Passerine: A Quartet
His was a loaded shadowbag and he as small
as a seabird louse. Outside the frost was waiting
on the grass. No letters fell on this or other days.
‘All the same to me,’ he said, ‘memories
are too costly when they’re few.’ Behind the glass
the sky was white as bone. A storm of dreams
began its swirl inside his winter head.
‘The apples on this tree,’ she thought, ‘are sour. Even wasps
ignore their scent. There was a wooden gate just here
with a broken hinge the boys would climb it, kick their feet.
That gate was fit for burning even then. Every garden in the terrace
was neat and trim though overrun with produce
fresh green spinach, new potatoes I can almost smell the earth
and strawberries too the boys would eat them up
before the rest of us could pick them, cram them in, their faces
stained with red.’ She was glad she had revisited her home;
wondered why nostalgia felt like pain.
He had been reading the poems of Catullus and felt he had sunk to a low frame of mind.What a strange expression he thought: a low frame – like a porthole or kneehigh window where someone would crouch and make himself small in order to see – a secret attic, a recusant’s chapel behind a false wall, a hayloft offering him dust in his nostrils and scratching of mites on his skin.
It must be the sparrow, he decided, spinning him into these nooks –
Lesbia’s sparrow, her darling pet – how Catullus had longed for the girl
to be his. O factum male … O evil deed the poet wrote when the poor bird died
and he was further than ever from achieving his love. Passer, passerine …
the very words were elegiac. A songbird that had sung, now silenced.
An image devised by a longdead Roman, fluttering down the years to perch
on his window frame.
Rome was constricted in hot August sun,
streets hard and glittery, old fountains dry.
She longed for a courtyard shaded with trees,
a sleepy old dog and jug of white wine.
Told of the death of a man she had known
she read Keats’ last letter and thought about love –
thought about being unloved. Climbing up steps
to a darkened cathedral, she dreamed Botticelli himself
might appear, light candles for angels and her.
Published in ‘Allotments in the Orbital’ (Searle Publishing)
Unbelievable the sunsets.
Each morning he wakes, icy in his bed
and longing for later, the hour when the sky
will drench his eyes in colours
no palette can repeat.
This is a summergutted year.
Roots of crops freeze and perish,
agony grips the bellies of ravenous men.
A bitter volcanic winter –
but this is Turner, artist of the transient wisp,
master of unfinished light.
He is ecstatic.
Ilissos, the river god, is youthful, firm
in torso and limb – or what remains of his stone,
for he is wounded, shattered, headless.
As enigma he is broken beauty;
restored, he would be dull.
If a canvas proves too tall, why then, cut it,
eliminate the throne, the opening of the seventh seal,
archangels gowned in white.
So El Greco’s John
stands forever on tiptoe
for the snatched away –
the unfinished is enticing –
be it symphony, portrait, love affair, letter,
rosebud, sapling, embryo, song –
is ours to write.
Out of the wilderness,
softtoe padding, I come.
I thirst for stone, a lid
of rock, piles of rubble
that hold cool hideaways,
safe from ferocious sun.
Listen. I have spied on
Moses, Isaiah, John –
that wild and crazy man
who’d pluck cicadas
off their thorn and sweet gum
from a tamarisk tree –
I have seen the shadow
of a thin young man grow
thinner still as he fought
with demons of his own
creation, whose whispers
like thistles lashed his skin.
I am small, furry, sweet
as a cooing rockdove;
the psalmist sang of me.
Sharptoothed I did no harm.
That was then, this is now
and the name of the tune
is attrition. Midnight,
and I am flung across
borders and walls. My fangs
turn urbansharp. I am
locust, plague, enfeebler;
devourer of the sap.
Is there a voice of one
crying out there? There is
no preparing the way.
Wild for vegetation
my teeth crop greenery;
they strip and strip and strip.
When Pelicans Groan
In these wetlands the sky is like ice – whole sheets of it left over from the melting time. Snow in the air flusters over a whiteness of geese, dissolves to the touch. Space here is lonely. Trees are bare as frozen thought. Washing on a line in a nearby farm is cream and sodden, hanging as low as pelican’s bill. This scene is Dutch – a canvas of liquid and light where windmills turn and small dogs bark on the field.
It has a sunken look, this site of islands once rich in Saxon smells where herons roasted on a spit and mussels dredged from shallow pools were simmered in thin broth. This place was a swamp, the green of sea purslane and water weed, a settlement, a dump of brushwood sealed with clay, awash in driftwood, grass and twigs in constant fear of winter floods and cold, destructive rain. Small bones found in peat hint at a nest or feast of pelicans – those bigbilled fishspotters, mute in adulthood except when mating or in times of danger when the noise they give will sound just like a groan.
