The International Literary Quarterly

November 2007

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The Birds by George Szirtes

1. Set the clock going

Time shrinks back into itself, curls up small,
until it’s no more than a newly-born
child or a fieldmouse scurrying past a wall

of the house where the child lies. Time shorn
of its fur, of its history, is not time
but absence, something you can shoe-horn

into any space. It is the romantic sublime
waiting for us in bed with days on its hands,
with history, change, the regular chime

of the body-clock, the rustling sands
of the human hourglass with its nipped waist,
the breathless waiting for a moment that stands

as still as the furniture so carefully placed
for human convenience, into which room
human concerns file with their curious chaste

demands such as: love me. Do not assume
authority over me. Try to be a comfort.
Feed me. Empower me. Bring me to bloom,

now! Life is virginal at core and short,
the ego unbroken, forever folded in
upon itself, the refuge of last resort.

Difficult then for anyone to begin
a conversation with love or to start
anywhere but with the delicate thin

light of the room, the tender colour chart
of the child’s face, the frail shell of the voice
within which it moves, the thrum of the heart

in its barely opaque chest. It’s best to rejoice
in what arises, since delight as simple as this
is singular and never spoilt for choice.


2. Mind the Door

No shortage of the romantic sublime. It drops
about your head in bomb-showers, flowering
into fire. It flashes across your scalp and crops

mountains to leave the ashen dead cowering
in burned-out ditches. It careers across the road
in large goods vehicles, rises in towering

buildings, up lift-shafts, reads the genetic code
of suffering and cracks it like matchwood, the me
and you of it gone. It is happy to explode

itself then come back for more. It whips the sea
up like stiff cream and shatters it like glass
then spills it into the shallow sanctuary

where the poor have gathered waiting for it to pass.
The child’s bed is a speck of dust it notes
in its passage across a million blades of grass,

one of several million other such motes
of light it sweeps by, lonely, magnificent,
meaningless as it calms down and floats

away serenely with its energy unspent.
The same with history whose headlong rush
excuses the odd unfortunate event

preferring power, the work of the broad brush,
to responsibility with its insistence
on clean laundry and a regular wash.

History’s inches are icons of long distance,
its ideas best realized at heights
requiring neither comment nor assistance

from those citing individual rights
as their excuse. The child lies in its bed
watching light shift while days and nights

succeed each other, wholly unassisted.
desire begins and loss. Music swells
behind the closed door where the elders tread.

3. The Girl in the Dressing Gown

A girl in a dressing gown, about nine years old,
turns towards the camera and smiles back
at the photographer. It is the controlled

moment. It is Vermeer and Goya, the crack
between great landmasses of becoming,
almost an elsewhere, the point where the track

becomes visible as it vanishes, numbing
and quickening. You can see the earlier face
and read the later one. Time keeps drumming

its fingers impatient with being in one place
so long, but here it is now. Look. Just there
in the flash of the eye, in the faint trace

of foreknowledge we detect and seem to share
with her like hindsight or a guess
we must hazard because chance is everywhere.

Slowly the word ‘you’ begins to address
her condition. You: the camera’s trick
of intimacy and numb tenderness.

So let us say you to her. You, says the click
of recognition. Yes that was the girl
with the pearl ear-ring, the aristocratic

Maya, the startled bride in Chagall’s whirl-
wind orbiting the moon. But this is merely
conversation between images that unfurl

like flags to mark the spot where you nearly
stand at age nine, the future drawn towards you
determined never to see you as clearly

as the present can. Something is travelling through
the grey veins of the grey print. I daren’t name it
because naming is too easy. Naming is what we do

when taking possession. We call it and so claim it,
but the moment is unclaimed. The image is elsewhere.
Let somebody else develop it and frame it.

4. Naming

That you swims out of incomprehensible
water, a local stream bearing shopping bags,
old shoes, dead leaves, petals, past a scribble

Of froth caught on the bank where the tide drags
past low branches according to its own
genetic code, a hieroglyph all swags

and flourishes, the flowing and the flown
merging into each other. Who can read
a language so mumbled, in such undertone?

Threadbare capillaries tangle and bleed
under the skin of it. I’ll tell you who you are
says the bully. You are the narrow weed

I can twist round my finger. You are the avatar
of terminal weakness. I name you mine
and dispose of you. I can throw you as far

as a body can fly. Beyond the thin grey line
of the stream, on the far bank, behind a wall
that shelters a garden, in its own crystalline

moment, the self hears the distant call
of the voice that must find it, that knows its shape
from within, but is not quite locatable

either in the head or in the singular landscape
they both inhabit. The landscape is all echo
and distance. It is impossible to escape

from it and see it whole. So you, my love, know
no more than I do where we stand and hear
each other call by name whatever names shadow

in voices that waken, comfort and endear
themselves to us through their brokenness
and make a piercing sweet cry in the ear.


5. Dressing

Out of the dark a torso, more garment than flesh,
the weight of invisible breasts behind the high
empire line and twist of cord; empty and fresh

as air. It is just waiting for you to try
the outfit on for size, to become woman
and fill it out without pondering the why

and how of it, to step into the common
form-hugging sheath and gracefully undertake
the obligations implied by such things. No-one

goes naked in the world after all. For whose sake
do you become who you are? Are you alone
in the dark? Is it for yourself you ache

in the morning? Even if you were stone,
like a goddess, you would desire beyond
your fixity something already half-known

yet negotiable. As a child you respond
to the adult’s gravity with a blank stare
of instinctive hunger. You touch your blonde

hair and bunch it in your fist. You prepare
your flirtatious look. You play at control,
then lost, start crying at the small despair

you’re stuck with. But this is the soul
prepared for you, these garments that glow
in the dark and burn as fierce as coal.

and out of the same dark step the slow
suitors in their allotted garments, unsure
of their own identities, hoping to follow

the patterns they’ve guessed at, a mature
untroubled roundness weighing at their hearts,
and the breasts press against cloth as if nature

insisted they do so, as if there were darts
piercing them, as if becoming were all
in the hollow waiting garment that closes and parts.

