A shadow his father makes with joined hands
And thumbs and fingers nibbles on the wall
Like a rabbit’s head. He understands
He will understand more when he goes to school.
There he draws smoke with chalk the whole first week,
Then draws the forked stick that they call a Y.
This is writing. A swan’s neck and swan’s back
Make the 2 he can see now as well as say.
Two rafters and a cross-tie on the slate
Are the letter some call ah, some call ay.
There are charts, there are headlines, there is a right
Way to hold the pen and a wrong way.
First it is ‘copying out,’ and then ‘English,’
Marked correct with a little leaning hoe.
Smells of inkwells rise in the classroom hush.
A globe in the window tilts like a coloured O.
Declensions sang on air like a hosanna
As, column after stratified column,
Book One of Elementa Latina,
Marbled and minatory, rose up in him.
For he was fostered next in a stricter school
Named for the patron saint of the oak wood
Where classes switched to the pealing of a bell
And he left the Latin forum for the shade
Of new calligraphy that felt like home.
The letters of this alphabet were trees.
The capitals were orchards in full bloom,
The lines of script like briars coiled in ditches.
Here in her snooded garment and bare feet,
All ringleted in assonance and woodnotes,
The poet’s dream stole over him like sunlight
And passed into the tenebrous thickets.
He learns this other writing. He is the scribe
Who drove a team of quills on his white field.
Round his cell door the blackbirds dart and dab.
Then self-denial, fasting, the pure cold.
By rules that hardened the farther they reached north
He bends to his desk and begins again.
Christ’s sickle has been in the undergrowth.
The script grows bare and Merovingian.
The globe has spun. He stands in a wooden O.
He alludes to Shakespeare. He alludes to Graves.
Time has bulldozed the school and school window.
Balers drop bales like printouts where stooked sheaves
Made lambdas on the stubble once at harvest
And the delta face of each potato pit
Was patted straight and moulded against frost.
All gone, with the omega that kept
Watch above each door, the good-luck horseshoe.
Yet shape-note language, absolute on air
As Constantine’s sky-lettered IN HOC SIGNO
Can still command him; or the necromancer
Who would hang from the domed ceiling of his house
A figure of the world with colours in it
So that the figure of the universe
And ‘not just single things’ would meet his sight
When he walked abroad. As from his small window
The astronaut sees all that he has sprung from,
The risen, aqueous, singular, lucent O
Like a magnified and buoyant ovum -
Or like my own wide pre-reflective stare
All agog at the plasterer on his ladder
Skimming our gable and writing our name there
With his trowel point, letter by strange letter.