Click a title to read the poem.

POPPIES


in memoriam

JOHN JAMES GARLAND
Second Lieutenant
1st/2nd Bn. Gloucestershire Regiment
killed
Tuesday 9 July 1918
age 26

also
in loving memory
of
HELENA MARY PICKERING
neé Garland
died
17 December 1982

requiem aeternam


Venetian Glass
To my father walking in the garden
Last Songs
Pulp Fiction
Earth
In a Psychiatric Ward
Hampstead
Family Affairs
Time and Circumstance
Idiot Child
 
 

We ask so much of flowers.
To them we attach
a simplicity we lack,
an innocence we crave.

How would we remember our dead,
but for their simplicity?
How would we assuage our guilt,
but for their innocence?

On this their Remembrance Day,
A sister mourns her dearest brother.
Let us honour him with flowers.
After all, we asked so much of them.

 
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Ladbroke Grove 1984

VENETIAN GLASS

Is it compassion that lingers around objects?
Take this ashtray, choked with cigarettes,
the can of beer, or that worn leather armchair
with the scored upholstery, the colour TV.
He suspected as much, being a sensitive man.
The rest belonged to his wife. The plastic
vegetable rack which survives them both,
the sacked wardrobe, the scattered clothes -
That cracked decanter in Venetian glass,
bought on their honeymoon, he always said.
It used to stand over there by the window
(I remember the marriage of light and gold).
Of course, he broke it like everything else,
You can still see the mark on the wall.

He used to fondle it for hours, watching
the light sift through it like sand.
As if he divined something of the lives
that handled it, something he lacked.
Remorse perhaps, the need for absolution?
I suspected as much, being a sensitive child.
He threw his life at her for twenty years;
he aimed to miss and hit her every time.
She broke in the end, too long apprenticed
to his sorcery. Her fault, of course.
Take it to the window, hold it to the light -
Is that compassion, glass, or beaten gold?
Hoarding in its mineral calm, something
of the life they had promised each other.

 
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Hoxton 1987

TO MY FATHER WALKING IN THE GARDEN

for Steve

Who saw you walking this earth,
lost in its shadow, tending
your wounds, your flowers?

Knew what your warm hands
thought of his life
when you held the boy in your arms?

O what have you made, sung,
breathed into his cool clay
that still it refuses the kiln, will

not be made whole, but lost in
the firing, cracks, powders,
if only to reveal what your raised hand

never allowed him to show?

 

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Bethnal Green 1987

LAST SONGS

for Veronique

So many days like this
so many nights

soft hand
and softer breast -

and now, the years...

 

Kalymnos

Summer we said
in a chalk white room
chair, table
and bed

Summer we said
and nothing
to answer to
only desire

chair, table
or bed
summer we said
we said


we said

 

After you left

On the first day
I slept for a year

On the second day
I stared at the wall

On the third day
I demolished a city

On the fourth day
I managed a coffee

On the fifth day
I shared a cigarette

On the sixth day
I answered to your name

On the seventh day
I was shown the instruments -

desirexxxxxxxxxxmemoryxxxxxxxxxxxxxtime

I wept


they await my confession

 
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Bethnal Green 1987

PULP FICTION

i.m. Raymond Carver

She wants a beach house in Malibu,
a neat little place, with a calico cat
in the window bay and the breeze
coming in off the ocean, filling the curtains
she's chosen herself, finding its way off
the Pacific as easily as the words
she types out on the clean white page…
And you believe her, not because it
happens to be next to Rod Steiger,
(third from the end facing the beach)
but because she makes you see it,
all the way through the bar smoke
to South California, see her working
through the small hours, only stopping
to make fresh coffee, empty the trash,
or load the barrel with another leaf
of clean white paper… and writing,
writing, writing, the kind of stuff you can
show people, that makes them want
to know more, like where you come from
and who your Pop was and when's
the best time to write… the kind of stuff
that gets you out of bars like this
and into beach houses in Malibu, cats
in calico coats and views of the ocean…
And you want to ask her, seriously
ask her, What is it that stops a person?
makes a body feel they're living next-door
to life, like a party down the block when
all you get is the bass guitar. But you can't,
so you buy her a drink, something tall
with a twist of lemon and a name
you'd like to forget… And you ask her
what she likes to hear, because that's
what we talk about when we talk about love -
like where does she come from and
where the hell is that, who is her Pop
and just when is the best time to write.

