Unearthing

The early autumn moon

more brightly lit and fuller grown

exposes this  blue afternoon

an elegance of bone
Jacob Polley

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Prayer

Here I work in the hollow of God’s hand

with Time bent round into my reach. I touch

the circle of the earth, I throw and catch

the sun and moon by turns into my mind.

I sense the length of it from end to end,

I sway me gently in my flesh and each

point in the process changes as I watch;

the flowers come, the rain follows the wind.

 

And all I ask is this – and you can see

how far the soul, when it goes under flesh,

is not a soul, is small and creaturish –

that every day the sun comes silently

to set my hands to work and that the moon

turns and returns to meet me when it’s done.

 

Alice Oswald

The Incense Contest

 

Are you awake, my sweet barbarian?

Why, you look as though you’ve seen a ghost!

Are you so shocked to see a lady smoke?

I owe this habit to the Prince, my husband.

That interests you? But that was years ago,

When high-born women told the time by crickets

and generals burned perfumes in their helmets

The night before they rode their troops to battle.

Among the rich it was considered proper

for gentlemen to keep some trace of court

about them in the sweat and shit and smoke.

Among our set those days, in fact, the game

of ‘Guess the Incense’ was the latest rage.

Played, like all our games, in grace and earnest,

By intricate directions, for high stakes.

 

And crispest winter evenings where the best

because the air is cleanest in the cold.

Without music, badinage, or flowers,

with all attention focused on the flame,

we’d kneel and sniff, and sigh in recognition,

or we’d pretend, to save a reputation,

or gamble on assent when someone twigged

‘Why this is Plum Tree Blossom mixed with balsam.’

On such a night the Empress proposed

an incense contest for the Heian ladies.

 

We worked for weeks refining subtleties

of clove and cinnamon and sandalwood,

selecting lacquers for the bowls and burners

and stiff kimonos for our serving girls.

Imagine generals in midnight camps

nudging sticks and pebbles across maps;

just so we worried over strategies

until the evening of the second snow.

 

That night we drank the Empress’s sake.

The Prince, my husband, danced and spoke

a poem written by my grandfather:

 

Shadows on your screens;

            a document inked in script

            I will yet master.

 

A very famous poem.  You smile, my lord,

but I come from a literary line.

 

The alcove, I recall, was full of courtiers

Brushing snow from silken hunting vests

and ladies hushing them.  A fan was flicked

to signify the contest had commenced.

 

First my cousin knelt above the brazier

and blent two scents together on the fire.

Eagles in Winter Light, I think

and Village of the Pines with bergamot.

At first I found her effort elegant,

warm and old and calm But moments later,

barbed and pungent with an old resentment.

The Empress nodded, and glancing towards my husband

misquoted one of my grandfather’s lines.

 

Next my sister burnt an amber resin

suggesting pavements after summer rain.

We all felt something which we couldn’t name

but which we all agreed was sad and cold

and distant, like some half-remembered grief

from girlhood, or a herb like marjoram.

Once more her Majesty addressed the Prince,

‘You seem to have remarkably broad taste.’

And looked at me with something worse than pity.

I knew I’d lost. And when it was my turn

to add my clichéd fragrance to the fire

a door slid open deep within my head…

 

But how can I describe what happened then?

Except to say the blind must dream. They smell

and touch and taste and hear; and you, my dear,

can dream – are dreaming even now, perhaps –

while all about you swirls a hidden world

where memories contend like hungry ghosts.

I didn’t smell my incense in the brazier:

I smelled the forest and I smelled the horses,

the dung in stables, women giving birth,

the rotting teeth of footmen from the provinces,

the coppery reek of blood, the clogged latrines,

the foetid corpses of the foreign priests

my husband crucified on Gyotoku.

I smelled so many women on the Prince

I smelled the Prince on every woman there.

 

Are you awake?  for if it please you, lord,

to hold that candle just beneath my pipe

until the black tar glows…

There, I smoke

to keep those smells at bay.  It isn’t free,

my dear barbarian, so don’t forget

to demonstrate that generosity

for which your noble race is celebrated.

The crickets signal dawn. Time to rise

and face the sun and leave me to my dream.

 

Michael Donaghy

Drunken Bellarmie

         After Renee So

 

In this spirit of affliction I beheld two tings,

that shame is also revelry, and a body

is a spillage, or an addiction.  I do not know

if this thing belongs to me, tipped-up set of weights

that promises, but never delivers, equilibrium.

