Issue 6: Rod Mengham

Five Portraits

for John Gibbons


Underneath, where the atmosphere grows up, grows old, thickens and thins, and the space is tightly wadded, layers of air folded and pressed, taking the weight, the burden.  Inside, where a vessel holds the taint of forgotten light, like a film about to be rewound, removed, or projected into a future already past.  A reliquary of that future, turning on the spindle of memory, worn away by touching and re-fleshed in the armourer’s house, jointed and blistered and splinted, the ball-hammer’s duet with tenderness, the acetylene caress.  Waiting an entire life for the door to come ajar, this door there, the one intended for nobody else.


The rotating shaft that funnels sounds of the night: the light stirring of a child asleep, a latchkey unsettling the dark, the reluctant breathing on the stair.  A century passes.  The late rising of the hotel guest, the jailhouse conversion, cellblock showroom, the aesthetics of high windows, disciplinary sundials.  Nothing can still the traffic of images, or the call in the street from another time.  We lean out to look in both directions but nothing turns to meet our brief excitement, or long-lost speculation.  Somewhere, someone we forgot long ago beds down in the entrance to a tunnel, and the floodwaters begin their advance.


There are thirteen ways of looking at a white blackbird.  One is to place it on the edge of your belief system, it changes colour as it flies from one world into the next.  Another is to tease it onto the margins of a sacred text, but perhaps this way is the same as the first.  A third method is to hunt through the wood from start to finish, always two seconds away from actually seeing the bird.  A fourth is to walk backwards through the wood guided only by its song.  The fifth way is the way of impatience, the pot calling itself white, and the kettle calling itself black, until both are blue in the face.  The sixth way is nothing like the third way, although rumours of famous success rates have been circulating in County Clare.  The seventh way is to discount all reports coming in from County Clare.  The eighth way is an adaptation of the twelfth way and is therefore always inscrutable.  The eighth way and the ninth way cancel one another out.  There are ten green bottles hanging on the wall, but don’t get me started.  There are eleven good reasons for abandoning a prose poem entitled Thirteen Ways of Looking at a White Blackbird.  Twelve are the ways of Oisin, the wanderings of Aengus, and the heavy blows of Finn; the blackbird was sacred to all three, although far from being white, and never even a doubtful grey.  The thirteenth way is the way of patience, and the only clue into the maze; this nest of words has taken many seasons to get right, but is not favoured by migrants.  White Blackbird wins by a head, Throwaway comes second, in third place is Alfred de Musset, while the last flight into Knock airport is christened Grandfather Always Knew Best.


From here you can see onto Inishmore, the barley growing short by the sea’s edge where swallows ride the tremors of hot air.  The fretful tides below await their turn, and the birds in relay swoop to the sea but never touch it.  Gulls watch the retreat of a small black dog with a rubber ring in its mouth.  In December, waves ratcheting up the beach carry the folded bird asleep on the swell, lost in the dark obverse of each rise and fall.  And still the lighted headland guards the route to the sea-lanes, although its steading is a mystery.  No lighthouse or lightship is marked on the map.  And still.


The brooks rush into each other wildly, and wildly part, again and again dividing and joining, currents uniting and disagreeing, like a cage of veins, a delta of nerves, capillaries that outrun the mind.  Far off, the waters trapped in the Great Central Bog expand in the rising of a dark tide, awakening memories for a few seconds and eclipsing them beyond recall.  The four rivers uncoil on their separate journeys: the Barrow sways into the south; the Boyne huddles among passage-tombs; the Shannon mutinies to the last; and the Raven has escaped.  There are channels beneath ground running out to the sea, to the deep calm that shatters the storm, expending itself on a black rock far beyond sailor’s craft or navigator’s skill.  We unscrew the telescope, see nothing, and cling to imagination, to the random gesture of each wave, each trick of the dark, anything that seems to re-form itself in space and time, anything trying to grow a shell and survive.

Nature and Costumes

Kiefer’s northern landscapes are often winter scenes, zones of natural extinction; but they are also great ploughed fields where, if it survived, anything at all might grow. 


As the shadows lengthen along hedges and up the small towers of Lombardy, fires are set in a dozen places at once.

Two hares run up a steep field. Even trains cannot get through when the fire bends the iron tracks and fishing canoes swing round in the estuary currents.


After dark, the cool green leaves of maize begin to roll and gleam in the breeze.

Under his shirt and over his chest was a fragment of horse chestnut leaf, brown and exhausted before its time.

‘I don’t do meat, I don’t do salt fish, I don’t do sweet drinks, I don’t do olives, I don’t do capers.’


The river is dark green in the heat that beats onto stones lined up as irregular stepping places.

The pallid ibis, an unreleased trap, waits in the long irrigation ditch.

Freight trains loaded with the carefully interlaced trunks of poplars, felled nearby, rumble over fresh granite chippings mixed in with grease-soiled debris, ribboned by creeping plants.

The collapsing shells of farm buildings in parcels of meadowland are entirely walled off by inter-splicing roads and motorway ramps.


Gales rise, and the animals retreat to a disused quarry. They hear little of distant stirrings and one by one shut down for winter like the drones in a hive. The tall beeches with erupting bark, the higher limbs with a dusting of green bacteria, catch pigeons blown off course.


On the banks of the Moldau are filled buds of hazel, weeping tips of sycamore and the squalling cry of rooks in protest over a sparrowhawk diving again and again.  But a great bird has been snagged by the weir at Kafka Island, beneath a winter thorn, with its hard red clots of berry.  The tall mast of a dead poplar, with tetherings of ivy, rises over rough hurdles at field edge, a tower on the skyline.

Soft yellow corals of lichen appear on the wet beech logs, the lopped branches of holm oak, the pitched roof with its igloos of moss.


The serial poem advances and retreats.  No apparent outrage echoes inside the great panelled clock case of Our Lady and the English Martyrs.  No blood plasma supplied where none called for.

Rod Mengham is author of books on Charles Dickens, Emily Bronte, Thomas Hardy and Henry Green, as well as of The Descent of Language (1993).  He has edited collections of essays on contemporary fiction, violence and avant-garde art, and the fiction of the 1940s.  He is also the editor of the Equipage series of poetry pamphlets and co-editor and co-translator of Altered State: the New Polish Poetry (Arc Publications, 2003) and co-editor of Vanishing Points: New Modernist Poems (Salt, 2005).  His own poems have been published under the titles Unsung: New and Selected Poems (Folio/Salt, 1996; 2nd edition, 2001) and Parleys and Skirmishes [poems] with photographs by Marc Atkins (Ars Cameralis, 2007).