowhere to hide.


We were clerks of forgotten states.
We scribbled memos
That none of us would read,
Opened deals that would not close,
Followed leaders who could not lead.
We traded our empire for a single bead
Of light that broke us like cracked dinner plates.


The evening, shrimp-coloured and cool:
A late mild header into winter.
Soon enough dark morning, soon
Enough the splinter
Of ice stuck in the window, the moon
Stuck fast in the deserted lido, the pool
Blossoming into night,
Black as anthracite.


Sometimes you want to sing but as
You open your mouth the world shunts
Like a train and voice fails.
The failure is unimportant, hardly counts
In the scheme of things, but you’re off the rails.
Sometimes voice is all a man has.


Under the rubble sleep the dead
Barely visible, as always.
You hardly want light there. Days
Collapse into visions. Night is preferable.
Light looks for trouble
Between broken limb and marble head.


A clear voice in the temple. The choir
Slowly focuses around her, holding her still
Like a glowing electric wire.
The charge travels through her and beyond.
The air is light and blond,
Sustained by oxygen, faintly surgical.


Layer upon layer of brick and cement.
In the park over the road trees blend
With evening. People cross
Roads, move along the pavement
With a certain pathos
Towards the day’s end.