Settlements

John Burnside

God answers our prayers by refusing them.

Luther

I A Place by the Sea

Because what we think of as home
is a hazard to others,
our shorelines edged with rocks and shallow
sandbanks
               reefs
where navigation fails

we mark the harbour out
with lights and noise:
flickers of green and scarlet in the dark
the long moan of a foghorn
                                       when the daylight
thickens and stills

and even when we speak of other things
our prayers include all ships
                                      all those at sea
navigators pilots lobster-crews
the man who is yanked overboard
on a line of creels
whole families of boys and quiet fathers
lost in a sudden squall
                                a mile from land.

It’s not that we surrender to our fear
or trust in nothing,
it’s just that the darkness
grows
        on mornings like this

filling with distance and starlight for mile after mile
when we wake to the taste of milk
                                                 and the scent of coal
in rooms bequeathed to us by merchantmen
who stocked the roof with powders
                                                     sacks of grain
spicetree and crumbs of saffron;
it’s not that we are lost
or far from home

it’s just that the world
seems strange
                     on nights like this
when we lie with the ghosts of ourselves
                                                          – these habitual flavours:
aloe and eau de Cologne
                                     and the ribbon of sweetness
that stays on my hands for hours
when I turn
                 to sleep

II Fisherfolk at Newhaven

After Hill and Adamson

Mending their nets
                           or standing in their dim
smoke-houses
                     hearing the water
slap against the wood-face of the dock

and thinking of nights at sea
                                          of a spilt
quiver of brindled fish
on the slur of the deck

of calling back and forth through lanternlight
for uncles and second cousins
to come and look:
the fruits of the ocean
                                tarred with a difficult blue
as they haul them in
siren faces poised
                           as if to speak

but silent
             like me wives they leave behind
for weeks and months
                                beguiled by the wounded skins
they bring in from the dark
                                       the slatted crates

dripping with salt and copper
                                           and the pale
shimmer of phosphorescence
                                           like the chill
that grows between their hands
                                             on chapel days.

III Well

There’s more to it than I thought:
more than the house, or our stilled bed
when no one is here,
the book you have left, face down,
on the kitchen table,
the tangle of hair in the brush, the litter of clothes
– there’s more to the making of home
than I ever expected:
a process of excavation
                                   of finding

something in myself to set against
the chill of the other,
the echo you do not bear, when I stop to listen,
the stranger who wakes in the dark from a fetid dream
of ditches and milt;
and how we go on digging when it seems
there’s nothing else to find
                                        – or nothing more
than ghosts and unanswered prayers –
is part of it, though not the better part
we hoped for: if’s the old need
keeps us strong.
                       So when I turn to say
                                                      at times like this
that something else is with us all along
I’m thinking of that woman in the town
who told me how she worked all afternoon
– she and her husband digging in the heat
                                                             the bees
drifting back and forth through currant stands,
the sound of their breathing
meshed with the weave and spin
of swallow-song:
how, after an hour, they struck on an unexpected
flagstone of granite
and lifted the lid on the black
circle of fresh spring water under the stone,
leaning in hard for the earth-smell of last year’s fruit
then sweetness, surprising as rain, or bittern-calls,
rising like a slow
                        unfurling shoot
of asphodel.
                  It’s what I think of now
as home: that wellspring deep beneath the house
they tasted for an hour, then put away,
sliding the cover back, and coming in
to all they knew, immersed in the quiet purr
of radio
            those voices from the air
bleeding in through swallow songs and bees
to make them plausible again
                                          though they had touched
what turns to black
                            the sifted heart of matter.

IV What We Know of Houses

Sunday.
           We are driving to the woods
to find the hidden origin of rain:
a shallow basin carved into the rock
where Pictish chiefs assembled with their kin
to reinvent the world
                               – or so we say –
though no one knows for sure who gathered here
or why.

          I like to think of them
on days like this
perched on a shelf of rock beneath the trees
watching their children
                                  thinking of their stock
then stepping out
                          to sacrifice
                                           or blessing
as we have stood together in the shade
made awkward by the quiet of the place
a darkness that continues while the sun
brightens the fields
                             and gardens fill with light
in market towns or tidy golf-hotels
above the sea.

Though nothing here is sacred
                                              – not to us –
even the pool of water stopped with leaves
the carvings in the rock
                                   the standing stone
are set apart

and nothing we can touch or say will bring us
closer to the spirit of the place.
Our holy ground is barely recognised:
unverified
              an atmospheric trick
a common miracle that finds us out
alone in attic rooms
                             as spring begins:
a rhythm in the light
                              a line of song
the sudden taste of grass
                                     high in the roof
wind through the gaps in the beams
                                                     the corners spiced
with cumin
and the aftertaste of nets

and all along the roads
                                  where dry-stone walls
have toppled
                   and the steady gorse digs in
embers of perfume, sealed in a crown of thorns:

unseasonable stubborn everyday

– it’s bright as the notion of home:
                                                   not something held
or given
            but the painful gravity
that comes of being settled on the earth
redeemable inventive inexact
and capable of holding what we love
in common
                 making good
with work and celebration
                                      charged
to go out unprepared into the world

and take our place for granted
                                                  every time
we drive back through the slowly dimming fields
to quiet rooms
                     and prayers that stay unanswered.