From the sour breath of quarry towns we came,
to our scars the firelight a mother. In another land
our broken chord stretched far on the moors,
the flint of our tongue, the tinder, the coal,
hung in their black sacks our lungs sang
to the dead dark night of the child, too young
in her grave. We wore the eyes of the damned.
Our biblical chant we took to the wars,
candled the lanterns to hopes of our home,
when Madame in her manor, high summer,
forgot. In our hallway of night, watched lights
in distant houses dream up their happinesses—
all the bells of Notre Dame—and mourned
in our trench, in our filth, in our lice,
for our spouses—their corpses—when our dead
stank the ground. Hometown was lonely that year.
Here, us, we never danced down promenades,
our arms like silver chimes. Our drip was slow
through time, gritted and gnarled, no child
never aspired to living to three. We got a VC.
And still died on the slump of our knees.
And in the candle of our last hour’s sleep, across
the moors and the mines, sit the ghosts
of our shanties long-crippled in time. The moon,
with his holy eye of light, still sits on his swing,
smoking his pipe. Here, at night, tell them we saw
the chasms and grey seascapes of fate, the cracks
in mankind, poverty’s shadows tall on the walls,
our dark graveside flowers all dead on the day
when our bones got up and, slowly, walked away.
Don’t say that our stars are forgotten today.
Don’t say I am nothing at all.
It was then when the wicker-swing firefly-night
cracked the darkness of March, its last winter light
dropping soft in the pond. The trees at night
had wept long like newborns, and riversong
tolled like all summer’s flutes to me in my dungaree,
hand-me-down, patch-me-up boots. But beyond
stretched the darkness, the distance, you,
and somewhere a church bell’s slick copper tongue
always calling, calling
one more day to your evening,
one more day to your tomb.
From the blackcurrant glow of the living room,
I remember him too, years away in the giggling garden,
counting the stars. Far, the blue face of moon
dropped the years in his eyes. In the sighs of the wind
came his history in time: me in my lavender afternoons,
my shrill schoolbell laughter, his comrades’ cries
on a broken frontline. His sweetheart died, and often I saw him
dance in the kitchen light, the ghost of her bright
in his eyes again, the northern star the same
as that in Gallipoli’s mines. Sometimes he bagpiped
it down in the drive. And bundled me up whenever I cried. Aye,
they say he was bred on a wild rustic chant,
that he came from the mire of the low in this land,
that he merited nothing, his forebears weren’t grand,
but I still hear the pipes in the valleys.
Sheila Black lives in Texas, where she directs the literary arts center Gemini Ink, and has published four books of poetry, most recently Iron, Ardent, from Educe Press of Montana. She has co-edited two anthologies—Beauty is a Verb: the New Poetry of Disability, and The Right Way to be Crippled and Naked: the Fiction of Disability, both from Cinco Puntos Press. She is the recipient of a Frost-Pellicer Frontera Prize and a Witter Bynner Fellowship, and her work appears widely, including in Poetry, Poets.org, and The New York Times.