You taught me
the language of the lake. To know
from the fender’s thud against the boat,
the frizzle spiralling down the birch,
the thrumming of the palm, which wind
will soon scribble its name across
the open pages of the lake; if we should
fasten the moorings and lock
the shutters close—
or hoist sail and razor through
the colours of the sky.
And hear the bow whine drawn across a saw
of swan wings, with their background beat.
To read, as well, its changing lines.
The precise calligraphy
of the south wind marking
short, tight strokes, the bold
slashes of Tramontana,
the curling loops a rare west wind
scrawls across the lake. The wayward doodles
of the crazy Cus.
And its notes: the eye ripples
of the plunging grebe, the deltas
drawn by moorhens, the points of light
stippled by oars at dusk.
Perhaps now I am learning
your language, too.
The quick shirring worry pulls
under the clear surface of your skin,
the curling scribbling
of untranslated thought, the sudden
thrum of your fears. On your parchment face
is written love in cursive, loss
in strokes. I will not read
the gothic hand, I fear
it is prophecy.
Your thoughts plunge
beneath the chill surface of your skin.
I wait, praying
for ripples of light in the dusk.
He likes my tongue. I tell him tales
Of wisdom, folly, daring, wit. He hangs
Snake-like from my lips. Each night I knot
A magic carpet of bright words, fly with him
To fabled lands, hook multicoloured dreams
On minarets, call up lovers overbold to stir
Fresh passion in his disillusioned breast, light up
His gaze with lamps that glow like djinni’s spells
And promise splendours yet untold: enchantments,
Wishes granted, rubies, gold . . . a thousand stories
That unfold. I give him dragons worthy
Of his might, the velvet raptures of one night,
Sweet songs for his delight, a houri’s veil of tales
To haze his worldly eyes. I surprise him with
The terrors of the seas, great monsters that would
Seize his fleets, the bubbling forests of the deep.
He laps it up, attends to every word I say, wants more . . .
and so dawn comes and I may live another day!
. . . her Sultan
I like her tongue. While she tells me tales
It flicks like snake between her coral lips, their shine
Just hazed intriguing by her veil. A thousand velvet nights I’ve
Spied with half-closed eyes the pale moons
Of her breasts rise from silk that scarcely hides
Her lust for ardent lovers conjured from a virile past.
Wisdom runs from me like the sea, it’s folly my desire
To take her here and now on this artful rug
Under these dragon lamps coiling subtle fire.
To end her endless tales I’d tear from her those
Gauzy houri’s veils, fill her with delight
Sweeter than any eunuch’s scented ice, dissolve
The dawn terror in her eyes, drown her bubbling fears
Of morning’s light, slay the rearing monsters in
Her chattering mind. But from this game as from
A djinni’s lamp unwind exquisite spirals
Of desire. I’ll play this game out just one more night!
(Of course, I never listen to a word she says. . .)
Not at all the kind of tree you’d expect to find
In a monastery garden. It squears above the wall
Its giant fingers horning the heavens, effing
Up at the skies. And the nuns who moved in have
Left it there, yet chopped down
The stammering mimosa, the cherry whose blossom danced
A Swan Lake over the boughs, the sacred yew by the gate with
The scarlet berries we plucked and sucked and spat at
The monastery well. But a monkey puzzle?
Was it an abbot who had planted it, a symbol
Of life’s labyrinth or of evil’s intricacies? Did he intend it
To stand as a speechless sermon long after he’d died?
Is it a warning of purgatory’s trials or a statement
Of the life we are confusedly living: snared, squittering
In Fate’s mesh while the Dark Hunter, unmoved,
Looks on? Or does it symbolize nothing
At all, have no significance, is just a prelate’s whim,
A caprice to slip between the lines of the Rule?
From my window at night that tree plays games
With the stars; tracing a Nine Men’s Morris
Over the mooning sky. Soundless as shadows
Nuns slide under its boughs—who’s to tell if it grabs at
Their veils or pricks them on their way? Or do they—
For some penance or for a sly joy—clamber
Into its bristly branches, struggle out of their
Caught and cumbersome habits, and wriggle,
Naked and lithe as monkeys, up to the winking stars?
“... a viscid annual or short-lived perennial”
In Umbrian fields; stooping, tanned, straw
hats over cotton fazzoletti, they slowly pan
down lines of green; the flowers, cow-lung
pink, clustered in a brazen showing. Heat
shimmers the scene unreal; a card discarded
from a faded pack, its colours smudged and blurring.
On shaded terraces we pour cool wine, gaze while
they heap the baskets, carts, and straighten,
sighing; take the loads in lines to sheds,
seeds of sweat and tiredness shining.
No, thanks, I don’t! Leaves shrivel, twist,
contract like hands with fingers yellowing,
losing lymph like leaves their cool ellipses.
Heat swirls the smoke haze of the shed;
in the darkening day a choking, bitter scent.
You cultivate flowers of your own; their petals
soft as ash, flyaway as clocks of dandelions.
Cut it out! Or down, at least. You’re young...
You laugh, inhale, breathe blossoms newly blown,
whorled, impalpable, feathery as down.
I close my eyes; see petals flake, fall, form
loam where spores seed, mycelia creep
and black fungi slowly grow.
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