The Dead Sea
I knew he’d wished for years to study the mesas
in Jordan’s Wadi Rum, but when the opportunity arose,
what to do with me, his wife? Could I travel in my fragile state?
Angelic with their white coats backlit by the lamps,
the three doctors nodded their assent: why yes, there were no
physical impediments to travel at this stage – so long as Madam
took care not to walk out in the midday sun, all would be well;
they’d heard the dwellings in the banded rocks of Petra
were superb, the Dead Sea, curious, too – though its precise
mineral properties were not yet known, Mrs Green,
wife of the eminent thalassotherapist, claimed that
after three weeks’ bathing, all her ills were cured!
Indeed – this whispered with a furtive glance at me –
she gave birth to a son after just six months back at home.
Perhaps, if she did test the waters, Madam might be so kind
as to bring a sample of the salts on her return?
Yes, all in all there could be no harm to the proposed trip;
the change of scene would do her good,
it was high time for Madam to look forward now, not back.
So it was settled, the trunks and boxes packed,
the house shut up. We travelled east and by the spring
I was installed in lodgings in the care of Mrs Briggs,
a widow who, at sixty, put her fine complexion down
to a strict regime of Dead Sea mud baths twice a week.
She had five sons, and talked of nothing but her grandchildren;
producing christening ribbons, snips of hair and milk teeth
and lamenting that she’d never once set eyes on them, though
the eldest boy was due to sail from England just next year.
In all her volubility she didn’t heed my silence,
nor my regular retreat back up the stairs to the quiet clasp
of shuttered windows and a canopied bed.
I wondered how much my husband had told her of our troubles.
He’d left for Petra with a string of laden donkeys and a guide,
with strict commands that I should bathe each day.
I longed to get away from Mrs Briggs’ incessant prattle.
Draped head to toe in white against the sun, with a servant girl in tow,
I went down to the shore one morning,
early on, when the water was still swathed in mist.
The rocks grew jagged, dredged in glittering salt, the closer
to the sea that they advanced. The water glistened with an oily sheen
and was strangely heavy to the touch, setting my skin tingling
like a mild electric shock. I’d been warned not to let it splash
into my eyes or mouth – the stinging was apparently acute.
I floated on my back without a sound; trying to discern
the ridge of mountains on the farthest shore. A year ago
they’d have been hidden behind my own growing mound.
How long we waited! Seven years of monthly disappointment.
When he arrived stillborn, my husband wept, cradling him
to his chest – a miniature in palest lapis lazuli – starved of oxygen
the doctors said. I did not weep, could not begin to speak
my anguish – it was enough to suffer it. After six months
my husband urged me to stop dwelling on the past, the doctors,
too, said there was no use in looking back. Was that not the crime
of Lot’s wife? She was standing somewhere in those distant hills,
and here I was – no waves to break my thoughts – confined
within this barren saline sea; mute as a pillar of salt,
defined by my own concentrated, crystallising grief.
A sudden movement caught my eye – the only sign of life
in such harsh and hostile waters. A crane fly, trapped;
wings flickering desperately in an attempt to fly and escape
the cloying water. It would have a long and drawn out death,
struggling for hours against the salt and sun.
It was too late to save it, but I spared it that, at least,
and pressed its flailing form into the sea.
I thought of drowning, too. Would the salt preserve my corpse?
I imagined my husband coming back to find his wife
laid out – an unyielding slab of flesh – embalmed.
Accidents did happen. Mrs Briggs had said at least one
poor soul drowned each year; people did not expect to float
so tried to swim then swallowed brackish water; panicked; choked.
But the sea itself resisted me, as if it somehow knew
that brought so low as this, within Earth’s lowest place,
my death would be no mishap. Each way I turned I seemed
to be denied; the buoyant water tipped me up
within a blink, unceremoniously flipped me on my back:
it was impossible to sink.
From far away I heard a distant shout – the maid –
I had drifted too far out. I made my way to shore,
feeling cautiously for land beneath my feet then, knee-deep in water
– Ah! – I slipped and split my skin upon a salt-encrusted rock.
The wound screamed with the pain and I screamed too,
the foulest words I knew, tears streaming down my cheeks;
the sun, the salt, the sky, my absent spouse, the fertile Mrs Briggs
and all her sons, the doctors back in Harley Street
– all suffered my abuse. My voice cracked – long unaccustomed
to such violent use. The last time I’d shouted had been
all those many months ago, in the final hours of labour.
I wiped my cheeks and rose a little wobbly to my feet.
The maid stood flabbergasted with my flannel gown in hand,
whilst nearby a gaggle of spectators looked on.
Who knows what they thought of me? Mad Englishwoman,
shouting curses at the sea. Surely a maniac?
But, on the contrary, I’d never felt so lucid. I declined
the servant’s outstretched hand and hobbled
back up to the house, where, in my room, I flung
the shutters wide and sat out on the balcony,
to gaze at the scorching sun in its sky of lapis lazuli.
The seeds were stowed and carefully confined
– the canister not quite six inches square.
Fir, Redwood, Sweetgum, Sycamore and Pine
were hand-selected, chosen to go where
no seed had ever gone before. Encased
in metal, within a larger metal shell:
a capsule full of light and life that raced
out of the atmosphere, so that Earth fell
away and the seeds lost what little weight
they’d ever had. Yet as the shuttle wound
in orbit, they harboured thoughts to germinate,
to lay claim to the dust and rocks, but found,
once on the dark side of the moon, the clasp
of far-flung stars to be beyond their grasp.
An oak tree in September:
nodules cluster at the tips of branches,
little green galaxies that might be acorns
in fœtal form, but in fact turn out to be galls,
privateered by the wasps.
Some acorns shy from life
and stay huddled purple in their cups,
while others are coaxed out by a false wind
and lay perse as bruises on the ground
Certain ones are bolder,
straining from the shells that hold them until
– surely with a pop – they’re free to fall
to earth, dip-dyed white, yellow
and life-affirming green.
The last of them endure;
a deep bronze and hoarded like coins
until their weight is burdensome.
Once dropped they scatter,
rolling downhill, seeking space.
By The Icarian Sea
It was a good orange, firm
but with a spring to it.
Shepherd cast a glance
towards his sheep (all there)
then dug a fingernail in.
It was a good orange.
He proceeded, with care,
to carve out a land for himself,
smiling when the peel came away
in one piece in his hand.
He turned it this way and that
and pondered on what map it could be,
if he knew any geography.
He considered throwing it
at Ploughman, a little to his left,
but thought the better of it
(Ploughman had muscles).
Instead he threw it out to sea
in a high, wide arc,
where the wind caught it
and turned it to a scudding,
Shepherd watched its flight
leaning from the cliff-edge,
devouring juicy segments.
There was a mass of foaming
feathers amongst the crests
and peaks of waves and more
carried by the breeze.
One caught, sticky, in his fingers
and he wondered what strange
bird it came from.
The orange peel fell.
And in his last breath
before the water,
Icarus thought that the
sun had decided
to fall with him.