Item: there must be food in China
He is a man of lists. It’s like laying steps
across the river; you need to to think in pebbles
when the jungle’s losing you ten ways at once.
Tweeds for example, camphor oil and String.
China’s the map on his desk: a lunar quilt,
massed creases that mean height and emptiness,
places where mules slide over, vertigo. Flowers.
Where there are flowers there are people
seeded to valleys, ledges, a yellow outcrop
of monks. Rice, eggs, fowl. Logic
is homespun and muscular, will get him
from meal to meal to the altitude for theft.
But first there is the moment when he transforms,
when he stands up at dawn above a forest
and sees the mountains gilded like a prize.
He’ll possess the image before he breaks a stem.
To get that far you need to conserve your breath,
square up, scale down. – jam is essential
to civilise mush, and whisky is antiseptic
but nothing to dull the petals’ unfingered blue.
come and go
like marriages – the brief
heady ones balancing
a sediment of whisky
in a re-used tumbler
at the end, or the keys
stress-cracks have inched up,
like party nails eroding
weeks after the event.
We kept one
for its fin-de-siecle inlay,
its candle-holders mottled
with vintage wax,
an old queen, feathered
by echoes of gas-lit bawdy.
It played a boozed,
coquettish slide around
the sex of a harmony.
Another seemed too stern
for its small iron bones,
all black-stained mahogany
thick as scripture. We’d humped it
from a dank chapel, unprayed in
for years. It took five
good men to raise, but its rhetoric
was nearly gone – mothy
and thinned as an old heart.
I thought of the duty of voices,
suited, gathered in
from the last farms
beyond electricity, the echo
and cannon of them
in chromatic sunlight,
how they might seep between
the piano’s staves of wood, of wire,
turn sepia, their pitch blurring.
This is my daughter asleep in the morning,
one hand between the silvery poles
of her cot, that remind me of birch trees.
She’s going to theatre soon:
the surgeon will snap her ribs
to reach a heart which can’t wake
itself properly inside its blue forest.
She mustn’t eat. So when she stirs and calls
my arms down for the first feed, I turn
to the wall. She beats a fist,
the size of a large bee, into air.
Her feet swim faster as if racing
a blind snow flood,
and I am the snow. Later
it’s I who can’t reach
my child so far under,
her face a locked, white egg
In the thicket of tubes.
We were driving over the border,
that tipping point of day when hills wash
into the skyline, and the last rinse
of low sun tells you there is still a handful
of time left to gather in the sight of cattle
steering towards a gate. It smelt like a festival,
smoke, hog-roast, and as darkness
lapped across them, field after field
spat and flickered with bonfires.
Except this was the cull. For hours, livestock
must have been whistled into pens
then shot, one by one between their ears.
As the line grew, the chemical telegram
of fear would have shipped from beast to beast
while their farmer stood on, everything
out of his hands and his exits
taped off, spelled with disinfectant.
We passed a yard of sheep
rigid on their backs, black
legs in the air like mechanical twigs,
the vet slow motioned in a protection suit
as if sleep-walking through a film
where all the trees look burnt
and the sky is no longer a roof.
And to think like this
is to make anything permissible.
You told me how sheep trust
the call to be rounded up, won’t
sense that this is other than the next
pasture ahead. But that’s how we kill,
and it makes no difference that it’s summer,
the lenient time, chestnut trees
candled and over-arching, the rivers slow.
In line there is no season, only
the fall of hooves or feet
on tarmac, air pushing like a hand.