Michael Schmidt



She spun a line. She knew he was listening to her. She spun it and he took the fraying ends. Whatever she was saying, it was cotton, Then as he rolled the thread between Forefinger and thumb it turned to silk, And as he took the needle up to thread it The line she spun became thin finest gold. He knew not to believe her but he took it Because she kept on spinning like the truth Was ravelling from her lips; he watched her lips. Cotton, silk and gold, she wanted him To take the line and sew the wound right up Although she held the blade still in her hand Behind her back, and it was dripping, steaming. There under his left arm the gash lay open Like a mouth in disbelief. And he believed her.

Pangur Bàn

i. Jerome has his enormous dozy lion. Myself, I have a cat, my Pangur Bàn. What did Jerome feed up his lion with? Always he’s fat and fleecy, always sleeping As if after a meal. Perhaps a Christian? Perhaps a lamb, or a fish, or a loaf of bread. His lion’s always smiling, chin on paw, What looks like purring rippling his face And there on Jerome’s escritoire by the quill and ink pot The long black thorn he drew from the lion’s paw. Look, Pangur, at the picture of the lion – Not a mouser like you, not lean, not ever Chasing a quill as it flutters over parchment Leaving its trail that is the word of God. Pangur, you are so trim beside the lion. -- Unlike Jerome in the mouth of his desert cave Wrapped in a wardrobe of robes despite the heat, I in this Irish winter, Pangur Bàn, Am cold, without so much as your pillow case Of fur, white, with ginger tips on ears and tail. ii. My name is neither here nor there, I am employed By Colum Cille who will be a saint Because of me and how I have set down The word of God. He pays. He goes to heaven. I stay on earth, in this cell with the high empty window, The long light in summer, the winter stars. I work with my quill and colours, bent and blinder Each season, colder, but the pages fill. Just when I started work the cat arrived Sleek and sharp at my elbow, out of nowhere; I dipped my pen. He settled in with me. He listened and replied. He kept my counsel. iii. Here in the margin, Pangur, I inscribe you. Almost Amen. Prowl out of now and go down Into time’s garden, wary with your tip-toe hearing. You’ll live well enough on mice and shrews till you find The next scriptorium, a bowl of milk. Some scribe Will recognise you, Pangur Bàn, and feed you; You’ll find your way to him as you did to me From nowhere (but you sniffed out your Jerome). Stay by him, too, until his Gospel’s done. (I linger over John, the closing verses, You’re restless, won’t be touched. I’m old. The solstice.) Amen, dear Pangur Bàn. Amen. Be sly.

Iberian Clichés

i. At home A Spaniard painted the blue cow, The dachshund and the Magdalen’s crotch; The midget with the giant prick Is who he wished himself to be At times, a function not a man. He painted to discover what The time of day, the appetite, What was his hunger and his thirst, Each canvas effortless with pain, A portrait of the ones he was Just at that hour, night or day. To hold the bird that was the brush Light in his fingers with its song! To feel the heartbeat in his wrist, His wrist alive upon its bough! The flapping wind that beats the tree Blows from the heart; the viscera Root him, he moves with all his roots Painting the cow he sees as blue, The dachshund yapping at his heels Familiar but not yet his own, A penis on its four short legs Trotting beside, sniffing a trunk; The Magdalen who has yet to meet Christ in the long cold room of want And whom he loves with all his flesh Except the heart which will belong Always to him and him alone, Fluttering the hair upon his chest. ii. Corrida He lifts the wine-skin in the sun And runs the stream between his lips. Meanwhile the Macarena plays, The bull’s cavorting with a horse. The sand like canvas takes the daubs Of blood and excrement, the crowd Cheers and the wine jet fills his throat Until his heart is floating on A bleary sea, the enormous sun Touching the stream as if it’s blood. He wipes his famous fist across His famous lips and thinks it’s time. He takes the woman at his side With her hot eyes and heavy hair Back to his studio. Left behind, The bull’s arrested in the red Deep cape, for ever: memory, Lost in its rage and pain, its head Under the matador’s right arm. The dancing testicles are still In their long sack, the rump is firm; The banderillas in his neck, Blue, red and pink, a slime of blood Like something intimate, obscene, On the huge blackness of his chest As if he was a shadow not The substance of the Miura hills. A black bull and its shadow grown Together cannot be unpicked. The artist’s eye has left the scene, Floating on air, on wine and lust. Here there is nothing but a crowd, A dying bull, a ring of dust. iii. Los Gallos The cocks are spurred. Their coral combs Stiff, and all rage their tacks of eyes, A hush. The bell. They are released And crash together as if in love To claw the eye, the throat, the heart. His money’s on the smaller bird Because he liked the noise he made Deep in his throat before the fight, As if he had a purpose, love, As if he called to her aloud, As if his hen or hens could hear His reassuring, husky voice When, settling on their roost, they thought Where is he? Has the moon come out? They crash together as if in love. He does not wait to see who wins For fear his little bird might fare Badly and have his gold neck wrung In shame by the fat proprietor With the cigar and bandaged hand. He goes back to his studio And leaves the two cocks in the air Frozen forever on the point Of death or victory. He makes Out of their bluster an ideogram Of violence which has found form And finding form finds balance, too, And in the balance figures live Moving in stillness, still in their dance, Deep in their chests a sound like love. Deep in his throat the smaller cock (This is the lie that tells the truth) Could feel the workings of his heart. His trainer with a little twist Unsheathed the spur and tried the blade. He put the cock’s face to his lips And blew on him as if a coal, Then threw him at the unpainted sand To seer it with his furious knife And daub it here and there with blood. Was there shouting in the stands? Each man invents in a staged death A prize, a victory, a kiss. In the high studio the cocks suspend Greed and arousal, elegy. These are two cocks a Chinese sage Might, with a brush and pot of ink, Casually admit to sense As if they were in fact the word For such convergent energies, A human crowd aroused by blood, The striving birds, the piles of coin, The smell of sand and leather, smoke, The tinny music amplified, The crow of the surviving cock. An alphabet cannot reveal The gist, for sound is not enough To render sense, the sense of love Or violence, of what is there And in its being does not mean.

