The Nouns of This Place
I explain to my long dead father how poetry is less authentic than dreaming
The Third Wife
From the Cabinet of Idioms
All poems © Mike Barlow
Wherever the land’s not used, we plant nouns:
strips of ancient woodland, old bell-pit workings,
whin-choked slopes too steep for the tractor.
Stonewall. Gutter. Dyke.
Thwaite. Intake. Stoop.
Whemmel. Crowbar. Axe.
In the old wood by the river, among ramsons
and bluebells, along the verge with mouse-ear, mustard
and vetch, we fling them, like bulbs, dig them in.
Charcoal. Myrtle. Cop.
Sett. Scar. Clough.
Trod. Garth. Moss.
Nouns are plentiful, naming and calling words,
root words, thing words. They take over the mind’s garden
so everywhere we think, they make theirs.
Bracken. Sinkhole. Syke.
Clint. Geb. Ligger.
Gryke. Foss. Beck.
And where nouns take root, may earth take heart,
verbs grow, great reclaiming species,
doers and changers, movers and breakers.
Push. Bend. Breathe.
Heave. Thrust. Rive.
Dig. Scrape. Join.
Transitive as spirit, intransitive as wilderness,
may they possess us, these verbs of ours, work us
like thought horses, earth’s mutable subjects.
Hide. Lift. Drag.
Plough. Thresh. Trace.
Bless. Bury. Enfold.
(From The Folded Moment)
at which point he comes to a halt on our brisk
walk home through back streets, turns to me
and quotes, word perfect as if it were his own,
the elegy I’d struggled with for years.
Never a poetry man, he was more a reader
of maintenance manuals, so hearing my words
in his voice renders them methodical, didactic.
I stand there, dispossessed. He seems embarrassed
to have put me at a disadvantage and making
as if he’s just remembered something, ducks
into a corner shop to emerge with a packet
of firelighters and an evening paper.
In the sort of silence only family can brew,
we proceed home, though in fact we’re lost.
(First published in Poetry Review)
The old cemetery – history’s bed unmade, its jumble
of stones leaning this way and that, tipped-over vases,
waist-high kesh, the humps and ditches of disturbed land,
all the dead turned in their sleep together,
some terrible dream of mortality calling them back.
Shadrack Benbow leans sideways at fifty degrees,
tilts forward like an old gate stoop, lichened and weathered.
Shadrack. Perhaps his father was a furnaceman, his mother
much taken with The Lord in this steel-works town
of edgeless skies and unquenched thirsts.
Once beloved husband & father, no longer
reckoned by the living, nor greeted by the recent dead
but a soul tipped abroad now by the ground’s slow quake
as if, despite its relentless lust for our bones,
the earth offers no haven for the true believer.
(First published in Agenda)
The crack of a struck pane,
a phantom hawk attacking
its own worst enemy in the glass.
More flash than feather.
Cold air, warm front. Inevitable brew.
A hare stone-still midfield,
the rush of déjà vu
its split atom of memory.
Whoever it is jumps from your skin
as the sky shifts its freight
from port to starboard, whoever it is
goes looking for the corpse,
you only have to turn away,
by the gravel of hail on the Velux,
for the stunned bird to fly off.
(from Nothing About to Happen)
There’s a stirk fallen from the cliff
to the shelf of bedrock by the river.
The smashed contraption of its body
bleeds a little, one eye stares at the sky
with a look of almost surprise.
Already it stinks.
The land’s too steep for a tractor,
the carcass too heavy for the few of us,
so you bring down Rosie from the luxury
of easy grazing. Your pleasure
at finding her work seems matched
by something in her gait,
the shiver of her flanks, the bob and shake
of her head as you fix the collar.
We tie the rope-ends to the beast’s legs
and Rosie pulls, hooves gouging
steep peaty ground, an eagerness
you have to check so the deadweight
comes up evenly, doesn’t snag
on an overhanging branch or swing
lop-sided under a rocky sill,
but eases gently over the cliff’s lip.
You let her have her way then
and I’m that close I can recall even now
the piss and oatmeal smell,
those sweating buttocks, the pistons of her legs,
the startling energy of life at work,
pulling its counterweight uphill.
