Category Archives: The Shoreline of Falling

The Other Side

My grandparents went into the woods
on the day I was born,
and blessed an infant tree they found,
naming it as my guardian twin.

Throughout my childhood I never knew
I was bound to something wild,
that grew through frost and winter storms,
raising many arms to distant light.

Then one day, when school was over,
grandma took me down to the woods.
She said a time of change had come,
that I was turning into a man.

We found grandpa working there,
splitting the tree with a curved iron blade.
They stripped me naked, pulled the split apart
and gently pushed me through.

They poured cold water over me,
then bound the tree with white rags,
and told me childhood was left behind
forever, on the other side.

I hung around the tree a lot at first,
feeling abandoned and out of place,
and worried about the time ahead.
The tree healed, its bandages rotted away,

and it became like other trees,
except its bark was scarred for me.
Then I met a girl, and travelled far with her.
But I never forgot, and always returned

when major changes touched my life,
times of grief or celebration, and felt
a special union with the other side.
Once when a very dark time came

I wanted to open the tree once more
and crawl back through, but I knew deep down
that unless the slit was cut the same way
I’d find myself in some other place.

Now that I am very old and another change
is near, I often visit my guardian tree.
How massive it’s become these recent years,
joined at last to the sky above.

Soon I will enter my heart’s house and lock
the door behind. I’ll climb the creaky forest stairs,
and slip through the gap where the light
seeds the silence on the other side.


Colour drains out of things
and edges become undefined:
the difference between this and that
fading like bird call.

Then shaping the remains of our world into theirs,
the dead step forth:
a vase and a pile of laundry
and a broom that leans on a chair
is a bent old woman,
turning her head to regard you,
the drift of her cobweb hair
as fine as a murmur
you don’t want to hear.

You feel at once you’re intruding,
that you took a wrong turn in the hallway
and entered a room adrift in a mirror,
or a memory retained in the stones of the house.

She sees you reach out in your terror,
and disappears when you snap on the light
and the known returns like the rush of an incoming tide
erasing tracks from the ribs of a shore.

But the twilight is still falling,
and perspectives shift in the rooms up above,
where the furniture leaps to restore her;
somehow you know she stands by your bed —
then you start to remember your sickness last night,
and the pain as you passed through the gates of the dead,
under that tangle of bedclothes.

You’re like a child again, alone with your fear
with the dark closing in.
So you run up the stairs to the one who might help you —
she’s nowhere in sight
till you look out the window,
at the hunch of a hillside, the hair of a willow,
the crook of a pathway that fades in the dark:
the trace of a world that’s departing
for the hollow domains of starlight.

Across the road the mystic garden stands,
behind high rails, a lawn obscured by palms
and cypress. By a broken pillar, half concealed,
there is an old sepulchre, cracked and ruinous;
with passing time its mystery touches me
and moves my heart to open up its joy.
But one day, returning by a different route,
I see the garden from the other side:
that glimpse of palace, just a block of flats,
the sepulchre, now an empty garage.
The vision’s spoiled, the mystery’s gone.

Which garden really is the truth,
the garden of the heart, or of the head?
If one thinks the brutal is more real,
that garage might be secret gold: shelter
for some tired midnight couple, the woman
gravid, the man shamed by poverty;
then a miracle: two turn into three.
An old car seat, a barrow for a cradle,
a street lamp pure as any distant star,
a vagrant’s crust; all turned to treasure
by full hearts and the eyes of love:
transmutation, or maybe just seeing true.
The Ghisi Miniatures

Were you told I had a fine collection of miniatures?
I understand your sight is poor, but let me
describe some of them to you, while we wait.
Here is a lapis shell that opens to reveal

a mermaid astride a dolphin. She has two tails,
no antiseptic Hollywood creature she,
they coil in relish as they hold her sex
fast to the spine of the undulant beast.

Now here’s a locket of chaste and simple lines,
inside a lady sits on a stool,
one plump arm ‘neath a storm of skirts.
A footman lounges on a chair before her,

his long penis entering the naked maid
who straddles him and blushes with shame
and delight. The lady leans forward
and inspects their genitalia avidly.

I know the room in which this all takes place,
I recognise the land beyond the window,
it is a hunting lodge our family kept for many years.
I’ve often wondered who the artist was.

These two ovals framed in gold have black ribbons
tied in bows about them, and are much older.
They show a brother and sister aged two and four.
Inside the backs are locks of hair, still soft.

And here beside them is their mother, her lap full
of jewels, a tiara in her black hair.
She was an ancestor of mine from the far south;
a powerful family that ruled a wide domain.

She wed a handsome foreigner,
but he had an eye for women, and he fell
for the widowed mistress of a neighbouring estate
(one slightly richer and with better game)

who enticed him away. Fearing
his wife’s white fury, he took their two children
as hostage against her good behaviour.
But he didn’t understand the nature

of her love for him, for when she heard
what he’d done, her love turned to a black hatred
that filled her as if her very blood was made
of darkness. She and her half-crazed brother,

together with a mob of hired killers,
fell upon her usurper, and she slit
her children’s throats before her husband’s eyes,
and that was just the hors d’oeuvre, as it were.

