BEVERLY DOWNS (2009)
THE FOURTH WEEKEND
OUT OF THE RIVER
(Baudelaire, Le Gouffre)
Pascal had his pit which followed him about.
Alas, all is abyss – action, desire, dream,
words! and on my skin whose hair stands on end,
time after time, fear passes like a wind.
High, low, all round nothing but depth and desert,
silence, space, horrible and hypnotising;
in the depth of my nights God with artist’s hands
draws a nightmare teeming without respite.
I fear sleep as I do a vast abyss
brimful of vague horror leading who knows where.
From every window I see mere infinfity.
And my mind, ripped by eternal vertigo
envies the insensibility of nothing.
Can we escape Numbers and Beings?
Beyond the institution's buckled pane
where men and women swear and swear again,
the magpies build; careless in the cold,
they sidle along branches and unfold
their green sheen like an unsheathed blade; no fear
loosens their grip on what they hold most dear.
Two marble figures on the fireplace;
spindle and woollen comb in hand, they face
a nymph recumbent by a sacred glade
or comatose perhaps: her only shade
comes from her wings askew, her legs are wrapped
round each other in a drowning grip.
So this is where I've come to: Brigid's Day
listening to cars like breakers in a bay,
clawing life as on a riverbank,
too old, too dry, too much time to think.
Visiting hour is over, cars will pull
away, half-lit, and leave us to the dull
struggle that is the season's fight with dusk,
ours with ourselves - the pain, the shame, the risk
of resolution and its falling off.
And now the night is looming like a cliff,
the eyes pierce one last time, but nothing's seen
but flitting black and white - no hint of sheen.
Snow subsides to hail, then puddled mush.
Smokers peer outside then brave the lash
of February wind: the healing sting
of nicotine a harbinger of spring.
My mind keeps racing to a month from now
a step into a world long disavowed,
a fear of woodland floors, of sudden bells.
I sleep to dreams of flowers and poisoned wells,
then wake to darkness, breakfast and distraction,
a cosy world of banter and addiction.
I wonder how the land lies miles away,
how white or grey the fields, how harsh the day.
From out of nowhere a strange image rears:
barelegged, teenage Camus in Algiers
picturing his death among the pillars,
a happy death of mischance, not of valour,
his head thrown back, sight broken by the sun,
the seed long planted, the ascent begun
as happened with us all one far-off time
of early morning air, the tang of rime,
a time of first denial we admit
looking out at snowdrops and cat's shit,
a garden perfect, manicured, imprisoning,
pattern of a thousand fractured evenings.
O to be a boy again and start
with what I know now; body, mind and heart
in perfect balance, wisdom preordained,
each error learned from, the soul but lightly stained.
Still we must have our dreams, our happy death,
something to think on as we stir our broth
and try to banish visions of relapse
stuck in a warp where every little helps.
Hail, if you look long enough, becomes a sheet.
Life, on the other hand, is never neat.
Meditation time, the stomach full;
cars like insects thread along a path
that leads nowhere; clouds gather, midday spills
into an hour that's calm, or fraught, or both.
Thinking of streets I'll never walk again,
alleys opening on a prospect of the west,
looking at that hill, guessing beyond,
I'm drawn to a picture of a child at rest,
perfectly content: what happened him,
what age was he when beauty seized his mind
and fractured it along a faultline rim
of what he dreamed and how he was confined?
No bell was rung. This evening stretches
like a grave; long-buried sounds -
a clapped-out fridge, hot water retching
in ancient pipes. Outside, the grounds
are blanketed, the cats are gone
across the wall, into a zone
more to their liking. From yard to frequent
yard, sensors light in sequence.
The view upstairs will be of snow,
the suburbs in their orange glow.
Five days in and still the jitters,
the world out there intact yet tattered,
I count the hours by increment,
debate the nature of resentment,
imagine an old Impressionist
sketching outbuildings in a mist
or Van Gogh in Arles confined
in the asylum of his mind,
the eggyolks of his starry sky
forgotten songbirds blown away.
I leaf through books I know by sight
the pain-body, the inner light
and wonder at the kind of pain
that leads the sufferer to such gain.
