My father sits in the armchair. I watch him blow
out air that fills the room. He’s reckoning
how much air remains to him. I too blow
out air, our two breaths rising blow for blow.
I see his hands curled tight. They are animal
claws, old bones. One gust of wind would blow
him away. He couldn’t ward off the blow.
He is so grey he almost looks like smoke,
a curling wreath of ancient cigarette smoke,
the kind that in his youth he’d gently blow
in front of him, over a plate of chicken bones,
his fingers now very like chicken bones.
Whatever are we to do with all those bones?
Should we take the dust and gently blow
it into the fire? Dust may settle on bones
but these are living organs, living bones
that must for ever be shifting, reckoning
up their own vertebrae, all those fiddly bones
adding up to a figure, a figure not just bones
but flesh and tissue and blood, pure animal,
whole animal, the spirit that we mean by animal.
Touch the hand, the soft pad round the bones.
Can all this vanish in a puff of smoke?
Show me the mirror. Let me see the smoke.
But maybe that is all we do see – smoke
curling into a face, illusion, phantom bones.
We read shape into everything and smoke
is apt to read shapes into, cloud and smoke:
both incidentals. Put lips together and blow.
You know how to blow? Then blow away the smoke
and see what remains, that nothing after smoke,
that nothing hardly worth the reckoning,
that, all the same, we must be reckoning.
The shadow moves across him, much as smoke
drifts over landscape where some animal
is grazing quietly, being nothing but animal.
Perhaps he is that grazing animal
we glimpse through fog that may be drifting smoke.
There is in his eyes a trace of animal,
just as there is in mine. What frightened animal
is scampering there on delicate bones
in the distance? Then which is the true animal?
The one that grazes or scampers? What animal
does both? And that field across which high winds blow
bending the trees? Will the armchair too blow
away? What is it to blow away an animal?
Even animals come to a final reckoning.
Time is not infinite even by animal reckoning.
Words turn round, recur: beckon a reckoning.
We sprinkle words like dust. Intelligent animal,
shrinking in the armchair, beyond reckoning
of words, here’s what words have to offer: the reckoning
is in language which is itself a blur of smoke,
a mirrored cliché full of blind reckoning.
But what else, dear animal, can reckoning
achieve apart from this structure made of bones
and syntax, accident and echo; brittle bones
of sound, the tongs and bones, the reckoning
of syllable on syllable, the rhythm, blow on blow,
of pace and run, till we come by that final blow.
The chest rises, the lung dilates. Suck and blow!
Keep moving, thoughts; listen out for bones
whispering in the flesh, their song like smoke,
their words those befitting the fleet animal
glimpsed in the distance, leaping into reckoning.
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