The difference between us
Up close, one mountain looks
to me much the same as another.
I see my foot slipping on ice,
my body hurtling backwards, over
rocks, into the crevasse, the blue
walls luminous; deadly.
He who has climbed a few in his time
and survived just such a fall sees
their particular shape and lines
of approach, as if they are women,
beckoning. These days his knees
would betray him, still he plots
a route in his mind—each step
a move closer to conquest or death.
The woman who walks backwards
In my neighbourhood of bankers’ mansions
converted into halfway houses, and broken
windowed student flats, I’ve come to expect
odd subjects, the man who cries out piercingly
at dawn, the speedy walker with Tourettes,
the one who stalks the footpath for his next
cigarette, and now the woman who walks
backwards down the 200 steps, hoping
to meet herself going forwards; a way
to delay getting old, I’m told, but how
she risks splinters, bare hands gripping
the rail for dear life.
Listening to my father read
As if he wanted to be the bearer of news
we couldn’t read for ourselves, for years
my father’s been in the habit of reading
newspaper articles aloud to anyone around
usually my mother, sometimes going
as far as selecting me to listen, down
country over the phone, resisting
attempts at diversions; questions asking
for his opinion or the delivery
of ours. We simply had to receive
the reported facts. Now, in his hospital
bed where he has been granted
a reprieve from his death sentence
(bleeding on the brain in two
diagonally opposite places)
he picks up a women’s magazine
and reads aloud, cadence rising
and falling just as before, seemingly
making sense but not to us struggling
to decipher one recognisable word
from his babble. ‘Dad,’ I say, desperate
for connection, ‘I’m driving your car.’
He raises his hands, makes a cry
of mock alarm and resumes reading
and laughing to himself. I know then
there is little hope. It’s as if he’s clutching
the one last skill left. The car is lost to him
as we are—all he has is this strange
language we cannot ignore, brought
back from wherever he’s been.
In Italy during the war he went AWOL twice.
Worth it, he said, to see the architecture and art
his head turned permanently by the Gates
of Paradise at the Battistero in Florence.
Little wonder then, to discover he’d taken off
from the rest home on a stolen walker dressed
in his best—shoes, shirt, good pants and hat.
In the end, a rush of blood to his head
felled him short. At first, I thought collapsing
on the footpath lacked dignity, but with walking
the only skill left to him, I realised he’d chosen
this: to go not in bed, surrounded by strangers
but hurrying down the road to home and wife,
the other great and true beauty in his life.
On the way
Sunday morning; driving my friend’s car
on the way to visit my father who’s just
died in hospital I stop at the pedestrian
crossing; a Chinese man wearing a white
mask and white gloves steps gingerly
onto the road, waving his arms as if
practising tai-chi or warding off attackers.
What sort of man masks his face
on a clear sunny day in Bayswater?
What kind of woman notices such a man
when her father has just died? And what
sort of poet mentions her father
at all—as if to claim some emotional
significance otherwise missing?
In the middle of the night I get up
for my night-time wee finding as usual
these days my legs reluctant to give support.
I reach for the bed base and the drawers
to lean on only to find the drawers gone
along with everything else I have been
relying on; my grandfather’s medicine
cabinet to remind me I come from people
who worked with their hands, the paintings
to denote a moving up the social scale,
the photographs of my younger self naked,
the clothes to conceal my older self
the makeup and jewellery to distract
from the truth in the mirror. There is
no mystery in this, they are all
next door while we paint the walls
a calmer colour for sleep.
Now in this room, inhabited
only by the bed and us
I realise it is all down to me.