A Gradual Eden
After the lava had cooled,
hardened like a carapace
over the fresh-earth
graves of our marriages,
nothing happened for a while.
Sure, you and I still talked all night,
once dared to walk arm-in-arm
like a real couple to the Vietnamese
restaurant with the string-bead curtain
and napkins folded into swans.
I had to learn the basics:
I only knew your every thought,
but not, for instance, how you took
your coffee, how you swam at five
each day, leaving me to wake alone.
Nothing grew on the hard-baked
basalt of us. Ditches that had defined
our highways vanished,
once-shady trees now jutted like antlers
where the lightning had struck.
When the strawberries were gone
we ate dandelion and fiddle-head ferns.
You were an inventive chef, but I
was sick of roots and leaves; I wanted
Passiflora (or violets at the very least).
Once, longing for old comforts, you peeked
back under the edge of the rock-crust
for a glimpse of green, but the lawns
were mustard and thistle-pocked.
Twice I peeked too.
Watering didn’t help much.
Neither did planting seeds.
After a year or two, we got used to it.
Gave up trying.
Hung up boots.
One day we saw the rock was dusted
with faintest green, just a bristle,
like your five a.m. beard—no more.
And then we saw a stem unfurl,
and then the flowers came.
Symphony of Skin
i. Tuning up
They are there if you listen.
On the train, in the Laundromat—
the instruments, I mean;
bells, stirring in two-way stretch cotton,
(their owner slumped in the window seat,
his work boots tapping a secret rhythm);
timpani buttoned under a cashier’s blouse,
a cello bound by polyester pinafore
in salmon pink. She thinks
the air is flecked with soap dust,
doesn’t realise it’s rosin from her bow.
Air flows through apertures
where, later, fingers will flutter,
strings blur under the rub of horsehair;
their discordant mewl barely heard
above the swish of the train,
the hum of machine,
louder in the darkness of tunnel
or the lull of rinse cycle, then soft again.
Tuning up, they’re getting ready
for this evening’s symphony of skin
to begin at precisely 10.15.
ii. Skin music
And you can never explain it in physical terms—
what happens between two people
on an ordinary bed, in an ordinary room.
Let me ask you, could you school the cuttlefish
in Ludwig’s Emperor (second movement)
in terms of anvil, hammer and stirrup?
Paint the hues of daybreak for the mole?
There is only air, compressed and stretched.
There is always space between skins,
no matter how closely they press.
No touch, only the music of skin;
an oboe sings, a cello answers.
Locked within the strands of collagen,
atoms built of smaller blocks,
each one a capsule packed with strings,
each string a note that’s yet to play.
Afterwards, they lie curled,
two bass clefs facing this way, that.
They talk of anything, of childhood;
croak the lyrics to every Paul Simon song
they can recall; this, the highlight,
now the players have left the stage.
They will meet people
who promise them more than this,
more than you could write about this.
Sleep will come later, a raft
pushed out on a starred sea.
What oak bed? Which room?
There is nothing here
undulating along their border.
Only this tiny stage
drifting on the night swell,
a single baton on its floor.
Fortune reshuffled, reshuffled
(The tarot anagrams)
Take off your rings. They are clues to your story.
I’m getting a strong signal. You will survive an avalanche. When it comes, you’ll be prepared. Keep your hand near your face to clear an air space. Many suffocate. Make sure you know which way is up. This is the easy part: dribble the spit out from your mouth and see which way it runs. Now, dig, dig in the opposite direction.
I see something else coming through here: you’ll give him a kidney. (He is dying, you see, in the physical sense). Worst-case scenario, temperance—you’ll have to cut back on the Sancerre. Best, a scar and an empty comma on one side of your mid-spine. Still, each cluster a small lung, breathing life into the glass husk of him until he pinks up. Then he’ll ask for the other, the fool…
He’ll ask you which one you are—in the show, I mean: Hank’s wife or Walt’s; the pretty, bored house-bound mum with the new baby, who knew about the drugs, or the Type-A kleptomaniac sister. Your love will die but you cannot live with another monkey on your back. Ho! Mind you heed my 4warning. Honour is nothing. They stole your fucking poem. Don’t sign anything.
