In the rain

What rain does to light!
Droplets that individually would be transparent
Become in swarms opaque,
Creating diffuse halos around street lamps.
Under the railway bridge
Reflected indigo light gathers
In shaky neon pools pitted with ancient gum.
The shallow pools’ beauty foreign
To their soiled surroundings.

There is too much water-
Men and women cloister themselves
Under the ground-floor walkways of council flats.
They are too close to the windows and doors,
They crane their upper bodies away from the rain
Yet still it permeates.

On a dry night I saw a muscular man
Appear from one of these flats, to smoke.
He was too wide for his tiny, cell-like flat,
Too puckered with muscles.
Was it keeping the ceiling and walls at bay
That so strengthened him?
Is he waiting, now, sinews coiled,
For the rain to cease
For sanctuary-seekerless peace
To return outside to smoke?

Bottle

There are two small groups
of sixth formers being taken around the museum.
One group, all girls, perhaps from Channing,
are lectured about the lives of Caesarion and Cleopatra-
‘The one we know as Cleopatra was Cleopatra VII.
She was probably responsible for the deaths of
several family members.’
The other group- mixed- ask questions-
‘I’ve been told to know my set texts,
Which d’you think I should focus on?’

(In a side case is a small
glass bottle. Glass is eggshell thin,
cracked and incomplete.
The bottle’s neck is lopsided and
stained with traces of ancient rose madder.)

Behind thick, healthy glass
is a dress made of beads.
Strung on line after line of netting,
each bead the colour of a beautiful and troubled sea…
Small turquoise breasts…
Shells laced near the base of each beadline.
A story next to it of an ancient king,
Who, bored on a trip by sea, ordered
Twenty women be given nets in place of their clothes.
Then they had to dance…
The shells rattled.

(In a side case is a small
glass bottle. Glass is eggshell thin,
cracked and incomplete.
The bottle’s neck is lopsided and
stained with traces of ancient rose madder.
The glass is opalescent.
A part of the lip hangs perilously,
Catching the light’s intensity.)

Rituals

The water is flowing
and even in the sunlight which decorates it
with patches of blinding gold
it appears cooling, shade made liquid.
A pigeon bathes in it,
Bobbing his beak to drink from it.
He is alone-
There are no other pigeons nearby.

A market trader is laying out his goods.
He sells gold jewellery,
Rings, bracelets, necklaces.
He arranges them carefully on black cloth,
The bracelets and necklaces lengthwise,
Losing their circular nature.
The sun catches these golden lines
Making them solid fire.
The cloth is only half covered,
He has work to do before the market busies

The poet stares at a tree,
Blushing with pink blossom,
The multitude of pink petals offset
By olive green leafs
and grey-brown branches,
All backlit by the sun.

The pigeon, the trader, the poet
All engaged in necessary rituals
Made pleasant by bright sun.

The Bathers

Stripped to the waist,
Three men stand expressionless,
Coated with greying hair
Which catches the toilet’s lights
In pretty flecks liked panned silver.
Are they here every night, these bathers?
Their human vinegar barbs
The air like thin bile.
One scrubs his arm from shoulder to wrist,
Coating it with thin soap gel, lathering,
Rinsing it messily, leaving water and soap bilge
In messy puddles on the Formica around the sink.
Another presses the hot tap with his elbow,
Drowning his vest with its yellow stains like limescale.
The third dries his sodden socks
Between the grey and yellow plastic of a Dyson Airblade.

There is little talk-
What there is is maybe Romanian.
These bathers, these men of fifty
Must have families,
In Bucharest, in Hunedoara, in Dolhasca
Who sleep at home
Who wash at home
Thanks to this quiet, hidden, public indignity.

The Fabric is Thin

‘I saugh today a cors yborn to chirche
That now, on Monday last, I saugh hym wirche’
Chaucer, ‘The Miller’s Tale’

The woman is waiting,
Leaning against a brick wall.
Her dress is green and
made of cheap, thin fabric.
It flutters around her knees and
though stretched tight
across her heavily pregnant stomach
still finds enough slack to ripple in the breeze.

He walks on the pavement
wearing a tweed jacket, herringbone stitched.
His boots are old but were expensive when he bought them.
He walks past a notorious mosque,
young Muslims spill out onto the street.
He is unintimidated…blasé.