6. Kindertransport

As a child you move slowly over the vast
floor of the kitchen, the almost endless yard,
crawling over both while minutes crawl past

in the opposite direction. Once you discard
the walking frame you hurtle between handholds
of chairs and cupboards, taking the odd hard

knock, while your anxious mother comforts and scolds
in equal measure. But your world is still small
as you discover in the car as one hill folds

into another or an older child climbs the high wall
that hides the desirable, barely imagined domain
of elsewhere that is located beyond parental

granting. The world expands but will never deign
to offer itself whole, you quickly realise,
nor does it feel any obligation to explain

its motives. But what if, before your very eyes,
things changed, flip over, vanish or explode?
It happens sometimes. Alien empires rise

like towers, thousands scatter down the road.
As a child you move with them unmoved, quaint,
adaptable, curious, carrying your tiny load

of responsibility. Girl and boy. The faint
lines of gender wash briefly away in the haste
of departure without a word of complaint

in the great gust wafting you onward. Why waste
time on difference when the powerful cohesive
of fear holds the clock together and the displaced

are in one small corner or container? We live
from moment to moment, say the sharpened senses
working through ears and eyes, say the plaintive

cries of those left behind. We are without defences,
without options. It’s where we go. It’s where
we are. And here we are, clambering over fences,

entering the given space others prepare
for us, we children, we romantics, we fallers
in love in gardens, with our fistfuls of hair.

7. Once upon…

Once upon a time the story was told
of a time before time, an unfixed point in space
we could inhabit while the adult world rolled

past us, a story in which the desperate race
was internalised in the drumming sound
of pulses, settling forever behind the face

we made at the precise moment we found
the hidden treasure, the lost child, the frog
turned prince, the giant or genie unbound

and risen, the terrifying saucer-eyed dog,
the witch with the metal nose, the very image
of Tycho Brahe found years later. Our dialogue

was with creatures requiring kindness and courage.
We were not ourselves as seen in the looking glass,
not firmly definable, but a kind of mirage

that attended and haunted the back of the class
when the teacher’s voice blurred into afternoon
and the sun had long slipped by under the grass

and the distant houses were gone or would be soon
with their ghost inhabitants slipping in through open
windows, and the light above was a balloon

drifting to sleep. It was that time, when time was broken
and piecemeal, that identity gained weight,
fleshed out. It is that time that is woken

in us when we seem to fall or gravitate
towards each other without knowing it,
a time that is both too early yet late

enough to be ourselves, the classroom lit
with eyes, the dream working its way through
troubled nerves, the nightbirds beginning to flit

from haze of branch to haze of branch and the blue-
indigo of our lives solidifying into selves
we might meet anywhere and address as you.


8. A Time

Once upon a time when myths were still falling
about us like tall shadows, when you emerged
from infancy and heard the body calling

out of the fog of the street, and were urged
to follow, at first into the garden, and then
beyond the gate where the hormones surged

like crowds of unruly children, half-grown men,
and gusts of sheer energy shook you into fear
and loneliness as is the way with children,

tumbling forward, so deep within your ear
you could feel the blood gathering then gone
south, into the world, in the spurt of desire.

Mechanics of growth: the yearning to be done
and out before desire is itself, no more
than pain, embarrassment, anticipation

of more pain, at the point where the door
snaps open, beyond the garden, out
in the street and beyond, beyond metaphor

into body, into flight, into squalor and doubt
and romance. The children run forwards
like troops into fire hearing a distant shout,

the gunfire of laughter and death. Whose words
are they speaking? Can you hear your own cry
in the strange cacophony or sound the chords

of the music where they are shouting? You lie
on your bed. The child is trickling painfully away,
passing into a future you yourself supply.

I watch from a distance as skinny girls play
among themselves, I am too young for this.
They move past me laughing. I must stay

in my childhood a while. Already I miss
you, the billowing forth that I anticipate
is not for me, not yet. I am waiting for your kiss.


9. The Birds

Sometimes you see a shape that hovers in the eye
and lodges itself in the furniture of the mind,
part light, part sound, between silence, music and cry

that sings out of half-open drawers. You find
yourself staring at it through the bedroom door,
caught in the mirror, perfectly defined

like your own incomprehensible face but more
light, more sound. Sometimes I wake and stare
at you beside me as if on a foreign shore,

an object cast there, a figure of the air
locked into itself, strange, magical
and potent, a burden I can just about bear

to support without the heart breaking, as small
as this one moment in a universe without scale,
and, inside that bright moment, the sum of all

such moments, years, decades. Outside, frail
birds are beginning their morning ablution,
chirruping and squabbling, a musical Braille

that ears may trace and decipher in the commotion
as multiple layers of meaning, your face
more comprehensible than my own, the impression

of meaning everywhere as superfluous grace,
the windowsill, the sheets, the books by the bed,
the reflection lightly imprinted on the space

behind a chair, the crumpled clothes, the bedspread
with its foothills, its geologies. The universe
arrives at the station. The shape of your head

hangs in the vast forecourt where crowds disperse
and gather like dense flowers, where everything moves
forward beyond the street, where there is no reverse,

only, rarely, this blessed stasis: the light that loves
you and holds you still. And slow as dreams,
birds rise from the roof, swifts, sparrows, thrushes, doves,

as they have always done, their shapes the phonemes
of a pure language. And you are there, beautiful
as their whistles and slurs, their trilling, their screams.