While others write life histories
I wonder if I've tried to please
too much, the line of least resistance
a brighter apple than persistence;
why happiness is bought too dear.
What is it that has brought me here?
The books call resentment old anger;
I see it as kind of hunger
- the cancerous kind - but still a need
the addict like a lover feeds
until there's no pick left upon
that stubborn, brittle skeleton
and in the end what profits it
to win the patch on which we sit
and watch the wreckage on the shore
of twenty ruined years or more?
Instead tonight we talk of races,
illicit vodka, hiding places,
never of life and death: it's there
but like the sudden change of air
that chills far-off; an expected hour
that always catches unawares.
The wind has shifted, rain has come,
an unrelieving rain that drums
of all that's begged, that's stolen, borrowed,
the harsh tattoo of each tomorrow.
Being my home now, my idea of home,
I check in, check that everything's in order,
flick through photos of an ageing Janet Frame
'Dear J, where is the heart and the river?'
Heart is with the body, firm as life,
river, just beyond where the eye stops seeing;
the mind an ever-vagrant losing, half
what it is, half someone else's being;
all it knows of itself it finds in snatches
like a low guitar played in a distant room
or silver glimpsed beneath a swirling surface
or a half-remembered nursery rhyme of home.
It is morning and I stand in the yard
where we waited too long for the moon.
It has so small a space to play upon
as we stood round wondering what we'd heard
over the wall - a cry of some kind,
animal or bird, no one could be sure.
It was cut short by the thud of a door.
I knew it was a disconnected mind,
lifted with a wrench from the soul's socket.
The moment's silence after it went mute
was as surrounding a death; stilled, tight
as a curled hand in an anxious pocket.
Now, the calm of traffic freely moving,
grit in a stream, its thousand jittery stories.
My mind is fixed on a sudden door,
the dark within; what passes for loving.
There are no snowdrops here; that bed, unpierced,
is a circle of resistance. Evening leads
into its lengthening self. So Sunday dies
and I descend into a Stygian place
where nothing matters but the wait. No books
prepare you for that hour before a glass
looking at a stranger, his eyes reading
a vacancy in yours; there's something fierce
in that distracted, fretful gaze, a wondering -
how did this other get here? It will pass:
with luck the dark will swallow itself up
and leave me with the delusion of no change,
the younger man who once looked out with hope.
How long ago was that: how many dank
and fruitless nights have parted to admit
this shambling life, dishonesty writ large,
character left rotting where it sank?
Today is Sunday. No lie changes it.
After tea, the clotting smell of smoke
along old stairwells. Clear air stings the eyes
while shadows break the spotlight on the path.
We spend the night rifling old memories
for one that might bring comfort, one to take
and wind around our sleeplessness. But none
oblige; as though they've burrowed underneath
the years' resentments, morning's cowardice,
and sleep there, whole and undisturbed, while this
ironic spring, this slow, unfolding death
of what we thought too precious to let go
gathers apace; it leaves a weight like stone
where should have been a sob; and though we know
it happens for the best, the best is gone.
THE FOURTH WEEKEND
Someone is retching in the shower next door,
a woman, youngish by the sound of it.
The fourth weekend begins, the end in sight
and I have dredged up memories from where
they had been buried far beyond the prospect
of ever being seen. Last night I thanked
myself for having nerve enough to sink
as deep as needed, from one layer to the next
and having reached, I sensed I felt, I tasted
- polished teak, the loaf's heart - lingering hints
of what surrounded, overwhelmed; what lengths
the mind will go to bury childhood's waste.
Being there, being that child again,
full of wonder but with shredded nerves,
the sort of boy who never felt by halves,
whose body crouched anticipating pain
and never straightened whether pain came or not,
whose world was all escape and fear of capture:
where does he wander now; what sort of rupture
kept us apart? What part of me forgot?
And how did that youngster see himself at fifty?
It must have been a stepping off the world,
so far away it seemed at ten years old,
two generations off and nothing left
but age and death: no love, no rage, no passion,
nothing but a sense of having survived
and being at rest, as old men with their lives
almost complete must be - an intuition
of what the man now wishes for - in spite
of every gift that couldn't be foreseen
forty years before: all that has been
and gone, and must be mourned in changing light.
