My life came up to me and said
‘I want to ask you about courage.’
It wasn’t a good time.
I was kneeling at the iris bed.
I’d been waiting weeks to do this –
to not think about anything
but the irises and my need
to free them of all
the nettles and wild grasses,
my need to cut a border,
look out the window
and feel a deep satisfaction
at the sight of the dark dug-over soil,
broken now and open,
ready for the rain to enter,
for the green sheaths to push up,
unfurl their purple flags to the air.
‘Do you think you have more
because of the years or less?’
And I looked at my life as I’ve always done
– askance, sceptical – and said:
'I’m not sure I ever had it.
I’m not sure you asked for it.
Things happened that made me
sad as the next person
but my choices were clear to me
and I was always able to make them.’
‘Do you know how lucky you are?’ my life said,
placing a hand on my shoulder
as I looked down and scraped my trowel with a stick.
I have no idea why the tears came.
I didn’t know who to thank
or if even thanks were due –
surely not to my life who,
I could see now, was simply passing by.
(Fool - Bloodaxe 2022)
She is old enough to be my mother.
I’m afraid of what she’ll say next.
She has what she herself would never say
(because it is a cliché) –
a ‘formidable intellect’.
There are things in her life
that have made her sad and formless.
I find myself clucking and cooing over her.
Once I touched her arm.
I am a fool.
I’m afraid of her saying to me
“That is simply not true”
and me knowing it.
My mind jumps up and down in its bag
and wants to get out
when she walks in the room.
When she says my name
(which is not at all often)
I feel – briefly – of some worth.
She once said to me
“I should like to hear you on Auden”
and I lay awake composing
a cold and brilliant talk
called About Suffering
which I had myself telling her
over tea in the canteen.
There are things in her life –
but there’s never time.
I watch her shuffle out
with her plastic bags full
of fourteenth-century Italian poetry
which is the class she goes to after mine.
(Fool - Bloodaxe 2022)
Perhaps you know that story where people step
out of this world and into another
through a split in the air – they feel for it
as you would your way across a stage curtain
after your one act, plucking at the pleats,
trying for the folded-in opening through which
you shiver and shoulder yourself
without so much as a glance up
to the gods, so keen are you to get back
to where you were before your entrance:
those dim familiar wings, you invisible,
bumping into things you half-remember
blinded as you’d been out there
in the onslaught of lights, yes, blinded
but wholly attended to in your blindness.
Imagine our dying being like that,
a kind of humble, eager, sorrowless return
to a place we’d long, and not till now, known.
No tears then. Just one of us to hold
aside the curtain – here we are, there you go –
before letting it slump majestically back
to that oddly satisfying inch above the boards
in which we glimpse a shadowy shuffling dark.
And when the lights come on and we turn to each other
who’s to say they won’t already be
in their dressing room, peeling off the layers,
wiping away that face we have loved,
unbecoming themselves to step out
into the pull and stream of the night crowds.
We know how hard a year is
we who grieve
how much the turning earth hurts
likes to present itself in the light
of each new season
you dead in spring is not the same
as you dead in winter
but you alive was you alive
all the year round
And then there is the night
which is its own season
the slow dark that comes always
suddenly upon us
a black room in which we wake
and feel the fact that you
who were so complicatedly here
are now so simply gone
Deep Sea Diver
There’s a field inside my head
It’s dark and flat and a moon hangs
above it in whose silvery light
nothing appears to live
It’s very mysterious and simple,
on a different planet
to this one here
that moves and is manifold:
each one of the tens of millions of blades of grass
shivers in its singularity;
one sheep’s crusty underwool is home
to a greenbottle settling down to lay
her two hundred and fifty possibilities
while another stares out
of the glazed globe of an eye
not unlike a man who’s lost his mind
but found there cause instead
to be vaguely, dully, afraid of everything
And beneath the sheep
and field and flattened buttercups,
miles and miles beneath
all is shift and shale,
burn and boil
who scrambles through your soft weak rock,
who swims through your molten ocean,
what holds court at the centre
of your solid iron ball the size of the moon?
Once I plumbed down
level by level
into the sea,
into the realm
of the falling debris,
dead and dying-fish-eating creatures
into the freezing black waters
of blind long-tentacled things;
down among the deepwater canyons I went
and still nowhere near was I
to the outer core
of the earth’s interior,
its massive indoors
when I saw hanging there
a sole, or flounder
a self never before seen
but one who remained unchanged
in the bright beam of my look
And I rose to the surface
like one who had only that to do
where slowly over the years
all that I held dear came loose
and I took to the fields
that covered the earth
like so many soft dressings
and I lay down and looked up at the sky
where I saw a fish hanging
in the black, where I saw a moon
(Alive Alive O - Bloodaxe 2015)
You drew breath
as a boy draws something silver from a river,
an angler from the sea a bale of weed;
as a woman draws herself from a bath,
as blood is drawn from a vein.
