Gale Burns/United Kingdom
(1952) is a British poet. He was this year a Hawthornden Fellow, has been poet in residence at Sydenham Arts Festival since 2009, and has lectured creative writing at the University of the Arts, London. He is published in a wide range of magazines and books including the South Bank Anthology, the Tall Lighthouse Anthology and the national poetry magazine MAGMA. He has read his work across the UK, including at a celebration of 400 years since the birth of Milton at Christ’s College, Cambridge. He has published a pamphlet “The Unbearable Health of Being” and Tall Lighthouse are considering publishing his first full collection this year. He also works as a counsellor in the National Health Service.
Turn left at the garage with squat pumps, rusting,
past the village shop, one left now -
Mrs Dalton the sole news point;
past the new vicarage – the old one, sold off –
where the vicar lives with his young male friend.
You’ll see the village school, with its remaining class,
and the churchyard with your ancestors, gently waiting.
You pass through manorial gates
under the dabbled spring Downs
and there before you, in bright fields like lapping seas
are three great cedars, ageless,
with surfing dark green branches.
Here, regal horses swish their tails
nodding in fly-rendered agreement,
while noisy rooks picket dead elms,
speckled with mistletoe, exploding
First, small brown pills, almost metallic,
weekly visits to the man with a large spot,
Christmas, spent staring at the mantel piece;
then drugged sleep, for three weeks,
dreams, stacked one upon another,
shuffles in the ward, unopened cards;
next, a solid room; road clatter,
a green bankers’ lamp, fifty minute hours,
a cotton wool hush;
not forgetting the forced clamping to the bed,
mouth guard, soft pads to the head,
At last, home: baked beans,
cold handshakes, footsteps to and from work,
avoiding pavement cracks -
rituals, like gimbals of polished brass
in a boat, with their pivots and rings,
holding the compass level.
take on straggled shape in shades of black:
strewn, fibrous; cantilevered with deep canopies.
Fingering grains of earth, they grip and wait,
exhale and dream, though not the dream of sleep;
in stretched moonlight hours, they meditate,
a limb will quiver. What the bat will hear, surfing
husks, is a moan, plant on plant, a charcoal call,
that topples drunks returning home, whines
with the wind, sirens to planets Come to me!
Until the abysmal black is unbearable, when
dawn etches the horizon – mundane, arboreal,
like Carlisle, and my old childhood room.
I will never see the colonial mansions,
the un-level mud alleys, flooding with each downpour;
not spot the government agent, lurking.
Maybe my shelf-candy comes from there: speak!
Maybe the stuffed tiger, bought for a nephew,
sad, cross-eyed. Perhaps it sailed down the Andaman Sea
to stare into the couch.
Here, bring on the heat; the sun not yet reflected
in the neighbours windows. It will swell those rivers,
unnoticed, dribbling down a glistening cheek.
The rhododendrons are bursting, pink.
In mid-day Rangoon,
streets seethe, not one person thinking
of that English daytime moon, and few
of the coming shuddering cyclone.
Rangoon, about which I have no view;
the beaten, numbered washing from the hotels,
the beneficent Generals, pumped into a million homes;
a place I will never visit;
a place that will not visit me.
Small, ageing, gimlet eyes,
no English - I serve him tea, four sugars.
At first, we ‘sign’ my needs;
as day blurs into costly day
he is less concerned -
floor boards sanded
almost to the joists; silk white walls,
first grey, now black. Paint smells of him.
As thickening dust covers my browning plants,
corn grows in the kitchen.
Some windows are painted gloss;
with feint reflection. Wires now cross
the room, crackling. Shower heads
appear in the bedroom. The fridge
hangs from the ceiling, door glued shut.
I eat wood filler and grout.
He sleeps here now to save time.
The phone rings less; it is always for him.
Often, it is him. Sometimes his friends,
all alike, jostle in the hall, but when
they’re gone, it’s too still to breath.
At night the plaster heaves and sweats.
By morning, like elephant skin,
it has grown an inch –
some walls almost meet.
Floral mouldings have burst in the heat,
and now bear rotting fruit.
My skin is gashed;
blood varnish seals the wood.
At dusk, I’m in three rooms at once.
My clippings, hair and sperm
stuck to the walls as woodchip.
One room is sealed.
Sometimes I am him; small,
ageing, gimlet eyes, no English –
then he returns. Tonight,
I will pack my bag and squeeze
‘till motionless into the jar
under the sink.
After au pair upon au pair
one pregnant, another violent,
Mrs Jay appeared – what was her first name ? –
baking floured potatoes and ironing all,
with rasp-edged humour
and fag from which ash fell.
