Shards of Glass

Marcus Sly


Say the world lies raw on a blade
of steel: but hold the blade and name
it a bird and shell grasp the world
with delicate feet and sing of the traffic
fading on dusky roads, and the tattered
people and places their love was interred.

How would we seem through the eyes
of the dead? What say we don a tricorn
hat and look to windward wondering
on whats been lost and what found?
What of prophets in industrial towns
and baggage handlers, or men pondering

rhymes on S-class submarines
in wartime, dog-eared reams
of metrical verse for the ships rag
off the Hohenhorn? What of disregarded
gods? Or of half-true words imparted
by some mediterranean oracle?

Call these lines a hay-rake table
merging old and new: a brave
resolvedness of form, chip-carved bands
to grace the edge and boards cut
first by table saw, but
bearing the deft marks of the hand.

Say we put cynicism aside
and discard the knowing smiles
we make only to glance round seeking
affirmation, discard them as a boatman
casts off the bow line, and invoke
some muse. So speak,

you women of innumerable days,
of the greatest things within you laid
in the breathing bones, and of the least,
and the canticle between them words
forged in silver with a burred
hammer, let them fall around my feet.


It begins where the sun dips to the water
or behind a hill and livestock are bought
and sold; where microwaves go popty-ping
and the radios slight static still sometimes
suggests the Home Service or wartime
among faint echoes of Taliesin.

As long as the sun sets in the eye
of the West they will praise Urien:
even in Dyfed where Strata Florida
broods in a subdued land
and choir and nave is spanned
on winter nights with an intricate vault

of stars by the Teifi. The hours
of freedom are dearly made. Power
passes to and fro, or lingers
over the agescount of blood-
feud and bond and there is no justice.
I tap the warning out with fingers

that have known the contrapuntal lines
of Bach in piano classes and write
a delicate figure over the bass;
the hands that form extensions
of themselves with plane or wrench,
and have touched the strained faces

of invalid relations. We travelled
home past a rainbow trammelled
on the hills, and that farmerspub
with the independence flyer stuck up
by pool table and hand pumps;
and by groups of kids, the grandsons

of presbyterian fishermen playing
in towns where not one boat remains.
In dreams we sit in homes of ancient stone
and listen to rain and wind beating
in across the fields, and braying sheep,
and doze beside the Abergwesyn road.


Beyond that road of dreams
lie boulevards and cars: the neat
workplaces, trains and parks
of home-bound Londoners appear
in place of Rhegeds men whose spears
and feats of arms have left no mark.

We enter the data stream. Urien
and the intricate lines of Bach are pried
from the hands and shatter into glass fragments.
I grasp a piece reflections, memories,
the news and pornography’s stark reverie
mark where ancient worlds are spent,

breath-dead. The incommunicable
fades in pursuit of the seemingly new:
blended light and shade, unforgiving,
only eyes and corridors of dust.
Then I recall your voice and love
shows a way to return to the living,

a pattern set on town and waters
being fulfilled, a resonance born
on antique streets as much from pumps
and the quenching of steel,
as the arterial pulse, or the sensitive
hand, or the river lingering in the blood.

You speak of men, son of man
you say and I repeat, a man
of memories and my handsknowing,
of your shoulders in the delicate hours
of your art, of your vertebrae and power
clasped above and below and the flow

of our many lives and liquid
wanderings, strange minds mixed  
in tangled arms and looks.
But even such things as these are splayed
under the turning moods of the ages:
our flowers, pressed in an empty book.


Whose ownership, whose sense of right
wracks the glowering daysdelight
in liquid words? And what black dog
mutters in the the night, this tattered
cloak that tugs the ribcage flattered
by the wind among the cars and joggers

passing in the rain? A great shard
shades St Thomas church and marks
the moment doubt was smoothed away
a certainty, a finger held to warn
against sentiment. But certainty is torn
from motion, always sure but never remaining

in one form: the shapeshifting
thought of the powerful litters
cities with skins sloughed
in secret chambers of the mind.
Whiner! Impeccable horror! Wise
fool! Fossils, handbills and puffs

of smoke. Men and women walk
and clouds condense and seagulls sport
far below the pinnacles of your towers
and float-glass windows. And above
you the heavens charged with the love
images of pagans ring around

(though the image is of birds, the fleet
touch of wing-tips against the cheek
that bring a subtlety or shift, the momentary
alignment of knowing). Everything changes
in a moment you can never see, create,
or recognise, in spite of roads

and cryogenic steel, and the permutations
of numbers. And all the while the raging
world spins round and memory mixes lies
and truth like an oracle: the buildings sit
on bomb craters and patriotism and the spit
of farriers, and machines fill the skies.


