‘In desert country the air is never still.’ The Folded Leaf
In the country where those who can’t speak
and those with nothing to say choose to live,
an old man leads a moon-eyed mare.
He can tell a thunderstorm’s coming by the wind
as it soughs round his earth-sod house.
There is much he can teach us.
But it’s the children, the desert children,
we must listen for first, the sing-song
tricks of their games, their word for stranger.
You’ll know when you hear it. It means cousin,
which means they’ll share their bread, their fire,
the clothes on their back.
It’s a word you’ll hear them call out to dogs,
deer, geese, a word they’ll honour you with
should you be lucky enough meet them.
In the pebbled river, in the wind
as it fingers rods of grass,
in the circumspect whisper of blown sand,
another life: the voice of an old woman perhaps,
or a man scything hay.
In the distance a windmill
swings its bone white arms. This
you don’t hear. If we close our eyes
it won’t be there.
Reality can never exist
through one sense alone.
Think of the strained faces of the deaf,
the inward look on a blind face.
The world suggests itself
continually and we respond, continually
making our way over mountain and desert
to tended lawns and raked ponds
where a gardener talks to himself in his sleep.
said you only had to look into his eyes
to see a stranger; a doorstep child
they called him, who made no sense
however hard they tried.
They remembered his collections of things in jars,
old nails, bone bits, ring-pulls, the errands
for the widow his lame mum cleaned for
who wouldn’t hear a bad word said against him.
They frowned and shook their heads
at the cat found in the dyke, the coping stone
chipped from the bridge and heaved into the track,
the silly laugh, the dry stare if you showed him kindness.
Nor were they surprised when his name came up
although he’s long since left the parish
and the brick house on the marsh was derelict
where once his dad bred pigeons
and his no good bloody brother came and went.
They knew a thing or two they said, not telling
when the police came to the door, for that
was years ago when their unkind stares
could never have anticipated this, his picture
on the News and everybody’s knowing nods
beginning to make some sense of things at last.
You can leave me with it, this sinkful,
the stumps of cauliflower, garlic skins,
spud peel, the gungy matter
a kitchen accumulates. This,
at the end of the day, is how I like it.
I gather pots, scrape away leavings,
soapfroth dripping from my wrists.
My thumbnail scratches at a hide
of burnt sauce on the bottom
of a non-stick pan. Dusk
makes the window a mirror. I stare
beyond myself into arteries of sycamore.
It’s your style to leave things to drain,
mine to dry and put it all away,
a fiddle tune in my head, high notes
almost disappearing before they plunge
to the bottom of everything, knives
in the knife drawer, spoons snug in their tray,
plates on their shelves, and always something
misplaced, on purpose: scissors
with the spice jars, the masher
behind the milk-jug, deliberate faults
woven into the day’s back end,
a guarantee it’s been the genuine thing,
while the musician signs off
with an intricate flourish and outside
the last bus climbs the brow, its lit shape
trundling home with no one on board.
I’d say he was at sea. If only, my mother said,
giving me the sort of look grown-ups give grown-ups.
I’d say he worked on the rigs, the Gulf of Mexico.
The kid two doors along confided his was in Bolivia.
I’d say nothing of the monthly trips, gates and doors,
the hubbub of a long room, formica table-tops, plastic cups.
For a man who claimed he hadn’t meant to, he smiled a lot,
more often and wider as the years went by.
For a man who didn’t know when, he kept up with the news,
read between the lines, worked out his answers.
For a man lost to the innocence of words, he left it to his smile
to see him through – goodbyes, christmases, divorce.
For a man who finally got out, what he likes best now
is staying in. From his seventh floor flat the town’s unchanged.
He keeps a tally of my visits; we share a takeaway,
a game of chess I always lose, the comfort of long silences,
though when I ring the bell and listen as he slides the bolt,
rattles the chain, there’s a familiar urge to run
before the front door opens and we’re both giving it that
kite-wide, wouldn’t-harm-a-fly, killer of a smile.