Four new poems
Taking the piss out of my catheter,
The near-full plastic bag bulks on my calf
As I wheel my I.V. tower through Addenbrooke’s
Like an Airborne soldier heading for D-day
Down the longest corridor in England.
Each man his own mule. Look at all this stuff.
Pipes, tubes, air bottles. Some of us have wheels.
Humping our gear, we’re bare-arsed warriors
Dressed to strike fear into the enemy,
But someone fires a flare. Mission aborted.
On the airfield, the chattering Dakotas
Have fallen silent. Jump postponed again.
Stay as you are. Keep your equipment on.
When cloud and wind are OK in the drop zone
We hit the sky and leap into the dark.
Meanwhile just hunker down and get some sleep.
Look on the bright side. Everyone’s still here.
The longest corridor is full of us,
Men of the Airborne going back to bed
For just one more drawn-out Walpurgisnacht.
Our urinary tracts hung up to drain
Throw amber highlights on the bare white wall
Until another dawn. The sky looks clear.
Dakotas cough when they start up, repeat
Themselves like women gossiping. But wait,
Where are the women? What do they go through?
They fly there by Lysander and get caught
Like Violette Szabo. Out there on their own.
Best not to think of it, stick with the guys
And shoot the bull about your CLL
Leukaemia that might hold off for years,
The hacking rattle of COPD
Which sounds as if it might star Dennis Franz
As Andy Sipowicz, but it turns out
To be the bug they once called emphysema.
The way I smoked, thank Christ it wasn’t cancer:
I caught one break at least. It’s dawn again.
The sky looks clear. The kit bag full of piss
Is heavy on your leg. Your name-tags itch,
The cannula inside your elbow dangles,
The patches for electrodes decorate
Your chest like Nicorettes. When you go down
Into the dark you’ll see it sliced with flak
Just as the bumping Cat Scan bangs and crackles,
As the MRI inscribes the night with fire.
My outfit one by one in the green light,
Out of the door and down into the dark
They go, and not much later in the year
I’m watching Peter jump. The flak comes up
And pulls him in. But no green light for me.
I’m home in the Dakota and the same
Long corridor leads back to bed. More stuff
To hump: Omeprazole and Doxycycline
Pills for my lungs. The medics give me leave
To be there for my daughter’s New York show.
I step ashore and wake up in Mount Sinai,
Felled by the blood clot I brought off the boat.
For ten full days and nights I lie and watch
The Gulf spill oil on CNN, which is
An oil-spill anyway, and back in England
I add syringes to my weaponry.
Bruises from Clexane like Kandinsky abstracts
Blotch me with blue and yellow and bright pink,
A waistline from the Lenbach Haus in Munich.
The women of my family watch the clock
To make sure I shoot up at the right time:
All in the timing and a simple plan.
Normandy showed, and Arnhem showed again,
The Airborne tactic was a death-trap. Crete
Fell to the German sky troops but their losses
Were too great and they never jumped again.
At Cassino and in the Hürtgen Forest
The Fallschirmjäger were brought in by truck.
Up in the air like white blooms on a pond
We’re asking for it. Borneo was waiting
For the Aussies to jump into if the Yanks
Held back the bomb. The jump postponed,
You see them now in the long corridor,
My countrymen, their incipient melanomas
Cut out and sewn up, scars like bullet holes.
You want to see mine? In the final hours
At Dien Bien Phu fresh paratroops went in
Through tracer veils as if about to land
Slap in the middle of SS Das Reich.
They’re here again. They must have been patched up:
Not one less handsome than Alain Delon
In Purple Noon, but barely half his age.
The Hitch is with them and I hear him speak
Exactly as he looked the day we met:
The automatic flak came bubbling up
Like champers, dear boy. Overrated stuff.
I watch him standing there in the green light.
It switches off. Has he come home with us?
I can’t see. I just see the corridor
And my white room. Another night alive
To lie awake and rue the blasphemy
By which I take their deaths as mine, the young
Soldiers of long ago, in the first years
Of my full span, who went down through the dark
With no lives to look back on. Their poor mothers.
