At ten a.m., the dead of day, the ball-room quiet.
Looking-glasses, are you now the only ones awake?
The thicket ramparts sound, the long spell snores;
the maggots make the meat creep from the limp maid's chopping-board.
Who is not asleep? The armour stands:
Some empty, some warm, sighing with steady breathing
like a sea-shell. There is adequate defence:
invasion will not rattle one of them.
Some sleep on their hunger in the fruit
whose ripeness in the nostril cloys with dream
their sluggard feast. The surfeit of the century
will teach them abstinence who wake among the rinds.
Some are slumbering in mid-obscenity,
to stir at last to their own wakened voice
to ask themselves if what they almost said
is worth a breath drawn to complete.
Some in stilled frivolity out-sleep their mortal butts;
the temporary patois of their courts;
to round a sally fatuously, in gibberish.
The jokes behind their dreaming leers cavort.
Some, as if their hands were spiders, lie
entangled in their looms. The patterns fade;
the weaves become impossible
and, as they struggle in their sleep, cocoons.
Some wallow in the tubs of dirty clothing
while the suds scum and the shirts in slime grow green.
They wheeze like swamp frogs all the dank of decades
and by waking-day are inapproachable.
The sleeping doctor bleeds his patient for a hundred years.
The Stone forms in the alchemist's retort and re-dissolves.
The tutor's theory is disproved before he ends the class.
The prayer is in a dying language when the monk is roused.
The waiting bridegroom on the wall is constant,
crumpled, with his eyes closed on the view,
to wake drenched, with a cold, a different sunset,
and a new, successful suitor in the damsel's room.
And just this insolent is on his feet
suspended in so much inanimation,
but without the sense to try the ill-shaved kiss,
or prince enough to break a beauty's trance.
For he would nap away the century as well
but every twelve hours wakeness teases him.
To them, to kings as much as urchins, is the calm
of neither knowing years that pass nor come.
From day to day to loll and see
nothing delightful as the fountains fiddling in their sleep;
the secret walks where ferns sip mirrors
and the stretch of lawns where children ring their dreams.
I am bewitched with envy,
wistful with your song.
You take it in your throat
soft as a warm dawn,
warm as down.
It fills a room.
I only see your eyes,
laden, and yet awake like flowers.
You are engrossed in magic,
Don't flowers listen to the drum of bees?
Fore-taste the noon?
Do thrushes listen to their own song
or just fill the trees?
Feeling their rained drops reaching
pools of leaves
whose sweetest gift is to receive
each brilliant sunbeam given.
Swelling the earth,
a breeze goes under boughs
filling the boundaries of the hours
as you with youth
who have bewitched my wistful envy
with your song.
I cannot sleep for longing, or for fear.
How did I ever, by the haunted sea?
The combers make the sound the blood feels
thundering behind your ears,
while gusts hurl, shuddering below the eaves.
I have to get up, check the children are asleep,
the house still standing, candles within reach
and matches handy. Now the sea girl is approaching,
sand on cheeks and salt spray saturating
midnight hair. She is naked as stone:
cold, rounded, lustrous with the brine.
And soon she will be clamouring outside,
rain-frozen at the veranda window, crying out
in her faint gull's voice dismaying
enticing phrases: "Come down, sailor.
Slip into the surf between my scaly thighs.
Release your salt seed in my slimy womb."
Is she inviting me to die or to be alive?
I am old and left the ships a long long time ago.
I thought I had forsaken sirens then
for good and ever. But here she comes again tonight
with the storm, and now I cannot determine
whether she is my lost sea wife, or child.
Nicholas Messenger had his first poems published in New Zealand as a schoolboy. He won the Glover Poetry award in the 1970's. He has had work published in a good number of online magazines. Volumes of his poems from his "Mole's Garden" collection, a collection of short 'Instamatic' poems, and some of his Fairy Tales, are available through Academy Books at www.academybooks.co.nz . The book-length poem, "Er the Weaver", volumes of his plays and four novels for young people are available through the author himself. His work appeared in Offcourse #27, Poems & Paintings.