Roberta Dewa: Three Poems

Sunday Worship

The first lesson. Start to know your place
as you turn into the minor road heading for
the moors. Although there is no silence
in you, imagine quiet enough to hear
the forest flexing underneath your wheels
the dark lap of the reservoir on flooded hills
the stretch of moorland peat between the tors.

At the locked gate you must leave your car.
This is the second discipline; we teach it here
because you are not to be trusted with an empty road.
You must be taught regression, to walk more
slowly than you need to reach the valley head
leaving no stone ripples in the lake, no heel-ruts in
the path. Feel heavy as the bones of mountains in your feet.

The third task. Walk uphill till you are far from voices,
then stop. Become a shape of stillness: a pine-tree,
a standing stone, a fence-post crumbling in a
scarlet marsh. Be only vaguely human on the skyline
of other people’s sight. Let your life shrink upwards
with the stream; run smaller, clearer, till you vanish
in its source. Wait for the rain. Know what is happening.

Marilyn: The Misfits, 1960

Welcome to my home.
It is a small grey shack
trembling on wooden legs
assembled quickly on a windy plain.
Inside, I make perpetual coffee
and look out through the spray-grimed glass
into my garden, to the black blown tree
and picket fence they have given me.

From my window I can do most things.
I can make the outside still enough
for you to see my mother walk
the cabbage-rows, planting cut
white flowers in the mounded earth.
Talking with her is not allowed
but she has a gesture-language
I can understand. Sometimes
her fingers grasp the underlip
of Heaven; sometimes they wrap
around a stem, to steady both of us
as the ground shakes.

If you stay longer, you will feel it.
The rumbling in your head will be
the truck, driving the dirt road
with men and liquor, come to take
the house away. At the same time
they will dim the lights; and colors
will return to those who have them
sweeping blue night across the plain.
But my guess is, you will be gone
shuffling your feet toward the bangingdoor
before I fold myself into the homeless ground.

© Roberta Dewa 2003
Poems first published in Staple 58 (Winter 2003)

Shackleton’s Ghost

‘I know that during that long and racking march of 36 hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia it seemed to me often that we were four, not three.’

(Ernest Shackleton, South, 1919)

In the beginning, he walked always
far behind me, his ice-feet planted
in the ice-masks of my own.
But the sun shone then. The ice was white
at midnight, and I was forward-faced,
cheeks shredding in the south wind,
a petrel smelling snow, slicing sea-lanes
through the floes. And even when the ice
close-hugged us, men and ship, I never traced
the track we left behind. I was the figurehead,
the diving prow, my arms like wings upholding
all my children on my back.
I felt his dram of weight, but never said.
He was the misfit, aloof from them, no crew
of mine.

But in idle times I pondered him, plotted him
on maps, sketched out his monstrous features;
in sleep, I dreamed him noble, Greek-named, worn as me,
not splintering the poor old ship but breaking
with her. And when we took to boats, I raced him down,
but still he caught the gunwale, poured himself within,
lay ready-shrouded with the other souls. And in the dark
I knew him only different in the eyes from living men:
rested, ready, as we had been, years past, in northern life.
His bare clean foot paired my black stump, when we
leapt down together on South Georgia’s shore;
his bones glass crampons nailed strongly in
our footsteps as we climbed the range;
and starving, scoured scrapings of my men, you found
the angel in him, welcomed him; you would have
held his hand, who held your leader’s breath
so many months, called its white swirls
the only rise to Heaven in your thoughts.
Remember, when we belly-crept into Stromness
who first took in the blubber-smell, who quailed from the light,
his frost-hand shrinking from my ankle, till I could shake him loose
but did not; failing, strangely, in the warmth.

There is no stomach for such ventures now. Under the white cairn
you raised for me, the ice devours my words, but his are clear:
I know he caught you too, frost-bite, heart-bite, in the end. At home,
just cloth and paper scraps of you, thawed into nothingness, murmur under glass;
but I am gone, cooled into kinship with him, walking south.

© Roberta J Dewa.