I have been in hospital (it’s been rough) and am now in Croatia – a scarred country. I have just read Sebastian Barry’s ‘Days Without End’, a book about the American Civil War and the best novel I have read for a long time. Being outside the troubled UK for a while has added to my thinking about the nature of personal and political strength and power, love/hate and history.
Some of these poems reflect a resultant shift in my writing I think. I hope.
p.s. I added a short eighth poem to the mix – one that feels more personal. Perhaps it is an epitaph on struggle.
Do not say so much. The bells of the old town
ring out over darkening water – we count
at least seventeen tolls. Each distant boat
is stilled with one dim light. All day the breeze
has shifted contrary to the earth. My mind
still rests with what we sang. We have always
moved towards each other like an inroad.
This evening’s urgent stars will stay our downfall.
We sit on the terrace taking our time – time
having taken us. Do not say so much. If we
are not for yet more knowing, then what now?
Catchments, keeps and walls. Tomorrow early
we will walk the wreckage of that citadel
where we died and lived and were raised
then take what was lost (do not say so much).
Song For a Friend
Our fears are real. They assemble
like grass. There is no guarantor
of love. None of us are ready
or will hold out. The flowers
are in flame. But here
you are held in the habit of dark.
And if this room were a chapel
a child would be with her mother
crying. The landscape is buried
beneath overlapping voices.
A man has cut back the lavender
and left drying clumps on the path.
The scent rises to our window
and I will not let you leave so easily
this sweated earth and scurry.
He tears and cracks the twisted vine
then piles the branches onto the bonfire.
We will wait until he lights it.
A Father’s Prayer in Four Parts
I was with the quiet boy. The breeze took us.
Like it came out of nowhere. A swell
in the close hot air. A stray
wisp of pressure yielding. We had been
bent by heat so long
unmoved for hours. Then
it rose again. Tentative. Solemn.
Our heads bowed. As if the land had tired
of its lull. A breeze like a kiss
on that first cheek. Flesh we cannot hold. Foretelling
a flicker that will rightly disappear. Or a gale.
Out where the boat’s wash meets the ebb
that whorl was all of us confused.
A sparrow landed on the chair
mouth gaping, shocked out from a smote sky
as if we could provide. No bird
now can muster a song
the wind again fallen to silence
like a sheer path between us.
I said: We all borrow from the breeze
by and by. You can be in all the right places
and never catch it. But
all I was thinking is for him to talk.
I just don’t know how to say anything right.
Please. What has been pledged
might be fulfilled. Let there be
a cold wall of opposition to the silent rule.
I say this as a final breath
like something important, as if what we write
is worth more than the page it is written on.
The earth though bruises easily with hope.
Like when a knot untangles
or white lie at last found out, the breeze
this time, I don’t know when
became a wind became a gale. It was
a change, that’s all. Down here we slip
alongside the weather
and whatever comes our way.
Back then I’d bale heat from the sun
cup rain when it deigns to drop.
We are available. We are all of us
fathers of quiet boys
who must ride the swell as soon as stare it down.
The wind was up, an exuberant host
a mighty gesture of will, a prayer of old
returned, a memory too raw. Desire
footloose clambering towards a zeroing
in a rush as if saying sorry I did not know.
We fill out with the baying and barrelling storm
and then he appears face wet, this
boy all of a sudden lithe dark
dispossessed no longer mine not that he
ever was and talking talking.
The History Lesson
For Ronald Caffrey
I had a friend who raised his hand
at the re-beginning of term. Desperate
measures. Politics is power to young
Miss Dabrowska who hated me
and the way we sidled in to class as if
happy and bagsied leadership.
There was a blind pressure rising.
She was stunned by his answer, forgave
temporarily the exchange of porn across
the back row, gobbing in corridors, unfocused
insolence and our leaving of upturned
drawing pins on chairs as we left the hell
of her class for double physics. Echo it
softly in the boy’s changing rooms
during inevitable September when throats
are gripped. We should never have lazed
our way through summer for the fire was
not quite out. Power is what sleeps by dawn
as if for aeons, then slips like a whip thin
snake under levels of dust and rock
biding the eyeless time.
All Inclusive – The Road to Kupari
The sun has not yet tumbled over the hills,
rocks pull themselves clear of the water, the sea is quiet.
I ask a woman with a dachshund. She leads me
to the left. Then later you must turn right.
Says she lives in a local villa six months a year.
She is upright and must be over 70
clearly loves it here. I come first to the shell
of a villa. Clear headed thistles. An almost ordinary
village square. Naked palm. Burnt tree
split as if by no-blame lightening. How live
with such ghosts? Or just tell it like they are
men with guns and work to do
pulling out and on to somewhere else called home.
I take a curved high path then when it stops
realise it was a wall all along
and wonder whether anything is worthwhile.
