After a photograph by Rachel Giese

Nothing but the present and the presence of the past,
                                I think, looking at this photograph of giddy
schoolchildren
                who raise their hands and clamber towards the lens

twenty years after they stepped out of the picture
                                into an afternoon of geography and sums, into
                whatever lay beyond the scuffed grass and tarmac

of their playground. The truth is, I’ve long forgotten the name
                                of the girl whose freckled face hovers forever
                between someone else’s outstretched thumbs,

though I might have kissed her once at a school dance,
                                or carved her initials into a desk with my compass.
                And that boy with the immaculate bowl-cut,

who lingers front and centre in the frame,
                                I can’t remember if it was him or someone else
                I helped up once from a pool of his own puke.

‘Ghost figures’ I want to say, or ‘bees in amber’
                                of the twenty or so pupils gathered here,
                but they are not the dead, nor are they the selves

we shed like a dead skin, these contemporaries
                                of mine from the next town over, impatient for
                the home time bell, or a car chase and cartoons.

They do not ask to be remembered here,
                                and yet I can’t help remembering something
                about each of them, writing this letter home

in which I explain how one of those twins in the front row
                                will show thirty of us our first condom,
                filling it under the cold tap down the back

of the woodwork room. Or how, later that year,
                                I’ll watch the boy in the plaid shirt kiss his brow
                against the brow of another so that a fresh bruise

blossoms up out of bone. In one of my notebooks
                                I’ve written down that the aim of the photographer
                ‘should be a profound likeness, which physically

and morally predicts the subject’s entire future.’
                                So what is it this picture says of theirs or mine—
                the future artist with one arm slung round

the future casual laborer, and both of them
                                thinking of nothing more than an evening
                they’ll spend watching Popeye, or herding cows

up some back-lane, bringing a switch
                                of sycamore down onto muddy haunches,
                whistling the theme from The Virginian?