COLD AND WET
BOY ON A PORCH
A POOL SO DENSE
NEARING THE END OF A LONG BOOK
CHILDREN SCROLLING THROUGH OLD PHOTOGRAPHS
CALDRAGH IN APRIL
THE LAST BREATH
So. The hour comes again
for sitting down and looking
into dark, in hope
that in the emptying of will
it becomes a well that holds
beyond the reach of light
enough of water to catch the light
when lifted up.
And what today can’t be shaken off?
The sight of dogs trudging, lean,
beside a man on sticks;
I stared into the gap of a life
I’d often looked upon as from
a car’s slow window
as years went by unnoticed
like telegraph poles.
Then I turned for home, past what
I’d missed first time: a row
of barrels in the old schoolyard, all
but one intact, barren or weed-heavy,
the last, rotten, fallen half-asunder
and burdened with flowers.
The sea gleams after thirty years
and in its heart an old coin tossed
to signify a coming birth;
sucked into deep, its detail lost
like a city long erased
whose myth and early promise broke
and crumbled to a patterned loss:
the stubborn yielding of a husk,
the history of each grain of sand,
that sense of something on the wane:
the rhythm of a tidal shuck,
its seaweed like a fruitful vine.
The sea may never surrender all its ghosts
but in the end each boat coughs up its ballast.
Not these stones, though. How many million
shocks have smoothed them, each collision
a death, a dropping off; far beyond the reach
of questions, their shearing away, their first pitch
into the infinite. And what are we
but ants clambering across a rock pitched up from the sea?
None of which mattered to you, content
with what land promised and the seasons lent,
for you knew it was all on loan; strive as we must,
the earth that fed would as quietly swallow our dust,
and when you came here it was to see how
all things end; to make you steadier at the plough.
The wetlands have been smoothed light green.
Only a tracery of olive marks the runnels
where moorhens nested.
So many roads are straighter now,
they carry us alongside what we knew,
the landscape, like our former certainty,
remembered or looked at from a distance;
our many journeys ended with a silent promise
to turn off and revisit on a better day
So here I am in the townland where it all began,
my first scribbling, my thought meandering like water;
here began too, my preoccupation with rivers; how
they trickled blood-like out of the ground
telling the contours of hidden stone or bone,
wearing away the flap of skin over knuckle;
the way a river is its own story until you look into it
and stand entranced by its myriad darkness or dizzy
at the speed of its silver, dipping in and out of itself.
And what have I learned? That life is not a tide,
nor even a river, but a stream drawn this way and that
by the immovable, the concealed; that the reflection
of light on its surface passes for beauty
but its shallows are true depths, each bend a world,
every stretch alien to what has gone before;
and where it widens out and levels, there is true movement,
drawn by a gravity only the old can realise, or those
on the threshold of levelling;
and that one day
the grass that pillowed your unfeeling head and saved
your skin, too pale already, from a last purple kiss,
will gleam or lour according to a whim of the sky,
that once-in-a-lifetime flood when the Atlantic boils
two thousand miles away and casts itself on this corner
forgotten to all but those of us who have left a coin
where its water at last is welcomed in salt.
The clock ticks on the crossing of the threshold
and the boy with the tic who measures time
by the rise and fall of glucose in his blood
is seated at an unfamiliar table.
A jigsaw piece is righted on the axle of his fingers
it glides like a spaceship over thirty possibilities.
The picture lid has been turned to the wall,
he pins together a world that was never whole
while the world as he knows it watches what it cannot fathom.
We are a sea to him, a succession of waves
now comforting, rocking, now buffeting him
with the unexpected – that enemy which startles
him into consciousness each morning
What will happen? Where will it come from?
And even becalmed, the slightest sound, birdsong,
a distant car, snaps him into alertness,
his head tilting noise-ward, like any prey
and for that heartbeat we are all children,
fearful, tense. This is as much as we know.
Everything is stopped, waiting for his muscles to thaw
back into movement; it happens, invisibly,
like a breath exhaled; his company gathers
itself into an edgy sense of balance.
And the piece now wafts like a feather, now jerks,
lands again and again where it makes no sense
then settles where it fits, not to the eye of right
but snug, a primal hug, a belonging.
