Workshop Date: 1963-1966
Poet: Michael Longley
My father, let no similes eclipse
Where crosses like some forest simplified
Sink roots into my mind, the slow sands
Of your history delay till through your eyes
I read you like a book. Before you died,
Re-enlisting with all the broken soldiers
You bent beneath your rucksack, near collapse,
In anecdote rehearsed and summarised
These words I write in memory. Let yours
And other heartbreaks play into my hands.
Now I see close-up, in my mind's eye,
The cracked and splintered dead for pity's sake
Each dismal evening predecease the sun,
You, looking death and nightmare in the face
With your kilt, harmonica and gun,
Grow older in a flash, but none the wiser
(Who, following the wrong queue at The Palace,
Have joined the London Scottish by mistake),
Your nineteen years uncertain if and why
Belgium put the kibosh on the Kaiser.
Between the corpses and the soup canteens
You swooned away, watching your future spill.
But, as it was, your proper funeral urn
Had mercifully smashed to smithereens,
To shrapnel shards that sliced your testicles.
That instant I, your most unlikely son,
In No Man's Land was surely left for dead,
Blotted out from your far horizon.
As your voice now is locked inside my head,
I yet was held secure, waiting my turn.
Finally, that lousy war was over.
Stranded in France and in need of proof
You hunted down experimental lovers,
Persuading chorus girls and countesses:
This, father, the last confidence you spoke.
In my twentieth year your old wounds woke
As cancer. Lodging under the same roof
Death was a visitor who hung about,
Strewing the house with pills and bandages,
Till he chose to put your spirit out.
Though they overslept the sequence of events
Which ended with the ambulance outside,
You lingering in the hall, your bowels on fire,
Tears in your eyes, and all your medals spent,
I summon girls who packed at last and went
Underground with you. Their souls again on hire,
Now those lost wives as recreated brides
Take shape before me, materialise.
On the verge of light and happy legend
They lift their skirts like blinds across your eyes.
Your uncle, totem and curator bends
Above your cot. It is you I want to see.
Your cry comes out like an eleison.
Only the name tag round your wrist extends
My surprised compassion to loyalty.
Your mother tells me you are my godson.
The previous room still moulds your shape
Which lies unwashed, out of its element,
Smelling like rain on soil. I stoop to lift
You out of bed and into my landscape,
Last arrival, obvious immigrant
Wearing the fashions of the place you left.
As winds are balanced in a swaying tree
I cradle your cries. And in my arms reside,
Till you fall asleep, your uncontended
Demands that the world be your nursery.
And I, a spokesman of that world outside,
Creation's sponsor, stand dumbfounded,
Although there is such a story to unfold
-- Whether as forecast or reminder --
Of cattle steaming in their byres, and sheep
Beneath a hedge, arranged against the cold,
Our cat at home blinking by the fender,
The wolf treading its circuits towards sleep.
The freeze-up annexes the sea even,
Putting out over the waves its platform.
Let skies fall, the fox's belly cave in --
This catastrophic shortlived reform
Directs to our homes the birds of heaven.
They come on farfetched winds to keep us warm.
Bribing these with bounty, we would rather
Forget our hopes of thaw when spring will clean
The boughs, dust from our sills snow and feather,
Release to its decay and true decline
The bittern whom this different weather
Cupboarded in ice like a specimen.
(with apologies to S. Heaney Esq.)
And, summing up, I think of when
With cloud and cloudburst you confer,
By God's sheer genius lifted there,
Lighthearted starling, nervous wren.
It is perfection you rehearse --
God placed the limpet on a rock,
He dressed the primrose in its frock upside down with its leg showing
And closed the chestnut in its purse:
Creating one more precedent,
With no less forethought, no less care
He gave you feathers and the air
To migrate to his best intent.
To useful angles well aligned,
At proper heights compelled to tilt,
Across kind landscapes yearly spilt --
Birds, you are always on his mind.
