Advice to an Imagist
The Lost Art of Letter Writing
The ratio of daylight to handwriting
Was the same as lacemaking to eyesight.
The paper was so thin it skinned air.
The hand was fire and the page tinder.
Everything burned away except the one
Place they singled out between fingers
Held over a letter pad they set aside
For the long evenings of their leave-takings,
Always asking after what they kept losing,
Always performing—even when a shadow
Fell across the page and they knew the answer
Was not forthcoming—the same action:
First the leaning down, the pen becoming
A staff to walk fields with as they vanished
Underfoot into memory. Then the letting up,
The lighter stroke, which brought back
Cranesbill and thistle, a bicycle wheel
Rusting: an iron circle hurting the grass
Again and the hedges veiled in hawthorn
Again just in time for the May Novenas
Recited in sweet air on a road leading
To another road, then another one, widening
To a motorway with four lanes, ending in
A new town on the edge of a city
They will never see. And if we say
An art is lost when it no longer knows
How to teach a sorrow to speak, come, see
The way we lost it: stacking letters in the attic,
Going downstairs so as not to listen to
The fields stirring at night as they became
Memory and in the morning as they became
Ink; what we did so as not to hear them
Whispering the only question they knew
By heart, the only one they learned from all
Those epistles of air and unreachable distance,
How to ask: is it still there?
The only legend I have ever loved is
the story of a daughter lost in hell.
And found and rescued there.
Love and blackmail are the gist of it.
Ceres and Persephone the names.
And the best thing about the legend is
I can enter it anywhere. And have.
As a child in exile in
a city of fogs and strange consonants,
I read it first and at first I was
an exiled child in the crackling dusk of
the underworld, the stars blighted. Later
I walked out in a summer twilight
searching for my daughter at bed-time.
When she came running I was ready
to make any bargain to keep her.
I carried her back past whitebeams
and wasps and honey-scented buddleias.
But I was Ceres then and I knew
winter was in store for every leaf
on every tree on that road.
Was inescapable for each one we passed.
And for me.
It is winter
and the stars are hidden.
I climb the stairs and stand where I can see
my child asleep beside her teen magazines,
her can of Coke, her plate of uncut fruit.
The pomegranate! How did I forget it?
She could have come home and been safe
and ended the story and all
our heart-broken searching but she reached
out a hand and plucked a pomegranate.
She put out her hand and pulled down
the French sound for apple and
the noise of stone and the proof
that even in the place of death,
at the heart of legend, in the midst
of rocks full of unshed tears
ready to be diamonds by the time
the story was told, a child can be
hungry. I could warn her. There is still a chance.
The rain is cold. The road is flint-coloured.
The suburb has cars and cable television.
The veiled stars are above ground.
It is another world. But what else
can a mother give her daughter but such
beautiful rifts in time?
If I defer the grief I will diminish the gift.
The legend will be hers as well as mine.
She will enter it. As I have.
She will wake up. She will hold
the papery flushed skin in her hand.
And to her lips. I will say nothing.
The women who were singers in the West
lived on an unforgiving coast.
I want to ask was there ever one
moment when all of it relented–
when rain and ocean and their own
sense of home were revealed to them
as one and the same?
every day was still shaped by weather,
but every night their mouths filled with
Atlantic storms and clouded-over stars
and exhausted birds?
And only when the danger
was plain in the music could you know
their true measure of rejoicing in
finding a voice where they found a vision.
Tonight the air smells of cut grass.
Apples rust on the branches. Already summer is
a place mislaid between expectation and memory.
This has been a summer for moths.
Their moment of truth comes well after dark.
Then they reveal themselves at our window-
ledges and sills as a pinpoint. A glimmer.
The books I look up about them are full of legends:
ghost-swift moths with their dancing assemblies at dusk.
Their courtship swarms. How some kinds may steer by the moon.
The moon is up. The back windows are wide open.
Mid-July fills the neighborhood. I stand by the hedge.
Once again they are near the windowsill—
fluttering past the fuchsia and the lavender,
which is knee-high, and too blue to warn them
they will fall down without knowing how
or why what they steered by became, suddenly,
what they crackled and burned around. They will perish—
I am perishing—on the edge and at the threshold of
the moment all nature fears and tends towards:
the stealing of the light. Ingenious facsimile.
And the kitchen bulb which beckons them makes
my child’s shadow longer than my own.
What Language Did
The evening was the same as any other.
I came out and stood on the step.
The suburb was closed in the weather
of an early spring and the shallow tips
of washed-out yellows of narcissi
resisted dusk. And crocuses and snowdrops.
I stood there and felt the melancholy
of growing older in such a season,
when all I could be certain of was simply
in this time of fragrance and refrain,
whatever else might flower before the fruit,
and be renewed, I would not. Not again.
A car splashed by in the twilight.
Peat smoke stayed in the windless
air overhead and I might have missed:
a presence. Suddenly. In the very place
where I would stand in other dusks, and look
to pick out my child from the distance,
was a shepherdess, her smile cracked,
her arm injured from the mantelpieces
and pastorals where she posed with her crook.
Then I turned and saw in the spaces
of the night sky constellations appear,
one by one, over roof-tops and houses,
and Cassiopeia trapped: stabbed where
her thigh met her groin and her hand
her glittering wrist, with the pin-point of a star.
And by the road where rain made standing
pools of water underneath cherry trees,
and blossoms swam on their images,
was a mermaid with invented tresses,
her breasts printed with the salt of it and all
the desolation of the North Sea in her face.
I went nearer. They were disappearing.
Dusk had turned to night but in the air –
did I imagine it? – a voice was saying:
This is what language did to us. Here
is the wound, the silence, the wretchedness
of tides and hillsides and stars where
we languish in a grammar of sighs,
in the high-minded search for euphony,
in the midnight rhetoric of poesie.
We cannot sweat here. Our skin is icy.
We cannot breed here. Our wombs are empty.
Help us to escape youth and beauty.
Write us out of the poem. Make us human
in cadences of change and mortal pain
and words we can grow old and die in.
A Woman Painted on a Leaf
I found it among curios and silver
in the pureness of wintry light.
A woman painted on a leaf.
Fine lines drawn on a veined surface
in a hand-made frame.
This is not my face. Neither did I draw it.
A leaf falls in the garden.
The moon cools its aftermath of sap.
The pith of summer dries out in starlight.
A woman is inscribed there.
This is not death. It is the terrible
suspension of life.
I want a poem
I can grow old in. I want a poem I can die in.
I want to take
this dried-out face,
as you take a starling from behind iron,
and return it to its elements of air, of ending-
so that Autumn
which was once
the hard look of stars,
the frown on a gardener’s face,
a gradual bronzing of the distance,
from now on,
a crisp tinder underfoot. Cheekbones. Eyes. Will be
a mouth crying out. Let me.
Let me die.