Diary of the Plague Year: Day 38 22 April 2020: Quotidian Poetry John Burnside (1955 -)

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APHASIA IN CHILDHOODI

A room in a village schoolhouse: sprinklings of chalk and
rice; wingbeats smoothing the windows under a fall of
copper-leaf and prayer. Certain constants: quadratic
equations; the word in Latin for table. Science in one
book; history in the other.

The questions I asked all the time, but never aloud: where
is the soul? What does it most resemble? I had an image of
something transparent, a fine yet indestructible tissue of
buttermilk or chitin. But nobody knew: there was only
the sugar-and-clove-scented room, and the mail van
passing through, dusted with pollen and ozone, bearing
the witness of farmyards and distant towns, and they
were real.

 

II

The evidence of home: hairs in the paintwork; broken
fingernails between the carpet and the skirting-board.
Traces; fibres; the smell of rubber gloves.

In the evening, with friends at the table, we spoke in anecdotes:
the red stain of a haunting; a child in a
nightdress; a picture of malice: sure-footed, graceful,
walking around us on tiptoe. Mere entertainments,
which no one would stop to believe.

Yet why repeat these histories if not for the peculiar
sound of the victim? For the stoat in the soul: its
pink-eyed wonder, its wistful desire for blood?

 

III

A shoebox of a life: gulls’ egg and bullets wrapped in the
sweetness of Wills Whiffs; foxed snapshots of the
classroom beauty, smiling at nothing, flirting across the
years.

 

IV

It was always autumn Each evening the village melted:
steeples and slate roofs dissolving in sunset; willows and
cedars plunging into dusk. I sat for hours in the radio’s
dusted warmth. I slept for months. By morning the
gardens had reappeared; the fences smoked for miles in
the gold suburbs; the hedges filled with water and
jewelled birds.

I had lived so long. Maybe minutes. They sent me to
school in a raincoat and colourless gloves.

 

V

Perfection arrives for the pleached hedges and the cress
beds in frozen squares below the embankment. The
parish map returns: steeples as landmarks; the old bounds
of footpath and stream.

I am travelling a country of windows: a whiteness
pressed to the glass as if the train was wrapped in iced
velvet; the stations distilled to a glitter of frosted stone.

Memory clears: a series of lakes on maps, barely
Imagined, shrouded in oakwoods and moss.

 

VI

It keeps getting bigger Everything points away from
where I stand: new alleys scooped from light; street-
names and waterglass hedges; paradigms for cherry tree
and snow. That one day I spent in the woods, digging
leaf-mould: I kept finding thin silvery threads of mildew
that dissolved in the air, and I was sure, if I dug a few
inches deeper, I would find a being which resembled me
in every way, except that it would be white and etiolated,
like a finger of bindweed growing under stone.

 

FROM:

John Burnside
Feast Days

Secker & Warburg
POETRY