Lead, for instance, that rolled up lump of it I’d heft about the shed
hoping for biceps that might impress some Deirdre or Diane.
Later I tried a breezeblock, then a sledge. I stare up at the table
of elements again. Cobalt next to nickel. Zinc above cadmium.
Double science before lunch. The bell rings or the voice
of the vice-principal comes across the intercom, its atomic weight,
its specific gravity, kin to the tone my father’s fourth or fifth
favorite TV detective was prone to assume when what had
been a mystery became clear to him—arsenic in the gruel
the plot device that had put pay to the country dentist’s wife.
He’d have someone in the vice before too long, as I’d be held firm
in the grip of another detention, where the chaplain would ask
the name of each internee’s favorite band. Six AC/DCs. Five
Iron Maidens. A closed fist to your upper arm if you said Wham!
Flowers of Sulfur
You put your faith in a flat surface and time stopped in a line
as the tone arms dips to the record’s outer rim
and the weather writes its brail across your skin,
gets its hands around your throat and won’t let go.
Once more, sound ripples up to bang its drums
with the endless chaff and thrum of what was once
but will never be again, those melodies and spoken sentences,
loops, earworms as you snap the past’s wishbone.
“Are you wet?” your mother asks as you step in
out of the drench in your school uniform’s sagging
gray and maroon. “I don’t want to wake up
on my own anymore,” your favorite singer sings.
To cure what ails you, you’ve tried onions, you’ve tried steam,
a blue-green clay from Lourdes or Cahersiveen
that gave your face the grave smoothness of a death mask.
Akeley’s gorillas or Keats by Gherardi.
Now this sallow powder you fix over a spoon,
wash down with water that tastes of bog and tin.
Killer of head lice and ringworm, ubiquitous cure,
how you need it, head-sick and heart-sore,
your skin all pocked and puce, a strange new moon.
Your skin raised text you read like a blind man.
You run your hands over its grooves. You test its grain.
Up to the mirror you hold a gaze no more your own
than your sister’s pink hairbrush into which you sometimes sing.
You think you suffer and that your suffering
is for something, bottle of bleach, packet of razor blades,
props for a play in which you’ve fluffed your lines,
and so many the ways you’ve tried and failed,
and failed and tried, to hold onto what wants to slip away,
cutting its hurt and hover into glass, beeswax
mixed with a cold pint of gasoline, or this slate
and shellac medium the needle opens like a vein
to rekindle some cough or expletive, some heave of breath.
My Mother Meets the Rolling Stones
A clip from the archives will show their plane
landing at Aldergrove, the skittish screams of fans,
Keith’s scissor-wit on questions of the bowl cut,
Mick so articulate about the art of mime.
“What sort of image does your group present
to average dads and mums?” the interviewer asks,
prompting a smile, a shrug buttermilk-sour.
Belfast’s still black and white and thran and dour
as my mother puts aside her mascara
and leaves for a dance at their hotel, where the air’s rent
with reefer and champagne, and doing a line
will come to mean not romance, but a white snuff
imbibed by a flapper from Amsterdam,
her breast exposed where Brian’s signed his name.
(after a photograph by J.W. Burrows from 1912)
Of temperance, they come to talk to us
from The Book of Romans or Leviticus,
of hellfire and brimstone, dust and ash,
as the photographer stoops to ignite the flash
and bring forth, from the outskirts of Strabane,
their faith mission, their Roma caravan
pulled into the roadside, the steps lets down
to where time frames them in the here and now
of the ether drinker and the peeping tom
before Passchendaele, or is it the Somme
calls one of them to step out of the shot
and swap his bible for a bayonet
and put his helmet on, or so you guess,
something in his stance seeming to suggest
a cropped future. The way, as if they’re tied,
he holds his hands behind his back. Those eyes
that read condemned above that stiff moustache.
The footboard he stands on like a scaffold
around which we’re arraigned. Whether we long
for a neck snapped to right some feted wrong
or for the bluster of a pulpit sweat,
we push forward, step towards the spectacle,
desperate to climb those steps, to work ajar
that little curtained door, bowing to enter
an interior, where the ornery line
of the unknown might once have been divined
by way of tea leaves or an open palm
opened here to show us the end at hand,
as, in their donkey jackets and neck ties,
they make of us evangelists of light
and shade, and tattered tree, the one, two, three
the man who stands behind that mute machine
counts up while they hold to their staunch pose
and the shutters of the eye open and close.