His body relaxes, eyes flutter. Always a dawn.
COLD AND WET
These past days I’ve been seized by a sense of thirst,
not mine but my father’s,
how medication lay on his throat like ether.
We froze grapes for him to cool his mouth,
nothing was ever cold enough, or wet;
it seemed at times as if his leaving us
was a merging into sand.
And now, dry from walking, I sit in the heat
of an Indian summer, a warm wind, a shimmering
while the gold hands of a clock toll the sun
as if scolding the unnaturalness of short sleeves.
Everything is blazing past its time,
I face it with a greater joy than most,
my mind being never far from cold and wet.
The silver is polished, the crossword done.
When I come in, the air floods
with the smell of recently-extinguished candles,
is fresh with the starch of turned linen.
And the fire is not yet the banked coals
of December; it soaks the chill
and leaves the room in balance
with the outdoors’ reddening.
This is fullness: a touch of arthritis,
a wisdom that comes as the marrow
thins; cold in the far reaches
of the body, of the house
And above all, good heart; the strength
in simply being here; a taste
for the day and what it holds,
the new and what it yields.
Yet I can sense beyond the placid
acceptance of age, an impatience to be away,
to be with those who know, where all
the question marks are exclamation marks.
BOY ON A PORCH
(for Paddy Goodwin)
I drank my first spirits
my throat pinched, eyes watering,
in a farmhouse forty years ago,
the Great Bear low in the sky,
hills obliterated by dark,
the timbers of the long room timeless.
My mind then, as often since,
fixed on an image of a boy my age
sitting on the porch of a clapboard house,
iron under his feet,
the air quivering with a static
he understood in his bones,
dreaming a future
which was his own extinction,
a skin sloughed off like a snake’s,
held to the sky in a dance
of vision and triumph,
lost in the dust of a north wind.
Old shelves lined
with boxes, labels peeling.
A sudden strangeness of light,
a spider scurrying to shelter.
I lift a handful of tapes
then step back and try
to calculate the hours,
the attentiveness to song,
each modulated phrase known
by heart when this door
swung shut on her life.
Memory dies. Tapes die
when the last machine
gives up the ghost.
I see now
how at the very end
her old faithful music decks
fell silent one by one
as if standing to attention.
She slept fitfully in silence
and what music there was
she kept, not locked away,
but in a dearth of sound
where it could be remembered,
a kind of purity
like that first recollection
she spoke of once:
a child bewildered
by so many rushing tides
wiping what she’d thought immovable;
yet standing firm
on that dizzy ground,
her inner ear perfectly pitched.
A spider tiny as a pencil-point
leaves on your car a web your thumb would cover.
By the time you reach your gates, the web is gone,
the spider hiding in the space where glass
is hinged to plastic. Every night it leaves
its ledge to hunt; and who knows how it fares?
But fare it does, as we sail into sleep.
I remember how your father couldn’t bring
himself to kill a fly. Literally:
I saw him, feeble, shooing round the parlour,
his arms high like Jim Larkin in that picture.
And then he stopped, as if he were conducting
a pause, a note sustained, he gathered in
something the air had given him; unheard sound,
the pattern in a zigzag flight, a harmony.
Your eyes are always drawn to what we miss:
the leaf-fleck that turns out to be an insect,
patterns in the early-morning sky.
In age, you focus on the ever-smaller,
drawn to what you studied as a boy,
flies on the river where you learned to swim,
a leaf entire within an April bud
and that first miracle you found in music,
a false note leading to its perfect chord.
A lifetime and three thousand miles.
Two boys, the same sky over each -
diamonds in obsidian,
the same sharp breath, a void inhaled.
The age of space. A sharpened scythe
hung like a moon in dying light.
You kept the iron taste of ice
and tracked your own truth in the night.
Hours of silence without weight
and that final weightless fear
of dark before a stepping off
into a nameless interlude.
Spring came that year, almost unknown,
cars revved and widened lakeside tracks.
Music slaked our thirst. Since then
I’ve travelled either side of sleep
on the same mournful phrase I heard,
geese-call on a flooded plain,
iron filing through a stream
and that first voice, a wind through wires.
Why can we never praise bad music?