I see a case of your best Sancerre, coming from cluster to glass. Is your wife a fool? you’ll ask him, mid-fuck. And the other scenario? An empty life. You’ll have to give him a pink lung, one side dying. He’ll cut up your back, scar your spine in the husk sense. Not physical (comma) worse—something else you’ll see through.
Another strong signal from you: this is Space. In which direction is Survive? Be prepared to dig when the air runs out. Will you know which way? I’m getting an avalanche of drivel: Dig, the opposite of Easy. Face it; you know your part will suffocate many, but each kid’s still breathing. See the way your spit comes up clear now? Keep your hand near your mouth.
A warning sign: At 4 am your mind’s a monkey house. You cannot live with your sister, the kleptomaniac honey, who stole the show. She’ll waltz in here and type you a poem or love you back. Keep mum! Don’t heed anything the pretty ask. They are bound to be mean, bored with the new drugs, which, on my honour, I knew nothing about. The baby will die in this one. Hanky?
III. The Fool
See the way your Mum keeps coming up? She’s a pretty mean type. She’ll suffocate you, cut off your breathing with a hank of judgement you could sense. Heed your kid sister, the midwife, who’s bound to love you. Your baby digs you, honey. He’ll waltz you back to the monkey show, give you space to spit. You’ll ask him to dribble Sancerre into your mouth until your mind clears. (No temperance here).
Another warning sign: your honour is the kleptomaniac that stole the pink from your face. Will the strong drugs put a comma in your near-dying? In this scenario, you survive. Many know your hand. The husk of a lung is bored from your back, a scar on your spine. Keep it in a glass in case the air runs out.
I’m getting a signal. Something else coming through I knew nothing about: you live in a new house, one you cannot empty of poems. You give each other the best life, a physical side. But don’t ask of him. The worst part… Not prepared for anything, you see. Up this way. Easy! Then, cluster-fuck from the opposite direction… 4 die in an avalanche. They are still now.
On the Rocks
There is a kind of love called flotsam. When twisted winds have paused for breath
where the sea foam eddies, this love emerges like a teak plank sprung
from a shipwreck. It floats proud and quiet or hangs just below the surface.
There is a kind of love called jetsam. When the hold is timber-splintered
and the waterline creeps higher, this love is flung on the breakers, entrusted
to the sea bowl. Washed up on a remote shore, it is rediscovered as kindling.
There is a kind of love called lagan. When waves have swallowed the last yellow
fingers and silver rings of the crew, this love drifts from quarter light
to where the hagfish lie. Moored to a sunbeam, it can always be traced.
And there is a kind of love called derelict. When spite has ripped the spinnakers
and set the halyards alight, this love settles at the heart’s base, nestled in the point
of it. Leaden as a sinker, it is never to be reclaimed.
Five Creatures Under Every Mother’s Skin
Age thirteen, the skin splits down her back.
Emerging, clad in shimmer and sequin
and glassy wing to much ado. Pretty head
thrown back, clasped by mate after mate.
The green river air is shot silk
scribbled with their heart-shaped pen.
Seaward, she is drawn tail-first. The river
a silversmith arming her, scale by scale.
The ocean has no boundary, save memory.
Though her flesh will coral with experience,
she will dodge bamboo rod and vernal bear,
return to gravel nurseries of the smolt.
Grotesque red bill pressed to her quilled
leather corset releases the last fry
from gular folds. (This the tongue’s
business, but hers too tiny to roll around).
If they want to believe she pierces her bosom
to blood-nourish her young, let them.
Bring on the night! Let her stalk and cry,
dog-fox by her side, blackberry picking
by moonlight in fur coat and black boots.
By dawn, she returns to earth, her kits
an auburn ball. The sick one she’ll carry
to the wood’s edge and dump it. Just in case.
Her skin-rubber, hashed and scored
with life’s scars, hides an armchair heart.
Her glands can still suckle a youngster
bored with waiting for his mother,
God love her, this, so much more fun.
Her children’s children will be doctors.
“A Gradual Eden” and other poems are © Audrey Molloy