In spite of difference of soil and climate, of language and manners, of
laws and customs, in spite of things silently gone out of mind and things
—william wordsworth, Preface to the Lyrical Ballads
All my life I’ve listened for noise suddening
downstairs. Signifying nothing. Or mattering.
Once more I’m on the landing, at a late hour
from that hall to this, down carpeted air
and now at now’s open door, the loud brink
of our first living room. Thunk. Thunk.
Dad’s on the sofa, fist pounding the table.
The low legs jump, the glass ashtray trembles.
The mother of all battles has begun.
Dad, it’s late, it’s not fair on us, on Mum.
She needs to wake up early. “Son, the bastards,
look what they are doing.” A cigarette in Dad’s
mouth, the ashtray like a cymbal to the table’s
drum. Thunk. Upstairs the family Bible
sits quietly with the Quran, huge and high.
Dad, the whole house is shaking. In a few hours
I’ve got school. He turns from the telly. “Son,
will you write a letter?” A what? “To Guardian.”
This is our first live war. I hear the words
resolution and air raid and avoid
civilian casualties and hope he’ll forget
his question. On the television set an elephant
sits. The ashtray is still catching nothing.
Dad’s fist lands at the sight of a jet. Thunk.
Through smoke, says his school was bombed from the air.
School stopped forever. Thunk. He hides in the river.
Miles off I put my hand on his shoulder.
The burning matter of Mum needing to sleep
and wake up early to teach. A betting slip
blushes near the paper on the sofa. A small
red pen from Ladbrokes like the one in my school
blazer. Our coal fire. But from this special report
on the night war started in the Gulf, good night.
And now the weather. “Son, you will write?”
It will feel raw in the east as the winds
freshen up but will feel much milder
in the west. Well, the time is now one
and a half minutes past What do you want
me to say, Dad? I wait. Ages. “Insaanyat.”
What? “Humanity. Humanity.”
He shrinks in his glasses. A blank on TV.
You want me to write and say “Humanity”?
The ashtray fuller, the Bacardi gone.
Back in the doorframe I look at him again—
looking up at me as if the looking
could speak. The indignity of the nothing
he could say but “Humanity. Humanity.”
Yes, Dad, I’ll write to The Guardian tomorrow.
It was tomorrow. The letter’s unwritten
to this day. But that room is so easily
summoned. Or suddened. The small claim of the fire
unguarded on the grate, its thin blue mutter—
that smoke before and after “Humanity”—
and by some habit of matter or gravity
the table will never have a book on it
and I will never be able to shift it.