I doubted our flat-porched roof, where the cypress-tree shadows
goose-bumped me awake, could be half so marvellous
as the roofs of ancient Çatalhöyük, which served as streets, had
doors in them, and ladders that led down into the houses.
Each house raised on the ruins of its predecessors,
a maker’s space for larder and fire, basket-weave and bangle,
mirror and dagger. Each as well a burial chamber,
bone-store of the ancestors, repository of their preserved heads –
kept, much as we kept pisspots, under the beds.
No, the roomy house below me, draughty and prone to creaks,
with its wild-dog-rose wallpaper begun to peel
from the door jambs that opened to the front and back yards,
with cloud-flicker across a ceiling or the sun’s pulsing aureole
on chimney breast or floor – couldn’t hold a candle
to Çatalhöyük’s plaster-crafted bulls’ noggins and painted leopards.
But I valued height and flatness, the gift of a refuge
where nobody thought to look. Things that were unremarkable
then – a sewing machine jangled into life by pressing
on its treadle, duck eggs submerged for coolness in a bucket of oats,
buttermilk left to clot in an enamel basin – become
strange enough, when I recount them, to puzzle the children
of today, just as the contents of Çatalhöyük,
in their prime nine thousand years ago, still puzzle me.
And the boy on the roof, awakening to wonders of his own nature
and place, follows in my footsteps as though to catch me up
with the harvest of mother images he holds onto and the word
he must travel by, even if destined to stay forever
gone – a father’s ‘never forget who you are, where you come from’.
Watching The Invisible Man
A teacup lifts, tilts, empties out of and into thin air
while he – bumped by an unsuspecting shoulder –
loses, recovers his composure. Present or absent, his bind
has us playing hide-and-seek. We see the wind
disfiguring his footprints on a sandy beach; the book
that floats, now open, now shut, and then a run of bad luck
confirms him the victim of a flying fist, a knife
pressed towards its vanishing point, a handgun going off.
Blood dots the pavement. He appears to do
some good while we peer into our own future, construe
skyscraper, subway, taxi cab, neon lit come-hither,
wrist watch, popped-on sunglasses, near fatal heart-flutter.
A city’s run of the mill. After, a tranquil space,
clothes make him up, fedora, bandages defining his face,
shirt and trouser legs filling out; a certain raffish élan.
Meanwhile, the open fire at our backs dies down;
we remember the draft under the door which has been there
all along. So, we stop walking in his patent leather
shoes, fumble for the muddied farmyard boots that seem
no longer to fit us and, one at a time, twist into them.
This spike with its brittle quiff or beard,
growing out of shingly ground
along the crooked lane behind our shed,
looks scuttish even as it seeds, looks
wayward as the graffiti sprayed
on garage walls in skeins of gold and red.
Sign of neglect, my neighbour says,
but when I pluck its green-tinged grains,
unhusk the measly kernels, place
them on my tongue, a chronicle teeters,
ancient and fundamental, which tastes
of rain and sunshine, the first stand our
ancestors made, the holding down
and raising up, with cricked backs, with
cracked fingers, of field and yield,
of all that would make for a city, its modes
and means, pomps and works,
from the scatter of primordial dunghills.
Everything breathed. I planted my bare feet each in turn
and felt the shoemaker tuck and fold the cured
cowhide ankle-deep about them, cutting and stitching
with a peep for the toes and the straps
curling unbroken extensions. Run a tug-tassel off the top
of the heel, I told him – it happened so long ago that he
would surely gasp if handed the proof
of ‘his’ shoe, crafted to endure, enduring ‘so well’. Where,
he might ask with half a laugh, is the other sandal?
Weren’t they a match, the missing one well-made as this?
A frown might crease his face and his fingers grease his brow
as he tried to recall the woman who bought
the shoe, the ‘pair’ of shoes, from him. Or would he
blink tears at the thought of the woman’s
‘disappearance’; or coldly look away, unwilling to meet
your gaze; or even rant – he, who seemed gentle-natured –
about ‘her sort’ deserving what she got?
And you, eyeing the thin moccasin that lingers,
try to picture my wander over Amcotts Moor, how I skited
through sphagnum and heather, the weeps and deeps
no earthly trouble, with bog cotton – the hovering ghost
of summer – a ready stoop and pick. Guess me
fresh-faced if you will, guess me dark or fair, gathering
the white eggs of a bird that nests in a hole
in the ground, or picking bilberries; guess me flowing in silk,
or with chapped lips grimacing at life’s
skimps and hardships. Or do I sing because being most able
to hear myself when walking alone? A day inhabited
by ordinary deeds – but now, suddenly, figure me
hurrying, taken, battered and broken. Or maybe I drown,
or simply forget my way, who slip – however it happens –
to the dream you’ve yet to meet, cold paralysis
in its kiss, and clay its consumptive grip. The shoe survives.
It stays even after my body, so long hidden
by the mire, is found and lost again, frittered on the journey.
Here, snug-fit for my left foot, tawny and delicate-looking
as a wild mushroom, it waits, and might wait
forever if you ask that of it, with the soft shadow of the mouth
exposed to your every conjecture, even as
it asserts the irretrievable, silently, inside a casket of glass.
Budless, stripped of leafage and bark,
trees sizzle and tick; charcoal
effigies. Become as mewling animals –
with smouldering hoofs,
with cauterised antlers puffing smoke
as they lean away from us
into the blistered distance. Bits
of them flake off, momentarily flap
ashy winglets before sinking.
Or they crack apart, trunks
grinning red-grained and open, while
what pass for their crowns –
fused, shrunken – fall, making
hardly any sound at all. It takes days
before the clearance cools.
The farmer who owns the wood
appears and disappears,
envisioning the land as forever,
the land as his. Shrugs at the good
riddance of scrub. Meaning
willow and hazel that spar in dens,
nests, horizontal understoreys.
Meaning tall, pliant poplar, and aspen,
the long-stemmed whisperer.
Meaning pine and beech, elm
and oak. The forester asks us to save
what is saveable of the burned
no less than the wind-felled.
Velvety dust squeaks underfoot, smears
and sears. Our chainsaws rebound
off the heat-toughened trunks.
We have to turn back when rain runs
everything into a morass.
There will be growth again – lichens,
hummocks of moss, raddled
foundations in their renewal restoring us.
Birds will pipe up, spiders
build. The only blaze will be of furze
blossoming. Some other April
will find a living wilderness
here, incineration covered over
as if it had never happened. We stare at
the ground and we tell ourselves this.
One stifled groan, the old boy rises
from his wheelchair, takes
a shaky step out onto the veranda.
His cotton shift, breeze-blown,
shows the cleft of his bony haunches;
his heels appear to bruise
the tiles that bruise them, and then
he’s there, framed by wood,
grumbling about something – maybe
his crocked bones, or the colours
that have slipped his palette,
or how he doesn’t care what happens
so long as he can still paint –
he’s there, or nearly, one dying dip,
one dab of the art-ravened
corpus, no fun felt in flesh anymore,
and, as he goes forward into
the light of day, he grows translucent.