Fields

John Burnside

From my rotting body, flowers shall grow and I am in them and that is eternity.

Edvard Munch

I Landfill

In ways the dead are laid
                          or how
they come to lie
I recognise myself
                  insomniac
                           arms
angled
      or crossed:
children in skull caps
soldiers with hobnailed boots
or sandals placed like gifts
beside their feet
priests at the gates of death
                              or afterlife
their vestments stained with malt
and carbon
           fingers rinsed
with camomile
               or honeyed meadowsweet
resemble me
           laid sleepless by your side
as if there were something else
                                some chore or rite
to be completed.
                Once
in rural Fife
             and Angus
                      farmers held
one acre of their land
                       untilled
                              unscarred
to house this mute
concurrence with the dead
choosing from all their fields
one empty plot
that smelled or tasted right
                         one house of dreams.
They walled it in
and called it Gude Man’s Land
                           or Devil’s Piece
and some would say they guessed well every time
knowing the gist of the thing
                            the black in the green
of stitchwort
            though I can’t believe they thought
that tremor in the grass
                        on windless days
was devil’s work:
                  yet
where they found old bones
                            or spills of blood
where birdsong ceased
and darkness stayed till noon
they recognised some kinship with the dead
with bodies they had found
                          in nether fields
the faces soft
               still lifelike
                             grass and roots
decaying in the gut.
They guessed it well
                     divined its mysteries
and left it to the pipistrelles
and jays.
          When I was five
or six
      – I can’t recall –
the land for miles was sick with foot and mouth
and grateful of the work
                        my father
travelled the length of the county
                               digging pits
for slaughtered herds.
On farm after farm for miles
                             in the paling light
he worked all day
                  and far into the dusk
then caught the last bus home
                             his shirt-sleeves stitched
with quicklime and dust.
That was the year our neighbour
                                Agnes
                                     died:
her body thick with growth
                          the blackness
tight between her lips
like needlework.
I thought she had been touched by foot and mouth:
a fog of disease that spread
                            on our spoons and knives
and bottles in the playground
stopped with cream
and waited for my father to begin
unravelling
           like twine.
I stood in the kitchen and watched
     while my mother
fixed him his tea
amazed at how lonely he looked
                                  how suddenly tired
a blur of unspoken hurt
on his mouth and eyes
and I loitered all afternoon
                            while friends and strangers
emptied the house our neighbour had kept intact
and still as a chapel
                     heavy with the scent
of Windolene.
They worked all day
                   intent
                          and businesslike
clearing the rooms
                   the wardrobes
                               the silent cupboards
folding her winter coats and summer shawls
packing her shoes in boxes
                          her letters
                                     her make-up
and bearing it away
                   to other rooms
time-soiled
           infected.
I scarcely recall:
                  there was something I overheard
a sense of the ditch
                    and the blind calves laid in the earth
a nightmare for weeks
of gunshots
and buried flesh
yet still
         when I lie naked in our bed
I sense my father waiting
                         and I shift
like someone in a dream
                        so he will turn
and go back to the fire
                       and let me rest.

II Two Gardens

When we came it was couch-grass and brambles,
colonies of rue amongst the thorns,
a leafless shrub that smelt of creosote
and simmered in the heat.
I liked it then. I liked its stillnesses:
the ruined glasshouse packed with honey-vine,
the veins of ash, the pools of fetid rain.
Sometimes we found strange droppings by the hedge:
badger or fox, you said; but the scent was laced
with citrus, and I kept imagining
a soft-boned creature stalled beneath the shed,
strayed from its purpose, wrapped in musk and spines.
In spring we set to work; we marked our bounds
and found the blueprint hidden in the weeds,
implicit beds, the notion of a pond.
You sifted out the shards of porcelain,
illumined willows, scraps of crescent moon;
I gathered clinker, labels, half a set
of Lego.
       As I watched that summer’s fires
I wondered what was burning: living bone,
pockets of silk and resin, eggs and spawn,
and, afterwards, I saw what we had lost:
surrendered to our use, inanimate,
the land was measured out in bricks and twine,
a barbecue, a limestone patio.
The work is finished now; but after dark
I feel the creatures shivering away,
abandoning an absence we accept
as natural: the unexpectant trees;
the silence where the blackbird vanishes.
At times the ghosts are almost visible
between our trellises and folding chairs:
just as old harbours sometimes reappear
through fog or rain, or market towns dissolve
to gift us with a dusk of shining air,
the garden we destroyed is almost here,
nothing but hints and traces, nothing known,
but something I have wanted all along:
a thread of pitchblende, bleeding through a stone,
or snow all morning, cancelling the lawn.

III Gude Man’s Land

There was something I wanted to find,
coming home late in the dark, my fingers
studded with clay,
oak-flowers caught in my hair, the folds of my jacket
busy with aphids.
I slept in my working clothes
and walked out in the buttermilk of dawn
to start again.
Sometimes I turned and saw him through the leaves,
a face like mine, but empty of desire,
pure mockery, precision of intent,
a poacher’s guile, a butcher’s casual charm.
The house filled slowly with the evidence
I carried home: old metals, twisted roots,
bottles of silt and water, scraps of cloth.
My neighbours passed me on the road to kirk
and thought me mad, no doubt, though I could see
their omnipresent God was neither
here nor there.
Who blurred the sheep with scab? Who curdled milk?
Who was it fledged the wombs of speechless girls?
They knew, and made their standard offerings
and called it peace. But he was with them still.
His secret thoughts were written in their veins,
and when they dreamed of music, it was his,
and when I dreamed, I fed him in the dark,
wifeless and quiet, lacking in conversation.
He knew what I wanted; I knew what I would not dare;
lying alone in the darkness, burning with fever,
walking the fields in the rain, at home and lost,
the feel of his recent warmth
on the tips of my fingers,
the taste of his body minted in the wild
patches of grass that quickened along the walls
or ran in circles round the nether field,
absorbing the daylight,
informing the guesswork of children.

IV Otherlife

Be quick when you switch on the light
and you’ll see the dark
was how my father put it:
                         catch
the otherlife of things
                      before a look
immerses them.
              Be quick
and you’ll see the devil at your back
and he’d grin
             as he stood in the garden
– cleaning his mower
                   wiping each blade in turn
with a cotton rag
the pulped grass and bright green liquor
staining his thumbnails
and knuckles.
             He always seemed
transfigured by the work
glad of his body’s warmth
                  and the smell
of aftermath.
He’d smoke behind the shed
                            or dart
for shelter under the eaves
                           the fag-end
cradled in his hand
against the rain:
a man in an old white shirt
                            a pair of jeans
some workboots he’d bought for a job
that was never completed.
                   And later
                               after he died
I buried those clothes in a field above the town
finding a disused lair amongst the stones
that tasted of water
                     then moss
                              then something
sharper
       like a struck match in the grass
or how he once had smelled
                           home from the pit
his body doused in gas
                       and anthracite.
I still remember
                 somewhere in the flesh
asleep and waking
                  how the body looked
that I had made
the empty shirt and jeans
                          the hobnailed boots
and how I sat for hours
                      in that wet den
where something should have changed
                               as skin and bone
are altered
           and a new life burrows free
– sloughed from a slurry of egg-yolk
                                     or matted leaves
gifted with absence
                   speaking a different tongue –
but all I found in there was mould and spoor
where something had crept away
                            to feed
                                   or die
or all I can tell
                 though for years I have sat up late
and thought of something more
                            some half-seen thing
the pull of the withheld
                         the foreign joy
I tasted that one afternoon
                           and left behind
when I made my way back down the hill
with the known world about me.