Up Late | Nick Laird | Granta

Up Late

Nick Laird

If I shut my eyes to the new dark
I find that I start to experience time
in its purest state: a series of durations
rising and dilating beneath my inwards gaze:
an eruptive core where the umbra blooms
in crestless waves of darkness as within
another umbra bubbles up from the interior –
from nothingness, from nowhere –
and at the centre of the crest of this
disintegrating, reassembling nest
the jet of time generates, is consciousness,
the planetary mind, aloft, alone, mine,
jostled and spun like a ping pong ball.




My father died today. Sorry to bolt that on.
You understand the shift required. This morning
the consultant said your father now is clawing
at the mask and is exhausted and we’ve thrown
everything we have at this. It’s a terrible disease.


He promises to give him morphine and that a nurse
will be beside him at all times to hold his hand
and talk him through it.
It being the transition,
the change of state, the fall of light, the trade,


the instant of the hand itself turning from the subject
into object. No, we are not allowed in the ward
and there cannot be exceptions. Thank you for making
this difficult call. But I know what the body wants.
Continuance. Continuance. Continuance
at any cost.




But dying, then, as we speak,
my father in the IC ward
of Antrim Area Hospital.


The icy ward.
The ICU.
I see you too.


On Sunday they permitted us to Zoom
and he was prone in a hospital gown
strapped to a white slab.
The hospital gown split at the back
and the pale cold skin of his back was exposed.


He lifted his head to the camera
and his face was all red, swollen,
bisected vertically by the mask,
and we had to ask Elizabeth the nurse
to say his words back to us –
he sounded underwater –
it’s been a busy day but not a good day.




I could see even with the mask on
your little satisfaction with the phrase
managed out.


And the achievement left you
so depleted you lowered your head
back to the slab, having done with us,


like some seal on a rock looking up
as we pass on the Blue Pool ferry
out to Garinish.
you poor bastard, I see you.
You lay like that for a week alone
with your thoughts in the room.


Tethered. Breathless. Undefended.
At sea as on an ice floe
slipping down into the shipping channels.




The eye adjusts, even to darkness,
even to the presence of what overwhelms us,
and as I make my way from the bed to the study
the soles of my feet on the carpet warp it
as any fabric made of this space-time will distort
beneath the force of a large object – and my father,
as it happens, is gigantic – and if you thought
an understanding could be reached, you are wrong
for it could not.
The goldfish pilots the light of itself
through a ten-gallon darkness and I keep watch
as the large hand of the clock covers the small
and leaves it behind to the weak approximation
I sit here in and finish writing.




I want the poem to destroy time.
What are the ceremonies of forgetting?


There is a spring in Boetia
that lets the river Lethe enter the world.


King Gjuki’s ale of forgetfulness.
Excessive phlegm.


But I like the notion of the angel
lightly tapping the baby


in its soft hollow above the top lip, erasing
all the child knows,


all its regret, all its terrible grief,
before it descends again fresh to the world.




After your stroke you were born once more
as smaller, greyer, softer, and after Mum died,
left bewildered, adrift, ordering crap online
and following the auctions, the horses, the football,
the golf – but hungering for company, for anyone,
sending money to that Kenyan who was younger
than me and flying out to Germany to see her,
and again, before Jackie arrived on the scene,
the divorced blonde who had ‘her demons’,
by which you meant she was a violent alcoholic,
though with Louise things seemed steady enough,
for a few months, before you got stuck in one
of your loops about her ex-husband funding her
and the weird behavior of her ingrate daughter.




You could never let anything go, a trait
I also suffer from, and kind of admire, but


this is not a possibility. The tick of the clock
is meltwater dripping into the fissure.


The minute hand clicks across the hour hand
and hovers for a minute, exactly,


and impinging on the vision is your slack wild face
and the way a nurse’s hand might hold


your cold hand or try again to lift your hand
but your hand now will not respond.




I have been writing elegies for you all my life, Father,
in one form or another, but now I find the path is just
this game trail through the forest, the forested mind
and I would follow in the manner of an animal –
a deer, a fox, a chimpanzee – returning to the clearing
to nuzzle the corpse, to lick its nape or bite it softly,
to look away, and look again, and wait for a response.
One hand on the clock holds the other for a minute
before going on alone. It is death that is implicit
in the ticking.




