Telemachus

Like any good son, I pull my father out
of the water, drag him by his hair

through white sand, his knuckles carving a trail
the waves rush in to erase. Because the city

beyond the shore is no longer
where we left it. Because the bombed

cathedral is now a cathedral
of trees. I kneel beside him to show how far

I might sink. Do you know who I am,
Ba? But the answer never comes. The answer

is the bullet hole in his back, brimming
with seawater. He is so still I think

he could be anyone’s father, found
the way a green bottle might appear

at a boy’s feet containing a year
he has never touched. I touch

his ears. No use. I turn him
over. To face it. The cathedral

in his sea-black eyes. The face
not mine – but one I will wear

to kiss all my lovers good-night:
the way I seal my father’s lips

with my own & begin
the faithful work of drowning.

The True Story of Eleanor Marx in Ten Parts

1.

Eleanor of the eight-hour day
Gets betrayed by Edward of the two faces.
She orders: chloroform, with just some traces
Of prussic acid – blue – a beautiful imitation.

 

2.

She says it’s for the dog but she is the dog.

 

3.

The Housekeeper finds her dressed in white.
It’s not her bridal dress, she’s not a bride.
It’s from her childhood. She lies as if asleep.
She has strangely purple cheeks.

 

4.

In her ‘white muslin dress’ she is laid out.

 

5.

The Coroner is exasperated with feeble Edward.
CORONER Was the deceased your wife?
EDWARD Legally?
CORONER Were you married to the deceased?
EDWARD Not legally.
CORONER What was her age?
EDWARD Forty.

(She was forty-three.)

 

6.

On Tuesday:
Fire –
But the Phoenix,
God of Suicide,
Doesn’t rise.
And Edward doesn’t claim her
Because now he has a real wife.

 

7.

So the urn that holds the ashes of the soft summer dress,
And of the woman who knew the power of the proletariat,
And of the chunk of poisoned apple that she bit under duress,
Are taken to the offices of the SDF.

 

8.

The offices are in Maiden Lane.

 

9.

And in the offices in Maiden Lane,
There is a cupboard with two glass panes.
And there they place her to remain
For years and years.
Her tears are dew
And she crushes nothing.

 

10.

Nearly all of this is true.

 

Nine Nights

The Set Up

If you did see people that first night. People for so. Who come from town, from far like St David, from near like St Mark to this little St John parish. It had the makings of a good funeral. Pure bus park up by Gouyave roadside like ants. Them mourners arrived, shuffling with the shock. The priest opened up that wake with plenty prayers. Corn soup bubbled in the iron pot, red beans slowly converged with rice, thyme and coconut milk. Chair clustered like fowls in the yard. Till he mother fell down under the weight of her dead son. So young she muttered so young.

Song

Grief song is a different story. A clap of hands then a rocking back and forth story. Grief song is a body dancing to a jagged melody story. Grief song is so searing, it’s the belly drops to knees story. Grief song is the way his mother sinks into The Rock of Ages story. I tell you Grief song is a hard to tell story.

The Dreams

Martha had dreams for so since the night he died. And wise woman Clarise could not make head nor tail of flying fish or hummingbirds over rough river water. Of eddo swelling under rocky soil. Of septic tank full of bleach and blue soap. What does it mean she muttered what does it mean?

Funeral Announcement

To hear his name called dry so on radio – was the son of… brother of… left behind, bruck her up. And them doltish dogs howling a relentless dirge for they master who never pelt them with kick, who boil one fresh pot of dog food; chicken neck with gravy and white rice, every morning like greeting. Them dogs howl so till grief lock off they windpipe.

His Resurrection

When Lazarus fas up and step across the threshold of he own wake, rank with corpse stink, the wake bruck up. Who put foot out of door quick time. Who start pray fast fast. Who faint and get revive with smelling salts. Miss Gibbs forget she hips bad, till she tek two steps and fall Bra-tap. Mr Power start moan bout the good good money he dash way on pretty funeral frock for Betty and now she can’t even use it. Uncle Johnny start fling rum shouting You     dead     man,       you        dead! like libation have any power over the resurrected.

Vexation

It had the makings of a boss funeral, the mourners muttered, sulking into wake’s shadow. Martha steups up and over like chant, her venomous kiss teeth terrifying even tough back crapo. Mary vex too bad, How could he go and make their serious show of grief into a pappy show. Mary head got hot – look how much white candle he mother burn to light his way and how like stubborn jackass he refuse to follow instruction, Just turn away from the light boldface so. This was just like when he was hard ears to leave he mother womb. The old choir women in the back room stop singing and only cussing bad word, wild at the shame and slander of this thing.

