Poems in Progress: Elemental
Sir Thomas Browne, Hydrotaphia or Urne Buriall, 1658
This seems a good time to be thinking about elegies. My mother died in 2011. I was in Romania. Strangely, that day I'd gone to a graveyard I'd visited several years before. I wanted to check a quotation I thought I remembered from one of the tombstones in the German cementary in Sighisoara, birthplace of Count Dracula. When I arrived back in Borsec, the dilapidated Transylvanian village where I was staying on a writing residency, I heard about my mother's death.
Since then I've been working on and off on Elemental, a collection of poems that starts with my mother's death, and moves on to consider loss more generally. In Borsec, I'd been working on the Hotel Transylvania sequence which plays variations on the sonnet in tighter or looser ways, and which became part of the Pilgrim Tongues book featured elsewhere on the website.
Here the opening poem of Elemental echoes the sonnet form to build a longer sequence.
In Transylvania when I got that call
– had been that day to Sighisoara, drawn
to that famous undead batman’s place of birth.
Think: the Saxon cemetery high up the hill.
Carved gothically upon one stone, I’d seen
Ruhen in fremder Erde! Written it down.
Lie still in foreign soil – but you never can:
(stone blunts, moss overwrites your name)
the earth remains cold and strange.
As do you. Whoever you were, laid low
in the lie of the land, you are now (whatever now might mean)
your own remains – Just let the world, its weather,
drain right through your tongue, your ribs,
whatever stubbornly persists of you.
Up here, we are all overwritten with rain.
Names blunt. Down there, bones do too,
as they acquaint themselves with fault and aquifer,
maybe to discover they’ve finally found their level,
worked on darkly in the water table,
worn and wearing through those other scribbles
written in the water’s cursives,
its accommodations with gravity, geology,
the terrain’s almighty sloth. Post humus:
they’ve gone beyond mere ground. Now who could tell
just what is rain and what it is that comes to rest
at that watershed where land and weather shift?
Between headstones and puddles – what will you later find
in that shimmering absence where sun now burns off mist?
We’ve all been sieved by weather, land,
but now it seems one’s bones might pan
for flecks of something bright to stick
between the breastbone and the floating rib.
Count yourself lucky, can you, through the zero
of this ground? Be less than the gravedigger’s distant grunt?
Just something seeping, molecule by molecule,
ghost-borne through lime, past worm, through strange soil,
through walls tabled into water, a name glossed
across the mahogany of a dull séance. Grund.
Ground. And the mills of God grind exceeding small.
The old grind that did for you. (Now you’re hallowed,
hollowed out, just like the ground.) And that’ll do.
Will do for me what did for you. Will do for all.
“and when the whirlewind hath blown the dust of the Churchyard into the Church…” John Donne, Sermons
What we believed for years, it’s not quite true:
this household dust’s not just flaked skin,
dead cells you’ve sloughed, the little bits of you
that persist to cloud your reflection on the glass.
When he preached, John Donne still dwelt on bodies
(the ladies in St Paul’s all hats, tight bodices,
hips and swelling décolletage, so soon unstuck).
He saw how you, your neighbour’s skin, might fly
– those motes now caught upon a beam of sun –
into another’s mouth, or lung, or eye.
Forget motes. Your skin and sweat are meat and drink.
Your bed’s a megalopolis of mites. Think
shower, sink: drains clogged. Black mushrooms. Hair.
That’s you. That’s all your family, down there.
Written in Light
They disappear so slowly, but they go,
legs armed, heavy in worsted, tweed: big bolts
of cloth that flap about these bony boys.
Not doffed, but dropped: flat caps; discarded boots;
the faster lads in shirtsleeves – their oiled quiffs shine
out of the dark – while, breaking lock-step, junior clerks
clock off or get their cards. They’ve drawn a line,
a vein, under the double-entry ledger, its stark
negotiations of page, ruled columns of black on white,
and slowly rush to each now certain future,
unsleeping fast into the fleet and uncaught bright.
These young – already at their fleetingest – attain
the transparency of speed… escape
to the velocity of light.
Who are these women behind hard stares and pinnies,
scrubbing and squinnying from their whitened steps?
Do they outface their tight-laced betters? (That halo of breath
– the widow at her window’s lacy nets?)
Or is it against the cracked and naked panes
of the barefaced poor their faces are really set?
An aproned line outstares the world, upright and straight
outside the imperially-measured dry-goods store:
stiff collars, ties still peeking above those oblong whites
– moustachioed cadavers stacked in their winding sheets,
or men, wound tight as chrysalises once,
now almost blooming from the strings of their tight trade?
We turn the page, peer through each window that wore
its own boiled-white and starchy pinafore.
