Roads

John Burnside

But oh, that magic feeling, nowhere to go.

Lennon-McCartney

I Driving to Mirtiotissa

We learned to avoid the village
to drive through the olive groves
                                                      evading
children and dogs
                            and old men with sodden voices
calling to one another through the trees

the way we avoided noon

                                           or the sickening
halt of the butcher’s doorway
leaving the white-hot streets and the slide of traffic
islands of rubble
                             flashes of broken glass
oil-slicks and fruits-spills
                                          the sudden

untenable light

cruising the dirt roads and alleys
on blue afternoons
for something we almost found
again and again:

a sand-lizard perched on a rock or a clump of thorns
the fretwork between its fingers
                                                    the fire-coloured throat
the spiders in the gaps between the rocks
goats in the weeds
                               their slack mouths and sun-bleared eyes
remembering panic
that faint trace of shit and vanilla
that hangs in the shade.

You were reading a book about angels
the way they appear on the road to the unsuspecting
wingless
              yet ringed with light
                                                  they could pass
for locals:
                 men in boots and cotton shirts
a girl in a printed dress
                                    beside a well

and though we imagined
we couldn’t believe in such things
if anything was there
                                 in that black light
we knew it would be lost
                                           in no man’s land

on back roads scabbed with weeds or veiled with sand running through chicken farms and unmapped towns or rising to the chill
of native pine:

angels

           or Pan
– that god of sudden absence –
come from the shadows to meet you
                                                         a hair’s-breadth away
a blackness in the everyday event
like something tethered

a flock of birds descending on the church
a spill of figs
                       the unexpected chill
of spice-haunted wells
or miles of cicadas
                                    stopped
in the noontime lull
though we guessed that the angel of roads
or the panic of standstills
was less than the weight of ourselves
being lost or found
                              and even this a story
                                                                like

II Kidnapped

that story of our exile in the hills
months of pursuit
                              the roads whiting out in the dark
fresh disappearances
                                  spotting the matted grass

they were still on my scent
though I’d crossed those mountain streams
a dozen times

the water filling my boots
the year-long cold
seeping through my bones to fledge the groin

and I’m travelling still: my name on a borrowed passport
sleeping between the graves in an upland church
foraging for eggs and spills of grain

living caesura, less than the sum of my parts
I’m waiting for the limbo of a life
that goes without saying:

a circle in the woods of mint and coal
where someone has stopped before now
to light a fire

                     – almost
but not quite right:
illusion
               like the one who stays at home
lost in the warmth of butter and cherry tea
and wanting for nothing
                                     immune to the smell of fairgrounds:
illusion
            like the one who would arrive
travelling unawares
                             though clues abound:
the smell of standing water
                                           barley mows
or alpine meadows glimpsed from the early train
to Brasov
                 or Kluj

those upland silences that last for days
delectable mountains
                       hillsides clad with pines
and cherries
                  the grey of nearness
                                                   soldiers
standing in a clearing by a truck
boys from the country in jackboots
and threadbare shirts:

                                       illusory

III Pilgrimage

                                        as all these journeys are:
home after dark
                         on a late bus
                                          or waiting alone
at the station
                         the platform light
suddenly all there is for miles around

and something I almost recall
                                              some hunting bird
skimming low over the tracks
                                                        and vanishing.

And even if I recognise the shape
even if something remains
                                            some haunting call
I know from somewhere else
                                                  – some film or tape –
even if some local perfume drifts
towards me
                     as I cross the narrow bridge
an inkling of oilseed rape
                                      or ripened corn
the scent of orchards
                                    fishmeal
                                                  rendered bone
there’s nothing here to understand or claim
nothing to grasp
                                   nothing to think of

as true.

            I’ve come this way before
                                                     I’ve read the maps:
the dream of a shoreline
                                       the delicate upland trees
delectable mountains nuzzling the rear-view mirror
houses standing open
                                  doors ajar
the windows like the gaps where angels live
in old nativities
signals above a meadow
                                       porch-lights and doors
as if there were something more
to be revealed.
I have driven this road too often
                                                    and come too far
losing the taste for home:
                                         its standing warmth
the gravities and shifts
we dwell upon

                            – so when I reach the hollow of the stairs
intruder on the dream you’ve shifted from

I’m glad of the silence
                                      glad of the distance between us
the blackness of country roads I have smuggled in
on my shirtsleeves
                                  the flavour of rain

and nothingness
                          – a gap you would not house
no matter how often you turn
                                               with the feel

of something at your back
                                             some hirsute god
some cloven-footed wisp of the angelic

– though speaking for myself
                                                 I’d want to say
this nothing is why I am out on a starless road
learning the true extent of no man’s land
the night wind threading my eyes
and nowhere to go.