Tides

With scooped-out sand, shells, and spread-eagled hands
Toddlers try to divert the incoming tide
From their castles and moats and their plastic boats.
They shriek and clap as the steep walls slide.

Old people slowly plod the windy strand.
Just the everlasting to contend with now,
Just the sea, rock, cliff and sloping sand.
They hunch and bend, a deferential bow.

Grey spume and guilt accompany their walk.
They know the kids’ castles will all fall down-
Just the sea, rock, cliff and sloping sand –
Unless they can make them understand.

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Divination 1

A brown drowned albatross on screen,
Its stomach cut open by a blue-gloved haruspex.
Inside hard, bright, inedible things
Foretell the future.

The couple turn off the news, their guts churning.
Later they attend the ballet, as planned.
Tonight the prima ballerina, all in white,
Is a dying swan.

Waving arms above her head
She stretches, stills, feet together en point,
Then slowly raises one leg.

The woman sees such perfect balance.
She sighs, leans forward, and longs.

The swan flutters, and wobbles.
Her pirouettes pulse slower. Her end is near.
Jerkily she twirls.

The man sits back, legs spread.
He sees a bent screwdriver
Trying to bore to the entrails of the world
To find out what’s going wrong.

Wolf at the Door

We like to tell stories in that corner of the dining room
Where balls and marbles always end up.
The house listens and remembers, except when the story
Is the Three Little Pigs.
Then, the sash windows tremble.
And boulder foundations tell us
They were never piled, in 1884, to withstand the shudder
Of double decker busses rumbling by.

But we don’t want a brick house,
Insulated, and all the windows closed.
We love the gaps between the floor boards, the stuttering pipes,
The crying windows in the icy dawn.
With our pit-sawn weather boards around us
We will keep the wolf away, at least for another day.

Arrival on an Island

Then – an island was a prize, rewarding those who risked

The crashing waves, the reef, the rocks and rips.

Gasping in green water, he jerked his hips,

Caught a wave’s lift, crested a droplet rainbow,

Tumbled in foam. Then he was floating,

Transformed, languorous, in a mirror lagoon.

He waded ashore, startling fish and crabs.

He wobbled on sloping sand, under stretching palms.

He turned, squinted into the setting sun and saw

Pieces of smashed wood, drifting, blown.

He laughed. He was here, and had to stay awhile.

He turned inland to walk into the unknown.

*

Now – we look down on islands from stiff planes

Laden with soft toy turtles, snorkels, reef shoes.

We arrive at night and could be anywhere.

But after we leave the airport’s concrete and lights,

We look up to unexplored islands, stars so bright,

The same ones that pulled the first canoes

And guided the boatloads that followed.

The frangipani air is soft as talcum.

We hear a guitar and the music washes away

All thoughts of where we came from

Or when that was, if it ever was.

*

Save Us

‘Save us,’ we shout.
Galileo saved himself from the fire
By recanting his belief that
Earth moves round the Sun.

What will save us from the fire?
What can we do anymore, evermore?

‘Save us,’ we shout.
From fire and drought and doing without.
Pasture dead at the root.
Cars. Chain saws. Rotting fruit.

Dear gods, forgive our hubris
And our doubt.
Hear us. Help us when
’Save us,’ we shout.

Thin Skin

Grandma’s skin shines shallowly,
like Gladwrap, where it clings to her knuckles.
Her hands hang, huge as a Haast eagle’s claws,
But her grip is weak.
Secateurs can fall from her.

The silvering honesty shrub shivers.
She peers. ‘Don’t cry, Grandma.’
Her lower eyelids, bald and leaning outward
Like old gutters, easily spill tears
When she sees beauty in her garden.

Grandson is now gripping the secateurs,
His dimpled hands, puffed like a warm duvet.
What is that rumble? That intruder in her garden?
“Look,’ he shouts. ‘Plane! Plane!
People- on-holiday-plane!’

Planes’ vapour trails etch the thinning sky skin
Which hangs from the bones of abraded Earth.
She tries to look up but her neck is seized.
The trails diffuse to bruise the darkening sky,
Then disperse, and disappear.

She fears the thinning sky skin over her garden.
Nothing to fear,’ she reassures the child
Who is leaping, thrilled, not frightened.
We must look after our skin,’ she mumbles,
‘Soil, skin, sky. You know why? Listen to me.’
But he’s dancing. ‘Soil. Skin. Sky. Diddle diddle die.’

