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for Huiyi Bao
A Shanghai night-poet,
Keeping Chinese hours,
Looks across the lights of Dublin
At the sleeping powers
On western time. A little wine
But mostly tea, exfoliating
Leaf by strange green leaf
In earth-dark, where the soul alone
Breathes itself on the windowpane.
After Mao, the masses, slaughter,
Brotherless, the lonely daughter
Of the Policy of One
Is staring out, through bloodshot eyes,
At emptiness a Trappist monk
Awakens to, unblinking,
In the small hours.... O for advice
From that strange soul-sister
Out of Asia, someone new,
A veteran of Anabasis,
A follower of Chuang Zhu,
A Gnostic at the hour of sex
Who sees through all the books!
She must be sleeping by now,
Her hair cut straight across her brow,
Her dregs brewed out, her left brain’s
Dreaming mind a hemisphere
Ahead of me, already night
In Shanghai, as I write.
The platinum blondes in speech laboratories
Wall themselves off from world-noise, behind glass.
Invisible, I could be one of the trees
Linnaeus missed, as I stretch out on the grass,
For all the notice anyone takes of me –
A revenant, a ruined polymath,
A Hammarskjold crash-landing into death
Who never could decide which faculty
Suited him best, the beautiful or the good.
An August Strindberg, alchemising gold
That turns to stone. A Swedenborg, out in the cold
For centuries... Alumni, year on year,
Losing themselves like lights in the northern wood –
I too was a student once, and hung out here.
We stop to watch a road crew shovel
a steaming midden of asphalt,
two of them sprinkling the stuff
in ritual movement, expert, indifferent,
almost sleepwalking through the job in hand,
a third raking level, the bumps he misses
sinking anyhow where the clumps of hot tar
and aggregate relax and spread flat, a fourth
slumped in the saddle of a drum roller,
waiting for his moment. We watch them
dole it out, each sticky clod glistening
like beluga caviar, the smell heavy, medicinal.
It holds its gloopy sheen for a while,
before settling into the rich density
of boudin noir. I couldn’t do this alone.
I couldn’t stand here without a prop
and not feel a stab of self-consciousness.
I need a daughter to kneel beside.
I pull her close, point out the men at work.
She says, Dig, which is fine by me –
it’s close enough.
She points and shouts, Dig, dig!
Yes, I say. Dig, dig.
Du huschd hott gschofft. Sell waar guud!
After we’d hoisted it up, and made it fast,
we left the wind to chase through
the unclad frame, and sat at trestle tables
draped with homespun cloths.
We ate in silence, making fists
of our knives and forks,
each accepting what was served
with a sullen nod.
Then the hammers were taken up,
the feather-edge nailed into place,
the honour given to me
to fix the final board and block
the last remaining bar of light.
Though the work was good,
I was eager to return to my world
of dulling excess, and so we shook hands,
in stoic fashion, and I made my way.
Half a mile – the barn hadn’t even sunk
beneath the first wave of barley –
I heard the hammers, hard at work again,
and I paused, realising
there was more to be done.
Hannah Baker Saltmarsh
ALICE WALKER'S COUCH
This is how it starts: a woman slashes her mirror with taped quotes,
the manifesto-motto of feminist writers, who themselves were left
by a lover or two who couldn’t stand to be around them, and who,
anticipating more dings to their barely resolved-enough rejection-complex,
says this, no more: to divest oneself of the need to be loved
is the beginning of self-love, and we know loving oneself is,
à la Wilde, “the beginning of a life-long romance.”
You don’t want to love yourself, hardly even like yourself, all that long, do you—
not forever like a middle-aged cat with too many years left to knock the alarm clock
off the headboard, thrust another dawn down your throat?
But what to do with the need to love, the flailing, winged other-side of the same fish,
is a moot point, because rooted in the same desperation to be texted back,
to be invited twice, in person, to the same function, to flit a little higher,
vainglorious with your own generosity in bringing nice alcohol
to the party. The womanist writer says you need a couch, not a bed: her one piece
of relationship advice, given after her talk. And the word rings out, is heard,
even by those without any kind of couches at all;
by those with character couches that make enormous dust clouds
when slapped in the chest, and unheeding all who sit there,
cat-claw lacerated, uneven slopes of slinky-popped springs;
and by the elderly who wait there, in re-upholstered, poufy sofas, for a phone call.
And by all the eyesome twenty-somethings, barely with-it enough
to acknowledge all bonding had happened wasted, not even amounting
to one delicately bruised ear, barely self-mocking enough to call their daybeds their sole
couches, rococo chaise-lounges, for talking hours enough until you
reach the edge of the other kind of “and then we started talking” that means
“we’re not seeing anyone else.” Walker might have found the hope chest
the most couch-like surface of youth, and while the cedar got heavier each move
with my brother-pallbearer heaving my bachelorette one-room furniture,
it got easier to exist atop with gravitas like on a sleek memorial bench in a dog park
where you could say nothing alone together in anniversary-level telepathy.
On one side of you, a wreathed donkey pulls a tourist-carriage, decorated in
purple and white roses; the other, a purple party bus wails out, “Girl, you know
I’m there for you, I got some new shoes
and a bag of hair for you,” certain of where to go:
I live between the antique carriage house, swampy with manure hosed-down,
and the widest road to the French Quarter. My daughter sleeps
with the house ablaze in party-bus disco lights, erratic lyric blasts,
and the quickening clippety-clops of donkeys at the end of the day.
