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Robert Sheppard

from 'Arrival: Out of Time'

Another Narcissus is calling,
not the one who dripped into
the pool, scattering
his dimming image, the one
who let the seed of
his oval-white head fall
into the water and vanish
in unclenching petals of force, an
echo of
an echo, drifting limp.

The bulb of his love-thoughts was
shattered like a pod and broke
into flowers. A single
mirror both doubled him and sliced
him in half!

      The pool
mourns him still, ripples
panting against
the dry stones of the shore
where Echo’s toes can never
step, an echo of his echo.

But this new one, this
second-hand Narcissus,
sees into a spring, image-sluice
bubbling between
rocks, slipping by the
narcissi which grew, in
Pausanias’ opinion, ‘before
all this, if we are to judge
by the verses of Pamphos’, innocent
narcotic blooms!

     This is another
Narcissus calling, not
but out of another story, less
popular, but ‘not
without some support’. The
geographer disbelieved in the lover
of water’s shadow.

      ‘It is said
that Narcissus
had a twin sister,’ he said. ‘They
were exactly alike, their hair,
clothes, hunting together. Narcissus
fell in love with her, and when she died,
would go to the spring, knowing
that it was his reflection that he saw,
but in spite of this he found solace
in imagining that he’d met his sister.’

The other Narcissus knows what
he knows, imagines
such likeness, but even this incestuous love scene
is made up for making up likeness! They
were not alike, ungendering
their difference, their clothes
and hair never fashioned in
sixties unisex! Their hunting
horns bellowed different tunes
at different times. If she
had lived, then he would
have been exiled from his spaces
and place. He took her places, filled
the space that remained. She
flattened, grey shadow.

      But still
a voice echoes, a mocking coda
to each strophe he beats. It
evokes its limping
anti-strophe, an 
echographist sown into his heart.

As he dangles
his feet in the
harbour basin at high tide,
a face stares back below,
oily-rainbowed, rippled
beyond recognition, and the
barrels of the Brighton B
towards the clenched lock-gates across it,
reflection and shadow.



The babies are coming.
We don’t know where they’re coming from. We don’t know how long they’ll stay.
       Worse, we don’t know how many there will be.
       Worse still, much worse, we don’t know what they want.
       To prepare ourselves we focus on the little things.
       What manner of baby should we expect? Will they be new-borns, prune-faced and spastic-limbed, crusted with blood like a tampon? Will they be premature, delivered by Caesarian from brain-dead mothers on ventilators, miniature sticky tree-frog arms, heads as tight as nuts?
       Or plump sitting-up Renaissance god-babies awaiting the Madonna’s supporting lap, prescient and knowing? Or will they be already toddlers, padding around on their Christmas dinner legs like the stars of nappy advertisements, cooing until they knock their recently sutured skulls against the sharp edges of our furniture?
       We are not prepared.
       Perhaps there will be twins. Or triplets, or more, the split-cell progeny of some fertility experiment who cannot be parted, screaming and teething in uncanny unison. It would wear my husband and me out, at our age. Imagine. One baby lies on its back, exploring itself, pissing an arc over its head. While another extrudes a turd like a saveloy just as you lay it on a clean nappy. Or yet another, gasping, beetroot with colic, fisting its sticky-eye and bellowing. At three o’clock of a chill winter’s night.
       Will they arrive out of a whirlwind, like the dark cloud of cupidons with sparrows’ wings grafted to their down that was reported to the Earl of Essex at the end of the sixteenth century, tearing around the Adur estuary between churches Saxon and Norman? A portent of the impending Nuptials of Queen Elizabeth I believe.
       My husband says not to worry, everything will be taken care of. But it’s easy for a man. Never having to worry if he’s late. Never having to make sense of a Boots kit which won’t come out with it, yes or no. Not to mention stirrups and forceps – not that they’d be needed for these babies, of course.
       These babies are different, coming as they are, announced in the way they’ve been, all questions with no answers. Boy or girl is the least of it.
       Compressed babies. Boneless babies. Soldier babies. Metal babies. Hairy babies. Vegetable babies. Pre-recorded babies. Adult babies. Piano babies. Sun babies. Mountain babies. Feral babies. Choral babies. Burning babies. Rubber babies. Baby babies. Rhino babies. Pinhead babies. Pregnant babies. Dryad babies. Cyborg babies. Personality babies. Bush babies. Radio babies. Banshee babies. Babylonian babies. Weightless babies. Sublunary babies. Jazz babies. Intuitive babies. Blue babies. Metaphorical babies. Flatpack babies.   
       Before any babies are permitted to appear, their emissaries arrive to check the ‘necessary arrangements’, they say. They show up in many guises, none of them encouraging. There are skeletons coughing in tattered jackets too large for them, rivened long grey faces better suited to the pall or hearse. Or porky matrons in tight starch uniforms, one degree too jolly, like embezzlers of a hospice. They attach themselves to selected families. Ours is a sponge-faced girl with uncoordinated eyes and little to say. She moves a selection of mouth-shapes to the sounds she makes – one of them is a laugh I think.
       It’s impossible to imagine any of them caring for babies.
       The babies must look after them, says my husband, clapping his hands after I get her out the front door. He pulls open two beers at last. She’s promised to bring a baby tomorrow, I think.
       That night I dream of an old straw hat full of eggs, like lottery balls waiting to be picked. They jostle one another, trying to squeeze to the top. One which succeeds is about to hatch, its shell elbowed and tapped from within. But it’s time to wake up.
       My husband demands eggs for breakfast and I scramble three. I beat the mixture until it has the consistency of sick, the texture of Play Dough. I am careful to keep some milk to one side.
       We must wait in our front gardens to see who’ll receive the babies today, pram cowls open to the skies, the pink mouths of fledglings. We stand under the breathless blue sky without the whisper of a seed from the Downs stacked silently behind.
       Well before noon, it’s clear that the babies, like the gods and the devils before them, have deserted us. My husband beside me is breathing faster and faster and I fear he’ll hyperventilate.
       Those of us who have dared to think of ourselves as parents in waiting can no longer control our trembling lips. We blubber on each other’s shoulders, bereft, it’s true, but still harbouring unfathomable depths of something we cannot give a name to.




you arrive as afternoon television
in the fifties curtains pulled grand heroisms
flicker across the pinched grey screen

you’re a siren or spy washed ashore from
the U-boat the night-dressed angel
laid out like a traitor under the cliff

the toothpaste white cliff there’s no going
back to the big black map of Europe
foghorns drift in the salt-crust mist

not moaning your name it’s absent
from these papers I forge to let you in
fake sister pseudo-sibling Nazi

sabotuese you night-drop onto Southwick Green
tear free your leather caul your parachute
spittled placenta through silk boughs

you limp towards the matinee idol who
mimes my part waiting by the War Memorial
with his flashlight and his notebook guilty

with elegy edgy with guilt the secret
code-word to end all death is balanced
on the tip of his errant tongue


Copyright © Robert Sheppard, 2012