Monthly Archives: June 2012

A funny thing happened today on Manchester Road…

Paideia

Walking down Manchester road,
in the last Thursday in June
and the air tastes fresh as a new penny.
People everywhere, on every surface,
the sidewalk, the road, like ants spiralled
around a dark trickle of honey.

The men in outdoor barber chairs
slough their dark hair, the women
in short skirts, tight jeans, burqas
push pram-bound toddlers
or shopping trolleys, hobbling on heels.

Everywhere is life, thinking
of life, if thinking at all. Most
caught up in the hustle and bustle,
a sensation of hurry resembling joy.

The easy choice is always laughter.
Talk about hair, the weather. Hang
half-drunk out the window of the fake
Irish pub and shout football scores.

A slim woman in a halter top
and combat boots sifts shallots
in a stall, rifling the vegetables
as she contemplates dinner.
All around is bloom, and fall.

And in the centre, death.

Between the wheel-burning tarmac
and the brute face of a wall, a plain
white van without windows. Insulated,
doors gaping, it resembles something
chosen by paedophiles or killers.
I find myself before its open maw.

Lined doors block the sidewalk
revealing a dark interior crammed
full of hung corpses. A man in red-
smeared white stands tall in the black,
wielding a long, sharp knife.

I stare up at them, long bodies
like exsanguinated dogs, furless
and marbled, like his outfit, red and white.
Gutless, like most people, denying their bowels,
they hang head downward as though defeated.

Bald-eyed, lidless, seeming
to stare but seeing nothing.
Lambs, after slaughter.
The man clothed in blood sees
me staring, invites me, ‘Come up.’

‘We killed them like this,
in a way that is holy. Heads
bowed in prayer. We severed
their windpipe, pierced the carotid.
Let the unclean blood drain to the floor,
we washed it all out.’

He looks at me, smiling; a fat,
friendly face unexpected in death.

‘How do you kill anything,’ I manage,
‘in a way that is holy? How do you meet God
with blood in your hands?’

He touches me on my bare forearm,
two fingers only, his hands folded
in blessing round the haft of the knife.
‘You kill with intent.’

‘You know what you are doing.
Accept it. Accept that in giving life
for others you take dishonour on yourself.
You look the lamb in the eyes
as you bring him his death,
unflinching, with no room for denial.
You send him off with a prayer,

‘Bismiallah. Thanks
for food taken, survival,
not gluttony. Praising God
through glazed eyes
and the blood of the lamb.’

I climb down on my knees out of darkness,
backing out in wonder from the cave of the dead.
My skin drenched in rose perfume
and the copper of corpses, the insides
of bodies, unhidden, without skin or mask.

To reach those high towers…

High Towers

A shore like brown sugar,
that shade exactly,
that level of moisture,
loosely packed, which leaves
grains clumped on
my crossed thighs.

The small wolfish dog
lays his jaw on my knee,
stinking, he contemplates
the deep with opaque eyes.

I scribe my tablet,
jabbing the stylus,
watching the long
slow pull of the waves.

There was never any hope
of escape from this.

The sky has filtered
the jaundiced shade
of old bruises, the color
of air prequel to storms.

I taste the metallic
edge of lightning,
hold it like meat
between my teeth.

A sensible person
would not be here,
crouched among
the bones still lodged
within the dying flesh.

I should not be immune
to the gasping. Should have
more pity for the sand-
dollars twitching their cilia.
They might be fit for collecting;
small talents can be
so beautiful, dried.

I am too far from the shade,
the easy life, too far
from the sheltering palm-trees
to ever find safety. I want more
than a peaceful repose.

The water retreats.

But only so far.
Beyond a certain point
there can be no receding,
so far in the invitation
must be passed through, revoked.

My lap-bound
dog’s head yawns
its hide covered jaws,
ignoring the flies. I incise
my last sentence. Stop.

The whole ocean before me,
bound, rising up.
Some fearful controlled
Power, held the height
of a mountain,
running to me.

The walls are alive,
a telling continuum,
more so than its own
abandoned children,
laughing and glasslike.

Whales held vivid in aspic,
singing their grand eternal poetry.
A dolphin impaled on a main-mast,
the guardian spirit, setting
the course of the prow.

The small doesn’t matter,
finds itself left dry,
gasping in the face
of this implacable force.

The great may join.

The dead dog pulls itself
from knee to lap, finally sitting.
My guardian spirit,
settling the prow.

We are ready for jousting.

From my collection, A Radiance, available now from Cultured Llama Press

The Altar

This is a story my grandfather tells me,
now I am telling you. He worked many years
in vocational rehabilitation, which was I imagine,
something like fishing. Fishing for men,
or their fragments, casting out a strong line, a net,
into the depths of mental illness, drawing something
up to breach the crest and bathe in the light,
or flounder in air, drowning. This story
is not about the drowned.

