Pilgrim Fort. A week of school camp. Tents
on concrete bases. Washrooms
hollowed from the Downland chalk. (Something
of an ice age look. Graffiti reinforcing it.)
Napoleonic origins. A wooded moat.
Squirrels stealing chocolate overnight.
Dark trips to toilets through the dripping trees.
Scary. (Though moonlight’s shades and shadows, scare them more.)
Steep paths of chalk - murderous when wet.
Wild garlic smells. A child with German measles.
Suppertime and Steve (first time away from home)
serves oxtail soup, completely fills Grant’s mug with tail.
Vengeance for a day of torment.
Whispers that the moat is haunted.
Outward unconcern by day evaporates at dusk.
A spectral-looking leader does his rounds: white sheet,
flashlight flickering beneath the folds.
The whisperers are petrified; the rest unsure
- until the act descends to slapstick when he trips.
Next thing the far tent in the line is breached,
its tapes undone. A man, a stranger to the boys, asks:
Who would like to come with me? A mad stampede;
all fears of darkness, ghosts and shadows gone.
Breathless when they get to us. The man has disappeared.
Though sympathetic, the police
refuse to come.
We think we know him sir… but miles away by now…
quite harmless though… should he return…
might I suggest... perhaps… a citizen’s arrest!
Three times more we find the tapes undone,
twice see or think we see a shredded shape
that might or might not be a man
still ghosting through the trees.
We do the rounds together now. My lamp
is borrowed from the janitor: a monstrous box
with arcane text around the lens:
Spectral Luminous Efficiency… I read. The rest
is indecipherable - and the beam
reveals no ghosts, not that night or the next.
A Living Thing
The chalk path like an old scar
ran jagged through the hills. On either side
the rivulets made suture marks where flesh,
millennia ago, was torn aside.
At least, that's how I saw it then. Now looking back,
I see a living thing, a serpent
writhing in the clutch of stunning views.
That day, a dozen goddesses invited me
to walk their breasts, to fill my eyes
from skirts they'd spread below my feet a hundred feet,
skirts they had laid with fruit and cereals of every hue:
ochres, greens and oranges, deep wells of blue,
impenetrable blacknesses and reds
as fresh and vivid as new wounds, I saw.
Silvers were there where sequined rivers ran
between deep banks of pewter, apricot and tan.
On days like that, one's more alone
the nearer one approaches bliss.
And so, my loneliness was like a moorland fire:
slowly it had smouldered in the grass,
caressed the air - and seemed no more
than if a furtive lad had lit
a fag behind the woodhouse door.
A backpacker, she'd packed a punch
to spread the flames across a continent.
Our bodies, tinder dry, ignited
in our bed. The landscape changed
to mourn the deed. Dead trees
became the norm. For days
they lined our path like flightless arrows
fallen from oppugnant skies. If they
were Cupid's, they had missed their mark.
But we strode on, took all the mountains in our stride,
then strode on down to where
a cowpat landscape lay with dunghills at its back -
And there we whispered our goodbyes.
Alone again, I came upon the lake by night,
looked down upon it from The Devil's Tooth,
saw charcoal waters imaging a mouth
that feasted on the sky.
Regulus, I saw, Denebola and Leo and the moon.
Beyond them, wet with rain,
a glass town shimmered from a distant shore.
She called my name.
How had she come to know it?
Who was she? - And from where?
M87 is a black hole, man, three billion times
as heavy as our sun. The beetles rule the world:
two hundred families, each one
with thirty thousand species to its name!
Did you know that?
She kept it up
until we walked into the glass town hand in hand.
Our bodies were a strange irrelevance. We overcame
their gravity. The lake -
its lightness - gave new meaning to our lives.
How natural then, that we
should overstay its welcome.
And as love gained in strength, the great lake shrank
and took on the dimensions of a glove.
But still I pulled it on each morning and gave thanks.
It had become for me what life had always been:
a detail etched upon a detail, a patch of light,
a soft complexion borrowed from a bank,
a ripple or the movement of a fish.
The lake no longer held the universe; Denebola
and Leo and the moon
were gone. Just one
small detail (in her kidney) grew; just one
much larger detail died...
and all the skies that ever were came down into the lake,
and the lake dried.
Like men of old of sail, becalmed, though not
by lack of wind, we idle, ill at ease.
I think of those who watched us sail from home; they would
not think such change could come about.
We were provisioned well; the boat was sound; the crew
beyond reproach, but what we surely knew would see
us through was this: a man whose faith
had bred our own, and who had led
a life of exploration on these seas
and penned on careful charts each channel, shore and sound
and every place where foolish man might run aground,
this old man of the sea, in love (and maybe envy)
of our youth and spirit, blessed us with his patronage.
His maps and notes he had no further use for:
they were ours.
Long hours we sat into the night, we
and the old man, and he told
of journeys round the good land -
hidden always, so he said, in such thick mists
and buffeted by storms,
that he had never set a foot upon its sand.
Nor would he now.
What hope remained, he would transfer to us.
Our journey would not fail.
In this perhaps we erred: we made
one passing nod to science. We installed
(to reinforce our faith in ancient learning - so
we said) a radar set, and watched its one eye
glare like Satan's at us on the bridge. We learnt
to read (as best we could) its hieroglyphs, its shadows,
points of light, which painted for us on its dark screen
landscapes, barely seen
in faint and unfamiliar images.
Yet still we sailed, our expectations high,
into a world of mists devoid of any shape we knew.
Only in Satan's eye were patterns that made sense
- but untrained eyes beholding sense (or seeming to)
need help from what they know. We sought
to verify the patterns, match
impressions with the charts, but all the while
in Satan's eye, it seemed the maps had lied:
There was no way to reconcile the two. We tried,
and trying, became prey
to every shift of wind and tide. Irresolution
had become the skipper of our crew.
And so the great decision;
how to tell the crew? The land,
the object of the quest, eluded us.
The good did not exist. The best,
we'd found on board, in easy friendships.
Who could now explain that what had made this so
was less than true, and take the rich soil of the life they'd grown
or telling them, part company from the best we'd known -
and thereby be the cause of that old seaman's loss of pride?
Faith for us now, if it can be, must be
not in good causes, lives or better lands,
but in those things that live and make their presence felt
in mist and fog and storm, where lack of definition
baffles indecisive man, where man
and in meeting it, finds form.