From Dark Italics
They stare at me, this couple I don’t know,
posing by potted palms and an array
of flowers. Framed in sepia, they show
their reverence for the camera by the way
they stand – upright, proud, their faces stern,
unsmiling. A gravitas surrounds them, a sure
sense that through this moment they will earn
their place in history, make time secure.
He chose to wear his Sunday suit; she chose
her best white blouse, its collar trimmed with lace.
Her eyes are just like grandma’s; his upturned nose
just like my mother’s. There’s no obvious trace
of me and yet I’m theirs and they are mine.
Our fingers touch. It’s 1889.
What Survives Of Us
He roams the streets, reliving old campaigns,
an endless stretch of railroad in his head
that winds beyond Dunkirk and monsoon rains
of Burma to boyhood smells of gasworks, soot,
the mysteries of a dried-up river bed,
the chunter of its pebbles underfoot.
He passes bars and restaurant windows where
the candles burn in lovers’ eyes, his pace
slowing as early wallflowers scent the air.
The sudden flicker of a street lamp taunts –
gaslight glimmers on her upturned face,
a waltz from a deserted ballroom haunts.
He shuffles on, probes bins for butt-ends, beer
at the bottom of cans. A busker scrapes a tune
and he’s back in uniform, a silver sphere
scattering light around her hair and great
uplifted space glistening above. Blue Moon
fades as he walks. It’s cold and getting late.
The city owns him now, wraps its scraps
around him, offers coins or lets him doze
in doorways thinking him drunk, half-crazed perhaps,
unaware that love has left its trace
of fire, how still, in dreams, he sees her close
the kissing-gate, her dress a cloud of lace.
The Magic Touch
Mam never took to cooking,
was constantly frustrated
by the vagaries of flour
the way it frosted the floor,
collected in the cracks
of the old wooden table,
blanched the flowers on her pinny
or strayed into the wayward curls
of her home-permed hair,
sometimes even coating
in a fine white dust
the great cast iron range
in which all manner of her dishes
disappeared and disappointed,
lacking the magic touch.
Undaunted, every Friday
she’d close the door to the bar
and hoist me on the dresser,
inviting me to watch
her weekly tussle
with the mysteries of dough.
She always donned
her forage cap to roll the pastry,
still reliving the war.
Run Rabbit Run
she hummed as she trimmed
the overhanging mass
and thumbed it round the plate,
her clumsy prints stamped
on the crust of every soggy pie.
I’d beg to wear her hat,
pretend to be a wounded Tommy
home from the front.
Her eyes wide open in amazement,
she’d whirl me round and round,
singing of bluebirds, nightingales,
the dough from her face shimmying
through my fingers, the spinning air
a blur of firelight and flour.
From Substantial Ghosts
The Art of Getting Lost
Practise the art of getting lost
in the deepest forest, not knowing where
it ends, like the leaf of an oak tossed
on a sudden wind, unaware
of anything except the flight
in dappled sun, the ripples of air,
conscious only of slanting light
through branches, of being borne and held,
indifferent to left or right
to future or to past, propelled
into the heart of now by powers
unfathomed, unseen, deep in the meld
and mould of earth, in its tiny flowers
(bluer than bluebells, whiter than frost)
that lie beyond the counting of hours
and the counting of the cost.
The long note of a temple bell
strikes the August heat, vibrates
and carries down the spine of the valley.
Stirring from sleep on the lip of a pot,
a silk-red butterfly flaps his wings
and heads for the shade of distant pines.
Sound waves cease. A pin-drop stillness
settles on the wooded hills and slopes.
Leaves hold their breath in windless air.
Through the haze of an amber dusk,
a host of scents meander – Japanese lily,
sweet osmanthus, noble orchid, lotus flower.
The moon unveils above the mountains.
It spreads a silver balm across the fields,
erasing all the scars of ancient lives.
Philip Larkin in the Launderette
The moment I walk in I am aware
that this is not my element. I pause
then pick my way through bras and women’s drawers.
I’m reeling, breathing unfamiliar air.
Piped music in the background – Perry Como –
mingles with smells of wet sheets, steam and Omo.
It isn’t like the library in Hull,
I’m used to musty fragrances, old books,
dry air, the dust that lingers in the nooks
and crannies, reverent hushed tones that lull,
not this cacophony of whirr and clatter
attendants’ cries and endless inane chatter.
Yet launderettes are great levellers. I’m lost
for words in here, you might say all at sea,
don’t know if I need programme two or three,
which knobs to turn or how much it will cost,
exactly how much powder to put in
or if quick rinse is different from fast spin.
I finally place my clothes inside the drum
then look around for clues, but with no text,
it’s hard to work out what I should do next.
I press a switch, a reassuring hum
informs me there’s no mystery left to solve.
Taking a seat, I watch my clothes revolve.
I flick through Woman, try to look amused
but let my eyes roam freely round the room.
They rest on cracked uneven lino, foam,
a row of plastic laundry baskets (bruised
from years of kicking) that have lost the art
of carrying and begun to fall apart,
like us, perhaps, who sit here in a row,
each wondering how to wash away the stain,
wash out the deep immeasurable pain
the years bequeath, though secretly we know
all hope is futile, every dream in vain,
our arrows long ago turned into rain.