Fling Down Party

Lazarus dash way hymns and cuss words from he house with the heavy bass of a thumping speaker box. The floor boards start tremble, as he foot rise up and skip, as he fingers lick and clap, when the Rasta man chant take over. Give thanks. Lazarus dance fire and brimstone. Dance chant down Babylon. Start lick fist on fragile board wall. Start shout more fire, more fire as if alive scatter springs into he steps; as if alive shake up he mind. He locs swinging like thick twine tied to air and he chanting i&i livity, i&i livity.

Geography of Resurrection

And when the reporter woman ask Lazarus what it was like, as they sat in the cream-wall room with the hum of mosquitoes and he say, there is a chart to being resurrected. An atlas that have mud swamp, sweet water river and thorny paths. There is a one foot in front of another chart. A believe and it shall be chart. A surrender chart. A rhythm chant chart. And you just have to trod it all rude girl, you just have to trod it. 

The Laying of the Hands

And when they saw he still lived to this ninth day, they cancelled La Qua funeral parlour, grab he up in a white sheet, tote he swinging like he in a rocking hammock to the sea shore and roll him in the coarse hot sand. Then dunk he head in the salty sea, washing death’s stench off him. Then they anointed him – all palms seeking to touch their feeble miracle.

The City Admits no Wrongdoing

Somebody put a golden girlchild on a southern railway in the 1920s, with a satchel of chicken. Picnic for one. Northward  toward a better life. Billie Holiday loved somebody who put her on a railway with a satchel of chicken. When the food ran out, they called them honkeys. The white men who drove up to harlem in fancy lawn vehicles and honked outside of the houses of the goldenchild, praying for sex and no wrongdoing. O’hara loved you. Orson Wells loved you. Miles loved you. You are loved. I love you, too, What is a heroin addiction, really? What does it indicate? What is the difference between a honkey and rapist? Can she live. Can the stage be riddens enough, the begged for bruises, the softly-spoken desire for a frozen pit bull and a club of her own, northern promise enough to make trouble up. Poised suffering. All she had to do was sing, one man wrote. And cook her dope into the chicken. God Bless the Child. The white actress Judy Garland was sent back to the country to wean off of heroin around the same time Billie Holiday was hospitalized, handcuffed to the bed,  with no friends allowed to visit and her last five dollars strapped to her garter, and no candies. She loved candies. We need sugar. We run on sugar. Melanin is carbon. Carbon is sugar. Billie is shook, hurry, you love her. You worship the one you’ve broken. You still cook the fur off, chicken. Sugar, I call my baby my sugar, I never maybe my sugar, that sugar baby of mine. Funny, he never asks for my money…  Put on these amber glasses and all the light ain’t blue.

Nightfall, Jane Ash Corner, St. Thomas

Ice splits those millennia of canes.
They stand by the coppice
in ready patience and danger
when I pass by the barracks. A mongrel
pack, in their heat, vanishes
into a lane. Cane and silence.
____
Ash-frosts glimmer houses
sleeping by the factory.
I pause to breathe deep the molasses vat.
Progress is back, but centuries
are one here. Flogging
laughter in the schoolyard;
____
a book tortures ants, then gets
thrown into the latrine.
I hide blue bibles in tree roots,
until evenings, to take them home.
One lumps in my back pocket now; the embossed Gideon
and amphora I have not broken.
____
I am eyes in the old slave quarters.
The future will arrive in four years and burn
the river grouse green and kill
the library cormorant, whom
I had fallen for.
It will close the bible age.
____
Morning exhales pitch dark
on Peacock Hill. The rigid lines of tractors
hitched with hostel-size carts
come clear and the first cane cutters walking towards them
in burlap ponchos, most smaller
than me, or so it seems, leap over the errant-fish cistern.

