ALL THE BEAUTIFUL WORDS (2002)
SOMEWHERE AMONG THE STARS
UNDER A LATE AUGUST SKY
BEHIND THE STEPS
FROM THE LONG ROOM
THE LAST OF THE ROMANS
FOUR MEDITATIONS ON MEMORY
MOTHER AND CHILD
AFTER THE LAST FEVER
LINES WITH A LATIN DICTIONARY
AT THE WEIR BRIDGE
ALL THE BEAUTIFUL WORDS
THE RIVER FIELD
LIVES OF THE POETS
YOUTH, LOVE AND THE SEA
ALL SHALL BE BROUGHT INTO THE LIGHT
SOMEWHERE AMONG THE STARS
Somewhere among the stars,
beyond the reach of words,
where wheels of light
are crazy spinning lettering,
he is travelling
while others, earth-bound,
burrow into consonants,
promise of progress.
Out there, weightless,
where miles don’t matter
nor millions, he won’t see
the sun fall
as shadowed bars.
He is his own light,
out there, orbiting a spark,
somewhere among the years.
I have spent the best part of the evening tracing spirals
not too convincingly, wrestling with impatience,
sensing another day slip loose, watching nightfall
take control, cancelling, deepening the window’s plainness.
My eyes, unfocus-fixed on upturned corners
widen, blink, the page’s blue dancing border
softens, merges into surrounding greyness.
Earlier, on an old ramp by the lake I waited in a fine
drizzle, staring down at the sky cracked and black, hoping
for something out of the ordinary, a tautening of the line
but nothing happened to disturb the complacent bobbing of the float;
rain insistent wakened cold, the skin goosebumped, shivered,
between gusts the limp line refused to quiver,
waves reeled across my sight, a chain unbroken.
Watching tiny ripples tumble and die, I thought of you still hounded,
the never-mentioned blackness lingering always, somewhere
beyond our reach or knowledge, festering like an undetected wound,
I tried to picture you driven towards an undisclosed despair,
to enter the very pit and swirl of your dark imaginings
and take them for my own, that I might fashion
some means of relief, at the least a cross less hard to bear,
But much against my will I found myself caught up
in my own isolation, remembering how stubbornly I kicked against
the slightest hint that any sadness, any loss
or pain I thought peculiarly my own could burn as dense
in any other mind: remembering too, how we tend to take
a perverse pride in such afflictions, making them
almost an instrument of will, a reassurance that we are like no one else.
I used spend the enemy hours out of sight and hearing, humming
songs meant for no other ear, giving them a life of their own,
staged fierce mock battles in my mind, fought to shape something
imaginary, abstract, that could not be passed around or broken
and though nothing of that making endures, it was pleasure
enough to have striven and learned alone, to have taken measure
of myself without advice or mockery, kept my findings where they could not
be passed around or stolen.
Being reminded suddenly, sharply, what it is you face,
you the same now, going towards night and its attendant dangers,
aware how useless all but the sole instinct, I cannot help
but will you to survive, as if one’s wishing well could will another back
I bear with you from a distance, knowing this attempt
to overcome a common grief already doomed to failure.
Such is the gulf that separates our similar natures.
UNDER A LATE AUGUST SKY
Under a late August sky I stayed
to watch the night already swollen with winter,
its long lights glistening were spawn sprayed
and frozen on contact with the bitter
air: not since March, when the comet
played its final trick and disappeared
like an abandoned hope of being astonished,
have I looked late and seen so clear
the texture of the sky, or known its sudden cold
thickening outside plain scrubbed walls where old
men and women wither in their sleeping,
the empty upstairs where you spent the weeping
summer, struggling with a sadness not yet told,
too precious to be trusted in someone else’s keeping.
Chaos resolves within itself all order.
The blind can ask for sight no more than we
why you mediate in clay with saint and murderer;
why sun blazed brass in your old sacristy
when glorious autumn hushed to hear you dead
a thousand miles away, beyond our heed.
Dublin dust, lie easy on his head,
and that sweet breath men expire as they read.