One must negotiate the next moment. The mind
will not stop and certain things are good to think
with. Goldfish; carpet; clock. I want something fit
to mediate the procreative business of redoubling
the brittle world, and settle on an image, for a second,
since it is a given that the mind will keep returning
to the magic, the legerdemain, the trick: one hand
holding your hand as it turns into an object, as I turn
back along the track toward the fold, toward
the corner of the field where the father’s body lies,
and with an animal’s dumb clarity do grief work –
kiss your hand and kiss your cheek and leave
my forehead for a time pressed against yours.




When I phoned the hospital this afternoon
to say goodbye, though you were no longer lucid,


Elizabeth the nurse held the phone against your ear
and I could hear your breathing, or perhaps the rasping


of the oxygen machine, and I said what you’d expect.
I love you, Dad, and I want you to keep on fighting,


but if you are too tired now, and in too much pain,
then you should stop fighting, and let go, and whatever


happens it’s okay. I love you. You were a good father.
The kids love you. Thank you for everything.


Then I hung up. And scene. Impossible to grieve
and not know the vanity of grief. To watch one


self perform the rituals that take us. Automaton
of grief, I howled, of course, by myself


in my office, then sobbed for a bit on the sofa.
An elegy I think is words to bind a grief


in, a companionship of grief, a spell
to keep it safe and sound, to keep it


from escaping. There are various ways to
memorize. Plato calls on Mnemosyne.


My grandfather Bertie liked to tie
a knot in his blue handkerchief.


My father wrote in biro on his palm.
I cannot leave the poem alone.




Do you remember the pure world? I remember it
from being a kid. All was at stake in that place,
one moved through it sideways, through forests
of time, lost in them, and had to be called back
to the moment. Infinities growing in stone,
in moss, in the hayshed, the rain, the wind,
in the darkness under the cattle grid.


Rilke says of the pure unseparated element –
‘ . . . someone dies and is it.’




It’s after two.
You are dead by now I hope.
Who thought to write that?


There’s no hurry now,
no effort, no need to call.
You might be only sitting


in your red chair
endlessly flicking
through the channels.




When I asked the doctor, Andrew Black, he said,
it could take minutes, it could take hours,


and I see you slumped, not sitting up,
propped against some pillows


with your eyes closed. Something in you
finally given up defying gravity,


some obedience to objecthood settled
in you now and set up home. Set in stone.


Outside on the motorway the headlights
of the vehicles are necklaces of diamonds,


double-strung, and alongside them,
heading westwards, necklaces of garnets.
I cannot stay in the room with you too
long in my mind. It is too hard. I thought


there would be futurity. I thought things
would happen. Nothing major. Barbecues.


Why barbecues? God knows. You are walking
round Bantry at the Friday market in your shorts


in the rain, your white tube socks pulled tightly up
and a bright t-shirt from some Spanish golf trip


tucked into your shorts. By the way,
we are even, you and I. No need. Look:


How absolutely still the room is. Outside
the widowed sky has grown huge with stars.


The Milky Way meandering like the Ballinderry,
though the night has come with work to do.


It sits with you and broods. It wants you
to come at your own pace. And at this moment


you might get up and speak clearly to everything,
creation, extinction, infinities rising within you.




Alastair Laird is dead. Fuckety fuck. Fuckety
fuck fuck fuck fuck. My dad is dead. Bad luck.
The light breaks and the night breaks and the line
breaks and the day is late assembling. Rows
of terraced houses are clicking into place. Clouds
decelerate and make like everything is normal:
the children wanting porridge, voices forcing
pattern out of circumstance, pitching rhythmic
incident on little grids of expectation, satisfaction,
disappointment, and this new awe, and walking to
school, at the corner where the halfway house is,
leaves animated in a briefest circle by the wind.




Photograph © henrie tsai

Nick Laird

Nick Laird’s most recent books are the poetry collection Feel Free and the novel Modern Gods. He is on faculty at New York University, and the Seamus Heaney Professor of Poetry at Queens’ University, Belfast.

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