Quick emblems of his long estate,
It's good to have you overhead
Who understand when all is said,
When all is done, and it is late.
May my sermon, like your customs,
Reach suddenly beyond dispute --
Oh, birds entire and absolute,
Last birds above our broken homes.
Lighting up, lest all our hearts should break,
His fiftieth cigarette of the day,
Happy with so many notes at his beck
And call, he sits there taking it away,
The maker of immaculate slapstick.
With music and with such precise rampage
Across the deserts of the blues a trail
He blazes, towards the one true mirage,
Enormous on a nimble-footed camel
And almost refusing to be his age.
He plays for hours on end and though there be
Oases one part water, two parts gin,
He tumbles past to reign, wise and thirsty,
At the still centre of his loud dominion -
THE SHOOK, THE SHAKE, THE SHEIK OF ARABY.
These are the small hours when
Moths by their fatal appetite
Which thatbrings them tapping to get in,
Are steered along the night
To where our window catches light.
Who hazard all to be
Where we, the only two it seems,
Inhabit so delightfully
A room it bursts its seams
And spills onto the lawn in beams,
Such visitors as these
Reflect with eyes like frantic stars
This garden's brightest properties,
Cruising its corridors
Of light above the folded flowers,
Till our vicinity
Is rendered royal by their flight
Towards us, till more silently
The silent stars ignite,
Their aeons dwindling by a night,
And everything seems bent
On robing in this evening you
And me, all dark the element
Our light is earnest to,
All quiet gathered round us who,
When over the embankments
A train that's loudly reprobate
Shoots from silence into silence
With easy eaccomodate
Its pandemonium, its freight.
I hold you close because
We have decided dark will be
For ever like this and because,
My love, already
The dark is growing elderly.
With dawn upon its way,
Punctually and as a rule,
The small hours widening into day,
Our room its vestibule
Before it fills all houses full,
We too must hazard all,
Switch off the lamp without a word
For the last of night assembled
Over it and unperturbed
By the moth that lies there littered,
And notice how the trees
Which took on anonymity
Are again in their huge histories
Displayed, that wherever we
Attempt and as far as we can see,
The flowers everywhere
Are withering, the stars dissolved,
Amalgamated in a glare,
Which last night were revolved
Discreetly round us - and, involved,
The two of us, in these
Which early morning has deformed,
Must hope that in new properties
We'll find a uniform
To know each other truly by, or,
At the least, that these will,
When we rise, be seen with dawn
As remnant yet part raiment still,
Like flags that linger on
The sky when king and queen are gone.
Amateur witches and professional virgins,
Sirens and shepherdesses - all new areas
Of experience (I have been out of touch) -
Ladies you are so many and various
You will have to put up with me, for your sins,
A stranger to your islands who knows too much.
Your coy advertisements for bed and breakfast
I take as read, if I feel inclined -
So easy-going am I through going steady
(Your photographs will never hang in my mind)
With one ear cocked for the weather forecast
I come ashore to you who remind me,
And, going out of my way to take a rest,
From seasickness and the sea recuperate,
The sad fleets of capsized skulls behind me
And the wide garden they decorate.
Grant me anchorage as your paying guest -
Landladies, I have been too long at sea.
When I sight you playing ball on the sand,
A suggestion of hair under your arms,
Or, in swallows, wearing only the waves,
I unpack strictly avuncular charms -
To lose these sea legs I walk on land:
I linger till my boat fills up with leaves,
With snow or sunshine (whichever I prefer).
I see your islands as the residue
Of my sailor days, of this life afloat,
My lonely motive to abandon you,
Darlings, after each whirlwind love affair
Becalmed in logbook and in anecdote.
You have kept me going despite delays -
On these devious shores where we coincide
I have never once outstayed my welcome
Though you all seem last resorts, my brides,
Your faces favourite landmarks always,
Your bodies comprising the long way home.