Paths cross or miss, we founder, breathe or drown,
but you were of the quiet martyr’s seal;
as Christ, took city’s suffering for your own,
without a syllable, kissed your hands to the stars;
went the exile’s way where few bells peal,
where funerals roll in busy, careless cars.
(i.m. Noel Mc Weeny)
It saddens me to think
you’ll never hear
again the spill of water at Glencar
nor do a hundred press-ups
on forefinger and thumb
nor grip a post and challenge
three hefty lads to loose you
which they never did;
nor could your faith
be moved by hostile words.
You were a rock
around which moved the world.
I think of you at rest
now; and that there should
be for you somewhere
a life sized Christ or Buddha
carved in rock behind a waterfall
either by a Shannon tributary
or in the east somewhere
beside gigantic water
unexplored and clean.
There is something terrifying
in watching the still-young mind flying
into oblivion, while the body
maintains its course; steady,
functioning in every obvious
way, but absorbed in some mysterious
world which shadows ours, then bursts
through, drawing down a curse
which lingers after explanation.
Something of primal superstition
attends on each heart-rending flight
into that place from which they might
never return; then all twists, so
that it’s we who are the shadows
meeting flesh in Purgatory,
hearing that stranger tell his story.
The stubble is damp
and sparks dance
harmlessly over the stalks:
how beautiful they look
in the night, cascading
over the hillside
then fading, fading,
like a memory of children’s voices.
That old man who has shuffled to the wall
and rests there, blank and breathless, takes a view
few would quibble with – an angry swell,
surfers dancing the sudden mindless slew.
He holds the years about him like thin rags
and sees the day as nothing more than noise.
Below, the seagulls root among the dregs.
Beyond, a storm has faded into haze.
And ignorant, the surfers skirt the crest,
no desperate feet will kick for friendly sand.
They know the wave-top treacherous to a plume
but never will they know that plunge to doom,
that dizzying, spray-light godhead in the mind,
or burning on the palm, a summer breast.
In which sport do the winners
In tug-of-war, I said, their bodies
taut and rooted
to heels and opponents’ eyes,
locked out of self and into strain;
movement stretched in a swaying evenness,
gathering themselves to earth.
Your answer, rowing; perfect metaphor
we see now for your going,
not a retreat but a gliding somehow
into a privacy we deprived you of,
not knowing then we watched you recede
and never grasped your courage; eccentricity
an armour our ignorance only occasionally
pierced: your fondness for dried wells
and soaking streets lost to our arid musings.
BEHIND THE STEPS
Behind the steps the widow looks at the world.
She comes out to snow-spits in the morning,
Her step falters. Under that bowl of night
and greater darkness closing, where the stars
are slow expectorations, pass her days,
the almost-touchable become her prison.
Coarse mouths loiter on guard outside,
they think, if think they do, the house begins
level with their feet. The life below
and all it holds is alien to them
as much as she who lives it. Sometimes Mozart
drifts up, through aimless conversation;
they stop as if to sniff a foreign smell.
One of them masturbates an air guitar.
Light bathes the clutter in withdrawn-from rooms,
the cellar heart intact, the long back garden
triumphant-ragged as on that first day.
Deserted histories are stacked upstairs,
disparate groups clamped in a mildewed kiss,
women in ball-gowns, men barely restrained
in formal suits, whose sons revert to type,
street crowds whose eyes follow an unseen icon.
The top floor is to let, but no one comes
prepared to clear the steps of viscous markings.
From below all she can see is sky,
or feet, or fag-ends tossed. What little life
there is, is sad and seemingly predestined
to seal a night of cowardice and phlegm.
FROM THE LONG ROOM
1. The First Fruit
The first fruit is the fruit of dreaming.
A layer of day peeled and held up to the light:
three girls pose by a distant mountain wall,
the sea stilled, noon like a silenced bell.
One holds and apple and a white chess piece
her skin faint now as worn mother-of-pearl,
her smile the mildest darkening on grained gloss.
Atoms of ink are black stars in the universe
between the eye and unassuming grace
crowned by the sarcophagus of the Great Blasket.
