Four

Four

[from The Price of Everything (1994) , Faber and Faber ]

by Andrew Motion, 1952

1   The last time I fell to earth
2   was north again, colder, nearer the country of my birth.

3   You want to know exactly where?
4   All I can tell you is there and there and there and there .

5   You want to know exactly when?
6   Now and then I can tell you, now and then .

7   But let me be clear. I dispersed like a shower of rain
8   anywhere in the world you care to name,

9   anywhere, that is, as long as you remember I was still Joe,
10   the Joe everyone knows

11   and has read about, listened to, seen on TV
12   every time the earth changes its worn-out history

13   and frontiers break, seas boil, mountains explode,
14   people block what should be free-travelling roads,

15   and I am sent out to die in some shit-hole basement lair.
16   Don’t say you don’t know what I mean. You’ve seen me there.

17   I have been here for ever—
18   I won’t name the town,
19   you take your pick—
20   in a basement-cave
21   one flight below ground
22   of a high-rise block.
23   with its eyes burnt out.

24   There’s a pillar-box slit
25   high in one wall
26   so half each day
27   I can see into space:
28   smashed crests of tile,
29   and beyond them a ridge
30   of scrawny trees.

31   I don’t need to look
32   to know what else:
33   quick rifle smoke
34   like a man who coughs
35   on a bitter morning;
36   the sapling lash
37   when artillery fires.

38   The last things you’ll know
39   will be how I have lived,
40   and what I believed—
41   oh yes, and my name,
42   which I’d tell you now
43   if you didn’t yet know
44   and I thought it would help.

45   Down here, you see,
46   the world has dissolved
47   and I cannot decide
48   what matters, what not.
49   I might once have said ‘love’
50   when people could hear
51   and make something change.

52   Today I’ll say ‘food’,
53   something simple like that—
54   food and the sense
55   that the turning earth
56   might wind itself back
57   then start once more
58   on a different course.

59   Ah, here’s the sun now
60   posting in through its slit,
61   and another day stirs
62   with smoke on the hills.
63   I’m at home here, yes.
64   This is all I possess.
65   I am trying to live.

66   Then dark comes back with storms against the sun—
67   at least, I think it does: my pillar-box window’s blank,
68   my basement-cave a vault of rancid air
69   where everything’s made up except my life.

70   My life; my life. Above, among the streets
71   and market squares, I’d have to rack my brains
72   to float off anywhere outside myself.
73   Down here it’s easy. I might not exist.

74   I see a flock of families on a beach somewhere.
75   They were my neighbours. Now they’re dressed for snow
76   in overcoats and hats and prickly suits
77   but suffering in a silly press of heat.

78   Along the dunes behind them stands their stuff
79   or some of it—a flock of suitcases,
80   a bureau with a smashed-in top, a typewriter,
81   whatever they could carry when the whistle went.

82   They love each other, you can tell they do—
83   they have to, since they lost so much at once;
84   each other’s lives are all that they’ve got left;
85   they are the past and everything ahead.

86   So when a boy breaks ranks and doodles off
87   to sit down weeping at the water’s edge,
88   the last thing I expect is what comes next:
89   his mother narrowing her mouth, then crouched

90   and skating down the sand to pull him back,
91   whip off his hopeless cap (his father’s size),
92   and thrash him for his sadness: Don’t you dare!
93   I cannot hear the rest, but what I know, I know.

94   I had parents, but I don’t remember.
95   I had a woman who loved me but she disappeared.
96   The streets
97   wherever I am
98   are all strange to me
99   with their ripped-up wiry roots,
100   and the parks all closed
101   although their beautifully wrought iron gates no longer shut.

102   I put these words down carefully side by side
103   like a child building a sentence—
104   parents, woman, streets, parks —
105   and they just lie there.
106   They never become a story.

107   Perhaps I have lived for too long.
108   You can do that, you know.
109   You can spend all your life thinking
110   More room! More room!
111   and Not here but here!
112   then one day learn a single minute
113   can hurt so much it lasts for ever.
114   That’s when you wish everything over.

