These are poems concerned with resilience again, but more about a period of transition – that which comes from age and ‘intimations of mortality’, an emerging but fragile sense of wellbeing, seeing children grow up, being inside or outside the psychiatric system and the boundaries between the personal and professional. There is uncertainty – and more than a few animals – inhabiting these tentative territories.
Several have been written as part of my stint as Writer In Residence at The (amazing) Bethlem Gallery
I hope you like at least one of them.
Please note that my poetry collection ‘Elephants Fragile’ will be published by Cinnamon Press in February 2018.
I Am Unused To Being Held
I am unused to being held
by this untrustworthy air
I am like a cat on the sill
pawing at a wasp
on the other side
tentatively, every now and again
just in case
the glass this time might disappear
I have been told that it takes
most of what you have
to lose and
much of what you need arrives
when you decide
not to leave
I keep enormously still
and sleep like the coastline
its breath, its tide
We’ve all watched the turtle documentary,
hatchlings in their thousands on the beach
scuttling toward the night’s consuming waves.
Or been eaten away by believing
in the gulf between what we have and crave,
between the past and what the future owes us,
replaying images on demand, tearing up
as the gulls rip at innocence and swarm,
or as a little one heads the opposite way,
wires crossed, back up the bloody sand
to the sound of Attenborough’s whisper:
Some confuse the glare of the hotel and street lights
for the full moon’s reflection on the silvery waters.
Raving is one of two statues (the other is Melancholy) that were displayed at the entrance to Bethlem Hospital between 1676 and 1815 and are now housed in The Bethlem Gallery.
I watch the woman in the pink coat sigh
at the stone man Raving by the marble stairs.
Outside, a bleached sun appears and disappears
through the strangest of approaching storms
and sky gone wrong, orange-brown, blowsy
with blown Saharan sand. Not yet rain.
His wrists are chained to each other – Thick chain
hanging loosely across his taut waist.
He leans on one arm like you do at a picnic
but his mouth gapes, bulging neck is twisted
and his left hand turned fist forever.
I guess he could stretch his arms way out wide
almost. Weathered now, he’s been yellowing
for three hundred years, monstrous
at the hell bound gates that can draw us all.
Eventually he was carried inside
when cracks appeared – he was breaking up –
and half a finger – the one pointing skywards,
was lopped off on the way down a corridor.
The woman says to her friend: I like him.
Then a pause: though ‘like’ may be the wrong word,
moves on, disturbed, past the mighty body
as the storm nears and afternoon dusk
continues to fool the flailing birds.
Prayer For The Unbeliever
The day after the fabulous day
frost in the sullen air
the drama done
you whisper, like an unbeliever
in the cold temple:
Good things always end
accustomed as you are
to loss, the psycho-physiology of fall
this familiar dwelling of faithlessness.
But it is written:
You know now how to hold on –
that is all – and that
will come to be everything.
I have long watched
with perilous envy –
goats on the sheer hills,
an owl’s nightly grip,
the spider braced mid-web
while mountains spin
in the difficult wind
and fields rush by –
still in the calculated
hold of now, unswept
by fear’s gravity
Not The Sea
We should have memorised names of the roads.
But I’ve printed out a page from Google maps.
He says he will use the sat-nav on his phone.
It’s dark, like when we used to hold hands,
one or two windows already glowing.
We are walking like this is nothing –
as if by a smooth river, not the sea.
He is to have a large red bag with a strap
that I’m sure will be way too heavy.
I want to write something clever about words
and newspapers and the way words will leave
his hand and mine. I walk back uphill alone.
He tells me later there was a dog that snatched
a paper through the letter box. I remember
my first Saturday job, but that doesn’t matter.
I run fast for you because I can,
in circles because that is how I want to live my life.
I miss the watery-sunlight
when I am not out there chasing it.
Once I went from one end of the beach
to the other.
It was miles and miles and delicious,
salted air unraveling from the froth
mouth open and face upward,
neck tilted for the blast.
See this shoulder tattoo?
That is the mark of the finest wave
that ever threw itself headlong
onto the hungriest of shores.
I promise too, that when it comes
and those slippery-shaky pebbles
threaten to fell me
down by the stand that sells fish and chips,
I will hold your hand
and with the other, reach
for another sachet of tomato ketchup.
I ring you
and you are a different bird
liver shrivelling before the long haul
reproductive organs out of kilter
a shift in size
plumped in your cage
repeatedly banging your head on the bars.
Now you are set south-west I think
beyond the waters by the grey tree
Is this all of your own volition?
Were you wired in the egg?
I expect you dead,
recovered midway to Senegal.
How casually you must cross hemispheres,
vague territories unravelling.
It must be less like A to B to A
more A to B to D to C
and back to A again.
If at all.
We blame the magnetic or olfactory,
partial explanations always – the balance of it.
Are you pursued by predators?
Once out from over the shallows
do oceanic markers underlie
the great white tides?
Is there someone out there
who can set the clock by the time of your arrival?
Like we did.
A bullet in the the breast?
Don’t leave us
perplexed and unable to grieve.
Yesterday an albatross soared the eastern seaboard.
I too am busy with the unknown.
That is where we live
tearing from bad island to bad island.
you have spent long minutes studying dissolution
now can’t turn back
from letting go
balancing precariously between
intention and consequence
carried only by a forgotten act of will
and now by sheer momentum
the slow motion of the accident
revising imaginings of eternity
but this is when the line begins
unknown, to compose itself
and finds the words to fall into love with
Steve’s, the busy barber’s shop, your son
forever changing in front of your eyes
in amongst twenty to thirty year olds
their steady, studiously diverted glances
vagina beards, sheared sides, partings
you capture the child on video
in the mirror looking up, uncertain
beneath a looming giant of a man, bald
leaning over him with razor ready:
‘how much of this do you want off?’
and you would kneel and gather
by the pumped up swivel chair
wounded, wildly harvesting
the blonde locks as they fall
midway – you could not help but watch
the unreeling of a life dispossessed – nobody
at the next station, nowhere to go but the next
how to depart with grace, how to arrive
with a smile or disdain for where you’ve been
frozen at the loss and disconnection
who cares for bravery?
who but you cares for that disremembered place?
you were fourteen too, the dive’s arc
water rising up to collect
the collision of air, head and pool
and you alone
All poems (c) 2017 David Gilbert
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