The Resurrection of the Body

…So will I melt into a bath to washe them in my bloode… S. Robert Southwell S.J. The cellar floor is swept. Women are weeping Like shadows in torchlight, around the straw pallet they hover, The soon-to-be-mourners, a dozen, discarding their shawls, Unpinning their hair. It’s so hot in the cellar of death. Professional, they know what ‘s to come: She will shrug, shiver, jaw drop open, let go. Led out of blinding daylight the Healer comes down. He raises his hand and stills the scrum of women. He comes down like a lamp into a cavern, Gathering from sweltering noon light a cool glow. He comes as if out of the desert sequinned with dew And his gaze, austere, not unkind, goes through the women Settling on the parched form stretched on the pallet, Human, almost beyond pain, but not a child. The man did say child but she is almost a woman, Her delicate feet, long legs, the down at her crotch, Flat belly, firm, the handsome small domes of her breasts Panting, panting, not a child, though her father, grieving, Insists, believing, a child. So he says to her, child. She focuses her dark gaze on his amazing pallor, Her fever like a bruise against him. She closes her lips Reaching for a sheet, the rolled winding sheet, for cover But he makes her calm, she understands, her lips now parted Rapt, she holds her breath (she has breath to hold now). She watches him, he bends down to her, to lift her up, His shirt falls open, she sees where the wounds will be. What does he feel when he gathers her hot and shivering Off the pallet, hardly a weight, so smooth, and all The smells upon her, faeces and stale sweat, the scent Of her scalp, and her breath quite sweet, a surprise; That hot smooth flesh, that shit and flowers, urine And something else; and the haze of down on her arms Up to the elbows, then the quite smooth darkness, Substance of shadow, her flesh, so smooth, and the breathing Not weary or fretful now in that limp body; What does he feel, seeing his own white arm beneath her dark hair, When he knows what he holds, and what it does to his legs, To his groin, his bowels, to his rapid heart? He holds her And out of his chest where she is pressed against him Flows that unusual grace which is rooted in muscle, Which comes from the marrow and lymph, which is divine, The grace of a man whom love has turned into God, The love of incarnate God whose flesh knows the name of his creature. He holds her the way his mother will soon cradle him, Passion giving life, or love; and then compassion. And what does she feel? Who can know what she feels? What you would feel, or I, pressed close to his chest, To his cool skin, his smell of the dust of the road, Of hearth fires, of wine, the touch of his hair, of bread… What does she feel? She feels love, she feels his desire Confusing her, desire but not need, he holds her Tenderly, his lips to her shoulder and hair. Out of the cellar he bears her into the air Shedding her pestilence and the sun dissolves it. A crowd has assembled. He walks among the crowd With his light burden, they watch and withdraw, afraid, Conjuror, they see the girl gaze in his eyes. At the well he sets her down, she can stand on her own. At the well she stands straight as a reed and Jesus bathes her, First her hair, he pours water from a hollowed gourd, Then her ears and eyes and lips, her face, her neck, Her heart and hands, her back, her belly, her long thighs, He washes her feet as if she were a child. The fever has passed. She calls him father, father Though the man who is her father stands beside him. She calls him father. He wraps her in his own shirt.