//

My mother lays the table with chopsticks & ceramic
spoons, expects you to fail at dinner. To the Chinese,

you and I are chopsticks: lovers with the same anatomies.
My mother tells you that chopsticks in Cantonese sounds

like the swift arrival of sons. My mother tongue rejoices
in its dumbness before you as expletives detonate: [two

women] [two men] [disgrace]. Tonight, I forget I am
bilingual. I lose my voice in your mouth, kiss till blood

comes so sorry does not slip on an avalanche of syllables
into sorrow. I tell you that as long as we hold each other,

no apology will be enough. Tonight, I am dreaming again
of tomorrow: another chance to eat at the feast of the living

with chopsticks balanced across the bridges of our hands
as we imbibe each yes, spit out every no among scraps of

shell or bone. Father says: kids these days are not as tough
as we used to be. So many suicides in one week. How many

times have you and I wondered about leaving our bodies
behind, the way many of us have already left? My friend’s

sister loved a woman for ten years and each word she says
to her mother stings like a papercut. Each word she does

not say burns like the lines she etches carefully into skin.
I have stopped believing that secrets are a beautiful way

to die. You came home with me for three hundred days –
to show my family that dinner together won’t kill us all.

28.

Today the turquoise view
swoops faster, swirls like lime juice in a cold glass,
the bay flashes, tumescent, a noon-time joy, steep to the side.
The early moon a pale slice in blue. Scent of manure and hay blow,
sheep wink, coastline trees like brown twiggy hair blowing sideways.
My David’s a pebble of strength too bright,
too smooth to be flung.
Nothing’s certain but changing landmarks, sifting coves.
We’re aware of each other’s breathing; the Mini’s forced nearness,
the sun catching his knuckles, freckled wrist, silver watch,
his quiet shifting of the gears, dusty brown Topsiders stepping hard
on the gas          rising      high.
And down
to the mossy,
valley house. A white block
windowed memory.
We click still.
A net curtain moves.

Before I meet his mother
he takes me
among his father’s rocky fields,
shows me how to swindle
honey from a hive.
With a cigarette ‘just for this purpose
he puffed acrid smoke like an old rusty engine.
A slow thrum,
the sound of tiny drills.
The conquered Gwenynen Fêl
short up, away into the blue,
her drones chasing like a chorus of boy-lovers.
I had been hungry.
He gave me the first sticky comb. 

1. Of those from the ships

Ptolemaeus the king of Egypt was so eager to collect a library, that he ordered the books of everyone who sailed there to be brought to him. The books were then copied into new manuscripts. He gave the new copy to the owners… but he put the original copy in the library with the inscription ‘of those from the ships.’

Galen

So you can come along and you can scan it:
come along the docks, as are your curious customs,
and you can move among my spread
among my freight my cargo.
And you should catch a draft to drift
to drift from crate my love to crate
my love through freight my lovely argosy.

So you can leaf your dusty tips through wheat and chaff
and riffle out each inky index
through all the silken slough
of all my gaudy textiles.
Flick through it, resort it, recall it
to recount and to your count enlist
my disembarked, my unencrypted holdings.

And so, ascribe each part, just so,
inscribe each piece, just so,
describe each Hippocrene flask, just so,
each cask, just so: of all my all content.
To each a place in place to place
in your exact accountant call
of row by rolling row anatomies.

Now as you go, steady
my dizzying inventories, steady
my whole to holed in hold and steady as you go.
Until amongst the richer sort, my finer stuff,
my love, my weft, my warp, my woof, my loom,
you come across, you chance upon
my books, my textured library.

Like Antony, enlisting scrolls for Egypt,
I’ve weighed up with ranks of primed romance,
rows of charged letters, waxed flattery.
Please read them quick; respond at length but
on the instant, as each squeezed line tips
tight up on the grazed edge, squeaks ‘come!’
and soft speaking means the softly same.

Pinched, each plundered volume plumbs
your depths of cheek of face of front.
The bitter gall of it, from row to row
shelf to shelf and decimal point to point.
You and your low-toned underlings, sotto voce,
unstack, stack up, pack up and off
with those, all those from my ships.

Your tough customs, your officious vandals,
all horn-rimmed reading glasses
and hob-nailed boots spectacular
along my aisles, through my stacks,
and scrawling down my gangplanks.
So silence please. And no talk back to back
to no recourse to no redress to silence please.

You rogue librarian, filling packing cases;
you rough justice, packing shipping crates;
you vile bibliophile, stealing a borrow;
you unrepentant lovely lender.
Fingered, found red-handed
shameless-faced, each fly defaced:
of those – you wrote – from the ships. 

