Today I Was Happy, So I Made This Poem
As the plump squirrel scampers
Across the roof of the corncrib,
The moon suddenly stands up in the darkness,
And I see that it is impossible to die.
Each moment of time is a mountain.
An eagle rejoices in the oak trees of heaven,
This is what I wanted.
For the Sake of Strangers
No matter what the grief, its weight,
we are obliged to carry it.
We rise and gather momentum, the dull strength
that pushes us through crowds.
And then the young boy gives me directions
so avidly. A woman holds the glass door open,
waits patiently for my empty body to pass through.
All day it continues, each kindness
reaching toward another – a stranger
singing to no one as I pass on the path, trees
offering their blossoms, a retarded child
who lifts his almond eyes and smiles.
Somehow they always find me, seem even
to be waiting, determined to keep me
from myself, from the thing that calls to me
as it must have once called to them –
this temptation to step off the edge
and fall weightless, away from the world.
You watch me rub Vaseline
into my elbows’
The skin, you explain,
is of the same embryonic
tissue as the brain:
you read in your patients’
rashes and brushes
an uncensored text.
With you it’s your knees:
weeping blisters drying
to a hard red crust.
Another million years
and our soft surfaces
could have toughened
into clattering shells-
we could mate like tortoises,
be impervious to love.
Coming and Going
My marriage ended in an airport long ago.
I was not wise enough to cry while looking for my car,
walking through the underground garage;
jets were roaring overhead, and if I had been wise
I would have looked up at those heavy-bellied cylinders
and seen the wheelchairs and the frightened dogs inside;
the kidneys bedded in dry ice and Styrofoam containers.
I would have known that in synagogues and churches all over town
couples were gathering like flocks of geese
getting ready to take off, while here the jets were putting down
their gear, getting ready for the jolt, the giant tires
shrieking and scraping off two
long streaks of rubber molecules,
that might have been my wife and I, screaming in our fear.
It is a matter of amusement to me now,
me staggering around that underground garage,
trying to remember the color of my vehicle,
unable to recall that I had come by cab—
eventually gathering myself and going back inside,
to get the luggage
I would be carrying for the rest of my life.
–Carol Ann Duffy
A woman’s skin was a map of the town
where she’d grown from a child.
When she went out, she covered it up
with a dress, with a shawl, with a hat,
with mitts or a muff, with leggings, trousers
or jeans, with a an ankle-length cloak, hooded
and fingertip-sleeved. But – birthmark, tattoo –
the A-Z street-map grew, a precise second skin,
broad if she binged, thin when she slimmed,
a précis of where to end or go back or begin.
Over her breast was the heart of the town,
from the Market Square to the Picture House
by way of St Mary’s Church, a triangle
of alleys and streets and walks, her veins
like shadows below the lines of the map, the river
an artery snaking north to her neck. She knew
if you crossed the bridge at her nipple, took a left
and a right, you would come to the graves,
the grey-haired teachers of English and History,
the soldier boys, the Mayors and Councillors,
the beloved mothers and wives, the nuns and priests,
their bodies fading into the earth like old print
on a page. You could sit on a wooden bench
as a wedding pair ran, ringed, from the church,
confetti skittering over the marble stones,
the big bell hammering hail from the sky, and wonder
who you would marry and how and where and when
you would die: or find yourself in the coffee house
nearby, waiting for time to start, your tiny face
trapped in the window’s bottle-thick glass like a fly.
And who might you see, short-cutting through
the Grove to the Square – that line there, the edge
of a fingernail pressed on her flesh – in the rain,
leaving your empty cup, to hurry on after
calling their name? When she showered, the map
gleamed on her skin, blue-black ink from a nib.
