THE BONES OF APOLLOS (2022)
I El Dorado
E2 – E4
DEATH OF A HOUSE
A BEND IN THE RIVER
YOU CAN NEVER GO HOME
OLD DRUNKS GROWING AFRAID OF SLEEP
A SMALL, PALE CROSS
FROM GHOST TO GHOST
II The Bones of Apollos
LISTEN TO THE GIRLS OF THE RAIN
THE BONES OF APOLLOS
III Sunsets From Now On
4TH JULY, 1862
FOR NIALL, THIRTY YEARS GONE
WOMEN OF LONG MEMORY
ELEGY FOR A STRANGER
THE TOWN IS WASHED CLEAN
THE CAR, THE HARE
THE LAKE, LIKE ANY ANIMAL
FOUR O' CLOCK
THE LAST OF THE BYZANTINES
TOUR DE FRANCE
SUNSETS FROM NOW ON
THE LAST NOTE
A SLIVER OF MOON
LIGHT BLANKETS YOUR CITY BRIEFLY
AND ALL FOR A WISH
THE DESERT OF BEING WITHOUT
A LITTER OF STILLNESS
THE PIANO LID
I El Dorado
The chord shifts from smooth to sinister,
a wave of violet hovers
above the keyboard, the heat of imagined
years shocked by an electronic
chill: what have they done
to those sounds so layered once, thick
as paint applied straight from a palette,
each note now a needle
piercing, untouching, a set of cat’s
claws? Outside, in a cool
corner, light finds an old tom
curled among azaleas, his day dimmed.
Through a hairsbreadth opening of glass
the music is beautiful, it flows
along a fault line in the psyche
like a trickle on a hot day,
resolves, evaporates; what is harmony
but the sound of something leaving us,
the fleeting made audible?
Stay with us so, strangeness, signals
whistle-thin, colour no eye sees,
grow into the cry of a bird long
extinct, as we through song
become unearthly, a sky above cities.
The lemon sweets are like the sun, its skin, its heart.
A couple of kids are stacking shelves. How did they catch
that moment, years before they were born: what sense
of déjà vu electrified not sight but taste buds, shell-
crack on the tongue, the spill of sherbet like an invading
army? A row of jars are squat, lidded, disarmed
Daleks; and the window is dark too, as it should be.
But there will be no going in, for fear of the smell of the new.
A spell-breaking space that has earned no right
of being there beyond its time, must be resisted.
The door opens and an air gentle with sandalwood
and turps, stirs itself into the wake of traffic,
it is a kind of incense, a blessing on those with teeth
to crunch, a palate ripe for the first shock of fizz.
E2 – E4
We were so far from being different.
The world, if it had cared
to look, would have seen itself reflected
in everything we said,
two kids walking through a wind
that blew across the cold harbour
of our minds, the little we’d read.
It was the first move, the E2 – E4
of a game that made the table
of our lives so soon unrecognisable,
random pieces, trees after a fire.
The music I listen to now has no words,
a music of absence, a hunger stilled
in the endless back-humming of two chords:
it is our conversations looped
round each other, so that beginning
and end are one. The cold that crept
into our bones, made our ears sing,
is there somewhere, a wire, a spine,
the still-felt jab of teenage pain.
Your being gone is a calcine in the fingers,
a lack of suppleness; no age
brings it; it is the knowledge
bought with the bite of a discarded
fruit. How many boys since
have walked our street, talked big, scared
of the truth in a sudden silence?
A quiet hour it must be on that ridge
chosen for you to wait out
eternity. No storm will find you
for a million years after the last trumpet,
beyond your bones you will forever
be that adolescent, bewildered
by the pattern of the lives he knew
and a far-off rhythm like snakes in his feet.
The body's knack of repair
has been compromised,
limbs are a plain
seen from a great height.
Dotted with tents.
A waiting for pain
as for dawn, for the sudden,
expected scrape of a dry nib.
There is a space, half-blessed,
between where is? and the grip
of mistaken certainty,
a gap where memory
must be, behind a press
too heavy to move, but there,
just past the limit of exhaustion.
Like you, Mother, in your sleep
those years ago, almost beyond
waking; walking the marches
of where you are now,
the margin of not belonging,
your eyes snapping open again,
a child's caught
by an unwelcome call.
These ageing men are me. Once, the air
surrounding them was charged
with the straitened colour of their childhood,
the last stirring of an older,
anxious generation; now, in the distance,
in the immediacy of my recognising
myself as one of them, the campus grounds
become a meadow where old horses move
with the slow contentment of not knowing,
the future hedged and managed.
Forty years. The time it takes
for a long laugh to die.
No names. Each keeps their own story,
particular as lines on a face;
each recognisable, whole and entire;
whole and entire at twenty.
I remember that flick of the head,
this nervousness at rest.
They swirl in conversation, a group again,
like racers round a starting line.
Here, on a corner of chapel steps, tomorrow
is a bell that will not ring. And there is a question
that buzzes like flies at evening,
asked in a way that demands no answer;
a reply that is a flicking away,
a pause for the air to settle.
And in the silence between sentences
are lifetimes of cold water on the skin,
county towns coming awake;
being there, the centre of a square,
tracing between desks a pattern of other lives;
giving a shape, a breath, to possibilities -
and all the time drawing away, becoming a footnote
in the fulfilment of a generation – so that today
their stories have the smoothness
of a boat’s wake closing, their pitch, the crane
and pull-back of a prow, a neck. The hours
between now and sleep hold as much
as any hour can; as much as looking back
can tell of race and race’s end.
Morning nips at the extremities
of boxed-in lawns. The blood is wearing thin.
One line of sight still opens on the final
shard in the mosaic of your life;
on your charred sleeve, a ceramic brooch,
copper-edged, a hydrangea in frost.
You tried so hard to outlive the autumn
but carried like a seed a drop of oil
whole of itself and ready to ignite,
folded so deep no one noticed it.
The ground you sat on, virginal, a black
and acrid thread outlines your lotus limbs.
A picture on a fastened lid, a hush.
Such violence in such a gentle soul…
An instant when all strangers vaporised,
you touched and dropped beyond the hurt of questions,
out of the clutch of loneliness, your head
swimming with the smell of kerosene.
Take an hour, a breath, the length of a recording,
the time it takes for emptiness to make itself felt.
Yesterday I passed a low wall where gravediggers
filled the day with an easy rhythm; for them
time was the fullness of light or the space between showers.
And the ground was virgin: no skull would be thrown up.
A discarded jacket, a flask, a litter of mugs.
Not so different from any kind of harvest.
And the music I hear tonight is bone and sinew,
the striking of nail on string, a withering
to grow again. And I grow again, a day
older, into the complete vacancy of night
and the certainty that in Missouri, say,
a room gathers music as earth its warm rain.
DEATH OF A HOUSE
It is an indeterminate hour
and the dark is the surface of water
about to be broken. In some corner
of the world a dove moves uncertainly
towards crumbs, its perch
a rope of wire in pounded concrete.
Poor pulverised world where millions
greet the day with joy as they would have done
when teeth rotted and limbs burned.
And others hurry to silence
as they would have rushed to wells.
The eye gathers light
sufficient to see a hand moving,
pale, fish-like. A sleeve of sleep
trails, fades into a nether world
knitting itself closed. A last thought escapes
almost full, a muffled beat, an elegy
for a house falling in on the peace
of its having stood too long,
whose history was books and ambition,
a music too tuneful to outlive discord.
To whose trees no rooks return;
where, in an outhouse, the best
and oldest furniture is becoming one
with plaster-damp air and walls
whose children’s scribbles are indecipherable.
The Cave of Mithras is not more desolate.
But here, sealed from all but the crack
of spring through curtains, the clock
constructs day around itself.