He worked many years among broken minds,
broken bodies, learning his own medicinal grace.
One morning he found a man in his net,
ready to clean, or release, ready for judgment.

He said, to me, ‘The man was an idiot.
Dribbling. Completely degenerate. I left him fiddling
his fat fingers on my desk. I asked my supervisor,
why bring him to me? He understands nothing.
What can I do for him? He’s too dumb to be trained.
I couldn’t even teach him how to lay down upholstery.’

When he gets to this part, my grandfather
leans across the table top, grinning at me
black gummed, over his black twine-bound Bible
which smells of his sweat, in-ground from decades
of long morning readings. He tells me more in Kentuckian basso,
‘Well, my boss finally talked me back into the office.
I gave in and went. Know what I found?’

I know well by now, he knows I know. I tell him, ‘No.’
Smiling.

He laughs at me, Nana laughs with him, scrambling
the grits in the never cleaned pan;
You never soap iron. It takes on the flavor
of the years of your cooking, passes it on
through butter and meat. A meal in endless
re-iteration. We never get tired
of this morning telling.

‘The idiot was drooling. It spilled down
All over his chin. He sucked it back up, liquid,
Hur, hur, hur! Like that. Snorting pig-like,
a sow that turned up something real
good.’

My grandfather takes a sip of paint-stripping coffee.
‘But damn it, Bethany.
He’d taken apart my radio and laid the parts out,
all across my desk. He was careful, but was I mad?
Was I ever.’

‘It took a minute, but I remembered my business enough
to hold it all in. I sat down in my chair
and started talking to him. The fella ignored me.
I might not have been there. But I was.
And I am telling you now the thing that I witnessed.’

‘The idiot put my radio back together in under
Five minutes. He fixed it better than it ever was.
Or ever had been.’

‘Eventually I got the story.
His mother didn’t want him, and she dropped him off
on the doorsteps of the Retardation Center.
The doctor’s brought him in and since he was there
and so young, no one ever bothered testing.
People depend a lot on instinct in this sort of thing.
Even doctors. More than they admit.’

‘He grew up in that wasteland, and since he was smart
he took to acting like the people around him.
He learned their behaviors, but he couldn’t stop thinking.
He was good at it. Thinking.
The white coats only figured him out
when a night nurse caught him
fixing the television. Said it played better once
he’d been at it than it ever had.
So they brought him to me.’

We break for grace, a ritual that is the best kind
of familiar. Nana serves herself last, takes
less than any of us. Is the last to sit down
the first to rise up. A real Southern lady.
We taste a bit, salty pork,
baked apples, I fiddle the grits round the plates,
untasted.

‘He never did use words. I got him a job
as an electrician. Couldn’t ever get him to talk.
But you’d better believe he sung with his hands.’

A sigh over a plate this time, the Bible closed
on the sideboard. ‘Never forget, girl,
in your life,
the things that you can learn from an idiot.
Don’t call another man defective
till you’ve tried to reach him
from every side.’

This is how we start our morning,
In laughter, in light.
This is the story my grandfather tells me.
Now I’m telling you.
Some things get better with the telling,
like the flavor in an unsoaped pan.

http://www.culturedllama.co.uk/books/a-radiance

Like Peonies, borrowing a garden.

Like Peonies

The Peony Poppy stands four feet tall,
multifoliate heads in pinkish white
like stained bones, or red with a distinct
undertone of gold, a shimmering hue
that indicates a sun that we have never known.

I skid to a stop swerving the path,
my heels the breaks of my rickety bike.
I halt in a cloud of hot rubber and rust,
the burnt patch on my sweater
a dark eye above my occipital lobe,
Red Riding Hood blighted.

I’m bearing no food, save for my books,
a meal for the soul, a feast of aesthetics.
My body crouched in the dirt at the root
of the poppy stalks, round blossoms,
the colour of the insides of bodies,
a meal for the dead, alive and breathing.

Squatting in a borrowed garden,
moist dirt flecked on my thighs,
the old woman who owns this patch
-no one I know- shouts Wiltshire curses
I cannot understand. I recite a verse of Rossetti,

a sample from the Goblin’s Market; a taste
of luscious fruit, alien to her. This
is what becomes of us; mad women,
no grandmothers, starved for beauty,
who flail in the dust without family or love.

The front door slams, I have fifteen minutes
of quiet before whatever huntsman
she is whistling for comes wielding his axe.
Time enough to feast on this flesh.

I grasp a face of petals, soft as cheeks
in my hands, twist the fibrous neck,
drench my fingers in seminal blood.
Enough to quench my lupine appetites,
enough to sink my eyes in.

My nails are drenched in crushed light,
the colour of another world, palms washed
with an undertone of gold. This is better
than any redemption the old woman knows.
I smear myself with poppy juice,
grind cool petals into my brown hair.

