By Peter Halstead

It’s hard to adjust
To the reeded edges
And ruddled cleats
Of rusting grills,
To ruffling leaves
That spill
On stucco ledges,
That garland autumn
In their chlorophyll
And weave through
Mossbacked trellises
In shades of amethyst,
Wreathed in skies
Of yellow mist
Where mere tourists,
As we are,
Go to die,
The fading breeze
That nonetheless
Fills the trees
With swallows,
Amber weeds
That paint the stable row
With rubies,
The two and fro
Of shrubbery
Cloned from Constable,
From windows
That overlay gravel
With the antique sun,
That plaster over
Rubble and decay
In the plywood
Of our rented lives,
In our griefs
And bubble wrap
The stories
Of the neighborhood,
In our wasted grime
And glories
The dapple
Of the country’s
Battered map.

October 2019
Cadogan Lane, Belgravia

March 25th, 2023


This has something in common with my expatriate poem “Décollage,” which describes the impossibility of reconciling the Paris summer to more beachy days on the east coast. (I think a proper comparison would have been Arcachon, with its dunes and sandy pine forests, which is even freer in spirit than the junkiness of American beaches).

We spent part of 2018 and 2019 in a rented mews house on Cadogan Lane, an adventure that was truncated by the Covid pandemic. I wrote “Chelsea Sunset” there along with this, the only two poems I wrote in England.

This poem catalogues the way we overlay clichés of England in the 1860s and 1960s on London today, which is a very different place from my time in London when I was a teenager, when the theatres were filled with Shakespeare and Shaw and Sheridan, acted by O’Toole, Gielgud, Scofield, Olivier, Burton, Finley, Edith Evans, Claire Bloom—the list seems endless. The record stores were filled with recorded plays; Dylan Thomas, Eliot, and Auden were still writing.

This is a diorama, a museum still-life behind glass of the trellises, grills, eaves, and trees that rise above the cobbled streets of the small village of Belgravia, a corner of Chelsea in London. Specifically, I love Bourne Street in its ramble from Sloane Square down to Orange Square, passing Chester Row and Grahame Terrace on its winding path down to the charming French bistro La Poule au Pot and the still elegant house at 180 Ebury Street where Mozart composed his First Symphony when he was eight.

Magritte, de Chirico, Kandinsky, even Vermeer painted objects which symbolized the state of the people in their paintings. A backlit milk bottle, a distended pavilion, a silhouette with a bowler hat, a deconstructed palette were emblems of a state of mind, of a hidden structure which dictated the shade, the anxiety of the subject.

In this poem, I suppose streets and eaves substitute for emotions and actions. The breeze is a pendulum, with both constancy and uncertainty. Shade maps the road with reticules, sun folds the fields. They are all archives which describe, imitate, flicker over our lives. Tunnels of overhanging canopies and flickering darts of sun and shade help the autumn crumble and the sun to set. There is an unhurried nostalgia for the neighborhood.

I began the poem in Belgravia, but finished it in Hawaii during the coronavirus epidemic. The architected adventures of London streets seemed a lifetime away. This is a ramble that I hope readers will like to experience, like the invisible pedestrian who describes and anchors it.

The Phyllosphere is the habitat of plants above ground, which provides an environment where small organisms can flourish. I see Belgravia, still a subliminally pastoral corner of London, as a larger organism of mews and closes which twines around the nurturing climate of shrubbery. Despite the asphalt, concrete, and ancient wood, I identify more with the plants struggling to survive in the cracks, the Five Fields around which Belgravia was built by Cubitt, starting around 1826. So this isn’t so much about a city as its lost countryside.

I see England as Richard II did, and I suppose this poem has elements of his panegyric in it:

This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war…
Is now leased out, I die pronouncing it,
Like to a tenement or pelting farm