Leave the news in its box, rain
in its clouds; stretch slowly,
carefully, like long-mislaid elastic,
aware that your limbs are almost
beyond your bidding in the morning,
not nervous like a young colt, but sluggish
as if dragging the earth back a millisecond
on its axis. For now, balance
and a brilliance from outside that is forever
unfamiliar at first glimpse, in the blink
it takes to assimilate the miraculous.
To work then, far from where cars purr
and growl at intersections, to that garden
where the sun must fight to be admitted.
And later, numb from sifting clay,
the walls already releasing day’s brief heat,
you close around a fragment of blue tile,
from nowhere, belonging nowhere – not even
to itself. And it descends again,
always more need than desire,
the urge to tell a story whose truth
is a chip in the fingers: will it never end?
What are you moving across, if not
the topmost layer of a skin of myths,
set, then troubled like grass in a sudden wind?
Under the tap, blue is blue
on white, fine as a river traced on an atlas,
a desert stream disappearing. It fits
no design, is simply itself, clay fired and cooled,
no different from those million shells you came across
after a high-tide storm; that city, glittering
and brittle, houses that outlast.
You are moving through them now for a moment,
by that undiscovered sea. A moment is enough.
Give the tile back to its earth and bone,
hide it where it will cut no other finger.
A BEND IN THE RIVER
Mid-morning. The town on the far side
is a bank of colour, stones river-washed,
it says to the pilgrim Life is abundance,
a treasure thrown up suddenly. A turn
in the road and its great bridge gleams
as though it stored nine centuries’ heat,
high marks of flood and war, a film
of dust, slow-baked to grey, to white.
There will be no more cataracts,
no brief islands of rocks in the summer.
A step, and the darkness of wood gave way
to a glass sky, the blow of a glare
and its confusion. Pause for breath and balance,
the eye fixed on the slow trail of traffic
making its way, a worm on a medieval
sleeve, its hum the furthest tremor of a bell.
There are more dreams of time than blue
lost in purple, or the fall of an axe;
a road fades to the dried vein of a cart track
through fields where the battle with gorse
has been all but given up. Pioneers
hacking their way to the future, careless fingers
crushed between blocks, saw time and colour
as reduction, a grinding, a boiling to paste.
And being always on the edge of reckoning,
they knew to huddle, for warmth, for a common
view of the sky. Each brick in the spire was foot
on shoulder, six days at the dam, back-breaking,
and one with a crick in the neck, fixed
on what was less and less beyond, unpinned
by word or caliper. And so. Descend,
now dizziness is over, from the last old oaks.
The fish fanciers, sitting by their ponds and gazing
into their depths, were tracing shadows
darker than they understood. - Rubicon; Tom Holland
Arid – it took twenty years for the word to come.
And what did we expect, creeping that Saturday
down laneways whose leaves were dying into red,
towards the El Dorado of an orchard whispered about,
its apples untasted for years, guarded by a gun?
How near we were to town. How easily lost.
The youngest, last seen years ago, standing asleep,
wedged between three squatters in a phone box.
His eyes, they said, when he opened them, still had
that child’s disappointment at finding his last sweet gone;
suddenly he remembered himself and retreated.
He was a river of words at twelve
and I remember him now, from nowhere,
his life too fierce and frank to be glossed over,
unlike the rest of us, we on the cusp then of knowing
not the taste but the craving for it. So on
we blundered, countryside itching under our collars
until we turned and stumbled into a yard
ringed by trees, their fruit greener than leaves,
huge, monstrous almost. But we had to pick them.
And the house. No gun as frightening
as that abandoned silence, or the comb-teeth
litter of fish we knew we’d seen in books.
Never earth so bare as that dried pond.
Tourists blink, coming out of the dark
of a Norman convent. The scent of roses
lingering like tinnitus, they shrug off the discomfort
of having become pilgrims without knowing.
The bus waits. On to the next town,
its sky a square of light. A passing car
blasts the moment with its heathen beat.
The engine hums. A murmur from the aisle
– was that glass a screen, that face
an effigy or miracle? The plain unrolls
its history of blood and piety, the bus skims
a restored surface, a skin stretching either side
of its scars. Too many apples on the trees, too small,
where are the hands to cull them before they litter
the ground like bricks after the planes have gone?
Soon necks will ache from a surfeit
of cathedrals, reckoning the height of faith in stone,
brought up sharp by blue, gold, rose – a play
of light through glass hidden or salvaged
when their grandfathers ducked the whine of death
or passed around a tin mug in thanksgiving,
one holding for luck perhaps a photograph
of a ten year old girl dressed as Joan of Arc,
taking to herself something beyond light
as her lungs inhaled the shadow of her death.
‘Make me the saint’ she seems to say,
‘of bottomless pools, unreachable places,
the walled in, those who lose by a fingertip.
My breath is the air in a room
whose side has been punched open, swimming
in plaster and dust. My childish games
were played in a field of bones.’ Now bullet holes
are barely there, they have the quality
of a smudge in a chest x-ray, are a dip
beneath the passing finger. A touch, a last
look into the heart of silence. A sigh,
a door opens onto the truth of oil and cogs,
kiosks selling relics and small bottles
of clear liquid. Cameras click round signs
for cider and calvados. Remember
the stitch-work of trees from five thousand feet,
that wish for the human heart to repair itself
as clearly and as often? The air fills
with a language musical and incomprehensible;
it is birds in flight, heady with the smell of loam
after rain, the rhythm of workers passing stones
along a line. A music no note can pin down.
From page to speech is a freeing of doves,
circling, ascending. The flower sellers' faces
are lined with the ridges of generations,
they have looked out onto the same spot for centuries,
and the lily that young girl clasped on renouncing
the world, was bought in such a place
with a coin that held the head of a goddess.
The sing-song of the vendors falls like a light shade
on which drum the steps of those moving through
the list of their lives, across squares where earth,
unnoticed, has started to push apart the cobbles.
YOU CAN NEVER GO HOME
A swish of brush on cymbal
and two old men begin
trading their frailties.
A flugelhorn kicks in,
each note a capillary
quietly bursting, a pull
against the tug of fate -
sugar in the vein,
that slow, ragged drying.
Long, thin, molten,
the alto threads its dying
phrase through each beat;
of course life is smoke
acrid or sweet by turn,
the slow ride to a cellar
where joy surprises a worn
note, and the moment hovers
on the comeback.
Threadbare and elegant
that call and response,
a last putting-off.
And after the dance,
tar in the cough,
a bloodstained pavement.
OLD DRUNKS GROWING AFRAID OF SLEEP
The self they could have been
waits in the half-and-half
hour either side of consciousness.
Memory like a crystal
flakes off, drifts as through
a vein. Day’s fumes have cleared
and theirs alone the odd
stubborn windows that defy the stars.
They have been too long,
like thick enamel basins, worn
brushes, or a cold that leaks
from nowhere, that no others feel.
Adored once, they think,
on the far side of a river
and no recollection of crossing.
What beasts must rear in dreams,
dull after so many years,
dragged from their den of love.
Come back, ghost horses!
- straddled sticks that trailed
innocence in dust, or scraped
through puddles that are now
one great abyss, the body
a clock coiled yet almost spent –
lend for an hour, your promise
of air like water, sweet days
when teeth were whole.
A SMALL, PALE CROSS
Yearly the tree is closing round the small, pale cross.
There is a name somewhere beneath the ivy. Straighten up, eyes front
to where houses ribbon the elbow of a hill, hair-pinning,
dipping and narrowing to lanes cool all summer, threading between glades.
Windfall branches snap, a pink gable flashes past. You know we're so alone,
hurtling like grapeshot in our wheeled boxes, our lives scratched
in a ledger someone will read in a hundred years, misunderstanding.
And who will tell the joy of the road unfurling, the high, benign sun?
A pause, a sigh. Let the leaves breathe in the weight of longing,
the far past that cuts like a stone or diamond.
Look back. Now move to where there are no bearings to be taken,
where blind faith tells us the world is making itself whole behind us, like music
bleeding into the slow dark of a wood whose creatures outlast silence,
or water stitching the gap our wading limbs have made.
