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The flower preserver

July 15, 2017

Dusk almost hid behind her eyes

as with a voice of quiet tears

she handed me the columbines

her sister’s unforgiving man

had picked, the day he reappeared,

still labelled in his brutal hand:

Our love is stronger than your lies.

 

They bring me flowers to preserve,

my clients: quiet memorials

to love, death, marriage, birth;

to people, moments, days now past –

parched, pastel talismans that pull

like tides upon the heart and cast

their fragile shadows on the earth.

 

I work in silence. When the shop

bell rings I read the blooms and how

they’re brought – a bridal bouquet dropped

with nonchalance, a frail fern leaf

less held than touched, the tightly-wound

ivy and easter lily wreath,

a chaos of forget-me-nots…

 

I give them what they come here for:

a clue to whom they may have been;

a bar to whom they might become.

I can’t preserve, much less restore

that April day, nor all those dreams

we shared under the springtime sun.

I’ve kept the primroses I wore.

 

A slightly edited version of this was runner up at the Shepton Mallet Poetry Competition, 2017

 

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Catching the train to work

July 15, 2017

Today the blackbird sings for the first time:

a warp for the robin’s weft; their sonic loom

afloat in the drifted mist, its weight defined

by the delicate silence it’s lifted on.

 

Behind, the door latch gently clicks. Ahead: the dew-

drops pick out daffodils in liquid light;

the green and crimson perfect curve of new

rose stems, appearing overnight;

 

fresh honeysuckle leaves unfurl in rows

of twins on tendrils searching sightlessly;

my neighbour’s newly white-washed cottage shows,

in silhouette, her awkward apple tree.

 

I step into the dawn, and into zone

on overlapping zone of birdsong, cast

from slender branches, garden shrubs, the lone

oak’s healed stub, announcing winter’s passed.

 

A boy walks through this music more than four

decades ago. He feels, but does not see

the far-off ploughman, paused, eyes raised in awe,

transported by the moment touching me.

 

Today’s the magic Leaping Forward Day

which startles us with shoots and song each year:

unheralded, obscurity cedes way

to light, and in this moment, all is clear.

 

 

Runner-up in the 2017 Fosseway Writers Competition

 

Loss

July 15, 2017

I met you only briefly, twice,

perhaps a dozen years ago

beneath the pinnacles of ice

you feared. I wonder, often: did you sow

those seeds you held, into the melted snow?

 

You stood there slight, but this stood out:

you were a powerhouse of grief;

alone. And certain – way past doubt –

of utter undeception, in whose teeth

you’d lost your grip of comfortable belief.

 

So deep, so deep, you felt distress,

it stayed unburied, near to hand,

from where you vouched your forthright sense

the gods, with arbitrary spite, had planned

to visit drought upon and scorch your land.

 

I screwed my eyes against the glare

of highland light which bathed, and drained

all life, from the deserted square;

I wanted nothing, nothing more, right then

than for you to be healed and whole again,

 

and still, today, I think of you

abandoned – brittle, proud – by grace.

I pray you found a pathway through

the melting snow to reach a burial place

wherein to plant anew; a safer space.

 

(Published by Pennine Platform, 2016)

 

The wall

July 15, 2017

Long peace with France had softened us,

but life at home was never still.

God knows we fought, often enough,

and hard, about money, the mill,

your family – everything – until

 

we wore each other down, and learned

the art of never being where

the other was; and in return

somehow negotiated air

enough to breathe; and layer by layer

 

we built a wall: on your side home,

the church, community; you made

our children yours and yours alone.

On mine, the town, the milling trade,

the rarest snowdrops ever grown.

 

No other thrill can match the lurch

of coiled desire I felt each year

as new-bred snowdrop stems appeared,

and promised petals – unshed tears –

in unseen whites and greens emerged;

 

nor disappointment match my hurt,

that winter every snowdrop failed

to bloom, dissolving in the dirt,

and loosing suddenly a gale

of silence louder than I’d heard.

 

And then, as though you’d waited long

for this, you stepped across the wall

and stilled my silence, broke my fall,

and gave a plantsman lessons on

the way to shelter plants from storms.

 

 

James Allen (1832-1906) – the ‘Snowdrop King’ –

a miller and amateur plantsman, grew over 100

snowdrop varieties in Shepton Mallet, Somerset. But after

decades of intensive breeding, his collection was all but

wiped out by fungal and insect infestations.

 

A slightly edited version of this was runner up at the Shepton Mallet Poetry Competition, 2017

El Tres de Mayo

July 15, 2017

The edge of town. A lantern lights the man

about to die. His comrades clasp their eyes.

He kneels: arms spread like sails aloft, he wills

defiance but it’s terror which obtains.

 

The friar murmurs blessings, swears and damns

the French. The waiting chorus moans and cries,

then ‘tirez!’, muskets fusillade; he spills

beside the corpses slumped among the stains.

 

Low fearful wails behind the victims’ hands,

the panicked mumbling of the priest who shrives

the doomed, the terse command, the gunshots – still

they resonate, among the faint remains

 

of ancient susurrus of surf on sand,

dead families’ and lovers’ truths and lies,

muezzin, birdsong, rain on rooftiles, peals

of laughter, angelus and lonesome trains.

 

Each wave, since noise and atmosphere began,

continuously pales but never dies:

each instant as it passes, pares and steals

a half, and then a half, and half again…

 

reducing history from the first big bang

towards a point it will not realise:

attenuated, yet its core prevails,

diminishing, but nowhere vanishing.

 

What’s past is present: faded cryptogram

of sound – no matter if we try to prise

a meaning out of or ignore it – fills

our ears with its abiding, quiet refrain:

 

the edge of town. A lantern lights the man

about to die. His comrades clasp their eyes.

He kneels: arms spread like sails aloft, he wills

defiance but it’s terror which obtains.

 

Published in the Kent & Sussex Folio, 2016

 

The widower

July 15, 2017

The widower

 

The mourners gone, he felt no need

to mark her passing with a stone:

her ashes swirled into the wind

to fly or fall where they’d be blown,

 

as fields and copses called her name

in silence louder than he’d known,

on hillsides permanently changed,

and paths he’d now patrol alone.

 

He stripped the house on to the lawn –

wallpaper, sofa, tables, phones,

chairs, carpets, clothes – and burned it all:

a perfect pyre of what they’d owned…

 

and turned his back upon the flames

to pick a single rose she’d grown

then sat and watched its slow decay

for days, within their hollow home.

 

Published in Acumen vol 88 Summer 2017

Catherine writes home from the Via Appia

July 15, 2017

After the Romans subdued the insurrection led by Spartacus,

they crucified more than 6000 slaves along 130 miles

of the Via Appia. – Nineteenth century guide book.

 

‘A cold, dry wind blows hollow through the hearts

of travellers from Capua to Rome;

a cross set every thirty paces marks

their haunted progress northward and reminds

them uniformly, order outweighs stone.

 

Uncountable, the undrawn souls consigned

to void, unnamed in epitaph or song…

Conflict is human history’s constant bride;

her dowry underwrites a wedding feast

for which both invitation list and night are long.

 

With fewer wars today, by learning peace

we darkly learn ourselves: is it enough

we see the cruelty in war decrease

and yet sustain it, plainly hidden among

the dancing shadows of our winter hearth?

 

All hurt is felt and meted out by one

and every violence is intimate:

upon each cross a soldier nails a man.

Each night I shrink and tighten, and await

the terror of your voice, your breath, your hand.’

 

Shortlisted and published in the booklet of the 2017 music and poetry collaboration ‘Out of Place’ https://www.facebook.com/nicolaburnettsmith/