in memory of my mother
This poem was runner up in the Arvon International Poetry Competition, 1992
A house can be haunted by those who were never there
if there was where they were missed.
Louis Macneice, Selva Oscura
if there was where they were missed.
And the blind walls crumble, unknown, o’erthrown,
And none shall inhabit again!
Rudyard Kipling, Letting in the Jungle
Hillsbrow Preparatory School for Boys:
the house is gone and stars of cowparsely
stand on what was once cricket pitch. A noise
of wind through trees, rock-cake-like masonry,
tiles, nettles, blackberry brambles, a glow
along a loop of gossamer, suddenly
breaking off, starting again. Amo,
amas, amat, the endings and no name
for who is loved or whom, and root to know
by heart. You never came. You always came.
As red as this red thorn your hair was red
here where the dorm was, where you reach the same
white gloves across the dark inside my head
as if it isn’t you but me who’s dead
The entrance to the drive where taxis came
calls with the birds beyond WINSOME AND FEIGHT
FOR SALE NO TRESPASSING. Into the lane
below the school fields, then, over the gate,
wade up through this once chin-high swaying hill
of grass into the grounds, to this estate
of dead leaves like cornflakes, the night-dress frill
of foxgloves, thorns squealing my anorak,
a broken post, a rusted window grille,
this castle to which you may not come back,
but from whose boundaries you’ll never err,
where you must learn to mourn for lack with lack -
here, in this thin green air and tang of fir,
as then, a trespasser, a trespasser.
Here Mr Weeks stood at a blackboard set
against the hatch in the refectory
and chalked the perfect forms our souls forget
as soon as born, he said. Geometry,
it brings us to our innocence again,
and we are safe in it. There’s certainty.
The axioms are wired into the brain
and nerves and don’t need any other proof.
They lengthen through diagonals of rain
like bright piano wires, the spider's woof
and weft, the lines that narrow through the sleet
beyond the dripping railway station roof
towards this spot where they will always meet
however much the curved in lips entreat.
Who sewed the shield and motto to my breast
and forehead, you or they? It’s not escape
at all, is it? Fern and foxglove, the gold-crest
and the jay, the creatures this landscape
conjures like Mowgli whose own hairless coat
of skin he thought was just another shape
of wolf, who learned to turn his human throat
to languages that neither beast nor child
can really learn. Look well, o wolves! The note
Miss Wilson cries across the desktops filed
with old initials that slowly begin,
as it goes on, to look more gnarled and wild,
is your note, is the grass, nettles, ruin,
the jungle that has long since been let in.
A lease long since expired. A ghost with freckles,
school cap, and a squeaky handled suitcase.
He watches from the rhododendron petals
and smacks of drips. He's never seen my face
although my face is his, and never can
because he never left this magic space
to be the man it made of him, the man
he is, child as he is, lord in his fief
with brown fingers who plucks the secret leaf
to grind inside his cave, the cure that dries
all tears, transforms all memory, turns grief
into this bank, these hieroglyphs in line
some coot has printed in its blinding shine.
Our homesickness¸ said Mr Seale, we know
our souls through that. It makes us strong. His eyes
had lifted from the bedtime book. And so
we don’t have lullabies, no lullabies
at Hillsbrow School. We grinned, wet parted hair,
pyjamas, slippers under beds, and cries
of owls beyond the open windows where
Lost Jungle City was. Goodnight, he said,
his hand up to the switch, and vanished there.
And in the darkness just above my head
tears balanced on your eyes as if in some
spotlight, but now for me alone instead.
And so there was a lullaby, then, Mum.
You sang it without knowing that you’d come.
And now it’s your turn to be left. Don’t care
what happens to them, dear. Throw them away,
it doesn’t matter, throw them anywhere.
It’s just the thought of being trapped all day
and night under the grass down there inside
a box, that’s all. And for gawdsake don’t pray,
dear, will you? No. There’ll be no gospel ride,
for all the chapel anthems, Mum. There’ll be
no train hooting to take you on its wide
and shining gauge, only the ash, only
a choke and chug of smoke, a pulling slow
away, a sudden clank of hooks, a Cheeri –
as you fall back from the carriage window,
lost on red lips in a perfect – o.
You’ll never know just how much I love you.
