Where three ash trees serrate the sky
the stream bends and a slab of rock
creates a natural weir. Everything
is on pause. Shallows become thigh deep.
For fifty yards the twist and tumble stops:
the brook descends in gentle steps,
gingerly trying its weight on the next stair –
a shuffling elder of a dying clan.
This river has two voices. One, endless,
murmurs its crowd of ghosts, the slaters
who heaved and hewed, swore,
always wore black to chapel.
Above and below, dissent or descant,
vexations of children, a clucking of hens,
a bubble of meat boiled to fragments
and old ones counting the dead.
Past the sweet brambles, the river turns:
beyond a creaking footbridge
its course is dark as starlight.
The valley drowns, a baptism of stone.
Sliced deftly as prosciutto
at the Ritz, these slivers may hold genius
but I feel only sweat, blood pounding
in my temples. I have clear orders
from the Immortalisation Commission.
Examine each section,
discover signs of greatness. My heart
drums like toy soldiers, my eyes
strain under strip lights, the walls
of the Moscow Brain Institute seep
as I seek to decipher these maps:
a dry archipelago under glass.
Thirty-one thousand waterless islands:
not one means a thing to me.
I’m searching for flashmarks,
shadows of revolutionary thought,
the flush of a motherland’s pride,
or even the hint of a crash
of conscience, regret at comrades
shot in the back by their friends,
lovers strangled in bed. There’s only
numbness. Outside, October
is rotting. A whiff of pestilence.
The pounding of four sets of hooves.
This poem was selected for the anthology The Very Best of 52. It was inspired by this article in The Independent.