Two weeks from now I'll step into a world
that won't know how it's changed; each mundane step
that has to be pre-planned for fear of tripping,
the daily routine with no prop to hold.
I see a figure distant by a road,
indecisive, unsure if to cross
brings death or redemption, liberty or loss.
There is no track where someone else has led
that ends in certainty; no doubling back
will bring you where you were. Some giddy day
before much longer, I must find a way
without a crutch for comfort; without luck.
The last brandy drunk, the last drop licked,
the beaker dried and put away for good,
morning haze is a memory now. Good food,
rest, and the mind-balm of peculiar boredom
have made no difference, as I try to steal
a look back to the light before the blur
and all I find is loss, a never-been.
It seems I spun more quickly than I thought.
Gaps have opened up in front, behind,
as if gouged by a sheet of dying ice.
Retreating pins and needles prick my brain;
sight is a peering into light so painful
it hammers like a hangover: too bright,
that first reflection's truth. Pull the blinds tight,
close the lids and let the truth grow still,
the lungs expel the devil in the will.
I wonder at the outside; what's been lost,
letters waited on like clutched-at straws;
how far I am from where I first called home,
how lost forever what I once thought love,
scattered like bone from bullet, sheered like flint.
Lift your mind from harm already done,
heal yourself: the slogans of the cured,
though no one is: I breathe them like an ohmm
that keeps the world at bay, words without thought -
as if thought were a finger in the dam.
Destruction moves apace though out of sight.
No meditation gives the lie to that.
It seems each day's a step from wreck to wreck,
each morning prayer a run against the rock
of each mistake that made me what I am:
in need of absolution - but from whom?
Wait patiently, my sorrow, and be still.
You longed for evening; here it comes, it falls,
its darkling air enveloping the city.
To some men it brings peace; to others, worry.
While the common herd of mortals, lashed by pleasure
- Pleasure, that remorseless torturer -
store up their own remorse in slavish orgies,
Sorrow, give me your hand along this pathway.
Dead years in faded robes are leaning, bent
over heaven's balcony, and from the depths
rises the smiling fountain of regret;
the sleepy sun dies underneath an arch
and like a long veil from the Orient -
listen, my love, to gentle night's approach.
Journey’s end. The ferry waits.
An hour to kill, I walk about
past cottages banked as if on shelves
where ninety winters broke themselves.
First weekend out, I crave the kind
of peace I had: not that of mind
but from a world that doesn’t care
about the crap that brought me there
among the shock of scrambled lives,
the air sharp with unspoken want,
communal meals, the ancient knives
blunt as jaded wit: what haunts
already is the sense of loss
spread like a weed: the harbour wall’s
moss campion and the House’s trellised
rose no linger beautiful.
Nothing prevails. Each brash invader
foundered here: and how could we
do otherwise, our life a raid
that shatters on a destiny
unrecognised until too late.
They say we always have a choice.
Some of us, when we found our voice,
chose the iron ease of fate.
Have I been led here? Many times
I’ve conjured my retiring years’
calm Sundays gazing at the gulls’ fierce
swoop, discarded trawler lines,
but now I realise the sea
looks best in verse. Too much was lost.
Ford Escorts with swan-off exhausts
whine Sunday’s new reality;
one does a handbrake on the quay.
I wish he’d topple in the sea.
But no, that’s last year’s twisted thought,
I try forgiveness – just a jot,
and realise just how much work
I’ve yet to do, how long and dark
the road ahead, each day the same.
The ferry waits. Some other time.
Birds skitter along the branches of fruit trees
bare of blossom under the kiss of the sea,
and I who have stopped counting summers
begin to think of a beginning, overcome
by wonder at the freedom of a first step,
the gradual, widening gap between cup and lip.
I recall a girl dancing that first day, a stranger
then; the way she pushed back her fringe
as she moved, it seemed, through several inner worlds.
Something about her shimmered: tight as a pearl
one instant, the next open as a full sail,
eyes closed, fingers running along the music’s Braille.
