Is it because she can hear nothing that she strains her eyes
to see the farthest stars? Her ears blur sound
but her eyes look through the thirteen lenses
layered inside this telescope she’s invented;
her eyes see all the known stars of the universe
and she’s the one who starts recording them.
Her mind – the brightest one in Harvard, so they say –
works out a way of knowing how far away
a star is from the earth: by calculating brightness,
she can measure distance. Because of this,
they start to map out space: to calibrate
how big the Milky Way is, how old the universe.
She finds new stars – novae that suddenly
shine bright, then fade away. Cancer eclipses her.
By the time they think of her for the Nobel, she’s dead.
Instead they name a crater on the moon for her.
The maps of galaxies go on and on expanding.
She’s watching from a soundless place, light years ahead.
This keepsake, your sketchbook
of Orkney, has pencil drawings of the sea
annotated with soft, northern tones:
‘steel grey’, ‘light blue’, ‘pale mauve’.
If I could have brought you something back
from Canada, it would have been the memory
of the colours of the lakes and rivers there,
the words for them, ‘deep turquoise’, ‘milky green’.
This would have been your gift. Instead,
a sense of something missing,
like water lifted from its element,
and running through my fingers, colourless.
It is a place of bones.
Catherine’s herself like safely fleshless
shrined in a blue box in her own chapel.
Martyred in the desert, a monastery
grew round her skeleton, dry bones
sprouting a place of pilgrimage,
a place of cypresses and olives
green in the wafer-dry peninsula
that holds out its thirsty tongue
to lap the salt of the Red Sea.
For a thousand years monks have been here:
drawn by some divining rod of vocation
to this source of water in the desert.
In this whitewashed room are heaped
the skulls of a millennium of them:
lining the walls, filling the cupboards,
lying in mounds on the floor,
each one exhumed and here exhibited,
anonymous, having lost below earth
that skin that was the colour of rock at sunrise
and the eye brown as a fresh date,
the black ringlet threaded with a silk of white hair
the crinkle which the smile carved.
It is a place where bones are causally shown,
where they become as normal
as the scant rockiness of landscape
that is all the eye has to look upon.
It is the monastery’s grapefruit tree,
it is the fact of pilgrims sill arriving
or of one of the monks
offering cups of sweet tea
and biscuits flavoured with herbs
which in this strip of earth
is rarity, is miracle.
The memory of this has been distilled
until all that’s left is whiteness –
the bleached wood of the stool
with the fingerhole to lift it,
the enamel surface of the table,
his cotton vest as he stands by the sink,
face in the mirror bearded with shaving soap,
the warm milk keeping on the stove.