after b/w by Niall McDevitt (22.02.1967 – 29.09.2022)
October and I stop
on the verge of this world
acknowledge two small beacons
of eldritch electricity —
a pair of poet ghosts
lit by fungal filaments
drizzling onyx sigils
in the incandescent grass
you were born in Limerick I the same night in Islington
we met on our 39th birthday in a clapped-out white BMW —
I in the back with my Belsize Park beau Diana driving
up to a cold curb where you quaffed and quiffed
guitar case buttressing a lamp post Blake’s prints under your arm
squeezed in beside me and we were off
a night-scented bouquet of bohos and bon mots floating
through London to someone’s drunken boat on the Thames
where at a party being thrown for neither of us
we learned we both wrote poetry both
had backpacked round Europe with a tattered Rimbaud
when you strapped on your guitar sang Blake’s Songs
I fell silent
. . . don’t remember which ones . . .
no one had a phone
no one ever recorded those Songs
no one can delete
my first memory of your face ‒
haloed in the sulfur of Soho
and a faint cloud
of your February
oh those Facebook photos of your last weeks
bedding down now in my mind —
your stoic flair a salt and dandelion poultice
I press against the axe wound
to my root
You nearly always had a girlfriend; I, a boyf ‒
except for that night you stayed at mine in Brighton after a gig.
I rolled out the futon, fetched the spare duvet, plumped your pillow
and, when you admired my undoubtedly-not-amber cat, told you the story
of my abortive trip from Cairo to the Temple of Bastet ‒ defeated
by a carriage full of smokers, only to be accosted by a man on the platform:
WHAT IS WRONG WITH EGYPTIAN TRAINS??
I towered over you, fists on hips.
You laughed. I went to bed.
Our spell unbroken.
That photo of us at the launch of b/w ‒
skulls touching, faces blissful
time twins joined at the head
singed the days
blanched the nights
snapped the spine
drained my mirror
turned my trust
in cosmic order
into a negative
shocked silver hair
bleached soot-stripe suit
an asymmetric 55 —
where once you walked
now a whistling wind
my vision of the universe
the past more alive
than the present
the future a tightening
I write eco-science fiction.
But did not foresee your death.
I don’t recall snakes ever licking
my ears. And if they licked yours,
you never said.
We both studied Thoth.
Though when I gave you a Tarot reading
I unaccountably trembled
and the cards made no sense.
to keep my balance
at black and white omens
mystic correspondences . . .
Hey, little sister in the pub before the funeral
a polka dot scarf draped over the Metro box
at Victoria Station
a Tyger Angel Wing hoodie
on the train to work
I do realise that sightings
of black and white trainers
bearing our shared initial
are purely coincidental ‒
but still they burn
in my eyes
To die at 55, in your prime.
To spend a tenth of your life dying.
To be tithed to death.
To not tell your friends you were ill
because you wanted us to flower,
create our art, unblighted by grief.
You had the courage for tragedy.
Trusted we would as well.
Time, that sleepless magpie,
thieved so much from you ‒
but I will not let it snatch
the silver apples of your songs
the golden apple of your laugh
You came to a small, white bread, Tory city,
in long black coat, blue eyes sips of sky, stood
on a Cathedral lawn beneath a twice-toppled steeple ‒
and as an army of twitchers trained telephoto lenses
on invisible peregrines, you played your bodhran
to curious students, oblivious shoppers, coiffed chihuahuas,
obscene SUVs, tired Stagecoach buses, Sophia’s falcon ‒
and there you are still, opposite Waterstones and Wetherspoons,
a Pidgin English Irishman drumming up Britain’s Babel
of sinklands and tower blocks, prophetae and plague pits ‒
Soho sirens, Shakespeare’s Dark Lady, Sekhmet, the jinn,
Roundheads, Romans and Rastas, coopers, traders and hoodies,
Chagall’s psalm, Grenfell’s ashes, Blake’s Angels,
unreeling around you on the ecchoing green
The reason you have breast cancer
my oncologist told me
is because you have breasts.
Oh Niall, we’ve all fallen
asleep in the sun.
Please let us let
that one hot day
blithe as a larkling
The reason you had skin cancer
is because you had skin
the white lambskin of your Northern kin
the thin parchment skin of a poet
the thrumming skin of a bodhran
and though that ‘black sun’ on your belly
proved a terrible beauty spot
the kind of ravaging beauty
it kills us to know
in your illness
in your humour
in London’s charms
and Julie’s arms
in poem after poem
impelled by the past
haunted by the future
struck by the moment
you became one
with the drum of the world
and our days are as grass
we flower among the toadstools —
those inky wigs, refulgent ruffled eggs
charged by a power beyond us
to divulge Earth’s grievous laws
if not in a grey dawn
where would black embrace white?
if the world was not hollow
how would love sound?
Naomi Foyle © 2023
NOTE. Poet, musician and London ‘poetopographer’ Niall McDevitt lived with cancer for six years. A gelatinous spot on his abdomen, initially diagnosed as a 'jelly mould', proved to be malignant; although its colour was atypical of skin cancer, Niall, in an unpublished poem, referred to his melanoma as a 'black sun'. The phrase ‘the incandescent grass’ is from the poem ‘Liberty Caps’ in Niall’s debut collection b/w (Waterloo Press, 2010).