We who never played anything else,
for whom a guitar was no different
to a cap-gun or that crooked
stick we rode in a game of cowboys
before we put that all away and lived
through music papers and hard-edged posters.
And now we aspire to the innocence of what passed
for plans in our adolescent heads.
Is it the death of ambition throwing its long shadow
or fear of renouncing what we once
held dear, that keeps us from admitting
how awful we really were, and how good
it was not to know it – how good;
no apple-gloss, no whispered promise could ever
compare with the bliss of that ignorance;
I catch it sometimes, drifting on the wind,
the squeal from a far rehearsal-room.
A POOL SO DENSE
We drifted on water dark as tar.
No matter how we turned, our voices were faint
as if from those islands, old, unreachable,
stronger boys swam to without effort, their calls clear, joyous.
When I woke, a moth had battered itself to death
between pane and curtain, and the birds were singing as though
nothing had slept. For sure, creatures had been
pulled in and devoured, but that was no more than part of earth’s
deep somnolent sigh, cancelled out like a moment of terror
when June streamed in, making the moth no more than litter.
And opening up, the air is full,
still heavy with the smell of last week’s rain,
it has nowhere to go, it is an injured bird trapped
in a yard, or an old misdeed that won’t fade,
or the long escaping from a measureless dream
in which sleep the body gathers itself into its morning stiffness.
So long ago now, when the clouds were knight riders
and the worst that could happen was trudging
to school with a long sun calling you elsewhere,
and there was the thrill of windows beckoning when backs were turned.
But we’ve lived since then in the blood
and guts of chivalry, the crude, half-blunt lance
that never pierces true. Nothing festers like an unintended wound.
It’s the forgotten splinter that kills in the end,
or the clean cut bathed in stagnant water. Pray tonight
to come across a pool so dense you can walk on it.
NEARING THE END OF A LONG BOOK
We can’t remember our infancies, but they
live in our bodies – Siri Hustvedt
When a last apple,
wizened, clings to its thin branch
and the fire spits
knots of stubborn sticks like a black cat’s hiss,
the old itch to dream of gardens
and the long suck
of cows’ shanks dragging
air from riverbank mud as they pull themselves into long, dry grass
has come from nowhere
like a fly swallowed,
dissolved but still there. Nearing the end of a long book
it is always something small, almost overlooked, that jars
what’s been read
hard against memory stretching
like a library row, here to sun and dust; there, dusk.
The last pages hold a resolution no writer plans.
I carry from closing to opening,
shadows on a long summer’s night, heard not seen,
soft-voiced, earth warm under bare feet.
How easily an impulse swallows the fact:
there’s no such paragraph
in what I’ve read;
a word, impossible to find, has flared from deep
within the strata of what I have become,
a mite, a leaf wall come back to life.
I never lay back and looked
skyward with the sense
of grass as sentinels
yet my mind has become loam to that seed.
Our infancies live in our bodies like certain
words, far from the mind’s reach, rooted in instinct;
a grain longing to be green
pales and disturbs the soil
under a light so faint
it triggers no surface reaction.
We wait for seasons to change and the moment passes unmeasured
but for the hunger
that echoes along a maze of nerves;
ah, those grasses waving in a country I know never existed!
The curse of Eden, this, to know wide
but not deep, this refracted wisdom
we learned to revere, having let go
the pull of early words, lights moving
across our infant eyes, a far day
warmed by the colours of our first hearing.
The sun when it came, hit us
- a cowboy hiding in the trees –
right between the eyes. Winter at its lowest
and each breath like a toothache,
our boots slight as black plastic;
thin water as we cracked it
stung from toe to crown. And then
the sudden beauty of day dying,
blue against black, lost but held still
like the smell of apples as
we make our way through a bare orchard.
Is it because day dies from first light
that we have this long loving goodbye?
And we no longer need a harbinger of spring
or the sun to promise more than its setting;
cows shivering give as rich a milk
as on long summer grass; sweet too,
the darkness of birds huddled for warmth.
Grey light, constant, kind; a town drawn
like an outline of distant hills
and the road straight, a lone stranger arriving.
Like the end of a year,
it seems out of its time
or truly, to have no time.
More than the sum of its stories,
one of Copland’s quiet cities
just beyond the horizon of sound -
that enviable place no one wants
to reach: so frail, such a delicate balance!
