I remember the world in spring —
those few weeks when the blooming trees
let go their pollen for the breeze
with unexpected force to swing
sky-high, multitudes milling round
at different speeds of draught and drift
so many metres from the ground —
a festival, a stunning airlift.
Maple, walnut, beech,
alder, plane and ash.They say the world will end (again).
A few weeks till the dead of winter
when we’ll be iced or burned to cinder.
What do I know? Women and men
tell kids it’s certain that the trees
will change to green again in spring.
Outside the roots and branches freeze
while the burning logs whistle and sing —
maple, walnut, beech
and all the rest now ash.
They call and call around the neighbourhood,
but still the child won’t come. He’s here somewhere,
he must be here somewhere among the bushes.
He’s found the only crawl-space in the briars,
a secret chamber cut off from the world
surrounded by the canes hooped like barbed wire,
as well as burdocks’ large deflecting leaves
that nod indeed, indeed, there’s no-one here.
The stalks incline to hint that over there,
not here, the parents might have better luck
than hacking their way through this messy tangle.
Indeed they don’t. Perhaps, they start to think,
he’s wandered from his stretch of asphalt road
in curious pursuit of colours flecked
and stippled through the plumage of a jay,
that flits through foliage in fear of him,
as though the child could sprout wings and fly up
to snatch this bird out of its native realm.
But really what this jay-bird thinks is nothing
to what begins to run through their two minds.
It’s also possible that he has found
a new friend in the tall apartment building —
behind one of its concrete panels, he
is trying on new masks, playing hide and seek.
If they stand looking at the hundred windows
for long enough they might just catch a glimpse
of their child in a skeleton costume,
or Batman, not reflections of the sky.
The world is suddenly large and intricate,
a labyrinth with slots of awful darkness
in its design, trap-doors and oubliettes,
that only hours ago had flattered them
into believing that it was transparent,
that it was mastered pole to pole, and that
a child could wander safely round these parts.
Now everything gets in the way — the roads,
the walls, the glass, the glare from off the cars.
Even the blue sky’s in on the deception
in ways they can’t explain but only feel,
as if the earth’s face is shoved up to them
to block their sight or usher them to where
their child is once again not to be found.
Whatever path the boy now walks along
seems further shadowed by the early dead
whose stories hang around the neighbourhood.
There was the man who one night flung a rope
around the strong branch of a linden tree
and swung from it until they cut him down
at daybreak. Then there was another who
fell off a rock face in Tibet or Nepal
and left his parents decades to outlive him.
And then the man who tends the common land
about the buildings — his son in his teens
was taken in a way I’ve yet to hear.
When or if the child comes round a corner
at last (most times they do, sometimes they don’t)
and has a tale that could be even true,
the neighbourhood is once again transformed —
the early dead return to background colour,
the details blurring in the foliage
(Tibet or somewhere else?); the surfaces,
textures, volumes that constitute the street
move back and now are passable once more.
The briars unhook themselves, the windows open
to show the dark interiors of rooms,
the birds are merely soft noise in the trees.
The world releases itself back, a road
that’s wide and brings you anywhere you like.
Which is yet more deception. I am the child
or panicked father standing in the road.
I am the neighbour watching from a window
wondering if I should go down to help.
Events will turn and make me with their will.
I might become the man who works the land
in common, whose eyes look upon the earth
most steadily of all these different people,
and still he works, at one with happenstance.
Each year he takes the strimmer from the garage
to mow the spears of grass and outsize weeds
that shoot up by the paths and on the waste ground
(that isn’t waste ground but remaining plots
of orchard and of vineyard stranded here
amidst the villas and apartment buildings
that sprang up over the last century),
then rakes and gathers all the green that falls.
He neatly stands his three beers in the shade,
spits on his aging hands and goes at it.
Some days I wish he had a bigger scythe
to take down every standing block of concrete
and give us farms and woodland once again.
Some days I wish he’d leave the wild worts grow
and let them take dominion everywhere.
And every day I greet him with good will
which he returns then gets back to the job.
ON KRIŠTOF KINTERA’S INSTALLATION UNDER NUSLE BRIDGE, PRAGUE
beginning with a line by Jan Neruda
The earth’s a child and doesn’t think
to draw the people in so fast
that they’re transformed to pools of blood and cartilage
at the very last.
For instance when they climb the railing
held up four hundred metres high
above the parks, the buildings and the roads,
and step into the sky
the earth wants them so much it says,
‘Now come to me.’ It’s had enough
of barriers keeping them apart.
Who could resist such love?
And so they come down in their hundreds,
these ones who wanted quickly out,
so tired of leaving things to fortune — some
in silence, some with a shout —
as streetlamps twist their necks to look
up at the heights and finish gazing
down on a human heap against the earth,
whose love still proves amazing.
She says the dead come back for a mere flake, fleck
or fume of favourite food. A fragrant air
we hardly know is more than they can bear.
For them the speed of our bored talk is breakneck.
She says when we lean in to catch the scent
that rain showers summon from the April earth
dead millions groove themselves into the berth
of our one sense. They are engulfed, content.
He says let them do what they want, these dumb
sad hordes of shades. Do you think that they’ll come
the moment I push back the floral hem
of the summer dress you look so lovely in,
and lift it off, leaving you just a grin?
What do you reckon that will do to them?
A square of twilit lawn seen through French doors.
Summer evening. Aperitifs. A roast.
The affable minister murmurs to the host.
Breezes glide across the parquet floors.
The waiters move in silence. Now the wives
draw dutifully together for a talk
of family and schools, and watch the clock.
Two years to go till our first child arrives.
We live five floors up in a block of flats
across the city. Half a mile of muck
to walk through from the Metro. Like diplomats,
we say, ‘No, after you,’ and fall in bed,
still laughing, stripping off to fuck.
Nothing of those hours has touched us yet.
It’s like some awful joke:
my young son in my arms
before he goes to bed,
pressed close, not dead,
a tiny bloke
with bones his blood still warms.
He’s full of chat, age six,
of schoolyard push-and-shove
and big plans for next day.
I might as well say
a sack of sticks
has taken all my love.
His bones, in time and times,
like mine will fall apart.
OK. First job to do
tomorrow: go through
the ancient rhymes
for words like love and heart.
If you’re fine gazing through the sea
— mid-ocean, in a mid-sized boat —
at the giant shadows that agree
to keep you for a while afloat,
then go on, look into the ground
that shoulders your whole house’s weight —
the chalk and dirt packed pound for pound,
the limestone strata, and the slate,
in mile-long waves that kindly crest
to this spot underneath your feet.
(They’ll take you with them as their guest
when they move on from your smart street.)
That’s why your neighbour, his old clay
still quick enough, like a ship’s boy
comes whistling shanties. Every day
for fun he hails you with, ‘Ahoy!’