Then therapy, the soul opened like a tin can
but clumsily, so that dregs were left to stand
and fester, would fester still but for the touch
of inadvertent healing; one day someone reached
across and said some words, inconsequential
and forgotten now, but triggering a kind of miracle.
And the walks in the garden: it must be in blossom now
where that giant branch lay, lopped off by a ton of snow.
I had promised myself to walk it again in summer,
one of those many made which no longer matter
in light of the one great kept so far: today, today.
The tide goes out, comes in. As for us, we’ll see.
OUT OF THE RIVER
I have seen you coming out
of a river at dawn
washed by that peculiar light
when mist starts to burn
off the tops of the reed beds.
You carry so lightly all the harm
the world has done to others.
Slowly you extend your arms
in greeting; your tilted head,
quizzical, reminds me of our fathers
when they were younger than we are
now – than I am, rather.
You walk through morning with no cast
of age on your countenance,
as if everything could be as it once
promised, when what we most
desired could be fulfilled
simply by our standing still:
we would ride the world like braves.
I visited your tidied grave
last week, as if that would serve
to salve somehow the different shames
I’ve gathered since you left;
as if it were in your gift
to bury what I cannot bring myself to name,
forgetting that what I bury stays alive.
It was, as of old, the coward’s way,
this fear of facing what I’ve disinterred.
Better to leave it undisturbed,
like you imagined on the verge of day
where you will never assume the voice
of conscience, nor the blunt fact
of your bones grip like a vice.
I went there looking for forgiveness
knowing my presence was an act:
the damage I’ve inflicted is the business
of the living, not the dead.
Go back silently into the river, rest
in what peace exists for you; I’ll visit
the mausoleum of my teeming head.
On the first good morning of the year
stout men, unused to rolled-up sleeves at nine,
are helping wives guide trolleys to the car.
They can’t seem to believe they’ve come this far,
they carry the Irish fear: too sudden-fine
a day will set an old alarm in gear.
Too hot for a fry, the small café sits empty
but for a table set with fruit and coffee.
I sit in what’s become my usual chair,
the side wall an enormous Perspex screen.
Smoke filters through an automatic door;
the smell of roasting fowl and early wine.
A morning such as this you yearn: for Paris,
its pavements newly-swept, its screeching cars,
the Eiffel Tower spectral in the distance;
for all the food you’ll never get to taste,
the countless opportunities laid waste.
The mind can buckle under such awareness
and lose the fleeting hour, the captured joy;
the full night’s sleep, the appetite restored,
the taste of that first, additive-filled fry
after a long sickness; being here.
Birdsong at evening always newly-heard,
the still-surprise of waking without fear.
And you remember unforgiven wakenings,
the swaying room, that wishing to be dead
without the drag of dying; what a bleak,
what threadbare life would be let slip away.
Those poisoned limbs, that fragile, battered head
might lie back one last time as when a boy.
Too clear a recollection makes me weak,
but when it passes, as it will, the light
is kind, the weakness always worth the fight.
These moments will one day become a rarity,
these teeming pains of which I’ve yet to speak,
the churning gut, the stab of clarity.
I stand beside the hotel steps
and gaze at bars and gambling joints,
their popped-out bulbs and peeling paint,
a vomit-slick where someone slipped;
shop-fronts I never knew were there
in such closed ranks, linked wall to wall.
A smoker in a doorway bawls
his lingua franca of despair.
And suddenly what strikes me most
About this is its timelessness:
that staggerer in his distress
in search of a familiar mast
a century back: and I look on
afraid to wander out or back,
adventurous but firmly stuck,
a coward as I would be then.
Seized by a longing for the sea,
to watch the geese wheel in to land,
the shingle’s grey and greyer band,
a world that turned its back on me
those derelict years, I rub my hand
as if my wish had layered it
with minuscule Atlantic grit.
A drunken mind would understand,
chafed by a dirt that isn’t there,
the sin of old forgotten nights,
bilious hours of fear and spite,
an aftertaste, polluting, sour;
but now a quiet settles in.
Sometimes the mind can go no further.
A long look from a crumbling corner,
the street gone dead, the last bulb blown.