Night falls into fever under a rampaging
moon, the sweat and flame-faced
revellers wandering in the booze
of small-town gardens, the candle-
dark of neighbours, gossip, and tanned
arms: these and the rampaging moon.

Whom do we carouse with round the fires,
or laid aback with tips of spine
or shoulder pressed to earth and grass?
We talk, but only for a glimpse of constellations
through the trees or above the crenellated
roofs of terraces, overmastered

by the unexpected brush of fingers
on the arm among the chiminieres
and paper lamps, assailed
by sultry wives whose thighs
and sweat encompass the desire
for love. Ancestral drunks of ale

and pale wisps of laughter
pass among our tentative handfastings
and tongues; their thoughtless copulations
our demise, our fall in each moment,  
their passage set in cartilage and bone
the deep memory, redolent of nations.

We are the walking chattels of time
who project a winged image for a while
onto the screens of quaint picture house
or multiplex and are then discarded,
worn out from bondage to a half-
imagined life; ours the towns

where dawn comes as death,
as stale beer on the grass left
with last nights glasses and dreams,
half eaten paper plates enough
for suburbia. But tonight nothings
real in the sense our lives are said to be.


Theres Hertfordshire and urban train
lines in Birmingham, and the Yorkshire Dales,
and then theres Lowestoft with the bridge
and the Sea Lake lodged under the Urals
and the wind. This ones of curtains
of lank rain and sandbars, of flotage

and the memory of mooring buoys
and slipways: the old guys could haul
a smack or drifter up on the ebb
and change a plank with it all caulked
up before the tide. One time I walked
to town from the new marina, set

a brush of varnish down by the hull
of a motorboat and went mulling
these things so unaware I knocked
a scaffolder laying baseplates
by the road. You know how they
can be but this one smiled lopsidedly

and told me he once worked on trawlers
“theres no money in it anymore
and his fathers father built timber
yawls down by the beach at Southwold.
But boats are made of fibreglass now,
shipped out to nose around river

estuaries and bars where they somehow
dont belong, like the cats whose bows
shade the victorian swing-bridge
by the Yarmouth road. That night
the fenders heaved against the piles
and faint echoes of an east coast swell

rolled up from Ipswich bringing dreams
of estuary buoys and lobster creels,
and lightships on the sands with vacant
galleries, their living-quarters all stripped
out and abandoned except when a Trinity
boat comes calling now and again.


We knew the boatshed of memory
long before knowing the boatshed
of life were born with it set
in the brain. I stand
there surrounded by lofted plans
for yachts and mallet blows, and the bell

notes of rigorous hammers. But rotten
fibreglass the crisp-packet flotsam
of the Sea Lakesurround lifes shed.
Inside we find the minds
confusion: adze by angle-grinder,
copper roves among engine beds

and carbide tooling: toys for the rich.
Even makings a toy to the rich.
Iroko replaces exhausted teak;
forests lie between my hands
and rest in laminated bands   
in the frames beneath my feet

among the white marinas
here among the little heritage
ships whose binnacles and seams
and tales of men oppress our shoals
with a trace of torpedo boats
off Friesland and fire at sea.

Fear fire and water! An oily
rag left in a can may burn and foil
a lifetimes good intent if there is
or ever were so strange a thing,
and a man may drown in an inch
of brine. But in the harbour sits

the odd ketch or dory all roved
up from historys planks an armload
of tight boards salvaged from lost
wrecks and Waveney silt, or the dark
mud of the Thames: our hope-less barques
of hope and the water, gently rocking.


Fortune comes and fortune goes;
it comes to those who wait, they say, though
you may wait a lifetime and find
none. We sailed where sun and stars
made lofty circuits of the hearth
and the cat sat singing my rhymes

among walls whose muddled history
settled into corners and crevices
like rust. One time we lit sage
and drove the spirits from the beams
with spoons and saucepans, dreamed
them into a night full of the names

of constellations decan daemons
of power and uncertain provenance.
Then holding hands we left
the fire to cats and solitude and sloped
together through the dark oak
fretwork of the lanes and trespassed

on the Abergwesyn road where hills
sip from a porrón of stars spilled
over fords and wind-bent hawthorns.
Are stars in the mind less real?
We leant against a gate where field-walls
met the road with old stones brought

in memory of other menspotent
hours she with her tangled hopes
and muttered desires and I,
with a headful of schemes and hands
shaped by the age and circumstance
and an indolent nature. All of us lie

ourselves to sleep, but lies lived
well come true in time. By the bridge
the Brennig whispered in the dark;
there are things only science makes
possible: I ignore them here in case
my reverie is closer to the mark.


