Six Poems

John Burnside

Desire

When we’re apart I imagine us in Japan,
two hundred years ago, behind a screen,
or watching the snow
from the yawn of a paper room,
the lovers in some shunga
by Harunobu.
It’s that formality we sometimes need
to feed desire:
intimate, yet giving in to light
and shadow,
allowing the other space to be intact
and seen, like the single pine
in a yard of gravel,
revealed by the tug of the grain
and this curtain of snow.

Faery

If it wants in
you won’t keep it out:

bringing the wash indoors
from a sudden rain

you’ll find a ball of fire
between the shirts,

a glowing ember
folded in the seams;

or something will precede you
through the door,

a gaze that stops
and turns, to catch you out,

with nothing to show for yourself
but the half-consent

to be, in the cold light of day,
what the darkness intended.

Spirit-Catcher

I’ll make it from a burr of sycamore,
string it with catgut,
stain it with blood and ochre,

then leave it for years to weather in the slow
dust-fall of the gap
beneath the stairs.

Finding it later, no one will know what it means:
how once, when I guessed the poison in myself,
I stood out in the moonlight like a ghost

and made it spin for hours, to catch the wind;
or how I imagined things there, beyond the light,
hooded and silent, camped in the rhododendrons,

waiting to come from nowhere and make me true,
to glean, from the limitless air,
a desire I could master.

Restoring Instruments

Why they should smell
of butterscotch, or fern,

I never understand:
given the same dark wood, the same faint grain,

the innermost corners
silvered with dust and rosin.

Once a viola came. I could almost taste
the woman: Chanel No 5;

a gust of body warmth across the strings;
a dab of sweat.

I cradled it for hours
between my hands,

fingered the bow,
tapped softly on the bridge,

imagined I heard a voice
in the soft harmonics.

A Tattoo

It may be slow, but something works for change
beneath the collarbone, behind the eyes;

and something more is waiting to be found:
whether we bring to the surface a pure

Vesalian blue,
or let the animals beneath the skin

emerge, in a web of crimson
and nickel-green,

nothing will show as yet, we have to draw
the salamander, aching for the fire,

and guess the leopard, as it journeys north,
erased in the long atonement of desire.

The Heatwave

It’s mid-July:
the plum tree has turned to glass

in your neighbour’s yard,
the fish in the pool

are dreaming mercury.
Everything hangs:

your garden’s a delicate balance
of frogs and snails

and all this summer long
in this wide heat

there’s something butter-slick
and webbed of foot

suspended in the shadows
of your vine:

each soft meniscus waiting for a rain
that never comes;

figments of water,
drinking through their skin,

and stealing a little blue
to mimic substance.