The radio plays an old melody – The Watermill,
and in the middle of its melancholy
something soars; the firing of a nerve asleep a lifetime,
the meaning of a light gone out in a window.
Round that instant all desire has coalesced
and run-down avenues barely in view
will have the grace of ancient songs.
Christmas is a ghost walking along footpaths
past lights in shops that closed
the year you came back and gave up
the last hope of never changing.
But some things stay the same:
a north wind clears the air
and something fishlike leaps inside you,
a smolt drawn to the sea
by the sudden pain of fresh water.
It would be easy to say
everything was beautiful back then, because it was
but in its imperfection, that itch-like desire
for a grace never to be granted:
those Boxing Day ads for holidays in the sun
or new books telling of adventures in the veldt.
The white candle lit at midnight stands
for no eternal city, but the warmth
of an audience clapping a Nativity play.
I begin to forget Christian names; somewhere
just out of reach they hover
like souls of the recent dead, waiting, watching.
Two pigeons visit me each morning,
they perch patiently, eat, then flee
and sometimes I think this is how
it must be in the beginning,
a fluttering of birds out of reach,
a daily visit, ever more brief.
And then the names come back,
I can call them without the least fear,
so solidly are they gripped. When they do,
something bursts into flower far within:
is this what the Gospel describes, the rejoicing over
restored sinners? So far all my sheep have returned
and I’ve been spared the mortifying, blank
stare on meeting. It may never happen;
and I have the gift of nameless doves.
Halfway up the trees, a mud line.
Flowing past their roots, a placid trickle;
a hurricane, flicking eastwards like a random whip,
spat a cloud. It spiralled across the Atlantic,
it seemed on satellite screens white candyfloss.
And then it broke; and how it sundered!
Nature wears its coat of trash so well,
a badge of patience, almost, knowing the next shower
will wash clean, that roots will bind, as they must.
We have it wrong; we knit first,
holding our damage close, making it impossible to clean.
Yet in the middle of it all
I remember your talk of redemption
and I had the feeling you’d somehow walked over hot coals
during that war and hunger of which you never spoke.
And I think now there’s something strangely unheroic
in this business of healing: this you knew,
which is why – along with modesty,
you stayed faithful to the surface of things
and kept your pleasures simple with no outward show of renunciation;
how at the end, you remembered the lake
and boys running out to dive for coins.
CHILDREN SCROLLING THROUGH OLD PHOTOGRAPHS
It must be like looking at a foreign country.
It brings to mind the first time I set foot
in a bookshop: row upon row. I didn’t belong,
there was something vast and intimidating about their spines
diminishing in the distance like a mountain range.
What age was I? Young enough to be overwhelmed by waves,
to watch for tides in a bucket of salt water;
the huge walls of the backyard loomed
as I straightened, stiff but for a quivering lip,
admitting only through tear-filled eyes that nothing had happened.
How must those photographs, ancient, endless, be for our children:
that aerial view from a school which vanished overnight,
fields that became buildings in our growing-up days,
now fields again, or ragged grass forcing through rubble.
Our spell of words drew them here, that power
we didn’t know we had, to make a myth of nothing
but a need to be heard, to spread out
like stars or a picnic rug, what we know.
Their eyes have no patience, their forefingers tic
as they search soundlessly for something they won’t find;
set free in a world where nothing is strange anymore
except us, how will they grow back
to wonder? Or maybe it doesn’t matter after all,
that our loss is no more than the loss of grassland
or a ranch-sized forest wiped from an indifferent earth,
and this bewilderment, passed through generations, is still the primal
shock at the sight of that singular, straight creature,
us but not us, one arm long and wooden;
that sense, forever with us, of being cast adrift.
The more you try, the harder it becomes to leave well alone,
those of us blessed or cursed with imagination.
It must have been one such who smoothed and shaped
that double-headed god looking at all his island.
Why do we think it dark, that time? It was shot
with the wonder of anemones in a cleared glade,
the sweetness of fresh grass, a delight of new naming.