They pose: high collars, scrubbed, boys full of lives
still waiting to come in from the huge outside
(the chauffeur and Bugatti idling on the drive).
Or these young men intent on their place in history,
the one as yet unwritten, the one they’d write;
that background man with his air of vague mystery.
Pavilions of confident chaps – striped blazers, straw boaters;
these pretty girls – champagne, strawberries and floaty
dresses – now waving goodbye from expensive motors.
Their eyes are all lit with ancient alternatives,
the unheard chronicles to elsewhere, elsewhen. Who knew
– not these, embarking on their historic future lives –
what lay in store? What later – already even – might have led
to how gods as yet unborn would judge these unknown dead?
The happy event: floral hats like cake-stands;
the glint of trombone, trumpet, the tubby tuba
– you can almost hear the brass band’s oompah-pah –
the frothy ’taches, the marquee’s foaming pints.
The heads thrown back to aim a laugh at the cloudless sky,
so happy and huge you almost hear it being snapped.
Meanwhile the ragamuffins scarper from the bobby.
Can you hear the hobnails clacking cobbles,
taunts hanging in the echoing alley? Smudge-faced girls
squealing in grubby smocks, their curls in cables?
Far harder to hear these umbrellaed gatherings of crow
-black coats which fall to skirt their booted ankles.
Can’t read their widowed faces. Tight-lipped or veiled:
darknesses balanced on isosceles triangles.
Bishops, Vice-Chancellors, Lord Mayors, Privy Councillors,
snug with the certainty of fobs and gold watches,
oil-painted into morocco-bound gilt-edged corners,
warming their robes and chains of high office.
Or barrel-chested by awaiting carriages;
posed on the lawn, sealing the good marriage,
the beribboned children are already pale and fading,
beside the solid house that is no more.
The servants fled and the mansions humbled.
The gables gone and the chimneys tumbled.
The pediments and architraves,
cornices and swaggering stone, cut down to size;
the steeples, and all that rose high razed;
towers sinking into the ground like grave.
6. STREET FURNITURE
The proliferating signage of eight-till-late:
forget the bank’s brass-plated earnest door.
It’s all Wetherspoon’s, Oxfam, pound-shop pop-up, nail-bar,
Barnardo’s, Polsky Sklep, convenience store.
The Workhouse has been put to idleness;
Business has parked itself just out of town,
the library’s in the low-rise leisure centre
where work’s the sweaty penance paid for pleasure.
Those who settled long ago are gone,
they’ve left some standing, mainly fallen, stones,
but mostly it’s just the barely decipherable mound:
earth’s belly, oddly swollen with gods and bones.
With nothing more to live up to, they’ve finally found
their level. It suits them down to the ground.
His champagne cork comes with old photographs:
here, the town is up for a christening-party
where the shipyard echoes arch and nave, and churchy
buttresses fly from blueprint to rivetted ribs
to the last few spars and stays that corset the ship.
All Sunday best: beneath the slipway slats,
frocks and feathers. “Back then, we all wore hats.”
Daughters, mothers whose babies skippered the bridges
of prams on bobbing high chassis seas, cheeks tweaked
by whiskery uncles flushed with hip-flask whisky.
Snug in its little wooden box, this cork
(he presented its twin to the owner’s wife)
recalls the sleek green bomb cradled in straw.
First job: to mitre these joints; then tasked to score
the glass, ensure the bottle smashed on cue.
The photographer ducked inside black cloth. Flash!
– to catch it all as chocks were sledged out clear
and light rhymed back from the bottle’s brilliant smash.
You can almost see that crowd’s huge cheer
still hanging in the magnesium-bright air.
A greased creak as tons begin to edge.
All that hammered noise and work now eases:
foam-born, slides sideways over wood and tallow.
Lolls, lurches. Booms. Heaves a wave to throw
blunt weight around. Wades in, bullying shallows.
The river recoils, shivers back over shore.
Sky whitens. The crowd’s a stumbling blur.
That side is screams and shouts. This side’s a roar.
Girls clutch at skirts, raise hems to run or squeal:
eels slither through the grass, squirm at their heels.
Back-wash. The hull is rocked as displaced
volumes shoulder back, the weighty chug
slows to a lap; waltzing into a sort of grace,
she settles to a broad-beamed dignity
– “Long gone... They shut up shop in ’63.”
Outside, the day itself now sheds some dark
on those lively long-dead celebrants, their work.
Traffic at the lights for the single-track bridge;
before the Saturday big-shop Tesco trip,
just here, the dump, the bottle bank, the skips.
Below, the river: a duck or two, a swan;
styrofoam crumbs, a freshly-painted narrowboat;
a rusty hull, skewed into a bed of reeds;
a plastic medusa ghosting the algal green,
bagged rainbows smudged around an oily skein.