Two Poems

Alistair Elliot

Rooms

My favourite lavatory was on Ischia.
It was a small round tower on a flat roof,
Covered with plaster, vines and happy bees.
The humming might have been the sun, its rays
Shuffled in by the winking of a leaf
In the arrow-slit, or else mild snoring from a
Calmly-digesting-upside-down lucertola.
It was a shit-house nothing could improve.
It was my first Mediterranean summer.

If I could pick a bathroom too, I’d take
My friend Adrelia’s one in Lower Hardacre
On the Lancastrian fells. Oh, it was large!
You lounged like Cleopatra in her barge,
The tub on a platform, space to swing a tiger
Under the low white eighteenth-century ceiling:
This was a place for the human body to mate
With the accommodating gods of water,
A place of skins and old religious feeling.

Have you the power, Muse, to add the kitchen
I love at Acomb? My friends are selling it,
And moving off the map to a Roman town,
Where they will cook ambrosia again
But not in a wooden box of words and heat,
With a milky-way of garlic in a bed
There, and a frame from Nature’s exhibition
Here, uneasily looking in and out,
Like the soul ashamed of having to be fed.

Give me the bedroom with the cheap blue carpet
And home-made cupboards, where we watched the hares
Cavorting round their forms, and saw the fox
(Corrected by our little son to Vox)
Touring his fields, his land as much as ours.
We had to move, but carried off the room
In the box of memory like something sacred.
Allow us back to entertain our heirs –
I almost think you could untangle time.

That simple one-way tide makes such confusion.
How much we’d understand if we could stop it,
Wriggling between the forces and the spaces,
Through the transmission fluids of the species,
Beyond the black and white of the first planet.
There perhaps is the parlour of the dead,
Nothing like landscape, nebulous or Elysian,
Simply the dust, the gravitational carpet,
Toward which I walk with ever calmer tread.

A Pearl Necklace

fert Britannia aurum ... gignit et Oceanus
margarita
         Tacitus, De Vita Agricolae 12

Tacitus married a nameless girl from Wroxeter –
I think, a farmer’s daughter –
and became interested in our islands.
In his book about her father
he says that Ocean here
breeds pearls – admittedly
subfusca ac liventia –
but even that strains the credulity
of his learned Scottish commentator.

If I could say a word to them
(both dead), after an encomium
on their amusing book, I’d murmur,
‘My father also married a farmer’s daughter,
and gave her a necklace of those pearls
from a salmon river in the Highlands –
he came from there and used to gather
oysters from the brackish water
as well as leapers from the sweet.

That circle of mollusc kidney-stones,
only just big enough to thread,
was the sort of thing a little
dirty-legged Gaelic-speaking girl
might make and wear, herding the cattle.
It barely went round my mother’s neck –
and felt like wearing a toy
last played with in the neolithic.
She gladly handed it on
to my wife Barbara who is learning Greek.’