115   I mean:
116   think of the patient with gangrene
117   who has watched the disease munch its way up his leg
118   like a slug eating lettuce,
119   and knows it has finally worked right through.
120   Think of the young man taken out to be shot
121   who stands with his back to the gun
122   and his shoulders hunched
123   like a boy about to be slapped.
124   Both these know they have lived for too long.

125   On the other hand forget them
126   and think instead of the thunder
127   which is in fact the noise of hand-carts trundled by refugees.
128   They have piled up the words left to them
129   and are off somewhere, they don’t know where,
130   to lay them out carefully side by side
131   and make their first sentence in a new language.

132   This is what I have done
133   watching the hand-carts trailing past my window-slit,
134   imagining the prayers said on the off-chance,
135   hearing the slap , slap of slippers on wet pavements,
136   the gunfire pausing then starting again.

137   One of my arms has been jolted off due west,
138   the other east,
139   my legs have been dispatched across different oceans.

140   Much more of this and I shall lose my head.
141   Then I will know for certain that I have lived too long.

142   In the meantime I shall stay put,
143   wherever I am,
144   no story left,
145   waiting for a miracle.

146   A satellite-eye reports on the earth
147      to a listening dish,
148   its silver messages filtering down:
149      shoosh, shoosh.

150   Will it see me next? Will it see me? 

151   It sees a dark stain in the mountains
152      —disease in a lung—
153   then the camera whirrs into close-up and look
154      the stain is a town.

155   What will it see next? What will it see? 

156   It sees two dug-in lines of artillery firing
157      either side of a river,
158   ant columns wriggling from house to house,
159      and no bridge over.

160   Will it see me next? Will it see me? 

161   It sees factory chimneys minus their heads
162      a trench in a park,
163   sandbag castles turning the town hall yellow,
164      a traffic jam of tanks.

165   What will it see next? What will it see? 

166   It sees a minuscule dot among high-rise rubble
167      which looks like a fire,
168   but might be the terrified, rolled back, rearing
169      white of my eye.

170   Will it see me next? Will it see me? 

171   Yes of course it’s my eye,
172   my wriggling eye,
173   at its pillar-box slit
174   which squirms to escape
175   the world of things
176   and leap straight to the sun
177   like dew of a morning.

178   Look back? No point.
179   The hills of the past
180   heave out of each other
181   like waves in the wake
182   of a queasy yacht:
183   each one means another,
184   each death is the same.

185   Look forward? I can’t.
186   My life still ahead
187   glares like the ice
188   some North Pole fool
189   thinks he can cross
190   on his wits alone:
191   of course he can’t.

192   I’m trapped, you see,
193   trapped in the heart
194   of each glassy second:
195   I might be the hands
196   of a watch in their circle;
197   a fly in a jam jar
198   unhinging itself.

199   But it’s worse than that.
200   Trapped with me here
201   (trapped in my head)
202   are the things I want not
203   to have seen in the world,
204   things I cannot tear out
205   behind my eyes:

206   the carpenter’s son
207   some men took in half
208   with a well-loved saw
209   eventually;
210   a market garden
211   planted with heads;
212   that child’s tongue;

213   the woman whose life
214   was wrenched to an O
215   too painful to speak.
216   Yes of course it’s my eye
217   at its pillar-box slit,
218   my wriggling eye
219   which squirms to escape.

220   Let me tell you about the time before this,
221   when I could travel at will,
222   and a storm suddenly brewed up and boiled over,
223   drowning the sun.

224   It caught me half way over the local mountains
225   in a tired car,
226   and washed away whole loops of the road in red mud,
227   so I stopped at this café

228   —a whitewashed shack I’d noticed before but never entered—
229   and ordered a coke;
230   the owner, let’s call him X, had his right hand missing
231   and wouldn’t speak.

232   Cornered, I looked at the knobbly wall over his shoulder
233   and there was a photo
234   of men among rocks, swaddled with ammunition belts,
235   grinning like monkeys.

236   One of them was obviously X although it was years ago,
237   before his café days,
238   when the mountain road was only a zig-zag for goats,
239   and he still had his hand.

