|Oct/Nov 2009 Poetry Special Feature|
for Elihu Burritt, peacemaker (1810-1879)
I dream you passing, in your one decent suit,
down the line of vested gentlemen and corseted ladies,
each one offering pleasantries so practiced,
they must keep them in the cupboard,
bring them out for special occasions. You infer
their meaning without translation.
A state dinner so lavish, it might keep you
from starving for the rest of the week. The lady
to your right listens with a liquid smile
as you explain the secrets of a gentlemen's war
and what it costs: so many peasant-sons dying
for soldiers. The lady to your left nods and sighs.
Finally comes the extinguishing of candles
in the sitting room, as each guest bids farewell
from coaches lined up before the great white door.
In dream I watch you walking between façade
and gutter to your cheap hotel, considering
the payoff for so many phrases, a bow
to each chameleon curtsy replayed down countless
instants of an evening. After you put away
your one decent suit, what will you confide
to your journal? that, of this or that very instant—
all your eloquent insistences—not one
will remain on waking in the morning?
Old Blind Tom, Bideford 1864
Here he comes climbing the hill.
Bent almost double under the weight
of coal slung across his neck, he can't
raise his face to the sky. No matter, light
is so chameleon, coloring a landscape blue
and green, then sunset-red and amber,
abruptly gone. Vision is a blessing,
not a given. An old man can't store it
from his youth, in the cupboard,
like the penny he earns carrying coal
each steep mile uphill. Hearing, too,
is a grace, not a guarantee: liquid hymn
of a river under stars, remembered;
long-dead friends' greetings on the street.
How can this old man seem so serene?
Ask him. He'll sense the vibration
of a human voice, as he fells the pulse
of earth under his feet. But don't
expect a satisfactory answer.
Such an ancient man, blind and deaf;
working like a beast of burden
under the sun. He must be daft, as well,
to sing a little song he only hears
from inside, and smile as brightly as
he used to, before his daylight
In a reptarium in her bedroom,
a chameleon—a panther chameleon -
still dreams of Madagascar;
blue-green morphed and mottled
as if it played at masque disguise
and camouflage among its foliage.
Across the room, in an aquarium,
zebra angelfish fan their liquid tails
and fins, and gulp the solace
of imprisoned water. Do the fish
wonder what she keeps closed
in the cupboard? Does the panther
chameleon gaze at ivy gripping
the wall outside with all its hold-
fasts, as if climbing its escape
to the roof gutter? Oh the burden
of free moonlight only glimpsed