At Notre Dame de Reims

John Burnside

the snake
is a snake;

but the toad has a human face, in the hidden
gallery under the roof, where the masons

practised their art, away from the bishops
and kings.

We’ve seen this much before (in Salisbury, say,
or that chapel above the Esk

at Rosslyn):
a refuge for the pagan in the chill

of Christendom, a Green Man
in the fabric of the stone; a running

boar; the sacred
hare; or else

the common wren, so
lifelike it might flit at any time

into a corner, tail
erect, the eye

agleam, as if to indicate
its known propensity

for lust
(which, in the old tongue, meant no more

than pleasure: no-one’s
shame and not a sin,

but life as such, immediate
and true

like flight,
or song).

At Reims,
they say,

the toad is done
from life - sans doute

un proche - a relative
or friend,

and high in the highest beams,
where no one goes,

a workman has sculpted a cat
with a woman’s smile.

It’s cold in here:
a memory

of life,
not life itself,

but just as the light
that falls through the stained-glass

windows falls
to scattered points of colour in the dark,

not from a god, but from a common
memory of being

lost amongst the trees,
old demons

watching from the murk,
some errant body

flitting back and forth
from light to dark

till something more familiar
than a god

escorts the wanderer home
– no shame in that,

nor any sin: a rabbit for the pot,
a brace of quail,

and nothing to confess,
should there be warmth

and laughter in the house
(a hut, no more,

under the cold facade
their hands have raised

to someone else’s god, a stone
conclusion,

while the old life
bides its time)

nothing to be refused,
where there is hearth

and humour
and the fleet

mysterium that runs
from skin to skin:

a mischief in the eye,
a sly remark,

a live cat
lapping the cream

while the stew-pot
simmers.