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Recorded at 'Citizens of the Archive' at the National Poetry Library, July 2017. Written for Nelson Mandela.
So much time has passed. Snow-
flakes fall round lit street lamps.
They’re falling in Glasgow
They’re falling in Norway
Would it be good for me
not to say “so much time”?
Would it be better if
I could say “I’m alive
and I remember snow-
flakes falling round street lamps
when I was very young
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.