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Cover Library Poetry A Hot January

The companionableness of men and other poems

Margaret Wilmot
Smaller text sizeDefault text sizeBigger text size Add to my bookshelf epub mobi Permalink MapClapham Junction, London
They talk football in the train, cite names,
players’ moves, critical, appreciative; last night
there were no heroes, just the team. When I next
wake to their chat it’s mortgages, investment plans.
One knows far more than the other, yet the exchange
is not one-sided; it’s companionable; they share.
At Clapham Junction the sky has been washed clean.
Three men stand looking up at a great silver bird
slope gently downward toward Heathrow.
“British Airways,” one says. “Beautiful,” another breathes.
I think of two boys’ voices long ago as through
a plate-glass window they admired the perfect bike.
Past a noisy construction-site, and past
Hawksmoor’s Christ Church, its baroque curves
scrolled amid a vista of gables and right angles;
past signs in Hindi and a fried pastry called
a strange name which vanished sooner
than the sweet taste on the tongue, the streets
acquired homely names, Heneage, Chicksand.
Brick terraces lay back from the pavement.
One noticed the colours people chose to paint
their doors — pink, drab green, canary, smoke —
while an unfenced playground yawned
and stretched across the sunny width of a block.
Ducks, geese call on their way to the reservoir,
and night. Branches rustle, stir, fall still. A late bird
sings. The draining light gathers us close as Eden.
We stand on the shoulder of something great
and whole. Please God, may it not crack. Rabbits,
voles, all the small creatures of the hedge creep forth.
They take their place around the belly of the vase,
join deer with curly horns, boar, griffins, snakes
as they forever flee. It is the animals who know
these moments break: that men will never simply stand
and be. Even as the fullness swells we must give chase,
with arrows consummate the longed-for intimacy.
I drink sweet black coffee thinking of a blue
evening far away and long ago, hitch-hiking south
in the back of a pick-up truck, with various
indigenous labourers all wrapped in their ponchos;
how cold I was, how deeply cold, not just on
the fringes but through and through, like hunger.
At dark we stopped by a low house. Someone brought me
sweet coffee in a mug, which was very hot in my hands,
each sip hot. A frontier was crossed that night.
I still took no sugar in my drinks, for years, but
I knew surely as if I’d had a vision and seen God:
one day there would be sweet coffee.
“I’ve never seen space used in quite that way.”
The words send me into the Turbine Hall, where
Marsyas swoops beneath the bridge on which
we stand; there’s no perspective-space to view the whole
red sweep of Kapoor’s huge two-horned trumpet-keel.
The bridge has turned to rope — I am perched above
a force so big and so contained I realise I’m not
above it after all, like trying to stand outside
the universe, (and some claim that is trumpet-shaped).
I dig my heels in, become Marsyas’ flute against
a great god’s flow; lean at the small angle which still
proclaims me me. What else can we do before we’re flayed?
The river is wide and quiet. Moored boats, willows,
clouds reflect parallel worlds in an uncertain sun. Once
friends here took me rowing in a skiff. There were herons,
and we drank champagne to small water sounds. It was like
being young again, when there would always be another time.
One birthday evening when the kids were in their teens,
we drank champagne, played games and music, and music
games in a laughing bubble I remember for its seismic
burst the following day when I flew in to San Francisco.
The girls in the seat behind are rowers, talking
“cross-winds, waves near the island. Is he the one
who’s rowing with Mohammad?” They’ll be racing Thursday.
Think of the flag. Think of it stirring,
or gusting, or tugging at its halyard in
a slant of low winter sun; flapping its shadow
onto the wall, and dancing; then standing out
vivid against clouds darkening by the moment.
Don’t think of it blown up for a rally backdrop,
animated only by the figure in the foreground
posturing and gesticulating; the symbol kidnapped
and chloroformed, as it were, drained of all imagination
and ambiguity, its tension sold for a message.
Don’t think of it lost tiny in the forest of sticks
waved on cue by the party-faithful. Think of wind.
I hadn’t been to Eastbourne for a long time.
Sumfield and Day had gone. They were proper printers
with noisy presses; sold a range of stationary, useful
off-cuts too. The corner building got sun from both sides.
My step-father was a proper printer, apprenticed at 13.
His hands knew the touch and heft of things beyond
their look. He’d learned the job the way we learn
to ride a bike, with all our senses. Jobs seem
different now, less knowable, or more, grasped
in a week. This roundness that dies. The clatter
of a press for Lawton held different strands of sound.
Biking through the lanes I think of hedgers and ditchers.
There are times I see my brain as a box
under stairs. The closet is dark but light leaks out.
Just an ordinary wooden box, rectangular;
the lid never wants to close. The light-leak
doesn’t spread back to the wedge-end of the closet,
just makes a glow. In the past it was more than
a glow — it was a wide soft ribbon, and trying
to stuff it back in was like trying to stuff cloud,
push against a billow of light. It doesn’t feel
that way so often now, though the lid still
never wants to close all the way. Creaks and bumps
on the stairs above distract. Light leaks out.
Let us imagine that on his walk to St Just
Peter Lanyon meets the young Sebald. Never mind
that the writer is still a boy in the early Fifties;
all the more reason for him to listen wide-eyed to
the story of a mining disaster, or hear how tunnels
under the sea towards Lands End can suddenly flood.
He will grow up to perceive a planet of barren kingdoms,
weave old postcards into tales of frailty, loss and death.
The artist will scratch and layer loss and death into
his huge canvas of St Just not far below the fields,
figures, mineshaft, thorns. Walking along, they too
become landscape. Dusk descends on grey granite.
Table of related information
Copyright ©Margaret Wilmot, 2006
By the same author RSS
Date of publicationMarch 2007
Collection RSSA Hot January
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