In my father’s house
paper was always at a premium.
I arrived one night,
It must have been raining for weeks
and even the floors were soggy –
like those of a used ark.
It had a way of provoking images, references,
This house, uncontrollably.
He was sitting by the fire.
I sat down on the broken armchair
next to him – he light of the flames
flickering in his stone age cheeks.
He tossed another book into the fire.
I smiled, and glanced at the woodpile –
what was there was sodden, unburnable.
No one had been out to gather wood.
He was burning selectively, a kind of literary
criticism. Trying not to appear fascinated
I checked the burnt and burning spines,
I remember there was a Heyer and wondered
If he’d gone off her. A couple of phone
books. Fortunately no history.
He was enjoying himself. I saw a Gideon
On the pile next to him. I said nothing,
not wishing to give him grounds to provoke.
So far no poems on the fire either.
We sat chatting. I wondered whether he
remembered. Suddenly I remembered
he must have been twenty one when it happened.
Not likely he would forget.
I also realized I had seen
the same newsreel that he must have,
the one with the ruddy faces
cheerfully throwing armfuls of books
onto the bonfire, the campsite songs.
And I knew his was a coded message,
a sort of Mafia communication.
As we chatted of this and that
I tried to work out what he was saying:
Could have been – we’re living through
it all over again – but that was too crude.
Or – you’ve abandoned me and this
is how I survive now – but he was too
proud and different for that. Maybe he
was showing me what it was like.
But he was just enjoying himself.
The books burnt on.
It seemed as if the words, released
by the flames, flew up chaotically
into the chimney. It was clear
letters and phrases, scorched,
were getting stuck in the blackened
brickwork and creating entirely new
patterns, even poems.
From a distance I imagined
you could see the house, its chimney
spewing words in clouds over the
fields, into the stream, the trees.
A truly literary house.
Included in the Forward Prize Poems of the Decade 2000-2010 Anthology