Furniture for a Ballad

Mas, ¡ay Madre de piedad!, que sobre la cruz le tienden, para tomar la medida por donde los clavos entren. Lope de Vega The standing stone, the stricken tree, The sheep among, who leave their wool, Who crop and tup, and drop their lambs, Into a storm, beneath a moon… The rider on his foaming horse At night, to ship, to tryst, to tomb, Or to a battlefield to find The long corpse of his broken lord… And in Dunfermline, swilling wine Another lord, who sneers and wipes His signet hand across his jowl, Calls for his whore, his harp, his hound… The new moon rocks the old, old moon In its bowed arms, as if a child; The old moon fades into a bruise, The new moon fattens on its pain. And who is she there on the prow Of castle, town, of manse or grange Gazing in dread that it is death She sees, her lover on the heath Coming to her to breathe his last Into her mouth, a kiss, a cough; She hungers for him and that breath He feeds her at a stanza’s end, So like a host upon the tongue And in his side a gash, his feet Holed, and his hands. Don’t call him Christ. Leave him unnamed and cradle him. The borders, marches deep in furze, The dripping rocks, the swelling moor, The stricken tree, all see him pass On his high steed. Is he the Word? He rides away and leaves deep cloud, A fleece of grace, the woman still High on the prow, her arms awake To catch him living, hold him dead. He travels south, where he will climb A higher cross than any here. Though he passed here and everywhere, He took his blood and bread away To Palestine, where prophets said He’d live and die and rise again. Within the ballad death is death. It cannot pray, it can’t believe. And yet it might go after him, Bear him back to stretch him here Because of love, because of love, The night, the maid, the sheep among. A ballad cannot raise the dead. It grieves and kills, it grieves again. Let her in the blown midnight wait Like a new moon imbibing pain. Thus he will live and she expect His visit and her ravishment, His lips, the thunder of his pulse, Her handsome womb his citadel... Leave metaphysics to the Jews. The crofter minds his wretched sheep, The lord is rusting in the rain, The woman stifles a fat yawn, Goes in, sits down, he has not come. She drinks a potion, sleeps and dreams, The standing stone, the stricken tree, Into a storm, beneath a moon… We lose her as the night resigns And so it is, the ballad’s made Out of such furniture as these, The dripping fern, a daylight moon.

Not Yet

My father said he’d have to cut the tree down, It was so high and broad at the top, and it leaned In towards the house so that in wind it brushed The roof slates, gables and the chimney stone Leaving its marks there as if with intent. We said, don’t cut it yet, because the tree was so full Of big and little nests, of stippled fruit. In spring and summer it spoke in a thousand voices, The chicks upturned for love, the birds like fishes Swimming among the boughs, and always talking. And then a day came when the chicks woke up. Love was all over, they tumbled from their nests Into the air, ricocheted from a leaf, a branch, Almost hit the ground, then found their wings And soared up crying, brothers, sisters, crying. Then the nests were vacant. Now we must cut the tree, My father said. Again we begged, not yet, Because with autumn the freckled fruit began To turn to red, to gold, like glowing lamps Fuelled with sweetness filtered from the soil And scent that was musk and orange, peach and rose. And when they dropped (they grew on the topmost branches, Could not be picked, we took when it was offered) We wiped them clean and sliced out the darkening bruise Where they’d bounced on the yellow lawn, by then quite hard With winter coming. The fruit were so much more than sweet, Eve fell for such fruit and took Adam with her: No serpent whispered, no god patrolled the garden. Only my father. Again, not yet, we said, remembering What winter had to do with our huge bent tree, Once it had got the leaves off. We knew the hoar-frost Tracery and the three-foot icicles And how it simply was, the December moon Lighted upon it and hung in its arms like a child. Not yet, we said, not yet. And my father died, And the tree swept the slates clean with its wings. The birds were back and nesting, it was spring, And nothing had altered much, not yet, not yet.

'His father was a baker . . .’

for A.G.G His father was a baker, he the youngest son. I understand they beat him, and they loved him. His father was a baker in Oaxaca: I understand his bakery was the best And his three sons and all his daughters helped As children with the baking and the pigs. I can imagine chickens in their patio, At Christmastime a wattled turkey-cock, a dog Weathered like a wash-board, yellow-eyed, That no one stroked, but ate the scraps of bread And yapped to earn its keep. I understand The family prospered though the father drank And now the second brother follows suit. I understand as well that love came Early, bladed, and then went away And came again in other forms, some foreign, And took him by the heart away from home. His father was a baker in Oaxaca And here I smell the loaves that rose in ovens Throughout a childhood not yet quite complete And smell the fragrance of his jet-black hair, Taste his sweet dialect that is mine too, Until I understand I am to be a baker, Up before dawn with trays and trays of dough To feed him this day, next day and for ever -- Or for a time -- the honey-coloured loaves.