Where the ironstone wall
gathers fuscia and salt;
where the swifts stitch blue
air to the scrub-grass; where
herring gulls mob the heron;
where cormorants hang wings
on the wind to dry; where seals rise
gleaming on a flood tide; where
the rain drifts in a milk-haze;
where the sun is thin as a coin;
where the rainbow really ends.
We’re in a hospital lift going up
from ground floor to the seventh,
just the two of us, strangers and
I’m thinking (as you do) what if
the cable breaks and we drop like
a stone in a well? So how would
you reckon the moment at which
to jump before the point of impact?
Then, with a jolt, the lift just stops.
We look at each other, look away.
Too soon yet for that dreadful intimacy
that unravels all reserve. Now it’s grunts
and chuckles, pantomime impatience
and some random button punching. Then
comes language, blunt and businesslike.
“Right. Now what? Should be an alarm
somewhere or a ‘phone. Let’s see”. But
all from me. My partner in misfortune
hasn’t moved. Within the ticking silence,
he is motionless, head cocked like
someone listening for a distant birdcall
or for bells on a breeze. And even as I
watch for a flicker, both unfocussed
eyes tip back to white and, still without
a word, he drops straight down, within
the circle of his standing, like disembodied
clothes. My first impulse is just to
leave him like some 3-D puddle that I
have to step around as I organise escape
or rescue. Two disasters in succession
out of a blameless morning seem unfair.
But then, as unexpected as the other,
both eyes open, wide and blue and his lips
kiss air like a baby blowing bubbles.
He’s going to die; we know it, both of us
in a simultaneous heartbeat. And I kneel,
like a bad actor genuflecting, and I lean,
fingers spread against the tin-can wall
and watch the urgent lips trying to mould
words out of the unaccommodating air.
I stoop to listen – more, maybe, to read
the fragile shapes in flight. “Touch me”,
he breathes. “Touch me”. But I hesitate:
unlinked, I’m free, like standing water;
once connected, there’s a current drawing
me towards another place. But then I cup
his cheek as I might a child’s and, on a long
unwinding breath, he speaks quite clearly –
“Mummy” – and he doesn’t breathe again.
And then, with a jolt, the lift glides
upwards, graceful, silent, as if no time
had passed for anyone, as if I might step
through those doors, untouched, untouchable,
as if the light should shine as brightly evermore,
doors open, close again, as if the axis of
the world still held as trustworthy and true.
SNOW IS A LANGUAGE
Snow is a language
that speaks only to itself.
A multitude of syllables;
a downward drift
of Babel words. They
sit upon our ears,
our lips, our tongues,
these nouns and verbs.
Such a clamouring
should fill the world
Yet in the narrow lanes
and out across the fields
to the skyline, the aspiration
of this language is
to an all-encompassing
Each morning they organise your bones
into the wheelchair, stack you leaning
out of kilter. Thus I find you, wall-eyed,
feather pulse and mouth ajar. This is
a stillness you are learning as silence
silts up your blood. I name you: ‘Mum’,
I call, quietly at first, as if this were
only sleep and you might resent the passage
interrupted. But your shade is walking
a broken road on the far side of dreams.
I keep my coat on, lean in the doorway,
breathing in the alkalines and salts
that are your presence in this world.
Beyond, through narrow windows, rain
drifts like smoke. The trees shift
their high shoulders, hefting their leaves
like heroes. I can see the lift and fall
of their evergreen breath, the slow,
dispassionate pulse. Such senseless beauty,
propping up the sky as if there were no
tides turning or falling stars, no ashes to dust,
no time at all. You speak – a half-word,
cracked in the middle. Syllables drift
like fumes. Somewhere in that steam
of meaning, the filaments of memory:
the horn’s tip of a lover’s moon,
a song’s dust, the eye’s tail catching,
not quite catching, doorway phantoms,
window ghosts. Grief crosses my mind:
its hydrogen release – from local pain
to lachrymae rerum, all in one ball
of fire. It would be a simple thing
to self-heal, here against the lintel,
watching not the rise and fall of your
fish-breath, your insect pulse, but
the immortal trees beyond. Too easy;
but death looked in and turned away,
indifferent, and now it’s down to me,
the blood-bearer, to wish away your life
for you. The house ticks and hums.
A voice calls out, thin and querulous;
another coughs. I turn down your light.
There, against the window, dusk outside,
you are becoming your shadow
cast against the shifting of the trees.
Each night before I go to bed I check the kids.
And because they lie so still – an arm across a throat,
a cruciform, half in, half out, a starfish beached –
I have to lean across to find a shadow pulse, a rising
diaphragm, a hair that floats on an outbound breath.
I have to do this, but I know, of course, that it’s only
in their dreams they’re out at sea. And that
it’s only this night’s tide and the sleep it brings
in which they seem to drown.