The Broken Word (excerpts)

Facing Ngai

Mid-morning after rain.
Mountains flowing rapidly under clouds.
The valley paths a freshened red
with yellow puddles, glittering weeds.

Tom walked between the lines
of coffee for half a mile,
knocking fragments
of water onto his sleeves—
little bubble lenses
that amplified the weave
then broke, darkening in.
He walked to within earshot
and no further.

A surprisingly dull sound of ceremony,
one voice then many voices,
one voice then many voices,
that recalled school chapel
although probably they were spared hymns.
Tom remembered the hymns,
the light, weakly coloured by the windows,
falling on the boys opposite,
standing, opening their mouths;
and the hymn books,
the recurrent pages greyish,
worn hollow like flagstones
with pressure of thumbs, over years,
years of terms, the books staying always
on their dark shelves in the pews.
The days he wanted to stay
all day alone in the pretty, scholarly chapel.

And then over the voices,
another sound.
Faintly, from behind the house,
Kate practising with a pistol,
its faint, dry thwacks
a fly butting against a window pane.


Rain strafing the river.

Tom under the ringing bell
of an oak, his face and hands
glazed with the cold damp.
One drop, falling through, landed
amusingly on his parting.

Deep plashing green, the lavish
sound of water drenching water,
rain thickening to whiteness in gusts.
And the large calm of changeable weather:
passing showers, thinking skies.
Tom silent, having to wait.


The large, composed silence of the library
with its little human lapses: coughs,
rustled paper, the bump of books.
Thrumming a card index, the corners
of popular titles soft as seed heads
where the glue had worn away,
the fibres coming loose.

Then back at his carrel
contentedly at work
with the Meccano
of an ancient grammar.

Bright metalwork of Trojans, Danaans,
well-greaved Achaeans
buckling and unbuckling
over an abstract plane
as he went over and over,
adjusting his translation.


Tom picked up his tutor's small coal shovel
and beat his blotchy head.
The tutor fended with vague, slender hands,
What on earth are you doing?
leaking dinges in his skull,
eyes clouding, Tom athletically
rendering him down until
the whole study was lacquered red,
chair, lamp shades, pictures, books, and Tom himself,
that old penny taste of blood in his mouth.

He wiped his face on his pillow,
considering the variations
in this version of the dream,
then got up to be gone
before his scout came in.
Better to go out altogether
and avoid college breakfast.
Instead he went to a café
where he could sit, eat eggs
and foam-flecked rashers
and feel like an open sewer,
deep poison seeping from him,
and not be seen by anyone he knew.


Freedom. Solitude. Rain.
Infusions of books. Girls close by.
Everything hidden. The people gentle,
about their business, unprovoked.
Shortening days, like a coat pulled tighter.