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.

Force Visibility

Everywhere we went, I went
in pigtails
no one could see—

ribbon curled
by a scissor’s sharp edge,
the bumping our cars

undertook when hitting
those strips
along the interstate

meant to shake us
awake. Everywhere we went
horses bucking

their riders off,
holstered pistols
or two Frenchies

dancing in black and white
in a torn apart
living room

on the big screen
our polite cow faces
lit softly

by New Wave Cinema
I will never
get into. The soft whirr

of CONTINUOUS STRIP IMAGERY.
What is fascism?
A student asked me

and can you believe
I couldn’t remember
the definition?

The sonnet,
I said.
I could’ve said this:

our sanctioned twoness.
MY COVERT pigtails.
Driving to the cinema

you were yelling
This is not
yelling you corrected

in the car, a tiny
amphitheater. I will
resolve this I thought

and through that
RESOLUTION, I will be
a stronger compatriot.

This is fascism.
Dinner party
by dinner party,

waltz by waltz,
weddings ringed
by admirers, by old

couples who will rise
to touch each other
publicly.

In INTERTHREATER TRAFFIC
you were yelling
and beside us, brie y

a sheriff’s retrofitted bus.
Full or empty
was impossible to see.

Piercings

It took two looks to see him,
head whipped and jaw loosed, silent
moviewise. The boy who broke me in,
my nut, my skin, up, who said a break-
down would do you good. The change

snuck him past me, but: same flesh,
same stride. I called. We spoke.
The quick, smiling chat of two
folk who knew inside each other’s
mouths, but not heads. I looked hard.

The difference wasn’t clear, and then
it was. The lipring that turned
his pout sullen, hot. The jangle
of earrings I’d buried my face in
as he steel-tracked my heavy

shoulders. The scaffold. The sharp,
shocking stud in his busy tongue.
All gone. In the four years since
he hauled me into a lift with
Want to make out?, he’d pulled

out every metal sign, become
employable, less obvious. I’d paid
ten quid in Camden for my first, made
more holes each time I got depressed.
Got inked. He asked, So what do you do now?

Slowed-Down Blackbird

Three people in the snow
getting rid of themselves
breath by breath

and every six seconds a blackbird

three people in raincoats losing their tracks in the snow
walking as far as the edge and back again
with the trees exhausted
tapping at the sky

and every six seconds a blackbird

first three then two
passing one eye between them
and the eye is a white eraser rubbing them away

and on the edge a blackbird
trying over and over its broken line
trying over and over its broken line

Dispute Over a Mass Grave

The one you have finished examining
is my son. That is the milky coloured Kurdish
suit his father tailored for him, the blue shirt
his uncle gave to him. Your findings prove
that it is him – he was a tall fifteen year old,
was left handed, had broken a rib.

I know she too has been looking for her son
but you have to tell her that this is not him.
Yes the two of them were playmates and fought
the year before. But it was my son who broke
a rib, hers only feigned to escape trouble.

That one is mine! Please give him back to me.
I will bury him on verge of my garden –
the mulberry tree will offer him its shadow,
the flowers will earnestly guard his grave,
the hens will peck on his gravestone,
the beehive will hum above his head.

Listening for Lost People

Still looking for lost people – look unrelentingly.
‘They died’ is not an utterance in the syntax of life
where they belonged, no belong – reanimate them
not minding if the still living turn away, casually.
Winds ruck up its skin so the sea tilts from red-blue
to blue-red: into the puckering water go his ashes
who was steadier than these elements. Thickness
of some surviving thing that sits there, bland. Its
owner’s gone nor does the idiot howl – while I’m
unquiet as a talkative ear. Spring heat, a cherry
tree’s fresh bronze leaves fan out and gleam – to
converse with shades, yourself become a shadow.
The souls of the dead are the spirit of language:
you hear them alight inside that spoken thought.