2. The Virgin Contemplates Birth
A godlike way of looking at the world,
detached as a child observing gravity
yet at the same time visceral and so completely hers;
in the heat wait trees, pruned and perfect
but nothing’s perfect as the one uncertainty
that doesn’t matter: see it through her eyes.
She eats, teeth puncturing the asymmetric peach,
no drop wasted, she licks the bitter from its wooden comb.
How casually she mentions weight on hips!
Man out of sight drops, an unwanted stone.
Something is assumed. Green smears to white,
olive to absence, stubborn husks unburied,
her footprints among others known by instinct
suddenly gone. Into what gaping question
did they merge? Sea advances in still clouds
beyond those sullen buildings; here the roofs
simply wait as everything, those steps,
the second and the perfect weight it held
- which disappearance checked each element -
hovers unmentioned as a final secret.
4. Caught in a Lost Corner
Apotheosis. Jewelled beads on silk
radiate from a forgotten eye,
a sun disc, a pomegranate slice.
The skies reordered swirl in a steady spiral
about the merest dot of red: vermilion
of the priest of Shakti, heart of the Sangre de Cristo.
Heaven on earth, pure abstract mosaic
of sky as womb, the living wonderfully fallen,
stone upon rainbow upon renamed stars
that are cells in the gemmed veins of the universe.
I’ve known a couple at the Eiffel Tower
take the lift up, praying for solid ground,
their eyes squeezed tight. I wish you open eyes
and that detachment wide to the unexpected
as thought becomes an object, then a thought:
you roll into your picture of something
someone else imagined; like a bagel,
or Cordelia’s voice remembered by her father.
This becoming is the trick does for us all,
it rolls along the freight-lines of our changing,
it is the hub round which a hemisphere
turns and becomes the people it contains,
that semi-circle perfect as a skull
in which may be made whole our guttered dreams.
In terraced living-rooms the small screens throw
warm tartan shadows on tight flickering walls,
heightened, muted music draws
the outside ear to a dumb show
illuminating curtains poorly pulled.
This is safety; where a stubborn fog
is a solid, reassuring cul de sac,
the news familiar, tired, vague.
The word that springs to mind is snug.
Your hands are tingling, feet are sullen blocks:
it must be the blank numbness you embrace,
their indoor comfort a memento mori.
When, tight-dawned, they hunch to place
soles on cold lino, you’ll have passed,
slow creature-like, through a darkness wholly
true, the mind and muscle-tightening chill
no stratagem or theory defeats.
You know life as a kind of illness.
The urgency of leaves as pillow
quickens the blood, kindles its own heat.
THE LAST OF THE ROMANS
The last of the Romans sit
on faded benches in a small
town in, say, fourth century Gaul.
It is a warm tranquil day
scent of vineblossom on the air
barbarians still a long way
off; but they
have years enough and wit
to know it's finished -
roads in permanent disrepair,
a litter of disused buildings,
and the old certainties vanished
like the sacred things
that kindled kindred-feeling
from here to Asia.
The young greet each other in a new lingua franca
"Go on, you bollocks.""Fuck off, wanker".
How can everything be so tired?
They're still young, they tell themselves,
what's missing now that fired
them all those years ago;
love of Rome or Emperor? No,
it was the dream, the dream of Rome,
that Rome could live
in every town, in every home.
Their children aren't children any more
they'll soon go off to fight a war
but for the first time in a thousand
years, no one will think they know what for.
FOUR MEDITATIONS ON MEMORY
The storm that never came grips our minds
when wind thrums beyond the pared hayfields,
each gust howling round a silent chasm at its centre
which is our waiting that night when summer was a slight,
bayed creature. If we could conjure back that stillness
from where it lies lost, we could breathe calm
through that greater storm which has yet to arrive
but which, like a perfect thief, has robbed us
and it not there. So memory must take refuge in evasion.
Road signs, copses, trouble-dappled eaves,
solid, patterned, each certain scene
a story at the centre of its own telling.
My boyish journeys were ringed by such deceptions.
It was me all along, I see now:
chastened by a raw wind that whips
through a fault in the rampart of recollection,
an instantaneous being back that exiles, as a glimpse
of bare skin leaves you stranded on a far shore.