You drew breath as thread is drawn through
the eye of a needle, wet sheets through a mangle,
as steel is drawn through a die to make wire
and oil draws up through wick its flag of fire.
You drew breath as a reservoir draws from a well
of ink and a mouth and a nose and eyes are drawn,
as a sheet is drawn from under the dying
and over the heads of the dead.
You drew breath as the last wheezing pint is drawn,
as money and a bow and the tide are drawn;
as up over her head a woman draws
a dress and down onto her a man.
You drew breath as a cloud draws its pall
across the moon, across the car park
where a sky-blue line draws the way
all the way to Maternity; as all in blue
they drew a semi-circle round the bed,
a line and then a knife across the skin;
as in another room someone drew
a curtain round its runner, a hand across
a pair of finished eyes. You drew breath
as they drew you – besmeared and blue – out
and sublime was your fury at being drawn
into this air, this theatre; you drew breath
for the first time – for a second I held mine.
I could no more know
myself than this flame
seated in the air
one quarter of an inch
above its burnt root
– so self-contained a form
you’d think it held in ice –
no more know that flame
than one drop of rain
or a single leaf
let alone this draught
slicing in across the sill
nudging the little
corpse-boat of a fly;
no more know you, fly,
than this cat – the cat
perhaps but what about
the way it holds us
in a gaze so void
of an idea of self
our own can only fail.
Were we to return
that look we might learn
to take something from
nothing, might begin
to steady and see,
figure who we are
in that slit black flame.
(Salvation Jane - Anvil 2008)
It can take days. The vision, you see, is vital,
without it, it's nothing - a soft toy. Pass me
my eyes, pointing to an old biscuit tin.
It's a kind of hunting all over again, with books
open, photos pinned, ready with needle
and glue. They caught the body years ago,
that was the easy part. But he speaks now
of a soul; what, for instance, did the creature see?
Moorland, scrub, veld, or sodden jungle,
desert, wood, the same indigo skies?
The man who fits the eyes has never left
his semi in Cardiff, but he's a master of precision,
nothing's too small, or extinct. Recently
though, a slip in concentration perhaps -
an upright grizzly in the Natural History
has the eyes of a man stranded in his front room,
the telly blizzarding, the fire gone dead;
a bison's head looms out of a wall, dazed,
like a woman just woken, sleep crusting her eyes;
and a pair of monkeys stare out from a London window,
like lovers come to the end, at a loss
in front of what has been, what is to come,
deaf to the whirr and gong of the clock on the hour.
His eyes brim at night from all the detail.
There's a tea-towel over the mirror and it takes him a while
to sleep. Everything's always awake, he says.
The Night We Stole a Full-Length Mirror
I'd have walked straight past if you hadn't said
Look at the moon and held my head in your hands
and turned it slowly round to face a skip,
its broken skyline of one-legged chair,
ripped out floor, till I saw it moving
- so slow, so bright - across the silver glass.
We stood there for ages, a bit drunk
staring at the moon hanging there
as if it were for sale and we an old couple
weighing it up but knowing in our hearts
it is beyond us - A cat jumps out
and before we know it we're stealing back to my flat,
the great thing like a masterpiece in our hands,
its surface anxious with knees and knuckles,
the clenched line of your jaw and your lips
kissing the glass over and over with curses.
You lean it so it catches the bed and me,
I nudge it with my toe so it won't hold my head.
Switching off the light my skin turns blue
and when you come in on the scene and we see
ourselves like this we start to move like real
professionals and my head, disowned and free,
watches what our bodies are doing and somewhere
the thought I can't believe we weren't made for this
and I can't stop looking even though the ache
in my throat is growing and soon there will be tears
and I can hear you looking and I know what you're
looking at and it doesn't matter but it isn't me.
You left me behind in a bar in Copenhagen St,
the one with the small red lamps and my face hung
a hundred identical times along the stained wall
invoking like some old speaking doll
the dissatisfaction I come back and back to
and there's this really pretty Chinese waitress
you're trying not to look at while I'm talking to you.
Then you get up and I'm left alone so I lift my head to look
at the man who's been staring at me since I walked in.
He's huge and lonely and lifts his glass and nods
and all the women along the wall break into smiles.
Then you're back and whispering your breasts your breasts
and your hands are scrambling up the wet stone
of my back and I imagine the lonely man is there
behind the silver screen sipping his drink,
his eyes thick and moist behind the glass;
I know he's waiting to catch my eye but I won't
be seen to know I'm being watched. Not
till it's over and we collapse, all of a sudden
and awkward, and the room becomes itself again,
filling the mirror with its things and our two faces
staring in, calm and dull and self-absorbed.
Then we look at each other and are surprised
as if we weren't expecting to find the other
here and the smile is quick, like a nod slipped in
between two conspirators returned to the world
of daylight, birdsong, the good tug of guilt
before we tilt the mirror up-, sky-, heaven-ward.
(At Home in the Dark - Anvil 2001)