Dysthymia [Poem]

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Dysthymia

I don’t really want to do anything — 
not peep through the small doors
at mice living out unimaginative lives
or run a finger over the beaded skin
of a rattling snake, coaxing venom.

In my mind I could be anywhere, and yet — 
out of the piles of driftwood, small crabs
are fighting for their well-armoured lives,
and so I stoop with my flaming stick
and prod the wet sand, and it sizzles.

I can’t even be bothered to autocorrect.
The wet lips of the python beckon from a tree,
and isn’t it always that tree to blame,
as though Knowledge itself corrupted us,
rather than we ourselves through its mis-use.

The dice fall beneath the crucifix.
A bet is a bet, and the spear goes in.
The rules made up in childhood we follow
like a sleepwalker throughout our life,
for it is dangerous, they say, to wake us.


Requiem (Poem)

Requiem
(for Miranda)

Yesterday you were still here.
Today snow has laid itself down
in the lanes, thick as fur.
The flap in the door is locked,
as it would be. You hated snow.
I expect you in my office chair
quick as a ghost, a look to say,
“I’ve been here all along.”
In your final days, my job
was to make sure you kept warm,
stoking the coal fire, tucking
your favourite blanket under
for the payment of a blink.
Once I thought I saw you smile.
Then that last fatherly duty
reassuring you, “I am here”.
My body looks for you at night,
a space at the foot of the bed,
and opening the front door slowly
I still look down before up.
No thud as you jump from the sofa.
No late-night wailing for food.
The house-sounds are empty sounds,
the space filled up with snow.


“Homesickness”, Poem in Rattle Poets Respond (Online)

Cuckoo by Hokusai

“In Kyoto,
hearing the cuckoo,
I long for Kyoto.”
-Bashō, trans. Jane Hirshfield

In some sense, homesickness is always a longing for a place that no longer exists. Which is to say that it is always, to some extent, existential. Yet with the rise of populism on both sides of the Atlantic, I have never felt more acutely that both where I once lived and where I live now are further than ever from “home”.

Rattle Poets Respond is a series in which poets submit poems in response to recent events. One poem is picked each week, and I am honoured to have my poem “Homesickness” appear in such estimable company.

You can read the poem on the Rattle website.


The Eleventh Year

Photo by Matthew Bedford from Unsplash

Eleven is drawn with parallel lines. Parallel lives.

In one, my son survived. He is with us in England, in the rain; or we are still in California, in drought. He is like me at that age — obsessed with science and discovery; or like his mother, he is at the piano, practicing. He is like neither of us, in surprising ways. Ways we will never guess.

I inhabit life on the other rail instead. It is definitely England, definitely raining, and I have become a poet. Science and engineering failed to show me how to address the vast inner landscapes I felt pressing from an early age. Miłosz, Dostoevsky, and Mahler succeeded. Subjectivity is the enemy of science, but the lifeblood of poetry.

Objectively, our son is gone. Subjectively, he is everywhere.

I am not a monorail. I am the smoke drifting up from a neighbour’s chimney, and I am the chimney, and I am the air.

Only at the place where parallel lines intersect, only there, at the point of points, can this all make sense.

One day I will join you in the space between lines. Until then, of each day I will try to make some kind of poetry, and in it, a space for you to dwell.

Godspeed, James, my son.


X

“Who would give me a map to find you, the paper / superimposed with a constantly moving ‘X’?”
-From “Father-Son Conversation

Malcolm. Professor. Triple. Dos. So many x-es, so many ex-es. Expatriate. Expletive. Ex-father. Ex-son.

Two lines, for a moment, cross. This is how the Romans made ten.

In Arabic numerals, it takes two digits: father, one; son, nil. Zero is a placeholder: round, complete, and gone. A circle describes its absence.

It has been ten years since our son was born and died, and not a day goes by that he is not a felt part of me, like the fingers of my two hands.

X

Why I Should Be Over It By Now
(ten reasons for ten years)

  1. Because it was a long time ago.
  2. Because, after all, he was very small.
  3. Because hawthorn blooms a lace cover for its thorns.
  4. Because many couples don’t have children (yet, ever).
  5. Because you had choices (not choices).
  6. Because beech-leaf orange rages the valley unchecked.
  7. Because you look best in photos when you smile.
  8. Making overrated is good sense, because.
  9. Because who can remember his name?
  10. Because of the wonderful things he does.