You with their hollow whispers
of silenced, pleased apology
towing away my textures
of those from the ships
You book thieves pirates book robbers;
you book thieves collectors borrowers lovers
of those from the ships

Of course, I knew your Alexandrian law.
I knew you’d come, and knew you’d take them.
Of course, I brought along my best materials –
first editions, originals, manuscripts –
and must have hoped you’d steal them.
This is the hope, of course off course,
of all those from such a stricken ship

of all those from the ships.

The Plenty of Nothing

i.m. Jenny Diski, 1947–2016

Pale duty stamps about in plenty of nothing
____like the night when you know everything to time
when each step is beaten off when the rack might add
____more glory and I would watch the stars
not kin nor proof to rule the sphere to know
____by clothes and tea how to cut lino out of them

Now see who has the little boat of love and wave
____adrift more salt at its best splash scornful enough
away on your right to curve well in some hope then
____plunging like blame, my hat tossed up and bent
and lost wires lurid if there ever was one at hand
____to walk with me out of my mind’s eye always apt

Old china caught to seize as springless nature seeps up
____and wells at stake to risk another fire
in a forest of beasts where silent stories end in a beer
____or in dark lists above the clause that starts to die
left to review by me my kindest cut scabbed as a free
____local disguise made naked to suffer for doing just that

You can give it up for hope’s always a bit of web to ignore
____sound into the relief fire bad as you wish for
this lack of a figure in the grip of method on the screen
____to burst out of acid to be like last at the spindle instant
as a gripping vertigo flash vacuum leaves spores in place
____of humanism for us when this frolic unveils payment

End tricky time to get enough pink forms to reconcile
____two worlds of the mind to say the least at work
safe hands on what we know to move abroad like autumn
____leaves the trees revealed at last as a mouthpiece for language
a copy to taste such stress detail at times of less art chat tangled
____to a dead tune in sharp clothes in a space of her own

Make one palp by another hand leaves another letter fail to
____earth what it says out walking on skin debris from two
true stories in matters as if we lavish its fine tip on lungs of art
____to put a stop to his tread or peg out between ruts
in thin sheen as that eye that glass jar screwed cold and dark in pots
____too out all the same with a stump eyed from the window

After midnight it was a baffle or a very good copy in song style
____stapled deep with a mist full of blood for free detritus
flooding slides in capital sequence to watch them drive stout posts
____bleak to look at into the dark ground the black lightless fen
all about the aims of the front bound in like a literary theory
____snarled in rough cuts to earn a living to repudiate

The hoover fades beneath a lethal march off this page
____to another partiality from the air against his masks
to form him now in terror forays or shape him in dumps
____in flame run half afraid on a floor of damp glass a lip
at fault speaking idle threads down to the bona fide dress
____shirt in hand over fist spooning into his face

So would you care to remain here and be consumed
____round the neck as the only route downward like a load
of light verse enduring through barrage and fancy filaments
____twittering in the ceanothus of invention parcels
air bent into aesthetic shapes of this mercy or that or broken
____right apart eaten away starved crushed old mad blind and stamped on

Later level force embraces anybody if that’s true and I agree
____with you out of my hands to where the cities are to play power
splashed out in a witness sense, a complex merit one class say
____or ever becoming a kind of work out loud burning
it from one end to the other just because of skin declaring decay
____that might be a view from nowhere but a day in the country

What was made by us is hanging about covered in ribbons and birdshit
____and aprons all set on this time of night for any other way through
tangles of a seedy mind to hold nothing touched or even true
____to the same life just a door step away from a sheepish mouth
munching a sliver of something carmine and ludicrously
____pastoral as fishpaste or cracks full of dust or an entire bowl

Don’t nod or scramble so ruefully for dupes or lying for the poor
____furtive moon-blush army come again try the view alone
odour of almonds am here am you we’re a monstrous pair of crows
____doubting summer’s purchase a blush in a garden of gleams
sow seeds by the aunt clair path sow the wind in the tender cedar
____rush light charm above the door dilapidated its charm raddled

And see off a dumb tally over a long night’s counting till the sun
____glides the new sand sole account crowned legendary and lost
a film a few saw sheepishly on a blank promise to be better after it
____gilded inside to do as we go into the barrier on a face opens
the book of wishes and glides illegible as badgers in a complex pattern
____buried a bad label a gesture or tab shawl they’d like to escape from

Ignore o secure relief fluid at your age one exists or leaves and will
____dissolve by final flux over you unaided inflicted and not once more
be ever one we hear so much and weep at windows in lost sentences
____ignored in the forests. The words on one level condemn us to death
of the use of them as we must simply know the part in the whole
____devoted to a singular being without being which there’s nothing left.

