This is the final part of a long poem sequence called Beginnings, which has a cosmological setting but a personal focus, ‘you’ being my late husband. In this part the starting point is the fact that space is expanding at an increasing rate, and we look at various possible futures. The following extracts start with the second section.
Suppose, I said, we take a journey
into the future. We sped through space,
heading away from the lights
of the Solar System, where the bankrupt sun
was red and swollen, was filling up the sky.
No humans waving from the desert of this planet
for they’d left the walls of the world for another earth
before the sun could devour their home.
On the stretching roads of space
galaxies were flying apart: a theatre
losing actors and audience, lights
put out one by one, where nothing new
could ever appear, words meaningless,
words forgotten. Silence. Structures, matter
falling apart, locked up in black holes,
black holes themselves evaporating.
Particles rare in the emptiness
of time, uninhabited night,
death of time, nothing.
Must we visit futures?
you said at last. It’s too frightening,
looking at forever. So we returned
to see the stars again, returned
to the bright world,
to that corner of time inhabited by man,
to where words appeared like the growth of green
from retreating ice, to where words became durable
the way stone holds centuries within it, words
searching galaxies, decoding life.
We returned to that speck of time
inhabited by us, where the myrtle by our door
was fragrant at midnight as you told me stories
in which yellow fire shone from the face of the sun,
words hand in hand,
my warmth against your warmth … we found words
everywhere waiting like foxes in undergrowth
with glinting eyes, while in seasons and in storms
we counted the rhymes for light,
our words existences that could not be undone,
a part of the universe.
*It was a magnificent display of
trained and disciplined valour, and its
assault only failed of success because
dead men can advance no further.
The boy’s letter hangs straight on the pale wall,
‘Don’t cry Mary, this way we won’t starve
I promise I’ll be home for Christmas.’
His penmanship is upright and precise.
Steady hands that Somme morning pulling
On bright blue puttees; fingering
His caribou insignia and pleased
That he does not stink of fish.
He wants to be gone over the top
With the other eight-hundred Newfies –
Farmers and fishermen –
Dead men who stepped out
Heads bent; chins tucked in
Against the fierce snow of battle.
* Said of the actions of the 1st Newfoundland Regiment by the Commander
of the 29th British Division at the Battle of the Somme
They say the Elizabethan miniaturist Nick Hilliard
particularly recommended the skin of an aborted calf,
it was so hairless and so very very smooth.
He’d take a playing card, the white reverse
and paste down the transparent vellum,
rub it all over with a burnisher – a dog’s tooth
set for comfort in a wooden handle.
Paint was mixed by the artist, hand ground minerals,
plants and insects, stirred with resin in mussel shells,
brushes made of squirrel hair set in goose quills,
and under the captured eyes of the lost husband or wife
he’d planish, with a stoat’s incisor, the gold
and the silver leaf over names and jewels
which endure like art through death.
This poem in twelve sections recreates the mind of a woman with mental health problems and some of her experiences in hospital and the community. She meets contrasting attitudes: harsh blame but also support. Her distress and confusion alternate with clear insights.
Running away she walked through the night
not sleeping until the beginning of the day.
Avoiding drivers on the road, to find a bus
or a train on which never to return.
Arriving home she found everything broken –
completely changed because she had become
a sleep walker, who went barefoot through
the streets. Her mind cracked loose in a grief
for a self that got lost and was shaped to who
she never was, existing only in other’s minds –
a mourning for who she was not allowed to be.
Around her, a carnival was approaching, like
a circus procession, on a winter morning over
empty cabbage fields, parading all the lost things.
Rain. Drops clump like brooches
on the windows. Then splatter to beads.
The sun melts them and they become
evaporating streaks, like the tear
Hot light imprints branch
patterns on the wall,
an illusion of a courtyard gate.
Outside black swallows fall
like arrows to the ground.
Inside blinds divide night from day.
The electric light hums against
reinforced glass, without reflection.
It is high summer.
Everything gone, beyond words.
‘You are most unwell –
you can’t even put on your clothes.
You have forgotten how to sleep
and you smell.’
She says: ‘I know I’m like a strange bird,
unwashed and seeming
to fly with no wings.
Gone to a far place.
Are you punishing me for this?’
Outside the laundry window
the hospital cats don’t seem to mind.
They find good pickings at the kitchen
door. Twenty five of them: tortoiseshell,
half ginger. White, black, striped brown,
tattered coats, bitten ears.
Sometimes they escape from who they are:
stalking the undergrowth into long grass,
enjoying the shadow reaching to catch
anything with wings.
Other mornings they lie on walls,
observing. Then sleep, after a bowl
of milk, at ease with themselves.
Unconcerned with causes, what happens, is.
When it rains they sit in the shade.
When the sun comes out they walk.
They understand inconsistencies:
flying saucepans, strokes on the back,
a warm fire at night. And how to keep
away from water and be lucky that
they were not drowned at birth.