I fill my bag with blossoms, soft
as the faces of dead children, smothering
my books. Whirling lights in the distance,
closing in. A barren old woman shudders
behind a barricaded door. I re-join my bike,
my burnt red hood flying, making my way
free from the visible world.

The dog’s full name was Margaret Thatcher. My mom is a little warped.

The Qualities of Iron

 

The bitch was a crone when I best knew her;

stub teeth mostly gone, her jowls black,

her wolfhound’s face had run to scabs

and there were blood gorged fleas nesting

in her mothy pelt. But this was a dog

 

who only claimed iron’s most positive traits;

tough as tempered nails, she outlived all reasoning.

No amount of pressure could make her bend

from the track of love, or approximation

of loving that she was able to give.

 

She was beautiful, in the way of metal;

blued and burnished as the flanks

of a bridge. A magnificence refined, indelicate.

She bore the splendour of nurses; in the depths

of Mother’s worst illness the mutt never stirred

 

from Joy’s writhing side, growling at anyone,

doctors, husband, children, who risked

the approach. She snapped her teeth at us,

and not in greeting, her paws weighing down

my mother’s thrashing arms; Maggie

 

dragged Joy from fever like moles

from a mine. And never mind if Joy

was happier there, lost in the depths

where the pain could not reach. The dog

bit her master’s wrists, drawing her out.

 

Like her namesake, she would remain

beyond the time that she was needed.

She slept in my parent’s dark bed for decades,

long after the rest of us graduated or were

removed. She died, unwillingly, at twenty-one.

Beneficent Puss appears atop a healing wound, a false sign of festering.

Lavinia: Beneficent Puss

There is something to be said for filth;
a dark coating of unscrubbed flesh,
cells collecting like scales on arms,
flaking in the creases, to be shed at last
in gray lengths like sunburn, peeling.

It is another kind of armour,
useless against sword swipes,
bullets, a hard thrusting strike.
The dried sweat flaking from
between your breasts is hardly
protective colouring. The scent
from your scalp is enough to draw
water from eyes, useful only
for blinding a possible attacker.

Walk the streets in a tattered
t-shirt, seven years old,
brought from the orphanage,
stained at the armpits
and sticky to touch.

Watch the flesh peel
from your foot-soles,
between the thongs
of hard-worn Birkenstocks,
your slack little teats
wobbling like half-filled
leather wine-wallets,
starved to shrivelling,
though you are young.

Even in this heat
no man dares offer a ride;
you could only be one
kind of prostitute.
not worth the risk.

Walking down this Kansas backroad,
the sun baking down unbroken
by trees, you are a nineteen-year-old
lungfish, cocooned in deep mud,
waiting for the healing rain
to wash you clean and free
on your way to the sea after a seven
year drought. Your dirt is more

than protective colouring,
holding the world at bay.
It is a scab, beneficent puss,
proof of slow healing,
preserving your scars.

If beautiful Lavinia,
warrior’s child, had lived
as long as you without a tongue,
gripping a pen with her bloody stumps,
watching her words slip and smear
beyond all reading, how much would she
have to say if her parts were restored?

The rage would spill first,
her spleen vented on all,
from grinning rapists
to Titus, her father, who
would not save her
in the way that he could.

The moment her brothers
found her in the woods,
her mouth unspooling
bloody ribbons instead of words:
this moment brightened indelibly.
Eventually she would
leave her raging and record

the transcendent colour
of the spring-light through
the forest leaves. Her own pooled
blood, divorced from herself,
puddled on maple
and edged round in gold.

If you bathe the wound too quickly,
you loosen the scab which leads
to worse scarring. Leave the filth
where it lies, no one will touch you
or disturb your healing. Keep up
your walking, nobody’s whore.

In this drought your new tongue
is blooming. Ignore the ache,
that pain you feel: like other creatures
who shed their skin, those scaled amputee
survivors, your hands shall regrow.

A non-sappy love poem

The Gates

Seen objectively, by a man at the window
we do not look like much; A woman
and a man on a red leather couch,
coke bottles everywhere and a filthy throw,
also red, already unraveling, wound round
our legs, binding us like threads of blood.

You are short, fair, very stocky, with a face
which swerves between nobility and petulance.
I am long and dark with matted hair,
braided, my head culminating in nose,
with an expression of thought, easily mistaken,
because of my gender, for the more banal sort of worry.

This is what the observer, not
objective, and lacking vision,
could never comprehend. As I fritter
the hours on keyboarded words
and you run one thick hand
down the length of my thigh, accompanied
by blaring television, we are in the throes
of deep creation; a task in which two
are occupied though only one acts.