240   I might have wanted to hear his story and show pity
241   for all he knew,
242   but the one time our eyes met I knew it was wrong even
243   to ask for a second drink.

244   In fact he whisked my glass away before I’d quite finished
245   but I said nothing,
246   stepping out onto the drenched earth just as the sun
247   burnt back into place.

248   I saw near the car a stone cross I’d missed coming in.
249   It was covered with names—
250   codgers, boys, every age in between: all men, and all
251   killed the same day.

252   Across the road was another memorial, this one
253   a heraldic beast,
254   and something carved round the base in a language
255   no one here speaks.

256   X stood in his dark café, watching to make sure
257   I bowed my head at the first.
258   Then he lifted his stump in some sort of salute to show
259   I could now drive away.

260   You see, I have been above ground—and more
261   than once. At other times I have seen the builder
262   who crept out to stand patiently in a bread queue
263   and came home with both his legs blown off;
264   I have seen the doctor fucked by so many men
265   she must cry out her eyes for the rest of her life
266   and her children as well; I have seen the family
267   wheeling all they possess to a drab check-point
268   where one soldier, a boy really, turns them away
269   but keeps their grandfather clock and their money.

270   Yes I have seen all these things and brought them back
271   to my hole underground, my earth, my lair, my set,
272   where I have flicked through and through them
273   in the same way that I have also turned over the pages
274   of history books which have pointed out to me in the space
275   of a few moments how I might as well have been a refugee

276   a million times, or a red-faced soldier who was fired on
277   by the first tank ever, or a spy wearing a parachute,
278   or an executioner, or a patriot in the hills who has
279   what he has but leaves everyone else with nothing.

280   Yes I might have been any of these things and still
281   feel certain that not one of their lessons is learnt,
282   none of their patterns broken, their vocabularies lost,
283   even though we have started to run out of words ourselves
284   or letters at least (which means the words will follow)
285   as I saw with my own eyes on my last trip into the open
286   at the funeral of Anna, a girl who trod on a land mine
287   but is one of so many dead that when the time came
288   to hammer the letters of her name up on her cross
289   there were no As left, so now she is just -nn-, like that.

290      O and one more thing:
291   from the rubble of a dead bungalow a father
292   wearing a blood-shadow on his jersey.
293      Don’t ask me how it got there.

294      O and one more thing:
295   in the dawn smoke of a bare street a soldier
296   heaving a black plastic bag which still twitches.
297      Don’t ask me what is in there.

298      O and one more thing:
299   beneath the skin of the harbour basin a wound
300   leaking pus which boils when it meets the surface.
301      Don’t ask me what goes on there.

302      O and one more thing:
303   on the wind through the whole city a blizzard
304   of human cinders which are warm and taste sweet.
305      Don’t ask me how to live there.

306   I let my face fall
307   from the window-slit;
308   now there’s nothing to see
309   but the tree-covered hills
310   and the vulture sun
311   on a dangerous perch
312   rearranging its wings.

313   I recite the names
314   of my self and my home,
315   which cling to their map
316   with no more strength
317   than warm breath
318   on a window pane;
319   I breathe, I breathe.

320   I try to forget
321   the wounds I have heard
322   burst open and sob,
323   the tears I have watched
324   melt out of eyes
325   whose lids have gone
326   and can no longer sleep.

327   I do all these things
328   and feel I am tramping
329   through heart’s blood
330   to reach a border
331   which someone has said
332   I have only to cross
333   to lose my life

334   and be given another.
335   The moment I get there
336   I stand to attention
337   and strain to discover
338   what lies ahead,
339   my hand to my brow
340   in a trembling salute.

341   But no, no,
342   there is nothing to see;
343   I have left the world
344   and come to the darkness
345   which surges through space,
346   the darkness which falls
347   when the very last star

348   has imploded and died,
349   and all that remains
350   are unliveable planets
351   hunting through nowhere,
352   rocking the air
353   with the hiss and rush
354   of their gas-cloud skirts.

© Copyright Andrew Motion, 1994, reproduced under licence from Faber and Faber Ltd

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