X

The first snow of winter has dusted our part of England, and I am sitting by the fire, warming up after a long country walk. To prepare for a poetry reading this afternoon in London, I leaf through my new book, the one I read from all last year. Unlike the previous slim pamphlet, it contains no mention of James, our son. No dedication. Not a single poem.

X

Cognates of Grief

Kobus, Koos, Jago,
Jamma, Diegu, Joggi,
Ya’aqov, Yaakov, Iacobus,
Iacomus, Jakobus, Iakov,
Jakobe, Köbe, Iago,
Jaime, Diego, Santiago,
Yasha, Séamas, Siâms,
Yakobo, Jems, Jacques,
Jakku, Jaak, Jake,
Jack, Jim, Jimbo,
Jimmy, Jamie, Jay,
first, only, baby,
James.

X

We are in Edinburgh for his tenth birthday, visiting friends. It has become a special place to me, my most-visited city outside of London in the Old World.

I only know a handful of lullabies, but I sang them to James in his final moments. After the doctor confirmed that his heart had stopped, all I could hear was the refrain:

Speed, bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing,
Onward! the sailors cry.
Carry the lad who’s born to be King
Over the sea to Skye.

X

Countdown

9  —  years of love (in a world in need of love).

8  —  Acht and Uno (and infinity).

7  —  Lucky (and miraculous).

6  —  For idealists (ideal father, ideal son).

5  —  It is complicated. It gets better.

4  —  Art, compassion, courage.

3  —  My inner life is my real life. In it, I carry my son.

2  —  I wash my hands as though life depends on it.

1  —  Compassion, poignancy — how much everything matters…

0  —  The essence of parenthood — that pure and selfless love.


Noman’s Land Common (Film-Poem Online)

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Noman’s Land Common

A shadow passes over the meadow, effortless
in its cooling presence, a wake
of songbirds, for a moment stilled,
for a moment passed over
by a presence like night, a shoal of fish
beneath the barnacled hull,
tender in covering, blanket-soft,
the lids pulled over
our welling eyes, to shed a drop
in the pool of soft grasses,
which ripple, concentric,
in an unseen wind that blows
all things, together, onward, all things,
eventually into crossing,
into parting, into the covering-over
of life with — not death, exactly — 
but the other side, the other life
in which cloud, meadow, fish, ship
reveal their true names to us — 
flashes-through-sunlight, dark
moisture, ink of relentless progression.
A brush dipped
in clear water, the pigment’s smoke,
a cipher of leaves in the swirled cup.
The Hawthorn renounces her wedding vows.
Slow raptors finger the dryness of heat.
Nameless, in the new world, a congregation
of petals, root, trunk, and branches,
new leaves, in the unnamed world,
hold out their yellow hands to the rain.
A voice cries out
in a language you recognise, and the cloud — 
for that is what it is, just a cloud,
retreats in spinal curvature over the hill,
which is grass, then soil, then stone,
a foetus in the centre, its open hand
a gesture of greeting, of saying “goodbye” — 
and now you are on your knees, in a field,
jet-lagged, on a Wednesday, remembering
your name, a gift from your mother,
as the multiplication tables arrange
themselves before you, pieces for chess,
a calendar full of meetings in which
you can never say: for a moment, I was
that shadow, say, listen, I have been
to the other side of life, and a child
rests in the womb of the earth,
but instead stare-down at your ink-stained
hands, and nod, and arrange your broken
face into the gesture of listening.

Process Notes

With the tenth anniversary of the birth and death of our son James fast approaching, I find myself writing about the ongoing effects, including sudden and overpowering moments of grief. The text came first. I then shot time-lapse of clouds through an inexpensive toy kaleidoscope using a Raspberry Pi camera. I also shot real-time nature footage through the same kaleidoscope by holding it up to my smartphone camera. Valerie composed and performed the music. The title refers to a nearby patch of common land in North Hertfordshire that we frequent. One year, after extensive tilling, a field adjacent to the common erupted in red poppies, not unlike the no-man’s land of the First World War.