Sometimes at night,
waiting for a bus that never comes,
you can feel it –
the pressure of water –
like a memory
breaking to the surface;
a pulse under the skirr of wind
that throbs down Charterhouse street,
and slips under the clic-clac-clic
of a woman’s stilettos
tapping out a lonely mantra
on a slope of pavement
that maps a route
the river used to run.
Night and wind collude to give it voice,
o it moans of loss –
of downfall from a sacred river
to a stinking sewer;
of how it sluiced into the Thames
to mould itself round wherry-boats
of how it lapped
against an orchestra of oars.
Waiting for a bus that never comes,
you’re relieved to see its headlights,
its dimly boxed glitter;
to swing up into its warmth
and sink into a grubby seat –
to be spared the weight of water.
Hearts and other organs
I remember a museum of glass bottles,
shelf after shelf rising to the ceiling.
Were the skylights domed? The light
was granite-flecked, dimly illuminating
a Victorian freak show of medical specimens –
speckled, puckered, gill-like tissue all in tall flasks
floating down the years in liquid chemicals:
an army of jetsam collected and collated.
I remember foetuses, some wrapped in cauls –
the sailors’ lucky charm – others so transparent
I could see the heart behind the shadow of the lungs,
the armour of ribcage, the hands
and nails curled bleak and beautiful as plainchant,
rocking in their sea of loss.
When Colour Left the World
we stood watching grass fade,
trees suck back green
so leaves hung tallow on a rising wind.
The red of the moss-rose
bled back into its thorny stem,
blue withdrew into darkness;
gentian, lapis lazuli, the iris
of the Rathlin hare, the kingfisher’s
shy vibrancies, all paled to ghost shades
while sky erased all memory of sapphire.
Gold was the last to go,
fading from the backs of bees, leaving grey
adrift, unstable – to cling to people.
Even fire burned white then,
colour retracting to the earth’s core.
Lost at Sea
After ‘The Belfast Boy’ by Mark Clarke
It was his colour,
bright as the blackbird’s beak,
as all spring things.
clear across the morning air
as he called the dogs to heel,
swung out into the sleek of dawn
hair like a wing across his brow.
words were wounds we couldn’t open;
loss seeped through other senses.
Objects he’d loved
we laid out round us:
the race horse, farm dray,
cats and collies, the painted owl
whose call he’d caught in the cup of his hands,
those endless dusks of his youth.
His yellow hulled boat
sailed the top of the mantelpiece,
the sea of our loss swelling under it –
fathom on fathom
we could never bring light to.
Crossing Pater Noster Square
Was it the dead, telephoning
down the wire of the wind,
or the ghost of bells
caught in the stillness
of the bone-lit morning light?
Like the thrum of bees wings
hums and primes pulsed the air
whitening the light between wind-beats.
11 pm and still light.
A glow of amber
behind a trail of charcoal cloud
shaped like a brachiosaurus
loping the sky’s vast plain
in search of prey.
This is the hour
when tidy knots of certainty
loosen and fall away,
let you dip into your shadows,
write yourself across
the forgiving page of night.
Home Thoughts from the Red Planet
It was considered weakness to look back
so they didn’t speak of it, but images
spored inside their heads and spread
across their dreams at night. Some stashed
files, chose rare fonts – as if to keep the past
alive more vividly. Some wrote of trees;
oak, aspen, cypress, silver birch, pelts
of balsam fir across a mountain range,
the shape and texture of a leaf, the vibrancy
or calm of some particular shade of green.
A man described a wheat field ripening under sun,
the weight and sea-sway of wind-pulled crops.
A woman, haunted by cycles of return, explained
the pattern play of swallows in an autumn sky;
how they forage on the wing, the skim and swoop
of cobalt feathers across the surface of a lake.
Another recorded the last bee she’d seen, a red carder,
and sketched it in the margins of each page.
Through all their notes the memory of blue
in all its myriad shades, repeated and repeated.
After the Romans Left
A room suffused with amber light.
An elderly couple, their evening meal
spread out across a table:
a low table laden with dormice
dipped in honey, pheasant, dark olives,
harvested walnuts and the last flask
of their Roman wine.
Dialogue seeps soft and slow
as if rising through deep water.
They wonder who will tend the vines
now old Sirius is dead.
Shortages are touched on briefly:
pepper running low,
no cinnamon to spice the apple cake.
When a neighbour stumbles in
with news of sightings:
ships in the estuary
dark smoke on the horizon,
painted people crossing the wall
and moving southwards,
the couple speak in coded calmness.
Too old to leave with Maximus,
they have buried their gold and silver
in the woods. Their treasure
will lie untouched for centuries.
Amber light sinks to shadow. Dark
spins down like ashes. Hand in hand
they walk into the almost- night.
After the telegram arrived
she rolled out sky-blue satin cotton,
took softest lambs-wool wadding –
recalling mountain rambles,
how they picked fleece from crevices
in stone walls, hedges, ditches,
how she taught him to card wool
to remove twigs and thistles.
Sunlight sparked her rows of threaded needles
in their scarlet velvet cushion
turning them to minute bayonets and lances.
She didn’t need her templates,
the tailor’s chalk moved smoothly
as if her hand had somehow
always known this journey.
A starfish medallion, two borders,
one of waves and shells,
one of flowers and fern fronds,
then acorns in each corner. Stars and spirals –
so many spirals, as if this emblem of eternity
might reel him in a fraction closer –
the child whose kingdom was an oak wood,
who came home at dusk
the smell of green a song on him;
the beachcomber who collected ammonites,
egret’s feathers, salt-washed wood
buffed smooth as bone in moonlight;
the boy who learned the constellations,
told her the stars’ white shining
was already in the past.
When finished the quilt was folded,
taken up the mountain to that place
where stone cromlechs covered
ancient warriors, where fields
and wooded valleys sloped down
to a gentian sea. Here she buried it –
in soil his bones would never lie in.
Each night she lies in bed,
listens to her heart’s percussive
knocking from basement to attic,
sometimes a scratch, a thud,
a ceaseless pecking,
as if an animal menagerie
of wild, exotic creatures
is in residence.
Sometimes a line from a song
drifts the dark, coils
like a smoke-ring around her;
a stray scent – musk roses, oranges,
the mineral smell of blood.
How can she live with this heart
holding such freight,
wearing its old walls thin.
I hear him call her little bear
and think of Ursa Minor –
of how the North Star
yet gives it slack
enough to write a path
of time and light
across the sky.