Settlements

Settlements
‘God answers our prayers by refusing them.’
                                                        Luther

1 A PLACE BY THE SEA

Because what we think of as home
is a hazard to others
our shorelines edged with rocks and shallow
sandbanks
               reefs
where navigation fails

we mark the harbour out
with lights and noise:
flickers of green and scarlet in the dark
the long moan of a foghorn
                                         when the daylight
thickens and stills

and even when we speak of other things
our prayers include all ships
                                          all those at sea
navigators     pilots     lobster-crews
the man who is yanked overboard
on a line of creels
whole families of boys and quiet fathers
lost in a sudden squall
                                  a mile from land.

It’s not that we surrender to our fear
or trust in nothing
it’s just that the darkness
opens
        on mornings like this
filling with distance and starlight for mile after mile
when we wake to the taste of milk
                                                     and the scent of coal
in rooms bequeathed to us by merchantmen
who stocked the roof with powders
                                                      sacks of grain
spicetree and crumbs of saffron

it’s not that we are lost
or far from home

it’s just that the world 
seems strange
                      on nights like this

when we lie with the ghosts of ourselves
                                                         - these habitual flavours:
aloe and eau-de-cologne
                                      and the ribbon of sweetness
that stays on my hands for hours
when I turn
                  to sleep


II FISHERFOLK AT NEWHAVEN
after Hill and Adamson

Mending their nets
                            or standing in their dim
smoke houses
hearing the water
slap against the wood-face of the dock
and thinking of nights at sea
                                             of a spilt
quiver of brindled fish
on the slur of the deck

of calling back and forth through lanternlight
for uncles and second cousins
to come and look:

the fruits of the ocean
                                  tarred with a difficult blue
as they haul them in
siren faces poised 
                           as if to speak

but silent
              like the wives they leave behind
for weeks and months
                                  beguiled by the wounded skins
they bring in from the dark
                                         the slatted crates

dripping with salt and copper
                                             and the pale
shimmer of phosphorescence
                                             like the chill
that grows between their hands
                                                  on chapel days.


III WELL

There’s more to it than I thought –
more than the house, or our stilled bed
when no one is here,
the book you have left face down
on the kitchen table,
the tangle of hair in the brush, the litter of clothes
- there’s more to the making of home
than I ever expected:
a process of excavation, of finding
something in myself to set against
the chill of the other,
the echo you do not hear, when I stop to listen,
the stranger who wakes in the dark from a fetid dream
of ditches and milt;
and how we go on digging when it seems
there’s nothing else to find – or nothing more
than ghosts and unanswered prayers –
is part of it, though not the better part
we hope for: it’s the old need
keeps us strong.
So when I turn to say, at times like this,
that something else is with us all along
I’m thinking of that woman in the town
who told me how she worked all afternoon,
she and her husband digging in the heat, bees
drifting back and forth through currant stands,
the sound of their breathing
meshed with the weave and spin
of swallows:
how, after an hour, they struck on an unexpected
flagstone of granite
and lifted the lid on a coal-black
circle of fresh spring water under the stone,
leaning in hard for the earth-smell of last year’s fruit
then sweetness, surprising as rain, or bittern-calls,
rising like a slow, unfurling shoot
                                                   of asphodel.
It’s what I think of now
as home: that wellspring
deep beneath the house
they tasted for an hour, then put away,
sliding the cove back, and coming in
to all they knew, immersed in the quiet purr
of radio, those voices from the air
bleeding in through swallow-songs and bees
to make them plausible again, though they had touched
what turns to black; the sifted heart of matter.


IV WHAT WE KNOW OF HOUSES

Sunday
           We are driving to the woods
to find the hidden origin of rain:
a shallow basin carved into the rock
where Pictish chiefs assembled with their kin
to reinvent the world
                                - or so we say -
though no one knows for sure who gathered here
or why.

             I like to think of them
on days like this
perched on a shelf of rock beneath the trees
watching their children
                                   thinking of their stock
then stepping out
                           to sacrifice
                                           or blessing
as we have stood together in the shade
made awkward by the quiet of the place
a darkness that continues while the sun
brightens the fields
                          and gardens fill with light
in market towns or tidy golf-hotels
above the sea.

Though nothing here is sacred
                                               - not to us -
even the pool of water stopped with leaves
the carvings in the rock
                                   the standing stone
are set apart

and nothing we can touch or say will bring us
closer to the spirit of the place.
Our holy ground is barely recognised:
unverified
              an atmospheric trick
a common miracle that finds us out
alone in attic rooms
                             as spring begins:
a rhythm in the light
                               a line of song
a sudden taste of grass
                                     high in the roof
wind though the gaps in the beams
                                                      the rafters spiced
with cumin
and the aftertaste of nets

and all along the roads
                                    where dry-stone walls
have toppled
                    and the steady gorse digs in
embers of perfume, sealed in a crown of thorns:

unseasonable     stubborn     everyday

-it’s bright as the notion of home:
                                                   not something held
or given
           but the painful gravity
that comes of being settled on the earth
redeemable     inventive     inexact
and capable of holding what we love
in common
                making good
with work and celebration
                                        charged
to go out unprepared into the world


and take our place for granted
                                                every time
we drive back through the slowly dimming fields
to quiet rooms
                       and prayers that stay unanswered.
John Burnside

from The Asylum Dance (London: Jonathan Cape, 2000)

Reproduced by permission of the publisher.
John Burnside

John Burnside is a poet and novelist whose work explores fundamental spiritual and ecological issues about the nature of our dwelling on earth. 

 

 

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