*

Cape Gooseberry

Grandmother shows the child the pods like lanterns
Hanging from the cape gooseberry bush.
What’s inside this one?’ the child asks.
Wait and see then you will know.’

Weeks later, the lantern’s skin has thinned
To a fragile lattice, a net
Of such delicacy the child feels
The power of its vulnerability.

Inside the net a gold globe glows.
A caged sun.
How did it become like this?
Is this even the right question?
The child knows the plant knows
More than the grandmother will ever know.

Tenderly, she rests the caged sun on his palm.
Its future, she knows, is in his hands .

My Identity

Where did I put it last? Has someone moved it?
Is it squatting in the dark, rigid, immovable as a barnacle?
Did I leave it in the supermarket? library? playground?
God help me: have I put it in the fridge?

When I was folding it away for grandmothering days
Was I distracted by the phone or a sudden scream?
Is it in the toy box with the half-made Lego car?
Has it done a gingerbread man runner? Has it gone very far?

I can’t ask anyone else where I put it.
They’d whisper to each other, ‘early onset.’ I’m afraid.
The heat pump hum above my head
Sounds like a falling guillotine blade.

I rush from room to room, all a swivet,
Panic and secrecy, one in each hand.
I look through neglected book piles, blowing away dust.
There it is! Crushed, bent at the edges but alive – just.

Tomorrow I will wash it with soap and soda,
Hang it in the sun, pegged at the shoulders,
And when it is smelling of youthful tomorrows
And not the sour sweat of yesterday
I will slip it on, comb my hair,
Go out and see if anyone recognises me,
Looking svelte, me and my identity.

*

Toddler Country

A stout toddler on points duty at an impatient intersection:
Red: Stop. Green: Go go go! Cool. Cooly cool.
Intense, Staffy-like gaze and acceptance of rules.

This is toddler country, where direct speech means just that:
Direct. And where words mean just what they say,
And are tossed around like toys in play.

We can order whatever we want from today’s menu.
Book. Garden. Digger digging. Tiger taming.
It is simply a matter of naming.

Even the colours here have simple names,
Like the beat of a drum.
Red, blue, yellow, green.
Go. Come. Run RUN!
And all is shiny and unbreakable.
Just like the sun.

I would like to live in toddler country
Where words can be thrown like Duplo blocks.
No like. Go ‘way. Come back. Out! – to communicate
Needs, moods, opinions, each syllable with a shout.

Where I now live, old people land,
Words, like washing in the wind or clouds on a summer day,
Deceive, change shape and can even blow away.
Sometimes they can be like the thinnest ice,
Or brittle spun sugar on an anniversary cake
That previously I’ve never had time to bake.

In toddler country no one is a permanent resident
But I wish only for a one-year work permit.
I want to swagger a bit, order elderly retainers about,
And say “No like. Go ‘way. Come back. Out!”
Without reprisals, recrimination and responsibility.
Dinner ready. Get it. Now. Read-eeee!

I could leave behind my should I, shouldn’t I,
My wishy-washy, my shilly-shally, my doubt..
I could break a carefully laid train track
And throw the trains across a room.

Then later, when I feel like it, and for no reason,
I’d put them back together again. Cooly cool.
With no trauma, no drama, no guilt.
Oh to follow this with pure sleep on my quilt.

Alph, the Sacred River

In my garden is a manhole cover over a deep chasm –
Not an ancient well where women with clay pots on their heads
Would come to swing their thin arms down, and fill the pots
And pad, rhythmic, dignified and slow, back to a dusty home.
No. This is the council’s drain inspection trap for our neighbourhood.

I sit beside it and hear the unseen subterranean tumult.
I am so grateful for the cleanliness of neighbours,
Their early mornings’ antimicrobials from toothpastes and shower gels,
Their caffeine. I feel energised just listening to the flow
Of water with amphetamine, Ritalin, statins, maybe Covid 19.

The manhole’s heavy metal top is etched with circular grooves,
An ideal train turntable for Thomas and his drug-free friends.
We line the little trains up, Percy, James, Thomas in the lead,
And push them round and round above the cascade
Of water with amphetamine, Ritalin, statins, maybe Covid 19.

We like the sound of Alph, our sacred river, running
Through the caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea. I am so grateful, too,
Because I have no need to buy from Mitre 10
An electric pump-operated waterfall to run
Down the ancient lava flow that is my parched and prickly garden.