Heroes

I never moved the mirror
from its stand in the corner
where it was left, like a sentinel,
by the previous owner –

the still water of another mind
full of old reflections and purposes.
I used to be surprised to see myself there,
a ghost in my own home, lost on the surface.

I was hardly even aware
that on my way to the office, walking
past the arcades, threading the crowds,
rushing in the sharp, late morning,

I could have turned aside
where Westland Row meets Merrion Square,
under the windows of the Davenport Hotel –
or, really, any road, anywhere –

just kept on walking,
through Ringsend and beyond,
past the tailbacks and the trailers
to where the sea meets the long strand;

boarded a small sailboat,
anything that floats on water,
a catamaran, even a dinghy;
and set off into an unknown future.

I was hardly aware of my own hands,
their softness, their blunt power,
the way they callus so quickly
if I have to lift and carry for a few hours.

Or of my nose, its many colours,
brown and orange and pink,
the blocked pores, the faint sheen
after an evening on the drink.

The way my hair shines
under a yellow light.
The happiness of breathing.
The freedom of being awake at night.

Night-time when I was younger
was cool sheets and my mother’s voice,
telling stories from picture books:
the poisoned land, the hero’s choice –

the silly rabbit and the duckling
who hugged each other at the end
and made the whole world happy,
‘and no-one was ever alone again’ –

I’d go to sleep in the shuddering darkness,
the power of the stories whirling
in my stomach and behind my eyes.
I became a dreamer in the world.

I burned with that energy;
I chose to be the flame-haired hero,
to make his choices, to be the brightness
in the story, without fear.

I didn’t know - at every turn, every choice
I could have gone elsewhere.
The catamaran; the other girls;
the boy with the untidy hair

who smiled at me in the library,
and my spine tingled from end to end;
the thousand countries and cities
where I would have made friends;

the way I would have kissed
the Spanish girl in the sunlit alcove
if I’d been braver, if I’d known
she too was only looking for love.

In some weird future, the hero
maybe is dying on the dirty floor
of a Bangkok shack, heroin
in his veins, voices at the door –

or sitting at the kitchen window
as dawn begins to light the rooftops
of any city; she’s asleep in the bedroom,
and there’s coffee on the hob.

Maybe in the million stories
there’s just one hero, wandering
from room to room, screen to screen;
moving with open, wondering eyes

through the labyrinth of mirrors,
while the audience, if there is one,
accepts each change of mask and scene
without fear, even with a sense of fun.

Just to look at a tree, to really look –
a tree in a dream, on a diamond plateau,
or a tree in the rain in Merrion Square,
leaves dripping, branches dark and soaked,

the way the leaves open like hands
to catch the raindrops, as a child would –
you can’t be in a story.
You never hear of Red Riding Hood

stopping in the woods, fascinated
by the shimmering moss, the ancient stone,
forgetting her errand; in her immortality
she doesn’t have that freedom.

But you do; even the eyes of the girl
when she tells you she likes you;
if you really want to see her,
you can’t be a hero. You can only be you.