i am very precious

I see all the black marks on the page, the lines
hallucinations falling off the edge of the world – my tongue
we haven’t talked about desperation,
yet you tell me about pornography, girls with death wishes
attached to their libidos, little warm arrows
aligned to their supple bodies, inside where the parental hole gapes;
do you understand that when the day breaks
semen in the body turning over like a silk belt, slashing
the way the poetry aches like it does when fantasies
abate and leave beds turning over like guillotined heads
and my eyesight’s killing the words as they fall
into the blinking retinas and all the images burned inside
tearing the cloth on your body with wide-eyed
longing. My darling, you write, my darling, my love
reach into the glove compartment and pass me my map,
and my scissors to snip your underwear, to snip at your heart,
little buckles undone to reveal the muscle torn
and purple and ermine and the little black-leather-
buckles. When I used to wear my fuck-me boots and walk
the streets at night I could feel men looking at my melancholy curves
I felt hot and I wanted to call home and say my death
was not only imminent but simply a scar that never healed –
crying in my sleep, my chest heaving and body fastened
to every shape ever thrown in the bed in June
when Nature told me to no longer be pregnant. I’m a big girl
I said. Roomy in the hips like Buffalo Bill’s victims
in Silence Of The Lambs. I oil my skin
so the desire will slip off me and onto the floor and crawl
around and get carpet burns and I will glow
like a cigarette burn on the arm of the whitest smack-head
in town, I will glow like the face of the girl who loves him and is willing
to watch him die out, slowly, and with no flames to fan.
I was that girl. I made him listen to a song I loved
and he cried like he’d never cried in his life that this girl with cuts
on her skin would have liked to hold him, crawl into his
psychiatric ward bed and breathe all over his damp, white shoulders.

Paper Boats

(for Greg)

After Mass, my gentle brother folded thoughts
and messages into paper boats, all sharp
angles and colours, to sail the muscling river.
No one could ever remember the Shannon
so high; racing mad between King John’s
and St Munchin’s quaking banks – where
we stood, empty and full of things unsaid.
Someone said a prayer, while others flicked
through well-thumbed pages of memory.
On the boardwalk, our Viking children ran;
Their longboats already heading out to sea.
With them I sent my first book of poetry;
With love to Mum and Dad. My mother now
among the new, my father among the old dead.

 

 

This poem is a response to the National Poetry Day 2016 theme, Messages, and has been specially commissioned by the Forward Arts Foundation. 

From ‘Joy’

The walls are wordless. There is a clock ticking.

I have woken up from a dream of abundant colour
and joy

I see his face and he is a shepherd and a piper and
a god

I see him bent by the gate, setting the fire, and he
is a fallen demon

I see him listening to the wind and sorrowing

I see wrath and misery, fire and desolation

A thousand fires in ancient London

And then the grass comes silent silent with the
hardest colour of all

The mirth colour the corn colour the summer
night colour

A thousand thousand summer nights pass

And children weave their daisy chains and place
them on the heads of fallen idols

He wept he wept more tears than there were days

And never changed the door lest, he said, we drive
an angel from it

And every morning he dipped his brush in wrath
and mildness

And out of him tumbled the biggest things of all

All of them righter than the rightest calculation

And truer than any compass

Yet where they were right and true none could say

And how they were right and true none could guess

But I knew I knew

He was an eye, and the eye wept and frowned and
smiled

The eye watched

The eye watered

The world was a mote in that eye

The mote was a world in that eye

And his brush was a blade and his tears made a
Lake.

Pause

Sole partner and sole part of all these joyes he read
to me in the summer house where we sat when Mr
Butts came knocking and found us naked reading
as we read every warm day the poor man liked to
tell that story to everyone as proof of the wildness
of our life though it never did seem wild to me but
consistent in all respects and fill of holy sobriety
which looks to the untrained eye like wild joy

William stood then and made a deep bow to Satan
who had been watching and said you are welcome
to our garden sir

Satan had a round sad face like a waterwheel and
seemed tired and full of pity, he wore his rainbow
snake around him and when he saw we meant him
no harm he bowed and shrivelled to vapour