FROM GHOST TO GHOST
Remember this when names won’t come easily:
the patch of green too narrow for houses,
viewed from an upstairs window;
a flit of yellowhammers at year’s turning,
the long view east, milk-souring suns,
far unmeasured mornings. Remember these
when your name moves beyond you
like the sun behind a house.
Mayer of Munich
The beginning of colour, like land,
light-dependent. Lustre and depth,
a dipping into the well of the Continent,
an hour when sin could be banished
like the drab coat of poverty.
Light blue, and dark. Wings pinioned
the sky, Jesus’ cloak, rose-red, blood-black,
tracked the year’s rites. A world
beyond themselves, a leaving without exile.
The sun is never weak when it breaks through.
And east is where you find it.
Days are the spars of a shipwreck. Overhead,
the constant fear of looking at the sun.
No more raft of promises. Instead,
a decent life, an audience of one.
Salem: quilted fields,
sweet grass and bitter apples,
I touch your razed hedgerows
as I reach from ghost to ghost.
Too many evenings taking in the distance
and getting nowhere.
The sky’s a beautiful and wondrous thing
but nothing grows there.
Before the coal-red distance
a fisherman sits and sews
the spaces, not the nets.
Every join is a letting go:
of air, water, light. And when
he raises to examine it,
the sun is held, melting
from grid to grid.
Closed houses, a taut sky, and morning
smeared with the white ash of grief to come.
A car moves off, its sudden noise a question
fading along a row of waiting, narrow houses.
The air is heavy with the images of frail children,
laboured breath at the end of corridors. Everything
is turned – the future forgotten, mourning begun
for funerals where emptiness will trail in procession.
And in it all, there is a moment, between darkness
overtaking the last footfall and music welling
from some unseen place, a river in the night.
A holding of breath. Grief pressing on the chest, as it must.
And the voices of those who can't be touched,
their music remembered, outlasting the longest night.
II The Bones of Apollos
LISTEN TO THE GIRLS OF THE RAIN
(Ecoute les filles de la pluie )
Listen to the girls of the rain
who keep on singing
and slide on the clay rafts
or the thick leaves of the gladiolus
that cover the houses of the living.
They are singing,
their songs so passionate
that they become sobs
and reduce themselves to a confiding hum…
perhaps so you can better hear
the bird call that moves you -
A bird alone in the middle of the night
and he’s not afraid to be thrilled by the Ondines?
O miracle! O unexpected gift!
Why are you out so late?
Did someone else take your nest
while you were searching for a dream
at the end of the world?
Yet one more infusion of sun
when everything is so dark in the soul,
weary, unwell and as if coming to an end.
So maybe we should do nothing,
just stay, like a brick waiting:
the breath of air is on it from all sides,
the sun sometimes, and the cold too.
It remains alone in its corner.
But one day the bricklayer, when least expected,
will find it a place within the wall.
Paul de Roux
What is it that still keeps you here in the damp air
and in the wind that chills the lilacs?
Is this the house where you touched in the shadows
the bodies of stone and allowed your tears to fall? Or the path
between the brambles where your steps
lost themselves in exhaustion like an old desire,
a childhood abandoned at the edge of the pond.
And who alone keeps the register of the dead close to heaven? - and you
would like to bend your forehead over his frail shoulders before reading
the last number of your days among the grasses.
THE DISCREET (Les Discrets)
Maybe they’re as much in the shadows
as in the light. It’s enough
to love this lizard in the wall.
A seed has flown in the dust
and you can see the inaccessible plant
flowering: the gods keep warm the dark
germination, attention to the small
is the incense they accept; they
who do not know the distance
from the star to the hedge are sleeping
on the calix of a rose.
Paul de Roux
Let me go now
I would weigh so little on the waters
I’d take so little with me
some faces, the summer sky
an open rose
The river is so fresh
the wound so hot
let me go at night
when the stealthy beasts
gain the shade of the barns
when the bulrush moves
in the slow day
I’d lay gently on the waters
I would listen to fall to the bottom
my sadness like a stone
while the wind in the willows
would suspend my singing
Passers-by don’t hold me back
feel sorry for me
for the earth has no place
for the strange Ophelia
who sealed her voice and broke the vessel
of her reason
The world kills me and yet
why must the day be so pure
the bird so transparent
the flowers open with each more candid dawn
let’s say a quick goodbye
By the river by the river
let me go now
the sea is near
already I breathe
the fiery salt
of the great depths
with my eyes open I would go down to the heart
of the quiet night
I’d slip between the coral trees
separating the blue amphorae
grazing the childlike cheek
of the spindle whorls
Because that’s where they live
the beloved dead
their food is silence peace
they are the friends
of the bright fish the sea stars
they pass by easily
from one century to the next they talk
of God without end
they are happy
O memory break
before you trouble
the depth of eternity
So says Ophelia
in the desert garden
and then all pain is silent
the river sparkles and flees
under the leaves
the wind alone
takes its complaint to the sea
9th June 2014
THE BONES OF APOLLOS
The river dies from the spring Confessio Amantis
as the body from the toe.
A draining away, a withering.
The edge of the town at midday,
the hills too far away to reach by sundown
wait for a passing moment
when light and distance will render them
where in the shadow of a lone tree
by a half-tumbled wall, a stranger
bent out of time wakens and begins
the half-truth of confession
as much a hoarding as a scattering of coins.
He speaks of himself, a litany
of half-hinged doors, hushed, related deaths,
the glittering of a far sea. His throat tastes
of sleep and dried bile.
Like a passed-out drunk, the wall
has fallen back. It keeps its shape,
the arch of a church recess.
There must be an end soon
to this talking to stones,
the many promises dashed against a wall.
It’s been a long sigh, his years of clinging,
as explorers to an upturned raft.
He has had enough of the bed of moss,
the pebble at the small of the back.
A cut-price Jason raiding outhouses,
plucking wool from wire to line a bare coat.
Let there be, he prays, a boat
to fall on my old age.
Shapes move on ridges as your eyes
accustom themselves to glare.
You’re walking over pasture now; soon
the pegs and string of future rooms.
Here the emptiness of reclamation
where no wind whistles: a mile-long
open hall through which no small bird flies.
All movement is regular as the tide.
The ground dries underfoot and waits upon
the confessio amantis of receding woods
where a sudden clearing is a halo,
a revelation where the language
of air through grass
is incomprehensible to trees that seize the light,
whose tops sway in a wind
dying from the sails it filed.
It screamed like jealousy once,
changing direction, whipping
the day into chaos.
Now small mammals
navigate between gaps in its song.
Dark is water closing around an island,
covering the causeway where pilgrims wait
six hours on either side, sand here, there
a partly-covered well for sheep grown over generations,
few and hardy on salty grass.
Already the strain of waiting starts to wane;
eyes from the island facing east. To faces on the shore.
To far beyond, where
the bones of Apollos have fallen into the sea Corinth
and the furrows he watered are given over to concrete
cooled by sea breezes. Pavements are hosed down
before the first guests stir, there is a coming alive
that is measured, early, at an hour before white
If I was weak, his ghost says,
it was through love of the common
word, shy of the scrape of stylus,
the speech of people in small rooms
dark with the smoke of poor lamps.
What I could not imagine, I did not try
to describe. Our foolishness was ordinary.
Liners loom like dinosaurs. Cargo ships
reveal nothing as containers pile like bricks
on the quays. Silence, apart from the engines’
rumble, the levered squeal of cranes.
Where are the figs, the pomegranates,
flies under the awnings of fish stalls, the tramp
with a pig’s trotter under his cloak?
And a small dog licking the faces
of Gaius and Crispus, half-asleep under the stars?
The music hesitates. Chloe and Sosthenes
have parted, their joy complete in the telling.
Time turns simply as a heel in a dance
as hope takes form, immobile as ice.