Stirring to birdsong in dark
I remember those February mornings,
their traffic and magpie chatter,
the half-choke, half-snore of a neighbour.
The hour too late for turning;
a grey settling over the park.
Then the reading-room's afternoon glare,
and you bent over your letters,
your hand's fluid ease on the page,
the fat book of stamps for sharing;
how often your generous nature
shortened what seemed like an age.
You walked with the truth beyond fault,
embraced every feeling but pity;
your presence felt after you'd gone
when I looked out, my time nearly done,
at the breadth of an afterstorm city
gleaming like river-washed silt.
And I picture you by the sea
your house nearly finished by now,
sun-slant on generous uplands
and all, I trust, well in hand,
life as you hoped it would be -
day long and everything new.
There is no dream these nights to trouble me
until I've lain ten minutes half-awake,
put names to faces that I couldn't see,
an accent from the weeks I thought I'd break;
then sleep, this time a comfortable pit,
the limbs at ease, the mind no longer split.
I rise and dress where once my parents dressed;
the floor, although, is warm under my feet.
My life has led me beyond being depressed
into a place of shadows' friendly heat.
The walls are hung with pictures of the dead.
I watch my fingers as I slice my bread.
Sometimes I fidget to the rhythm of slogans:
Keep it simple. Don't forget the hell.
I hoard my memories as if they were tokens
of something greater, purer. Truth to tell -
but that's a lock no fine pin can unpick,
the final redoubt no remorse has cracked.
Instead I point the finger at another,
a weakling habit I can't seem to shake.
There is a fear that doesn't cut but smothers,
a love that ends in nothing, sullen, bleak:
where are those summer hours on hallowed ground?
No doubt enjoyed by others this time round.
I rest in silence and ignore the clock,
its endless telling there's no going back,
and think instead of full and ebbing tide,
clutching the prospect others might decide
to chuck the jetsam of their life ashore.
I cross my fingers. I can do no more:
we're never sure who wants or doesn't want us,
nor do we get to choose the ghost that haunts us.
And is it worth the struggle to believe,
to wind up for another day's reprieve?
Nearing the age at which my uncles died,
I sit down with myself and can't decide;
I have to live this steady settling down,
check the morning mirror for clear eyes;
internal exile in some crumbling town
a small voice tells me I should recognise,
a dreary place whose name no traveller mentions,
its backstreets huddled round a guilty conscience.
I give this fit an hour. it's bound to pass;
and in its place some long-dead tenderness,
memory or figment, a rediscovered spring,
flows through me like the first bars of a song,
its melody the only gift worth having,
to know myself still capable of giving.
A white yard with a single potted flower,
its craning head a sundial;
I could be happy hidden from encroaching
wildness on abandoned lanes.
A cat basks on a corner of the wall
as I wait for a midday glare
to sting the eye to sense. My mind is wired
to houses thrown like bones on a far hill
by twenty centuries of blood
and expiation: toothless, wrinkled men
stare, steadfast as gulls,
onto an unchanging sea whose grip
has never been explained
except as womb, part nurturer, part monster.
I sailed to sleep one distant childish night,
our house a boat on the foothill
of some unmeasured wave; and with sleep’s drift
it turned into a vast protecting whorl.
I thought for years story could do the same:
warm sunset months, blood washed from the floor,
woman’s fingers welcoming as straw
to worn, heroic limbs.
Yet under all, music hid the crack
of snapped bone, the sick
shock of hull on coral; treacherous light,
deceiving song, myth and music one,
a clothing bound to tatter in a storm.
The words oxen of the sun
transported me: I would have better
spent my time studying accounts; it’s where,
like Odysseus, we all end up, whether
we like or not, old men computing loss.
It there a tale, however life-affirming,
or carrying the tiniest germ
of hope, that did not begin
in the gut of some sour, disappointed man?
Blind Homer, relishing the cleft
of sword from skull to sternum,
had Hermes interpose because he must;
I backed the side Zeus said would bleed the least,
held faith with Hector cooling in his dust.
And thus I kept my loser’s prejudice.
These walls will never redden from the west.
