MRS NEVINES’ BIRD SANCTUARY, CO. ANTRIM
Mrs Nevines’ bird sanctuary looks at first
Like a meshed community of cages
Where birds get better – or worse,
End up in the world of her glass cases.
At second glance, a white-faced owl
Blinks and pivots at the neck
(From north-north-east to roughly south)
The two halves of a single cheek.
But look again, and what’s revealed
Of Mrs Nevines’ healing work
Is how the sparrow, too, must heal
Fenced in beside the sparrowhawk.
As close against the glint of night
Her stands of birds keep airless watch –
That held the mountains underfoot,
That circled slowly on the lough.
The roots of my habit
Inhabit the time
My father smoked
In the closed rooms of his lungs
When we were young
And could float
On blue carpets of smoke
From the mouth and nose
Disclosing their invisible secrets.
Older now, and short of breath,
Bravura clouds are gone;
I know the likelihood of death,
That in my mouth
The ectoplasm of a fraud
That all began when I was bored
And made a séance
Of a childhood trance.
Once, on reaching
For my father’s hand,
To realise he was dead
And took instead a cigarette,
To finally give it up,
I’d to let go
Of what I’d lost –
The rope of gently rising smoke
To hold his breathing ghost.
DEATH OF THE POLAR EXPLORERS
They made their grim, sad faces and went out,
Out into cold flurries of the snow, and ice,
And saw the glaciers perfecting time
In all their strange, enormous beauty. Doubt
Never stunned the marrow in their bones
Who rose above the merely physical,
And if they faltered, it was only once,
On finding death incomprehensible.
In the future, when we learn how to levitate,
No one will need the old contraptions,
The humming machines with wings and whirring
Propellers that made marriages work.
People will have got the knack
Of holding altitude in their thoughts
And, going into it with their eyes open,
Look to lower turbulence with their lashes.
But for now, deserving a good send off,
I’ll put a shoulder to the wheel
To help two people fly –
Bumping along, like in the old films,
With the delicate, bridal canopy,
Brought back to earth to get the hang of sky.
For WG Sebald
It’s easy to go wrong,
Learning the words in German
That sound English.
The sky is bedeckt –
Bedecked like flowers
On the Indian Juggernaut?
Or black with bombers
Swarming to the storms
Of red and orange?
Overcast. The sky is overcast.
It’s easy to get by in English.
Where you get lost
Is the almost perfect normality
Of talking shop –
Skip Hitler’s table talk,
What words do Germans use
Or, der Holocaust.
That’s a guest-word from the Greek
That we don’t use
For what you did to us.
We bubbled on the pavements in our fat.
Looking back like Lot’s wife
On her stock,
You watch the fire-bombs on Hamburg
Dropped from Operation Gomorrah…
Er hat uns verhext.
He bankrupted us,
To a pillar of salt.
That slipped through guttering
When the roof ran
Cooled to a wedge of metal
In the mouths of gargoyles.
How could we speak
To each other after that?
From our tables
On our wings of ash?
We withdrew into ourselves.
With our history
We have to be careful.
Eyes glued to our boots.
With nothing but our lives.
And our right to silence.
On the roofs of buildings,
Mute, reconstructed angels –
Not victims now,
What do you do with your dead?
Between the morgues and memory?
Where they burned or lie buried
Under rubble, and monumental masonry
No longer speaks of destiny,
And over there…
The other side: drüben.
Did they comb my hair?
Were there shoes on my feet?
We believed we would wake
But history stood on our chests,
And our foreheads were branded.
The Angel passing over
Will not wake us.
Even the red of poppies is suspect.
Nature flourishing its inability to mourn
In camomile and couch grass,
Dung and hair. The grave sites
When the resurrection opens your lid
Will it be like morning light,
And you confused you were ever dead?
Or will the Angel of thought,
Who all those years held you
In conversation, spring out
Of the spoiled cloth – huge
As a moth from the dust of an old suit?
My mad uncle had the Burma jungle
In his head, burnt out tracts of history
He’d stalk in ambush of his sanity,
Becoming like the dead invisible.
An African, colonial invalid,
He hid from Independence in the bush,
Blinded to history like an Oedipus
On whom the Federal troops were billeted.
Biafra disappeared and so did he,
Still fighting out his fragment of world war;
And history, forgiving nothing,
Tore out its shrapnel from his memory.
If I come back as a burnt match,
My body bent with the effort of fire,
It was because I was struck
By a love that failed to blossom.
LIFE-CYCLE OF THE CABBAGE WHITE BUTTERFLY
Cabbage whites flutter Elsie’s summer heart –
She’s busy dissecting her men again,
Pinning them down on reproduction,
Spreading their wings with her wild laugh.
In their natural habitat, they stray
Like the horn-rimmed glasses on her face,
Magnifying the flowers they light on. Days
On end she traces the biology,
Prim as a bluestocking. As she’s black
It could be that she likes them under glass,
Examining for mixed motives the flaws
That turned their city-cousins ash-
Grey. She labels one Snow-in-Ghana,
As though she doesn’t trust her own desire.
THE SECOND LIFE OF SHELLS
Long after the life’s gone out of them
Like ghosts of rain through a ruin,
Beached shells frame
A congealed absence –
Small-holdings of silence
Where the sea comes spilling in.