Rooted by a sudden sense of sun; or garbled voices
that could be rainwater in distant downpipes,
a lost pang that startles; the person is the same,
can bid no history clothe the heat that takes him unawares,
divert no fear that flares in the mundane dream.
Into what byways have we led ourselves, what stilled
water left untroubled; no face may flash like tragedy
or bliss into our line of placid vision, onto
the wrapped self we know as core and shell.
My daughter dancing before a mirror
sees the world seeing her, the glass
never clearer. The beat she throws her head to
will inform her days, she has a taste
for sweetness, in food, in life. And she will
forget as only the happy can; or know
these sixteen or so bars as dust in a sunbeam.
And I, looking on, can savour for the moment
a richness wholly hers now, sweet, persistent, true.
The sea road bends and dips to dark pastures,
grasses shoal silver in a wind-whip.
A far, unyielding haze has settled on a noon
where a young boy wears a bracelet of fresh fish.
He holds them as though light were ringing
uncounted days; he knows nothing of how long
water held him to the rock of hope
as his eyes swam with the tide about the outcrop.
In the cleft where he waited the only bright
was the dull swirl of the fish
before it exploded out of its life
and into flat burning days where its eyes
were perfect beads, still as its body
slapped the blurred air
and the last droplets like mercury
stole from its breached scales.
My fingers trawl along the ridge of crystal
bought this morning in Galway. Its berry-purple
teeth are a glittering depth, a heart
that courts but rejects what light offers.
It lay like rock-candy beside milky, perfect
stones, like wine on the white hand
of the shop-girl; she knew age and shelf
but couldn’t see how it robbed her skin like blood.
And over her shoulder the street throbbed,
cyclists weaved past a striped workman’s tent
at the foot of a bridge that arched towards what little
light the pushing bodies chose to share.
Boy and catch wind down to a white house,
at its back an ashpit, a midden punctured
by the salt sheen of irises, the fine nets of last year’s
leaves making their steady way to coal.
That every shock of cold might be your last,
that you dip your life gingerly onto pebbles,
is daily prayer, a salt communion.
Sleet against your chest is myriad medals,
your neat clothes in the car, an alien order.
The first plunge is more than purification,
it transfigures you back and beyond your nature
to a joy that casually seared your infant soul
and pains you when you waken far from water.
That a familiar swell be treacherous
urges you to test on depth and force
the same in self; the stinging, arch-whipped gale
hymns to your rising gasp. You strike for land,
for sand like ash, the day a silent dirge.
MOTHER AND CHILD
As with her, they took your soul away.
No ordinary being dead would do,
and though no candles burn beneath your icon
your name is air, flesh that you were, forbidden
to fade around the bleak bones of its truth.
On and beyond those huddled lanes, rain seeps
into the pools that welled, the roots that fed:
epitome of misery. How vain
the hard word hurled, the head-averting litany:
you were and are not. What you were, we are.
Like a pearl in farmyard muck
you were lost, static in a whispered,
devious tumult; your cries,
a shaking free subdued
by the let-down of compromise,
the other point of view.
It was pain
washed you. Stronger than gold
now, you nestle in the palm
of your life.
AFTER THE LAST FEVER
After the last fever
I walked in the park
amazed at how dark the leaves
had become: had I missed
an entire summer?
Surely those railings were a different colour?
A slight mist, and the long-
lain loam it had grown from
came on me, and suddenly
I didn't know where I was,
familiarity had taken me unawares,
I had been here every day in summer
and hadn't known it;
fleeing from the mechanics of walking
I moved so fast my legs grew sore
but made no progress.
Now here I was, knowing
and empty of the need of knowledge;
the damp was welcome as the cold
surrounding a sheet lifted,
the ground tested, solid under shaky feet.
LINES WITH A LATIN DICTIONARY
(for Pat Deery)
Sending you back the dictionary, I think of things uncovered
or rather rubbed from the consciousness of compilers –
the smell of dung; insects and sweat they sniffed ecstatically;
the life-sapping torpor of slaves who waited on poets.
Music there must have been, a skip or moan in the pulse;
sawdust round blood clotting on a taverna floor.
