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Poems on the Underground, Series 68. 2007.
Stealing from his mother’s house,
Edward came across a hand-written note
tucked away in a scallop-shell purse, which seemed at first
to be some sort of letter or short story, but here’s what it said:
“As a child, Edward liked to climb trees in the plantation
and make dams in the stream at the foot of the garden,
and once carved a bookmark from a piece of wood.
But right from the very beginning there was an absence in Edward’s life,
a craving emptiness which grew like the black pit of a dilating eye.
Where that void came from neither the teachers nor doctors could say,
except that it was there from the very start,
curled up beside him in his crib, hiding in the grip of his fist,
drinking from the water vapour in his breath.
Nothing could suture that dark, famished wound.
Board games and soft toys, space-hoppers and bikes –
the more it was given the deeper and wider it grew.
All sweetness was rancid on Edward’s tongue.
All handshakes were tentacles, all compliments were veiled threats,
all statements and assessments were worthless confessions
obtained under torture, all care-plans were Byzantine conspiracies of evil intent.
Awake and asleep Edward stalked the battlements alone,
meeting the emissaries of peace with the point of a bayonet,
beading friendship in the crosshairs of suspicion,
scanning the open plane from the watchtower
so as to ride out and beat until dead the first flames of tenderness
or the sparks of love. He is survived by his mother, Eleanor,
from whom he took everything, but who would give it all again
just to let him scream his agonies into her face
or pound his fury into her breast one final time. He left no note.”
Edward opened the wardrobe, which was empty
except for the greatcoat, which slumped towards him
then engulfed him as he hauled it from the rail.
The huge, overburdening coat with its stiff, turf-like cloth,
and the heavy legs of its sleeves, and the triceratops collar
and the mineshaft pockets and the drunken punches of its flailing cuffs.
Through the neat bullet hole in the back, daylight looked distant and pinched,
like the world through a dusty telescope held back-to-front to the eye.
And there Edward wept, crouched in the foxhole,
huddled in a ball under the greatcoat, draped in the flag.
Testing the new filling in my mouth with my tongue
I’m walking to the station from the dentist’s,
when the man who’d sat opposite me in the waiting room
pulls up in his car, guesses where I’m headed, offers me a lift.
Though he could be the father of any of my friends,
a serial granddad, I don’t know him from Adam,
couldn’t possibly say yes, but when I say no thanks
he seems so offended, puts his foot down as I quicken my steps.
Watching his tail lights disappear around the corner,
along with an earlier train to my job in the city,
I’m sorry it’s not a September morning four hundred years ago.
He’d have been certain to know my husband
and I’d have been on my way to market to sell the last
of my lettuces. I’d have hopped on to the back of his cart
along with my six children and a goat, which my third youngest
had insisted on bringing. He’d have told me about his five sons,
seven daughters and thirty nine surviving grandchildren,
one of whom was bound to be called Adam. Then my Cuthbert
would have started singing a popular ballad to his beloved goat,
in time to the steady clop of the hooves of the horse,
and we’d have all joined in, our teeth (untouched by sugar)
sparkling in the fully filtered light.
This is my house. My sweat is in the mortar
& hewn wood. This garden of garlic blooms
is mine, too, said last night’s pale ghost.
I know every crack where cold & light
try to sneak in, & where the past tongues
& grooves the future. I own every rusty nail.
This fence wasn’t here when hobnailed boots
marched us into the night. I remember all
the cat-eye marbles would roll to this corner
of the kitchen. This tree limb my uncle cut
to make a witching rod. Here’s the mark
an anniversary candle left on the counter,
said the ghost, slowly fingering
the deep burn like an old wound.
Now, dirt-bike trails crisscross
the apple grove my father planted.
The goat tied beside the back gate
belongs to my progeny of beautiful
goats. You sold the mineral rights
under our feet, but the bird we hear
singing overhead in a Yiddish accent
owns the morning. These roses are mine
because I’ve walked through fire.
Go & tell your drinking buddies
& psychoanalyst, your neighbor
has risen from the ashes. I wonder
if I should tell you about the love letters
hidden behind the doorjamb. This house
still stands among my lavender flowers.
Tell your inheritors to think of me
when they smile up at the sky.