I wake beneath a chestnut tree,
back against bark,
legs stretched out through grass.
Long fingered leaves drip light and shade
haphazardly: the air is warm.
In front of me, a lake of all tears
lies like a mirror, and I break its surface,
wash my face in its salty, ice cold water.
My horse is waiting, shaded and patient.
His skin is comfort and his breath green
as he carries me on his back
to the flat stone altar at the forest’s heart.
Being dead, I lay myself down on it thankfully,
and the black bird comes,
lifts me to her round high nest.
Inside the nest, inside the egg,
I am a cell, dividing and dividing,
shell filtered light
warm on my lidless eyes
until time comes
and the shell cracks.
My horse is waiting, bright and patient:
his skin is sunlight and his breath air.
Amongst the moss his bones
are white and dry.
In my beak, I lift
his great rib hull,
his long leg bones,
the instrument of his skull,
and in the highest branches
of the tallest tree
in wind tossed waves of leaves,
I build my horse’s nest, my ship of bones.
(from The Horses’ Nest 2010)
If I asked you to
would you set down your drink,
get up from your seat
and dance me, waltz me
across this chequered floor, unclamp me
from the crocodile jaws of tedium,
lift me, defy my gravity, whirl me
away from black and white
and shades of grey,
de-compose me to all the colours,
balance me on your fingertips,
a rainbow arc, promise me,
delight me with delicacy, undo me,
help me out of my head
into the honeycomb of flesh
until I am sticky with sweetness: fill me.
(From Beneath the Ice 2001)
How to Swallow a Sword
There are over two hundred names
in the Sword Swallower’s Hall of Fame
and that’s not counting the fakirs,
the Greeks and Romans, the Mayan Indians,
the Chinese, the Japanese or the Sufis.
There is Signor Wandana, Professor Pierce,
the Mighty Ajax, Chief Willie Bowlegs,
The Great Zadma, Skippy the Clown
and Edith Clifford – Champion
Sword Swallower of the World
taught the skill at thirteen
by one legged Delmo Fritz
begin with something short
a pair of scissors
or a paper knife
learn to control
your gag reflex that involuntary
reaction that arises in the nerves
keep a bowl beside you
until you have conditioned yourself
to do what your defence mechanisms
try to prohibit
teach your upper gastro
intestinal tract to relax
tilt your head back
extend the neck
align the mouth
with the oesophagus
move the tongue aside
line up the sword
and move it
through the mouth
the sphincter muscle
on its way down
the sword straightens out
nudges the heart aside
enters the stomach.
Edith, employed by Barman and Bailey,
was feted in the Royal Courts of Europe
(Houdini said) for her more than ordinary
personal charms, her refined taste in clothes
and her unswerving devotion to her art.
Blades of twenty inches
without a problem, sometimes ten
or sixteen at a time.
Thomas, the Elastic Stretch Man
and after him, Karl the Trapeze Artist,
then retirement, to open her grocery store.
Her grandson does not remember her
ever speaking of her show business career
and never saw her swallow a sword,
though he has kept one in a cupboard at his home
and can be persuaded to pose with it for the camera.
(From Miracle Fruit 2010)
Plied with gin, stupefied,
Burke’s knee on my breast,
Hare’s hand across my breath
til the life is pressed out of me,
then I’m delivered to your door
and it was one thing Dr Knox,
who buys the beef,
to take my body,
for the greater good
so to speak,
and for certain my body
was worth more as dead meat:
I’d hitch up my skirts
for just a few coins
in the shadows of Canongate,
whereas you paid seven pounds
and ten shillings,
but to lay me out like that,
naked on the couch,
under the flickering candlelight,
my dead face seductively
turned to the audience,
and a white sheet draped
teasingly over my calves
and then have me sketched
before my dissection
now that’s a disgrace.
What were you thinking?
And you Mr Ferguson, surgeon
in training, looking at me,
in your professional capacity
as I looked at you in mine
just two nights previous.
You still want to use me?
(from Miracle Fruit 2010)
Heat and pressure birthed me I shift only when the world shifts wear whatever form that time demands and hold eons eyes of trilobites forests ferns bones footprints ephemeral turn to me
First civilisation first tool first weapon hewn lived in written upon quarried sculpted turned to god and fortress I ground the grain I sparked the fire veined with treasure metal mineral mined
I expect nothing indifferent witness rolled to the mouth of the tomb rolled to the top of the mountain to fall again wait millennia without desire for the hand that will reveal what I contain the David the uranium
It is not only he without sin that casts me I fit the hand that wants me
(published in the Cincinnati Review, Summer 2012)
Using Only Means Acknowledged to be Holy
I wish to make myself
lovely to you, so I will
cover the bone of a peacock
in gold, tie it to my right hand.
Burnt bones of a hawk,
ash in a box of bone,
mixed with antimony,
a bone pencil
to apply the mixture
to my eyelashes: you
will be unable to resist.
To increase your vigour
I will feed you rice
mixed with sparrows’ eggs
and boiled in milk.
(published in Salzburg Review, Winter 2011)