To Michael O’Leary, with thanks
At 38,000 feet, the feat of our being
Shakes heaven and breaks the heart,
Although this truly is hell. We could
As easily reach beyond the window,
Our vantage, to brush and push apart
The woollen clouds, startle them
Like crowds of sheep. Such are
The ambitions of aviation. Seven a.m.
Sunlight burns a candle in the cabin.
Sunspots kaleidoscope as the aircraft
Banks and rolls. Outside, at touching
Distance, the mountains melt like chocolate,
Toblerone pyramids smashed and crushed,
Houses and factories pieces of scrabble,
Like words we neglect to learn, languages
Our tongues distrust or will never need,
An emptied bag of letters, postcodes,
Addresses, all we cannot or will not read,
Gather and know: the waking lives,
The oncoming coast, the relief of land
Flattening to the promise of Sicily.
And you, asleep at the edge of a
Turning world, resting from an over
Rehearsed performance. At this hour
I am unsure which moves me more:
Your breath, rising to mist the pane,
Or the faint visibility of our other
Air. Perhaps, they are the same.
You hear them, then you
See them: Latin voices carry
Like birds chirping emergency
Amid the sparse trunks of trees.
An Italian family approaches:
Up front, two plump fathers
Purposefully pushing push-
Chairs, the carted babies frog-
Kicking their pink and freckled
Legs. Behind them, the mothers,
Bringing nappy bags and happy
Memories in their hands: four
Toddlers, eight legs vying
To match the flip flopping fathers.
The pool is empty (just two of
Hockney’s sunbathing boys, an
Elderly Dutch couple, and us).
A pause before the storm,
As the new arrivals bomb
Into the stillness, as a fistful of
Rolled rust-shell grenades,
Short-fused, rough tongues
Flaming 'pronto'. The boys'
Gulping 'mama' and 'papa' yelps
Like droplets to the 'yaya' thunder
Rumblings of the parents. The mothers
Fuss while the fathers pose.
The boys are stripped to their speedos,
Slathered with sunscreen, water-
Wings screwed onto arms which
Squeak like party balloons. Condom
Bathing caps are uncurled, and
They charge toward the water,
Spring from the edge, bob
On its cling-film surface.
The warm elasticity of the pool
Wraps around them like a promise,
A wet towel, or a second skin.
They become skimmed stones,
Skipping back into the hands
They spun from. Each one
Is wearing the same aquamarine
As the pool, the sea, the sky.
The sky has no memory, it is
Free of identity, but we are not here
For answers, we are here to forget
How to remember. The sea is a
Silver fish, its muscular flatness
Ploughed under by mercurial ripples,
Molten scales rising and dipping.
There is another lesson in newness:
The imprint of a past downpour
Vanishing, the thrashings of a hundred
Thousand summer swimmers
Survived by its oncoming autumn.
Beyond the horizon, someone
Has lit a fire. Smoke lifts up
Like a hymn, and you recall the shepherd,
The journey that brings you here,
Your passage passport-approved,
All continents access-authorized,
Great Britain on the brink of being
No more than a forgery, the struts
And spires of its rising cities printed
Onto the book of you like a barcode,
A tattoo, or a stain. False idols, tin
Gods, profit and loss a gathering
Imprimatur. All mornings
Should be like this.
The view from Pollina
You can say everything about
Somewhere, or you can say nothing.
This peculiar town leaves us cold.
Every door is closed. Cobbles and
Stairs lead only to more cobbles
And stairs, and an ancient coliseum
Brooding like an accusation. Limp
Clouds cling to the hills, an ill-fitting
Wig of bad weather. A fountain's
Triumph has almost run out, trickles
Its influenza into a dead goldfish
Bowl. A crude town, uglier than
A Sicilian nona and twice as chaste,
The celebration of its younger self
Muted. Neither have aged well.
It’s inglorious red-brick arches, helter
Skelter streets, uneven set stones
Sunk in the roads, as if you are
Treading on local faces. A veil
Of familiar drizzle feathers the view
Down to the grey beaches of the unblued
Med, its volcanic coastline like grit
Under the eyelid. Below our parapet, a farmer
Fetches his herd home, the bell's dull clonk
Guiding the sheep back to their slaughter.
The sequences of prayers, gamblers
Curses and illicit exchanges harvest
The province's disowned currency.
Honour thy neighbour, for the hills are alive
With the sound of murder. A cement mixer
Turns over its steady gruel in a litter-
Strewn palazzo. Little changes here.
Local habits work under the surface
Like a twitch, a catechism. Butcher's
Fingers prise skin from flesh, the baker
Slaps dough about like his wife. Hair
Under a lifted hat, the ring on a severed
Finger. The view from Pollina.