You hold the rope as I delve down,
leaving the rooms of our close flat,
a cord round my waist,
a taut crimson thread; I plunge
to that river where the water is strong
enough to stop my breathing,
the taste so sweet it halts my heart.

You brace me; an anchor, who bolts
me to this visible earth, while I shunt
to the places that foxes know of, where bodies
stiffen, and the dead shades rise
to take their fill from Hecate’s red ewer,
avoiding the face of the goddess who smiles,
trying not to identify the taste, the rich salt
flavors mingled there in her brimming bowl.

You enable me to go so much deeper
than I would otherwise dare travel,
and your form highlights your function,
your incredible force. And when I have the gift,
the vivid, longed for treasure, held firm
in my hands, I nod my head in thanks
to the goddess, tugging at the binding flax,
and it is the strength of both our arms
which helps me rise to the filthy
surface of the part-seen earth.

Now, when I rise up, gasping beside you,
your hands in my hair, holding me up
by the back of my throat, know my love,
that we are mythic; the bride of Orpheus,
the musician himself, sitting on a dead
cow sofa with their genders reversed. Feed
on that knowledge, when the world leaves you
hungry, consume it in your valorous heart.
It is the unseen splendor of our love.

The Feast of Reason

The Feast of Reason

Reason’s a vast,
imperfect, tool
dismantling souls
with deceptive precision

as easily as student anatomists
dissect their captured birds.
Quelling song with ether,
stopping the vivid yellow
throat with drugged cotton.

Reason pins the fledged
wings to the waxed tablet,
exposing the breasts,
the hidden heart,
so much mute flesh.

Logic dictates function,
reason cuts the form:
a firm, blind hand
records the parts

until all is accounted for,
everything visible
explained, rendered innocuous
and vaguely offensive
to the senses. The corpus

made fit for the trash
while the air
around the table
still vibrates, bright,
with the memory of song.

Utang Na Loob

Anatomy

Virgie lays the plucked
carcass on the oaken
chopping board
so that its naked body
lies spread-eagled,
breast up and headless,
a decapitated infant
ready for dissection.

She slices the flesh,
widening the anus,
removing the loops
of intestines,
the odd lumpin ovaries
filled with unshelled eggs
of varying size.

She sets the ovum
in a bowl to the side.
To this strange cluster
she adds the kidneys,
which she rinses
in bleached water,
and the dark liver,
the darkest flesh there is.

The lungs and heart
come out in a bunch,
trailing the gizzard
like a knobbled tail.
All of these organs go
into the blue bowl,
save for the heart.

It is cold and pale,
two-chambered
in the way a reptile’s is,
though I know
the blood which
propelled it was warm
when it flowed.

It is an odd, flat thing,
shaped like a pressed rosebud
with a rime of yellow fat
around the light pink aorta.
Virgie hands it to me, saying
‘Do you know what this does?’

I have I have been palpating
the bowl full of ovum,
the subject
of our last lesson,

‘where baby chicks
come from.
They have no shells yet
so that the cocks
can add the seed.

People are different,
sometimes they can
have babies without men.
Your father put you inside
the womb of you mother,
and yet you are mine
as much as theirs.’

I have a strong desire
to put my flesh-mottled fingers
into my mouth.
Virgie slaps my hand, absently,
upsetting my balance.

My fat-yellow
skirt swirls at my knees,
my bare toes curl
around the lip of the stool.
‘Do you want to get sick?’

She presses the heart
into my fingers,
her wet brown hands
leave prints on my wrists.
I do not yet know
what the heart
can make happen.

Virgie makes me hold it
between finger and thumb,
she moves my hand
with her hand
so that the chambers flutter,
open and closed.

‘The heart is the engine
of the body,
it propels the blood
which carries the soul.
This is a weak heart,
so pale and flabby.
Your heart is stronger,
and much larger. It must be,
to carry your blood.

My heart is like yours,
but now mine is larger.
If a heart is weak
it will break and you will die.
Or die in part.

So keep it strong.
One day it will be as large
as mine, and capable
of powering through
a great many troubles.

Your father says to me
Utang Na Loob,
and he is half joking

in the way he jokes
when he calls your
sister Little Brown.
But this is something you have
which a chicken has not.
The debt of the heart.

Your heart beats now
because I feed it.
I and your parents
keep you alive.
When you are older,
you must repay this,
and the weight of our lives
will make you beautiful and strong.’

I can do it myself now.
I pump and pump
the chicken heart,
warming the weakness
with the heat of my hand.
It is almost alive.

Virgie takes it from me finally,
joining it to its brothers
in the full bowl.
She says, ‘It does not need
so much exercise now
that it is dead.
You do not want
to toughen the flesh.’

She bends forward
quickly, careful
not to brush her hands
on my cheeks.
She lays her kiss
upon my forehead.
I totter towards the sink
to wash the blood
from my fingers.

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