In the Hereafter
Forget eternity, give me just one day.
The big white house above a scoop of sea,
whin spilling gold down glen behind it.
They’ve all turned up… Some, fresh from a dawn swim
are mooching round the garden, its great trees,
gazebo, flowerbeds where no petal drops;
but most, back late last night from the pub
where the fiddler brought down the rafters, are inside
sipping coffees. There are no hangovers.
Dogs barking, cock-crows from a distant field,
the high whirr of a coastguard helicopter
confirm all’s true, with the sun’s heat
in fissured stones of this wall I lean upon.
Letting things be. So they play chess, or r tennis
(swift as my thought, the courts appear),
devour the afternoon light with passionate talk.
A kindling, astonishingly become
the blaze life dreams of, nothing out of place
but, as it should be perpetually surprising.
When evening brings all indoors, there’s the party.
For you, my friends from scattered years and places,
not least those I lost track of through neglects,
sad fallings-out, or time’s attrition.
Effaced among the throng, my satisfaction
is seeing how, at what for most’s first meeting,
you like each other. As the moon sails out
from a hill, I slip away, to leave you talking:
books, love, jokes, blood fired, our music playing.
Enthroned in his cab atop the huge yellow Compactor
(bulldozers might be its kittens), chomping a burger,
Buster is monarch of all he surveys:
a refuse tip to horizon where Lincolnshire
flinches. He gropes rolls of gut for his mobile,
downloads Great Beckham Freekick Goals, then starts
the spiked wheels churning. In the rancid mulch he thwacks
are Shakespeare’s Works, old double-beds, dead kittens.
Buster has been around a long time.
Buster was hiding undeer a bush when Falstaff
flopped feigning, and the Douglas ramped off
for other quarry. Bellies up, they squinnied
at the Prince and Hotspur exchanging dunts,
till the latter fell. ‘Spare me such grinning honour,’
mused Falstaff over the corpse. ‘Back of the net!’
yodelled Buster, always a patriot.
The first million years were the worst. Watching stalactites grow
in a cave. Buster, never in shape for the chase,
was thrashed with a mastodon bone for being useless.
Glaciers bulged and withdrew, gouging landscape,
and no-one invented shops or the caring professions.
What would he like for his birthday? He daubed it beside
their wall hunt-voodoo: a Ferrari.
‘If God,’ said his mother, ‘meant us to move like that
we’d be born with wheels, not legs.’
Pissing in the fireless grate of a drasty inn
Buster rued pilgrimage. ‘Shoures soote’ forsooth!
He was drenched, saddle-sore, bored numb with their tales.
The prissy Prioress, that pimply Pardoner
Who’d sold him rats’ bones as holy relics.
A thump sent him sprawling: ‘Your turn!’ boomed the Host.
‘These three Irish plumbers met a Paki…’ The toff
who’d talked him into the trip didn’t lift his quill-pen.
Buster knew nothing of art, but he knew what he liked.
Not acres of dimpling boys on the Sistine ceiling.
Nor carting the Maestro’s supplies up, pisspots down.
Nor their food… When he quit the Italian job
he left an eye-level graffito, Mad Cow,
frothed lips ballooning, Eat Our British Burgers!
Buster sat out the Armada. Shipboard stockfish
had left him no stomach for it. Not to speak of
the sight of their sails, those long-range cannon.
Kindling fireships you’d never know how the weather
might blow. He tossed his cap high on North Foreland
when it wellied the Spaniards out of the park.
Then Sir Walter sailed home with a pallid tuber:
after that it was chips with everything.
When Buster came round from the drubbing his mother gave him
for eating the goose that laid golden eggs, she sent him
to market. He came home with beans.
She chucked them. One sprouted right through the clouds…
You know the rest: when she kick-started him up
his weight brought it down. They were sent to the workhouse.
Then there was the wife. Why do women have legs?
‘So they can walk from the bedroom to the kitchen,’
leered Buster. But this one, you never knew where she was.
Or who with. Bringing back watches, gowns, periwigs.
‘Red-card the trull, ref!’ The Beak sent her off – to Virginia.
But just as he settled, feet up and six-pack handy,
a key in the door, she reeled in ginned and bedizened,
his trouble-and-strife: Moll bloody Flanders.
Buster was fifteen, hardly yet quite bald,
when they sent him out to build Empire.
‘Sun, sex and sherbets, son.’ He had bad memories
from the Crusades: too fat to aim bows
so given a pike against mailed Saracen horsemen.
As well halt tanks. This time he was cannier,
when Zulus darkened the skyline, he shot his foot off.
Got shipped home to a desk-job in Recruitment.
‘Blood, sweat, tears, and toil.’ ‘No thanks,’ said Buster,
switching the wireless off. Our darkest hour?
Boom-time for the black market.
‘Nylons, lady?’ Clouds have silver linings.
Space? It takes the weight off your feet.
Buster won six golds at the Moon Olympics,
but declined orbit missions, telling his mates
in the Rat and Trumpet, You can’t pour pints out there.’
Dante has Buster sunk to the ears in his element:
filth, with the gluttons in Hell’s third circle.
It could be worse: the boiling-blood-bath for Violence
(too much like work), and as for those like straws
within nethermost ice, you can’t fault Buster on Treason.
‘Did we win the World Cup this year?’ The poet ignores him,
tags on behind Virgil, the voice of Reason.
‘Right, but there’s plenty more of me where I come from!’