She knew you could scoot down Greengate Street,
huddling close to the High House, the sensible shops,
the Swan Hotel, till you came to the Picture House,
sat in the musty dark watching the Beatles
run for a train or Dustin Hoffman screaming
Elaine! Elaine! Elaine! or the spacemen in 2001
floating to Strauss. She sponged, soaped, scrubbed;
the prison and hospital stamped on her back,
the park neat on her belly, her navel marking the spot
where the empty bandstand stood, the river again,
heading south, clear as an operation scar,
the war memorial facing the railway station
where trains sighed on the platforms, pining
for Glasgow, London, Liverpool. She knew
you could stand on the railway bridge, waving
goodbye to strangers who stared as you vanished
into the belching steam, tasting future time
on the tip of your tongue. She knew you could run
the back way home – there it was on her thigh –
taking the southern road then cutting off to the left,
the big houses anchored behind their calm green lawns,
the jewels of conkers falling down at your feet,
then duck and dive down Nelson and Churchill
and Kipling and Milton Way until you were home.
She didn’t live there now. She lived down south,
abroad, en route, up north, on a plane or train
or boat, on the road, in hotels, in the back of cabs,
on the phone; but the map was under her stockings,
under her gloves, under the soft silk scarf at her throat,
under her chiffon veil, a delicate braille. Her left knee
marked the grid of her own estate. When she knelt
she felt her father’s house pressing into the bone,
heard in her head the looped soundtrack of then –
a tennis ball repeatedly thumping a wall,
an ice-cream van crying and hurrying on, a snarl
of children’s shrieks from the overgrown land
where the houses ran out. The motorway groaned
just out of sight. She knew you could hitch
from Junction 13 and knew of a girl who had not
been seen since she did; had heard of a kid who’d run
across all six lanes for a dare before he was tossed
by a lorry into the air like a doll. But the motorway
was flowing away, was a roaring river of metal
and light, cheerio, au revoir, auf wiedersehen, ciao.
She stared in the mirror as she got dressed,
both arms raised over her head, the roads
for east and west running from shoulder
to wrist, the fuzz of woodland or countryside under
each arm. Only her face was clear, her fingers
smoothing in cream, her baby-blue eyes unsure
as they looked at themselves. But her body was certain,
an inch to the mile, knew every nook and cranny,
cul-de-sac, stile, back road, high road, low road,
one-way street of her past. There it all was, back
to front in the glass. She piled on linen, satin, silk,
leather, wool, perfume and mousse and went out.
She got in a limousine. The map perspired
under her clothes. She took a plane. The map seethed
on her flesh. She spoke in a foreign tongue.
The map translated everything back to herself.
She turned out the light and a lover’s hands
caressed the map in the dark from north to south,
lost tourists wandering here and there, all fingers
and thumbs, as their map flapped in the breeze.
So one day, wondering where to go next,
she went back, drove a car for a night and a day,
till the town appeared on her left, the stale cake
of the castle crumbled up on the hill; and she hired
a room with a view and soaked in the bath.
When it grew dark, she went out, thinking
she knew the place like the back of her hand,
but something was wrong. She got lost in arcades,
in streets with new names, in precincts
and walkways, and found that what was familiar
was only façade. Back in her hotel room, she stripped
and lay on the bed. As she slept, her skin sloughed
like a snake’s, the skin of her legs like stockings, silvery,
sheer, like the long gloves of the skin of her arms,
the papery camisole from her chest a perfect match
for the tissuey socks of the skin of her feet. Her sleep
peeled her, lifted a honeymoon thong from her groin,
a delicate bra of skin from her breasts, and all of it
patterned A to Z; a small cross where her parents’ skulls
grinned at the dark. Her new skin showed barely a mark.
She woke and spread out the map on the floor. What
was she looking for? Her skin was her own small ghost,
a shroud to be dead in, a newspaper for old news
to be read in, gift-wrapping, litter, a suicide letter.
She left it there, dressed, checked out, got in the car.
As she drove, the town in the morning sun glittered
behind her. She ate up the miles. Her skin itched,
like a rash, like a slow burn, felt stretched, as though
it belonged to somebody else. Deep in the bone
old streets tunnelled and burrowed, hunting for home.
What You Need
You Are At Home Here
I study lungs. I go nowhere.