And having lost one another, life
is passed on a limb; great houses
tumbled to chalk, pulverised to road-fill,
permeable as bone: this is the promise
they promised to overcome, their hearts
gladdened by the futility of things,
the pointlessness of straight Roman roads
widened now beyond the dreams of patriarchs,
broad as an ocean furrow, leading to cities beyond
the imagining of legions,
to one among many the same,
here a street, an end-house. A stairwell in fanlight.
Climb, turn at the top, into the shock of sharp angles,
too late a renovation, and
suddenly books on shelves are rocks in a desert, Ragtime
a geological formation weird as the notion of the world
continuing beyond us. Our moments are the dust
flying off at an etching; the block being cut away
to make the statue. Or the forgotten –
Joseph Lamb in old age, sitting on a porch,
his back against his sixty years of ragtime,
heard by a handful. Empires fell in the gap
of that neglect; round the upright in the parlour, wallpaper
changed, like constellations over a million years.
Each line on the stave was a stratum. Discreet
as a distant star, he called notes to himself,
penned them like a flock.
In some unreported temple, an empty plinth.
Deus autem ignobiles, a deity for those
who never got sufficient light to fade. Pray for them
to that god of footnotes. May they shine
like an asterisk, unwounded by time,
indifferent to the toppling of books
as wood splinters and brackets fall away.
Light, light! Day enters with a levelling of walls,
ushering an age when morning is greeted with joy,
but too, with a sense of telling of beads,
fingering the abacus of diminishing returns.
Yet there is always solace. Listen
to those cadences; a cascade, they must
be old as water. Before us. Waiting.
Gold in an ethereal mine.
And the child’s hand, clumsy, is no less a conjurer,
dabbing at notes, his mind with nothing
to confess, he is still his month-young self
enraptured by flickerings, light yet to be colour:
the old man, hunger-sharpened, rummaging Undergrowth
through briars, finding a last berry, will know
the same rainbow on his palate.
And when dark settles in again
and memories are sleet, he’ll pull tight
around his mind fighting to sleep, that taste –
how it dies like a star in the night of his mouth.
He runs his tongue across his broken teeth, picturing
pearl white, longing now flesh is fled
to hear an unrecorded voice. Its absence amplifies
the friction of shuffling feet, remembered phrases
captions in a silent film:
a flash of light sanctified by darkness,
the burning of a rock which moves against
earth’s turning, towards a time
when sunlight is a knocking
at the entrance of small days,
the wrought iron of railings
devoured where they lie by last year’ grass.
Film fades with the death of certain metals
as dawns the age of the light, the malleable.
Rain blots ink on old letters.
Words unsaid are better preserved,
free from the careless hand or a slate dislodged,
waiting for the next wind. Let the mind
fit speech to body, make a bed
for each fluid gesture; this is where
we make things whole,
perfect and fated not to outlast us.
Glass-lined walls will topple, the old town
falling with our shortening breath on morning walks,
our thoughts a folklore no one will collect
or wonder at. One by one, the reels
are lost, their cellulose grubbed
to transparency. The heroine disappears
In mid-rescue. A ruined field where a figure
wanders, plotless. Blanks here and there
that could be an end or a botched edit.
And in the end, lights up on a space where the wind applauds.
Still there is a consciousness in all fading. That flower,
its stem and bloom rain-battered into earth,
is one with the fallen fledgling, with that knot
of the defeated outside a bookie’s shop next door
to where coffee grounds turned bitter. There is a music
in their dwindling, in this lull between hopes,
their phrases clipped, reading each other’s sentences.
Their blood slows from race to race, becomes the lapping
of a warm sea on fallen pillars.
In the hill towns Low tide in memory harbour
griefs come and go
merging with shadows
in lanes where the sun
lights once or twice a year.
Grief the colour of morning
on north-facing houses
where windows envy
the slant of day
on their neighbours opposite.
From a small upper room an oracle watches -
fix your eyes on a point
and the universe moves across it:
in a yard where walls look in on each other
is a well of loss,
a station in an endless flow.
Come back, come back! the voice in his ear
shouts to the past,
stroking air the shape of a runaway dog,
his throat a cage
to spring shut on a word
that will never be unuttered.
The day moves away from him
in ever-slower motion,
and the power to grasp -
stay sister, brother, a while,
gather at the guessed-at brim
of a well filled in, join hands and conjure
the why, elusive as the sheen on paint
the where in the body of uncried tears
the song that will not come.
And the hill towns wait to revert,
the bay for its tall masts
see child see the streets dip like waves
hear how music runs away with itself
trips over a hesitation
a false note
the wrath of silence
He’s trembling, his heart now the runaway;
it climbs and tips into calm, lets
the clock that took, restore his pulse.
There. What he has seen
is the terror of the ordinariness
of one man’s failing
insignificant yet cutting like flint
His floor is littered with scraps
from the I Ching
the Book of Hours
the shape of whose letters
should have been sufficient transport
a fetish of ink dying in mid-movement
squid black and teardrop mixed
and if all, if it could be rolled,
packed small and dense as a diamond,
might through a miracle
balance on a scale
the least scruple of sadness
at the brink of an underworld
when the sun at its height
brightens an alley
and the bustle of commerce
is the hum of bees
that will yield no honey.
I remember years ago, in a corner of a fair, a demonstration A settled, sure abode
of the working of a hive. A man, gloved, no more, lifted a frame.
It slid out, covered in bees. A couple of children screamed briefly,
jumped back a step. But the bees were harmless, stilled; drowsy it seemed,
though now I think it was the confusion of being far from home,
in an air that told them nothing, heavy with horses and plough-turned earth.
The shine on their backs was as a metal I’d never seen before or since.
And seeing that life has brought to bees as well, our human troubles, no more
The entrance to that field is boarded up. Today, in an hour of sun and stillness
Virgil might have recognised, picturing it among the stink of Rome,
I can make out tree-tops, the few not felled by thirty years of storm and saw.
The years are taking all, wits included. Words are discarded like sick bees
dropped at the foot of the hive, whole sentences filleted of sense,
their ribs jabbing at the present tense
waving their angers like a pitchfork Excalibur
the din of battle rolling still
and the struggle to be kind is that of a bird
riding the wind, balanced, vigilant,
always ending with a dash to earth –
like gods, there are different hungers
but only one in the end, wherever
and where gestures
will be like food, meaningless, elsewhere,
the plea for understanding no more
than the cry of a gull, a loose feather
combing the storm, brittle, outlasting,
buoyed by the ocean that weighs it,
whose beat and ebb are the strophe and antistrophe to the promises we make
robbed of speech by too late a coming to wakefulness, we sit stunned
for the moment it takes to gather ourselves; and we wait for remorse
to flood and recede as it always seems to, for thought to resume
as life along the tide line, whose creatures know the air as we a clock without
And delivered from too true an image of ourselves, we move between plan and
never quite sure, knowing only that leisure is respite, the taste of fruit
such a strange sugar, at its heart the need for each other of water and thirst.
In a room pinpointed only by satellite someone young beyond their years is
the craft of pretended wisdom, constructing a history of no matter, where only
words can stab
and truth is mud washed in a flood that gives no time to settle; a temple for
speed and volume
from which the confused are cast out, circling an imaginary courtyard
as one by one wells are filled in or diverted, hills cut away like growths
and insects come like beggars to back gardens.
In early morning Looking down on the isthmus
the smell of damp, the feel
on soles of fern and moss.
This is where you go
in search of the dark places
from where clear water comes.
On and up to where warmth
takes longer to settle,
where town and roads
are a glimpse between tree-trunks.
In a clearing the wind
is a sudden loss,
flowers are tiny, star-shaped, tough.
Crows cede the sky to ravens.
Yet there is an unexpected joy,
a scattering of larks,
an unplaceable song.
Then into the gloom of pines
arid, seasonless, a steep
that bends the body, breathless,
as you scramble for a hold
against dead needles underfoot.
