The drunkard and glutton come to poverty
‘The only interesting thing is to live’
His death will be a growth,
he thinks of it as a grove of citrus,
lemon and grapefruit tumours ripening,
spilling juices. Past thirst or hunger,
now he is parched only for taste:
decanted full-bodied reds, old and dark;
a glut of oysters that harbour a ghost
of the Atlantic; then foie gras, more earth
than animal, swirled greens, pinks,
on a rough-crust homemade bread.
Demerol and Dilaudid hold the pain
at blurry remove. He drowses then rallies
as the toast is to love, honour and memory,
for his life in service of his countrymen,
and these few birds,
two-ounce, yellow-throated songsters,
illegal to eat, are the perfect gesture.
(Ortolan, blinded and fattened
then drowned in Armagnac,
plucked and cooked, until they sing).
Each head disappears under a napkin,
a pressed white cloth, to hide from God,
or just to heighten the senses.
The birds taken whole give completely,
meat and organs explode with flavour:
a last rush of air and alcohol
from the lungs; body of rain and berries,
Africa and ocean; the skull pops,
its map of stars crushed to a paste;
edges of bone nick the palate.
A few cannot swallow. Unsated
he takes the last bird, disappears again,
mouth cut and scorched with such heat of fat,
his own heart races like a trapped bird’s
that stutters through a shaft of sunlight
in the height of a church vault,
chewing for what seems like days,
past flavour to pain and his own blood.
His eyes water with the last gulp down:
he watches the darkest corner of the room.
He’d warm maggots, roll them
on the tongue behind his teeth,
then sling fistfuls to bait a swim.
With an old-bastard laugh in all weathers,
bait box breath and lung rattle,
and his gog on the bankside sedge
yellow as the innards of split casters.
He’d slide them with the meat of his thumb
past the barb on too-big hooks.
I would have been eleven or twelve
that August, when fear itself was maggots
slipped into your coat hood or pockets,
the stink and taste of them
in your lunch box; those new-hatched,
writhing in the side of a dead tench.
And then there was the story of that girl,
washed to him at the crook of the river
one dawn, that he staked her to the bank
with an old iron rod-rest, then carried on.
Unreasonably young someone said,
and something about her still open eyes.
All I knew in that quease of a summer
was how quickly a maggot turns to caster,
how casters burst into flies.
Matt Howard lives in Norwich, where he works for the RSPB. Matt is also a steering group member of New Networks for Nature, an eco-organisation that asserts the central importance of landscape and nature in our cultural life. His debut pamphlet, The Organ Box, was published by Eyewear in December 2014. He was part of last year’s Aldeburgh 8 at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival.
Matt Howard’s pamphlet ‘The Organ Box’ is available here, from Eyewear Publishing.