Poem: Tilt, by Jean Sprackland

 

I

When the wind collapses at last
the sand glitters with oil
like the fine mist of blood
a dying man would breathe
onto his friend’s face and shirt.

It’s this freak weather.
For five days and five nights the storm
hacked the steel legs, mauled the derricks.
The pipes flailed and shuddered.
Nothing the men could do
but play blackjack and drink the rig dry.

He has his friend by the sleeves
but he’s losing his grip.

The word was not spill, but incident.

II

The birds calibrate, recalibrate
the grains of magnetite in their heads
against their star maps,
their clock of polarised sunlight –
but it’s no good, south is cancelled.

Infrasound, dead reckoning
are not enough. They fall like hail
on the Atlantic, the Sahara,
the High Tatras, the shocked
roof gardens of Manhattan.

III

What we’re seeing is something immense
but distant, a galactic event,
a cosmic wobble, a glitch
on the Milankovitch Cycle.
The earth nudged off its axis
like a wheel skewed on its axle. See,

our planet is bored and oblique. It sits
on the lip of the dark. Then flick!
Like a needle skipping the groove.
Oh dear, I’m showing my age.
Let me put it another way:

the maths was slightly out.
We’d been working on old assumptions
and flawed equations. Twenty-one point five
to twenty-four point five degrees. Poor old earth,

didn’t give it much latitude.
Same weary ellipse. Same old axial tilt.
Now it’s free to discover its own inclination –
Pardon? Good question.
Straight answer: we don’t know.
But theoretically,
everything.

IV

When you slide along my already
slick and unreliable surfaces,

you remind me I am liquid,
you make me care about nothing except
falling, spilling, flooding.

All ice wants to be water.

Listen –

that sound at the edge of the dark
is the world’s ice ticking.

V

The city wakes to a tearing sound:
the ocean gathering itself,

mustering its goods: fish, whales,
luminous monsters with no names,

cruise ships, crashed aeroplanes, corpses
weighed down with stones,

drowned forests and volcanoes,
fibre optics, crude oil, spent reactors, each thing

sucked from its hiding place, and the sea
scouring its own floor, even the rifts and fissures,

dragging out the last flakes of life
and then fistfuls of utter dark,

all jacked high on the storm,
kicked over the city, right over the watching streets –

a mixed catch, writhing
in a green net of water.

VI

A partly dismantled giraffe.
A row of rat enclosures.
A zebra which can only sweat
and stare at its own hooves.

The zookeeper’s shovel
rusting against a wall.
His special coat all spidery
on its hook in the feed store.

The thrum of an electric fence.
The air like glue.

Enter a stray cat
with a baby monkey in its jaws.

 

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