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The Horse Chestnuts at Nashenden

Francis Edward Sparshott
From:   The City Dwellers. 2000

Somehow my brain cracked open
and poetry leaked away. Now when I make,
as I have to, verse, there is nothing to make it from
but dry filings. If I should hold a magnet
under the page, would the words stand upright
like worms in excrement, parade,
as they did at school, in the magic
of push and pull, tracing a fine field
of polar meaning? The would lie
flat on the paper, like these. No force remains
in the soft iron.

Something has dropped out,
out of our shared speech, that was never
in mine. Where is the name
of that great tree with its spread hands of green,
its extravagant spires of bloom? Horse chestnut, we say,
begrudging the better name it was once given
in paradise. Boys force open
the spined rind of its fruit, pricking their hands
on autumn holidays. Sometimes too soon:
like unborn children, like the next season's junebugs
in roots of a dying lawn, soft nutlets nestle
creamy and unaware. The boy
throws them aside, thrusting his grubby thumb
into some tougher husk. Here is the loveliest
thing he will ever see, till sex sharpens
his vision: the ripe nuts glowing,
giving their own name to a world
not worthy of their colour,
their chestnut colour.

They are dulled in a day, darkening soon
and shrivelled. The older children
drill their hard shells, threading the black hulks
on stout cord, calling them conkers,
hitting and hitting again
till one nut shatters another. Big boys
harden them somehow, and win; the littler ones
don't know the secret. Some of them never learn,
envying all their lives
the warfare of gross ruffians
with masterful tough conkers. A farmer my father knew,
friend to a school, had a stand of horse chestnut.
Each year he invited the boys, when the nuts ripened,
and the master led us along a chalk lane
to Nashenden, where the spilled bounty
awaited our pleasure. Now, shorter of breath,
I am plodding along that lane, longing to see
a steep meadow, the clustering trees,
a grey house and the hop garden
where master and farmer spoke. Not being a fool,
I know how the lane will end,
in a heap of spoil where the new motorway
screams though the downs. Somewhere the other side

is Nashenden. not to be reached
from here. But I have no time
to go round now, no strength ever to see
what new lane winds to the farm, what trees are standing,
unfelled, unrotted, offering fresh conkers
to little boys, with or without their masters.

In a different world
lorries roar overhead
from the suburbs to the sea
and I stroll tirelessly
on a shadowy chalk path
among thistles and butterflies
to Nashenden and beyond
to a place where the horse chestnut
flaunts its forgotten name.

Francis Edward Sparshott's works copyright © to the author.

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