Two Poems

Don Paterson

The Hunt

By the time he met his death
I’d counted off twelve years
and in the crossed and harrowed path
could read my whole career

the nights of circling alone
in corridors of earth
the days like paler nights, my lodestone
dying to the north

while I lived by what uncertain meat
left from his repast
and what rainwater and bitter light
could worm in through the crust

And in that time my axe had swung
no closer to his neck
than the echo of his sullen tongue
or the hot smell of his wake

Though now and then I’d find a scrap
of gold thread in the dirt
and once, a corner of the map
she’d sewn into my shirt

I had no use for either here
being so long deranged
by the tortuous familiar
as once I’d been the strange

Then one day near the heart, making
a break in my patrol
I drained my flask and leant my aching
back against the wall

Across the way I saw a gap.
I conjured up a flame
and cupped it down twelve narrow steps
into an airless tomb

I gave the light from side to side.
The little vault unfurled
its mockery of the life I’d led
back in the upper world

The walls were lined with skinbound books
the floor with braided hair
in the corner, stuck with shite and wax
a bone table, a bone chair

On the table lay a dish of gall
and by it, for my lamp
a thighbone propping up a skull
inside, a tallow stump

I gently slid my spill into
one eye, then cut my breath
until a thin partitioned glow
strained out between the teeth

It was then my misbegotten quarry
swam up from the gloom
loitering in the darker doorway
to a second room

We shuffled close, like two old fools
and stood there for an age
trying to recollect the rules
by which we were engaged

I read no terror in his frown
no threat and no intrigue
the massive head was canted down
in pity or fatigue

so I put my hand out, hoping this
might loosen our impasse
and he had made to tender his
when my hand hit the glass

The Landing

Long months on the rising path
I found where I’d come in
and knew the word of heat, the breath
of air move on my skin

and saw the complex upper light
divide the middle tread
then to my left, the darker flight
that fell back to the dead

Then like the ass between two bales
I stopped in the half-shade
too torn to say in which exile
the shame was better paid

And while I stood to dwell upon
my empty-handed quest
I watched the early morning sun
send down its golden ghost

It paused just on the lowest step
as if upon a hinge
then slowly drew the dark back up
like blood in a syringe

and suddenly I did not care
if I had lived or died
But then my hand fell on the lyre
that hung dead at my side

and with as plain a stroke I knew
I let each gutstring sound
and listened to the notes I drew
go echoing underground

then somewhere in the afternoon
the thrush’s quick reply –
and in that instant knew I’d found
my perfect alibi

No singer of the day or night
is lucky as I am
the dark my sounding-board, the light
my auditorium