This was a landscape heavy with eels, reclaimed from the floods in a straightening of rivers that now stretch out like ribbons of glass to the lowest edges of land. The air is drenched with water sucked from the drowning. Overhead, like mirrors of peat, clouds are layered and black. Those who were living are now dug deep. There are levels of drainage here.
Though shallow the canal by this towpath looks deep. Drowning deep I think, but its darkness is the green of mud and water weed. The surface is stagnant and still. There are no birds. I imagine tired horses dragging boats weighed down with coal. Nettles on edges tangle and trap.
Deeper in are triffid types – rows and rows of great dramatic plants, spiky and brittle
with monstrous heads – crinkled discs now sprayed to death, pale and dry.
You say they would blister us, rash us with sap, release an ultra violet burn.
At such a thought the child is anxious and will not walk on. They are not alive,
you say, have all been killed. She is trying not to show her fear. This is how
we give each other dreams.
That night I hear a man has died, climbing up a Scottish hill – an altitude too high perhaps, for hearts. A Russian submarine trapped on an ocean bed is tangled in nets, unreachable. I dream of seven men who must be breathing shallow breath. Water trickles all night in my sleep – water on metal, water on weed, water on stone.
A version of this was first published in ‘Frost Hollow’ (Oversteps)
Rain falls lightly
on the maple leaves and you, Hoagy,
are in love with romance.
Hold your girl close on the spooning wall,
muse on the stars, whistle
some notes –
Stardust, you call it,
a song to a song –
schmaltzy with blossom, twilight
redolent of an Indiana summer
of Moonshine and music –
always the music;
hot jazz , young bands, Bix with his horn
in a smoky corner
and you, in the mood
for major to minor, improvising
until they touch
the soft pedal in you
and its loss;
a coming home to memories;
to the stardust of them.
From ‘The Travels of William Camden’ circa 1600
……..So much to see and write about but London
overtops the rest – a Cypress tree
among small twigs, the shining Thames
skyhigh in masts like branches in a glade.
City gates are built with pride, though walls
along the river bank are overwashed by years
of tides and mostly tumbled down.
A Roman Temple to Diana stood beside
this very spot – I saw a stag whose bleeding head
was pierced upon a shining spear and carried
in a carnival from Tower Hill to Billingsgate
with bells and gongs and horns to blast the air.
Westward are the secret rooms where harlots
like shewolves catch hold of silly men
!!!!!!!… catch hold of silly men and throw them, netted,
into Stewes as if they were a pike or tench
who must be opened up and scoured
to clear them of the mud. Nearby’s a place
for baiting bulls, with kennels kept for fiercest
mastiffs, three of whom can hold a bear
and four, they say, a lion. The river bank,
where men once crossed by ferry boat, is now
a bridge with nineteen arches, furnished
on both sides with houses linked up like a street.
For size and beauty no bridge has its match.
Now on to watery, flatter lands, fields
of pale and endless barley – dried for hours
in baking kilns this crop is turned to malt.
………….Turned to malt and sold around the Fenland
farms to bring the Cambridge men a deal
of wealth. This city is a store of wisdom –
packed and loaded up with scholars, stiff
with rhetoric and sermons, witty poems, scrolls
of ancient tongues. A pleasant sight, these
colleges in twisty streets, students lazing
on the Cam – a man can want for nothing
more except, perhaps, for kinder air
untainted by the ground towards the north –
a region which, though dug with ditches, furrowed
through with drains and dykes, still ushers in
the floods that bury shepherds with their sheep –
in winter time it is an open sea.
……………Time is like an open sea, these Fens
themselves are out of time. An ancient land
with forests buried deep in swamps, rivers
thick in fowl and fish, lights that glow
across the marshes, will o’ the wisp and ghostly
birds that call out strangely in the woods.
A lonely region where Black Shuck, the hound
of hell, walks freely and the winter cries
of geese are groans of drowning men.
So on to Ely named for eels and to an Abbey
overgrown with thorns and thickets, still a quiet
and sacred place which once had trees that touche
the stars, where those who came on pilgrimage
were greeted as bright angels sent by god.
………………Angels sent by God would find themselves
much needed in these Shropshire towns, afflicted
as they are by dismal sickness called the English
sweat. For though diseases such as this
are known to sweep across our realm, yet
Death, a black swan on this river, builds
a nest within the reeds and waits.
No one knows the cause of this, though men
observe a soil of clay gives rise to vapours
that corrupt. Others say our fate is read
within the stars, for as the sun turns into
darkness so the victim either mends
or else will end his days. But now enough
of sadness, on to Cheshire, land of cheese.