The Shipping Forecast
Darkness outside. Inside, the radio's prayer—
Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finistere.
—Carol Ann Duffy
There are storms walking the waters
of Viking and Utsire, and gale-force winds
from FitzRoy to Shannon, and for days, now,
a rain so persistent it seems still,
like something solid fixed to the garden.
But everything moves, even the dead. The earth
is moving them for us. This, then,
is what it comes to: earth spin, rain and wind.
Remember, she would say, as a form of comfort
when I was a child, worse things
happen at sea. Early evening, dinner over
and the table cleared, she would stop
whatever it was she was doing, in her hands
the white disc of a plate,
or a clutch of rinsed utensils, their bodies
like the stems of silver grasses. And we
would listen, mute and motionless,
for three minutes of common gratitude. Malin,
Hebrides, Bailey, Fair Isle. Dogger,
Fisher, German Bight. It was better than prayer.
Sheeted and safely tucked into the dark's
back pocket, I would dream of great trawlers
moving, inevitably, into fearsome weather.
The chewed edge of a bow wave,
and a handful of following gulls cuffed
back and forth through night's black wall
into the reach of the running lights. There were men,
too—northern pirates from Grimsby or Hull—
going out like boys, full-lunged
among their own kind, with tales of winter stars
that snapped like dogs. And I was young,
of course; of course I was a child, but this
is how it came to pass that I can love
only men who are willing to inhabit
the darkness I have invented for them. October.
Darkness running aground by five o'clock.
Now and then, the distant, unfaltering grind
of a westbound jet, heading out
across the Atlantic. Even now, when I
am a child no longer, and her skin
has been debrided by drugs
and by chemicals, my mother looks
at me and says, worse things, remember,
happen at sea. Bedridden, barely speaking,
sending her words out like castaways
on short rafts of breath. For now, there is nothing
worse than this. Now, her bed is a corral
with bright chrome railings, like a berth
or a table on a cross-channel ferry. As if
she isn't falling already. As if her dying
is simply a crossing
on the Stena Britannica to the Hook of Holland.
She is a few days out
from death. And we know it. Without knowing
we know it. And each morning I run the fine
dark bristles of an expensive brush
with a tortoiseshell handle through her hair.
I am reading, keeping vigil beside her,
surprising myself with my appetite
for murder because in every story
there is death dressed up in abstractions—passion,
madness, grief, revenge; here is death
at the hands of others—by bullet, by Semtex, by Sarin,
by machete. No sound but the rasp
and catch of her breathing, and a faint
spackle of agitation as, with the heel
of her left palm firmly anchored, she lifts
each finger in turn into a ripple, a wriggle,
an undulation against the covers. For the first time
in fifty years, that hand bereft
of its ring. Which had slipped off, somewhere,
as illness belittled every part of her. A ring
is open-mouthed, like rain.
And when she lost it, she knew it
without knowing she knew it. This morning
I woke up, she'd said, and my wedding ring
was gone; I felt its absence
before I opened my eyes. Such emptiness
must have made her tired. I remember my father
searching, emptying the hoover
onto newspapers neatly spread
over the beige linoleum, sifting dust
from one page to another. I remember him
in his privet-green wellingtons,
down on his knees before every flowerbed.
If the ring were lost in the garden, she'd said,
perhaps the ravens have come down
off the hills, as they do, for bright things.
I could live with a loss like that.
We are still hoping.
Because I think it will calm her,
I brush her hair, relishing its slight resistance,
the faint clicks of static;
and I place my hand, like a little roof,
over her hand, but her fingers
keep moving and there is nothing fleeting
or feathery about it—it is nothing at all
like the fremitus of startled birds or the forays
of wind through long grasses. Her touch
is determined, insistent, like the muscled heave
of water, like a wave, which is, after all,
merely energy passing through matter.
And you simply cannot argue
with the muscularity of water. Even my father—
who has been holding out
before the rising battlements
of her coma, offering up, on a teaspoon,
pale slumps of apple sauce and honey—
cannot quiet her, until
he takes, from a box on the dresser, a ring—
too large, too heavy, a single pearl
in a noose of sapphires—and threads
her finger through it. And some fretting animal at last
lowers its head to rest. Everything moves.
Even the dead. The earth is moving them for us.
And there are storms walking the waters
of Viking and Utsire, and gale-force winds
from FitzRoy to Shannon, and this
is what it comes to: earth spin, wind and rain.
I shall remember how I was grateful
for every hour death kept us waiting.
I shall remember how when her hand fell still
I missed its movement. Pale flag
of an overrun country. How even my father's hands
could not calm her. How I did not brush
the fine waves of my mother's hair enough.
This poem previously appeared in Mid-American Review (Vol. XXXIV, no. 2)