The Sunday Times - Poet's Corner - Slowly Sounds The Bell

13th July 2013

Nunc lento sonitu dicunt, morieris.
Now this bell tolling softly for another;
Says to me, Thou must die.

Donne, Meditation XVII

A midnight ring from half a world away
Tolls my only brother's sudden death.
Line dead, handset re-cradled, sleep returns;
I wake to find the bedclothes scarcely messed.

We long were distant islands to each other -
I stood Esau to his Jacob as a boy,
My fields the sea, his tents the libraries -
DNA proved inadhesive, no gene
Sutured the rifts between us, and the news
Was less vexing than a tree fall in my garden

We hope for more: a foetal element
Feeding fondness for our kin, a shared
Enzyme sealing first cousins best of friends,
From propinquity Gilead an balm.

But boyhood hatred, dumb decades apart,
Change blood to water, degauss genealogies;
Abel becomes Cain's pathogen. A shrug
In the cell metastasies through
Isolate null points of the tribe into
Skull paddies and black snow in June.

Religious tapestries woven from old deities
Cannot conceal trenches we dig between us:
Ancestral chemistry stands hooded on
The scaffold, testing trap and rope for all.

It is the face on the school run who mouths
'Hello', a torso hunched on the next bar stool
Twice a week, a highschool sweetheart back,
A man selling ceramics I collect
Dying of AIDS, whose curfews heave the clapper
Summoning tears, the shiver in the neck

Taken from We Look Like This, Published by Carcanet Press, 2012

We are given quite a jolt here, surprised by the poet's indifference to his brother's death, while he admits to tears over the deaths of strangers in the final stanza. Donne's tolling bell opens and closes the poem, though the poet asks for whom it tolls as (he insists) he and his brother are "distant islands to each other", contradicting Donne's insistence that no man is an island. The Old Testament references remind us that brothers can be fatal enenies: propinquity is not necessarily soothing (and the caravan Joseph was sold to by his brothers was carrying balm from Gilead to Egypt). To "degauss" is to remove magnetism.

David Mills