Still Life with Full Moon and Ibis

You know the procedure: you’re queuing in a maze
of stanchions and nylon straps, clutching
whatever you have not checked through

to your final destination—all the things you believe
you couldn’t live without should your jet go down
on its short belch across the Irish Sea.

And this is evolution’s greatest triumph:
this belief each one of us carries
that we’ll be a survivor.  And there you are

with your belt removed, your boots untied,
with your toothpaste and hair gel clearly
on display inside the lung of a Ziplock bag, funnelling

forwards, prepared to pass through
the dark gate of the X-ray, distracted
by a photo in your National Geographic

of a mummified ibis passed through a scanner
by scientists in Montreal.  How relaxed
and almost smug it seems, deep

in its snug wrappings, with its legs
extended and the flex of its long neck folded,
carefully, back on itself.  And its body, with every

organ but the heart removed, packed with snails
for the journey into its afterlife.  On your left
along the queue’s home stretch

is a wall of mirrored glass, behind
which sit officials in uniform skilled
at spotting, or so you have read, all manner

and variety of dubious behaviours.
And really, it could be any one of you—
sleep deprived, anxious, faffing

with your carry-ons, in mourning, in love,
overdressed for the weather, making lists
and annotating maps and flinging

little argots in your native language.
Because really, aren’t all of us, all our lives,
individuals in places we do not belong.

In the stretch of the mirror’s tableau, the world is
what it is.  And you think of your mother, dead,
now, too many years—as if fewer years

wouldn’t be too many; about how,
all through your childhood, she hid
between the soil and the rhododendron’s

lowest shelves every siskin and chaffinch
and sparrow that launched from the feeder
and mistook the reflection of the world

for a continuation of the world
while you sat at the table in the kitchen
eating breakfast, or drawing and colouring

towards a happiness of your own making.
Even the colours themselves, their names—
Sap Green, Scarlet Lake, Lamp Black—

a world already half created.  Look,
she would say, when you were together
out in the garden—in the window’s mirror

a portal of sky, a fixed portion of lawn
and the dark, green beckonings
of the neighbour’s leylandii, and across the glass

smudges like watermarks and a spoor
of feathers—look where the birds 
pass through to that blue, to that sky, undamaged, 

on the other side.  There was that night—
full moon, tide on the ebb—when you walked
that wet, widening cuff of sand

as the waves, unzipping along their length,
withdrew and handed over
torn seine nets and plastic and a single

tennis shoe.  The empty palms of clams,
scattered packets of devil’s purse, slick blades
of kelp.  Then, a surge of wind

and the high complaint of a shorebird
startled from sleep, and from the fields
a rumour of coconut from gorse in full bloom.

And before you the wet sand an endless
corridor, in which the lamp
of the moon, keeping a constant distance

always ahead of you, was being carried.
You can’t say why, when your mother belongs
to the past, all your memories of her

are always in front of you.  But where else,
you think now, would she be.
She taught you that even the birds

of the hedgerows inherit a life
beyond this one.  She gave you the world
within this world.  Which makes you smile.

Until you remember those officials in uniform
trained to decipher all the heart’s admissions
and unwitting revelations—those of you

blinking too fast or scanning the queue or curling
a lip like Elvis.  Really, who among us,
marooned in reverie, can’t help sneering,

or smiling like that unknown model who became
the Mona Lisa, the corners of our mouths curved
like plump commas.  And so there you are

anyway, smiling, rocking back and forth
in your thick-soled, unlaced boots, preoccupied,
taking notes, building a shelter for everything you love

ahead of its destruction.  And what would you say
if they singled you out; if you were yanked
from the queue and jostled to a table

in a small back room.  Because anything you could say
would sound like a threat.  I’m writing a poem,
you’d say, I’m thinking about the afterlife.  You’d say:

did you know the Egyptians packed mummified ibis, 
bird sacred to Thoth—moon god, god of divine speech, 
keeper and recorder of all knowledge—

with snailsI know, you’d say, sliding
your notebook towards them, and I can show you,
where the dead go.

 

Copyright Jude Nutter. First published in Nimrod International Journal of Prose and Poetry 57.1 (2013).

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