The First Time I Met Death


The first time I met death he was holding a furled umbrella.
His jacket sleeve was pinstriped, a couple of inches of white shirt sleeve
beneath secured by a gold cuff link embossed
with an emblem – a crown surrounded by delicate tracery of leaves.
I saw this when I stooped to look under the tilted train.
He must have been gripping the umbrella when the wheels left the tracks
in the hurtling dark.
He could not have known what happened in that instant.
That is all I saw of him – death –
that arm and hand and the tightly rolled black umbrella.
I tried but could not imagine the rest of him
meshed into the mangled metal
of the prematurely arrived carriage – first class, I saw.
It was a mystery how his arm and hand and that umbrella
had survived intact
Hanging there above the torn earth.

I met death again years later,
in Nepal at the burning ghats of Pashu Parti
with the ash daubed Sadhus smoking chillums,
monkeys keeping watch in the trees.
A child no more than ten, his hair combed, his face innocent
as fire when it took hold, peeled back his eye lids,
stretched his lips into a smile.
His mother watched her son to ashes she sprinkled on to the slow river.

The last time death appeared to me was my father
in his bed at the care home. Eyes closed,
blue striped pyjama jacket buttoned to his neck
which he would not have done. His face had sunk.
Two doves that had kept watch over him those last weeks
from a roof visible from his bed, looked in.
He had been glad of their presence his last days
‘though he had called them vain.

Now, I sometimes meet the dawn in an old cemetery close by.
I read the inscriptions, touch the worn stones but do not meet death.
She is not here, but, an intimation grows – vain?-
I would like to see that moment coming

(The train crash was at Hither Green on Nov 5th 1967. 40 died.)