Daniel Gustafsson




These are fine, curious figures we cut,

Stood at the foot of the grave; in the east


A low fire, a frozen sky above us,

We come unwearied and with glowing face


For the gaze of those who loved and love us;

We come perhaps to pray: to say, at least,


What feeble gestures failed to tell before:

To show ourselves less completely bereft,


Less unfinished, and just a little more

Fulfilled, more fully formed than when they left;


We come undaunted, in snow or shower,

To bow our heads and raise ourselves up tall:


We come to offer what fresh proof we have,

That some seeds do flower beyond the fall.







They came together to this cusp of land:

They roamed carefree, combed the seaweed for shells,


Then shed their footprints further up the sands;

She didn’t come here, then, to curse the rains,


The surge or sea-swell, to rinse her salt-stained

Cheek-bones, or to scrub these grains from her hands;


Now some child has raised up a castle here,

A bold attempt at moat and battlements –


Yet another scalp for the tides to claim;

She thinks, as the tears cut grooves in her face,


This crumbling edifice could bear his name:

It was here, this self-same but moving place,


His restless brain must have slipped its moorings,

The reeling picture spilled over its frame.




Of course, she has witnessed sea-change before:

She has seen the feat of the full eclipse,


Seen the long lips of the ocean retreat

To erase its love-letters from the shore;


But this is different to a turning wheel,

To think that time itself could turn its heel,


And memories be memories no more; 

And she thinks of that other shifting floor,


Of his feet adrift between white-washed walls,

In that other castle; where fears and thoughts


Disperse like flotsam in the foamy squalls,

And photos flounder on the flooded shelf:


Where familiar voices can’t force the door,

He is landlocked and secure from himself.




She’d fall, one day, from the order of facts;

They would find her, half-clad, between the acts


Of some home-spun passion-play: she would say,

Where the long night tapers, so paper-thin,


Where the dark plumes shrivel to a moth’s wing,

My milk-white skin, my shoulder-blades begin;


And her audience would laugh, would jest her,

Summon their science to taunt and test her,


Then tell her sins to their saner daughters;

She, to prove herself, to loosen the hold


Of the world, be clean of their leering tongues,

Their tales, would take the veil of the waters:


She would strip, fold her slip on the shingles,

Then go to sleep with the lake in her lungs.




This night, as to some travelling salesman

Lost on the moors, she will open her doors


To pain – who will push his counterfeit wares,

But who won’t love the rooms, won’t touch the food


Her practiced hands and famished heart prepare;

And she must endure, now, that long affair


Of hope with the failings of time: must work

To master this hurt, muster the patience


Of her, whose labour spanned some thirty years,

And whose tears gave birth to a world; like her,


She must scrub the floorboards and dust the chairs –

A sleepless grasp on the darkness, her veins


Taut on the bone – until dawn, like a fresh

Pail of milk, will spill itself down the stairs.




For the tongue that soothes, or the kiss that sears,

He will stir the cinders and the red heat


As if sifting the good wheat from the tares,

On the heart’s threshing floor; he’ll sit and stare


At the slow dance through the grate, poised in wait

For a thief’s reward, or the gift of tears;


Can’t be sure, which drops of sweat are the dregs

Of his efforts, and which the angels’ share,


But must draw this low tide and drain this cud,

Like him whose hard grains are history’s fare –


Whose cupped hands could compass the floods and seas,

And whose peace could harrow the earth; like him,


He must warm his blood by his father’s hearth –

Where dark wine is offered, if throats are bared.






He collects these splinters, these little bits

Of guessed-at wisdom and whispered clues; but,


He will tell you, even a paper-cut

Can bear witness: that time is a prism


And history is an old cloth that splits

Like a laugh at the seams; he woos these glints,


And waits, for this pent-up present to spill

Its brim, the veins of this moment to fill


With a more-than-music, half-remembered

Half-anticipated, attuned to dreams;


You call him a fool and a fantasist,

Say that he broods too much, this alchemist


Of illusion, that torpor soon ensues

And the tail-end of longing will get him.




