The Summons

Bill summons me across the room.
The book is small, its leather dry and warm.
His finger finds the page – Psalm 23,
he says. King James’s own. We confirm
he’s First and Sixth, and note his metric
journey through the valley of the shades.
Here’s the man who’s credited with the
Union of the Crowns, brushing up
his lonely Greek, and hunting for
the rhymes, while trembling clerics
debate the testament that comes
to bear his name. And both survive.

The library Bill curates is Scotland’s first
to place forbidden fruit, free, before the
people’s eyes. Walls shine chapel white –
enclosing paths which open minds,
and books, encaged within, await release.
Bill moves amongst the shelves. He puts
before me writers that I’ve never heard,
whose voices, never known, speak
from an age of innocence rebound.

So here is Johnson, prefacing his way
through all those Shakespeares, restoring
and creating bubbles for the bard.

And here’s the register of borrowers
from 1763.
A slanting hand, in ink now brown
as blood, describes the books and borrowers,
their dates and classes. Written down
to make a worthwhile PhD, this
treasure house reveals a solemn truth –
that ministers and teachers borrow books
and read, while weavers take one out,
but get back to making for their ends.

Innerpeffray Library
August 2019

Visiting With Jo

for George, Bill and Cherry

One hundred years – of springs, of winters,
harvests, treaties. Of senotaphs and hidden hopes.
A hundred years of Jo: Jo dead, Jo missing,
Jo as sacrifice, Jo growing in my head.
Abandoned, just another of the missing, dead.
Untalked of Essex boy, Lance Corporal, 31.

I’ve sought you out, done all I can –
looked for your name that never dies
and that I nearly couldn’t find – Bay 10,
among the thousands lost and Lutyened,
on tended Arras stone. White honey gold,
ranked, columned and arranged, Vince J.

I walk your field of battle – like you,
with pals. Sat nav to Neuville Vitasse,
its London Cemetery collecting a Division’s
early dead, falling from the order of advance,
stepping out from feeble lorries, creeping trains
on narrow gauge. Follow on along
the slope towards your goal. Beside the way,
an orchard whose apples gather underneath
the trees. Red-skinned, their disregarded flesh
gathers in the grass. A horse and rider
join the track – a child, she’s bare-backed
and gymkhana-bound where families laugh,
loud, as distant shells accompany
The Queen’s Own Rifles up the hill
to Telegraph Wood. A century has seen
these trees return, conceal the ground
where hidden guns and trenches kept
their promises. Around lie disregarded
bags and rubbish – a hundred years
of waiting and a tidying that never comes.
And here ahead the land goes on,
its furrowed crops wrenched out,
and newly drilled – lines waiting
for a fresh offensive in the spring.

And hereabouts you fell. Losing everything
for this Hill or another, or taken, taking nothing.
Maybe a careless shell gave you its funeral,
or death left you unrecognised, to take
your place in one more grave Known Only
Unto God. Another cemetery lies two fields
away. And another underneath the Péage
and the TGV. So here you must remain. Lost,
April 1917. Fourteen days in, a face unknown
amongst the faded grins and smiles of lads
who wait for orders, falling in.

We take our leave, and rain pours through
the afternoon. About the fields stand ready
men with rifles, and hi-viz, to shoot at
anything that moves. Hares, rabbits,
pigeons – rising, running from an enemy
they do not know. I leave you,  Jo,
with them, to take your chances once again.

October 2019
The Battle of Arras 1917

 

 

Beneath Australia

Our flight across the world goes well,
dismissed for nought beneath our Boeing’s paper skin –
we’ve reached our third and final continent.
A map displays the parts we’ve occupied
with printless feet, and now beneath, Australia.

Begins a traverse of a land, as swift
as any disregarded thought. Beneath Australia.
How much depends upon that comma – a nation
of 4 syllables, we are not promised underneath
your skin. Turbulence disturbs the flight.
Most, disregarding, sleep or tighten belts,
a city’s breath, a desert, burns dyspeptic – down.

Comes now the Tasman Sea, and on into the
fast advancing sun. Also below, drowned
unrecorded names, lost windborn
hopes of those unticketed, whose gods
had given them no leave to leave a trail
of empty breath through starlit parallels of air.

The courage of economy, of business class,
holds up – a matchless wealth controlling
destiny, the slow decay of ice and fire.

Otago Gold

Take the train. This one departs
for nowhere in particular promising
to return. It’s a matter of time
keeping to this schedule we’re in
for plunging rocklines, rails that
etch themselves round grasping
verticals big as countries, tunnels that
thread would struggle through.
The carriages have those platforms
each end lovers meet on, or villains
exit backwards to their deserts.
We hang on with cameras, safe
from either, taking in the loco’s
chirping diesel, the clicking wheels,
the squealing track. A widescreen
journey, made each day since
men cut the line. The river ripped
the gorge, exposed the fleckered
ore, brought fever – greed exposed
the land to eyes hungry for wealth
now gone we now inherit. And
scale returns, the townships
fallen, consumed by poverty and dust.
Only the train persists, a final
artifact of life in photographs,
a journey through a gorge where
water fast conceals imported trout,
where glittered sunlight in the
pools, on littered eager flecks.
No longer need – the line stops,
brinking the edge of land that
only giants could have made.
Massed grasses whisper on hills
that rise and fall forever. Wherever
looked it spells Otago gold.

Norma’s Enigma

The organist reads a paperback
As Elgar marches through the orchestra
Labelling his friends, giving them their subtleties:
Their inner calm, their petulance, their
Braggadocio at twilight. It’s about
Distances – the percussionist at his
Timpani, bruising the air – while violins cry
And bases purr like cats. It’s a workout
Of connections, of masks behind faces
Bringing everyone the edge of tears.
In this Hall, twelve thousand miles
From England, the imperial voice has cleared
Its throat. The paperback has disappeared
And deeper than a vault she sounds.