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Poems

 

Lament for an illegal immigrant   

 

No moon, but fishermen

are used to that and the sea’s chanting,

the descant of the nets. The decks

silvered with sea verses, the minims

and trebles of fish hushed

into songbooks of ice.

 

Something didn’t sing, humped

in the net, thudding onto the deck.

Its ears heard no notes, its eyes

were blind to the men standing there,

its throat choked with words

that no-one would hear.

 

They let the sly octopus

sidle to the ship’s side, forgot to stop

the herrings’ arch and leap.

The sea moaned, the fish

slipped out of tune, the kittiwakes

hurled screeches like broken strings.

 

The men unfroze, thumped

what didn’t sing, what was lost for words,

over the deck’s hissing. Tipped what

had no hope, had never had a hope,

back to the sea. No word spoken, no

hymn, no prayer.

 

But the wrack on the deck cried. The sea

beat its fists on the boat. And the wind got up

and howled till dawn.

 *
 

The Children of Stromboli
 
 
are quick as hares in cane-beds, their bare
feet winged by Hermes; sure they can outrace
 
sluggish streams of lava, streak over red-hot coals.
Hounding the chypre and almond scent of fig trees
 
they split thieved fruits with dirty nails and, sticky still
with sweetness, scratch out mushrooms in the loam.
 
Abandoning the swishing swaying bamboo
to the sighing sounds of sea-wind, they race
 
down sullen slopes to black beaches, shouting,
scuffling over ashen sands to build 
 
not castles, but volcanoes. Moulding cones
with small and smutty fingers they stuff
 
craters with dry grasses, then, breath caught,
apply (forbidden) lighters, blow, bet cents on
 
which will burn the longest, whose
volcano flames the most.
 
The children of Stromboli play hide ‘n seek in
sulphurous caverns, make-shift lairs in
 
wombs of darkness close to the ticking, the
tolling, the heartbeat of the earth.. They are aware
 
but unbothered by the livid Cyclops underground
half-asleep in molten lava – half-sleeping, half-awake.
 

*  

Out of Africa

  

We fly into Africa on an all-in,

They boat out of Africa all in.

  

We’ve taken a taxi to the airport.

They’ve jolted a week in a scorching truck.

  

Our plane is pressurised.

In the truck it was 50° C.

  

Our aircraft is the latest jet.

Their craft is a leaking boat.

  

The stewardess serves drinks of choice.

Their water bottles run dry halfway.

  

We are coach-borne to 5 star hotels.

They are chucked into the sea still far out.

  

We see rain forest, silverbacks, mountains.

Their shore is a lava cliff, wave swept.

  

Not many see it.  

(published in Private Photo Review, Autumn 2008)

 

*

The Madonna of the Snows
 

 

Only the stream gurgling under its shawl of ice, 

a woodcock’s chucking, the north wind’s suck and sigh 

swinging cots of birch and pine. Her breasts swelled with milk 

cold as her cradling; her tears were snowflakes drifting down 

as though they might hush the bundle she rocked in her arms. 

 

She hurried past the walls of the cemetery where the newly dead 

were busy unmaking their bodies and those long gone 

shuffled and played their bones. Under the wall
lean dogs scratched  
and scrabbled  with frantic and frozen paws; 

biting, tearing the bindings of the stillborn – the unbaptised. 

 

The space of a breath, a moment slipped from time, a shiver, 

a tear in death’s veil. A grace as small and soft as a whisper 

she would never now hear. That was all she could, she would 

ask for – was it so much to grant? A place for a babe to lie, 

safe from dog, fox, badger – and man. 

 

But the mother of stone on the altar was frozen in her own 

and antique grief. She had lost her son to a god – what radiance 

could ever again warm her heart? She mourned his firm flesh, his 

carpenter’s hands, his voice in the dusk quietly speaking. No 

god could replace his humanity. Her heart was crystal and ice. 

 

The priest was waiting with his stoup of water, shivering 

by the pool. The woman laid her babe on the step, lifting 

the cloth from its face. Only the wind wailed thinly in the wicker 

of branches and boughs; only icicles around the spring 

reflected her in their sharp and shifting eyes. 

 

The space of a breath. No grace that a god gives. The mother’s 

gaze was fixed. And earth took pity where gods won’t: a vapour 

rose thin from the spring and hovered over the baby’s lips 

so it almost seemed to sigh. The priest hurriedly sprinkled the water 

and muttered the words of a rite. 

 

The babe in her arms again, the mother fell to her knees, 

thanking the statue of stone; her tears falling at last. 

The priest, too, was thankful; he could now bury the child

 and – faith restored – return to a fire, a glass of red wine. 

The earth went back to its dark sleep, cradling a warming babe. 

 

from "Blood Line" 2007, commended by Don Paterson. (Blinking Eye)

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© Gabriel Griffin