About the Poem
About the poet
Penelope Shuttle (b. 1947) has made her home in Cornwall since 1970 and the county's mercurial...
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He will steal it, whatever you possess.
Whatever you value, what bears your name,
everything you call 'mine', he will steal.
Everything you have is frail and will be stolen from you.
Not just watch or bracelet, ring or coat,
bright objects, soft splendours, gifts, necessities,
but the joy that bends you easily and makes you feel safe,
your love of what you see each different morning
through your window, the ordinary seen as heavenly.
Your child's power, your lover's touch, will be stolen
from under your nose. He will steal everything.
He will take everything from you. You will never see him.
You will never hear him. You will never smell him.
But he will destroy you.
No surveillance is close enough, no guard clever enough,
no lock secure enough, no luck good enough;
the thief is there and gone before you have sense
or breath to cry out.
He has robbed you before, a hundred times.
You have never seen him but you know him.
You know his vermin smell without smelling him,
you feel his shadow like deprival weather, grey, oppressive.
You know he watches from far away or from just round the corner
as you regather your little hoard of riches, your modest share
of the world, he watches as you build your shelter of life,
your hands raw from working day and night, a house
built out of bricks that must be guessed at, groped for,
loved, wept into being; and then upon those walls
you and your people raise a roof of joy and pain, and you live
in your house with all your ordinary treasures,
your pots and pans, your weaned child, your cat and caged bird,
your soft bestiary hours of love,
your books opening on fiery pages, your nights
full with dreams of a road leading to the red horses of Egypt,
of the forest like a perfumed pampered room wet with solitude.
You forget the thief. You forget his vanity,
his sips and spoonfuls of greed. But he watches you,
sly in the vaults of his wealth.
Shameless, sleepless, he watches you.
Grinning, he admires your sense of safety.
He loves all that you love.
Then, in disguise with empty pockets, his fingers dirty
and bare, rings of white skin in place of gold bands,
he comes like a pauper on a dark patchwork morning
when summer is turning round and robs you blind.
He takes everything.
He is the thief in whose gossamer trap you have been floating
all these years. He comes and takes everything.
Your house is empty and means nothing, the roof falls in
and the walls of love dissolve, made of ice;
the windows no longer watch out over heaven, the bare wooden
floors show their scars again and ache for the forest.
He takes everything you have, this thief, but gives you one gift.
Each morning you open your eyes jealous as hunger, you walk
serpent-necked and dwarf-legged in the thief's distorting mirrors,
you go nakedly through the skyless moonless gardens and pagodas
of envy that he gives you, the thief's gift, your seeding wilderness.
From Selected Poems (Oxford Poets/Carcanet, 1998), copyright © Penelope Shuttle 1998, used by permission of the author and publisher
Penelope Shuttle Reading from her poems