I gaze at the edge of white mountains. I want to die.
The path goes into money. Now I can occupy a calendar
of authority and give away the tent. They are twisted
into the song, the food, the sea. They are dressed
in white stories. He wasn’t hoarse, who didn’t know,
a stamp healed the window and the wound together.
The motive is beautiful. The elephant is bottomless.
It spins vases and the girls in them.
It spills itself on little cups, a coffee, an airplane
kneels in the overgrown grass. This isn’t my bread.
The bread is all yours. It adorns itself with claws.
Jump into the factory of rough flags
and stretch the edge. Fall asleep with the stretched edge.
–Layli Long Soldier
However a light may come
glass pane or dry dermis
of hand winter bent
I follow that light
capacity that I have
snap-like seizure I
is less to forget
less to carry
tiny gears mini-
armature I gun
the spark light
I blink eye blink
at me to look
at me in
and I eye
Crossing from Guangdong
Something sets us looking for a place.
For many minutes every day we lose
ourselves to somewhere else. Even without
knowing, we are between the enveloping sheets
of a childhood bed, or crossing
that bright, willow-bounded weir at dusk.
Tell me, why have I come? I caught
the first coach of the morning outside
the grand hotel in town. Wheeled my case
through the silent, still-dark streets of the English
quarter, the grey, funereal stonework facades
with the air of Whitehall, or the Cenotaph,
but planted on earth’s other side. Here
no sign of life, but street hawkers, solicitous,
arranging their slatted crates, stacks of bamboo
steamers, battered woks, to some familiar
inward plan. I watch the sun come up
through tinted plexiglas. I try to sleep—
but my eyes snag on every flitting, tubular tree,
their sword-like leaves—blue metal placards
at the roadside, their intricate brooch-like
signs in white, that no one disobeys.
I am looking for a familiar face. There is
some symbol I am striving for. Yesterday
I sat in a cafe while it poured, drops
like warm clots colliding with the perspex
gunnel roof. To the humid strains of Frank
Sinatra, unexpectedly strange, I
fingered the single, glossy orchid—couldn’t
decide if it was real. I slowly picked at
anaemic bamboo shoots, lotus root like
the plastic nozzle of a watering can,
over-sauced—not like you would make at home.
I counted out the change in Cantonese.
Yut, ye, sam, sei. Like a baby. The numbers
are the scraps that stay with me. I hear
again your voice, firm at first, then almost
querulous, asking me not to go.
I try to imagine you as a girl—
a street of four-storey plaster buildings,
carved wooden doors, weathered, almost shrines
(like in those postcards of old Hong Kong you loved)
you, a child in bed, the neighbours always in
and out, a terrier dog, half-finished bowls
of rice, the ivory Mah Jong tablets
clacking, like joints, swift and mechanical,
shrill cries—ay-yah! fah!—late into the night.
My heart is bounded in a scallop shell—
this strange pilgrimage to home.
The bus stops
with a hydraulic sigh. So, we have crossed
the imaginary line. The checkpoint
is a concrete pool of grey. The moss-green
uniformed official, with his stiff-brimmed,
black gloss hat, his elegant white-gloved hands, his
holstered gun, slowly mounts the rubber steps,
sways with careful elbows down the aisle. I lift
this wine-magenta passport, the rubbed gold
of the lion crest—this mute offering.
Two fingers brace the pliant spine, the thumb
at the edge—an angle exact as a violinist’s
wrist—fanning through watermarks, stamps,
flicked verso and recto, halting at the last
laminated side. He lifts his eyes to read
my face. In them I see—uncertainty.
The detection of eyes, the bridge of a nose.
Half-recognition. These bare moments—
something like finding family.
The mild waitress in Beijing. Your mother …
China…worker? she asked, at last, after
many whispers spilling from the kitchen.
Or the old woman on the Datong bus,
who might have been my unknown grandmother.