Such a magnificent fiction, this dictionary; no decay,
as when we were adolescent and opening like fumbling thieves
the purse of our lives which we thought we’d daringly snatched
from acquisitive fate. Since we last spoke, I’ve added
two derelicts to the unfolding film-set of my life,
one we shared for five years, the other occasionally
But the true spirit is vagrant.
You were always in your element whenever our paths crossed
or when I listened to you, your breath drawn for spotlit
lines committed over evenings such as this
to arid paper. The lit movement of your eyes,
the living grammar of your fingers, conducted an edgy
truth to the electric utterance where print is discarded
and the paper-slaved is liberated. We are all sons
of freedmen; saints’ names above the lintels of our various schools
were badges of an unintended patronage. That you stepped out
yet carried onstage the burden of a knowledge
acquired whole elsewhere, was no more than proper.
Each fluid line had a weight of life, and more, a shared,
uneasy memory of crowd and tumult,
words hammered out like iron on secret anvils,
old books opening, their fust a smell of dusty blood.
The boy having a fit is blocking the stairs
and the sun on his head burns as if through cracked glass.
Between spasms, his face is pale as a statue
as if all the city’s turmoil found
repose in that expression’s deep and meagre stillness.
Feet hush as they pause to step across.
He could be smiling at the death of terror
in a dream of other lives where days are ripe.
Nostrils twitch to a smell of dry hay and olives,
his body fires itself to a bow
then the great slow fall to the welcome touch of mildew,
light swathed in a bandage of pure cold.
AT THE WEIR BRIDGE
My neighbour with the grey
Sunday morning look I sometimes
shun in the mirror
is an expert. He balances perfectly
and can see moving silver
where my eyes swim. Arrested
by a splash, I am always too late.
The salmon jump everywhere
but where the line hopes.
They have no time for random death.
The fisherman works towards a sea
barred to both fates. Light
is a bait that draws curious
faces to a double, contradictory
excitement, escape and catch.
Clumsy as a stilled bear,
the fisherman has broken ranks
with loiterers and shoppers.
We want him to fail because
one of us betrayed our nature:
to succeed because the thought
of blood pumps ours. A couple
of Japanese girls take photos,
their syllables leap in the startled air.
ALL THE BEAUTIFUL WORDS
all the beautiful words
that pass through my mind
when I have no memory
as when I walk
through a corridor
of weak light, the sky
slit by a turned year
night music; clay opening
on heated sills; you,
hidden behind car lights.
If I could bang
that beauty back into
my head, would I reel
like a drunk prophet
through an estranged,
indifferent world, weaving
through clenched traffic, lips
tight round your name?
It was always
so: water through fingers,
stars behind full moon,
the peace of exhaustion.
“L’oiseau est prisonnier de son vol.” – Léo Ferré
The seals are singing that have never sung but once before.
They have heard the women crying on the shore,
it has woken an instinct in them that is older than salt.
They lift their heads to the rocks where the wind pelts.
He carried her away and the sand ceded to the imprint of their bodies.
The grains parted like the waters before Moses
and when their weight and movement ceased, the cave received them.
Some say they walked out the other side and were saved.
Gulls, emboldened, will attack a seal as he tosses a fish
to catch it head first: will dive at his eyes to make him miss.
Helpless, amazed, his head sleekly rejects the sky
as the surface is sewn by the scar of a silent eddy.
Chaste, separate, twin depressions are pointed out to strangers.
What fused sand thus is the stuff of scholarship or placename. A steady dirge
urges the mind beyond the whistling arches to where wind is a hanging,
endless note fathering every legend, loss, song.
And the bird is truly prisoner of its flight: it pinions a million years
under its assumed weightlessness. Its joy at uplift is an ordained tearing
at its fate: it smells fur and flesh and is afraid, but plummets
to an impact that will one day wrench the future from its spent limbs.
Who first imposed curve and flank on this dip is rock now, and lost,
the fear felt in a weird corner has softened to a brief, snatched curiosity.
Only at the coldest tide will a seal haul itself here, to sniff and listen,
its neck taut, breast smooth as the curved belly of the shingle.
