8 Poems By James Sutherland-Smith
JAMES SUTHERLAND-SMITH was born in Scotland in 1948, but lives in Slovakia. He has published seven collections of his own poetry, the most recent being “The River and the Black Cat” published by Shearsman Books in 2018. He has translated a number of Slovak poets, publishing three individual selections in Britain, two in Canada and one in the United States and three Serbian poets with two selections from Miodrag Pavlovic and Ivana Milankov in Britain. His translation of poetry has been awarded the Slovak Hviezdoslav Prize and the Serbian Zlatko Krasni Prize.
His most recent translation is from the poetry of Mila Haugová, Eternal Traffic, published in Britain by Arc Publications.
His website is http://www.jamessutherland-smith.co.uk
For The Disputed Index Finger
Note: Ember days are days in the Christian calendar taken over a thousand years or so ago from pagan festivals of rituals requesting nature for help in the seasons of the year. This one is located in early spring.
Black ants that sting swarm about
the Siberian irises.
Tulips fold up for the night
into a solid geometry,
one so dark a blue it could pass
for black did not light glint through it.
Anemones under the dogwood
press their petals together,
the ghosts of fingers at prayer,
and I wonder at the hydraulics
they have in common with tulips,
the dogwood itself displaying
tips of pale green flame on red twigs.
Close to, a woodpecker pounds
on bark, a cat´s purr of sound.
What is human is second-hand:
trucks grunt and hiss on the high road
beyond lime trees pollarded
while there´s my own voice in my head,
echoes of other utterance
filled with multiple dissonance,
deprecation and arrogance
until phrases of the divine
arrive, birdsong at dusk whose tones
of desire and celebration
break off, mid-note, much too soon.
TWO LOCKDOWN SONNETS
The ring doves that have eaten
all our carefully sown grass seed
wheeze and creak through other gardens.
A wren scolds me from an apple bough,
agitates a beetle from the bark,
fidgets twig to twig, whirrs away.
If only it were possible
for me to know absolute silence,
not the quiet of my own breathing
or momentary breeze ruffling
the slats of a jalousie,
but silence, pure and complete.
I´ve tried holding my breath:
not nearly good enough.
It´s past midnight.
Moonlight in the garden
glints on the edge of leaves
so only their shapes are visible.
So save for hints of green
there´s no controversy of colour
as I draw a fingertip
over your magnolia slip,
a finger tip over your forearm,
the glimmer of fine blonde hair
and a long comfortable sigh
confirms your untroubled sleep
So I speak to myself
with a slight release of breath.
The slopes beneath the woods have yielded the year´s first crop grain and now are round and gentle as the crowns of heads of country girls who´ve tried a buzzcut for the very first time, the stubble such a deep rich blonde you might almost call it red. Sodom and Gomorrah! Their grandmamas might exclaim, but below the woods they are giantesses whose eyes, brown or blue, have closed, earth spirits asleep breathing easily.
SMALL TOWN WEDDING
Note: “queer, sardonic” from Break of Day in the Trenches by Isaac Rosenberg (1890-1918)
There are ghosts of forest everywhere. Glimpses of groves of conifer and beech and odd shadows jutting like primitive altars just before main streets reach vanishing point. Here in the centre tree spirits have transformed to stones of a Gothic prison or grain store (the evidence for either can be scorned) on which the afternoon sun mottles green and yellow as in a healthy copse whose leaves rustle what remains of innocence. Not that there´s even this left to celebrate as the men spill out from the town hall in bum-freezer jackets, their women in silk, ill-fitting apricot or pink, the bride in dazzling white so backless its hem has sagged and the top of her knickers is visible. Azure day with cloud banked so high above the hillsides beyond this little town, a tenement of vapour, floating, pearly with guests like us sweating in our second-best as a rat hops from beneath the bridal car, "queer, sardonic" witness to catastrophe, saunters to an opposite patisserie. Not that anyone else notices or cares.
TURRET AND WEATHERVANE
I went for a walk to restore my sense of rhythm. That was the reason before I put on my jacket and unlatched the gate, Then I remembered a house by trees under the ridge which had a turret on one side with a gable roof and weathervane on top whose polished brass globes at the end of glinting rods, north south east and east, spun whenever a stiff breeze tugged at chimney smoke. Under Gorky Street’s rows of copper cherry I walked to where the turret and weathervane had to be, but didn’t find them. I passed a woman weeping as she wheeled a pram with a headless doll dressed in expensive baby clothes of delicate cotton and on a corner a man with an eyepatch smoking whose face mask pulled down showed the edge of a red beard. Yet there was no sign of house or turret though I found an eyebrow dormer window fringed with off-cuts from wooden shingles making a vast Egyptian eye. It was getting dark, so I turned back down a street parallel to Gorky and saw the pram empty outside a run-down unlit house.
A STOLEN PURSE
for Luljeta Lleshanaku
A woven purse of shot silk threads covered in a glitter like hundreds-and-thousands, a dust from semi-precious stones so the purse is abrasive to touch inside a black leather handbag, perhaps Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Prada, which also contained car keys, a compact, scent spray, cigarettes, a small can of mace, the handbag most recently lying on a double bed in the blue room of an eighteenth century mansion within extensive landscaped gardens bordered by a crescent-shaped lake that reflects and absorbs the night sky and the stars like hundreds-and-thousands, rather billions and trillions, consequences of events too far away to have been noticed, universes coming into being, dimensions unimaginable until the purse was filched from the handbag, not on the bed, but on the arm of its owner so that the cosmos turned inside out as the purse was passed from hand to hand in a manoeuvre of thievery as old as the first town and the first crowded thoroughfare and the first metallic chink of value you can’t eat or create from, leaving its owner in distress, transparent beads of tears running down her cheeks, in the sun glittering like hundreds-and-thousands.
IN THE CONSERVATORY DURING A STORM
I stare upwards to check if the tightened bolts and silicon seal, squeezed like toothpaste into the gap between iron beam and pebble-dashed back wall, have stopped the rain or what might be called nature or the other or wildness seeping in. The cat chirps kitten cries with her adult voice and watches each bird wing flash of lightning, then twitches at every loud thunder hiccup, her paw and tail tip resting on my shins. From the corner of my eye I observe ripe blackberries soft but glittering like ancient obsidian brooches above day lilies blooming in the heat and downpour, dyed redheads of a certain age on a spree. Is there a moral of energy to be drawn? The distant ridge is a blur of green on green through the misted doors as the rain runs down the glassy roof in washes of abstract, moving lines overlapping moving lines. The cat elects to play with her toy mouse and the wild rain fills me with its light.
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