What the world has forgotten must never have existed:
this fear now, more than the mysteries of the sun,
is what drives our days and fills us with a thousand
melancholy echoes. It seems the hardest thing,
to step willingly into the gentle darkness of neglect,
forgetting the countless who have done so with what seems
a benign indifference, taking with them each moment, leaving nothing
of what was incomplete, unvisited. So many apples hang before us
who have sown too much, now dazzled by the play
of light and wind on so inexhaustible a harvest.
The sun is out, the daffodils still sheathed, about to burst.
Near at hand, a book, not of voyages but preparations.
Each line shimmers with a sense of anticipation,
sometimes dread; and somewhere within, the notion
of a wire being hung out on the air for you to walk,
so that your steps on solid ground are finely balanced.
I’d picked this by default: I’d felt for maps or histories,
fact coloured by dreaming, the redemptive truth of fiction:
we are no more than what we are, a canvas, a living cloth
and our journeys, however brief, however epic, are those
of creatures from water to water, living out of the time we make,
living through memories formed before the hardening of language,
with the rolling of sounds on the roof of the mouth,
air trapped and semi-solid like apple pulp.
And I remember. Nothing more, no detail, just a feeling
running through veins; no taste of food, only a hunger fed,
and a promise I could stand at the centre of the world
Going back, it is always for the last time
yet the burden of loss impels us to return.
Brother, sister, your words are solid as those hills we remember,
their valleys coloured by floods encroaching, receding
and your thoughts have the clarity of a half-remembered song,
a bar piercing like a sun looked at by accident.
Music is too much with me lately; it seems to sieve
all I once held joyful, leaving my mind to flit
from one dust to another. Still, how beautiful it sounds
in the act of waking with eyes closed, that moment of wholeness
when shadow and substance fall into each other.
Arcady, forever young. Et in Arcadia ego. You, I know,
have found within yourselves a power to loosen; your heads
no longer teem. But what if mine becomes an empty stream,
mere light glancing off the surface at a moment’s whim?
No, I’ll take the shoal and all its churning,
its mud, its shit, its golden sunshot in the depths.
It is the empty air
that knits fragments of birdcall.
Light breaks in divine discord
while the wise ear sleeps
then wakes to the pinhead
of a bird's happiness.
After the rain, roller-lines
on the great lawn are clean,
blossoms in the distance
deep and full as uncut stones.
Down rockery steps and into
spring and a previous century,
a phrase of an old song
heard on a morning street
from an open doorway.
And the day suddenly shivers
as the palate floods
with a memory of wine
and the last time I breathed
this lake-rich air,
young, with plantation trees
as neighbours, not bars.
Peeling plum-coloured mud from a blade which became
a petal, bright without its cake of years’ neglect
I shivered as if a tremor
had run right through me
not sky-down, but from the air crackling my skin.
Was it the brooch’s story or my own to come?
And the mud I dropped fell
into a life of seed, decay, seed, until paved over;
and the brooch and the boy, what became of them?
Broken, buried, they wait another lifting into light.
The lines in the copy are written in gall,
oak, but not oak, self yet alien to self.
A classroom Book of Kells experiment,
they picked, squeezed, strained, boiled,
then bottled the juice. It turned to vinegar.
Yet here it is, the fruit, set in thirty years
of waiting to surprise, each page unique, the hand
instantly known. What has become of them,
their names a high-pitched calling now?
They share the anonymity of monks,
thoughts of who they are move like ghosts
across the moment of discovery,
the mind calls up images of galls
in all their varied glory of distortion,
random nodes, compact as cells
or city-states; the past and how we build it.
CALDRAGH IN APRIL
(i.m. Seamus Heaney)
Leave the ferry to plough its strait
one car at a time; turn instead, a mile
along the shore, to a graveyard ringed with birdsong,
each call a different colour. This is the end,
the centre, a stillness crushed elsewhere in the searching;
a border, too, tilth held at arm’s length,
a strip for the old gods, a ribbon for the curlew.
THE LAST BREATH
The earth is full of the whisper of last breaths,
the air moves to admit their silent travelling.
Like music, prayer or pain, they stir and settle
at every instant, each imagined corner
as if the world were held in place
by the needlepoint of expiring.
Out of the blue, or rather the grey –
puddled roads, roofs the oily sleek
of hard-shelled insects, breath fogged
with summer cold – comes
from an upper room, doo-wop:
heart-stopping, conjuring the taste
of what was never tasted,
its newness an innocence
that passed as it was sung.
