‘The man seems to be under the impression he is God’s gift to womankind,’ said Arthur. Cradling the enormous, rancid bunch of stock he had brought her, Mary reflected that the Holy Father could no more be depended upon to make an appropriate donation than any other representative of Hit sex.
G.K. Chesterton, ‘Gabriel Gale and the Pearl Necklace’
Dundee, and the Magdalen Green.
The moon is staring down the sun;
one last white javelin inches out
of Lucklawhill, and quietly floats
to JFK or Reykjavik.
Newport comes on with a click
like the door-light from an opened fridge.
The coal train shivers on the bridge.
The east wind blows into his fist;
the bare banks rise up, thigh and breast;
half-blue, cursing under her breath,
the muddy Venus of the Firth
lunges through the waterburn.
You come: I wish the wind would turn
so your face would stay like this,
your lips drawn up to blow a kiss
even now, at your martyrdom –
the window, loose inside its frame,
rolls like a drum, but at the last
gives out, and you give up the ghost.
Meanwhile, our vernacular
Atlantis slips below the stars:
My Lord’s Bank, Carthagena, Flisk,
go one by one into the dusk.
So here we lie, babes in the wood
of voluntary orphanhood,
left in the dark to bleat and shiver
in my leaf-pattern duvet-cover;
and where Jakob or Wilhelm ought to
stencil in the fatal motto,
your bandage has unscrolled above
our tousled heads. Still, we survive –
although, for years the doctors led
us back along the trail of bread
as if it ran to our rebirth,
not our stepmother’s frozen hearth;
when they’d gone, she’d take us back
with big rocks in our haversacks
and twice as far in as before.
But I keep coming back for more,
and every second Wednesday
rehearse the aetiology
of this, my current all-time low
at twenty-seven quid a throw.
Ten years drawing out at the sting
have ascertained the following:
a model of precocity –
Christ at one year, Cain at three
(a single blow was all it took –
the fucker died inside a week) –
I’d wed my mother long before
she’d think to lock the bathroom door,
as much a sly move to defraud
my father of his fatherhood
as clear the blood-debt with the gift
of my right hand; with my left
I dealt myself the whole estate
and in the same stroke, wiped the slate
of my own inheritance. Anyway,
as the semi-bastard progeny
of a morganatic union
(the Mother ranks below the Son),
I am the first man and the last:
there will be no title or bequest.
Once, to my own disbelief,
I almost took a second wife,
and came so close that others slurred
our names together as one word,
a word she gave, a word I took,
a word she conjured with, and broke.
So I filled the diary up again
with the absences of other men:
John’s overtime, Jack’s training-course,
returning in the tiny hours
with my head clear as a bullet hole
and a Durex wrapped in toilet-roll,
the operation so risk-free
I’d take my own seed home with me
and bury it deep down in the trash,
beside the bad fruit and the ash.
Thus, the cross laid on my shoulder
grew light, as I grew harder, colder,
and in each subsequent affair
became the cross that others bear.
Until last night, when I found pain
enough to fill the stony grain
with that old yearly hurt, as if
I might yet burst back into leaf –
O my dear, my ‘delicate cutter’,
pale phlebotomist, blood-letter –
the back of one, I came home drunk
to find you standing at the sink,
the steady eye of your own storm
feathering up your white forearm
with the edge of a Bic Ladyshave
and the nonchalance of a Chinese chef;
next month, when the scars have gone,
we’ll raid the bank and hit the town,
you in that black silk dress, cut low
enough to show an inch or so
of that opalescent, hand-long scar
on your left breast. Your mother swore
that fumbling along the shelf
you’d pulled the pan down on yourself,
but we could see her tipping out
the kettle in the carry-cot,
one eyebrow arched above your cries
as she watched the string of blisters rise
to the design that in ten years
would mark you her inferior,
when all it did was make the one
more lovely than its own dear twin,
as if some angel’d shot his come
as bright as lit magnesium
across your body as you slept.
And as you lie here, tightly happed
in the track-marked arms of Morpheus,
I only wish that I could wish
you more than luck as you delay
before that white-gloved croupier
who offers you the fanned-out pack:
a face-card. The fey and sleekit jack.
The frame yawns to a living-room.
Slim Whitman warbles through the hum
of a bad earth. The Green Lady cries
over the scene: you, compromised,
steadily drawing out the juice
of the one man you could not seduce,
but his legs are sliding up his shorts,
his mouth drops open in its slot
and at the point you suss his groans
come not from his throat, but your own,
it all goes monochrome, and segues
into the usual territory
You get up from your knees, nineteen,
pissed and bleeding through your jeans.
Titless, doll-eyed, party-frocked,
your mother, ashen with the shock
at this, the regular outrage,
pretends to phone the orphanage,
gets out your blue valise, and packs
it tight with pants and ankle-socks
and a pony book to pass the time
on the long ride to the Home.
And then the old routine: frogmarched
outside to the freezing porch,
you’d shiver out the hour until
she’d shout you in and make the call;
but in your dreams they always come,
the four huge whitecoats, masked and dumb
with their biros, clipboards and pink slips,
the little gibbet of the drip,
the quilted coat with one long arm,
the napkin soaked in chloroform,
the gag, the needle and the van
that fires you down the endless lane
that ends in mile-high chicken-wire
around the silent compound, where
a tower guard rolls a searchlight beam
over the crematorium –
Enough. Let’s hold you in your dream,
leave the radio-alarm
mid-digit and unreadable,
under the bare bulb in the hall
one cranefly braced against the air,
the rain stalled like a chandelier
above the roof, the moon sandbanked
in Gemini. I have to think.
Now. Let us carefully assay
that lost soteriology
which holds Christ died to free himself,
or who slays the dragon or the wolf
on the stage of his presexual
rescue fantasy, makes the kill
not just for her flushed gratitude
but for his Father in the gods:
somewhere between His lofty blessing
and the virgin bride’s undressing
the light streams from the gates of heaven
and all is promised and forgiven.
Time and again I blow the dust
off this wee psychodrama, just
a new face in the victim’s role –
convinced if I can save her soul
I’ll save my own. It doesn’t work.
Whatever difference I make
to anyone by daylight is
dispatched in that last torpid kiss
at the darkening crossroads; from there
they go back to their torturers.
But if I could put the sleep I lose
over you to better use,
I’d work the nights as signalman
to your bad dreams, wait for that drawn-
sword sound and the blue wheelsparks,
then make the switch before the track
flicks left, and curves away to hell ...
this once I can, and so I will.
The death-camp gates are swinging to
to let you leave, not swallow you.
They set you down upon a hill.
Your case is huge. Your hands are small.
The sun opens its golden eye
into the blue room of the sky.
A black mare nods up to your side. You
take her reins, and let her guide you
over the sky-blue, trackless heather
to the hearth, the Home, your real mother.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.