The Books

‘She climbed down from the tree the next day   a queen’

after many adventures.

Beyond the wood a field sloped down to a wide river,

its banks edged with reeds.

And at the frontier?

that mixture of squalor and bureaucratic inefficiency.

Is this Europe or China or a dusty crossing in Mexico?

It could be. In a story or at this moment?

She climbed down from the tree a queen,

her memories pleasant for now, but later?

As the years slide by (passing a mirror

– who is that old woman? ugly old man?)

other memories heap up, crowd in.

The intense pain of partings, foolishness, selfishness,

stubborn blindness, and useless, though real, regrets.

As though caught below decks in a sinking ship,

water pouring in as further leaks spring,

the metal plates buckle and split.

Memory pouring in. Powerless to stop any of it.

You can go into the books.

Remember the library in Alexandria.

Remember its destruction by Christian fanatics,

and the savage murderer of the mathematician Hypatia.

(Bishop Cyril, may you be tormented forever

in your imaginary hell. You and that other darks heart

Archbishop Theophilus.   Shame on you all.)

A dense history of such deeds,

but that shrinks into the shadows

when faced with our daily history.

The young officer, my father, 1940,

having to shoot one of his own men,

his stomach ripped open beyond saving,

begging to be put out of his agony.

‘We deceive ourselves with our stories’, someone wrote.

Not this one. How did my father

live with that moment for years and years?

as he quietly tended his allotment, and

taught children mathematics.

She climbed down from the tree a queen.

As we all do, and then set out

across golden stubble to the river.

I don’t intend to sit here waiting in my coffin,

gathering dust untill the final slammer,

adjusting my tiara.

I’ll stamp my foot

and, checking the rear-view mirror,

head for the frontier.

from The Orchid Boat (Enitharmon, 2014), ©Lee Harwood 2014, used by permission of the author and the publisher

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