Infirmary Procedures

The hospital presents itself as gallery.
Stairs diagonalise its healing curves.
Light shatters through skeletal glass,
bursts its bones on polished floors,
is held congealing in the promised air.

It’s art is on the move amongst
meetings with consultants, therapies,
investigations, surgeries. All these are now
its instruments, its measured calls to action –
to correct, reverse, repair, alleviate.

But still it’s hard to guess the healing wings
that gather behind blank walls, the
lives that save and ebb away.
From wards and treatment rooms come trucks
of linen, with their mute attendants.

A patient pinioned to a bed, his life
attached through clips and tubes,
is pushed towards a scheduled procedure.
His empty eyes sweep passing strangers
to the walls. Nurses in blue, beige

and white flock and fluster at their stations
while patience waits the summons of its name
from lists. Escaping traumas and conditions,
more hide beneath their pale anxieties,
in eateries with simple snacks and tea.

Prosthetic city – where life hangs on
beneath a mask; where bags and cases
conceal results of tests, or just
a surgeon’s lunch; where people soon enough
are taken to their fates and choices.

Outside, its buildings fuse modern
to a pinnacled Victoriana; and in the street
beyond the railings, staff gather
at their smoking points, to show some confidence
in health to those who wait inside.


My Racing Heart

for Andrew and Lizzie


The quick and dead share this in common –
their ends define astride the instant
when the one becomes the other.

Put it another way, it’s the second when
the body doesn’t know it’s had its day,
it’s bliss has rocketed you to space,

but awesome, awful emptiness stretches velvet
smooth oh so far into the distance,
and light has gone, and nothing wins.

These are only words that like to play with
danger, indulging cliff edge stunts that fall
for jokes about your  finite store of heartbeats,

but feel that flutter of an atrial excitement
and take again the middle path that leads to hills
where sunlight beckons and breath takes in

the air with ease. And here I have a
momentary release that unexpected weakness
brings. The puzzle is no laughing matter.

I lie upon the waiting earth and pray
for strength to walk again, to rise
to this or any other time to come.

Larks shatter the air with derision
and their distant, soaring panic. Slowly, suddenly,
the instant ends and paths lead once

again above the Roman forts, the valley
roads, the racing hares, the stone-
built farms and fields, the water

lying sleek in pools with smug
smart trout. It’s only just in view
this glimpse of things more special

than they are, but as the weeks
go on, and resentment at the treason
my own self has perpetrated

on its host subsides to an accepted
daily pill, the things that really
count shine more vivid in the grass.


It is then. One of them sits at the back of class
and learns how to format a spreadsheet or two.
A teenager apprentice, he grins on demand,
and knows how to screen his idleness whenever
I come near.  And here is the other, standing
to attention at the local Cenotaph, his proud
cadet clothes reminding all of loyalty,
safety, courage. He faints – the heat of ceremony,
the pressure of remembrance – and is led away.

It is now. His friend and he are gone.  Too old
to be at home, they’re in their private world.
We’re out too. A friend is 50, an age they think
they’ll never be. The stack they’re playing in becomes
a beacon in the night. Must be a Viking raid, we say.
Holy Island, hide your valuable daughters.
Curiosity fades, and they’re unseen for miles.
Later, still a fearful blaze of sheer
obliterating light, we drive past, home.
The iron roof, trapped in rage, collapses.
Engines, men in uniform, stand helpless
in wonder at the flames. The innocent
darkness holds itself aloof. And as we
take ourselves away to beds and sleep,
their bodies are reducing, starved of
air; of everything they hope; their families’ love.

It is days. They are not missed, then are, then are not found.
And in the only place left for them to be –
fragments of bone, of priceless, matchless DNA.
No real answers but a mystery solved.

It is years. Nothing grows or is harvested there.
No shed or barn stands waiting for another
crop. Only shards of air that pierce the
everyday, that beg the head to turn and look.
No last post for them. Nor proud parents
holding letters of success from Boards or Colleges
for sleepy sons who nothing ever wakes.




It is Epiphany – a day of meetings and surprises.
Narrow winter sun pierces lancets,
projecting miracles on whitewash – the walls
just begging for some risen light. The magi moving,

fluid over plaster, bringing gifts to lands
where winter nips unfeeling fingers.
The 4 gas heaters make a brave quartet
But the air is coffin cold, uncaring –

breath clouds, lightens and is quickly gone.
Rejoice. You’re here for what can really bring us
to our knees – the need for death, the hope for life,
the cause of love – and to share a silence that reflects

on wishes, that can condense in actions all our days.
True, Church is more than gravity and graves,
so now we’re older, becomes the everything
we were, gives back the people we’ve become.

But keep away those O.T. resurrected texts
where ministries of learning are grained
like wood into our cells. This stuff goes back
into its own mistakes and never can be changed.

And no amount of transubstantial talk
can match the truth of Christ’s own forsaken cry
up on his cross – “Why have You gone?”
he asks. “Thank God,” it’s tempting to reply,

for it’s that sudden, brilliant lack of faith
that keeps me curious, and here. That pain, torture
and despair that makes a suicide like his a crime
of love to solve as urgent as any on TV.

So souls or cells? How close they sound.
We move eternal into light – science burns
forever, triumphant genome of the stars –
so keep the faith. As Larkin said, it’s going on.

Ludwig’s Last Note

Beethoven at a Broadwood. Deaf, held in the cruelty
of jaundice, his life, as they say, a guttering candle
flickering defiance at his unlidded piano. Broken
quills litter a table; ink is open,

Spilled; paper is everywhere; staved off,
a tiny scrawl of etched entreaties, intentions,
demands.   Last movement, then. He strikes
the keys with rage he cannot hear, a tumult

of silence hisses its answer. He is pursuing
a simple theme and time keeps its distance.
His fingers seek new scales, arpeggios,
as they hammer noiselessly in his head.

Then, without a protest or the usual flourish,
they simply stop, a slowing to an absence, an emptiness.
And that’s it for the piano. He summons up the last quartets,
the European Ninth, then slips away to death.

That last sonata breaks the ground beyond.
Behind the weight of style and sound that was
his own, the sentence of that stop asserts a life
that suddenly is far too good to lose and then is gone.