I always loved the hair. Deadly as a basilisk’s eye,
its mass of writhing curls. I imagine it fanned
out on the waves, a tangle of basking snakes,
while schools of porpoise sift my follicles.
And I, washed by the ocean’s wake,
the lit bell of my body a corona of light,
its photoproteins strobing the dark water.
And here in the pelagic zone, I pirouette,
glide on the current with my slender tentacles.
Oh, how seahorse and turtle envy my grace,
the drift of my slow adagio in the easy trawl
of sea. But washed up on the shore
like a pale urchin, I pulse my life out on the sand,
a white dwarf flickering, cooling. Turning you
metamorphic in a single lithic glance,
my dying locks still hissing in the surf.
As a boy, instead of calculus, he learned
to read blowfly and fluke; to find
the nest of maggots in a struck foot,
reach his fingers inside the birth canal
and ease breached legs from a womb.
At shearing time, he’d flip the sheep over,
deftly strip wool from the backbone
with a quick flick of his wrist.
The lifted fleece rolled, stored in a bag,
his hands sleeked soft with lanolin.
He remembers how he gentled a lamb’s chin
tilting it just so to take the bottle;
herded the wintered ewes back to the fell
or gathered the unruly tups, coats snagged
like trinkets of cloud across the fence.
Days he prayed that rain would not come,
not today, not until his lambs were sturdied
and strong. Nights when fox or dog
had ripped the newborn throats
and crows had stolen their eyes away.
Winters he’d struggled through the snow
to dig them from the drifts. Times
when his hands were grazed and torn;
when the crack of them augured a bitter frost
and his heart floundered in searing cold.
Now his hands are not what they seem.
There is no busy in them, no knowing.
He wants to slip them off, the reddened
clumsy glove of them, let magpies feast
on his fingertips, his nails harden to stone.
When sun places its coins of light
into his upturned palm, he looks at his lifeline,
wonders how the shallow arc
has shortened; how it tightens like the swell
of flesh round a cut that will not heal.
(after Edvard Munch, The Scream)
Tell me, Mr. Munch, on a scale of 1 to 10,
how bad is the pain? This slash of yellow
in the sky, is it a 4 or 9? And the swirling
gouache of blue, is this a 7 or a 2?
The man silently gapes from the frame.
The flay of his face held between
splayed fingers. Eyes wide, mouth open,
his head a burnished planet.
And when did the pain first appear?
Is it in your mind, or in the air? Does it fly
like a lark spinning on the wind,
what colours are the feathers of its wings?
Perhaps he will tell how the tempera
of the sunset gets inside your head,
a burning flash of pigment. How the soul cracks
like a shattered egg before the shriek of colour.
If he is able, he will describe the skew of it,
the slip-sideways gasp of it. How at night
it creeps up, slitting the dark’s throat
as flesh seems to peel from your bones.
How that scream rises from the mouth of the earth
red as blood, as tongues of fire,
how the world is breaking on a brushstroke
sable-soft, infinite as despair.
(after The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries,
Musée National du Moyen Âge, Paris)
I wake with her face reflected in my head,
the rough draft of her cheek
the half-shaped cup of her chin,
and I’m impatient to begin my work.
She is woven into my breath, into
each heartbeat. Every day she grows
under my skilled fingers as I fill
the unformed landscape of her skin.
Here, the music of the loom purls through
the shed, creaks like a horse in his stall.
We string the heddles tight as a harp,
put the warp threads into the raddle,
set the tension right for an even weave.
We are deaf to the world, our hands raw
with the cut of wool, the stinging winter frost.
At night I toss on the dark hours, see her
in my dreams. Imagine coiling her mouth
with scarlet, shadowing her eyes in plum.
I’d twist her lips with desire, put a beaded
pulse on the line of her cheek, so when I run
my hands along the ribbed warp-edge
I can almost feel it beating. But her eyes
are just for me. The lids heavy with pleasure,
the hachure of colours braided in her gaze.
For she is my Lady, mon seul désir. Already
I would fight lions for her, as I turn her slender wrist,
her shoulders’ slope beneath the silk brocade.
And when she is finished, I would lie with her
in pansy and sweet rocket. In our senses, scents
of hyacinth and jasmine, her skin fresh
as strawberries, a plainchant of leaves
singing in the branches of the oak.
I would touch her outstretched palms,
take the jewelled pendant from her throat,
untie the narrow cord of her cabled belt,
unloose her hair from its stiff aigrette.
I would undo the unicorn stitch by stitch,
cut the warp-threads of his horn,
lie in her lap forever, courting her favour.