My body is still
strange to me.
its village pub hostility
entrances of thought,
at the bickering
of my missing children.
whatever I spend,
the view outside
where distant hills
rise – border country –
and repeat forever, emptily.
Soft, Unbreakable Creatures
Soft, unbreakable creatures
travel the deep sea's staircase
all night, all day, like Jaccottet's
servant silence, clearing
whatever speech has left
(the smeared glasses and forks,
the table's mulberry-ringed cloth)
of the act itself, always in
parenthesis, always between
the surface of the sea
and its buried woods that were
the world once, its drowned
desert floors. The syntax
of the rolling processes
making more or less known;
waves that seem to surge tonight
like thought through the trees. Simple
rain, long before life,
was the first impatient
wanderer, leaving its small
footprints, for a short time, everywhere.
There were rhythms within rhythms; every
thought of home or death kept time with twenty
thousand marching feet. I look down from age
as if from a great height. We stopped only
for rivers and mountains. The passes like throats
of jars spilled slingers and spearmen, tongue
after strange barbarian tongue. A sound
more like the muttering of rockslides than
war-cries (the distance even then: rivers
splashing with arrows and stones as if quick
fish were jumping). We understood nothing,
but one who'd been a slave in Athens said
I think I recognise my own country. Naked,
calling, he swam through death to memory.
The boys of the rich were as pale and round
as the boiled chestnuts they were fattened on.
And every life lived in obverse, as if
through the mirror of civilization:
expecting sex with strangers in the street;
performing their sudden songs and dances
alone. Always we found them chattering
most excitedly to themselves, as if
discourse in that land grew inside the skin,
like a nerve. I long for it sometimes, that
country of private language, public
dreaming. We burned two white kings in their tall
wooden towers. When they burned, I listened.
I, who have always said more than he meant.
Always those other ways to live. Fighting
men learn as they plunder and kill. The end
of most who returned was simply to till
his own patch. I have watched as mothers heaved
their children from citadel walls and dropped
open-armed after them. Now, I overlook
vineyards to the lake in the rain, water
that shatters on water to become
only itself again; and we who were
ten thousand are one. The vapour rising
from the valley floor climbs like spirits through
the vines. I have buried five warrior
sons. More vivid to me now than men
are the pale grapes on the hillside in the rain.
The words already leaving, even as
they arrived, tinily on the air, tap
and rattle of their brittle sticks like the
arrows spitting at our backs. Soldier, lift
your feet in the snow or never go home.
Some begged to be left – the crippled who'd cut
shoes of fresh, bloodied pelts. What horrors the ice
miracled for them, fusing skin to skin.
The snow-blind, clutching trees, we abandoned.
How did we go on with the frozen world
for a sandal? Only the riding generals
recalled, their horses strangely shod with bladders
of air and straw – one more knowledge we thieved.
Somehow, we marched into language and lived.
They sift in after everyone
else has gone. On the stairs
you sense them brushing
past elbow and shoulder.
The door they use
is like a valve, swinging open
and shut for some chamber
in your digestion or heart.
In the end they won’t need
parties to miss,
weddings, anniversaries, funerals.
Whichever night they come
you’ll let them in.
You’ll know they have
nowhere else to go,
and every night there’ll be more.
The cough you can't keep down;
the wrong taste of your cigarette, then;
the headache like a spike of bone
wagging on the cortex.
The procession: each anonymous one
carrying their life on their tongue.
The dusty kings of Babylon
who still lie there
rustling, arms tight to their sides,
dressed in feathers like starlings.
The railway tarmaced over now,
the birches not in leaf yet
against a pale blue sky. The smell
of stones in the brook, on the way
to the mossy waterfall: the precise
scent of a childhood spent in
woodland, near water.
And the moons pulled out of shape;
the force that bulges raindrops
in the green place we come back to
in the end, the place of 'laziness and love',
in the solving white sun. The children
learning a second language
to be wrong in. Tu Fu selling
his clothes for wine,
in spring, coming home
late from the river. And being
the gate but not the garden.
The found poetry of our mistakes;
the way in sleep we lie
like frozen runners from disaster,
fixed in ash, or ice, or forest amber.