 
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Hampstead 1986

EARTH

i.m. Bill Pierce, ploughman

It was the earth what done it.
That's what she liked to think.
Not the Woodbines, the drink,
but the earth. Muck. The stuff

under his fingernails
that wouldn't scrub out.
Brought into the house
every day of her life

on the soles of his boots.
Climbing the stairs, soiling
the carpet, the sheets.
An incontinent child.

It was there from the start.
Autumn it was, the War.
Courting days. Carrying
his lunchbox out to the fields,

walking behind him, watching
the clay sucking at his heels,
wanting him back. Jealous, back
then, even before he asked;

Or laying with him, clumsy like,
between the furrows. His hands
already bark to her soft flesh.
The earth, their marriage bed.

Forty year it was. Forty years,
yoked to the thing, crawling,
he was, like his animal,
out from under a granite sky.

Turning the stubble they call it.
Giving back what you get, that's
what he said. She had to laugh.
What with the muck silting his veins,

the stone lodged in the spine,
bent so as to smell his own backside.
And now, at the last,
A gobful of earth.

And he was good with a scythe,
could have beaten Death
at his own game. But He took
him sudden like, out the back,

planting the earth again. Couldn't
keep off of it, fingers poking
the soil like a seed drill.
Lettuce for the days of her grief.

She laid him out, watching disbelief
harden on his face.
She scoured him like a doorstep,
but she couldn't get it out, not

from under his fingernails.
None of it, not even the smell.
Especially that, lingering
on his flesh like the scent

of another woman. The one he brought
to her bed every night of his life.
Jealous, even now.
She got between them in the end.

 
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Hoxton 1987

IN A PSYCHIATRIC WARD

All have their dream of healing.
Waking to birdsong, leaf-light, dawn
bursting like a sack of wheat; or

gently buoyed in perfumed water,
to emerge, towelled and smiling,
helpless beneath anointing hands.

Not this corridor of polished ice,
lit by a striplight's epileptic
shudder, a gleaming dance floor

where you are your only partner,
your only dance, a thorazine shuffle.
Here you pace out what little space

your mind allows. Elsewhere, others
escape into pain, precise, negotiable:
carcinoma, malign perhaps, but

a language we can still pronounce.
Words cannot survive here,
not at this depth,

they curl at the edges,
snap, become their origins,
a cry, the scream you were born with.

In this fraternity of strangers,
love is masked in a simple truth
and schooled in the torturer's art -

you part the flesh to find the bone.

 
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Royal Free Hospital, Hampstead 1983

FAMILY AFFAIRS

So here you are, writing postcards
beside the pool.
A fallow body, opening

to the sun, desiring occupancy.
On lease, so to speak.
In short, negotiable.

You mention the weather,
and yes, you arrived safely,
(despite the cuisine).

You wish they were here,
but the marriage, the children…
Besides, you needed a rest.

Gentle lies, quiet, dependable,
easy for the heart to digest,
in the car to the airport, over

lunch at his club, and
sparing on friends. Ah well…
More oil, perhaps?

Gentle lies, postcard sentiments,
stuck to the mirror
with a pinch of Blu-Tac, rolled,

like this, between finger and thumb,
until it's supple, responsive,
impatient to the touch -

a pinch of plastic explosive.

 
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Swiss Cottage 1986

HAMPSTEAD

There, you see, you managed a little walk.
I told you, didn't I? Look at the rain,
it's almost tropical. Nonsense, you need
the exercise. Waitress! Busy little thing.
It's amazing how they squeeze us all in.
Now, tea or coffee? No, they're far too rich
for you. A scone, perhaps? Coffee, please,
black, but not too strong. No gateaux, no.
You've changed your mind. I thought you might.
Two coffees, yes. Now don't start, please!


With a daughter in school, a son in Hong Kong,
Brandy under the rosebed, and Gerald, gone,
she often found herself here, talking to Mother.
She adored the little trays they served
the tea on, the doomed upholstery, the past.
Not English, no, European, Hungarian perhaps.
She tried to discriminate, as Gerald
would have wished. But the Cutlers liked it here.
And Mother wouldn't meet her anywhere else.
Besides, anywhere else was an empty house.


I'm disgusted with her. She could have picked
the phone up, any evening after six.
Just to let me know if nothing else. Waitress!
I need a chemist, and I must catch the post.
Quentin, of course. I can't afford to ring!
Hong Kong isn't England, you know.
I do wish they'd hurry up and leave it
to the Chinese. They deserve it, after all.
Ah, here we are. Sugar? Mother, really,
you haven't listened to a word I've said.