The earliest tales had shown her the wronged child
triumphant, evil punished, sleights from hearth
to palace, wakenings. These enchantments filled
like sails of a tall ship her setting-forth.
Crossing frontiers brought more quest in view.
Such castles as still hulked across the track
proved empty ruins the rain whisted through.
Cleared of fierce beasts, the forest was pruned back.
Yet, out of reach now, the ogres crouched at screens
reprogrammong the terrain: a blighted street
closed round her, where in purring limousines
wolves grew sleek devouring easy meat.
No fairy godmother: the crone who took
the cakes she offered spat at her and cursed.
Geese laid no golden eggs; no flower spoke.
What metamorphosis did occur reversed
the books’: Prince Charming bearing bouquets, prized her,
but, settled for, turned Beast. You’ve made your bed,
lie on it, those she counted friends advised her.
Yet still there lurked, in pages she now read
to her child, the banished vision. Till a scald
of tears woke her one night, she crept tiptoe
to the junk room: there, just as the dream had told,
her long-lost slipper lay. Restored by no
royal claimant who would once have blurred
its gift: I am trust, by risking which, it glittered,
only, if only for few, comes quest’s reward.
She tried it on, took first steps. It still fitted.
When twilight comes it pulls the mountains near.
Keeping going, picking up after falls,
fording the rivers, had been enough to push
horizon on before me, keeping distance.
Now as a shiver passes through the grass
it closes in, looming, and no way of telling
what, if anything, might lie beyond it.
New-built, and fit for all its purposes:
spotless corridors ramify, lifts purr,
to where things happen, beyond the waiting areas
saccharined with wall pictures, fish in tanks.
A woman recalls sweets long gone, liquorice twist,
bull’s-eyes, flying saucers, ‘the Coronation
there in black-and-white on a twelve-inch screen.’
And one by one we are called, some wheelchaired on,
some helped by steadying arms.
‘State of the art,
all our equipment here,’ they tell me
as flat on my back I’m slid within
the CT scanner’s glimmering tunnel, fearing
that if this thing the biopsy found inside me
has spread, this suave machine won’t fail to find it.
‘Look! – snowdrops!’ cries my sister by the river
past Pull’s Ferry, ‘you could say
a drift of snowdrops.’ Delicately surmounting
wan February grass. A year ago
Veronica rejoiced in them: ‘Bucaneve!
Vedili!’ ��” then they were adrift on snow.
Now I kneel to stare at one close-up,
the tiny flower pendant on bare stem,
supplicant, heralding spring’s accession
through gold swathes of daffodils to May’s
hedgerows foaming with white hawthorn blossom.
Gift annually thrilling, yet at each
recurrence piercingly unique.
That now I can’t for next year take for granted.
As if a crash that somehow not abruptly
over carries on, no end in sight
yet caught within it visions of sweet elsewheres
clear of it. Yes, I’ll come to Venice,
talk poetry drinking wine by the canals;
and to yu in Taormina where
we’ll linger in the public gardens among
hibiscus and bougainvillea, hearing
toc… toc… toc… from the tennis courts,
balls flying to and fro, voices calling the score.
As just one rotten apple in the barrel
corrupts the whole, this cancer in my… No,
that’s cliché… Nor does biology know
moral categories. So let’s say
a pearl, occasioned by one speck of grit,
expanding in layers round it…
inside my head, as head-and-shoulders clamped
to a narrow table by the Perspex mask
they beam the radiation through
But neither will that image do:
the pearl protects the mollusc, doesn’t kill it…
Trying words for this shifts it to a plane
where I embrace it…
‘As spores inhabiting
an organism reproduce to spread…’
Hoping their rays will zap the bastard thing.
The view from here pulls far things close and clear:
short-trousered, Elastoplast on knees, and hair
incorrigible, a bunch forever vying
come to the stream. Rope slung over a bough,
each swings, lets go, makes it to the far side
no worse for a grazed palm or shoeful of water,
myself among them, and pushes on,
gobstoppers bulging cheeks, snapping off shoots,
whooping, reckless, vanishing
into forest… Careers, marriage, divorces,
and, these overcome, what’s still to come.
Deaf to my warning cry, ‘Mind how you go!’
Feet padding up behind me, fast, and coming
abreast he slows, turns to me: twenty-ish,
just thin white shorts and vest against the wintry
sift of rain along the river footpath.
‘Which way should I head to reach the airport?’
‘At the next bridge go up to the road, turn right,’
I detail junctions, veers, ‘then from the Greyhound
keep right on out to the ring-road, cross it,
it’s two miles further.’
Rather him than me.
‘Thanks.’ He scuds off into twilight under
bare trees lurched at the water’s edge as if
stunned in mid-spasm, clutching at thin air.
Then it comes back: how once I did all this,
and daily, training, how you bowl along
gulping lungfuls, the world spinning beneath
your feet, the streetlamps flicking overhead,
reeling in distance, home with all that time
for evenings deep in books, or seeing friends.
How has time got so much less? Why have I never,
and now never shall, become…
But it’s not those
far-flung goals all around ambition’s compass
that ail me, but things missed out near-at-hand.
Leaves lie shoaled, and as I’ve not since childhood
I stoop, scoop up an armful, glistening, rustling,
then shudder with the pang of realising
I cannot name the trees above them. Rain
fresh as ever on my cheeks, my hands
let their freight splash gently back to earth
they’ve rarely dug, and never made a garden.