An upstairs room looks out onto the lighthouse
of a far window when the angle’s right:
summer’s promise and leavetaking, lost
hours, sureties that stalled
at almost. So I begin again
where song has failed and all we have to tell
betrays our lack of what we wish we had.
Darkness beckons, and something beyond
the lure of legends haphazardly heard;
I’ll drift until I come to, stood
at an entrance to some Underworld,
facing which way – the dark, the dust?
I smell both when I step into the yard.
Warmth is seeping back, brick by brick it seems,
into a dead space opened by a newer, different loss;
morning lightens each room haunted by the scent
of her last leaving. The hospital was waiting,
room, corridor, lift, the trestle’s late-night shudder;
we who were left walked back into the utter shock
of the known forever altered, each settled object false,
tapes never to be played, captured moments boxed
like spirits in a tree: just so, the house, still grudging
as if in silent judgement on what’s brought me here
to animate, to wipe, to balk at whitening ashes.
Afraid of the dark when here was full of noise and laughter,
I move now among the silences I’ve made of my life,
settled where nothing fits, at home belonging nowhere.
Morning has returned: quietly, as it does
these days. A crow tracks
an off-white van, its ladder half-secured,
along the river's lead and silver.
It becomes that much easier to remember
this is how it always was, this sense
of being stuck, of dreams as baggage. Newcomers
are wearing our kind of clothes,
they have succumbed to our idea of summer,
though one woman, the fabric of her blouse too delicate,
hugs herself: it can't be autumn yet.
The year creeps toward anniversaries,
calls us to live in our peculiar moment
far from that Europe we thought we knew:
it's there still, but only you
seem to have the knack of gathering it
to yourself: for me, it's as if night
cried out for candles
to blacken the pitch beyond. Rilke,
Milosz, what they shaped burnt off like mist
in a garden that never fully brightens;
scavengers chase each other through the undergrowth.
There will be no miracle of laurels.
In the garage forecourt a dull moth
is hoarding the last warmth of brick.
The sun will soon be in our eyes
as we drive to work; then we'll set
out in time to see it rise,
the sky tight and livid, streaked
with a weak and angry rose,
a long smudge where an early plane has wept.
Water in green expensive glass,
light without a mote of dust:
I watch as wave by wave, the past
year's filth is washed away; the shore
beyond is farther than I thought,
the bay is full of what I missed
last time. But here, in the Blue Bar,
it feels like a departure lounge;
nothing matters but the wait,
the sense of being at the edge
yet calm, ready to be borne.
Among the streets, the sleeping mill,
its blades forever set to turn.
Outside, no children stoop for shells.
As the fire dies we dream of summer,
wrap it round us as our life unfolds.
Over time I've edged into a corner,
a sinew in my side forever cold,
and pass an hour in thoughts of what might be
without the burden of philosophy.
And when I stand up, stiff and out of sorts,
it's always with a sharp bewilderment
at how the world has shrunk, how mild and short
the summers are, how feeble our intent
when wind veers north and rain invades old joints.
I try to hide from damp and peeling paint
much as my life has been such vain evasion;
my Horace has been boxed up and replaced
by a row of barely looked-at meditations;
still they look good, a new and shiny face
to the passer-by who glances in the window
on a rare day when the parlour's not in shadow.
A tedious business this, of new beginnings,
especially when the hour grows late and heat
is at a premium; sinned against in sinning,
self-injurious, singing with a bleat
of pity in the throat - you chalk it up
to a shitty day, the kind that made you sup,
the kind you had to laugh at out of fear
at what might follow. But those days are gone,
the end of them at any rate: the tear
that falls is salt and water now; no gin
or cider drop pollutes the purity
of pain, the ego's steel integrity.
It's almost over now, day, dream, ambition;
I've left them with a strange, exhausted joy.
All that remains is to set foot in Florence,
to feast the senses on what fires that boy
I barely recognise: his memory
deserves at least a sunset among beauty.
When the long night is over: triumph, riot, rack,
and you wake dreaming of Europe, its spires, its dark
waters, the calm you reach for is at the end of a long
lane, its corners dark beyond the reach of song
as you are from the reach of cities. A weekend
declines into the old necessities; slowly your blood
settles, and another piece is fitted into the fracture
of remembering, the never-answered question of your nature.
