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The Carpenter’s House

I have dreamed these recent weeks
of Rostwich where my white-haired uncle lived:
the yellow house of lichen-crusted stone,
the ancient garden scaled with dappled gold,
the jumbled hills that ache with green.

There he shaped an image of Christ crucified,
from a fragile piece of the one true cross,
that was brought to him from the Holy Land.
He painted it with tints he ground himself
and set it on the wall above his lathe;
a thought-piece for an atheist carpenter.

We took it back to our house when he died
and kept it on the mantelpiece for luck.
Then one spring-cleaning when it fell and broke,
we found there was a seed inside its head,
which I planted in a sunny flowerpot
and now a skinny sapling’s budding there.

But I dream that in my uncle’s house,
there’s a hidden room where no one’s ever been,
where a giant mirror hangs upon a wall,
in a frame of wrinkled wood that sprouts with leaves
and does not reflect anything at all.

And the jumbled hills cry out with green,
the ancient garden seethes with golden light,
the house squats like a lump of mouldy cheese,
displeased that all its rooms are bare and dark,
till there’s the whisper of a gently opening door
and Christ walks down the stairs with wooden feet.
Birds of Paradise

One man sits in the street
and hooks his eyes on those who pass,
then whistles at them in the tongues
of not-quite-familiar birds.

Another wears black leather and a ten-gallon hat,
and shouts about the coming of the Lord
into the nightshade box hidden in his hand.
The smiling woman buying quiche and apples,

who’s kept herself in trim for Mr Right,
will go to bed tonight and slit her throat.
And I write poetry, and poetry
walks along the edge of all such things

and sometimes the temptation’s there
to step quickly over the line
into the path of what comes roaring out of the dark.
But for now I’ll start another poem,

shut behind my crimson door,
while up the street the man has found
a strange new bird of paradise,
and the Lord has come just a little closer

and a small black choir sings in the woman’s mouth,
like the sound of distant shorelines
endlessly reshaping
in the rage where land encounters the sea.
Room of Red

I went to bed with a wandering girl,
her dark hair shone with glints of moon
and we played at love in my room of red,
till midnight rang and the stars came down.
When we went to sleep I gladly dreamed
that we played at love in a room of green.

But in that dream I fell asleep
and dreamt we lay in a room of black,
then the black door opened and a man stood there:
It is my husband screamed the girl,
the one I've feared for seven years,
he's come to take my soul from me.

We woke at once in the room of green,
My soul has gone! she cried in fear,
then the green door opened and a man came in:
It is my husband shrieked the girl,
The one I've fled these seven years,
he's come to take my love from me.

And when we woke in the room of red,
she trembled as she clung to me:
O husband where's my lover gone?
I looked around, no word I said,
but rent her limbs with smoking hands,
then closed the door on that room so red.
The Nails

I recall some rusty nails, three or four,
in the top right-hand drawer
of an oak desk in my uncle's house.

And that dull pair of shoes he used to wear,
bought for gardening from an Oxfam shop,
their ancient leather hard as bakelite,

that he wore until the soles were gone.
They were also worn by another then long dead
and nameless, save to strangers far away:

for we felt someone there we couldn't see,
that rose from the life the shoes had led
before they came into my uncle's home.

And when he died I found those hand-wrought nails,
all wrapped with muslin, very old,
and wondered what their hidden history was

and what they might have pierced so long ago.
Then I knew someone else was standing near,
out of sight but with a hammer in his hand,

who reached for me from suffering and love
and knew my heart was lamed and broken down,
like some old horse that's never known a shoe.
Miss Johnson

Miss Johnson sat on the palms of my hands,
inside a membrane that I peeled away.
She was a bit like a plucked hen,
her head was the size of a plum
and she wore her wattles like a hat.

There was nothing of the fairy about her,
she was vulnerable, but had no delicacy.
I gave her the little room under the stairs,
where she slept on a cushion in an old wicker basket
and used a lace hankie to cover herself.

She was fond of müsli and grapes
with croutons fried in bacon fat,
and she drank her milk from an eggcup.
Once, I disturbed her toilet under a buddleia
and felt ashamed. She liked to watch television,
especially old John Wayne films, which made her laugh,
even when John was being serious.

She stayed with me for more than a year,
then went off one day with a salesman
and I never saw her again.
Sometimes I use her eggcup at breakfast
and remember the times we shared.
I hope she’s all right.
First Love

When I was a boy cycling home from school
on evenings in late summer when the drizzle fell,
I would stop and walk naked in an ancient wood I had to pass —
warm pools and sopping leaves beneath my feet,
scents of wet earth and early fungus on the air—
until I reached a certain tree-trunk lying on its side,
barkless and smooth as bone, luscious with dark slime.

Such excitements I had there, gripping the tree with my legs,
tight with blood, sliding slowly, my mind conjuring
the creature that dwelt within; her smiles and textures:
tangles of fine roots stinking of leaf-mould,
dark fruit heavy in the hands,
a sticky trumpet flower, its stamen a thick curl,
bright pollen crusting on my groin.

Later, my body washed in the soft rain, I dressed
and cycled furiously home to mum, for hot tea and brown eggs,
that I opened like the summer with my spoon.
Lay my Corpse

Lay my corpse, lax and lilied, beneath a willow,
so its roots can lap and suck at me
and draw me up its stem like spring
pouring green onto the pooling brilliance of the grass.
Or fix that I be fed to swans, or maybe geese,
and flying far from winter’s deathy chill,
upon the gusting muscles of the air,
alight at last in deepest Africa:
the strange-familiar origin of things,
where bright among the pawpaws, figs and lemons,
wings are neither grey nor white
but many coloured, like the child of rain and sunlight,
and where the conversations of the laughing dead
sway like all the weeping willows of the world.