The pitch of the slope
is your only marker
and the distant trickle
calls like a promise of noon.
And suddenly it’s done –
a burst of air, a dip ahead,
the sun lighting up the topmost
stone like linen, the wind
from all directions at once
and the first rain to land
rolls out of its brief cave.
And what is it for,
this breaking into light,
to find what science
has tapped and tamed,
to taste on a height,
exhausted, heart racing,
the fill of cupped hands
that chills your throat
to the point of pain –
escape from the lowland
of hint and sermon
the urge to go one step
beyond the point of giving up
or the need to visit
where we never quite belong?
Like toys, the greatest mysteries
are the simplest.
Sunrise glows fiercely through the windows Out of the woods
of unfinished houses. The fields
are growing back around them,
a clutch of last year’s saplings have survived
the choke of grass. Who knows
where they are now, the dreamers?
Who foresaw among leaves, children crawling
along hallways, a lawn in need of water,
where the fox roots now in shadow
shuffling in an air heavier each day
with wildness. O visions,
figures on a vase! Walls
where mould will spread instead of posters!
Outskirts recede toward the town
like a humiliated army. A tide turns
in the body too, especially in early
morning – the strangeness of a mortal
emerging from the underworld,
his mind scrabbling for a purchase
on that day’s slant of light,
sleep peopled more and more
with the familiar, with a sense
of motion without fumbling, feet placed
in dark, no fear of tipping over -
or walking among poppies,
the ground level,
afraid of their frailty
yet none breaking:
they spring back as you pass.
And ahead a break
in the colour,
a dip thin as stream
on the other side of a contour
smooth and slow as a cheek.
The wind brushes,
a bee moves unhurriedly.
You look down at your feet
flowers settling like water
round your shins,
a far shard of glass
gleams, is abandoned window,
the portal to a temple
as the sun aligns:
on the point of asking
Are my feet becoming roots?
you sway slightly
a child’s first paddle in the sea
the sky dizzying yet secure
and you belong
until a shattering,
the smash of truth.
Solace. Those who say the word Turn and face
have never found it. Only a stranger
can pronounce it, and even then
in a voice half-understanding,
half-indifferent; like Gray,
whose elegy intones no name,
or those who, wandering
on fifteen feet of graveyard soil
- a foot for every century –
surrender to the rain and move
with the simplicity of cattle,
backs to the wind.
For solace, shelter, say.
A silence, a curfew self-tolled
or the dropping of a name
as if being could change itself
at the crossing between rooms.
Though there is perhaps peace
while it lasts: before Jones
struggles back to Jones
admitting in the end, the sky
can no more renounce its clouds
than we our natures:
there is something utterly unyielding
in a baby’s cry. We never lose it
though we think we do; put aside,
it comes back to steel us
into what we were,
pinned like every creature
by the fear of hunger
which changes through the years,
puts out the foliage of manhood.
The fragile come to nest there,
grow and disappear.
The stump of a tree, its roots undermined, tilts From stone to stump,
where its fruits once dropped. straightening
Nothing is carried away,
no small creatures venture
where fish waited for kernels to ooze
through water-softened shells.
Yet there is a tremendous grace
in the battered skyline.
And when a tattered figure comes
in search of firewood
he takes care not to look
above ground, preferring cold
to damaging the half-alive.
And having gone back to what passes for shelter
he rubs his limbs
to keep from knotting,
he prays indiscriminately to the living
and dead, their voices slight
among the smoke you never get used to,
which stings his eyes
as imagined conversations, a trawling
through flaws, drift through each other
and hunger passing and returning
is the only telling time, which dissolves
in exhaustion, the dawning knowledge
of his failure to be everyman
though he persists – what else is there –
though each prayer for pardon
is another fardel, dragging as it does
the memory of what prompted it
like the roughest of harrows
here nothing is turned but stone,
jolting, jagged, or a broken relic
of prosperity, heart-breaking. So the bare
floor is a comfort; and at some point
beyond drowsiness, past the consciousness
of pain, a presence runs through the blood,
an ease, like a parent calling
or a sense of being held, simply,
and he knows, without hearing, his voice:
Look. While we slept, the sun
has been moving across the water,
turning it copper then caramel
as the clouds parted and re-joined.
The sky which threatens to fall in
on itself, will always steady
however much our knees totter
under the burden of anxiety.
Believe in seals coming ashore,
hiding their sloughed skin for later
then walking inland when dawn
is a pencil line in grey.
It has been such a long wait
for a miracle, so long since we witnessed
at first hand the truly astonishing:
before wonder fossilised as the ordinary
hardened round it, layer
by dull layer. Years
when nothing sparked
but music: birdcall that echoed
across melting ice, the cry
of a chick across shingle,
hearing a line of Bach, knowing
that it has always existed,
was plucked whole or fell
like an apple. That every future
song is already there, as all language
in an infant’s coo and gurgle;
as the pull to discord, the clash of notes,
will resolve in harmony or silence.
The water is glass now, brittle
as the thinnest sheet of toffee.
See the headlands funnelling
light as through a foundry;
stay, to the tipping point
of beauty into pain. Then turn,
dazzled, into the strange molten darkness
of the inner eye, shot through with gold.
Sunsets From Now On
Chipshop days. Bowie on the jukebox,
skinsmooth. ‘Sorrow’. A half-whispered sax
drifts through sighs of adolescent stress.
Look at us now. A different breathlessness
halfway up Church Hill, and memory
fresh and perfect, pinned like a butterfly.
Stepping from a colonnade
into the oven of a Bolognese morning
it is all wide squares, tight streets,
a clash of bright and shade, dizzying
like zebra stripes,
and a long Middle Age worn lightly -
churches off the beaten track
empty but never deserted,
having the strange half-scent, half-presence
of the recently departed
and a sense of cool undisturbed
by the centuries' upheavals.
The silver of an old monstrance
is grey until lit by coins
in a box grateful for whatever cents
the age provides.
In Santo Stefano the forgotten gods
look out at couples in shorts.
Youngsters who have discovered
the laurel garland pirouette
to the applause of passers-by.
What need of buried deities
and their capped well -
there are springs, pipes, canals.
Banish the old to the malarial
swamps of myth and poetry,
what else makes sense
this far from catastrophe?
This here and now where fields roll,
and flies are gold as chaff in the sun,
mischance an empty pit,
an abscess drained;
where fewer by the day
turn to the stopped clock.
Into the second decade of living
with the company of four walls
twice painted since, an effort at brightness
where the sun is a finger edging a cave.
Today the sky is a turbulence at sea,
a promise that declines to be relieved
much as the dead refuse to leave the life
of their portraits; they seem to outweigh
bit by bit, the moments they surround.
Take what you can from the present: our joy
frames you. If you are diminished, the fault
lies with the world you keep at bay.
Sparrows have come out of nowhere, they loom
like stones, stop above invisible grain.
They belong in a high garden, hot
and white-walled, breeze shadowing an old vine,
a figure, long and languid, opening a palm
full of the fruits of Ceres and Proserpine.
Still, they make the best of a bad job, squabbling
while the broken Atlantic layers
its grey from the ground up. They peck,
it seems, at concrete, arrested here and there
by the uncountably small. And are gone,
their rising lighter than a hair.
The woods are thinning; each decade
carries another spore on the warm air,
songbirds in spring, bewildered
by open space, their call miscarried
along low ground where no mate attends.
No barn is built to fall now. They hulk
in the middle of fields, casting
great chunks of shadow, or glower
along the banks of city canals, marked
with an old carnival's dead graffiti.
And you wonder what the last word
of the last speaker of Aramaic
will be: a farewell, possibly a regret,
then maybe a drawing in,
the final comfort of the dialect.
That boy, hand-flapping
in a corner
is more in his world
than we in ours.
The air he beats
is a friend's touch
on his fingers,
always within reach
and new. It has
the feel of dreams,
a song heard
for the first time
and yet complete.