“Never thought I’d reach forty!” she said,
and so she lived our lives,
ignoring the Jungian hush;
a window on the thirties,
the flapper years, endless parties.
Together, we braved adult movies -
“Probably good for him,” mother surmised
and of an evening I would shipwreck
in her thighs, leaning back to watch
the missile crisis, the death of Kennedy,
Hanratty's justice. Her heart was saved
for the witless Cocker – what was its name? –
that we bought her,
walking her in wild winds -
at risk the hairpiece we never mentioned
and the swollen joints, arthritic
“From jumping in the arctic”.
My mother died and Mrs Jay
baked floured potatoes, ironing all,
for the step-father we both remaining
until finally, she could walk no more,
and distant daughter descended,
stealing her to dog-less Essex.
I saw her once, in some terminal.
I did not thank her, or become emotional.
We greeted her family at the funeral,
strangely outnumbered. Mrs Jay:
housekeeper, sans house
Tell-tale signs: mosquito swarms on a winter’s day;
cockroaches crawl from cooker and bed;
black bubble ants with feathery wings zigzag
small gaps of sky –
unloved, flesh-less, fearless, no glance
in the eyes. Only our dreams free of them.
Then the gritty storms bring locusts; a few at first.
Jane, excited, calls them regal grasshoppers;
they hew the vegetables to shreds. Next, flying machines
dive and bore the skin; by night and day, we are veiled.
But I am not alarmed – I knew of their coming: risen
from our desire, our oil, our heat,
given brittle leg and wing; shiny, almost beautiful.
The old mediations – boric acid, heptachlor, DDT –
seem puny, poisoning us within.
the mystery is solved; not good, not bad,
just this. A tree: its summer weight, bulging;
its leaves unfurled; then marriage to the world,
This life: each night, taking a new route home,
staring beyond the sky to solar winds, kept at bay;
the things you’ve done, the things you’ve not;
the battles won and lost - they’ve brought us to this point.
The waiting is denied. At ninety, Tony Howarth sits
and reads a book that will not change his future or his past;
Emily Floud makes love at last, and is bemused;
the baby without name completes her genesis, and breathes.
This is how it turns out – your part is hard to tell (the footnote
not yet scrawled) – significant perhaps, at least to you,
and maybe others too, and to the barren universe a thing
of wonder; part of a great tale we do not understand,
whose story trundles on, just as it will. So this is it – the disaster,
the relief; the genocide, the peace – enmeshed right here,
and sometimes manifest. By all means throw your weight
against the past, you’ll fail to change a single fact of it.
Yes, make those plans, construct those royal dreams,
but what they change is now: the earth, the sky,
the billion tiny cells within your brain, and their
strange hold on a pulsing universe.
and now we know we always were. Slaves
to the appearance of things, fooled by the promise of permanence,
the accumulation of trappings, the celebration of this:
the first generation kept from battle, soft hands, suckled, suckling still.
But signs were all around: the mental patient consigned to weeks of sleep;
the silted air; suburban privet clipped to re-assure;
and then the war within: to raise a voice, our own; to reconfigure now;
even to like another – these struggles curb us still, but out of silo, till we,
the bribed, cannot pretend: with chassis torn away, the engine belches,
pumping, spewing oil. When shelves are bare and streets quiver, and friends
are wrenched from life by eagle weapons, the trees stand bright, and though
we cannot sleep, each day has imminence. Throw yourself upon the time
ambivalence relieved; Beirut, Belfast our teachers now. Even our ancestors,
staring from gilt frames, knew more than we - at war, and now we’re sure
we always were, for what was sent abroad is recompensed, and though
the fear is such we hardly breathe, at last time moves just as it should in one long stream;
the dam is burst, and all the horses of the king, and all his men,
they’ll never hold this sclerotic world intact again.
The mystery of public space, unfettered.
How adults do not rule everywhere.
An affinity for airstrips and roads; the taste
of asphalt, sucked from wells. We learned
of soul mates: hanging off railings for hours
with Irish Paul from the orphanage, then one day gone.
Of swirling gangs, led by those who later lead
the country. Of weather, how it’s good for you,
the puddle contours; how to yearn for a radiator.
The worrying fatness of thighs on benches.
The strangeness of girls: their games of hair
and rope we once dared ourselves play.
Dark rumours of menstruation. Of playground refuge
from forced semolina. The precise partitions of age;
how to be victim, then how to perpetrate.
Even once, road safety; its zebra canvas
and cones - bitumen memories granulating
the brain: here we learned the world.