Poetry- Deborah Harvey

23

Understorey

Your father in his fawn windcheater
names the song of each bird we hear
points out fox holes and fungi,
pulls to one side an elder branch
explains how those dollops of blossom
became this darkening fruit.

As he lets go the branch swings back
like the beams of cranes overhead
building conference halls, brand new departments
or the CCTV in these MOD car parks
that monitor visitors, trespassers,
swivelling on their plinths.

Splatts Wood presses up against its fence
like a rescue dog without a home,
it has a Committee of Friends, a down-
loadable Management Plan.
A survey of birds takes place in the spring,
the ride on its southern edge is a bats’ commuter route.

One night as I’m walking to my car
I hear a roe deer
plunging through its understorey
and the next time I happen to see your father
the skin of his arms is elderberry purple,
his face is a cliff.

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The Good Dogs of Chernobyl

‘Don’t kill our Zhulka. She’s a good dog.’*

So they stayed where they were told,
they never lost their faith
not even when the buses left
and the fallen star hissed flame and cracked
the air was thick with ash, the rain burned black,
when no one told them what they were
no one stroked their crackling fur
or scratched their ears.

Now they come through underbrush
on paths of wormwood, cinder, dust,
their paw prints brand the bitter earth
and none of them will sit or stay,
these dogs that know no human touch
that do not answer to a name.

* Note pinned to the door of an evacuated house in the Exclusion Zone during the cull of pets and domesticated animals that followed the nuclear disaster of April 1986.

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Eleven o’clock in Leningrad

We wake to colourless sky
look at our watches, look at each other
wonder how many hours we’ve slept,
the best part of the evening, or round the clock
into tomorrow. Through our hotel window
the streets are empty, they offer no clue

Soon, as we exit the metro
this milk-light will deepen into dusk
there’ll be red suns to the east and the west
the bridges will lift their arms over the Neva,
fail to reach either

Caught

in this blue night we’re outside of time
in a city of shifting names
built on bones and water

 The original 18th century city of St Petersburg was built by slave labourers, at least 100,000 of whom died in the process.

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Red Kites Over High Wycombe

I know they’re here before I see them
my eyes on the road, the car in front
then snatching at sky for that russet
skirl, daubs of white underwing,
riffled pinions, twisting tails.
There must be eight – no
wait – a dozen overhead.

The first time I saw one swoop
as I stood at the window of your room
I thought it an omen.
Now I know they can’t be owned, won’t be
diminished to fit my need
I’m a visitor here, shifting boxes and bags
from one drab impromptu lodging

to another,
and unfamiliar with this town,
the suburbs these natives survey
with ferocious intimacy.
When my job’s done I’ll travel back home
where red kites are rare and the air
trembles at their whistle.

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Herons Green Bay

Sometimes perfection’s too much
like on early autumn mornings, parked by the lake
in the space between daybreak and dawn

when you know without counting there’s seven swans,
four calling crows, one eponymous
heron feathered in gold.

Write instead this rain-smudged dusk
bent and rusted railings breaking
with you convinced you’re plunging through them

and fifteen feet under you gasp and flounder
through ruined farmyards, orchards, mills,
fields of mangelwurzels sown for winter fodder,

past the twice-drowned ghost of a village girl
dripping and squelching
upstairs to her bed

not understanding that she’s dead
as she glances at headlamps on the causeway
mistakes them for falling stars

 Catherine Brown drowned in the mill race at Moreton, Somerset at the turn of the 20th century. The same fate befell the entire village fifty years later, when Chew Valley Lake was built to supply water to Bristol. 

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