Your childhood all comes back to me
in the shadow of the castle: slow passageways
into the blue, the winter slides, the open
secrets at closing time, the car-tyre
filled with cousins you would steer downhill
to crash against home in triumph.
With Ardennes forest rising on all sides,
we meet the poet over free champagne.
A happy skull from the nursing-home,
he wears white boater and purple silk tie,
launching his first book at ninety-six.
“Of the dandy tradition”, you confide.
The town, as every year, is besieged
by the Middle Ages. Dressed as Crusaders,
the grown-up cousins offer to refill
and we consent to suffer “death by hospitality”.
At night we sit out by the bridge—this one
drinks too much, that one sleeps around—
and watch the local police, with their pink
day-glo truncheons, serenely misdirect
Along the firework-reflecting river
the visitors are toe-to-toe, willing the castle
to be stormed by light and sound. So we flee
to the non-tourist quarter (through head-high
weeds of the old railway station) and halt at a dive.
The wafery landlord (ex-Foreign Legion) empties
his mind in place of a greeting. Here, paint-pots
and plywood seem to say, if you want
to fit in, act like you don’t want to.
We don’t want not to.
Tied to the front door
a little dog on a retractable leash,
gets bored with chasing his tail and draws
crazy little tripwires across the floor
so the locals must keep looking down
if they want to live.
There is a fine, our neighbour advised,
for opening a door to the sun.
The spring tide overtakes this one,
bearing off across the grass
the long splinters of inwardness.
The stumps we make of well-made things ...
I like the way you want to burn
back to how things must have been,
the original angle of every barnacle ...
Another dresser, another chair
tries to fall asleep
Tonight on varnished deal
in a newly tiled
and vacuumed room, we sit and wait
till our neighbour arrives—
our faces masked with soot.
Listen to the symphony of holes.
Let us take the staircase down into the blue, abysmal sky of Paul Celan
as the contents of this town come loose, come alive
without gravity. Let us idle down a spiral like the DNA of time,
on rungs that are wrought-iron and see-through, in clothes of
less than usual use—your T-shirt (is that too much?), my ski-
jacket (too little?). Let us settle to a depth where the clouds go
upside-down, and the mad glow of home is blocked out
by the tumble of tropical fish, to-do lists, and grossly
uprooted cathedrals. Let us find ourselves—at last—
where we find ourselves alone, in synch with the gestures
of ski-jackets and T-shirts as they make ever wider turns
in nothingness like guests at some party that has radically
over-spilled. Let us take the staircase down until stars
and sun equally drift away. Let us gingerly step
on the final rung—here, take my hand—and then walk
into it again: outlined hedges, a distant car-alarm,
a traffic-light surging to orange.
Stairs have their dark side,
like anything else,
but that’s not the end of the world.