I would have you at an old well, bent, scooping
out mud, laying it carefully to one side, weeping
for its tiny, displaced lives, yet fascinated by that slow
clarity as silt finds its level and a shape you know
to be yourself looks back at you. That cold in your marrow,
its ache solely physical, is a promise to redeem the hollow
years; it roots you in an instant which is time’s
essence. You straighten, pores shocked as from a shot of lime.
I look up at the moon for what seems the hundredth year
from the old backyard; same curiosity, same fear
I felt at seven, or when I read that tale of Death
coming to sit on the Chinese Emperor’s chest
and the scent of jasmine beckoning at a window.
The year, unmourned, is passing, and somehow
I have arrived here and am back in the mind
of a child: my numbed toes are growing into the ground.
This space is too confined to let me see the sky
wheel; but stock-standing, I can still dizzy
myself with my smallness, like grit or a seed,
with the purity of living in a state of need,
a zinc bath long and deep enough to swim,
the stars falling when we turn our back on them.
I peer down at a desolate street
its threatened snow a sullen sleet.
I've left a tap discreetly running
for fear a knife-cold, ruinous morning
would chill into the gut or deeper.
Barely beneath the skin of sleep
my mind will dart, a restless yolk
propelled by fear of what might break,
the memory of a year ago,
the crushing weight of what I know
and what it cost, for me, for others.
I right a picture of my father
and mourn what music died with him,
his life's achieved, self-ordered rhythm,
the lives he touched like music scattered,
its notes remembered when it mattered.
I step along the unlit landing,
its chill my only understanding.
Later, warmed without, within,
I cup my coffee and begin
reliving the long descent,
the nether world, the never-meant;
wine and words' coincidence,
futilities that all made sense.
Does wisdom skip a generation;
are other genetic dispositions
swimming still, unknown, unhatched,
dull as an incipient itch,
a sullen Heraclitean ether?
Is age a withering into tinder?
I've been advised to deal with death
by living within each passing breath
- a crazy take on Wittgenstein -
inhabiting the space between
one inhalation and the next;
no joys to lose, no lives to wreck:
it works so far - from time to time.
I stir the fire. A spark-shower climbs,
is gone. There is no sense of passing
beyond the news of snow-clouds massing
too far away to hurt or worry.
Dawn with its storm will break. No hurry.
That first morning, the shock of children's voices
impossibly far away, carried as if across a meadow.
I had forgotten schoolyards, shopping centres, choice,
that there was a solid life around the shadow
cast about me, the shadow I'd become,
or such a thing as time decreed by something
neutral as a clock or the rhythm of an urban day.
Banked against the wall, houses, mute, their backs turned
as if in judgement. Waiting, I only knew the grey
of snow to come, the chill of being stranded, not
what was possible, a gift, or needing to be earned.
A year on, and that lost figure is a vacuum
waiting to envelop me if ever I forget
that the brightest uplands are on the very rim
of disaster. For now, it is enough to have seen the wall
from the placid, ordered slope of Beverly Downs,
the luxury still of a clear head at noon
and the odd exhaustion of having slept too well.
(Baudelaire, La Voix)
When I was a youngster
my cot backed onto a Babel,
novels, fables, all the dust since Homer.
I heard two voices
then; the first, firm, insidious,
“The earth is a cake bursting with sweetness,
you can have as huge an appetite,
pleasure as endless.”
The other “Come, oh, come,
no voyage can compare with that in dreams,
beyond the possible, the known:”
And that voice was the wind
from distant shore to shore,
a keening phantom from who knows where.
And I said “Yes.” From then,
my wound, my catastrophe.
For behind the curtain
of immense existences I see
strange, entrancing worlds, and trapped
by my vision’s clarity, I walk where snakes snap
at my feet. So like the prophets
I’m drawn to desert and sea,
I laugh at others’ grief
and cry at feasts;
nothing is smoother than bitterest lees,
truth and lies
are one; and looking at the sky
I stumble, never learning, into holes.
But still the Voice consoles,
saying “Guard your dreams,
none so beautiful can be had
by the wise as by the mad!”