Yet red berries grow amongst the burnt back bracken
and pinecones hang out over
where soldiers danced by the dead village’s dead.
I crouch then lie in an old gunner’s position
to get low and picture fallen flower heads on the path
against those hills, as if I am trying to say something.
Down below: The square is empty, withholding what to say.
On a stone, a witty lover has written: Your heart
will tell you where you need to go so listen to it always.
A couple lean on a silver Mazda convertible
and pose for a selfie. But what if
it doesn’t? Your heart, I mean. Sullen groves.
I am closer now. A Croatian crest ten meters high
on the sea wall overlooks the rhythmic coast –
a shimmering light – like war is no reason to stop
daubing the waters. And way up on the sixth floor
someone has leaned over the grey pocked balcony:
All Inclusive in bold white paint. And down here
the old public toilets, and one of them dragged –
it would take a strong man to do that – to lie
on its side by the locked gate. Then ascend
the grand ruined steps. Almost break your ankle
entering the mammoth carcass
of the lost hotel, stretched
under the risen sun, utterly scavenged
bone and cement. We must identify. Say it
out loud: The lobby.
The reception desk. The stairs. Black-bellied
crevice beneath a sagging ceiling, dry-blooded
vast entrances and exits of air, bowing forever
numb-hearted, tumbling inward
over hallways upon hallways, war upon war
archways stitched with vine, shifting light needling
the innards – a sun’s sullen attempt to heal.
Step in, out and in over rubble, twisted wire, broken tiles
piles of cans, condoms, dainty pink flowers
and sofa buckled by seasonal rain and heat of memory.
And by the lift shaft, a penis and swastika side by side.
I walk back past The Sheraton – a stone’s throw away.
I send a text to Adam: ‘meet me for breakfast at ten.’
Try to take in the boats. The swimmers. And yes sparrows.
As It Will
For John Wilson
My Integrated Science teacher told me that everything damnable in this world can be reduced or expanded into whatever we say it is and that a curious mind is the only religion worthy of a fight and colour of flags means not much more than a line on a map and fear up close and blended en masse. How interminably slow – how echoingly, longingly, laughing slow – the species can be when memory is lost. That we are all blood versus blood until it roils into a mixture again and the meek come clean and speak pretty words. How the body inside likewise can be its own killing machine or gentle healer if you like, blood in vessel states, mere corpuscle and cells like you would not believe – with so much iron and some of them for hunting down and tackling the invasive. He laughed and said ‘you could call it love’. I didn’t then but I would now. And how the rest of us are all boundaries and tides washing in washed out, the heart an old ticker and weeds are plants by any other name. It is just the way we look that matters. And shouldn’t matter so much. Now I think of him as we begin to be at it again. That when the blood flows down – as it will – into the hollowing scooped moistening earth, permeability, diffusion, osmosis is at work. Or seeds, willing and head bowed to the cause. No more should we be afraid at the end than we were when born. And how like a friend he was when he said all that, my only giant. He knew the abyss was calling me down. He wanted me with nothing to worry about. I know it now, him chalk-fingered, willing the atom to be a universe.
I remember nothing of our tour of The Gardens
except for the pond, now a slump in the lawn,
where the trusty gardener’s son was drowned.
All else seems unworthy of excavation
though the guide talked for hours of war,
canals that drew in the city’s drinking water
and imported seeds that still throw up exotica.
It hardly matters what we remember. We paid
an entry fee, more for ice cream and holding hands.
But since then I have been withheld,
a dreamless archipelago. I am found
moored by inlets. Like something tightened.
Like my foot was in a trap. Thoughts unsafe.
Wrapped and coiled against haphazard truths.
I was thinking of other men. Some cast off
the braided rope. Free themselves from stone.
Others give nothing of whatever they will have.
For me, every beautiful place is a reminder
of less beautiful ones in their keep. Here,
a clump of cables jut from the wall and droop
like an injured hand over the ravaged courtyard.
Different elements are recovering at different rates.
The rebuilt houses on the escarpments look down
on fishing boats spearing across another dawn.
And in a quiet zone of former trouble
may we be well enough to say out loud:
How you lean in to me. How this small soul is ours.
I Came Out At Night
I came out at night
to find a rock
where no light shines
to look out
for shooting stars
my body to be filled by waves
a few lines left as bones
a reason to go on
I could not at first
make out the new moon
All poems © 2019 David Gilbert
‘ReCollections – a celebration of 70 years of the NHS’ (with visual artist, Beth Hopkins) is available from The Bethlem Gallery, where David is Writer in Residence.
His full collection ‘The Rare Bird Recovery Protocol’ will be published by Cinnamon in 2020.
You can find other examples of his poetry at http://www.futurepatientblog.com where he also writes on mental health and healthcare.