Those Cats

The cats lie, eyes-closed, on the sofa where he died.
The rise and fall of fur. Three sets of ears pitched
cautiously in my direction. Where I sit, he sat, worn out,
eyes fixed on three bright bars of straight, unmoving heat.

They’ve taken him. Still here, the life he left from,
the things he never seemed to see – the empty
hearth, its burned-through grate remaining
unreplaced; the cotton dishcloths drying.

Above, on the enamelled mantel, his little joke –
the china collie dog my mother bought him,
head down, facing out the clipped-out snap
of sheep, wrapped round an old and empty tin;

some matches and a scrap of card with pencilled stock on.
All this beneath the noiseless clock, the simple
calendar from Scot’s Gap, the royal samplers Jane,
his elder sister, made and which she hardly dared

put on the wall for fear of what he’d say.
Now, both are gone. The tongue that troubled her
fills the farmhouse kitchen with its silence.
Monday Mart day. Nothing left to sell.

The cats take their untroubled ease, as if sleep
was their sole pleasure. From his he’d wake and stare
the fire out, stroking them with fingers strong as roots
and thickened with the honour of his work.

The electric bars give out their heat, heat he
sat in front of as he died, boots on, and cap,
waiting for what we’ll never know – a rest?
more warmth? a stockman’s knock upon the door?

Alone he died, alone my mother found him,
eyes closed and sitting up; called him,
felt his cooling brow, and knew its time.
The doctor laid him flat beneath a blanket,

lifted him like a child, a body age had lightened,
and, as they talked, his cats claimed last possession,
lying in their accustomed comfort on his feet.
Look at those cats, she’d said, and shook her head.

Ogle Hill Head

Red Square

from Prospects of Leningrad

In the square that half the world associates
with blood, we’ve come beyond the confines
of our Cold War fears to stand upon its
rain damped, gloss grey cobblestones.

The red flag streams above a Kremlin tower,
a purpose and a history behind no word
need comment on. The wind that blows us here
has forgotten all those winters that were hard.

Try to see the lines of missiles, bombs,
the bannered crowds, or feel the fall of soldiers’
boots. You can’t. Light pours off cathedral domes.
A limousine with darkened glass makes off, its tyres

hiss it past. People smile for snaps.
Adjust their hats, their furry wraps.
A casual place, run with the minimum of fuss.
The policemen stand as purposeless as us.

On a Moscow Train

from Prospects of Leningrad

A round of laughter down the corridor holds
a jam of students as we gather speed to clatter
towards darkness and the distant suburbs.
A massive locomotive crawls in a siding
as we pass. Monumental, heroic,
it is a barely moving block
of painted steel and unheard purpose.
Away from the centre, Leningrad dims
to street lights, and the muffled glow
of blocked and distant high-rise windows.

The samovar enshrined in the corridor
tangs the air with a delicate charcoal pungency.
The young attendant, black haired and humorous,
brings tea in rough edged glasses and silver holders.
“It’s Georgian,” he jokes. “Strong enough to make
your moustaches grow.” The smiling face of
Stalin conjured fades with the sweetness of
the tea we sip, and curtained Russia passes.
Sleep seals our train of citizens and tourists, and
holds, once more, dreams of Moscows of the morning.

Day brings birch forests and half hidden dachas,
the city of palaces and revolutions
and wide angled rivers is hours in the west.
Last night’s laughter stays asleep in its bunks –
its owners stir singly, and, clutching toilet bags,
go quietly past cabins in the grey blue light
for the morning’s morning water rituals.

The train touches the city on its lips.
Those most awake stand like visionaries
at windows, agape to have the new anatomised:
tall apartments standing, square faced and naked,
out of the open, end of winter ground;
paths passing silvered trees to litterless stations,
where people aroused to work, wait or talk,
unheedful of our expressed, passing interest.
Invisible, powerless to them,
we hardly exist. As if the gods of atheism,
we are allowed to be all seeing.

Then come the enterprises of every city:
the factories and workshops, long buildings
that contain their functions in fluorescent halls
behind their grime sheathed windows. The train slows
to its purpose, draws to a sharp, unsteadying stop.
Cases in hand, we stride the gap between
carriage and city, and then stand about
with luggage and each other in the chilly
sun. A station sign says three degrees,
much higher than it feels and we take it
as a gift of welcome, a metaphor
which means the place is warmer than its airs.


The fourth year’s in the hall
sitting in gilded silence.

The Head is talking.
Uniform, behaviour
and lunchtime lateness.
A litany of regulation
for summer’s insolence.
They sit without disturbance,
absorbing the assault
upon their childhood’s anarchy.

Sunlight, escaping through
the curtains from the air outside,
kindles five faces in the front row.
They shine like brass,
expressionless as wishes.

A trumpeter practises. In a room
somewhere he picks his way
through three strands of a tune
in a cannon of repetition.
An apprentice following the master.
In the echo of the corridor
it’s hard to tell where youth
takes on from age, the one
becomes the other.

The words, the notes, the sunlight
counterpoint each other round the space
we try to fill. A bell rings.
The morning’s lessons have begun.