Around him, talk, coffee
cooled beyond taste,
a half-touched pastry.
I heard about your death
the evening the bombs went off.
Mangled the previous week
at Finsbury Park, the train
instant as flash and fertiliser.
And I wondered in that gap
before the worse disaster
about half-lyrics in your head
which no one got the chance to hear
and what you shed in the hour
between walking out the door
and stepping into space
never knowing if the final shock
was resolution or discord.
Yours was a London of basements
and smudged newsprint, a late-night
clip on an arts programme,
jazz with a whiff of the occult.
Esoteric still, beyond reach:
sharp suits and clubs, war debris
finally cleared, just as we
were spreading duffel coats on torsos
beside a smoking engine like a tumor,
the body cut away.
The film of the mind is grainy now
yet the same wind blows
through the decades,
life imitating art – the guessed-at
music of disintegration.
4TH JULY, 1862
Fall, Alice, keep falling, and come out
on an incline, littered with powder and shot
among a gathering of limbs, jaws,
and under a hotter sky than Oxford, tents
in one of which Davy Hart waits the saw.
Decay has an easier current to row against,
as Stanton in Washington knows, his infant
clinging to life another day or so.
Not for you, Davy Hart, the long review,
a march in fifty years past Presidents.
Hold in your delirium children born to
the children of your sweetheart's future beau,
a book they'll read, fantasy but fated
to touch close the Articles of War,
Alice rescued by a brushing off of leaves,
her sons stretched among the decapitated,
the sky dark as a latrine roof, the floor
a pool of tears. A whistle, a howl of wolves,
you hear them all, death's shrill fireworks.
A brief child again, your mind pursues
an innocence – a prize at a birthday party,
church suppers of a year ago
while James Stanton whimpers wordlessly
and Alice drowses far from lead or smallpox.
FOR NIALL, THIRTY YEARS GONE
Dry wind pushes a recording of an oud
from a house just out of sight. Thirty years
and something in all of us has died,
partly at least. Looking back at times
is like peering across the Styx, or going
to sleep in hope of a dream of innocence.
We will never again be what we were,
those of us left – and is that so terrible?
We'll be spared the first shock of helplessness
at your being led away discreetly,
and the realisation meeting you on the street
afterwards, that something had changed
and forever – the slow dawning of that word.
So no point wondering how it might go
in your unaltered world of tinny record players
and warm pints, you still at the centre of stories
spun round your maelstrom thoughts, your eyes
looking past us, as they did too soon.
WOMEN OF LONG MEMORY
Walk out any doorway
waiting on the wind
to blow back yesterday's ashes
so fine the skin can't feel.
Only the eyes smarting
under an ineffectual sun
witness the invisible,
and the old signs,
Victualler, Emporium, will be
the last of the street to fall.
There is always another town
or the same maybe, at an hour
when first walkers lace up,
ready to venture in and out
of fog where approaching shapes
solidify. It comes and goes
as if under an enchantment
but is never more
than a trick, a buzzing in the head,
an unpinned disquiet.
Reluctant as a child
they went, those women
of long memory who swept paths
along the width of their front walls,
whose rituals were a lamp
before household gods.
They worshipped a sun
that rarely showed, the earth
in their bodies took them, laid them
to be brushed by strangers.
Theirs the breath you long for
on your face when you step
onto a pavement littered
with droppings and gum, under
brackets for redundant awnings;
a strong hand on a hot
and dusty road, turning toward
that far hill you heard of
at someone's knee, her voice
taller than a spire.
After the harshness of cobbles, the dim
interior is soothing on the eyes,
cool, too, with the intimacy
of a cave, walls almost damp
to the touch. Such is imagination -
that old couple strolling stiffly
along what shade the garden gave,
content as a pair of swans.
I rest between the smell of masonry
and wax, and think of living
under a sky that rarely changes,
where rain comes and is gone, leaving
a hint of citrus in the air
and morning tells what day will become;
where the language of good nature is easy,
unhampered by chill or sudden downpour.
Maybe I could learn to walk
gracefully in arid air, shirt
not clinging to the small of the back.
There is a style in having overcome
which I know I'll never master,
a knack in moving along streets where
local flags carry their centuries lightly.
Exiting, all is shadow and glare
as it must always be
at the centre. This is the true light,
the crayon-colour of a four year old,
all green, gold, purple; the heart
of the sun is in one of those layers
buried in a box among the cast-offs
of a long growing. Go home
and shiver, make your own sun.
Cracked wood, broken strings.
The last few guitars are gathered up,
plasterers move in, impatient, their ready mix
smelling of a far country before disappointment fixed
itself into song,
it comes back now, the first scrape and slap
and the sound of smoothing, an evenness, a phrase,
the rasp of grit dissolving, a long sigh, an ease.
It'll be worth it
when it's finished. Home has become a small,
eroded island surrounded by common sense.
All will be better, yes – what else to say? - once
the long clearing out
leaves sufficient space for light to spool
as if life could reel back beyond its countless
shocks, and play from where the future mattered least.
Later. The first snow
colours the sky an hour before it falls.
Whatever cold is seeping in is not meant for the limbs,
it settles like a grace on the unfeeling skull, then climbs
down and through
what passes in a bewildered man for the will.
Straighten up. Such a weight of space, emptied but
not cleaned, it looms, an uncancelled debt.
Torn, yellowed music.
I recognise my father's pinpoint notes,
too little left to recreate what sang in his head
as he placed this in a trumpet case and smoothed
the old gold fabric
like a sheet across the face. What has been swept
away since then! Debris tumbling from a gouge
where all seemed perfect, built to outlast the age.
I recall his smile,
it was an understanding and a pardon.
There are always melodies that can't be played,
they elude the least touch on string and keyboard;
pin them and fail.
Open the skylight a crack, let the wind whistle in,
its ten million lifetimes of air sharp with the sound
of wolves it picked up when it turned over Greenland.
ELEGY FOR A STRANGER
The town was beautiful and empty.
How concisely put! - Robert Walser
Children staring at their first dead man
stop short, leaving a halo of snow
about the body.
From small to smaller.
A slight dusting of years sufficed
to render you invisible,
your life a handwriting, tiny, coded,
as if you'd receded
fitting perfectly into your tracks
and stood once more in Bieler Altstadt.
That town, its character
like that of any city
not fleeting but elusive
nurtured you, a child seeing himself
in the future, your diffidence
a kind of argument,
something of you vanishing even then -
a beautiful script, untouchable as powder -
as you walked along the Schüss, its air
holding the chill of a mountain stream
through early summer,
the Bahnhof facing east, toward
an uncertain Empire.
A town where you could fade
into another language
and all but disappear.
From where you left unnoticed,
interiors dwindling over time
to a scattering of mean rooms
in the last of which you said
you came to be mad, not to write.
Yet you persisted – could you tell
where one or other ended or began?
And fitting in a way
that what felled you knocked you back,
lay you facing up, as though
waiting for the stars
that kept you company
through countless shrinking windows.
THE TOWN IS WASHED CLEAN
The town is washed clean.
Rain has done its worst
and dark folds the streets
like a mother of old.
A mile away, plum trees
are probably no more
than scars in the earth,
almost healed. They were mine
once, ours, like the promise
of evenings bright as fire,
the bump of growth under soil
painingly cold to fingers.
Hours open like books now,
rich beyond telling, but past.
The town is washed clean.
I begin to read
and a pencil scrawl
by one of my children
one chance, lost moment
reduces me, reduces me.
THE CAR, THE HARE
The snow forecast is long coming.
Hours are a blanket of waiting, a spread
silence fixes clocks on their separate mantels.
Far from the prospect of moving, I think
of that long promontory, its unlucky houses,
their histories whispered on nights of smoke
and piercing stars.
Or that remembered
evening, its dark that may have been:
there was a hare in headlights, caught
by a beam thrust in front of it,
following the lead of what it fled,
it never veered until a bend
swept the gift of night across its eyes.
