Just a glimpse of my bare heel or toe,
the slightest movement of my sheet
would alert a knotted writhe of snakes
lurking in the cave beneath my bed.
Heavy with poison,
they’d be slung between the springs,
coiled around the metal frame
or simply thick in number, camouflaged
among the carpet pattern’s twists and turns,
their bifurcated tongues
wavering between needle-teeth and fangs.
They’d strike at the sight of a pale insole
or ankle, better still, a plumper calf.
When my night screams
brought the man married to my mother
he’d cover my mouth
then reticulate his other hand
between my grooves and hollows.
His tongue, strung with saliva,
would engulf and swallow me
as he delivered his shot of venom.
After the ringing in my ears had stopped
I’d fly into a treetop nest and sway there.
Coach whip, copper head, bull snake,
python, diamond back, smooth snake,
cobra, mamba, sidewinder, hoop snake,
house snake, ophidia, serpentes, my mantra.
I’ve gained their confidence. Come up,
I’ll say, and then, in their jewelled tuxedos,
watch them stretch across my pillows,
slither below my duvet. Each time
I am surprised how warm they are,
how sleek their polished scales.
Who’d have guessed I’d have them
eating from my hand? I can
even stroke and squeeze them
while they nudge for more, their dewy eye
not fooling me. I’ve spent years
learning to unhook my jaw, perfect
the toxicity of my digestive juices
so not a single drop’s superfluous.
See how much breath I hold
in this single, elongated lung.
See how I’ve sloughed my childskin.
Do sit down, he says,
pointing to the jolly-coloured chair
they’ll sit on each other’s knees.
He picks up the phone,
requests another be brought in.
They’re joined at the sternum,
have shared the same blouses
and stretchy cardigans, heart,
for twenty years.
Their memories and imaginations
have been visited by the same blood. At night,
they pass the same breath between them.
It wreathes their dreams.
Sometimes, their lips rest on each other’s.
So how have you been? Any problems
since I last saw you?
nono, they reply,
pulling at their knitted cuffs.
Stairs still manageable? Sleep well?
Eating? Any difficulty there? Bowels?
They reach for a mint
from each other’s pocket.
A clinical sister brings in an x-ray,
fixes it against the light box.
They both turn their heads,
see a pattern of pale bones
like snowy branches,
timber from a ghost ship.
They see a huge dark shape
hung from the spars,
a pulsar, an exploding star.
So, have you thought about
what we talked about last time,
reached a decision?
Sweet wrappers spill from their laps.
yesyes. nono. yesno.
Lie flat as sky, sleeves rolled to the elbow
so that, arms outstretched, your hands
hinge through the grassy overhang
to where water runs in shadows
and hollow reeds set notes free.
All possibilities are in this place.
It’s here the speckled trout waits
gleaming in war-flecked armour.
For now, he’s made himself invisible.
But you saw his flash of leap and catch,
his muddy swirl and dash.
And you know he faces upstream
breathing in, breathing out. And close—
his contemplation, the next plump fly
or next, the deliciousness of this one
snatched from heaven’s bright mouth.
You were taught to watercreep your fingers
towards where he wafts his fins.
Are you closer to pectoral or pelvic,
the narrowing of sword to tail?
A clash of artistry. His argent muscle
tightens to attention as you make touch.
D-rum, d-rum, d-rumdiddy d-rum. He feels
your drowning beat. D-rumdiddy d-rum. Hook
two fingers in his closing gill and he’s in air.
Your father, grandfather, his father, his,
throng the grassy bank, caps doffed.
Well done lad, well done. You watch
as their hungry plates and cutlery
zig-zag to the bottom of the stream
while about to break your family line,
return him to his water. D-rumdiddy d-rum.
(Surely the people is grass. Is XI 7)
Gather a root of grass
from every lawn in the world,
every sports pitch and gutter,
barrack and hospital ground,
fold yard and pasture, watery bank,
concrete crevice and crack,
wherever grass might force through
to wave its green flags.
And look under things
like wagons shunted away
down the branch line, a churn,
rusting headstocks, long-handled tools,
the soles of the man left waiting.
Yellow it might be
but grass knows how to survive.
It never complicates air.
It travels the world
by linking arms with its neighbour.
With these roots, start a new lawn
in a place where everyone
can walk barefoot across it
(at least once in their lives) to feel
how something as simple as grass
knows how to sing so flutey and free
you need to get down on your knees
and tune your ear to its frequency.
O grass, what have we made you hear?
And after we named you ‘grass’
then renamed you 5¹(TTTAGGG) n-3¹,
what words did the wind bring
to make you cower and tremble?
Nimble Will, Squirrel Tail, Tumble and Quitch,
Quaking Grass, Ribbon Grass, Velvet and Witch,
Bristle, Spear, Panic, Redtop and Switch,
why have we made you brandish your swords?
What do you know?
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