This is too mournful a headland for a grave.
Though you loved the sea in all weathers
those who seek solace here would find mostly
dry grass, wind-burnt
and a sea without love
pounding bird, weed and rock.
Better to lie where whitethorn reaches down in June
and green wells or cascades rain-like
when earth tilts sunward, a child at the breast;
you should be surrounded by the soak and dry
that cushions or firms our steps.
But, I remember now, you faced out
before your mind gave way,
we have no claim on you
since we abandoned hope of your return
and left you to pass the years
as a sailor never
more than on loan to earth,
given at last to terra firma where he washed up.
It was a long living of one solid wish:
sometimes I think you looked on us as smoke,
a nothingness in search of its element
- water of tears, breath of a sigh? -
while on those unheeded days
you wedged yourself against storms
where there is grasp
or death, and no fancy in between;
you moved along the coast road
like a gleaning bird, rhythmic, true as a clock
to fishing boats making their way back.
The sea folds and smooths,
it gently takes the exhausted swallow
so close to home. You were the first
to greet them: how that pleased you!
And you waited all night
to see them off in twos or threes
or thronged, flecked on high like loose raindrops,
swallowed in sky’s bright wilderness.
And later, when, unnoticed by the rest of us,
music slipped finally from your mind
and your fingers, so nimble once, so sure,
settled as if by gravity into their unfamiliar rest
only your eyes reacted, fastening on light
or moving side to side, the slightest flickering
as if skimming a score you already knew by heart.
After two days of rain, an hour’s ease;
joggers appear, dogs are walked in a hurry
and a silver sapling bends like a jug
frozen in the pouring. Moisture begins to rise,
threading the air with that strange
mix of musk and vapour,
the sky lours with its weight of summer
but the hill has the freshness
of a street swept clean in the morning.
Here, miles from the sudden soiling of floods
the paths are as I imagined them at nine,
touched by green, opening onto a greener world,
a place dangerous to glimpse at my age
for fear of going on – sweet, sharp
memory of cold, rescue me!
For fear I disappear among the hills.
The moon is a giant O
filled with red ink – remember them?
or one of those distant apples
we saw round the bend to your house.
How they hung there, immobile, the wind
freshening branches; and where now
is that view: today’s house fine,
bright mansion-like from the road,
its lawn wide, level, drained.
How long would you have to stand,
how still, to picture as it was,
that everyday you spoke of as your birthright?
And what would you say to the suddenness
with which it now appears, more naked
than revealed; to the death of the pastoral
on that long approach, the air
once heavy with green? Four fields opposite
are one now, snooker-table smooth,
sheep unsheltered, parcelled by wire,
only in frost can you trace the hut’s foundation.
Drains and gaps are lost
in imagination’s maze; forever gone, the arc
of your jump from treetop
to land and sometimes slither along old slates.
Dizziness couldn’t keep you from frightening
your aunt, her face pale at a window,
gestures conducting a life time of anxiety
and her sisters so light-hearted, scattering hope
like seeds lost to the wind. But the sun caught
their hair and something in their faces
when comprehension faded out at twilight
and they turned to look, smiling at nothing.
And when they were gone the garden gathered
round, as if to imitate the closing earth,
the great tree split, pre-empting the axe,
bees took its nectar from the ground.
Music is coming from an upper room,
upbeat yet strangely mournful – a child
decked out unwillingly in party clothes,
being told what’s good for it;
a long way from evenings broken only
by a bell or car backfiring.
The first sunset you saw in Providence
was borrowed, you said, from Hermitage:
we’d had it first. The world has backed
away so often since, so many years
are underground; and you were spared
the blinding light of having to let go,
it came in its own time, gradual as illness.
Your keeping in touch became the familiar
tinged with a different accent, collapsing
without your knowing to a foreign language,
so to the signing of the next to lost.
You might have recognised that faint
attempt, when it changed hands, to keep
a corner quaint. That of all was the saddest.
The place would have been better burnt. But now
all’s clearance, and that spring we thought
no stones could dam, dreams its way unseen,
its cut-stone wall dispersed among the rockeries.