Three Poems

John Burnside

Descent

Edinburgh Turnhouse, November 2009

I

There’s something of the sky
in everything

or so it seems tonight, lights swimming up
from hill-farms in the Pentlands, close to snow

between the dairy-yards and presbyteries
that straggle out, in spokes of white and gold

to stars and clouds
beneath the eye of heaven;

II

and always it’s there, that soft
attentiveness,

not looking down, or watchful, more
a bandwidth in the squalls of microwave

to which some wisp
of distance in the heart

could tune itself and find,
beyond itself,

a wavelength it could take
for now or never.

III

I was thinking of someone else
through the long ennui,

rehearsing the way
his mind might come to light,

systems of touch and parting, afterthoughts,
the story told again, without this subject

crouched in the midst of it all: the hangnail self
adopted for a while,

and then discarded.
There must be songs for this, and minerals

the body takes for granted, shifts and pulls
that might have wandered elsewhere, were they not

so battened down;
and, even if nothing comes, as we disembark

to goods and customs, something turns aside
and steps between the pages of the wind

to where it always was:
a slip of rain

and amber, watchful,
growing into darkness.

IV

which always comes to this,
at storytime:

the happy-ever-afters cut away
or folded up, like squares of calf

or vellum;
                           and each of us
grown-up children, come outside

to find this other darkness,
told again

and floating out
along a dry-stone wall,

as bride, or owl,
in innocence, and cunning.

Hearsay

At the back of my mind, there is always
the freight-line that no longer runs
in a powder of snow

and footprints
from that story we would tell
of the girl from the next house but one

who should have been tucked up in bed
when she went astray,
a huddle of wool in the grass, or a silver bracelet

falling for days
through an inch and a half
of ice.

Nothing I know matters more
than what never happened:
the white at the back of my mind and the legends we made

of passing cars, or switchyards in the rain,
or someone we saw by the wire,
on an acre of ragweed,

acting suspicious, or lost, while the arc-lights decayed
and the souls of the dead went to dust
in a burrow of clinker.

Weather Report

A chill grey over our heads
at summer’s end;
the road like a ditch

at Beley: aquaplane
and sidelights through the smirr
of afternoon;

yard brushes lost
in the mud
and carrion

hay on the fields,
where crows go
to pick at the drowned.

This is the weather, today,
and the weather to come;
the boys with their hands

to the glass, making perfect
phantoms of themselves
in their own steam,

or lodged in the doorframe,
they wave,
through the slantwise of rain,

already half-persuaded of a life
they never bargained for
and cannot alter.