THE RIVER FIELD
“About this lady, many fruitful trees”
The path is flaked with coarse sawdust,
spindle limbs, fruit cracked along lobes
like the broken limbs of blackbirds,
distant trees that loomed in spring
top-heavy with rookeries, full now and balanced.
Casual shoes are soiled on the spread
innards of a bank gouged by a lorry.
Through piled clay by gravel and pipes,
buttercups thrust, a final pointless blaze.
In the mud, the shallow prints
of a lone horse, light, riderless,
steady where it stopped to graze, ivy
fresh-green, pulled about, ribboning
the trunks felled by an ancient wind.
They end, the tracks, by a field
where flax was drowned, descendants
of missed roots, harrow-defying,
risen like swords from sown teeth.
Once were fields within fields here,
no sight of habitation, no wire broke the sky,
alders shaded a deep pocket of the river,
hard little apples on hunched trees
odd and wild in a hedge. Almost a miracle
now in this pitiless clearing
grid-drained into a fishless line,
a whipped whirl of boxwood
long-fingered, weird as a fairy tree.
Was it hereabouts we raised
a hare almost beneath our steps?
Hemmed, we never knew our bearings,
had to guess at gaps. We heard before
we saw, the river crooked-bushed;
a sole twisted blackthorn marked
a final corner. Not as lost
as now, when nothing’s hidden, the town
carried on unimpeded air.
And the nearest hedge
is a tired walk away; and the map
of that imagined world you came
to plant can no more last
than the smeared outline overhead.
How well the machinery has done
its work – and how little you have
of what has gone, or been, or may
have stood unremarked, unregarded.
We start from the surface,
pulling shadows round us to block
and blanket, fighting this
contentious openness; we hope
for a distant dip or tripped-on
hump where we can peg a wall
or cornerstone, where we can shed
our failure to hold fast, can build
and gild that dark invisible.
Forgetting as we must that nothing
we lament wasn’t man-made,
the unexpected secrecies we try
to stumble into – jungle-shrubberies,
spread lilac gable-cracking, mossed
rectangles defiantly proclaiming solitude –
beautiful for having run their course,
more so by their diminishing. Comes the cold:
to the book, to the open road.
Miraculously the willows are still standing:
some developer must still believe in God.
Swans are gliding over the dip-combed green
a Sunday child mistook for mermaid’s hair.
And the new roofs fit. They shy through branches,
bridal in their brief, leaf-flitted glance,
they slope, slate-delicate, into each other
like Renoir’s umbrellas, sun-caught, smooth.
And this is all there is. That it should be,
sufficient and outlasting, is the last
and greatest question. There can be no let,
no self-imported hinder the play of new
and dying. Night will bring unearthly blue,
lovers in attics think it always so.
Dawn and the glint of dew on cabbages
outside the reach of the Imperial Guard
where old men play at gardener, play at God.
My mind is torn by the stillness of old images:
where in the night was Bosch when his speared limbs thrust
into the ribs of birdsong; did his voice,
timid, querulous, sink into the din
that fired him to the purity of sin,
a prophecy of archaeologists,
his vision tamped, each howl a twisted peace?
Rising to a dog’s howl in the dark,
a pink smudge on the skyline, sleep is shaken
into the gutter like cold rain from a broken
pipe, the day a task one dare not shirk.
Put away the spindle-jointed limbs,
relax into the certainty of fear
and its undoing; let the imagination
rot like sodden canvas. Day is patient,
warms the walls in half-remembered rooms,
comforts like the silence of smooth gears.
Afternoon. The hour of balanced exile,
a long sigh let, the peace of empty lungs.
The gaze is drawn to sidestreets, grasses hung
along a stream, to couples, separate, pale.
A gull’s cry in a country deep inland
where the blunt mind ploughs, and the awkward phrase
is nonetheless a kind of silence, true
to its having failed, the spark that drew
and then withdrew; and how else could it end;
what have we left to rue but other days?
