The Aralqum Desert

male eighty
five foot nine
hospital gown

3 January 10 a.m.
to shelf A7

4 Feb to freezer unit
nobody’s claimed him

not

his landlord
postman
barman

betting-shop manager
card-players
creditors

till a cousin-twice-removed
who's moved to Reading

spring morning
street trees flowering

the man melting

curtained viewing room
coffin lined

with plastic sheeting
in case
calico sheeting

lavender oil
can't shroud           

the dissolution

                                                *

Barsa-Kelmes
Land of No Return

once  island
now desert
Aralqum

bleached seashells
broken boat-hulls

the one ranger

found seated
five years later
head in his hands

                                                *

I woke in a god-size bed
with a goose-down duvet

sea bright-blue sonorous
through plate-glass windows

she was still alive
asleep
in another room

I didn't have to see her
I thought I might

inherit the cliff-top house
be rocked to sleep

each night by the loving water
in early morning

walk
into the sun-
and-spindrift blessing
                                                *

Christmas cards
windowsill bookshelves dresser
red and glitter

fifty-two times my name
love
signatures

at fifty-two points
in space-time
recollected

                                                *

new festival
Day of the Unwanted

whose fathers wiped their cocks and went downstairs

whose mothers couldn't pay for an abortion

bottle-fed
every four hours
by harassed nurses

a day to celebrate our resourcefulness
having no option

our courage
walking the grass
above the cliff

into the wind off the sea
our determined dying

 

 

 

 

Cobalt Variations
with acknowledgments to Edmund de Waal

 

i
reclusive     not tracked down
in mountains chalkdowns streams

too barbarous
to breathe our air     hidden

among nickel and copper
the malleable the brazen

indifferent god
arriving in the hold of a meteorite

not at the time we pray
at the time we are hollowed

 

 

ii
In the photo you are Jackie Kennedy:
black hair, that sway of the hips, the dress and jacket
you must have made in the evenings after work,
having cooked and cleared away, got the boys to bed,
your husband watching the evening news. 
                                                              You stand
at the dining table, pinning the paper pattern
onto the glazed cotton, reach around
for the big dressmaking scissors, in your head

the plan to do what you’ve always wanted, walk
along a ward, the sunlight coming slantwise
through the long windows to a glass of water. 
You knew who you were: not Jackie Kennedy,
one rich man after another: your orphaned self
on a street in a small dull town, in black and white
and the confidence you could pretend until it landed.

 

 

 

iii
a ship sets out from Cyprus or Lebanon
cargo of olives logs tin terebinth

thirty-four centuries on
still undelivered

and cobalt glass

colour extinguished in
the deepsea dark

finding its glow at last
by the grace of divers

 

 

iv
porcelain merchant
wrecked on a desert coast

his crew build a new boat
he heaps up stones

ships back an evening sky
to an inland town

looks for that lode again
but the beach has vanished

 

 

v
Exiled to the north, a cottage on a hill,
a view along the valley, an old milltown,
canal, Methodist chapel, the hospital
fifteen miles away on a snowy road.
You left the car at the bottom and hauled your shopping;
the next time harnessed the dog to a sled, came home
victorious, like Scott of the Antarctic.

 

 

vi
mined in Persia
along the Gulf across the Indian Ocean
Sumatra China

to be dragons phoenixes lions
the eight immortals

a sparrow on a branch
a straight blue border

black on the tip of the brush
put to the flame

emerging  bluer than oceans bluer than summer

 

 

vii
When your best friend’s son, a few days out of prison,
sat on his bed wrapped in the counterpane
and put the gun to his head, you were the one

she phoned.  You’d given up
for more than a year, but that day she handed you
one after another, lit, when you took a break
and went back in to clean the blood and flesh
off the furniture, carpet, ceiling.
                                                            It’s only now,
after the first stroke, you’ve had to stop
smoking again: just the one, you tell me,
last thing at night, and first thing in the morning.

 

 

viii
grey northern light     grey sea
silences plainsong

then a sea-crossing a sky
spires above cornfields

colour     trapped from the wind
scattered on stone

meaning not joy not faith
not the mother missing

toccata and fugue     a touch
escape from being

 

 

ix
When I came to the hospital it couldn’t be
you in the blue flowered gown, with thin grey hair
greasy against your scalp, and dentures missing.
You, you kept insisting.  You.  No, you,
no other words with the strength to clamber out
into the bewildered overcrowded air.
You looked at the gifts I’d brought – lavender handcream,
expensive chocolates – as if they might have been
dug from an Iron Age fort in the chalk downland.
The words are mostly back, and the understanding;
though sometimes in your hand the TV remote
becomes inscrutable, the coloured buttons
arrows and icons an archaic language
that one day may open and reveal its function –
a list of grave-goods, prayer to the moon goddess –
though until then it’s hard for the news to reach you.

 

 

x
denser than summer sky
more matte than water

colour to lean against
to gaze     no answer

indifferent god     that blocks
absolution     meaning

surface as deep as truth
solid as grieving

 

 

xi
What you have lost is still there, only hidden
like cobalt in a mountain, kobold, goblin,
trickster, disguised in copper, shape-shifter,

that goes into the furnace a black powder
and comes out radiant, butterfly, dragon, dolphin.

 

 

 

 

[Ruth Valentine’s most recent publications are Downpour (Smokestack 2015), Rubaiyat for the Martyrs of Two Wars (Hercules 2017), and A Grenfell Alphabet (self-published in aid of the Grenfell Tower fund).  She lives in Tottenham.]

Copyright © 2019 by Ruth Valentine, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of Copyright law. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.