The tiara she wears in her portrait
has not faded with age, as people
sometimes think. Rather, it was already pale,
being made of small bones

taken from her rival’s hands and feet.
The baubles she fondles were her rival’s jewels.
One child only did she give birth to
in the rest of her life, somehow fathered

by her brother. It was that act of incest,
perhaps, that gave our family its tone-deafness
and slight emotional instability.
Ah! I hear my wife’s footfall on the stair,

I’m so pleased she’s found a nice companion
to share her love of music. I know you’ll both
enjoy the concert, and the dinner after.
Take your time, there is no need to hurry back.
The 16A

The bus is full and thick with fug:
we’re all bundled up for winter. I take a hankie
from my pocket and wipe the misty window.
A young woman standing at a bus stop looks up at me
and I’m back in last summer’s Luxembourg Gardens,

where a young woman standing by a hedge
drops her jeans and underwear,
bends at the waist and grips her knees —
a long rope of urine shoots out of her in a glittering arc
and drums loudly on the lawn behind.
I look away, but later wish I hadn’t.

The bus stops and everyone get out:
old women who can raise storms,
children who can jump and count up to sixty,
men who know the name of the next winning horse
and smell of smoke, mums with covered prams.
I may never see them again, but their breath
is tucked in my pocket, soaking my handkerchief.
Bon Voyage

The family sat on awkward chairs
round my father’s hospital bed,
while he waited for death to come.
Cancer had already taken his voice.

He flung back the sheet
and pulled my mother into the bed.
She sat there in silence,
his arm was around her shoulders,
they looked ahead to a distance beyond the walls.

The bed was a little boat
and they were sailing away,
there among the relatives, among the other beds.
They had sailed for so long to get there;
now they were going on.

But my mother started to tremble
and hid her face in her hands and wept,
then shook herself free, jumped
to the floor and stepped away from the bed.

My father put hands together,
his mouth shaped pleading words we couldn’t hear.
My mother made a move towards him
and his crooked hands tried to grab her
as the current pulled him swiftly into the dark.
The Fish

My grandfather on my mother’s side
was a great fisherman.
Though I didn’t share his passion,
I would go and sit beside him by the river,
my float drifting, hook unbaited,
catching nothing, reading Homer,
while he seemed to swirl beside me: a djinn
inside a flashing silver weave
of fin and ruby blood, in love
with every living moment of the day.

I was far away when he died
and missed the funeral, but later, by his grave,
I watched my grandmother
stand alone against a darkening sky,
and knew that unseen down below
he was part of the curving world
that supported her as she stood there,
and also when she walked away.

Six months later, I saw him once:
a fish from the neck down,
lazily swimming between the reeds,
wrapped up in his own thoughts.
He didn’t see me
and I was able to watch him feeding on insects
for several precious minutes.
Then, with a dull gold flick of his tail
and a smile on his face,
he went from my life forever.
The Iron House

She opened the door and the dead
child stood lisping on the porch, its hands
unable to grip the bell, its voice too weak to call.

The day before St Mårten’s, she carefully peeled away
the crisp white paper from the plump flesh
of the best goose her money could buy,
and cooked a feast, which she put in a hamper
with linen, silver and rich red wine.
Then she walked through the woods to the iron house,
with the hamper steaming on her back.
Above she heard the slow propeller of the island geese
as they went in search of the lost summer.

No one liked the iron house: a corrugated metal shed,
storehouse for the island’s winter waste. Each spring
when the flies appeared, grim men came from Värmdö
and scooped it like an egg, and it remained an empty shell
until the coming of the ice, until the flies were dead again.

The door seemed so hard to open, she was afraid
it was jammed, but it sprung open suddenly
and a stench of rotting whined in her head,
as light like grease slid in beside her.
A mob of grubby refuse bags
leaned against the dirty walls,
still and open-mouthed.

She spread the cloth on the concrete floor,
laid out the meal, poured the wine, then slammed the place
back into a cube of dark, and locked it with the bolt.

This was where they’d found one of the girls the previous year,
her limbs burst by frost, foetal and dry behind the bolted door.
The other child was never seen again.

She hurried homeward through the trees, the light
was failing fast: darkness had leaked out of the iron house
and spread into the sky. Reaching her cottage,
she lit the lamps and put the kettle on the stove,
but as she drew the curtains, she felt a surge of vertigo,
as if her home had made a quarter turn and she might fall
through the window in the floor.

Her breath was the only sound in the world,
till something walked down the cottage door.

Insects dream in their vaults of amber
around her parchment neck.
The atmosphere has preserved her
for nearly three hundred years.

She lies on her shelf as one asleep,
lonely in her ancient lace.
I think of lilies growing on dark waters,
petals closed for night;

see myself as a pallid stranger,
intruding suddenly at her side,
in her chamber under the earth
of a monastery garden shrill with birds,

set in a curve of summer day.
The dreamer is inside
the dream, but the dream
is inside the dreamer.
The Gorgon’s Palace

There is a dark place in my eye,
like a thread, or limb of mind,
that wavers when I turn to see,
though a mirror shows there’s nothing there.

I looked upon a bowl of flowers,
with my eye towards its heart
and saw the blossoms fold in two
and vanish in a stick of light,
as if a hinge had folded shut.

Then it all flowed back again:
the bowl of flowers was on the shelf.
But after that I found the scent
of every living thing had changed.

I went into a market square,
a festive day of wind-borne kites,
and gazed upon the busy stalls
and watched the people fall to dust
till just a field of flowers remained.

But one pale woman still stood there,
so lovely as to stop my breath,
for all her hair was full of smiles,
her glance as long as winter night.

I stood among those deep-hued flowers,
in the silence of the sun,
all wrapped about with winking hair,
with kisses twitching through my limbs,
so stunned I couldn’t move at all.

Then the market place came back,
and people laughed and toiled once more.
And now the world around me turns,
while a gorgon preens beneath my skin.