from A Shake of the Riddle



Dreamlike you trailed in cassock and cotta
through a forest of flickering candles
and recalled, too late, the hymning voices

of small children, one of which was your own.
The reiterated credo, the placebo
of prayer, the church loud with alleluia…

You were the acolyte who lit the way
to the altar’s empty tabernacle.
What is there left to believe in? The years spent

poised like a mantis over open books
or sleuthing the quiet of the Sabbath
led you back to no immutable truth.

Except one. That time flows in one deadly
direction, that each and every one of us
must shuffle and file, ready or unready,
to the old, unalterable terminus.


What might have saved us was what we could not save –
the eroding fiction to which we clung
as faithful as a limpet to its rock.

We have rendered the omnipotent
impotent. Gods have ceased to exist
because we have ceased to believe in them.

The idea of spirit and the spirit of idea
are the same thing. A presence
imperceptible as the growth of grass

sustains, an emblem of positive force,
uniting things in a cohesive whole
as shapeless light lends shape to everything.

Impregnate the void with an idea. We
have lost something, something forsakes us here:
our irreparably diminished ability
of making angels of the empty air.


The moon and the sea – are they in harmony
or at war? The martial marriage of the pale
satellite and the brisk lush rasp of breakers –

their sickly scurf and slosh, the weft and warp
of crawling froth, and the pendulum tide
like a nag gone berserk in its bridle,

while the blind pupil of the milky moon
dumb and vacuous, dimpled with craters,
barren as the soul of an atheist.

Holding dominion over the toiling
water, that wormy, comet-scuffed wafer,
that shrunken bauble of colourless light,

still separate despite its travelled distance,
its clean light of clinical intellect
frozen from shadow, whose oblique brilliance
does not illumine, but only reflect.


Are you once again, bidden witness, crushed
under the pressure of silent retrospect?
There was a time, wasn’t there, when you were

terrified of silence? There was a time
a hollow, wounded part of you – rooted,
cankerous, cerebral – desired to die.

Even now you must avoid ingrained fixations
and tacitly enter the mind’s monastery
under the drawn cowl of seclusion.

Time’s moss-soft, irretraceable treading
leaves you belonging to the void, void
of belonging. Festering patience probes,

quiet as a spider weaving for its prey,
until such mercurial toil is lent
equilibrium, equanimity,
remake the world you see in every moment.


Everlasting vistas of revelation.
Monastic the oppression of suppressed
expression; the tongue struck dumb, its eloquence

licensed. What was it, then, that you perceived
in winter’s feather-slow floating flakes? Something
old, forsaken, as when, long ago, the silence

retreated into nooks and gullies, abstracting
a beautiful yet necessary
stillness; a stillness like a watery glade

in Egypt’s parched and dusty desert dunes.
Like memory resurrected in music.
Exposed for what it is, desire stalks you, yet now,

now it seems reckless, at this, the strangest hour,
to possess yourself so nearly. Now we move
in the silky petal-crushed quiet. Our joys are pure.
Our heaven no more than limitless love.


Those photographs. That lock of burnished hair.
Time out of time, the countless hours we stood
where forget-me-nots peep out of the grave

that drank our tears, as it would drink the rain.
Identities, affections were strewn
among heartbreaking memorabilia.

What is this world, if underground there lies
the loveliest, the dearest one of all?
Time out of time, the hours of cowed mute grief.

Do the dead vanish into us, or are we
buried with them, by what the memory cannot
bury? The dead are larger than life,

for the past that we cannot escape from
is the past that we cannot return to,
except in the small hours, when the soft dreams come
and are blind, all-seeing, unfaithful, true.


Truth is a diamond of refracting facets,
a honeycombed heart of quarried corridors,
the walls of which are chalked with a thousand lies.

What does it mean to be here and possess
a grain in the granary of knowledge
and not tell the kernel from its casing?

Pure vacancy; vacant purity.
A momentary lapse of doubt and disbelief
is called for here, and is found in hints and gleanings

as in clusters of flitting fritillary
in a woven grove, or the wren’s song
in the matted scrummage of writhing roots.

This world, that changes with the changing light
clarifies the falsity of what we feel,
proving it brief, but still keeps icicle-bright
when the figment is false but the feeling real.


Transient irretrievable beauty, gone
like the bloom of the grape, like the iridescence
of fish-scale lifted from water: gone, gone and

unrepeatable, in its exact genetic
coding. To possess, and anticipate loss;
to desire, and anticipate possession…

If they had seen you, in your own season,
in the glory of high summer – amorous,
enamouring, the precise colouration

tactile to the optic nerve, proof that transient
beauty contains intangible timelessness –
they would have loved you like the rest of us.

Something denies the dust, escapes the worm –
improbable as a butterfly’s flight,
inviolate within its violated form,
invisible as ultraviolet light.


To be conscious in a hostile universe,
gravid with God’s infinite absence,
isolate, lost, vulnerably shrunken,

and consciousness a glaze of temperament,
a lens between creature and creator,
an eye through which the world looks at itself.

What is a thing’s independent essence
removed from the realm of our perception?
Where did the days go that were vivid, sharp,

before that once prismatic lens became
all magnified germ and membrane, opaque
and depleted of the numinous light,

days that were like lanterns of stolen shine, shed
of everything but how one might sense
the dripping stars of the fuchsia, the hundred
million hands of the rain clapping at once.


A clock in the mirror shows time reversing:
you are back again in the old house, the noon street
slippered with leaves, the settled, sleeping house

like the silence of a moon amid the stars.
Here, where a strip if light outlines a door,
where water whispers in the pipes, you’re aware

of a space you weren’t intended to inhabit,
of that someone that you were, in memory,
and how you sensed someone lost in that silence

and listened, as though you were being called to
in the purity of solitude, your presence
betrayed on the crepitating staircase,

and what you sought and found there, what you lost.
Scattered details scratched into the memory:
the bodies of dead insects in the dust,
the sound of soot stirring in the chimney.


What it all comes down to, finally, as disease
interrogates your limbs, is not finality
in the catacombs and mausoleums,

but the truth of corruption in our flesh;
the failure of medicinal elegies
to disenchant death. The worm feeding on itself

of introspection. Through the veil of flesh
the skeleton smiles, waiting to emerge.
Still you celebrate, as though the world were

beautiful, as though you were here for a reason,
as though the blackthorn flared into blossom
out of season. We may yet comprehend

the mysteries of the world and of ourselves
from those in whose footsteps we dare to tread,
against whom we pointlessly measure ourselves:
the proliferate, proliferating dead.


For a time of irreducible being
your eyes opened like petals to sunlight
to find the light of illumination

blinding. If you accept this, you must accept
the indispensable deprivation
that is knowledge, admit its cold rewards.

For a time you were closer than you knew
to the suffered yielding you were fated for
before dawn’s bleak light broke upon the world.

What transcends you here is what you have lost –
in those perfectly chanted hymns of mercy –
something that moves in the roots of your mind

and which your dreams implore you to remember;
suspended in the purified space, less
like an angel than a fly in amber,
enclosed for ever in its own stillness.