When wing to wing, feather by feather,
the rooks were piecing night together,
I took the ring the iron-lipped
iron-lidded lion gripped
and tapped the call-sign on his hide.
He knew me, nodded, moved aside,
and as the light fell through the door
I walked into your head once more.
I could distinguish, layer by layer,
each constituent of the air:
vellum and beeswax; apple, oak,
and elm gone up in years of smoke;
tanned pastry, ghosts of roasted meat;
the breath of oxlips, wintersweet,
jasmine, and Stanley Spencer’s tall
Corinthian hyacinths on the wall.
The old clock in a fancy waist-
coat cleared its throat and, poker-faced,
pointed to Margaret’s room. I must
have slipped in without sound or gust,
for on the mantelpiece the frieze
had thawed and bountiful Ceres
bowed from a festal chariot drawn
by cherubs shouldering sheaves of corn
for Lammas. Darwin in a chair
inhaled his beard. And through a pair
of ancient spectacles, tugged free
from a book’s teeth, I could see
a knickerbockered boy advance
to greet a flock of bustled aunts.
The clock struck. They went out like flames –
leaving their shadows, shrunk, in frames.
And I went also, up the stans
where Catharine Blake’s embroidered hares
danced in the moonlight. Ran a bath
under the gaze of a lithograph
‘Sixty-four Years a Queen’, to whom
I bowed: ‘Allow me to presume
to higher strains if you will use
it first, ma’am.’ ‘We are not a muse.’
And so to such a downy bed
and downy pillow that the head
no sooner settled ... than today
came in with teacups on a tray.
But not today, and not again
the day sketched over the counterpane,
an airy canvas, to be swept
with sunlight in a south transept,
and more than sunlight as we walk
through Danes’ Blood, welling from the chalk,
or in the workshop carve those two
owl-guardians of your gateposts, who
today, frock-coated mourners, keen
for you as we process between.
Your books cry your name from the shelf,
but where’s your masterpiece – Yourself?
Not in your house, or over there
in Brinkley churchyard’s flinty loam.
The rooks return and riot,
the rooks return and you do not.
I shall know where to find you, how-
ever, forever. Old master, now
that your fire’s out, draw up a chair
to mine, and make yourself at home.