Sure, he may go down dour and deflated,

That melody he moved his marrow to


Dammed-up or dissipated; and he may,

If the cold lips of long nights beset him,


Grow lukewarm, and lose the love that rises;

But, if he courts such crises, just let him:


Let him sculpt his blade, trade his skin for stone:

If he wills, let him wear his waiting thin,


Let him whittle his dream-stuff to the bone –

He may stir some late light from these cinders,


Chip some tinder from his brain’s abstractions:

He may coax these feathered hints into flight,


Full of true desire: may strike fire

From the flint of these figments and fractions.




This vacant, funereal court,

These roses, translucent and sere;


It wasn’t chance

But abstinence that brought him here,

And time’s un-begged-for attrition;

It was the mind’s

Patience, the heart’s fast 

From its fickle fare, the slow cession

Of hope, and the dull ache of contrition.


He has been here before;

Comes now, through a rent or fissure

In that thin partition 

Of those long, leaden years;

Returns, like an apparition,                                          

From that fast retreating shore –


He came first

On a fragrant morn, with summer’s

Verdant folds full in flower,

Blissful, and blind to all 

But the mere moment’s lure;

Came later, bent in will

Beneath autumn’s moulting bower,

Groping for lost charms,

Combing the dry stalks 

By the mottled eye of the moon;

He returns now,

On an early winter’s late afternoon –


To these blank panes, wreathed in ivy,

To sun prostrate on winter’s floor,


To resume a broken body

The turning tides may not restore. 


Call him prodigal,

This visitor of the past’s effulgence;

Call him a jaded prisoner 

Of the seasons’ pale dominion –

            But here, in a moment

Time’s stony sentries cannot know,

Between last leaves and the first snow,

He is offered recognition:


Of faults and follies, to be sure – 

Of soft hands’ fretful play; of slipshod plans

Laid waste; of young hearts’ brazen fray –

But more:

Of a promise

Of a deeper course

And a truer disposition –


In these chipped and irregular flagstones,

These frozen droplets on the fountain-steps –


A firmer hand, a surer foot

And more encompassing vision, 

Beyond the self’s control; 

Call it providence,

This craftsman’s care and precision.


Here, then,

Is an invitation, to enter through

That low door in the wall:

From time’s lonely kingdom,

Where nothing lives but all endure –


By leaves low-gleaming on dark trunks,

By lambent flames’ long corridors –


To that starlit garden,

Where blades of grass are wrought in fire:

To silver spires, bright and brittle as glass.


Here, he is granted a mission:

To accept a belated gift,

And to pay belated tribute 

With all he bears and calls his own;

To bequeath

His presence to those absent ones,

And wear on his humbled body

The marks and invocations

Of memories not his alone.


In grasping this rusted handle,

Lending weight to these worn hinges,


This is more than choice,

The end of decision for decision’s sake;

It’s the advent of observance,

And his call to repetition.


Ever dawn, never completion

Of the proud heart’s passion;

He must ever cross

This frosted land – 

With rose in hand, in sweat of face –

From crossroads’ untended briars

To that ordered place:


From all ghosts this fitful mind may fashion –

From these crude, faltering gestures

To the arduous growth of grace,

As fury fades and grief grows fonder;

From hearts’ dusty chambers

To hearts’ brighter core,

Where self is less, where love is law,

And loss is tempered by wonder.


 Copyright © 2012 Daniel Gustafsson

Daniel Gustafsson was born in Sweden in 1983, and his imagination is still fuelled by the lakes and forests of his boyhood, but he has lived most of his literary life in England. He currently lives in York, where he is working at a boarding school while also studying for a PhD in Philosophy/Aesthetics, on the subject of religious art. All this informs his poetry. He also draws much inspiration from Russian artistic and spiritual sources. Above all, he is motivated to write by moments and intimations of beauty: the gifts of landscape, feats of culture, and the human heartís resilience. To his delight, his poems are finding their way into journals and anthologies in England and abroad. He also writes fiction.