I had the coloured tombs in mind,
The elegant parlours, barrel vaulted;
You did not have to dig so deep;
By mid-morning the spade had opened
A sunlit vault where the dead lay, smiling
Not even a king and his consort. A Captain
At most, then a Baker by the name
Of Smart-Ass; it was written
Bold in sepia on the wall of the vault.
Nameless lovers, they captured interest,
Because the artist had painted a musical
Instrument only. For animals a dish
Of water and a rib with meat on it
Were sufficient; children had their names
And dolls, quaint, with amiable features.
Now it is difficult. The graves go down
Deeper. The dead are tangled in a heap,
Scooped up and in and left to rot.
Waves of them come up with a stink,
Agony in the gaping rhomboid mouths,
Some with bedroom slippers on their feet.
So many, how to identify them? How
Insert into such a moist dissolution
The fizz of feeling what they felt?
How hard the spade treats their pit,
For the antique mass graves were no prettier;
Below bright multitudes there was only earth.
Herded by radio signals, decrepit codes,
And closing now the hoop, above the business,
Killers converge, dull as the dirt itself.
I dig and dig; still no rockbottom. Up
Through layers goes the life: the damned (select,
Graded along the lines of a belief system);
The purged; then the beautiful, sublime – ?
A breath rotates the stars? Up my street
The ordinary, the losers, and police patrols
Pull back, then squinny as through chinks
In a forest: there still might be a glade,
Filthy with condoms and broken bottles,
Where someone hangs out, punctured, with a cry
Claiming he’s been abandoned. Who,
Who but a fool would lend him a hand?
He’s a statistic, we have jiggered our symbols,
And blink unawed at the galaxy. The one wand
Deploys vacantly its many magic darts.
Love one another, they said, as if a say-so
On Dover Beach, or in Manhattan, shamed the cruel,
As if it purged away the myth or purging.
Words that taunt waken only the bad blood.
I should return with my spade to simple tombs.
from Collected Poems (Carcanet, 2008), copyright © Christopher Middleton 2000, used by permission of the author and the publisher