How long is a piece of string?
I give it maybe twenty years. From my beginning
to his end, a cable jerks tight, sings, twists, and frays.
And if you enter, how will you get back?
But that’s where you come in.
I’ll be down there reeling out this line
behind me like a diver’s air hose. Hold this.
I’ll only be gone a moment.
How long is a moment?
A mile of eighteen-inch seam in anthracite
six inches of mainspring in an unwound clock,
the time it takes, the time that’s taken from it.
And I’ve already slammed the lift cage shut.
Are these the sacrificed?
No. They’re only sleeping underground
as searchlights cross in the cloud over London
and tunnels honeycomb below in the dark
of my father’s dreams. And they are the sacrificed.
And if I entered how would I…
Back outside I fight to catch my breath
and squeeza around, but now I’m sure I’m lost.
The tunnels fork, detour and reconnect
and circles within circles corkscrew back
to one faint star, or luminous dial of a watch
down a well, which, as I near, expands
into a thumbprint, maelstrom, weather system.
Swept up in its spiral arms, I’m dragged
down deeper, to the centre, to the freak
whose den now opens out around me –
– an airless room of baby food and wheelchairs
where the nurse arrives through muslin-filtered light
to hoover, plump, switch off Columbo,
and bring to the ancient bull-headed bastard its bed pan.
And when, at last, it lifts its fleshy, palsied,
toothless, half-blind, almost human head,
it’s me.
Whom did you expect? it retches
from its blackened lung, I’m not your father,
son. Mine is a worked-out seam whose walls
get disappeared, caved-in, carved out.
Back out of it now, before you loose your thread.
Go home, unpick the knot you’ve made
leave it skitter in long waves across the tarmac
unspooled like the guts of a crushed cassette,
pay out whatever bloody yarn you must
though it wind through olive grove, ruin,
renamed road at first light where you’re last seen walking,
just, to the rest of your own life, whoever you are,
and no king’s daughter holding the end of your line.

Michael Donaghy


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