Kemback Quartet

I remember one death in my boyhood


Photographs are knife-edged,
pixelated blades treacherously slipped 
through upheaving ribs, focal points riven 
onto the heart, raw data obscuring 
every moment but one so rudely caught 
by shutter and frame—

not, perhaps, the moment you remember
or the moment you remember if you choose,
only that the iridescent lens eye pinned
and held a little life, compressed
in the glow of flash and screen.

In mornings after midnight,
in hours slipped between waking and sleep,
cold fingers untangle cords from the hard drive case,
tapping through folders to unzip the file,
huddled in grey screenlight, scrolling
among two thousand neglected images.

Here—a morning on the causeway
as we scrabbled along its crumbled edge, gasping salt wind,
and begged a startled tourist to take this. 

Here—we sit together in long sea grass:
the camera framing dappled shade over you,
but not the flicking sand flies or the smell of sand.

Here—I am peering into my phone,
churned water smeared behind the ferry,
pointing where we no longer lived.

Such digital seances seldom raise the dead.
Shutters never opened on our hedgerow evenings
stile-climbing and field-walking
through deep midsummer twilight,
or our quay walks, round crab traps and tarpaulins,
past the tideline, to stand on the salt-slick edge of the sea 

your eyes clear and your hair bright,
as we talked of poetry—
‘A line will take us hours, maybe,’ you said—

and your small hand slipped over mine.
My fingers closed on broken glass
here—on the knife edge.


At the front of the funeral hall
his photograph sat, glass-framed, flower-flanked,
a shrine of tranquil memory 
to an apple-cheeked boy in Kodachrome, 
a greenwood child goldenrod-crowned,
happy in shyness as a smile is happy, 
looking nothing like
the gaunt and jaded bastard whom we knew.

The hired priest read 
mellifluously, hands folded, eyes uplifted,
tasteful quaver in heavenly voice:

“He is not dead, but only sleeps:
His presence lingers here,
And though we weep by Jordan’s bank,
He bids us lay by fear.

His life is present with us still,
So long as we recall
His voice, his laugh, his interest
In all things great or small.

Ours the bitter martyrdom
Of lingering in grief,
But ours, ours too, the miracle
Of memory’s relief.

Those whom we have dearly loved
Are never truly gone.
Held in tender memory,
Their energy lives on.

O grave, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?
Our friends, our loved ones, ever live
In our remembering.”

But Father—he is dead.
Energy lies in nature, not mind,
and the force of life leads to unravelling.

If he’s alive, he’s in the ash trees over the cemetery wall,
the grey leaves that drank the fume of his dissipation,
the sundering crackle of crematorium fires,
his life a matter of sepulchre, urn, and steam.

If he would lie unconsecrated
in a wooden box at the crossroads,
under damp stones blasphemed by amateur occultists,
perhaps some year, some autumn, I would find him
risen among the hedgerows,
hawthorn brambles sprouted in his breast,
roots that were his eyes growing thorns
and blackberries for me to pluck and eat
or gather into jars to lay by for winter,
leaving rosy smears along my fingers,
or waxberries pecked by chit-tailed robins
from clinging vines that grew
dry-nettle flowers and pocked fruits
from seeds a catbird shat on some foreign field.

Then he would live on—
more than any cleaner death.


For seven years, if measured more or less,
He laboured undeterred by marching Time,
A poet-pedant teaching the sublime
Is found through regulated forms. His dress

Kept tempo with no trending age, except
At times a change of width for his cravat.
He dressed in greys, sported a snap-brim hat,
And paced along the quays, filled with unwept

Sadness for the broken walls of Troy,
The death of Pan, and every noble pattern
In poetry, and mourned the dead. The slattern
Arts of Decadence lent him no joy;

The botched form of crumble-metre sonnets
Brought him a precise grief. He missed the days
(Before his time) when still untrodden ways
Charmed poets, when Ars wore laurel on its

Alabaster brow, and clear-eyed Graces
Sported in every sweetly balanced line.
His own age knew only the tarnished shine
Of spoiled mirrors and vacant spaces:

He talked with ghosts. His people were the Old
Masters and classicists. He dredged his mind
With poetry, half-despairing to find 
A melancholy glitter to the gold.

And when they found him with his neck awry,
The flowing crimson soiling his cravat,
Not one attendant mourner pondered that
Icarus-like he dove at fires, whereby

The quickened dead might sing down Paradise.
He saw the wheeling stars drowned at his feet
And leapt, tracing their wondrous dance complete,
Walking into the sea—a vaunting sacrifice.


The camera’s eye provokes the hand
to gape the shutter at despair,
eternizing ravages of youth,
you in sadness captured 
on unfeeling prints, 
grey-eyed, grey-faced, alone,
blinded in a moment with no future.

Our Lady of bad harvest,
of dust storm and begging bowl,
we stumble to your sand-choked shrine
in a migrant’s field,
at your dry breasts we suckle
taking no pleasure,
gaunt-eyed hollow-staring children
huddled round the tent ropes
of your tarpaulin tabernacle.

Mother of starvation 
and maternal lamentation,
remember us.


At times it seems the sea has abandoned us,
but the sea is always present.
At a low spring tide, rain shadow dapples the seabed,
leaving grey pools among the rocks,
as sea wind lours to rain,
we hear the sea—here—

at the pasture gate, wind waves the ash tree,
rattling ragged branches, crematory steam
rising to water the sea—here—

Places remember what we choose they remember
or, perhaps, we see a place the way we will remember it.
The sepulchre holds quietude and dust,
not bright heat and dissolving fire.
We remember a place green and tranquil
as grey sea in rain shadow,
never pondering the wax-boiling flames,
or the fulmar blown off course
sinking as prey for hungry crabs,
or the forsaken cry of the nightingale
pressed against tangled fence wire,
broken glass pressed—here—

Screenlight glow stains the shadows
projecting phantasmagoria
on face, hands, the far wall even,
unfeeling brightness provoking panic—
we ought to remember being here.

If I clench my hand and do not stir
in time the pain in my fingers passes
leaving scored bramble stain, 
overripe fruit crumbled on a touch.
If I uncurl my hand, I may 
harvest where no hand has planted,
foraging stubble-plains without furrow 
on slant-shadowed evenings,
plucking hawthorn and juniper,
blackberries, sloe, and rue,
a hedgerow evening,
with new frost to follow.

And it was here—perhaps was it here—
late shadows crimsoned the ash leaves,
tracing tangled bine-stems on the sky, signifying
for me to pause at the drystane wall mid-step
on the edge of a pasture stile
drawn up short under grey ash shade
(and it would have done you good to see 
how green a place it is)
shuddered to stillness
at the touch of a small hand.

Review on Tripmentor by
John Patrick Pazdziora

Professor & Traveller

University of Tokyo

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