Into a paper bag the old woman puts
A bushel of basil, pomodoro tomatoes,
A feathery lettuce and an old onion.
I request 'dewy pesky' and she roots
Out two unbruised fuzzy bums, drops
Them into the bag. Next, a pick
Of rudely-purple plums, deftly plucked
Between thumb and forefinger.
'Altro?' She asks. 'Grazie,' I say.
'Prego,' she says, meaning 'please' or 'thank
You', and offers me the bag. I take it,
And on the way out add to my basket
A bauble of mozzarella, salami, two
Bottles of vini rossi, and a ciabatta.
Sadly, they have no little tubes of cannolli.
At the till a commotion, the woman's daughter
Mid-argument, ignores me when I
'Grazie' so it inadvertently rhymes
With 'curtsey', and hand her my Euros.
Under heavy-lidded eyes, and with
Pope John Paul watching on the wall,
She slaps down the centimes and receipt
On the counter and carries on shouting, so
Feeling clever I say 'prego' meaning please
And thank you', but also 'don't mention it',
So she shouts back 'stronzo mentecatto'
Meaning she will never become her mother,
As I step into the street, shopping bags
Pulling my shoulders down.
Took us everywhere that year:
Up the narrowing pass to drab Pollina
With a class of acne-faced, sullen
Sicilian kids, or down the coast
To Cefalu, along wave-walled
Beaches, he was always at the wheel.
Bending his rigid bus down
Impossibly winding routes, grazing
Crash barriers, easing onto the brakes
As the bus nosed over oblivion. He was
With us, resting a hard palm on the horn
And wafting his free hand. He knew
Our folly, two fish flopping fresh
From the tank. In turn we imagined the home
He returned to, after the last drop
Was done, opening the door to his wife,
The house without a child's trace,
Their chaste embrace, him squatting
On a stool to sip the soup her mother’s
Mother’s mother made. On the sofa
Slipping his loafers off, massaging the feet
That kept him out of the forces,
Danced him across the ballrooms of Milan and Paris,
While on the TV some Berlusconi stooge
Demanded his money for cheap lace lingerie
And plastic three piece suites.
We could not picture his frail mother
Expiring in the infermeria, her body
Like bagged tree-roots. His father in the earth
At fifty-five, and his elder brother lost
To cosa nostra omerta by thirty, Silvio
Was already older than both - did he think of them
As he inched his body, feet first,
Into a lukewarm bath, soaped himself,
Striped the blade across a cheek
Where skin readied itself to be remade
Pork-pink from white foam?
Then sliding under the bedsheet
Like an heirloom in a jeweller’s bag,
Eyes closed, mouth agape, waiting
For the dark to claim him? Did we make this up?
How he rose with the light, duty taking him
Back from his box room and sleeping wife
To the depot, his destinations. First stop Finale,
Another batch of sulking kids, then us,
Car-less, clue-less and incommunicado,
Stood at the stop, his toot and salute,
A slight, curious, incurious smile
On his tan face. I can see him now.
It is stair-rodding on the roads of Palermo
So we step out of the rain into a department
Store to steal a piss in the toilets, and try on
One or two things. By the time we come out
The rain has hardened. A street protest goes by,
Its banners washed white, voiding its demands,
The crowd breaking up, whistles diminishing.
In their pompous uniforms, the caribineri look
Restless, but cracking skulls would be pointless
On a day like this. From a shop window's safety
I admire their belt buckles, night sticks and gleaming
Gun butts, their damp blue epaulettes, Genoa-
Forged camaraderie. What does it take to turn
Off compassion, I wonder, to be able to murder;
Would I have the gumption, the acumen,
The pure chutzpah to batter a pacifist in his
Or her bed, but then the moment passes,
Like the carnival of politics but unlike the rain,
Which hammers on to everyone’s horror. Only
The umbrella vendors are enjoying themselves
Making a decent fists of selling 1 Euro shop-
Bought umbrellas for 10 Euros a pop to the tourists,
Hurrying hither and thither like sherpas with herpes.
After being asked for the hundredth time if I would
Like an umbrella, in my saturated combat shorts
And wet canvas shoes, and evident displeasure,
I believe that I might indeed have what it takes
To break someone’s neck with my bare hands.
I imagine it would be like wringing water from
A twisted tea towel into a washing up bowl.
I don't test the theory. I am wearing impractical shoes,
And Palermo is known for a law and order
Of a different form. Two days later we flew home
Like birds doomed to their coop, our umbrellas
Stowed in the hold, safe as old houses.