A stranger skirting the wastes of middle age
stares from an orchard at an upper room
and hears a newborn cry and knows its doom
and his; a sentence of suppressing rage,
of smiling on the mediocre; yet
his dissembling will one day play him false
only the great can carry on their shoulders
the giddy lack of guilt: only an elder
old before his time can live and let
slip into dark his wisdom. But what else?
Then he remembering sunrise on a bay -
its islands mazy sandheaps stirred by gods
and how another’s pleasure was his goad,
even then the plaything of a wealthy day –
lapsed into silence, fingered bauble’s clasp,
fingered the pinpoint, felt his tip embrace it.
He looked for time to stop. In pain it did:
a moment’s fancy like a heart that bled
and in that beat he balanced on the cusp
of something beyond love, a drop untasted.
The Emperor’s fat fingers brook no feeling.
He loves the cabbages because they’re thick,
the ridge of veins, the dry death as they snick.
He lives on grains immortal stones are milling
and in his dreams he hears the nightingale
his paranoia hunted from the earth,
the generals’ letters swear, like love, to absolutes.
Those whom the Gods have blessed are blessed with fruit.
He loves only dawns’ thrust in the marrow-hole,
his toe stubbed by a flint-blade on the path.
LIVES OF THE POETS
You take into your third exile a long prayer,
an evening dying slowly into its own red heart,
a night of restless bodies miles apart,
their several wakenings synchronised by despair.
One turns toward embers in a grate, the other to an electric bar,
to books that cannot be read but in the fits and starts
between recoil and shudder, where a thought
steals in like a mouse under the door
or drifts like a lungful of fetid air.
What can you tell us of the air you split
where none can reach, so fine it isn’t there; brittle
as a promise, it will gather behind you, cease to exist.
Suddenly words are caked like clay
round the slightest thought: no fault of yours
who cast them as only you could, spendthrift
and meaning no harm, wishing we were easy
with the truth as you with thirty thousand feet to spare.
How could we quarrel with your nature, this dumbfounding flit?
And maybe we are the exiles here at home;
middle-aged men growing old in a soiled, wet country,
fighting cold, peering at the dawn sky, hoping for a break
for the space of a hurried, breathy walk.
It is given to few to surround themselves with beauty.
After the broken sleep, the hours still as a tomb
but for the pounding heart, there is the daily
pain of setting forth, the fever unassuaged,
the chasm of silence, the nothing, the smile-sealed rage.
Now we are bracing ourselves for an early frost
but the dark is welcome now. How little time has passed,
it seems, since we blinked at the surprise of summer,
its surprise and of course its failure. Only the twist
of night-lit current at our backs, the murmur
of traffic, people, water, and what in retrospect was perfect
hangs like a sun whose fading is its promise of return.
Cold will be good, I will grow strong in the bitten mist,
remembering the castle wall, its shadow spread in light, its echoing laughter.
YOUTH, LOVE AND THE SEA
‘How mysterious are these charming sisters –
Youth, love and the sea!’ - Nikos Kazantzakis
The bodies are laid out neatly like seals,
raising their heads occasionally, stirred by a random movement.
They settle back into the comforting rhythm of blood,
the sun red on their closed lids.
The dunes tremble in the breeze: so slight an advance,
slower than evolution. And the sea brings a scent
of lemon mingled with ash, a smell of sacrifice
troubling the glassy noon. Can it be this body’s stillness
is like a sleeping bird’s, forever wary?
Heat shimmers either side of a couple hand in hand,
their age impossible to determine; tall, slender,
they look into the distance like old people. Nothing seems
to pass between their still forms, the space from head
to hands is a wedge no togetherness can dislodge.
Their silence seems almost to alarm the sea;
frightening too their sense of comfort in strain
so that they have become one with the tide’s invisible, soft
gouging, the hum that is both ease and destruction.
Now the wind rises: for an instant it stings
like a memory of a bad taste, brings a shiver of salt:
then gone again. Bodies stretch and nestle as though under sheets
but a restlessness persists. Is it the painted Christ
on a far clifftop monastery, all gardens leading to Him?
Or life tracing itself on the mind as though by the faintest
pressure of a fingernail? No longer there, the wind
still jumbles children’s voices at water’s edge, their message
lost, tonal shards puncturing the drift to sleep.
