The Longboats

‘If I can think of it, it isn’t what I want.’

‘A Sick Child’, Randall Jarrell


When a cat has sustained the injection
of another cat’s teeth, and the wound (as it heals) infects,
and erupts at the frotting, cools, scabs over, and erupts again
and again, we marvel at the purchase of the lesion
but nothing lies deep or simple as the cell-prints of
oh, passion, undisturbed like the borders of our dreams only
while real-life pushes the line - the urgent, furtive thumb
scuffing charcoal into white (that is, her paper skin,
the confession of her ribs).

Men I know hold the heads of women gripped by nausea
and feel the promise of reform soaking deeper, please,
deeper towards their parching hearts. Clinicians
excuse themselves from recognition of the deadly boring
and the condom is still in the drawer, waiting
like a milky film for an eye: we are afraid
(surviving genes and injury)
age will have us capitulate.


Her stomach’s been rag-tied, wrung and released,
dropped with no drop left but this
rolling sour under her tongue. She spits.
What does he see of himself
in that clear bead, now globing and foetal
in the bowl? No matter. He flushes
and she’s still pale as damp string
hung over his hand. His warmth passes
like a shiver or cramp through
layers where she is concealed, ornate,
pressed together in tender parody
of emptiness, as if there were room between them
for what they could not conceive.


‘Nightly we drift to war, and let each morning bring
our glistening, whole return -’
but she speaks like a child grown around sickness:
I thought of it, and it will have to do.
Waking after days of driving she finds
the escarpment buckled under flame,
smoke spilling towards their road
and childish old men in flapping hospital frocks
chasing themselves towards death;
or, his body, spread
like a worn sheet across the earth
and nothing will burn. He’s singing:
‘and come a stranger current
to urge the longboats out,
and fray the likening thread that holds them near -’
then feels her fingers working hot
where he is soft and thin, and soon
the shock of air.


It’s not easy
to sex a skeleton in a desert at fifty paces;
but approaches must be made. In corneal ruin
(years picking patterns out of gleaming fields of sand)
you may never know
but come very close instead, lie down perhaps
or disarrange with your hands now feeling only
for coolness trapped beneath or within
the pelvis and the skull.
A memory waits: aisles of bright-skinned goods,
rows of labels as smooth as bone
and other women’s velvet children reaching out to touch -
as if sterility had been the lover you longed for,
and that gentle fluorescence could have burnt from you
the bitterness of choice, the infection
of the making eye, discharging
as it sees. And now so little between
the paper and the bones, yet it seems the bones will yield:
how good, then, to find an unknown dark
where nothing red will bloom.