By CHRISTOPHER STEARE.
Ruskin at Brantwood
He looks out
from his lantern turret
onto mountains mirrored in water,
one old man of Coniston
reflecting on another.
From his hexagon of light
he looks for all the world
as if by looking long enough
he’ll find it – perhaps
in a ripple of lake
or curled in a drop of rain
on one of his many windows
or in some high
clinging to a summit.
Behind him in his bedroom,
insomniac, he sees
hallucinations of mahogany
and in the morning
I hope not to be wild again.
Then he puts down his pen
to gaze at the Turners on the wall
or step into his eyrie
things that have made him glad:
stones, feathers, a clump of moss, a fern…
Already the glass
begins to glint, the lantern
The Burial of John Kynance
(i.m. Robert Lenkiewicz)
They loiter at the lip of an open grave
staring unsteadily into the mouth.
The artist paints what the dead man sees:
a dereliction of drunks and dossers,
mad old men in the ruin of their lives,
others just beginning their careers.
To the right of the canvas Cockney Jim
stands belligerent, hands in pockets,
giving the corpse a butcher’s hook
while next to him ‘the Bishop’ trembles,
his blue and permanently startled eyes
fixed on his own apotheosis.
To the left a skeleton faintly sketched
wearing the cap and bells of the fool
dances attendance. Ah, the lads!
Who else among the mourners here?
There’s Black Sam who torched his house,
burnt it down with his mother inside
and there’s Diogenes filling a pipe
who lived in a barrel above the dump,
whose body the artist later kept
embalmed in his studio to stop a draft.
Look, there’s Lofty, Cider Ryder,
Mouth McCarthy, Gypsy Joe…
men who’d clap their hands and sing
to see themselves transfigured so.
All at the burial belong to the scene
who nowhere in life belonged at all
who having survived their brush with death
hang preserved on a gallery wall
old masters in the art of dying.
He scratched his poems onto polystyrene cups
and held them up to the light to read.
The guards were paranoid: where would it lead?
Next day they shovelled them into bin-bags
and put them out with the trash.
Later the authorities allowed him a pen
and with it he accumulated over the years
a cache of poems, 25,000 lines in all.
His satires delighted his fellow detainees
who passed them from cage to cage on a pulley
made from prayer-cap wool. They liked
his sharp lampoons of their captors –
women with men’s haircuts! men without beards! –
until they were told to shut the fuck up!
On quiet days, after interrogation, leaning
in the heat against the wall of his cell
he’d let the wings of imagination
fly him home to Peshawar. There he’d take
his several loves and hold them in his arms:
wife, children, parents, Pakistan…
Sometimes he’d sleep and when he woke
he’d look around with renewed surprise
at the walls, the orange jump-suit, chains,
and wonder: Blood or urine stains?
And what are those defeated cries?
In the end they let him go, gave him back
his shalwar, coat and shoes, but not his sheaf
of poems. Then they flew him out of Guantanamo.
And as the carriage wheels folded up
and the plane swooped low across the bay
Abdul Rahim composed himself to pray.
Then drank some tea from a polystyrene cup.
Carnations on the A5
You see them every time you take the wheel:
wayside memorials to some fatal smash,
flowers tied flimsily to reservation rails
or lying on grassy banks amidst the trash.
You see them briefly as you hurtle by –
a flash of cellophane, pinks and yellows,
a blur of colour in the corner of your eye,
emblems of someone else’s sorrow.
And for a while we moderate our speed,
imagining the smudged message on the card,
those common phrases nobody will read:
miss you… God bless… all my heart…
Such considerations seldom last long –
no longer than it takes to shift a gear.
It’s only later as we journey home
from the out-of-town Retail Park that we’re
confounded by those flowers once again,
those blooms obliquely glimpsed a second time,
still breathing out their perfumes in the rain
to anyone who happens to pass by.
Christopher Steare read English at Queens’ College, Cambridge. His work has appeared in several magazines, including Acumen, Envoi and The Spectator. He is currently preparing a critical study of the poetry of Derek Mahon to be published by Greenwich Exchange later this year.