And the ferry in the distance is too white, there is
something skeletal about it; figures move on deck
like ticks on the bones of a stripped whale. It haunts hereabouts
islands only the happy may leave; others in port
stare as it opens to souls who can face
what they could not forget; dreams of dark mornings,
cold under coats: cold only another skin
can assuage. And those who remain turn to parasols
and cocktails, dry air and empty hours,
some longing maybe in spite of the call of blankness
for the smell of saltless damp, a sense of clay
carried over impossible distances: their breath
is taken by a shilouette of trees in a long,
low twilight, that shock when expected cold
becomes a sudden mildness, a miracle, a gift;
when a door opens onto spring. The moment passes
and the pull of home is a remembered sirens’ song,
an angel’s kiss for those with guttering candles.
So, slowly, dies day on the world of Aeschylus,
its islands a random spatter set in a pattern
no scientist can fathom: only the dark is universal
and arid as truth. Children in their dead of night will finger
the ridge of shells as those they revere count the contours of beads
and pray for sense among a thousand minglings.
No one wakes to the blood of goats, but bare feet
on sand, drinkers by porous harbour walls,
will bask in sun and plead with it, unknowing.
ALL SHALL BE BROUGHT INTO THE LIGHT
Handshake and chipped mugs, the room
small this time, the same
stillness along the clock-hung hall, along
stairs where dust is whipped by the stop-start of chime and wonder.
The upper windows opening onto other stories
breathe bars of sidecars and gin, teetering
on the verge of derailment, dying along the edge
of thickened gardens where foxes sow bones
and stiffen under a crescent dusk, honed on a bead of alteration.
Hands and keys, turning days.
Like teardrops and laughter, morning and promises.
2. In motion
There are figures whose walk
is a moving huddle. You know them, have glimpsed
their lives from the inside out, when they peered
as though from the gimlet of a tank,
claustrophobic to the gut, their song the smell
of beer from a pub door
opened on cold light to let night out;
from where the crash of empties had its own sting
for steadied men, newspapers under arm, day planned
a step beyond panic.
And under tired walls, the road threads
like a stream between cliffs, its emptiness
the shine on a snake’s back.
Always moving away, toward broad day
and the great fable of the envied.
Drawn these days to dim rooms
where the streets outside
are rivers of mud, and dogs’ ribs
ridges under wavering coats,
I sit alone at the card table,
its baize worn to a skin
where the sweat of a million hopes has greased
the rim, and there are no stories anymore
nor breath to begin a caution,
and wait, indifferent to light, to silence,
watching until the dark plays tricks
parting like water in a pit
showing the nothing of its depth.
The wainscot warped like belled air,
drapes heavier with wear.
Helpless along the paths of predecessors
rain words, recollections.
A quarter-beat apart, two clocks
made whole by the gap.
There are sentences no one wants to assemble
for fear of the barb of wayward syllables.
Sunday among the stones. No. Not.
4. All shall be brought.into the light
A night of trapdoors, strangers, clearances,
the newly-found carried away.
Attic hours, figures on dust
seen through a coil of shocked exhaustion.
So late an enlightenment can sour
the dog days, make sun a lash across the back,
grass so dry its dust is pepper, tractors in the meadow
labouring as through quicksand.
There is such a thing, after all,
as too much happiness, too strong
a prayed-for summer. Silver and wood
long, like fish, for a recess, the slow, fluid clef
of day moving on the filter of laden blinds.
5 Week’s end
In spite of layers of frying-steam on ceilings,
in spite of the years, I smell fresh paint.
If, when stretching to an awkward plug,
my fingertips balance on the wall and, withdrawn,
are heavier by an age, the air is older
with the promise of song; and every dust
is a hiding place where truth will out
when joists are parted or pages turned.
Light, more light, and an old record recovered,
pristine in sight and sound. Mist burns away: intermission
and cloud. All hope is here, hope and its burying.
And I remember, as I leave, turpentine and rainbow-
spattered rags, plank-crossings, a small transistor.
All of us young.
And so we have to choose
between the figure on the vase
and the grit in the hairline crack.