By Clare Pollard
The absence contradicts itself:
the missing conjures what we miss.
You are not here, I’m not myself,
but still I talk to you like this.
You’re in the crowd, the news, the glimpse -
I make you there when you’re not there.
I trace your steps, I map your face,
I say your name, see you in air.
You’re all I know and so unknown.
I cannot hold you, yet I do:
please let me hold you in my head
and where you are now, hold me too.
How can you be so near and far?
You are not here. But here you are.
By Dennis O’Driscoll
Fortysomething did you say? Or more?
By now, no one could care less either way.
When you swoop into a room, no heads turn,
no cheeks burn, no knowing glances are exchanged,
no eye contact is made. You are no longer
a meaningful contender in the passion stakes.
But a love poet must somehow make love,
if only to language, fondling its contours,
dressing it in slinky tropes, caressing
its letters with the tongue, glimpsing it darkly
as though through a crackling black stocking
or diaphanous blouse, arousing its interest,
varying the rhythm, playing speech against
stanza like leather against skin, stroking words
wistfully, chatting them up, curling fingers
around the long flowing tresses of sentences.
Never again, though, will a living Muse
choose you from the crowd in some romantic city —
Paris, Prague — singling you out, her pouting lips
a fountain where you resuscitate your art.
Not with you in view will she hold court to her mirror,
matching this halterneck with that skirt, changing her mind,
testing other options, hovering between a cashmere
and velvet combination or plain t-shirt and jeans,
watching the clock, listening for the intercom or phone.
Not for your eyes her foam bath, hot wax, hook-snapped lace,
her face creams, moisturisers, streaks and highlights.
Not for your ears the excited shriek of her zip.
Look to the dictionary as a sex manual.
Tease beauty’s features into words that will assuage
the pain, converting you — in this hour of need —
to someone slim and lithe and young and eligible for love again.
by Helen Mort
Imagine love’s our youngest language.
Two lexicographers in charcoal suits
must spend their winters dotting parchment
to trace soft plosives, map conspiracies of lips and fingers.
How they’d stammer at the accent of a parting handshake
or tremble at the easy grammar
of heads tipped close. How they’d stand, hawk-eyed
and watch two skaters glide, poised to catch the syntax of their dance.
And like the fullest dictionaries, their books fall short.
They pause in the kitchen, stall over ritual tea.
They face each other speechless
and turn out pockets for the glance translated,
find nothing but ancient small change
shabby with a tender long since cast away.
by John Burnside
Somewhere along this street, unknown to me,
behind a maze of apple trees and stars,
he rises in the small hours, finds a book
and settles at a window or a desk
to see the morning in, alone for once,
unnamed, unburdened, happy in himself.
I don’t know who he is; I’ve never met him
walking to the fish-house, or the bank,
and yet I think of him, on nights like these,
waking alone in my own house, my other neighbours
quiet in their beds, like drowsing flies.
He watches what I watch, tastes what I taste:
on winter nights, the snow; in summer, the sky.
He listens for the bird lines in the clouds
and, like that ghost companion in the old
explorers’ tales, that phantom in the sleet,
fifth in a party of four, he’s not quite there
but not quite inexistent, nonetheless;
and when he lays his book down, checks the hour
and fills a kettle, something hooded stops
as cell by cell, a heartbeat at a time,
my one good neighbour sets himself aside,
and alters into someone I have known:
a passing stranger on the road to grief,
husband and father; rich man; poor man; thief.
From the Good neighbour (Cape, 2005) © John Burnside
by John Burnside
Find me when summer ends and the lamps
I have practised being the one
to whom you return,
if not the betrothed, then at least
the autumnal familiar,
the almost unveiled.
Songlike and lost in the mist, I have made you a bed
of fingerprints and outlook and those
footsteps that go in the dark
through a litmus of snow
to seek benediction.
Call it a house of cards,
or a hall of mirrors,
but nothing will measure you here
and find you wanting.
by Wendell Berry
It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.
by Wendell Berry
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
by Carol Rumens
What on earth is it that explains our gait?
Even in coupled poise we walk half-cock
And crabbed with verbs: “regret”, “anticipate”.
That leaves explain how cups originate,
And sunlight on a swirl of crags, the clock,
Is clear, but what on earth explains our gait?
Our soles plod on. Meanwhile, our palms vibrate
With cunning voices, digits, tones, caps lock,
The lexis of young verbs: “text”, network”, date”.
Did brains refine our paws, or hands add freight
To brains? Do our pained feet insist we talk,
Or is it language that explains our gait?
And still we genuflect, or fall prostrate
To gods we’ve carved ourselves from logs or rock:
Why do we serve, who also say “check mate?”
Hands are our learning outcomes, but too late.
Old hands make gardens grow. Little hands walk
At dawn. The want of earth explains our gait,
Our lonesome hands that plead “explain”, “translate”.
By W.H Auden
As I walked out one evening, Walking down Bristol Street, The crowds upon the pavement Were fields of harvest wheat. And down by the brimming river I heard a lover sing Under an arch of the railway: 'Love has no ending. 'I'll love you, dear, I'll love you Till China and Africa meet, And the river jumps over the mountain And the salmon sing in the street, 'I'll love you till the ocean Is folded and hung up to dry And the seven stars go squawking Like geese about the sky. 'The years shall run like rabbits, For in my arms I hold The Flower of the Ages, And the first love of the world.' But all the clocks in the city Began to whirr and chime: 'O let not Time deceive you, You cannot conquer Time. 'In the burrows of the Nightmare Where Justice naked is, Time watches from the shadow And coughs when you would kiss. 'In headaches and in worry Vaguely life leaks away, And Time will have his fancy To-morrow or to-day. 'Into many a green valley Drifts the appalling snow; Time breaks the threaded dances And the diver's brilliant bow. 'O plunge your hands in water, Plunge them in up to the wrist; Stare, stare in the basin And wonder what you've missed. 'The glacier knocks in the cupboard, The desert sighs in the bed, And the crack in the tea-cup opens A lane to the land of the dead. 'Where the beggars raffle the banknotes And the Giant is enchanting to Jack, And the Lily-white Boy is a Roarer, And Jill goes down on her back. 'O look, look in the mirror, O look in your distress: Life remains a blessing Although you cannot bless. 'O stand, stand at the window As the tears scald and start; You shall love your crooked neighbour With your crooked heart.' It was late, late in the evening, The lovers they were gone; The clocks had ceased their chiming, And the deep river ran on.