She took a look at me, and weakly grasped
my shoulders from below, loosing a string
of frantic, happy syllables, in what
dialect I don’t even know. She held
my awkward hands, cupped in her rough, meagre
palms, until the general restlessness showed
we neared the stop. As the doors lurched open,
she smiled, pressed a folded piece of paper,
blue biro, spidery signs, between my fingers—
she and all the others shuffled off. Some,
I realised then, were in hard hats, as they
dwindled across the empty plain, shadowed
by the blackened, soaring, towers of the mine.
Something sets us looking for a place.
Old stories tell that if we could only
get there, all distances would be erased.
The wheels brace themselves against the ground
and we are on our way. Soon we will reach
the fragrant city. The island rising
into mist, where silver towers forest
the invisible mountain, across that small
span of cerulean sea. I have made
the crossing. The journey you, a screaming
baby, made, a piercing note among grey,
huddled shapes, some time in nineteen-fortynine,
(or year one, of the fledgling people’s
state). And what has changed? The near-empty
bus says enough. And so, as we approach,
sluggishly, by land, that glittering scene,
the warm, pthalo-green, South China tide—
far off, I make out rising, mercury
pin-tips, distinct against the blue
as the outspread primaries at the edge
of a bird’s extending wing. So much
taller now than when I left
fifteen years ago. Suddenly, I know—
from the mid-levels flat where I grew up,
set in the bamboo grove—from the kumquatlined
half-octagon of windows, tinted
to bear the sultry, drip-refracted glare—
you can no longer see the insect cars
circling down those jungle-bordered boulevards.
The low-slung ferry, white above green,
piloting the harbour’s carpet of stars,
turned always home, you can no longer see
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade.
— Andrew Marvell
These are all thoughts — of course. At the edge of the ocean with nowhere to go,
the nearest land three thousand miles away and under different management,
the diving sun another thirty thousand times that, there is no reality,
only these parlous notions, messages, statements, stylings on the edge of extinction.
Little petillas. A kind of spontaneous zoo of human recency and arrival
and promontory variorum. Imprudent comb-over thoughts,
rigid and proud eye-catching false thoughts, little jiggling thoughts,
intricate braided-beard thoughts the product of much misplaced patience,
product placement thoughts (which are rather elementary,
and are almost a contradiction in terms), unlike myriad highly-evolved
dog thoughts (no mutts here), pushing a baby in a three-wheeled stroller
whilst running very hard in no shirt and six-pack thoughts,
this a development on the now-obsolete egg and paddle
(what it does to the infant to be impelled at such a rate into the future
whilst facing backwards like an Aeroflot passenger is not recorded —
not that forward is necessarily better), high-concept silky-swishing Afghan hound thoughts,
intrusive bum thoughts, hapless and homeless panhandler thoughts
(a smarte carte loaded with undesirables never far to seek),
low-slung belly-dragging beagle thoughts little better
than the serpent in the Bible, holding hands Adam and Eve thoughts,
foot-shuffling Zimmer frame thoughts, “revolution in mobility” wheelchair and gravel thoughts,
pushed by most likely an illegal attendant borderline thoughts,
candy-striped T-shirt and shorts thoughts, cut-off thoughts,
paired with sometimes nothing more than a bikini top, those three-quarter length
thin and probably amphibious trousers, worn without socks, that men go in for,
suggestive of adaptability and resourcefulness thoughts,
standard over-loud mobile thoughts, (“our relationship is… ”),
lying immobile on the grass on your back mobile thoughts
(these are different), tourist thoughts, an unexpected preponderance of Russian thoughts
(though with residential qualifications), borscht belt leopard skin thoughts
dripping with gold and eccentric lamentations, dog and baby both thoughts
(these last thought to be ideally-balanced), high-stepping poodle thoughts
like a four-wheel drive with little intelligence in rough country,
furiously texting in the glare with all thumbs to the pump thoughts,
being at least half elsewhere, baseball cap thoughts rife with determination,
slightly dated straw hat thoughts, reverse baseball cap also thoughts.