Ian Parks was born in 1959 and was one of the Poetry Society New Poets in 1994. He was made a Hawthornden Fellow in 1991 and has taught creative writing at the universities of Sheffield, Hull, Oxford and Leeds. His collections include Shell Island (2006), The Cage (2008) and Love Poems 1979-2009 (2009). His poems have appeared in Trespass Magazine, Stand, Poetry Review, The Liberal, The Independent on Sunday, The Observer, Poetry (Chicago) and have been broadcast on BBC Radio 3. These poems have been written since the publication of The Landing Stage earlier this year.
It must be all of forty years
and still I think I’ve found the exact spot:
the spa the colour of wet sand
and rock-pools strewn with bladder-wrack.
An ice-cream melts into the crevice of my hand.
I pick my way among the rocks,
the giant pebbles bleached and pocked.
This is where my parents stopped to kiss –
a quintet playing thirties jazz,
old men in faded deck-chairs listening –
my mother flustered as I turned to look.
The spa is held in place by scaffolding.
I blink at the sun and shade my eyes.
There are no landmarks on this empty beach.
There is no safe way back.
Listen: the sound that you can hear
arriving faint and distant
over the rooftops and the washing lines,
through open windows, under doors –
over the student in her hammock
who tilts her book and sways
in the almost-imperceptible breeze,
over the attics and the red brick walls
and terraces inclining into shade,
the pub yards baked and emptying
four thousand miles from Memphis
where the creeping Mississippi
deposits its own delta as it slides into the sea
in the hour between sunset and the dark
when boys dive naked from a concrete rim
into the man-made lake
despite the warning sign;
as households stop and listen to the news,
when cats are stirring under cars
and the parks are closed and chained
and pensioners lean on their spades
in well-kept gardens dried out in the heat
and the murmur of it travels to your ear
across the hinterland that lies between,
the patchy fields and new estates
with rail lines cracking, unrepaired
while babies wake up for another feed
and the watered plants exhale
in the never-to-be-repeated oneness
of an unremembered afternoon
that fixes us and lets us go
unfolding, intersecting, holding back
in the final shush of stillness before rain
while England pauses, counts her dead
is Ian as he cups his hands and plays.
I had a question for her so I went
through convoluted alleys to the place:
no sacred grove of olives but a mill
abandoned when the Textiles died.
Reached by a narrow staircase
with a missing step, the top floor
opened on the sky, exposed.
Each city has an underside –
a burnt-out region to avoid
where streets are unlit and no one goes.
And there I found her,
curled and drugged and shivering
on the mattress where she dozed.
Not as old as you’d expect
for someone so acquainted with the world,
when she reached her hand out
and the moonlight fell on it
there were no wrinkles puckering the skin.
I gave her nothing but a crumpled note.
She cast her glass beads on the floor.
Her answer came in riddles
as if what I’d asked was no easy thing
but a question with no answer
and no language left for it.
Escape was easier than I thought.
I needed no directions and no guide.
Instinct led me to the upper air.
I climbed onto the rooftops
and looked out: the spires
and domes and minarets
reclaiming their identity from night,
the dawn a yellow slit.
What you gave me were the gifts
you brought back from your island in the west.
Is this how you made your choice –
walking the shoreline, looking out to sea,
discerning where the man-made bank
of shells and broken crockery
might loom unseen under the waves;
where ballast cast and jettisoned
makes its slow progress, turns and shifts?
We talked of great migrations,
how the far horizon called to them,
receding always at the point
where they dropped anchor, came to rest.
The sound of all of that was in your voice.
Take me to the tide-line. Show me where
the Spanish ships were wrecked,
point out to me the crosses and the graves,
the landmarks of that barren land.
My mind is filled with things new-found,
recovered, brought back from the edge –
things shattered and fragmented,
smoothed by the ocean into chalk;
of how I almost lost you to the tide.
I empty out the box and touch.
I close my eyes so I can see:
the woman on the island stooping low
to gather these lost pieces in her hands
is you with your unlooked-for gifts allowing me to be.
It’s thirty years since I undid the lock
to spend a rented summer under glass –
a space no bigger than my bedroom now,
the skylight slanting, sunlight through the planks.
Blue meant a day for swimming in the sea;
grey for reading till the weather cleared.
One room where everything I needed was to hand:
bare floorboards, faded rug, sand in my hair
and in my jeans. It was a year of rioting,
of running battles through the city streets,
of looted shop-fronts, shattered glass,
cars overturned and burning in the road.
The rumour of it didn’t reach me there.
I spread my sheets, slept on the floor,
hung a rusted oil-lamp from the beam,
convinced the answer could be found
in solitude and in the distant sound
of waves as they came rippling to the shore.
The place was a ramshackle wreck
held up by a lick of yellow paint.
At night a big ship loomed against the sky
and from its bright and polished deck
someone I imagined lit a foreign cigarette
and smoked it slowly, leaning on the rail.
Just once I saw a torchlight flashing back.
But mostly it was dunes, resilient grass,
the dog-eared books I read then threw away –
the narratives I didn’t want to share.
The days grew shorter. Cold set in.
The beach huts emptied. I grew bored.
Rain drove in every morning from the sea.
I packed my rucksack, caught a train,
sped inland through a landscape changed
to find the world not waiting anymore;
back to the city with its new façade
and the headlines I’d ignored.