From “Selected Poems 1969 – 2005” by David Harsent, originally in “A Bird’s Idea of Flight.”
I found him, as they said I would, walled-up
by tree-calf and buckram.
Anglepoise, lectern, stool,
stylus, dividers . . . He crouched
in a funnel of ivory light;
I heard the creak of vellum,
then my own breathing, then his – a rich
cackle of tar rising
in either lung. He sifted the arcane,
part-chanted, part-sung –
dates and times as usual, the usual rhymes
but also the way a name might sometimes become divisible by number.
‘Your children admire you. Worse than that,
your wives kept back
all the old stuff you thought you’d thrown away.
Your parents loved you in their secret selves.
Because you hated them they lean
towards you to apologize.’ He clicked
his tongue: ‘There’s little more to learn, but why
did you come to me? You could have got
this much and more from any girl
with a pack of cards, a gift-
shop crystal and a borrowed shawl.’
As he bent back to trawl
the page, I heard a rustle like something
stirring a fall of leaves, and a worm
came out of his head, a thin
filament, breaking the skin
of the waxy crescent
just behind his ear, nosing the air
for the hint of burning
back along the stack.
‘You have wasted your life.
I can’t give news of the journey
you want to undertake,
but everything here says pointless,
ill-advised; look for yourself . . .’ He was cupping
a mirror; I saw my image flow
from the glass to the sieve of his fingers.
He spread his hands: ‘What else . . .?
What else do you want to know?’