But Mr Butts came in and ate some grapes

Pause

Have no fear Satan, said William, we will not harm
you

Yet all about us

War drifted from year to year like the seeds of
weeds in autumn

And the looms made sails for warships, and the
furnaces cast cannon balls

Men trained their horses to run towards death

all around us in schools and churches and meeting
halls

corpses marched their filthy regular steps

And men spoke about it and the words themselves
in pain, the words thirsty

For new life, the words wanted mercy

and in the midst of all this clearing in Lambeth
and South Molton Street and Fountain Court and a
torrent of such wrathful innocence pours forth,
such light that the violence staggered, violence fell
back

a spider a worm a beetle could approach it

but violence could not

an ant could find its children by it

but violence could not

And I tended that light

And he was the light

Roosevelt Hospital Blues

I thought that nothing ever happened to me.
To other people, yes, but not to me.
But baby, I was as wrong as I could be.

I slipped on the ice last January, broke my wrist.
Thinking about you, slipped and broke my wrist.
Forgot how long it was since I’d been kissed.

February, March – we grabbed the hours we could.
My wrist was in a cast but we grabbed what time we could.
It was never enough but it was always good.

April in Haiti: we visited some schools.
Went to Haiti, visited three high schools.
Back in the hotel, swam in a turquoise pool

A tree grew by the pool, its fruit was gold.
A nameless tree, its fruit was glowing gold.
Let’s live together until we’re really old.

My red bathing suit was drying on the bedspread.
We’d been making love all over the bed.
I want to live with you till we are dead.

They stoned this artist to death right in the street.
At thirty-one he died in a Petionville street.
Death is cold and life is full of heat.

The eyes he painted stare from the other side.
Those eyes: a challenge from the other side.
They say: I’m dead but my spirit hasn’t died.

The lawyer in mascara looking like a raccoon,
The divorce lawyer disguised as a raccoon
Roots in a garbage pail under the moon.

Went to the doctor, didn’t like what he said.
We held hands and listened to what the doctor said.
As long as I’m with you I’m not afraid.

He told me to go to Roosevelt Hospital ER,
Rush hour in the rain to the ER.
I hailed a rickshaw – next best thing to a car.

Riding in a rickshaw up Tenth Avenue,
Peddling in a rickshaw up Tenth Avenue,
My CAT scan sucks but I’m in love with you.

Love is a rickshaw bumping along in the rain,
Our love is a ride over potholes in the rain.
It’s too intense, don’t ask me to explain.

We’re on some journey sweet and fast and slow,
Some adventure moving fast then slow.
Let’s go together, baby, wherever we go.

From ‘Salt’

He cleared snow from the path and laid down salt.
He was conscious of oxygen, then: the word, also the way
his breath came back at him as mist to leave a trace
of ice on his upper lip. This shortly after dawn,
the sleepers in the house fixed like the dead, except the one
who turned in her dream looking for elbow-room, her voice
just short of reaching him, the snowfall soundless white, the salt
finding its way, the scuff of his boots in all that ghostliness.

 

 

A thickness in every breath.
The streets are white under hard sunlight.
‘Where my shadow falls just short of me…’

 

 

Low skies bringing rain in off the sea, the deep odour
of wet tarmac. How often have you been here before:
those two on the boardwalk going in step, an old man
waiting to cross, the girl muffled in blue,
hand raised to flag a taxi… actors edging the real.

 

 

The agéd primagravida does the splits. Forceps are brought.
Her world of pain is such that she stands aside
to watch as the child is born to a season of rain and wind.
Selfhood is everything. Like mother, like son.

 

 

In that tiny diorama, she waits at the open door.
She is perfect: nails and lips and hair. The windows
carry reflections of hills, and a river that seems to flow.
She has never been to such a place.
How can there live such loneliness in her?

 

 

‘Without salt flesh gathers worms; and though flesh be our foe
we are commanded to sustain it. And we must afflict it.
Habete, inquit, sal in vobis.’ Offer me salt in every sacrifice.

Upstairs

Lying on the bed with my mother,
Wearing my father’s Alpaca overcoat.
Here, Upstairs, where the air is old
And the blue-painted radiators are singing
And the cold cream is liquefying on the dressing table.
My mother can no longer take the cold.

My father was my age when he died.
I look like him everyone says I look SO like him everyone says.
I had to think when she asked me to wear the coat,
For a moment I had to think about it like I didn’t know what she meant.
It was then she called me Danny too many times Danny she called me.
Please, Danny, she said.
So I put on the coat.

