My father kept a stove
with dog's legs
on a pink hearthstone.
One morning he climbed down the icy stairs
and spread his palms
on the blood-warm metal flanks.
He cranked open the iron doors,
like a black bank safe's,
but found no heat and ash heaped in its place.
He cracked grey whittled coals,
released brief blue flames,
and knocked downy soot through the bars of the grate.
The ash-pan, softly loaded
and almost as wide as a doorway,
he carried like dynamite through the dark house,
his bright face blown with smuts.
At the back door
he slid the ash into a tin dustbin,
then snapped sticks,
struck a match
and dipped it between the kindling.
Smoke unrolled, flames spread,
the rush of the stove eating air started up
and my father would shake on rocks
from an old coal hod
and swing the doors shut.
But this time
he took a book, broke its spine
and slung that on instead:
year by year,
purred as their pages burned,
their leather boards shifted, popped
and fell apart.
Soon I would arrive,
pulled from under my mother's heart,
and grow to watch my father
break the charred crossbeam of a bird from the flue,
wondering if I too
had hung in darkness and smoke,
looking up at the light let down her throat
whenever my mother sang or spoke.
from The Brink (Picador, 2003), © Jacob Polley 2003, used by permission of the author and the publisher.