It is the end of empire and still she has not noticed,
sitting silently in classrooms, the comfort
of maps and globes tricked out in pink,
a litany of possession persuaded to her lips.
Time will bring her to an atlas of despair,
certainties mere footnotes, names in brackets
harking back to Empire Days,
to soldier's caps in creased and folded newspaper,
Union Jacks too grand for anything
but flags. That rust that grew on drawing pins
has pinned her there to scratch out essays,
anxious that no blot disturb the fluid of her thoughts.
The paper slubs on rotes of capitals and dates,
the import/export trade, great men,
exciting her to write long past the bell,
past change and class and attitude; past me
here, taking my position up, the windows shut,
chalk so dry it squeaks across the board,
half noticing the dust I raise in clouds,
is peppering my clothes, is whitening my skin, my hair.
In years the house was tied to land, each day
they’d throw the ashes out,
shovel night soil from the privy,
riddle off accumulated dross
and dump enough of it, it seems,
to harry out the grass,
kill off the campion and vetch
that seed the back lot and the wood,
all apart from this one corner,
rank with nettles, hogweed, gritty underfoot,
black with clinker from the range
they’d never suffer to go out.
It’s here a man,
when prodding at the surface with a spade,
will turn up shards and snapped off corners
of a life dead fifty years;
the pots and jars and bottle tops
still tellingly familiar
from the brands that chance brought forward
to his childhood,
the loyalties that managed to cling on
into the time he overlapped,
the way this life,
that turns up tangled in the roots of weeds,
did not. It rusted shut
like all the tins left rotting in the soil
that cannot be forced open,
cannot give a whiff of what’s inside
but still might drop a hint at from their shape,
from something barely noticed
bossed upon the lid
a man might try but fail to read, like braille.
A PROOF OF THE UISTS
No pencil, ruler, mapping pen
could graph these islands the way
light and shadow,
scrolling their profile along the horizon,
show them today. Current and tide race,
texture the page they glide upon,
while sunlight – sea reflected – streaks
like bog cotton tugged in the wind,
cutting the lines which swell
to peak after peak, each its own
distance away. Their bulk,
distilled to a thread
of low and lochan herded shore,
lies like a strap of bladder wrack
along the world's edge. The pilot pen
steers the eye, draws the line across
the pupil and the iris, bites it, etches in.
Vaternish, Isle of Skye
He'd tie them by their necks
with binder twine
his father slipped him from the shed,
watch mouse flesh stiffen, give up
what he knew of life
suspended from the fence: each skeleton
a minuscule perfection.
And later, with the rats,
whose worm-grooved tails a half-inch tack
fixed limp outside the byre,
he'd study transformation, till each
tined incisor grinned.
In growing up with vermin – weasels, stoats
and more – he'd learned them all
the hard way, strung up on a wire:
the thieves that flanked the killing ground
of Christ, the hoodie crow
they'd pinned spread-eagled on a rail
and planted in the margins of the yard.
There worms diced
meat and muscle for his robes,
the alpha and the omega,
each quill a black and feathered script,
his writing on the wall.
THE BOOK OF BELONGINGSDuring the Bosnian conflict, to identify remains found in mass graves, relatives relied on albums showing items found with the dead.
The book of belongings of those found dead
lies open across my lap. I cradle it and look and look,
not knowing what I must find, half hoping to recognise nothing.
Photograph after photograph, page after page
of someone's jacket, trousers, shirt: I'm searching the fabric
for stitches my hand has known, for threads my thumb has pulled.
This book is heavy with more than belongings:
with gestures an arm has left in a sleeve,
with breath filling the breast of a shirt.
I place a plate on a table surrounded by empty chairs.
Each speaks to me in the voice of a husband, a son.
Those found dead are a handful. I sweep away the crumbs.