Some earlier poems

Feeding chickens, pollard scattered like wet sand.

They jump down stolidly off their roost,

as an old sailor

with a wooden leg;

in there, beneath half a corrugated iron rainwater tank,


I’m stepping around the bare black ground,

wire-netting propped

on lopped poles.

Moss about, bits

of brick poking through, and bones.

Rusted wrench

pressed into the earth, jaws open—

an effigy of a lizard. Reeds.

In packing cases, one side gone, the eggs,

in dry grass.

On this cold morning, they’re warm, smooth

surprising stone

almost weightless.

Bent over,

at the side of my face the silver

liquid paddocks, and steam.

My eyes and nose are damp, I see through my own smoke.

And I find

a calcific fruit, as if in the pockets of a vine.


I pluck out some warmth of the wintry sun,


in the hand.


What is beautiful,

said Ingres, is two colours, ashen or earthen, almost the same,

laid together.

Finding the eggs, the colours of dry sand—

I hold them up

as the boy David would have done

his pebbles from the brook,

taking my time,

to go out armed against the Philistine.

My mother all of ninety has to be tied up

on her wheelchair, but still she leans far out of it sideways;

she juts there brokenly,

able to cut

with the sight of her someone who is close. She is hung

like her hanging mouth

in the dignity

of her bleariness, and says that she is

perfectly all right. It’s impossible to get her to complain

or to register anything

for longer than a moment. She has made Stephen Hawking look healthy.

It’s as though

she is being sucked out of existence sideways through a porthole

and we’ve got hold of her feet.

She’s very calm.

If you live long enough it isn’t death you fear

but what life can still do. And she appears to know this


even if there’s no hope she could speak of it.

Yet she is so remote you think of an immortal —a Tithonus withering

forever on the edge

of life,

although with never a moment’s grievance. Taken out to air

my mother seems in a motorcycle race, she

the sidecar passenger

who keeps the machine on the road, trying to lie far over

beyond the wheel.

Seriously, concentrated, she gazes ahead

toward the line,

as we go creeping around and around, through the thick syrups

of a garden, behind the nursing home.

Her mouth is full of chaos.

My mother revolves her loose dentures like marbles ground upon each other,

or idly clatters them,

broken and chipped. Since they won’t stay on her gums

she spits them free

with a sudden blurting cough, which seems to have stamped out of her

an ultimate breath.

Her teeth fly into her lap or onto the grass,

breaking the hawsers of spittle.

What we see in such age is for us the premature dissolution of a body

that slips off the bones

and back to protoplasm

before it can be decently hidden away.

And it’s as though the synapses were almost all of them broken

between her brain cells

and now they waver about feebly on the draught of my voice

and connect

at random and wrongly

and she has become a surrealist poet.

‘How is the sun

on your back?’ I ask. ‘The sun

is mechanical,’ she tells me, matter of fact. Wait

a moment, I think, is she

becoming profound? From nowhere she says, ‘The lake gets dusty.’

There is no lake

here, or in her past. ‘You’ll have to dust the lake.’

It could be

that she is, but then she says, ‘The little boy in the star is food,’

or perhaps ‘The little boy is the star in food,’

and you think, More likely

this appeals to my kind of superstition —the sleepless, inspiring


It is all a tangle and interpretation,

a hearing amiss,

all just the slipperiness

of her descent.


We sit and listen to the bird-song, which is like wandering lines

of wet paint —

it is like an abstract expressionist at work, his flourishes and


the touches

barely there,

and is going on all over the stretched sky.

If I read aloud skimmingly from the newspaper, she immediately falls asleep.

I stroke her face and she wakes

and looking at me intently she says something like, ‘That was

a nice stick.’ In our sitting about

she has also said, relevant of nothing, ‘The desert is a tongue.’

‘A red tongue?’

‘That’s right, it’s a

it’s a sort of

you know —it’s a —it’s a long

motor car.’

When I told her I might be in Cambridge for a time, she told me, ‘Cambridge

is a very old seat of learning. Be sure —’

but it became too much —

‘be sure

of the short Christmas flowers.’ I get dizzy,


when I try to think about what is happening inside her head. I keep her

out there for hours, propping her

straight, as

she dozes, and drifts into waking; away from the stench and

the screams of the ward. The worst

of all this, to me, is that despite such talk, now is the most peace

I’ve known her to have. She reminisces,

momentarily, thinking I am one of her long-dead

brothers. ‘Didn’t we have some fun

on those horses, when we were kids?’ she’ll say, giving

her thigh a little slap. Alzheimer’s

is nirvana, in her case. She never mentions

anything of what troubled her adult years —God, the evil passages

of the Bible, her own mother’s

long, hard dying, my father. Nothing

at all of my father,

and nothing

of her obsession with religion, that he drove her to. She says the magpie’s


that goes on and on, like an Irishman

wheedling to himself,

which I have turned her chair towards,

reminds her of

a cup. A broken cup. I think that the chaos in her mind

is bearable to her because it is revolving

so slowly —slowly

as dust motes in an empty room.

The soul? The soul has long been defeated, and is all but gone. She’s only

productive now

of bristles on the chin, of an odour

like old newspapers on a damp concrete floor, of garbled mutterings, of

some crackling memories, and of a warmth

(it was always there,

the marsupial devotion), of a warmth that is just in the eyes, these days,


when I hold her and rock her for a while, as I lift her

back to bed —a folded

package, such as,

I have seen from photographs, was made of the Ice Man. She says,

‘I like it

when you —when


you . . .’

I say to her, ‘My brown-eyed girl.’ Although she doesn’t remember

the record, or me come home

that time, I sing it

to her: ‘Sha lala

la la lala . . . And

it’s you, it’s you’ —she smiles up, into my face — ‘it’s you, my brown-eyed girl.’

My mother will get lost on the roads after death.

Too lonely a figure

to bear thinking of. As she did once,

one time at least, in the new department store

in our town; discovered

hesitant among the aisles; turning around and around, becoming

a still place.

Looking too kind

to reject outright

even a wrong direction. And she caught my eye, watching her,

and knew I’d laugh

and grinned. Or else, since many another spirit will be arriving over there,


those are —and all of them clamorous

as seabirds, along the walls of death —she will be pushed aside

easily, again. There are hierarchies in Heaven, we remember; and we know

of its bungled schemes.

Even if ‘the last shall be first,’ as we have been told, she

could not be first. It would not be her.

But why become so fearful?

This is all

of your mother, in your arms. She who now, a moment after your game, has


who is confused

and would like to ask

why she is hanging here. No —she will be safe. She will be safe

in the dry mouth

of this red earth, in the place

she has always been. She

who hasn’t survived living, how can we dream that she will survive her death?