Not a Victorian orchard tree
which ladders wobbled round,
no rose-red pippin, whose veined flesh
old men in Kent once found,
not Evesham’s young grafts, weighed by fruit
a tractor’s grab from ground.
A tree not quite as old as us,
not damson or true plum,
it straggles down our garden’s end
where only wild bees come,
sucker from market garden trees
above the railway’s hum.
With blossoms fat as newborn’s fists
it sails into the sky,
blind white on blue, before late hail,
squirrels or frost come by.
It bears sour fruit. Yet every March
it seizes, stuns the eye.
Since it had always puzzled her
what her lands brooded in green mounds
in empty days before the war
she wrote her brisk list: Mr Brown,
hired expert; her own gardener;
the gamekeeper, between his rounds.
‘Dig the first trench,’ called Mr Brown,
‘until you reach the bed of sand.’
The gardener nodded. So the tomb
had grown from his fine silts? Unplanned,
he laid his best spade slowly down,
turned an iron rivet in his hand.
It was a ship. King Radwold slept
with his fine swordbelt on his back,
a gold clasp on his treetrunk chest,
his silver plates, for feasting, stacked.
Cleaned by the gardener’s rags, they pressed
in moss, like perfect peaches, packed.
The scholars came in chugging cars.
This was the King who left Christ’s fold.
The keeper left, to sink his jars,
hoped for his cut if plate was sold.
The mound rose silent, carved by scars.
The landowner felt briefly old.
The gardener scraped both workboots clean,
surveyed the jobs which lay before.
Unpruned buds weighed her favourite vine.
Six dozen leeks? He stretched up, sore,
watched sun join King; then, perfectly,
in fluent Anglo-Saxon, swore.
UNDER THE VAULT
(THE MASON’S BRACKET, GLOUCESTER CATHEDRAL)
Because we both sit here alone,
she speaks, lips broad unmodish red,
by pinnacles of fretted stone.
‘How did they build this, then?’ she says.
‘Barrows?’ I guess. Pulleys’ long jolt –
From blinding glass, spears glare by kings,
Christ’s thin bared face crowns ranks of wings.
But where a lesser light is thrown
one ledge, hacked from rough limestone, shows
a boy, who tumbles down the vault.
Apprentice, he hangs from his stone.
His arms are spread, his legs are curled.
Did drink or dizziness descend,
too long a night with his first girl?
High on a platform, weighed by sky,
his master stretches helpless hands
to boy, hair like an angel’s, streamed.
Unskilled in suffering, alone,
he crouches on unsoftened stone.
His God is dead. He carves our cry.
Alison Brackenbury was born in Lincolnshire in 1953, and is descended from many generations of skilled farm workers. She is or has been a metal finisher, Oxford student, technical librarian, parent, impoverished horse owner and grassroots political activist. Alison has published nine poetry collections, won an Eric Gregory and a Cholmondeley Award and has had many poems broadcast on BBC Radio. Her latest collection, Skies, is published by Carcanet in March.