Saturday, 26 March 2016

from Blackwater Quartet, selection 83

Man From Earth

In the well I lined with stones
the water clears.

Born of decent people,
I look to my conduct, and see in signs
my life my only true inheritance,
sheltered in that strength of witness
as fate is fostered in the stars.

Before the register of any beginning
there is inference to something
darkly visible, instinctive within us.
A plain man and simply spoken,
shall I sojourn in that lost dimension
until my creature code is broken,
and believe my life my own
as signature of that core sensation—
a silence, transfigured by affection?

Divining in the air
the infinite arrangement of another sky,
I serve the time with labour as I will,
by the river in the wilderness
a mercury persona posturing through mirrors,
my voice no soundless ray, or shape
torn from time to ghost among the ruins,
but as a living being in a living air
untroubled by the destiny of nations,
before the invention of letters and crochets,
a brightness binding generations
with hours which echo into days.

Is my father’s house my own,
or do I build a tomb with borrowed stones?
Though clan books house the rights of kin,
when the logos of the feudal life has flown
nameless down some corridor—
the motto on the crest of arms an echo
lost in echoes beyond the darkened door—
what seal of merit defines the man
born to the axe’s double edge
and soft plumes the colour of claret?

I am as I seem, as I was and will be,
in the manner of the simple heart
cut down in the faction fray in honest aid of kinsmen.
Such are the mutations of this life,
in dread of the turning tide and stars
or in the sleepy resolutions of an endless afternoon,
in sudden death or in death that is slow,
in the wash of centuries, unknowing and unknown.

I am as I seem, as I was and will be,
and cherish these freedoms as a separate sense,
the workday sequence of the present tense transcended,
the slug of gravity now the shimmering woman-shape of time
whose grains defy the lateness of the hour—
the parchment of a thousand years decayed,
the names of the elders illuminated dust,
the list of tithes for their souls’ repose now monkscript
scattered in the evening’s merest rays.

I listen for them still, those voices from the clearing:
the Saxon Fulbertus and his sons;
Petrus, the eldest, hunting sanglier,
harpwire of the bowstring taut,
his arrow home before tusk could tear;
Helias in orders, cloistered cold in Paisley Abbey
and there to live The Life;
Sire Robertus if the ilk
descending to the Ulster Scots of Antrim—
my kinsman there a captain who served the Interregnum,
and later wed a widow, daughter of the Chancellor
and heiress to Moneen estate,
her father’s land in Donegal along the river Foyle.

Pride proves the hero.
As with the oldest god in the oldest myth
outwitted by men who will not submit,
so pride proved impetus to men of good name
hard-pressed to flee Charles Stuart’s reign—
gathering their families and faith
to cross to Maryland on the farther shore,
no rooftree but a Bible
and a clock inscribed to the appetite of time,
tempus edax rerum, with nothing as it was before.

The gauze of memory masks ancient ills,
the squeal of gulls on Chesapeake Bay
more foreign then than now:
death in childbirth, fever in the marshes,
ear brands on cattle and tobacco in the fields,
something about labour and the course of dreams,
and what the love of duty yields.

It the end, it all comes down
to rough hands working sun to sun, the life in the land,
and names free from beggar kingdoms
wrung out by princes and their kind.
Here, the forest runs to the horizon,
to the spine of blue haze we call the Appalachians
and into the valley of the Cumberland beyond.
A man can follow the way of his life
yet never see the end as it all comes down to voices,
speaking softly under still pines so tall,
your sure steps falling hushed on moss and nettles.

Time is nothing if not this.

Where is that world now?
There’s hymn enough in voyages
for those dispirited by the old routine
of fences strung like cages
for the keeping-in of beasts and men,
though barbed wire and meadow grass
take differently to sun and rain.

And what of the world we left behind,
what atlas to assuage that cold geography?
I was exile then, the bleak North Sea
breaking sleek as sealskin on the sands,
walking alone speaking poetry aloud,
myself to myself, until the words grew distant,
like words for people in another life.

… the windy day I saw her…

a lady from London
riding bareback in the hills
hard by those precinct ruins, some fortress family extinct,
her face so fair, her figure lithe upon her smoky mare:
our breath rose lazily in the chill
and for a moment mingled
under skies of a season
not quite spring.
And what is love if not to follow,
to swear the vow, and kiss the kiss
that fires the magic in the ring,
and is this the world, the sign, the spark?

A sunlit morning in the month of May,
a Saturday in St. James’s Park,
she nearby me in the shade
watching people watching her
feeding bread crusts to the swans,
the great black cob and cygnet runts,
beaks in hand, the lucky ones;
our flat in Victoria so small
a shilling in the meter kept us lit and warm,
our milk outside the window on the cill,
and love’s refrain at midnight
where there’s any love at all:
will you marry me… I will.

By their simple elegance I know them,
my children tumbling in their play,
with features as fair as their mother is fair,
should I know them in no other way.

And what will they say of me
when their children’s children ask—
a picture of a gentleman from the century past,
the clothing quaint, the pose uncertain,
the colours in the background faint?

Leaves brighten, a book of verse
and heirloom of the early days:
turning through the pages there
I found a filament of grey,
a human hair, nothing less or more,
yet there before the windowpane
where morning played along the strand
poised brittle on the fulcrum of the light,
I felt the gulf and bond of ghosts in time,
the sign of those who never were
and are again no more.

Where is that world now?
The maps have bled to neutral tones,
the blanks that border in the mind
the colour of the exile years
remembered in some future time.

In the well I lined with stones
the water clears.

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