Two Poems

James Lasdun

Birch Tree with Chainsaw

for Pia

Five months; five cords of hardwood;
ash mostly, hickory, oak;
greying in the weather,
by April starting to rot,
outsides sodden by May,
too crumbly even to splinter.

But then to uncover the first layer;
white birch, bright with the whiteness
that whitens your hands like chalk;
flesh-coloured wood still firm
in its sheath of papery bands,
flaw-lined like slubbed silk.

Five months ... Our pilgrim winter
in the squalls of parenthood,
the money-storms of ownership;
hodding the muddy ruins of the woodpile –
fungus-gilled, webby with slimes –
load by load to the stove,

till I come to the layer of white birch;
dust-white, the bark still tight,
sparkling in its pin-shoal,
the logs so sprung a knock
all but sets them ringing on their rails
like blocks on a glockenspiel.

I remember it; my first
plunge-cut, the bellying trunk
too plump for the usual felling kerf;
a bride among her bridesmaids
in its copse of lithe saplings.
I plunged the blade in, circling till she gave,

now five cords later, to exhume
these limbs again, the winter-rotted
burial rags and pulp all gone;
just these in their bone-bright dazzle
as though to remind us we’d left
something unruined or still to ruin.

I feed them into the fire,
glad of its brightening glass
as they loosen their storm of flames,
and I’m seeing it again
veining the blue air with its ore
in tangled, silver-white seams.

Before I cut it I touched the trunk
as if its belly might kick like yours –
remember? – thaw-pools glinting in the woods,
shadblow foaming, and there,
indestructible, leaning into the light,
The birch in its veil of buds.

Apostasy

Literally ‘standing off’.
Standoffishness, then.
The outsider’s version of snobbery,
in our case amplified,
us being doubly outside.

Our car, for instance, a Citroën Safari,
unassimilable among the Fords and Austins
of the Sussex highways,
was all curving proboscis,
with an otherworldly hiss

as it rose on its air-suspension
like a beast from the cabala.
They were so rare in those days, owners
saluted each other on the road.
Not us though;

our idea of a club
was what, having first excluded
most of the rest of the world,
you then proceeded to snub.
Something you joined by dismembership.

I recall this as I stand,
the flower of chivalry,
in my visored orange helmet and blue nylon chaps,
idling chainsaw in hand,
by a flowering red maple.