I’m up in my watchtower, keeping watch over
the beasts of the field, now few enough,
the fowls of the air and the crooked ways of men,
through binoculars, when the doorbell rings
like a tinkling cymbal. Half-dressed,
I bound downstairs and find two women
who smile at me and ask me what I think
of the Bible’s predictions for the future?
Myself, I think it’s safer to predict the past
and start to intone: Sufficient unto the day
are the evils thereof. The younger woman claims
they’re sorry to have woken me, though it is midday,
they can always call at a better time
but for now would I like to read this leaflet?
The needful thing is missing from the day
but everyone proceeds as though it’s fine
– like when we waited for the nightingale
and all we heard was the army firing range;
or when the bridegroom failed to find the ring
fumbling in the shallows of his pockets
till the priest ventured an exchange in the wording:
without this ring I wed thee anyway;
or when the iron crown of Monza
with its one nail from the true cross
was not at hand for Henry’s coronation
but in a pawnshop somewhere in Milan.
Barking and yepping long before I’ve parked,
your dog still knows the sound, the creaks and coughs
of your Citroën I’ve been the sole driver of
for the now exactly four years since.
It’s as though she thinks one day, just once,
as the chassis sags back on its haunch of air,
it’ll be your scuffed soles on the gravel walk
and then in the hall your dark asthmatic voice.
To improve which you took singing lessons – and offence
when I mimicked your teacher’s fit of despair.
What stopped me then from saying that your chesty wheeze,
wrecked with Runcorn smog, Speke’s pharmaceutical haze,
was always a kind of home, not just to the dog,
and as heartening as any human song?
Hours of nothing biting on the lugworm bait
the twins had shown me how to catch – then suddenly
this spiny monster gurnard face appeared
banging about on the floor of the rowboat
like a fist or a heart. Way too scared
of its hackled gills and crest of spikes
to unthread the hook and heave it back
we froze, and watched its will to live abate
while a fog like a tide of opal stole
over the oily surface of the eye
extinguishing an eerie Borealis.
Were the cells desiccating in the iris?
Or divulging the inky depths to this new hemisphere
of air too thin, too dry and bright to bear.
This new jacket’s wrecked with an ink stain
come through from the inside breast pocket,
black with a tell-tale edge of blue-black and maroon,
thanks to a leaking gadget
patented by Laszlo Biro, the Hungarian,
and packaged by the Frenchman, Marcel Bich.
I’ll have to wear it like a badge
of this scribbler’s trade – alongside
the optional extra of nicotine
glazing my fingernails a tannin red –
fast-drying stuff, lightfast, semi-waterproof
(an anathema to the Chinese who judged
even bottled ink barbarian junk)
– black ink, heart’s blood, mark of Cain.
But suppose that Abel was a Neanderthal
and Cain the Modern that killed him off,
less smiled on by God with his fenced settlements
and vegetable produce, but still
the one who went on to invent
biros, and write the myths of primal guilt
while the other was washed out from the gene pool
– him and his pointless stone-cobble tools,
his thick brow and pitted occipital
bulge and tender child burials, arrayed
with red deer teeth and red-ochred hide …
the first blood of fratricide
clotting the inkwell, crow quill or hollow reed
– sign of repentance, black bile, ox gall.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.