Poems of the Year
(for Rosie – aged 8)
Suddenly you stopped to feel a leaf.
It was Christmas, cold, but you stopped:
a casual sacrament, communion in the hand.
And as we stood the streetlight flickered and went out.
You looked up, frowned, still holding to the leaf.
Such unity of soul, leaf and hand,
reaches to the moment of Creation,
all within the keeping of the night.
Then we journeyed home,
like Magi from a birth.
Spemque metumque inter dubiis
Hover between hope and fear. Virgil.
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul…Emily Dickinson.
When darkness covers us the birds go silent.
Every night this time could be the last.
And when the sun goes, how do we survive
that such an emperor can be made so dull
who has bathed us as if in gold?
Look for the glint of a brave star.
Keep your eyes on that black sky
where you expect the moon
and her shining armourer.
Come dawn a blackbird sings of love,
the song-thrush joining in,
and a milkman working to feed his young.
Always a heart of hope feathered with fear.
Nuns at Mass: Stanbrook Abbey
Veiled behind a screen,
the women jostle and pray.
They breathe near the breath
of a man. Miracles flow
from the white of his fingers.
They hold out their tongues
for the bread that comes warm
from his hands;
believe they taste God.
He feeds his harem of Christ,
from the shadows
he learns of their sins.
In a quietness lonely as stars,
there’s a yearning only too human.
There will be things we need:
a holder for water when our cupped hands
are far from the river, a mind full of maps,
knowledge of poisons,
locations of food and where the women gather,
when and where it is safe to sleep,
paths to take our children by the hand
showing them good fruit.
And when there are moments
of loneliness, despair or joy,
we will scrape the wall of a cave with a flint
drawing a deer, a spear in flight, the kill,
a woman’s breasts, stomach, her slit folds.
There will be dance, a song, a poem,
drum-beat of hands and feet straight from the heart,
reeds blown with the lips between finger and thumb
as the fire casts shadow comical or scary.
Yes, always art, beginning again and again
and women tending but wanting more.
Then ownership of land
and learning from the cruelty of farmers
to covet and protect our claims by war,
the eyes of children reminding us
of those more innocent times.
Using both hands
you carry water in a glass
across the room to me.
Meniscus your world,
step by step the carpet
is a mile in your mind.
Mother hovers near.
I reach out, take the glass
and steady you.
I drink with aplomb.
We all clap. You clap too.
You will have rivers to cross,
advancing like a soldier
keeping her powder dry
with a gesture of surrender.
Close is the brink,
bright the triumph.
The long aisle waits.
Ironing a sari
This hand dyed cotton unfolding on and on
until its face and colour are young again.
Such length is like a path down to the river,
which morning and evening feels the feet of women
who wander from the village to the washing place
and laugh about their men beside the drying stones.
The cloth has no one now to fold around:
one brown shoulder covered, the other bare,
breasts shaping a tease of bodice,
the crucial tucking in around the waist.
And I am wrapped within this task,
breathing warmth from what has touched your skin
Summer of '45
My mother drives us singing into town.
There is a fog and a man has been hit by a car;
he lies in the road amid the dancing crowds.
Father takes off his jacket, covers the face.
Later we notice a bloodstain on the sleeve.
It is never worn again, but hung on a hook
like meat in a butcher's shop.
The war in Europe is over: a man is dead in the street,
the bells are ringing, widows and mothers weep.
We drive home slowly back into the village.
Father, in shirt sleeves, serves cider, proposes a toast.
Somewhere in town a policeman stands at a door.
The sun pushes through: crimson headed goldfinch,
explosions of gold on their wings,
attack the parachutes of thistle.
A cat creeps towards them on its belly.
In the Burmese jungle my brother crawls,
alert as a panther, knife and rifle ready.
Bad enough these absences from weddings,
deathbeds, trysts, funerals, christenings,
and the holding together of sweethearts
their fire quenched by a holiday in the sun.
The greening of spring feels grey
as an Act of God sweeps Europe
like an invading army, mimics
the flags of Rome, Napoleon, Hitler.
These plumes will clear; inconvenience,
regrets, deaths away from home,
honeymooners and businessmen rebated,
cars in the driveway washed.
Since Pompeii's lovers turned to stone
we have known ash more terrible than this.
The wilful burning of forests, villages,
mothers, children, babies in Vietnam,
where a young girl set on fire ran
naked towards her enemy for comfort.
Acts of Man forever drift above us,
Treblinka, Belsen, Auschwitz-Birkenau,
Hiroshima, Nagasaki and New York.
Tacitly she strolls into our garden.
Her silence is the golden breath of autumn,
with eyes like stained glass windows
showing nothing of her soul.
She figures me completely,
the danger of my stare,
even my desire to track her home
and touch her as she sleeps.
She will leave me nothing
when she steals away,
save a memory of interminable quiet
and the foolish sense I have of empathy.
In the moment of my careless inattention
she vanishes and I remain alone.
I love her and will look for her return.
She is as indifferent as a branch.
When winter lashed our bedroom window
you said you would come back to me in the spring.
A blackbird heard you.
Well, the snowdrops are almost finished,
crocuses are erect and daffodils get prouder by the day.
Even the geese are returning, a ragged victory flight.
I have fresh coffee-beans. We will eat butteries.
What more could you want?
Your white bath-robe on the line flaps its wings
like a swan. Surely you can hear it, feel the breeze,
smell the clean air, see the trees are swelling.
Haven't you heard about the smart sun we're having
and the new shopping centre?
The rivers are rising with the melting snow,
birds are pairing off. So what keeps you?
I have ordered a dozen Rioja Gran Reserva.
None of the beggars greet her,
share their cans or fags.
She wears a wedding hat,
her hair has seen a stylist.
Her violin is polished, strung,
the bow taut. Everything is ready
but something’s wrong.
Her bow never touches the strings,
though her legs move as if dancing.
She is beautiful, still,
young hair stroking an old face,
foreign, perhaps French, ex-ingénue,
probably mad, whatever that is:
I mean look at me – checking out a woman
in the street, wanting to know her story,
take her home, care for her,
put her photo on Facebook,
cilla-black her children.
Winter sets in, the word is she's gone south.
Her spirit remains, an unkent song
haunting the moon-cold streets…
New Year's Eve
A shy young woman,
the friend of a friend,
comes to my house.
I want to stroke her hair,
amuse her eyes with jokes,
hold her face in my hands,
search her frailty,
feel the boldness that covers
those small bones,
hear her story and say:
Now you are safe.
The bells ring out,
I kiss her and she leaves.
Nothing was said:
a stranger came and went
as the year turned.
One life is touched
as another becomes the night.
The fire needs a log...
© Gerard Rochford.
Gerard's publications include: 'Eating Eggs with Strangers', 'The Holy Family and Other Poems', 'Figures of Stone' (Koo Press) and 'Failing Light' Embers Handpress, 2010. His poem 'My Father's Hand' was in Janice Galloway's selection of 'Best 20 Scottish Poems of 2006' on behalf of the Scottish Poetry Library. He is the Scottish Review's Makar and contributes a poem each month.