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,
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,
No, I cannot stand.
Cannot begin again, cannot return
to where I left off:
five or six of my shirts,
grey underwear, white socks
– like things that lived –
hung in my small bathroom, drying
while it rains outside,
and there I am, remembering, almost,
as though this rain had fallen before,
or in the knowledge that it will fall again.
I turn the hourglass by the sink
and measure out three good minutes
A chore that I’ll be thankful for in later years.
Tonight the ground will be soft
and I’ll fall asleep to the milling throats
of toads, the sound
playtime, but also other memories:
on my knees, for example,
mumbling at the dark.
At what was out there, listening.
And still others
which I could name or describe
Enough to say my mother
gave me an hourglass
and also a pocket-sized portrait
of a man who looked nothing like Christ,
which I kept because what else could have been done?
who will bring me water from the dark
beyond this quiet land,
or hold my hand?
In the tiny bathroom, beside
the one cake-bristled toothbrush
that remained, in its place,
was the hourglass.
I was surprised to see it there – at first –
then not surprised,
that time that my mother had been keeping.
I spun it in my strangely untrembling hand
and set it down
to watch three minutes trickle irrevocably away,
and decided this too was prayer.
They tied our tails together,
watched us scuttle blind,
hungry, dirty, mewling.
You can’t imagine what it was like
to be born in that place,
in that way.
When one of us died,
we dragged the corpse with us
because we could not let it go.
You toss a busker a dirty moon,
still warm from the touch of your thigh.
It clinks onto other
God bless you. Not a missed beat;
this is normal. The everyday.
The sound, though, will follow you underground,
trembling for a name.
Eyes glitter like sharp teeth
in the headlamps of cars.
Aren’t we all animals?
Piss odd shapes against the wall.
This here’s Art. The rest?
Some rich kid pretended
to be homeless, died.
I was mugged in this alley.
Three rough boys, the moon on their knives.
There it came to me:
Streetlamps are not stars,
but from far enough away
you can dream stars in them.
They took my phone,
the wallet with your photograph.
Not one of us spoke.
What could we have said?
What if the stars are watching us, instead?
I think it was beautiful – sometimes
I still feel afraid.
The face! just like your mother’s, or
was it the hair, the voice,
the clothes – and you are
thousands of miles and decades ago.
Following a stranger
with hooded eyes. Lost.
Then a car horn, someone speaks,
and you are back again, answering
in the wrong language,
clearing throat to unstick words.
What are the names for these things?
The crowd is nothing else. I am fine,
The kerb presses through your shoe-sole.
We are a long way from the mountains.
You understand? God can’t see
Write home when you can.
Easy to end here.
They would rifle through your pockets,
find the plastic rectangle
that names you.
They would call the numbers
on your phone and reach no one.
Take you away, find
who learns – too late –
that in this unfamiliar language
there is no true word for home.
You had an uncle
who moved there.
No one’s heard from him in years.
I forget his name.
This place has constellations.
Not like where you came from.
That was the main difference
– at first, anyway.
You would not tell this to anyone.
Engines or sirens
remind you of home.
These and the flickering words
of your mother
delivered across oceans.
They hit with enough force to drown.
Salt eats faces, voices,
is starting to stick in your throat.
You speak it to yourself
when nobody is listening.
Sometimes, you forget which word means what,
and must ask, when you can, like a child.
When she asks how you are,
you don’t lie:
They treat me well.
I’m happy here.
She asks for photos.
Wishes you’d write more.
From time to time you send back
an image like the real thing.
Your face, the street you live on.
Once you even turned the lens on the night,
but the camera failed you
and in the still the sky was black.
The therapy makes her hair fall out.
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.)
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.
In ancient times,
this was a sea.
Next question: you are given a boat,
map and compass.