My first wife knew no more than me, no telling
where her needs ended, mine began. One day though
I turned the hill to find the boat moored in the field,
the house out in the bay, adrift, door open wide.
I rowed out to a message on the mat: gone
to my cousin’s place in Valparaiso .
My second wife blew ashore in a force ten
leading a shipload of apprentices astray
with her white dress, her turned-up Nordic nose,
her precious bible clutched in a manicured hand.
No matter how I pumped, the organ of her heart played flat,
her painted smile as wooden as a figurehead’s.
My third wife won’t say where she lives.
She comes to me when the tides are right,
stays longer if a wind’s got up or fog’s come down.
I stroke the warm loaves of her biceps, kiss
dimpled elbows, listen for the souch
our breathing makes when we’re together.
She has cousins everywhere. They post her money
in denominations the local shop won’t take
or drop by uninvited while we’re having tea. They push me
into corners, whisper her address. I turn a deaf ear.
This is my third wife I explain, who’s known
many husbands, some worse some better than me.
(from Another Place)
It must have been drawn to the reading light.
I was with Captain Cook in Poverty Bay , a place
so fertile and well settled the Maori wouldn’t yield
an inch to the diplomacy of small arms fire
or beads. As the first warrior fell I heard a thump
in the room like a cupboard shutting or a book
falling to the floor. When I finally gave up
on the Captain, his misgivings, his ill spirits
misnaming a land, and forsook Endeavour
for my own berth, something slight and hard
dropped from the dark to scrape my cheek.
On my outstretched arm a scarab the size
of a finger joint, like a brooch of beaten copper
with a green armoured face. Still seized
by the zeal of the ship’s quota of draughtsmen
and philosophers, I knew I should draw it
or take a photograph at least. But it was late.
I put it out, closed the window. Sleep
carried me up a creek where tattooed warriors
pulled faces, inedible fruit dropped from the trees
and for the first but not the last time, home
was an idea so remote I doubted it was real.
(from Another Place)
It’s as if some truth’s been missed, hidden
in particles of gabbro or the black plug of basalt;
or there’s a thought I can’t find, an absence
like deer beyond the next hill,
tracks in the peat the only clue.
It leaves me hungry, eager to dig down,
bury my face in soil, rub grit in my brain
till it bleeds insight. Old penitents
would flog themselves, the sugars
in the blood inducing trance.
I want to come back from a new idea
changed, the balance tipped
and equilibrium found again but this time
with a slight quiver as if some
aftershock still rumbled on,
as if there were no time left and it didn’t matter.
The sea moves, rock weathers, flowers –
tormentil, orchid, eyebright –
shake in the wind whether or not we name them.
(from Another Place)
Sex and death: I’ve done with those
narcotic urges sprung at birth:
a particular skin smell, the way
a tiny muscle in someone’s face
moves; a crumbling disc encoded
in the genome, hearing loss or a heart
triggered to self-harm at 54.
Given a chance I’d kick the habit,
renounce flesh for the rough weave
of vows. Whichever deity it is looks down
I’d be there, cross-legged in the street,
not begging alms but dishing out
spells and charms: a traffic-stopping
amulet for jay-walkers, a mantra
for revolving doors, or a small
badge of the Virgin, bodged
and soldered from recycled tin.
I’d scrutinise the crowd, make a sign
I hope you’d recognise and you,
being mortal still, you’d have the edge,
humour me in passing, pass
the time of day as if we’d never lost
that way with language lovers share
trading their fear for their desire.
(from Amicable Numbers)
Up here in the word museum, language’s revolving doors
propel me to the cabinet of idioms, four square in my way,
the glint and rust of well-worn tropes hugger mugger on their shelves.
The fig my father couldn’t give turns out to be an ear of dried fruit
hardening in its skin, though the cuss the tinker threw my uncle’s way
still shines like a brassy blade you’d cut your tongue on if you spoke it.
And they may be rare, my grandmother’s hen’s teeth, but someone
must have sown a flock’s worth and brought them on with slurry
till they sprouted like tin soldiers, pikes and cudgels ready
for dragons, cockerels and anything that moved before first light.
There’s a wax stub, pillared with candle sperm, reminding me of hours
holding a light to what I never could, like the brother I didn’t have.
And a pale stone wears a coat of dried blood
where my mother wore the mounts of her palms to blisters.