I cannot make manifest this collection of feelings,

but look at me: I want to be loved for the wrong reasons

I mean I want to be hated for the right reasons.

I have been lonely. Every time I say the word ‘I’

I am ashamed.  When I say ‘I want’ I am triply

ashamed.  I want my shame to be a kind of proof

that deduces the world, and that’s the worst

shame of all.  I have been theatrical, entropic,

parting with myself for company.  This heartsore

will not stop weeping and look, the sky is sick,

knitted too tightly; my face is up your sleeve

like a card trick.  DON’T LOVE ME: I am guilty,

fatalistic and sticky round the mouth like a dirty baby.

I am a shitting, leaking, bloody clump of cells

raw, murky and fluorescent, you couldn’t take it.

 

Emily Berry

Flowers

When I was

being haunted

it was as though

you had come

back from the

dead but would

not visit me

I learnt that

haunting was

what happened

when I let y

want escape

violent beams

of coloured light

at first it seemed

like a miracle

the first stain

that bloodstain

the little bell

the quiet night

no shortage of

flowers I let a

long pause elapse

then we dragged

the body outside

 

Emily Berry

Definitions

The Road to the Northern Light

It weeps tar from tender parts like frogskin. Thin, mobile

muscles squirm under your soles as it bears you across the

Hill Dyke on  a current of cool air, the bed of an invisible

river.  It has heath and tormentil, not dandelion but catsear.

It has a creep over a precipice; it has sorrel, parched and tiny.

It carries you above the white and lilac sea; it switchbacks,

and turn you before the sun like a sacrifice.

 

Jen Hadfield

(From Byssus)

Each flower is a little night

Each flower is a little night

pretending to draw near

 

But where its scent rises

I cannot hope to enter

which is why it bothers me

so much and why I sit so long

before this closed door

 

Each colour, each incarnation

begins where the eyes stop

 

This world is merely the tip

of an unseen conflagration

 

Philippe Jacottet

Trans. Derek Mahon

The Gate

I had no idea that the gate I would step through
to finally enter this world
would be the space my brother’s body made. He was
a little taller than me: a young man
but grown, himself by then,
done at twenty-eight, having folded every sheet,
rinsed every glass he would ever rinse under the cold
and running water.
This is what you have been waiting for, he used to say to me.
And I’d say, What?
And he’d say, This—holding up my cheese and mustard sandwich.
And I’d say, What?
And he’d say, This, sort of looking around.
Marie Howe

Having a Coke with You

is even more fun than going to San Sebastian, Irún, Hendaye, Biarritz, Bayonne
or being sick to my stomach on the Travesera de Gracia in Barcelona
partly because in your orange shirt you look like a better happier St. Sebastian
partly because of my love for you, partly because of your love for yoghurt
partly because of the fluorescent orange tulips around the birches
partly because of the secrecy our smiles take on before people and statuary
it is hard to believe when I’m with you that there can be anything as still
as solemn as unpleasantly definitive as statuary when right in front of it
in the warm New York 4 o’clock light we are drifting back and forth
between each other like a tree breathing through its spectacles

and the portrait show seems to have no faces in it at all, just paint
you suddenly wonder why in the world anyone ever did them
I look
at you and I would rather look at you than all the portraits in the world
except possibly for the Polish Rider occasionally and anyway it’s in the Frick
which thank heavens you haven’t gone to yet so we can go together for the first time
and the fact that you move so beautifully more or less takes care of Futurism
just as at home I never think of the Nude Descending a Staircaseor
at a rehearsal a single drawing of Leonardo or Michelangelo that used to wow me
and what good does all the research of the Impressionists do them
when they never got the right person to stand near the tree when the sun sank
or for that matter Marino Marini when he didn’t pick the rider as carefully
as the horse
                               it seems they were all cheated of some marvelous experience
which is not going to go wasted on me which is why I’m telling you about it

 

Frank O’hara

They Were Burning Dead Leaves

They were burning dead leaves.  Must oozed with scent,

tar bubbled and blew.

The moonlight glow behind the thistle bent

like a torn rainbow.

 

The street was a forest, night slid into the heart

of deepest autumn.

A guilty music blew the house aprt

with its fife and drum.

 

To have this again, just this, just the once more:

I would sink below

autumnal earth and place my right hand in your

hand like a shadow.

 

Zsuzsa Rakovszky