The tape if I could play it now would stir
the same vibrations as it did once through
a hall, across these wet bedsprings whose rust
gleams like red hair, across the bits of stone,
the blackberries, the particles of dust
that twirl in these shafts here as in a cone
of spotlight, and the sound of wind through trees
turns into interference now, the tone
the same, and Dad’s soft fingers on the keys.
I speak your name - same height, same length and depth
and frequency of it, same little breeze
blown from your lips into my ear from death,
same with my every - lost in hissing - breath.
A S Neill once wrote that homesickness
is longing, not for what is missed, but what
in fact was never there, an emptiness,
like someone’s intimacy in a spot
light on a stage. The only words of yours,
almost, that I remember now, were not
your words at all, but Tin Pan Alley scores,
the clichés of the year, however sad
or beautiful the yous and evermores
that you implored the darkness with, or glad
your smile through the applause, lost in the part,
the wonder of the empathy you had,
which I can share, which I too learnt by heart,
the you it speaks to absent from the start.
Not true. Not quite. You always talked of him,
of Daddy, how he used to wave his stick
and shout in hotel foyers, how his grin
would come close to your cheek, the little tic
it had, his little eyes, how as he died
you sang Abide with Me outside his sick-
room window till somebody touched your side
and you could stop, and watch the sprays of hair
among the pillows moving still, and cried
seeing that headmistress, hearing the blare
of his old fashioned horn between the cool
horse chestnut trees, removing you from where
you’d loved it – hockey, cricket, swimming pool -
because he wasn’t there: your boarding school.
Again I leave the ward and look out through
the windscreen at the bluebells on the grass,
again see Sister’s eyes. She’d thought I knew
that if you went home it would be to pass
your last few weeks with him. It would be sad
to separate them, she said in that glass
cubicle with its desk and stubby pad
of death certificates. It would be cruel
too, hopeless as he seems to have been, Dad,
at coping as she put it. But you, you’ll…
won’t you? I’ll what? I nodded though. Yes, I...
Bluebells like bluebells in the woods at school.
And then from Fratton Park a massive sigh
filling the clouds and draining down the sky.
The photo of you with the cricket bat,
white trousers and white shirt at some school game
fools people and they think it’s me, with that
hair level with your collar, just the same
cut as a nineteen sixties one, same nose,
same gaze, I saw myself in when it came
out of the page towards me from a photo
in a paper showing some Zaria-
Jos rugby match, fixed as their hooker throws
into the line-out, and I’m crouching near
the lens before the catch and maul and surge,
same prepschool fly-half still, agile in fear,
as boys, fathers, masters, all yell and urge
along the touchlines. There our faces merge.
I came back all the way from Africa
because of your small cough as you put it,
came as if from school towards the flicker
of the waves through a train window, lit
illuminations, fish and chips and spray
along the seafront. My seasons still fit
into the round of term and holiday,
but now it wasn’t coming back, or home
(dogs barking, teacups, lawn), although I’d say
that it’s almost as far as from this Boys Own
Paper empire I once used to rule,
that I’ve come now, from where I live, am known,
loved even, as a stranger, that white fool
professor always going back to school.
I shake the ashes out and watch them fly,
hang for a moment in the late sunshine,
fall shiveringly. I brought them here for my
sake, Mum, and for this green air and this fine
as powder kind of long drawn out half-lit
but never quite known grief, never quite mine
at all, not even here in this PRIVATE
KEEP OUT site where the specks just disappear
into the bracken, willowherb, no secret
little ritual except to hear
the ordinary blackbirds start to cry.
Never love anybody too much, dear,
you said, red lips against my brow so dry
they’d never leave a mark. In case they die.
Your voice on my cassette fills up the sky
that you’d have seen together, driving back,
your traffic lights, your dusk, your rain, your cry
of gulls, your sea, your smell of bladder-wrack,
an arc of coloured lights around a bay,
your lit up pier like strung out pearls, your black
brows in the mirror framed with bulbs, your tray
of make-up sticks, the tabs, top hats, fishnet,
your glistening lips that mine would mime the way
I mime them with you now watching the wet
verges twist and flee soundlessly back through
the tunnel that my headlamps make, and get
the empty words as word perfect as you,
and every single note of it, yes, true.