Two Poems

John Burnside

Annunciation with zero point field

Sitting up late in the dark
I think you’re about to tell me
that story I’ve heard before

of a creature pulled from the ice, or prised from a ditch,
its body a hundred years old, but the eyes intact
and hardly a trace of decay

on the frost-white skin;
and later, how they cut along the spine
and found two spurs of cartilage above

the shoulder blades: not wings,
or not quite wings,
but something like a memory of flight

locked in a chamber of bone
it had barely abandoned.
Sitting up late at night, in a clouded room,

I think you have something to tell
that I’d want to believe
no matter how improbable it seemed,

but that was long ago
and anyhow
we have so much that seems improbable:

the household we have in common
but don’t quite share,

sub voce songs, the garden’s unnamed roses,

this angel that comes to our bed
in a shimmer of light
and hangs there, silent, waiting to be nourished.

You’d think it would choose its moment,
flickering out of the light and assuming a form
or coming to rest for a while

in muscle and tendon.
You’d think it was eager to speak
as if it had come

for no other reason than this, its annunciation
life-size, in human terms – an impending birth,
or something else we understand as grace –

the word in its mouth like a plum that has almost ripened,
the sound it will make when it speaks
like falling rain;

but this is the probable world, this is ourselves,
and the one thing we know for sure is that everything comes
by chance, and is half-unwilling,

memory, love, the angel who cannot announce
the fact that, the moment it speaks,
it will fade to nothing.

I’ve seen it on occasion, like a bat
flicking from wall to wall, its wings like tar
in the yellowing darkness;

I’ve heard the creak and whisper of the night’s
improbable apparatus, lacewings and frost
and starlight on the rooftops like a veil

but nothing has ever spoken, nothing has come
from the elsewhere I measure out in songs and dreams,
although I glimpse, in spite of what I know,

the guessed-at world where nothing has been said
but everything is on the point of speaking:
you in your chair, looking up from a half-read book

as the angel who cannot exist is replaced by the given,
the sullen gift of everyday events:
the promise of rain, a footfall, the dread of belonging.

Dumb Animals

Our hunting fathers told the story
Of the sadness of the creatures
Pitied the limits and the lack
Set in their finished features

W.H. Auden

As if we could sing them to sleep
as hunters sing
the halt deer from the herd
singling it out
with signals and cries
to make the final kill
seem providence
the last steps in a dance

we take their least attention for a sign
of kinship
some community of loss
in every glance
through palisade or bars.

And why do we make them speak in fairytales
if not from shame
or longing.
Why do they sound
so much like those we love
and most ignore?

That lack our hunting fathers recognised
we never see
and never think to see
though sometimes
in an outhouse
after dark
we glimpse
like someone peering down a well
an image in the green of what we lose:
a watchful eye
the glimmer of a beak
the finished features
smudged with gold and amber.