Mother never listened, hadn't for years,
and now she was deaf. Deaf to what mattered -
the Insomnia, the Alcohol, the Chinks…
The three R's, as Gerald always said.
Dear Gerald, rotten with politics,
cancer, defeat. She tried to forget, but
memory flared, abrupt, malarial.
That ghastly business in the yellow press.
And he loved the Chinese. He was Chinese!
She organised the milk, while Mother poured.


The ingratitude! I mean, we tried to help.
What else are empires for? More milk, perhaps?
I did ask, didn't I? How does who cope?
Scotch, I expect, and a full-time nanny,
of course. Heavens, it's almost twenty-past,
you might have said. He'll never forgive me
if I don't catch the post. Waitress!
Poor little thing. Attractive though.
Not English, no. Iranian, perhaps…
Another revolution, I suppose.

 
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Tel Aviv 1991

TIME AND CIRCUMSTANCE

He is seventy-seven years old.
He has led a glamorous life.
He lived in New York for forty years.
He married his American wife in Hamburg.
They had two sons before she died.
Now he lives alone.

During the Second World War he laid
over 300 minefields beneath the Sahara.
Some are still there.
Last year he suffered a stroke
that paralysed his right side.
He lives in constant pain.

Although his sons now live in Germany,
they visit him when occasion demands.
When the silence gets too loud
he will often sit in this caf?.
It is filled with young people.
Last week he awoke with an erection.

Today he forgot to shave.
He finds it strange that while his hair
continues to grow on his chin,
it now refuses to grow on top of his head.
So he wears a cloth cap and at 77
still finds his vanity hard to believe.

He wears a pair of light grey trousers
with a cigarette burn in the flies.
A light check shirt and faded green pullover
with matching rally jacket and broken zip.
His trousers are held up with a tie,
his jacket is bound with the trouser belt.

He always wears the same clothes.
He often sleeps in them because he finds
dressing and undressing difficult.
The major obstacles in his life
are swing doors and shirt buttons.
Walking he finds almost impossible.

This he does with the aid of a light
aluminium frame with rubber handles.
When he sits down it remains standing
at a discreet distance, cultivating
anonymity like a faithful servant.
The whole contraption reminds him

of a favourite bike and a small boy
who dreamed of circling the world.
One day he will throw it out of the window.
It will sustain considerable damage
as his flat is on the sixth floor.
Generally, the lift is in working order.

He has no friends. His enemies are dead.
With the exception of arthritis and dust.
There are no luxuries in his life, apart
from the knowledge that he'll soon be dead.
He looks forward to meeting his wife
and only hopes she recognises him.

He finds his flesh smells sweeter
with each passing year.
Especially when it rains.
His urine is laced with blood,
but he still manages to void his bowels.
His stool remind him of airgun pellets.

He misses the occasional Scotch.
After he suffered his stroke
the doctor put him on a course of pills
that denied him the consumption of alcohol
and the operation of heavy machinery.
But he finds he sleeps better.

He still smokes Marlboro cigarettes.
They remind him of life in America
and his beautiful wife.
He was in charge of a large office.
Three secretaries worked under him
all day and sometimes far into the night.

He earned $160 a week.
He now draws a pension of £45.
He tipped the waitress 50p on a £3 bill.
Three pounds worth of hot chocolate.
He cannot lift the cup to his lips
so he drinks it through a cocktail straw.

It took him one minute to leave his seat.
After he climbed on his walking frame
he stopped for a two minute warm-up.
Then he set out across the floor
with the deliberation of an astronaut
taking his first steps on a strange planet.

Before he left it took him five minutes
to place a packet of Marlboro in his top pocket.
It takes him an hour to walk one hundred yards.
To him the approximate distance from this table
to his front door is roughly the time
it took Hannibal to cross the Alps.

 
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Hampstead 1986

IDIOT CHILD

for my mother

To look up and see his face,
drifting in the window
like a tethered balloon,

and looking through him
see her room,
freighted with silence,

like the weight of snow.
To have lived
here for twenty years

and not to know
even suspect
what it's all for -

that sloping field
across the road,
the weathered stones

we hid behind,
watching her go.

To look up and see him there -
cartoon face,
hanging by a question mark,

a ragged hook -
and quickly turn away,
noting how

the apple tree has
split beneath
the weight of snow:

her death,
still moving in the world.

 
 

Tel Aviv 1992

 
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