The holidays

The dog’s at the window again
barking at nothing,
at sunlight and winged commas,
the full-stopped silence of a plane.
He barks like a typewriter and the world
is a broken paragraph in my head.

***

What time is it? Where?
America, Egypt, Japan?
No good. Here?
Clock on the wall
hasn’t worked for years,
maybe. Or days. Or maybe
it’s always been eleven to two.
No, don’t fix it.
I prefer its hands still.
This way we live forever.

***

Read my mind. There are whole hours
during which we don’t speak a word
to each other. Then
occasionally, I hear you exhale,
sharply,
like you’ve suddenly remembered to breathe.

Homescar

The fan stutters in a corner.
Gargling sighs.
The room’s dark.
On the windowsill a brand-new lightbulb,
wrong size.
Your small fist of a heart.
What if love
-like anything organic-
expires?

Recall early words, sounds
dredged up from a swamp of years.
The bottled firefly of childhood
beating wings against glass.
Biting into a red apple,
its worm splitting in two in your mouth.
You used to sing hymns
and the sight of railways thrilled you.

The space between then and now is irreconcilable.
You would have never pictured this
among the drawings on your mother’s fridge,
among the football-and-grit-your-teeth
dreams of your father.
None of what came later was hinted at.
What would eventually be possible was kept hidden,
squirrelled away in the dark.

So the lamp is empty.
You still have the dead bulb;
it rattles when you hold it to your ear
like a dried-up sea.

***

What if the whole earth is a puzzle-box
you lift with trembling hands
to your face?

A music-box
whose wooden lips part
to reveal a revolving tongue,
someone’s infancy chewed slowly
between teeth and song?

A coffin-box
whose weight must be shouldered?

father’s watch
bungee cord
the seagull is dead

Biology

It takes only a little while.
Then he lies back
satisfied, snores.
Nothing about this has changed.
You are one small part of a machine
that unthreads days.

Get up. Wipe yourself clean.
Clean? We are practically made of bacteria.
More inside you than honest men
on God’s green earth.
You learnt their names as a schoolgirl:
Streptococcus. Clostridium.
Lactobacillus.
Thrilled by their names,
as if you were a planet
inhabited by these creatures.

But most planets have not played host
to so much as a cell.
Stare a while at his face.
This, too, is a world sleeping in darkness.
Reach out into that darkness
to touch his warm skin,
the slow rise-and-fall of his chest,
the organisms within.
He doesn’t stir.
If there’s life out there,
where is it?

 

Migrant

Walk, quiet, along empty fields
whose grass has lengthened
to sharp spindles,
or frayed where the countryside ends.
You could lean down here, unravel
England like a sweater.

These are cold days.
The sun’s early ache
is a month’s red pain repeated,
hollow urgent.
You walk without going.
Then a dog barks somewhere
– you are not wanted –
and the night peels itself from your lids.

Where did you come from?
These stars are strangers.
You draw the wrong shapes,
could not find your way home
with their cold light.
Where do you go?
The sun will be down by the time you get back.
You will tuck yourself into bed,
as though sleep could take you somewhere else.

In the thin, unsexy sky, a bird
eats its weight in food each day,
or dies.

This hope

The therapy makes her hair fall out.
Soft material
for bird’s nests, she jokes.
It lies in piles like the cat’s been sick.
They sharpen to splinters when she’s alone,
so every day, you vacuum
her pillow and sheets.

Later, you run careful fingers
over her small smooth skull.
Round and markless.
As if it were made to see the future in.

(A version of this poem was first published in issue 58 of The Interpreter’s House.)

Reading poetry

Shell peas from a meagre harvest.
Each a dented planet,
a solar system palmed

—but locusts are patient.
You feel them thrumming underground.

***

Fishbones are found in places
far removed from water,
like your throat.
Explain.

In ancient times,
this was a sea.

Next question: you are given a boat,
map and compass.
Make oceans.