An old instinct makes him aware of
the two men moving parallel to him, on the road.
One walks, the other rides a bike,
The wheels turn slowly.
They stay level for fifty, a hundred, two hundred yards.
Then they split-
The cyclist bursts ahead, onto the pavement.
The other man slows, ghosting behind him.
He stops, kneels down and unties and reties his boots,
cursing his choice of clothes… so ostentatious!
The ghost passes by him and says nothing,
He rejoins the cyclist and they disappear around a corner.

The booted man turns back,
He walks and walks, trying to find asafer road.

Candles

The candles, pushed firmly into dark green bottles
already coated with drips from other candles before,
Are lit. They glow, flame roses,
Partially illuminating the room.
They also heat the room, very slightly.

They stand, in their bottles, on the windowsill.
The single-paned window is shut but
cold air still leaks in.
Outside, a ragged lawn
And a black tree, silhouetted against
Oblongs of light from Georgian townhouses.
The tree is all but bare-
A heavy scrap of fabric is caught on a branch.
It has been there for months.

A couple sit on their bed, pinkcheeked,
Flame roses glowing beside them.
Their eyes are fixed on the scene outside-
The tree, the scrap, the night.

The Cormorant Dress

I watch him for a long time,
His outstretched wings straining away from his torso,
Creating a black feathered axe.
I have watched him dive
So precise in his assault of fish
Then patient
As he waits for his wings to dry,
Blood sloppy around his beak,
Fish-flesh pink around his jowls.
He dives again
I paint his rock with glue,
Sun bakes it dry around his webbed feet,
His beak and jowls strain upwards
As his wings thrash.
I shoot him with an arrow
His shrieking peaks
Then recedes.

Sea is still, waves limp to shore.
The island too feels flat
Though stepped banks of shale rise
And everywhere trees of many types spring up.
There is coolness under their canopy,
Where you can smell streams
And hear wild dogs bawl.
It all may as well be scrub or sand,
the sea too could be baked to salt dunes
For all that it has brought me.
Six times I have signalled passing ships,
My arms cormorant wide.
But as each came nearer I hid
And prayed they had never seen me.
For weeks afterwards
I reconstruct in paint what I’ve seen,
Use my cave-wall’s rocky inconsistencies
To recreate the lines of a man’s face or his whiskers.
Their painted eyes warm me,
I talk to them at night.

Did the sailors imagine me a ghost?
Me, the only body who breathes and speaks
On an island populated by ghosts?
It is on the days after rainstorms
That I most miss conversation
Another soul to say
‘Keep the meat up high- that at least we can do!’
I imagine, on these days,
The hundreds of other islands out beyond the horizon
And the people, sitting together fireside
Taking one another’s company for granted,
Blithe spirits who cannot imagine themselves cast out.
They live blindfolded, as I did.

I mark time on a fallen trunk-
First a line lightly scratched with a bone awl,
Then carved with a bone knife,
The tenth I rub with hot ash.
When I reach a thousand
I gather grasses from each corner of the island
Arrange them in leaf bowls
And wait for them to dry.
I hack the trunk apart and burn it,
The grasses provide smoke of different colours.

I lost years to sloppiness,
Now every task must be completed with precision,
Meals especially-
Pack each wild onion tight with herbs,
Pluck every bone from the rockfish,
Cut diagonal striations into the skin which
Allows the fat to crisp.

On the fifth day after they left me
I left my baby alone while I fetched firewood.
I returned and the cave floor was
Painted in splatters and streaks with his blood
And he was gone.
I never found another trace of him.
In revenge I killed five litters of wild dogs,
Slit each dog’s throat
And combined their tiny pelts into five coats.
I wish that I had never killed them-
It brought me no peace.
I burnt those coats years ago from shame.

With even frequency whales wash up on the beach,
I pull the sinews from their monstrous corpses.
Pulling sinew through birdskin as thread
I stitch the cormorants together as a dress,
The black of the feathers so irredeemable
As to become in places blue.
I hope to finish it in the next thousand days
And wear it as I burn the fallen trunk
And watch the pretty island grasses
Escape the island as smoke.