from Stealing the Mona Lisa


from Love Songs

‘I tell you, Madame, if one gave birth to a heart on a plate,
it would say “love” and twitch like the lopped leg of a frog.’
Djuna Barnes, Nightwood

‘Sympathetic’ is the word to describe
the angle of the moon to the telegraph wires
as I stagger home totally drunk,
my eyes occluded like the stars,
and even though it’s late I pick up the phone –
my only means of entry into your bedroom.
After many rings it’s wonderful to hear
your voice struggling from its stages
of sleep: husky, rough-textured,
like velvet brushed the wrong way.

White terrace like a cuff peeping from a dark sleeve.
Stars bristle. Insects seethe.
Moonlight on the water like a frottage,
and your foot massage is the best since Mary Magdalene.

We swam late, you essaying
a gentle breaststroke, me
legging it across the beach
into the sea
like a bankrupt aristo.
Now water seeps
warmly from my ear to the pillow.



Sweetness and Light

Lunch on a wobbly table at a café
in the piazza, where the wine-racks are
deployed like broadside cannon, the pigeons
lick at spilt ice-cream, and flowers are ruffed
at the neck like the Vatican’s castrati
religiose, opening slowly.

The waiter brings us regular refills of coffee,
tucking the receipts beneath a saucer.
We tap-tap sugar into the froth, then
driving from the city with the sun-roof open,
half an hour and we’re in the campagna:
the roads ruled with a Roman straightness,
ploughland starred with silos of grain,
cypresses in a total theatre of sunlight,
and power-pylons, a first attempt at
joined-up writing, repeating her name.

My arms through the windscreen are done to a turn.
The only words she understands in English are
‘businessman’, ‘ticklish’ and ‘air-conditioning’,
though she knows the words of songs off by heart
as they are churned out by the radio.
A fan switches from side to side on
the dashboard, subtly disturbing her hair,
drying her lipsticked mouth to the red O
of the Mobil sign.
The air ripples like petrol vapour,
and without warning she’s guddling in my shorts,
knocking the rear-view mirror with her head.
I’m trying to drive with a singleness of purpose,
without swerving on the road.
Her mouth quickly finds my centre
and the simple physics of her intentions are
difficult to withstand. I pull over
onto a side-road fringed with chickenwire.
There’s a dog barking, lemon trees, a red car
newly washed dripping in the sun.
I rise up
through the sun-roof and instinctively put
my hands behind my head.

I can feel the sun stinging the back of my neck,
see the mauve ridges of the hills, hear the dog barking
and the radio playing HELP! by The Beatles, and
as her urgent mercurial mouth and hands coax me to a climax,
I think of a speedboat shooting bolts of foam,
Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando,
the butterfly-shaped blackness at the back of her throat
and finally lemons – squeezable, tense with water –
dissolving in sunlight like tears of gold.



Tip-Toeing Around the Ego

(The ghost of Vladimir Mayakovsky appears before his lover, following his suicide.)

It is necessary sometimes
to die
in order for people
to suspect your existence...
I pass in front of
the projector
casting shadows upon
the screen of your dreams.
Love endures
though the world grows in between.

From my red Elysium
among the seraphim of Lenin
I can see the city shimmer
its tambourine of lights,
snow in the streets
pressed like cerebellum
and you
tumbling through the stages of sleep.

The clay was warm
the day God made you.
That first night
I struggled at the wrist;
the cuff’s hole
too small for the button.
In the background
a piano congratulated itself.
I was irked by the company –
gladhanding Party fats –
then I turned to see you
and the whole room tilted
in the direction
of your neck.
We shared a stare across the room,
each look conveyed
like a tray carried high
through a churning mass of dancers.
The animal gladness I felt
just seeing you!
Your voice,
that inflection, feathery,
your legs
a shade of honey
I didn’t think achievable
in human skin.
Your smile chased me
around the table.
Asked now to decode
the mystery of a woman,
I’d say a telephone number
freely bestowed.

You correspond to
a shape inside me,
a shadow stored within.
I recall how my chin
touched your hair while dancing,
the rosiness of your ears,
perfume trailed
like a ribbon behind you...

All motion falls towards something.
I fell towards you.
The time you stood on the stair
to raise yourself to my height.
The night I traced
the line of your mouth
as if sketching it
over and over.
The time I held you in the hall
opposite the mirror
and together
we slid like rain down the wall.
Even in the snow
to come to your door
and feel the returned pressure
of your fingers,
to experience the force that
drove us together –
only for that misty sensation
of existing
on either side of a pane of glass
our hands fail to touch
no matter how hard we press.
Meet me, you said.
Kiss me, you said.
Love me, you said.
Stop now, you said.
I met you.
I kissed you.
I loved you.
I died.
Still I recognize every gesture,
the tiny changes of colour
in your eyes like
the bands of light in water.
‘Don’t spoil it,’
you say.
You give me one last
regretful over-the-shoulder
look, remote and soundless
as though we’re
swimming under water,
smiling through masks.
I watch as you walk
towards the shadows,
becoming part of them,
shrinking like a light
sunk under the waves.

You left me numb
as after an amputation.
plaiting the strands of poetry
and sadness.
You devoured me like a snake that
swallows another twice its size.
There I was
pilloried by the critics –
myopic censors
running the touchlines of culture.
My Renault was only chauffeured
because I couldn’t drive.

So I gambled on a bullet
and won,
fleeing this life
for a disinfected heaven,
the honeymoon of water
after the thaw.
No dust in this museum,
no corrupting bugs
or filaments of decay
to brush away.
a higher mechanics obtains,
the colours splendid
like the colours in a coma.

Now tonight, Tatiana,
I am restful,
no ridge on the finger
from writing any
score-settling autobiography.
I have taken my place
in the Milky Way.
The wind flows
like time around me.
Space warps as from
the tug of a dark star.
The darkness possesses me,
inhabits and takes hold of me,
grows without me knowing until
I find myself consumed.
And slowly in this
crumpled moment,
I feel absorbed like a liquid,
embraced like a lover,
a whisper of dust,
still warm.


Read selections from Love, Death and the Sea-Squirt and The Invention of Zero.