Where are the women? Nurse, my bag is broken.
Sorry, it’s everywhere. She mops, I cough,
She brings the nebulizer and I sit
Exhaling fog. Dakotas starting up
Make whirlpools in the ground mist. Too much luck,
Just to have lived so long when I unfold
And shuffle forward to go out and down
The steep, dark, helter-skelter laundry chute
Into that swamp of blinking crocodiles
Men call Shit Creek. Come, let us kiss and part.
Some marched, some sailed, some flew to join the war,
And not a few were brought home on their shields.
My heart is with those voiceless ones. They were
The harvest of the broken-hearted fields,
And I drew fortune from their bitter lack
Of any luck. Silent, my father stands
Before me now, as if he had come back,
While this lament, whose beauty never ends,
Not even with its final grandeur, casts
Its nets of melody to hold me still
Beneath his empty eyes. How long it lasts,
That spell, though it is just a little while.
Then he is gone again. The world returns:
Babylon, where the Tower of Babel burns.
Castle in the Air
We never built our grand house on the edge
Of the Pacific, close to where we first
Drew breath, but high up in the cliffs, a ledge
Glassed in, with balconies where we would be
Enthralled to watch it hit the rocks and burst —
The ocean that still flows through you and me
Like blood, though many years have passed since we
Sailed separately away to keep our pledge
Of seeing what the world was like. Since then
We’ve been together and done pretty well:
You by your scholarship, I by my pen,
Both earned a living and our two careers
Paid for a house and garden we could sell
For just enough to spend our final years
Out there where the last landscape disappears
Eastward above the waves, and once again
We would be home. We’ve talked about that view
So often we can watch the seagulls fly
Below us by the thousand. There’s the clue
Perhaps, to what we might do for the best:
Merely imagine it. The place to die
Is where you find your feet and come to rest.
Here, all we built is by our lost youth blessed.
This is your gift to me, and mine to you:
Front windows on a trimly English park,
A back yard we can bask in, but not burn
As we loll in our liner chairs. The bark
Stays on the trees, no wood-pile is a lair
For funnelwebs. Small prospect of return
Once you’re accustomed to the change of air,
The calm of being here instead of there —
The slow but steady way that it grows dark.
Sleep late then, while I do my meds and dress
For the creaking mile that keeps my legs alive.
In hospital I’d lie there and obsess
About the beauty of this house, and still
I love it. But I feel the waves arrive
Like earthquakes as I walk, and not until
I’m gone for good will I forget the thrill —
Nor will the urge to start again grow less
As always in my dreams I spread my chart
In the great room of the grand house on the cliffs
And plot my course. Once more I will depart
Alone, to none beholden, full of fight
To quell the decapods and hippogryphs,
Take maidens here and there as is my right,
And voyage even to eternal night
As the hero does, made strong by his cold heart.
Beside the uniquely hideous GLC building
On a nasty September day
With a chill in the air and rain just starting to spit,
The Japanese couple, only this minute married,
Have come to be photographed,
The Thames in the background looking as deadly dull
As ditchwater by Dickens. Bill Sikes
Was lucky to get himself hanged
Half a mile downriver from here.
When the sun goes in, it makes falling out of a window
Seem like the thing to do. But just look
At the bride. No, not at the groom, whose suit
Would be a black-tie outfit if not in white
With trimmings a duck-egg blue, the shirt all frills
Like Tommy Steele playing Liberace’s houseboy.
I mean look at her. Inside that three-tier cake
Of a dress is a model for Utamaro.
Do they have another ceremony at home
With all the traditional rigour?
And is it a gaijin flaunting his arrogance
To wish her lifted out of this concrete mess
And taken home by JAL to the rooms of paper,
The laths of wood and the properly arranged flowers,
With kimono and her hair pinned up to frame
The fresh snow of her beauty?
Look at the line of her cheek as once the painter
Would have looked at it in the Floating World
When he spoke to her with the reverence of a duke
To the Lady Murasaki.
Ah, Butterfly, you have failed to understand.
You must not come to us. We must come to you.