She wants to lie down the pain for a moment, just for a moment,
On to the pink candlewick spread, Upstairs, where her body will not take her.
So I lift her in my arms. So light. Oh! Sarah you are SO light. I carry her.
Up. To the age before one is old.
Up where Sarah and Danny once moved in the fluid
Of young bodies and slept, hot to the touch.

We pretend to sleep, Danny and me,
Though I sweat in the coat and I don’t feel well.
But I stay still, for Sarah’s sake I am still.
The afternoon seagulls are mad at something in the garden.
I should investigate because they sound so near and real and mad but I can’t
Because she will not let go of his hand.

After a while, released into the darkness, I get up.
I see very little by the nibbling light of the Sacred Heart.
Sarah. Softly.
Sarah. Quietly.
Sarah. My father’s voice.
And she says nothing she says, nothing.
Leaving me, afraid
That everything might be said and done and said
And she has taken all the cold of the earth into herself.

Investigation of Past Shoes

Commissioned by Veerle Swenters for http://shoesornoshoes.com

INSIDE THE GATEWAY: 1970S RED CLOGS WITH SIDE BUCKLE

The forever shoe, which points homewards, belongs to my mother. When our house was being built, she stepped onto the driveway while the tarmac was still wet, still setting. Ever since that step, the driveway, which slants upwards, bears an imprint of her 1971 footwear. Her footprint says, Climb! Come with me. Whoever steps into that impression becomes, for a moment, the leggy wearer of a fire-red clog with a piratical silver buckle on the side.

OUTSIDE THE TEMPLE: GOLD AND SILVER SANDALS

The sandals which will make a female of me belong to many women. The front of the temple entrance hides itself behind shoe-racks. Visitors enter barefooted, leaving behind the dung, dried frogs, spilled petrol and ketchup traces of the streets. Hundreds of pairs of gold and silver sandals wait here for the women who will re-emerge from the vigil with the taste of basil leaf and sugar in their deep-breathing mouths and carpet fibres between their toes. The sandals, gold and silver, seem all alike. How can the women tell them apart? They do tell them apart. It is as if each pair sings an intimate mantra to its owner, audible only to her. One day I too shall return to expectant slippers that stack up like the moon and the stars outside a marble building; one day I shall not have to wear child’s shoes.

SUNDAY BEFORE SCHOOL: WHITE SNEAKERS

Seven years of these shoes are a chemical memory. The Convent ruled that pupils’ shoes must be white: absolutely white. Who can imagine a 1980s shoe that was absolutely white, without any logo, with no swoosh, not a single slogan? Sunday evenings, before the school week, I crouched down on the pink bathroom tiles and painted my shoes into the absolute of whiteness; like the Alice in Wonderland gardeners repainting roses. This task was performed with a toothbrush and with special paste that annihilated so many design features. Purity was attained by the application of a whitener that stank of scientific polysyllables. Convent-girl identity. Tabula rasa. Toxicity and intoxication: with good intentions, getting high on paste.

BAD MARRIAGE SHOES: SILVER BALLET SLIPPERS

When I met my ex, I was already committed to heels: black ankle boots with four-inch stacks for walking through snow; French cream curved suède stilettos for scaling fire-escape ladders on to rooftops to admire the winter sky; even after I left him, scarlet satin bedroom-only spiky mules to amuse myself. Early on, my ex said that the way women walk in heels looks ugly. And my nails made unnatural social appearances: emerald lacquer; cobalt; incarnadine. Sign of a bad marriage: I began to wear flats. The penitential mermaid shoes, worn once and once only, were a Gabor creation: distressed silver ballet slippers with netted and criss-cross side details which would make the material seem to swish with the changes of light on feet that go walking. Cool as moonlight on a tourist coastline. But the inner stitching hooked the softness of my skin, which has always been too soft; but I could not turn back, for we had tickets to an evening of Mozart; but the paper tissues that I stuffed into my shoes failed to act as a protective lining. Paper tissue snow-flecks teardropped with crimson blood created a trail behind me as I ascended the many tiers of the wedding-cake concert hall.

BAREFOOT: PEARL PINK POLISH

Sitting next to someone can make my feet curl: shy, self-destructive and oyster-like, they want to shuck their cases, to present themselves, little undersea pinks; their skin still is too soft, their toes still too long, their ankles still too slender, for a modern fit. But he is not modern; he sits like stone, and my bare feet are cool, they will not have to bleed.