But still I wonder what it would take
to save the stars from vacuous space,
from sums and orbital telescopes
and propaganda. Mere scale!
The mind is not apart from the tales
it tells or the world it dreams on; hope

dies when its said that to write of stars
without irony or from the heart
is sentimental. My love! (meaning
humanity: all those whove gazed
up wondering at the constellations
or made furrows with their feet)

theyre just old lightwere told;
the Plough and the Pleiades lie cold
in the lists of the dead. I draw a pitcher
of Lethes water and drink deep;
I roll the stone away and peer
into an empty sepulchre; I sit

and weep over stars, cant sleep
for thinking of the sky. Either
galaxies are incidental light
or they clothe emissaries: or both,
perhaps, and there lies our hope
though with banded wings. I left

Bradford on a slam-door train
and ran up river as late
summer sun lit up the Shipley
mills like returning memories;
and by a road in Dentdale
found a limestone trough filled

with reamy water from a pipe
off the fells gathered like bright
cylinder glass molecules glowing,
a quality as strange to matter
as the childs city is to the man
things forgotten but always known.


We make a centre where we stand!
and there the sun and planets
round the earth in monumental circles;
we make a centre where we stand
and comets burn their prophecies, and
Venus traces heart-shaped whorls

around the brain. But there was Bedfordshire,
whose downs and bracken lanes led
on to Dunstable, and Luton with its many yards
and patios where barbecues and lawns
encased our mysteries and all
we did was turned to shards of glass.

The mirror breaks and every fragment
multiplies and spins to makes a thousand
glittering forms where there was one.
The mirror breaks to make chrome
facets, windows opening
onto piecemeal worlds, and the sun

tells no tales beyond the hours
and the inprescient moon goes sour
like abandoned milk. But all
returns to its original form impelled
by higher form; the world is held
in thought carbanundrum caught

in a glass matrix like a grinding wheel,
a balanced disk that shapes or kills
with a moments inattention spun
on whisper-smooth bearings. Listen!
vitreous fragments can coalesce
into ferns and ponds set under

woodland branches scrying pools
for the subtle waning of the moon
where a silent woman or a man
may catch a glimpse of things when
wind patterns the surface or sends
gusts that blow back grains of sand.


All of this and more was told
in the Book of our ancestors hold
a question, point and youll find
your answer. But few seem to open
them now they contain no hope,
even of divination. Bindings

of goat and pig skin fray and tatter
in bottom drawers I am that
I ama seldom consulted oracle
of mildewed pages, a missing text.
But copies are still sent for repair
or to be rebound family bibles

kept only for names written in pen
on the endpapers or out of a pent
up longing for continuity (though
everything changes : nothing stays
the same even gods are reclaimed,
harvested and gathered up for sowing

in fields or poly-tunnels, even Yahweh
and his only son). The god of our fathers
went west on gull-winged ships
but returned on the White Star Line
with rumour of Christian Science
and the Mormons of Salt Lake City.

Shall I tell you how empires die?
I know as much as anyone: I
was in at the kill at Eastbourne
and the better bits of London
in the late seventies where one
could still almost believe

if you had the money. There was tea
at Claridges and cake, and appreciation
for order and good manners;
and women and war heroes blustering
about change and how the lusters
gone, and the pain of no longer mattering.


They left a listless monument,
their sense of not quite belonging,
of being lost among the rocks
of Albion and the coastline
and borders of this and most
other places loved and pocketed

as a child; the loss of classroom
atlases and tall tales that pass
lightly over the truth, the reality
of the comfort of houses, denying
what doesnt fit with the familiar lies
of friends. We moan and tally

up the least of things. Anchors
drag in every storm, and there are
hurricanes and worse off Africa,
and at Algiers people leave port
on boats some swindler calls
good enough for a passage

of the dispossessed, swindling lives
while I sit in Sussex writing
lines worth less than candles.
But still I write, and I expect you also
do your thing, meeting at the Fishbourne
hall each week, perhaps, for hands

of bridge or scaling some sea-cliff
on the West Coast; or those meetings
on the beach at Southwold with tinfoil
barbecues and fishing. One time
a barquentine ghosted the horizon
for hours as we lay there, spindrift

of history. Enough of a childs losses!
I take your hands, your soft
feet interpenetrate with mine.
Whatever path youve trod I honour
that of God within you: on
with the dance, let joy be unconfined.

(c) 2017 Marcus Sly