Through a rolled-down window,
the smell of the sea. Imagination
fixing its beam where memory should run.
The car, the hare. The road about to turn.
THE LAKE, LIKE ANY ANIMAL
Midges hang in the air above a lake,
the shore smells of ooze where cattle
have lately trod, the cutaway shallow
and teeming: June, and insects are almost dust.
All this, the site of a great gouging
uncounted years ago, fifteen miles of hills
to the southwest, that long meadow's innards -
and how life rushed in with the first mud.
Trace a line from the island to the far
reed bed, triangulate with the abandoned
mill – there, man and dog went down
through ice thinned by a perpetual spring.
How long will that winter dawn impose itself
like a transparent crust? No matter
that tracks are greened over, a placid
plenty burgeon within, without; or that such
a scene has played a million times -
last week, a bull-calf dead of insect bloat.
Fledglings on an overhanging branch are trying
out their wings, one always hanging back.
The lake, like any animal, must drink.
FOUR O' CLOCK
There was an hour when all doors were open,
when after group sessions, tension was as rain
dispersed in air. With it, a drift, a murmured
grief for what was lost one side or other
of a turning point. A knot was being cut
crudely, where it couldn't be unpicked,
each sentence had a hesitation, caught
between the haunted and the derelict.
We moved as if scraped clean, all rib and socket.
And after this many years, having become brother
to myself – who so advised me, I forget -
song is minute and ruthless as a pin.
A thrush calling across a concrete pasture
can shrivel life to an atom of regret.
THE LAST OF THE BYZANTINES
A sound like liquid neon
threads along the maze
of streets at noon.
Something of it dies
in each wall, each body
through which it passes
and in the shade
of the porticoes it rests,
a spent tide.
A wake for last night's
music, perhaps, or a waking
room where the first
instinct is to crack
the day wide open,
that old defiance of the weak.
The last of the Byzantines
are mouthing a silent prayer
among beads and icons
in a tight Italian square,
watching from black booths
pale, careless skin blister.
They remember the moth
in the rolled up carpet,
idols snatched from the hearth,
language is a set
of phrases picked to surround
the speech of thought
older than Troy. If the end
is here, marooned among cobbles,
it will be as a headland
undermined, about to tumble
whole to catastrophe,
the white noise and treble
of a primitive city.
How white you are, old tooth!
Paper and dark have been kind to you,
you sat like a little pearl when first exposed
as if you'd never ordered pain
to war on your surroundings.
And I feel along the ridge
of healed gum, a sealed tomb
no Easter will find. Outside, wind
plays with the sap of this year's stems,
punishes alike the delicate, the top-heavy.
You, tooth, lay next to a bottle-top
- Phoenix – bent along the midriff
by an unknown barman's yank,
it still has that mixture of clay and cork
I could never get enough of as a child.
Where does it come from, this glue
that rivets us to some
useless corner of our early years?
If we escape we carry it
in a corner of our shoe, sticky, secret,
or deeper still, a fleck round which
the psyche layers itself.
But now and for a moment
only, the pure white of enamel,
one forever with the first bone.
There's no shade this hour
in Piazza San Domenico
where merchants sleep
in their green boxes high above ground
and birds forage between cobbles.
Inside, to see Michelangelo's
first angel, and a girl
by a candle stand
reminding that this
is a house for more
than the come and go visitor;
however long or short we linger
among the aisles, there is
a different earth for our tears,
under concrete perhaps
or where roots cloy in mud.
The nave is quiet now
and all is height and coolness,
a space for prayer
to dissolve, and the first prick
of incense to begin
its unsettling work.
How patiently the centuries
waited in its resin
while this small hill
grew on its dead, like others,
watched a near temple
fall and rise, cruciform,
old gods disappear,
insects without amber.
It saw out a millennium
of small wilderness, before
the mattock and the end of sap.
And so to this long box
of light where tears
can pass nearly unnoticed
and the gap between wars
is a restoring mason's almost
TOUR DE FRANCE
Watching the Tour de France -
re-runs of course, in the boredom of lockdown
restless and entranced by turns.
Is this how it was once,
the world unfolding in a camera pan?
Chateau and steeple
naked and neat from a helicopter,
riders through copse and arable
threading like bacteria;
a hint of the faded glamour
of come-across, cigarette pack cards -
Eddy Merckx, Jacques Anquetil.
Isn't it what we all
dream of really,
a foreign country with no foreign words?
Set us down in a square
where buildings are cliffs, and generous
water issues from a medieval figure,
where midday workers pass
through slow doors to partitioned offices,
and a history of burning
is marked by a discreet plaque,
event and year incised in copper brown.
The river runs dark
but all else is chatter and glasses' clink.
Or far from homesick drizzle,
crisp countryside beckons,
air like powder among the vines
and a random tiny
church -Notre Dame des Miracles,
where cyclists stop for a selfie
and scroll through a map
anxious to be on their way,
disappointed that the app
was more enticing than the actualité.
SUNSETS FROM NOW ON
Confined to a north-facing room,
sunsets from now on
will be online or collected,
not present but infinite,
called up at any time.
So too with dawn song,
he can walk on unresponsive legs
through ringing forests
where the last bird was logged
years ago, and first light
is uniform now as concrete.
And through it all persists
a pain impervious to Nembutal
for thin mornings in a thin street,
sun fastened behind a dour hill,
and an hour that scratches still -
a landscape unremarkable,
an old dog at his feet.
THE LAST NOTE
Late night jazz in Japanese,
each vowel an exotic bird
teasing as it wells and dies
above a smooth diminished third
but not quite gone
as a trombone
paints the smoke in greens and blues.
The voice again, but low, its catch
sadder than the American,
breathy, tentative, and rich
with what will never be attained;
that perfect note
lodged in the throat,
there but always out of pitch,
it takes flight in its not being sung,
its silence is its zen. And now
the final phrase, lucid, fading,
a distant light in sea and snow
until the pause
is the last note, wrung unknowing.
Six, and brightness scythes
through gaps in the back field.
It’s still too early, in spite of promises
made during months of lead,
in spite of the urge to flee
into wakefulness, away from the hour’s
latest snare: you or I
drifting in a sea of ether,
limbs rigid, clay worrying the nostrils.
Or was it a recollection of bleach
on your palms those early days?
There are so many ways
now, of being dead and alive
at the same time: a touch
that grips nothing, a flash
lighting an illusion. Grieve,
the shaken heart says,
for the grain of sand, the glass beyond reach.
Day moves us toward our separate
small futures, our different hills
a mile apart stalling first light.
When was it we no longer
told the hour by the other’s
movements? I fall and heal
until it doesn’t work
and I’m the last to know it.
And so. Two rooms, two clocks,
a phone through which shared
recollections strain. These days
all cold is bitter,
even the rare relieving breeze
when others tan. It tastes of November.
An old crow has come back. It swoops
as best it can, scratches for scraps
not worth the youngers’ efforts.
Its beak is pale and blunt.
Funerals through empty squares
are fewer now. The slow cortege
is threading back to where we were.
A small town dynastic marriage
has reached its end: a final chance
to knot the twine of years and distance.
We wake as though from a long sleep
to sudden cold, weak, bewildered,
a year has made us seeming strangers,
we peer like beasts across a gap
at what we thought was ours for good,
the shade of a lost neighbourhood.
What is this unmurmuring form
of mourning that’s become the norm,
is it for ourselves we grieve
so deeply it’s become unspoken?
The certainty of no reprieve
has rendered greetings mute or shaken.
Another unexpected twist –
suddenly the square it seems
is a lunchtime playground, sorting teams;
in role reversal now we try
not to catch Death’s passing eye:
keep moving. He’s a better pick.
Who’d have thought? You have to laugh,
a smile at least – but keep it hid,
it wouldn’t be surprising if
the same thought was in every head.
Look – yes, the long-forgotten stance,
nervousness and nonchalance.
