Painting by Nicola Slattery

Sometimes the ground on which we’ve stood for years-
That room, where objects we’ve known rest against its edges,
Containing us like signposts on a pilgrimage-
That place in nature, where spirit drops our feet
So much closer to the grass…
Sometimes the ground that has carried us
Requires us to lean, fall over even,
To trip over our step, step across a threshold,
Where the scent of longing can spill in.

Can you feel this in your body now?
Just the word ‘lean’ and ‘fall’
Evoking a kind of turning from left to right?
And all that you have touched, or been gifted –
The embroidered cushions, the flowers,
The perfumes, the bottles and beings –
Take on a different transparent shape,
A kind of moving imbalance towards the window.

Birthday – Marc Chagall 1915

Is she coming or is she leaving?
Are things moving together or dancing apart?
Does it matter that these arms,
Receiving the bouquet with one hand,
Do not know what the other hand is doing?
And how is it that he who offers the gift,
Like a horse galloping through your red carpet,
Has no arms?

In this moving, questions fade.
In the vast space that surrounds us all,
The leaning trees, the expiring moss,
The ladders beyond the window,
What is left is that hovering kiss.
The lips that twirl together, through the pane.
The feel of velvety hairs, horse’s nuzzle, skin on skin.
The sound of your warm breath as our ears tilt
And hearing pours, riding, astride space and time.
And old feathers turn slowly, from black to red.

This poem was inspired by a reflection on two paintings as part of a workshop run by poet Rosie Jackson (What The Ground Holds), Frome Festival 2015:

  • Woman in red dress with white horse – by Nicola Slattery

  • Birthday – by Marc Chagall

While once, perusing the life-lines of your face,DSC_2002
Its landmarks of grace, failure; pathways of shadow, light,
The question lingered, ‘What it is that has brought you salvation?’
I now see this as a telling for your rest bed, your death-bower,
Where witness to the silence imbuing every life hangs…

No, now what I want to know is this:

What is it that has brought you
To the edge places of your life?
Where is it that you’ve encountered and felt your terror,
And allowed its claw to draw you closer to the ground?

What is the story of your bowing descent
Into the bone and matter of things?
And where in that evolution were you brought to see,
How spineless are the ladders of escape?

Who did you meet along the way,
That allowed the mossy earth to grow beneath you,
And your bone to be the anchor,
Your skin to be the vessel for embrace?

What is it in your eyes, ears, nose, mouth, touch
That drew you into the vast detail of the world?
And what was it that incarnated in you daily,
As you rose into each morning to lift the tools of labour?

On the cusp of each hurt, each dream,
Is an horizon.
And it is we who choose
To keep looking to its edge to be exalted,
Or to level our eye to its beckoning wave.
The first may go the distance, but few can follow;
The second is where, skin, bone and breath walk back to life,
And from the table’s crumbed surface
We, however poor, take up our art.

I saw a man doing this very thing this morning.
He was watering his herb bed with a hose,
And an old crooked crone walked onto his land.
Dressed in the weeds of mourning,
Head clad, back burdened with her bag of brush,
She gestured to him, and with the song of foreign tongue
She chorused the death of her love,
And why-without-who she makes this journey every day,
So crossing, from her scrubby patch of field, his threshold towards home.

It was the kindness of his leaning body that I saw;
His bent-ear-and-hose following her broken spine,
A vision a thousand times more namely than these cobbled words.
But I will mention this:

In her hobble, as she passed into the distance, DSC_2007
I saw a thread of joy,
A tiny spring,
Run through the dark valley of her form…

It does not interest me what has brought you salvation,
But (and you will do greater works than miracles)
What carries you to such as these, the edge places of your life,
Where yes, even the desert sends forth a bud.

June 2015, Greece