Asked for one grain on the first square,
doubled for each of the sixty four, he laughed too soon,
not having done the calculation.
Pondering the game, the possibilities,
at first near infinite and narrowing to none,
the masters sit, earth turns, the clock ticks on.
Through desert dust storms, thin figures walk,
appearing, disappearing at the edge of thought.
A tremor, brief as the twitch of a dog’s flank,
devastates a city. Millions of screens go blank,
then millions chatter. Weeping survivors stand,
hoping against hope, hands cling, dig and clasp,
stitch wounds, give blessings, tot up disaster’s profits.
Across the world, as the troops went in,
they left their bloody handprints on the walls
to say: we died here. Deep in caves,
a spat mouthful of red ochre shaping their absence,
they make and unmake the human.
On the tarmac, heat shimmer still, the plane
appears forgotten, but headlines change again,
and hidden troops prepare. They say the deadlock
is breaking at the talks, but at the North Pole
freezing night now grips the seas to silence.
Seabirds that screamed round the ice cliffs
have flown south, where the long day grows
at the other pole. Power watches power
at the fringes of frozen lands
where a storm depression whirls through in an hour.
Slow lichens expand their starry clusters,
Ancient snows break off and fall to the sea,
and prone among rocks the creeping forests lie.
In polished offices official talks go on;
in corridors hands exchange the sweat
of secret bargains. Speculators wait
for the moment to make their killings
in the waking markets to the east.
Having made hers, the leopard watches
sniffing night savannah smells,
acrid herself with her sharp cat scent.
Westward, further from dawn, gun butts
splinter doors, ambush the heart,
night fever of uneasy dictators
collecting sleep in muffled screams.
An unexpected move has thrown the champion.
Behind the greasy glass the tiger moves
with silent snarl through the jibes of children.
Through desert dust thin figures walk
in flapping rags, towards a faint hope.
Sacks of wheat and weapons come
in the gravid planes that wait to land.
Check. From almost infinite choice it’s gone to none.
From shanty towns the millions come
before dawn, somehow in clean clothes,
dead asleep in buses to and from,
dreaming of running water for their children,
houses, health, a good education.
In northern seas, whales circle in singing nurseries.
Great bowls incline to catch stellar whispers
turning like flowers on their perfect bearings
to catch the little pulses of the universe.
The constant sweep of sunrise, forever in motion,
reaches the Pacific, a wave of voices follows,
smoke rises, the morning race begins,
while the moon returns to full,
and in the deep pool they change formation
at the freshet’s head, the dappled river trout
in the dark water standing still.
At the talks they’ve reached the summit’s high point
and stand there in historic handshakes
held too long for the sake of cameras,
wide smiles seeking to hide the calculation
that chills their eyes. There’s hardly room
on the peak of this occasion
for camera crew, for hairdressers,
interpreters and cue card holders,
edging past each other for yet another take.
In some locked underground room
across a grey screen the people come,
forever walking towards the lens and beyond
through time and over memory’s horizon,
the displaced and hungry trudging on,
sometimes full of hope and joy, sometimes with none,
moving in ever greater numbers towards the unknown.