WIZARD OF WHITEBRIDGE
My mother’s father, tall, a flourish of white hair
and bizarre repertoire of snake oil and coffee enemas.
Vibrating massage table, appliances for stretching the spine
chiropractic wall charts, acupuncture needles.
Two grey vinyl lounge chairs his waiting room, where my sister and I
would swing our legs and leaf through People magazines
while he saw patients who came looking for cures
remedies and the laying-on of hands.
They found them too – they told us at his funeral.
Behind the curtained consulting rooms
a workshop scented with oil, concrete
liniment, shelves to the ceiling stacked
with jars and margarine containers
tin cans filled with nails and nuts and bolts
bits and pieces for clever tinkering.
Metal lathe a shrine to which he sacrificed
the tip of one finger. Engineer of
model trains big enough to ride.
Behind, again, a contained wasteland
of long grass, one gigantic aloe vera
a low corrugated iron lean-to.
He had to crawl in.
I only ever saw him haul out timber
but the big boys next door told me
he used it to imprison children.
He died four years after being struck.
Strove against the stroke for two
then worked to finish its job with too much strength
too little dexterity to go quickly.
They cleared out his shed and found a coffin.
Home-made. Fortunately empty. Built, they surmised
to prove how outrageous the price of undertakers.
He was already cremated.
SESTINA FOR FIRE AND DROUGHT
The whole world is this atheist’s temple
and now I fear its death
but I am not ready to take up my shovel
to dig its grave, huddle
for small comfort like sheep
farewell the last birds.
Mud around the shrinking dam preserves birds’
footprints. They come to worship at this damp temple
alongside flocks of dusty sheep.
Some didn’t make it. Death
caught them, they lie rotting behind the living huddle
and the dirt is dried too hard to shovel.
Firefighters wield hoses, shovel
firebreaks, smother outbreaks. Birds
fly ahead of the front, animals and people huddle.
They don’t want to be burnt offerings at this temple
to placate the forces we’ve ignored, but death
can’t be avoided. Farmers cry for their sheep.
So many carcasses of desiccated sheep
they bring in mechanical shovel
dig a pit to contain the death.
Before they bury them, the carrion birds
benefit, a small comfort. There is no temple
here for the grief-struck to huddle.
Heat and wind shift, a cold front. People huddle
into themselves, pull on jumpers made of sheep
or fibres drawn from plastic bottles. Thoughts, prayers from hilltop temple
are futile, and this southerly might shovel
new fuel onto the fire. The birds
are still, wait to see if this change means life or death.
We know it must come one day, death
but we can choose, in part, how soon and for who. Huddle
close, discuss how we will meet these times. Birds
depend on us, and bees, and fish, people, trees, sheep
too. What will you do? Pick up your shovel
and suffrage to build tomb or temple?
A world without birds would be death
to the spirit, whether or not you subscribe to a temple. Come, huddle
as conspirators, not sheep. It’s a builder’s tool, that shovel.