(after the drawing ‘Two Girls with Billowing Robes and a Bull’ by Pietro Testa)
We brought him up from a calf.
We feed him milk
from a silver bowl; brush his hide
until it shines like moon.
Then, we set off; the bull running between us, restrained only by the mesmerizing swirl of our robes – or love –
his head’s turned, eyes swivelling to keep me
in his sight; our legs locked
like partners in a dance:
hock to thigh, hoof
to bare foot.
When the knife touches his throat, he swoons into his edge, blood failing
in bright gobs on earth where corn will sprout
green and gold.
I walk home, headachey,
a little sick, and rinse my clothes in a spring that flows, pure
and cold from the hills; squeezing and gently rubbing gauzy cloth, the stone basin filling with rust clouds
and running clear again.
He had to hurl her against the bathroom wall before she’d be silent.
He wanted peace in the house.
He wanted her tame, faithful, grateful,
to eat from his hand the little yellow pills that turned everything grey as a sea fret: butter, strings of marmalade, crumbs crusted round the children’s mouths
like a grey sand.
Take three tablets,
three times a day. She’d push them up with her tongue between teeth and cheek, spitting them into the sink.
After a few days when the mist rolled back, she’d strain her neck craning to comprehend the blue space
birds moved in, filled
with twitterings and cries.
She’d kneel on the lawn,
skirt soaked, rediscovering
the shades of grass: each blade –
like the seconds lost –
separate, sharp, drawing blood
from her thumb. She’d gaze at oranges
as people gaze at statues of Christ
on the Cross: the brilliant rinds –
packed with juice, flesh, pips –
exploding like grenades,
like brains, like trapped gases
at the surface of the sun.
He was in Paris for the weekend: on his own – she was mad
to think otherwise.
She took the children
on an expedition with friends
to pick sloes – small bitter plums from the spiky twigs
of the blackthorn; best picked after the first frosts
have loosened the stones.
Her friends were going to soak them in gin ready for Christmas.
She couldn’t think that far.
She couldn’t even think
as far as next weekend;
or the stallion, black as a sloe, galloping above her
down a sloping field.
Wearing a copy of the canvas
leather-peaked cap Hemingway wore
at the Finca Vigia – which your mother gave you to make you look dashing, nerveless
and which makes you feel
like a Shakespeare heroine dressed as and played by a boy –
I wonder what I’d be like as a man:
not just brave but ‘needing
to be seen to be brave’ like Hem;
or like my father, gentle, nervous,
‘not a man’, as my mother once shrieked.
She’d wanted a son to replace her brother, lost in the last months of the war in Burma. I tried – when I started to bleed,
getting my hair cut short as a boy’s.
Then, while you raced stolen cars for the thrill, I changed myself into a girl – stilettos, stiff
nylon petticoats, a perm.
You travelled from war to war,
until you came here, where dark butterflies reconnoitre the lawn, and the cats sleep
in the shade of your chair, and you heard
among oaks and firs and birches
a silence like the silence at Plei Me when you saw the dead rising above the field of battle.
In our games of changing hats we float free like those ghosts: last night, me riding you,
our shared penis
a glistening pillar
sliding between us; this morning, you washing me, soaping and rinsing with a woman’s tenderness.
You watch me rub Vaseline into my elbows’
The skin, you explain,
is of the same embryonic tissue as the brain:
you read in your patients’ rashes and blushes
an uncensored text.
With you it’s your knees: weeping blisters drying to a hard red crust.
Another million years
and our soft surfaces
could have toughened
into clattering shells –
we could mate like tortoises,
be impervious to love.
This is the earth’s throat.
When we shout, it shouts back. It only has to wait to eat:
boys hurling stones
over the precipice, poised as if a breath
could topple them
into the abyss; a girl
laid fainting on the ledge.
A cyclist passes, wheels inches from a lip crumbling like a biscuit.
You hug the rock-wall, grasping at ferns sprouting wherever water
has trickled into crevices.
I walk behind you, repeating the psalm: Thy rod and staff
comfort me…though I walk through the valley
of the shadow of death…
I don’t know why we’re here: why we didn’t turn back
at the first bend where the path
seemed to travel into air; why we’re honeymooning in mountains at all;
unless we’ve slipped through the crust of the earth and arrived in a circle of hell
and this is the punishment for coming to the end of love and daring to love again:
to walk along a path
cut into soft ?????? rock high on the wall of a gorge
in a dance where the caller cries two steps to the left,
a little push.
St Agatha’s Breasts
after a painting by Giovanni Busi, born c.1485
I grew up in the shadow
of Marilyn’s breasts, sneaking sideways looks at other girls in the showers, at bumps that month after month swelled like fruits
in a heated greenhouse.
A woman wasn’t a woman without breasts.
Then, one after another, friends lost their breasts, grieved
and carried on: under blouses and sweaters the secret
of pink prostheses.
And now I look at you: saint
whose breasts were cut off with shears.
They’re set beside you in ashallow glass dish like glazed apples
You’re squeezing one
as a woman might
to express milk,
or excite a gazer’s passion.