Judith Wilkinson

The Rope-Dance

The circus had departed.

The ghosts she claimed had disappeared.        

The scent of him a gradual vanishing act.

If he came back today with conjured caresses,

there'd be no fiction to catch them,

no canopy rigged for high drama.


           First, you walked by one day and  

           the scent of you stung me and

           your laugh planted itself in me and then

           you and then you beyond denial, or was it

           just a token on the wind       

           I put your name to?


So much child's play in a day's work.

Their lovemaking so much fantasy, his make‑believe

her conviction, his freedom her licence,

with him she could be constantly unwise,     

when he promised she accepted

something too good to be true.


           When you arrived at my door saying: try me

           I did. 

           Among the wise ones who knew better,

           among office ways and compromise and my small lies

           and a slick voice always saying: no

           I preferred my choice.


Always the first to start and the last to finish,

reveller, rampant self‑broadcaster, winged

speaker, wiry drinker liar soothsayer beautiful

mocker tight‑rope dancer juggler with many fates. 

A few narrow escapes, a few amazing escapes

his talent of recovery was catching.


           I found you my own extravagance.         

           Joining the dance, I grew certain of your step

           and mine, how to float on air as timed, balance   

           just as timed, touch down when the lights fell

           and of course rise.  Under a turquoise spot‑lit sky

           your recklessness my compass.                                    


Open in his affections, lavish in his attentions,

and she, one of those dead hours,

having slept too long in solitude,

was taken by surprise.  Such surprise, even he

had not dreamt of, maybe, not intended maybe,

or maybe her dreams too insistent to escape.                 


           Since I had given you myself

           and since you gave in kind I thought

           this will hold.  Since I told myself

           you loved me plenty and

           we had bargained for some truth I thought

           this will hold.


Plenty of months went by and he stayed,

after each fight between them, stayed,

after each time the lights changed and the stars galloped off and

returned, stayed, till she would have sworn

even their cream‑and‑gold make‑up a skin

proof against all weathers.


           I savoured the calm between storms,

           and you, and your gift of mellowness,  

           and those moments without hassle,

           when you took the words out of my mouth

           or when silence could communicate itself

           without the sky falling down.                    


On stormy days he'd tear someone to pieces a little madly,

or her, a little madly, because the world wasn't right

or because she was easy or difficult or too silly or too serious

or just too close for comfort or

because he hated her or loved her

a little or maybe just on a whim.


           When the world began to crack    

           and the canopy an enclosure

           and the silences fidgety,

           I pitched my best acts into the ring:

           every far‑fetched skill I could juggle,               

           every miracle I could master.


One of those long dark days too many,

one of those impossible tumbles too many,

he fell crash down on the ground

one act out of time.

When the light rose for nothing, and he would not stand up,

her own riggings jerked, and her balance broke.


           I tumbled down a universe that night.

           In the chaos I heard somebody screech

           and die.  Hitting the ground,                 

           I scrambled out of the spotlight

           a few vivid     

           ghosts at my throat.                          


Jumping up in his own good time, he smiled at the audience,

and bowed.  Having cracked the show

and everyone a little numb and she sick and somebody furious

he walked out, had a few gins, and went to bed.

Nothing to make a scene about, nothing to screech about,

nothing a good sleep would not fix.


           The world would not come right in my mind.

           The circus unhinged, I thought all acts obscene,

           each face ghostly, each dance a farce, each flight 

           each word each deed a nothingness, and still

           my conviction that there was

           plenty to screech for.  And more.


For more than a year she bolted all her doors,      

kept all the blinds down, 

tenderly nursed her nightmares, fed the ghosts   

and continued to rage at the walls. 

She let the phone ring like an impossibility

and insisted he was dead.             


           This taste of ash persists.        

           The smell of death clings truthfully enough.       

           So, I must take you at your act:

           one mad night I cannot deny,

           one death‑drunk night nothing can undo,

           and my horror.            


Having let the circus depart without a visit,

a stock of hatred under her belt,

with a persisting sorrow for herself,

sick one day and with a kitsch smile the next,

shedding a few skins and a few lunacies,

she unbolted the doors one afternoon.


           They say a cup of tea will do the trick,

           and common sense.  And that grief must be

           proportionate to loss. 

           But what about these ghosts,

           whose performance                

           I must credit?                    


She let the ghosts run riot as they chose, 

raise hell as they desired, lash out as they desired, turn

savage as drunkards, suicidal as fire‑eaters,

dying with an easy grin, rising with a slick smile,

entering into every dream



           In the chaos after the dark, when it remained dark,

           one of the ghosts attacked me and I fought, and

           all night it was him at my throat and all night I fought,

           and all night he raged he knew me as I him,

           and all night I pitched my rage against his own.

           In the morning I woke, and there was nothing.    


Since there was nothing to be recovered, since the ghosts          

began to lose their grip, ad‑libbed poorly in dreams

and poorly in nightmares, and since the light made the odd            

come‑back and the dark entered like a familiar,

she began, one day, to fashion new dances       

on level terrain.


           Madness will still have a place.  Nothing

           too symmetrical, enough questioning in the balance,           

           deaths well‑rehearsed, no darkness too surprising,          

           and most things possible.  As for sweet light

           I wonder what bounty it will conjure

           next time round