Douglas Oliver

Douglas Oliver taught at the British Institute in Paris. He died in 2000.

Two Poems

Douglas Oliver, 7 May 1998

Chinese Bridport

Then the morning shadow falls, suddenly slanting down monstrous apartment blocks at Porte de Choisy and its Chinatown, over a piazza of pagoda-style kiosks. Diaspora money with its huge fist has thrust buildings into earth here, cliffs of them with mud-coloured balconies and strata of pallid walls. Knocking from his heights, an Asian fixes a lathe and he knocks at my heart...

Poem: ‘Forearms’

Douglas Oliver, 1 August 1996

A purple-haired woman with a paper handkerchief for a face runs down the rue des Messageries. Between the perspective of buildings tall crane idle against the lines of morning and a doleful green lion with navy-blue eyes tattering down to emerald wraiths dissipates its body in smoke. Among the stream of Lubavitchers this Saturday from the synagogue comes a half-transparent gesture with a hand...

Poem: ‘A Little Night’

Douglas Oliver, 23 May 1996

A word to come lies in a little night where ash is falling. The word can’t be this ‘coffin’, lying in its candour, in its cinders. Inside, the poet’s too lazy in his death to perform a truth singly. All’s ambiguous.

Yet a coffin is blocked in boldly, I see, under the washing down of night. The cobalt blue cabinet’s cut on a slant with candelabra making...

Two Poems

Douglas Oliver, 24 August 1995

The lnfibulation Ceremony

We have reached the limit of poetry: Western people’s ignorance of how their own cultures are viewed by integrationist Islam is too profound. The following poem could never be read in illiterate deserts. Like Alice Walker and Pratibha Parmar working in West Africa, you could make a courageous film on the subject of infibulation. Failing that, a poem might yet...

Poem: ‘Hard of Hearing’

Douglas Oliver, 12 January 1995

When the painter died the people in her painting stiffened a little in their oils: my sister’s two friends from art school, dressing in her bedroom. An oval mirror caught in the arms of a pink rattan chair reflects Mona’s bed too high slanting down from an unstable wall in the uneasy Browning Avenue house. Her visitors peer intensely when I ask if they want breakfast, seeing my...

Poem: ‘The Unseeing Drum’

Douglas Oliver, 22 December 1994

If I drummed on the long Dahomey tambour, I’d be bumbling, blind in ludicrous Western clothes, that tambour’s wooden tubes stepped at the foot like a half-closed sea captain’s telescope; I’d be

drumming of old things I can half-see: of bamboo- stilted houses elongated by water reflections as if I were paddling to the floating market of Ganvié while fishermen cast...

Poem: ‘A Salvo for Malawi’

Douglas Oliver, 23 June 1994

Chotsa chipewa! Choka!

Take off your hat to me! Now scram!

Say you’ve never heard of John Chilembwe,or of his mission church at MbombweHQ for his First War Risingfirst salvo for the Malawi nation.Yet as surely as my mother livedon the tracer-path planetleft behind in our world’s world lineso surely my memory discovers hernot in chemical coding but alive there stilland so surely John...

Poem: ‘Cirque d’hiver’

Douglas Oliver, 21 October 1993

after Kenneth Koch

Agence France-Presse took my girls to the winter circus – that’s Paris’s Cirque d’hiver – 1970 or 71, having already given them a clockwork train set in breakable plastic as part of the exploitation of its collaborateurs. I could mention the usual football-playing poodles nodding balloons into goals but I suppose we journalists were a bit like...

Poem: ‘The peculiar river’

Douglas Oliver, 23 September 1993

Last time I wrote of Parisian loaves newly baking because the yeast was in my nostrils from the rue Lepic bakery beneath. Now I’m lost in Scotland, my grain of truth.

Across bare floorboards of this home in Paris the thistle of Scotland’s nationhood crosses like a swift stain. Never to know Scotland perfect/imperfect wanting to bring Scotland to Paris in my work.

In England I grew...

Poem: ‘Taking stock of woods’

Douglas Oliver, 17 December 1992

Grey cloud roof sliding backwards lifts blue sky into the notch between hill-lines green au gratin. Pom-pommed, the slopes barge trees into valley turbulence. Along the summits, sunlit topknots. down to mid-distance, puffs, explosions, uprisings, striking tall, and achieved stature, horizontal shadow-flows running along the sides, mists of green dreaming scabbed with blackened precipices, as...

Two Poems

Douglas Oliver, 10 September 1992


Waking early, and riffling the pages of a book edge-on to watch the ghost pass through, thinking of the sexual opening of pine needles, the woman being absent from that opening; this is not desire but idleness as you might wake with legs around you from a dissipating dream, whose story came from a fiction you’d been reading.

And then to turn to the woman beside you discovering pine...

Poem: ‘The Innermost Voyager’

Douglas Oliver, 22 March 1990

Jetliners climb above the middle air of spiritual journeys: flying in dreams is usually humanised and takes the shaman route of older beliefs. Once, in a train derailment, I bore my sense of self so lightly it yearned for those middle heights. Probably, when dying, we rise above and see nurses acting in perfect democracy.

We’ll not romanticise shamans; but whatever our job or class...

Poem: ‘The Jains and the Boxer’

Douglas Oliver, 31 August 1989


The Jain monk would live in unending harmlessness, shedding karma, confessing, studying for the fasting death. He avoids quarrels and politics, may not repair three unmended garments, nuns four, has rayaharana, the hand broom of wool or grass, to clear living things from his path, a cloth to wipe animate dust from his face and to prevent such beings entering mouth or nose. He takes care not...

Poem: ‘The Oracle of the Drowned’

Douglas Oliver, 4 February 1988

Memory in sea-green with sea-weed grain of glass as the rearing wave rains briefly before a lot of bother on the beach of childhood and men with a burden file across sand. Those far-out surfaces are lipped with transparent phrases coming to mind: that the real dying happened in middle heights between the lips and the sea floor. Remember the swim trunks lost in waters and the first man in our...

Poem: ‘Skin’

Douglas Oliver, 4 December 1986

The skin takes colours after middle age, an elbow flakes, one ankle always raw, a shoulder wart, sebaceous stains on backs. We think we’ll pulse an innocent energy outwards, a warmth from the heart, a skin cleanser, but think of some sin of years before and whisper, ‘May I not be spiritually deformed!’

Seeing yourself dead

Nicolas Tredell, 21 February 1991

Marriage, mortality, memory, the onset of middle age and the pressure of children criss-cross Andrew Motion’s latest collection. Should we treat the vivid images and incidents that comprise...

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A Journey through Ruins

Patrick Wright, 18 September 1986

Douglas Oliver’s books have been appearing since 1969. Slim volumes published in tiny editions by marginal presses, they have escaped all but the slightest measure of attention. This may be...

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