Undress

There is an ash tree behind this house. You
can see it from our bedroom window.
If you stare at it for long enough, you’ll see
it drop a leaf. Stare at it now, you said,
and notice the moment a leaf strips away
from its branch, giving a twirl. Consider this.

The ash tree unclothes itself Octoberly.
From beside our bed, fingering the curtain,
observe the dark candles at the top of
that tree, naked and alert, tending to the breeze.
A sheet of ice between the rooftops
and this noiseless sky has turned the air

inside out. Black veins of branches
shake against the blue screen on which they
hang. Small mammals are hibernating
in pellets of warm air under ground. But,
in spite of the cold, this ash tree does not shy
from shrugging o its coat, sloping its nude

shoulders to the night. So, you said, undo,
unbutton, unclasp, slowly remove. Let down your
hair, breathe out. Stand stark in this room until
we remember how not to feel the chill.
Stand at the window, lift your arms right up
like a tree. Yes – like that. Watch leaves drop.

The Hunter’s Wife Becomes the Sun

‘Don’t go without this.’ Isabel handed me a small white box
which held a candlestick and four attendant angels.
Jingling clichés punched from sheets of tin,
the angels turn, propelled by heat rising from a candle,
and hooked by their haloes from wires as if the darkness
were a deep pool for fly-fishing, and my window

delicate as ice upon its surface. Spinning by the window,
this carousel recalls a childhood blessing: Four angels
at my head. If they came to life, like the small white angels
who fought the Snow Queen’s snowflakes, would their tin
armour frighten bears back to the polar darkness?
Whose are the gifts they grasp: tree, star, trumpet, candle?

Only the undertaker sells the right kind of candle
to suit these angels. At home, he wreathes a small white coffin
with plastic lilies, but says nothing. His window
overlooks crucifixes buried in snow; there are no angels
on the graves of the Danes, who came to barter tin
for ivory and sealskin. Their eyes brimmed with darkness,

you see it in old photographs. Sleepless in the darkness,
I read their letters home, those ‘tragic accidents’. Green candles
burn beyond the hills: the dead are dancing. The window
between the worlds grows thin. A solar wind blows its low tin whistle
and fire draws closer. Soon Earth will be a small white dwarf,
a revolving toy abandoned by its guardian angels.

The candle gutters. Lynched in their own light, the angels
hang still. Each holds her gift before her as if the tin
scorched her fingertips. Heat has melted the small white stump
to nothing. Once, they say, this land was lit by candles
made of ice, when water burned, glazing the darkness
of endless night. Day had not dawned on any window.

The hunter spoke. His cold breath quenched a candle:
‘In darkness we are without death.’ His wife listened
and replied, ‘But we need more light, not darkness,
while we are alive.’ She seized a shard of incandescent ice
and rose into the sky, scattering a vast white wake
of stars, which some might say were angels,

if, in temperate darkness, we still believed in angels.
The small seal and the white whale know we’re just tin gods.
At the world’s last window, I light another candle.

Bridled Vows

I will be faithful to you, I do vow,
but not until the seas have all run dry
et cetera. Although I mean it now
I’m not a prophet and I will not lie.

To be your perfect wife, I could not swear;
I’ll love, yes; honour (maybe); won’t obey,
but will co-operate if you will care
as much as you are seeming to today.

I’ll do my best to be your better half,
but I don’t have the patience of a saint
and at you, not with you, I’ll sometimes laugh,
and snap too, though I’ll try to show restraint.

We might work out. No blame if we do not.
With all my heart, I think it’s worth a shot.

Altar Call

“If you bring forth what is within you,
what is within you will save you.”
— from The Gnostic Gospel of St. Thomas

The first time the man left her he walked down the aisle,
his face blank with hopelessness or with hope.

The preacher had begged for those who wanted Jesus,
and so he was headed towards the altar.

The wife whispered, “Wait, my love,”
but that was not enough up against God calling him come.

That night the man asked her to pray with him.
He recited, as he always did, the Our Father.

She performed the Hail Mary for him
and he lay in her lap like a child.

She claimed him as her bright little boy.
For after the altar, he could not be her man.

For years he believed he would grant her
a mansion, even though he never

managed half their tiny rent.
She learned that truth

was not what he could stand
and so he was never told that the landlord

was her lover. He was never told
that their son, slow, took after him.

The story of their life together
is the same as anyone’s.