Two Poems

John Burnside

Faith

The tent show had been and gone
and now there was nothing but rust
and sunlight, like a poultice on the grass,
candy and broken glass
and a spare
tatter of hallelujah
blown through the dust

where somebody passing through
had stopped to write
a half-dozen half-formed letters
we couldn’t decipher
out where the trailers had stood
at the edge of the night

and the May Queen was lost for hours
before she was missed,
her mother asleep after back-shift,
her father a rumour,
a story the woman would tell
of a distant summer;
idealised, hazy at best,

he had left her one morning at dawn
for the Sanskrit of rain.
Go far enough, they say,
and some hideous god
will meet you, like a shadow on the road;
go further still, and scripture closes in:

a run of sodden fields, an empty street,
the last few houses white and incomplete
like houses in an early Flemish
painting, lamplit
windows rimmed with soot,
a bright canal and figures skating out
to distances where anything could vanish.

The woman never hears of them again,
the man long gone,
the daughter going after;
she sits up in the dark and prays for faith,
the strength she needs to say
they are together,

but sometimes, when she dreams, she comes upon
a scuffed trail in the woods, a beaten track
where something killed was dragged and trodden down
and hidden in the leaves. Its eyes are blind,
and what it clutches
in its broken hand,
is painfully familiar, shreds of black

and steel-grey, like that overcoat he wore
the day he left.
She wakes to mourning doves, a hint of blue,
thin sunlight on the walls and, at her door,
a figure she has never seen before,
not him, not her, but something of the two

combined – and then the shape she glimpsed is gone:
no memory of either, for a long
still moment, as the usual day begins:
the unhymned hours of work, the swoop of grief,
the moment’s pause for utter disbelief,
fresh venom in whatever peace she wins,
the random acts of love, the venial sins.

Disappointment

  Hope will predominate in every mind, till it has been suppressed by frequent disappointments.

Samuel Johnson

I turn left out of the rain
at Kippo junction,
the windshield clearing to sky and a skim
of swallows over the road like the last few
pages of a 50s story book

where someone is walking home
to the everafter,
touched with the smell of the woods and the barberry
shadows where the boy he left behind
is standing up to his waist in a Quink-blue current,

a burr of water streaming through his hands
in silt italics, touch all hook-and-eye
beneath the swell, and fingers opened wide
to catch what slithers past – the powder-blue
and neon of a surer life than his,

scant as it is, and lost, in the gaze of others.