Schoolkids lined against a wall.
What could be more natural –
we’ve fought against old age so long,
preserved as none before could do
our daydreams from those days ago,
let rock stars die the death of kings,
followed their hearse from half a world
away, in rooms no cold could touch.
Now, waiting, wrapped against the pinch
of truth, our stubborn thoughts unfold,
they plume out, visible as vapour,
rhythmic as what was once called prayer.
And as each breath disperses, comes
that feeling, indestructible –
how good it is to be alive,
to feel the chill attack and numb
the ears; know hunger and the stomach full,
the endless balm and pain of love.
And who’d begrudge the dead the chance
to have known this too, however far
they scatter – into earth or space,
whether by destiny or luck –
to have lived and felt, unlike
the blind and unimagining stars.
A SLIVER OF MOON
Another smash. Great blocks this time,
cut stones scattered where they fell like bodies,
the body itself removed of course,
and a gap in the air as you walk past,
a gasp not from the mouth but in the gut –
it could have been you caught in the car’s
scythe. And you pick up, hurry
without realising, resolve to come back
by a different road. One where holes
are minor wounds, last winter’s broken
hedge already greening over, a crack
in an old gable indifferently plastered.
Count the new houses. it won’t do to remember
each scar almost healed as individual,
raw as you know they must be still, somewhere.
Put such thoughts aside like an old weakness.
We were taught compassion at school but learned
otherwise: playground hours among fists and insults,
boys who were known to be soft had to hide, or outrun
the random casual kick aimed by instinct.
You can still name those whose childhood
was a quivering silence, emotion buttoned
like a coat no mother’s fingers could undo.
What difference if it was a lifetime ago,
if their children now are fully formed, open,
the kind who’ll slow down at a corner
to voice a quiet thought for a tragic stranger?
It will have to be enough that our generation
has managed almost by accident to leave something
finer than itself as it thins and vanishes -
those mythic schoolyard toughs fading too, each
a sliver of moon in a cold, dry morning.
LIGHT BLANKETS YOUR CITY BRIEFLY
Light blankets your city briefly.
I remember that sense of unexpected calm
as I wait as any parent does, for a reply.
It was three or thereabouts on the Kurfürstendamm
and I’d forgotten how bright those streets could be,
closed now like the doors of a museum
or the countenance of people who have turned
to a different sort of kindness.
Who can blame them, bound
as they are to the silence of distress,
shops shuttered, our new certainties questioned?
I can track a cloudbreak from any distance,
a square opens, empty as a desert
while we like animals in scattered burrows
peer at the world through our tablets,
forgetting that light will be the same tomorrow.
It should be a consolation but it isn’t
that twenty thousand years will come and go
and the earth will do quite nicely in our absence.
We should be glad to be rid
of the burden of our own importance,
it’s what all the major faiths have said
when they weren’t too busy calling down pestilence
on everybody else. It’s altogether dead,
the world as recent as yesterday. So why
does something in us cry out more for the light
that’s gone than for tomorrow’s midday?
And I for the sun oblique against
a side-street table in last year’s Germany
while I stare at a screensaver and wait.
AND ALL FOR A WISH
The click of a play button.
Familiar music, shallow
and metallic, the background
to countless air guitars,
the soundtrack to years that slipped
away when you weren’t looking,
children who were grown
before you dreamed of them.
And all for a wish.
Put it away, that tape.
That’s better. Bach.
What else can you do
but end on a harmonic,
no fuss, no flourish?
THE DESERT OF BEING WITHOUT
I can think nothing
of the house we lived in
but being forever empty,
its wallpaper thick as custard, holding
the sound of children’s parties,
dozens it seems, stilled
and never to be supplanted, voices
pristine here on the margin,
the desert of being without.
What of the lives elsewhere,
yours, mine, guests dispersed
who come back in the guise of their young
sitting round a table matchwood now
or mouldering somewhere.
They always return with the first
pinch of frost when eyes wince
at a low sun
no traveller can avoid.
And who’d have thought
the fingertips would ache to remember
as does the mind; the arms
crook to bear the ghost weight
of infants long newborn,
their growth preserved, halted
at an unremarked moment,
their voices high and eager, stumbling
over a new song.
Kids on bikes screech past. The word
feral springs, blots out all else.
They were so before the flood.
The smallest hint of jealousy
lingers as they cut a corner,
their triumph gull-like on the air:
but why? You know they have it all
in front of them, the sudden slip,
the unfamiliar taste of gall,
why begrudge the scattered whoop
from walls you vaulted in your turn,
impatient to outgrow the town?
It rushes back in such detail -
the footpaths cracked and treacherous,
stone biting through a wafer sole,
paint flaking on a minibus.
The town that was a threadbare sheet,
and then it took you, street by street.
A waste of time to wonder when
it first bit, that corrosive sense
of being somehow alien,
was it age or coincidence?
Time for a last twilit dash,
here they come again. A crash,
a bounce-back curse and off they ride
toward the light of waiting screens,
fulfilment there as sure and rapid.
Let their joys outlast their teens,
their middle age, let them recall
these days without a trace of gall.
Still the old rough tables
topped with plastic chequerboard
dulled by countless stouts.
Even on this coldest day
upstairs windows opened, the history
of illness seeping out
like a trace of shingle
rolled by an ebb tide.
Pause on the half-stair. Who made
that remark, almost casual,
about the time Litvinov
was here with the Jewish school?
Yes, it was one of those far-off
curiosities a child hoards
and forgets, an old button
lost in the lining of a coat
and fallen into the jumbled
light of a thousand
recollections; no mind is nimble
enough to gather each spill,
every image is a nothing, a diamond.
Such a mad hail, this newly-found;
turn back, walk through the clatter
of drovers’ plates, their dying boots.
A LITTER OF STILLNESS
Morning is a litter of stillness,
on the ground and above; crisscrossed
vapour trails breaking up, planes
already beyond the horizon.
It’s as if the atmosphere,
so high, is surprised by moisture,
hesitates to devour it, an animal
before an unexpected meal.
My childhood fear of heights has come
again. Not the lurch or fall
but air dropping away, sure as each
recollection does within: reach
and touch a little less, a name,
a smell – gone. And that’s it, that’s all.
THE PIANO LID
(i.m. G. Mc C.)
So short a time you were the king of cool.
Two years at most and you were gone
into the stumbling showband world,
a novice, an apprentice, and how soon
your grace foundered, you who could read
Stravinsky like a newspaper. From that
to betting slips and crib sheets: and still
we were far behind,
playing at drunkenness and diminished fifths,
wallowing in the reflected glow of rumours –
you facing down a soldier, unaware,
getting one over on some publican who wouldn’t
pony up. You could have been anything.
That’s what we said then, say still
and feel more keenly with the closing in
of years, our own half-chances fled.
Lately I’ve been wondering what fire
if any, burned when the candle was a stub,
did you lament the long-lost music
of what was possible? You must have -
don’t we all? – but you especially
since it surrounded you like air,
as quick to dissipate. One day we saw
a film of dust on the piano lid.
I wasn’t there when they closed you down.
Is it a cowardice to prefer
a metaphor – that lid, the rusted stand?
There were plenty to choose from, but all
emptiness at heart, school corridors, each memory
a choke, a cough; the stillness of a room
without a radio or the rustle of a sheet
or the silk of a record slipped out of its sleeve.
What must it have been like to live
the way you did – insight on the edge
of oblivion, overbalancing, then back?
Once I spent an hour fumbling over
a fretboard, astonished at your assurance,
the plans you had – what were you, fifteen?
Nothing, it seemed, could hold you back
and yet by twenty all had deflated.
Everything aged more quickly in your case.
And in the end there’s little difference
in our piecemeal regret and yours
for what you didn’t chase. A two-year old
drums a pattern on the old bay window,
drags a truck along the alcove where
you kept your Bach and Bird. All loss is one,
and other sounds rush in.