It was mid-afternoon though when a bullet pecked
the wall above my adult-life couch, and we sit there to talk about moving again.
WILLIAM COWPER, UNSUNG TO
It’s ending options I’ve come for with my years, take
the hey-anyone? dawn as is, take the picture of my mother: when I learned
she died is when I learned I had one. I’m breath played up a long time so
here are my several, my lots how we manage, you see the Nonsense Club I’m
five-time member of, Giles Gingerbread, out of pounds I owe crossleg.
Does pseudo-Cicero say nephew, Dear nephew on purpose
is that what bleeding’s for? the asker an invention for writing. No one asked you.
I’m writing off my head to you.
I once (three times) tried killing myself second with a shoe buckle, sin is I didn’t
cut it. Why because my lungs are ribbed over like football’s lacing splitting up
an otherwise fist, God holds it against me, unless, no.
Do I have to guess? It’s nothing to do with the Inner Temple,
nothing to do with the friends from there, but what’s in that ink blot
from our talk comes in my dreams. There’s my hand covering my knee,
a nervous finisher of paying visits except to Theodora.
Theo in my leg now of the poem with a shark’s tooth she shows her father,
my cousin if she marries me. Answering him what would she do, says
wash all day and ride the great dog all night. But a woman with her jam-rags
every month seven days all day, a bleeding animal, the smell of washing Theo,
the damp-grass air of hares, Bess, Tiney, and Puss, three of them with different
personalities I miss the more I stay on. Yet, if I rollicked with a madam tomorrow,
sang pre Ray Charles gospel erotica, moving in a manifold of God’s mysterious ways
through hymnal-rhythmic heaving, there the Jordan between her thighs,
then would it make me worse off all my brothel-less days with you?
But there’s no you in question, just chaste garden hikes with an undersung friend.
How long is an evening without air?
What January the first was, what 1764 was, you wouldn’t know,
you don’t know, what it was to wake up to, hot and cold. It’s over with me
the dream called me a thee and used the word
perish in a real, journalizing dark
between rooms tunneled, the corded tin John Johnson a cousin of mine
said into A Happy New Year to Mr. Cowper,
it will find you working on your Ho-mer.
I heard time has come that always means torment with me, in my shaded
face I waited now press I have forgot what.
A WALK IN THE GRAVEYARD
—The floorboards were hidden by swelling banks of nettles and clumps of thistles. The bedroom had the spiked fresh mundane smell of nettles and the elusive honeyed scent of thistles. There were too many stags in her dressing room to move around freely, and their flanks were smoking, and you could see their breath and smell hide. And, if you looked close, see vermin on the move through their pelts, which made her think of women labouring through a thicket, tearing their auburn hair on thorns. And, and the antlers made the click of knitting when they touched, however gently, or else the clack of pool.
—I see, I said.
As we walked, she drew back her face and observed me through a rent veil of hair.
—Between their legs scuttled badgers, and stoats between theirs, and then voles. A cascade of British quadrupeds. Beneath the floor were moles, throwing up neat mounds of splintered wood. The bedroom ceiling was invisible behind a curtain of wisteria, magnolia, honey-suckle, and the lower leaves of an enormous lime. You could hear bees. Downstairs, a colt-pony was in the fridge, and was stomping on the frosted shelves. He was guzzling on lettuce, red pepper, cellophane and marmalade from a shivered jar. With bloody lips and a bloody tongue.
—Oh … ?
—Meantime, back on the bed her dog, Sherry or Cherie, I never knew which, and perhaps there was no which, she was both honey-coloured and loved, lay between her slightly parted legs with her ears down and a shamed glow in her eyes, which wouldn’t meet the shamed glow in mine. Her muzzle rested on my granny’s balding mount of Venus, risible under a lawn nighty trimmed with lace daisies and lace marigolds.
Around us, tormented and chilled, beneath quilted grass, lay spines and skulls set in jellied beds of human mush. If in a city you are always less than six feet from a rat, in a graveyard you are always equally close to a skeleton, your own included. The grass, was a saturated green with matte yellow stuffing. In it, rakish monuments bobbed subliminally, those in granite pristine, those in slate weathered, those in sandstone effaced.
—Revealing priorities, I said. We build our homes of wood and brick and tin but our graves of stone.
—And our bodies of meat and skin and fur, she said.
—Look! Look! said my Nan, she said, in utter joy. A beige fawn leaps through the casement, and prances in the herbaceous borders and bounds the picket fence with its twisted rails and bent posts and crooked, peeling wickets. Now it is wolfing gloxinias and liriodendron leaves which it gathers into its mouth with a shiny blackish tongue, lobed and plumb. Greedy devil! But something is wrong with all the flowers! They look like piles of bones. She was delirious, you see, she said.
—And, and there is a rook with blue feathers and a white face perched on my lampshade, she told me, she said, his shellac, scaled claws denting watered lemon silk. Now it may interest you to know, my dear Rook, that I am a British Subject! Caw!, she told me it replied. And Rook, Rook, she went on severely, listen to me now! Christ is a personal friend. If He goes deeper than me, then I believe I have had the more interesting life.
—Christ? Christ! She wiped the back of her hand across her slack mouth and blinked her eyes. Can you see Him?, I asked her softly. No!, she said, cross. Sometimes you, my dear, are insufferably dim. Christ was, she then confided in a rising voice, as if about to sneeze or come, a mere Quisling, cat’s paw, yes a puppet of God’s! Yes? I asked. Yea!, she said, emphatic. His stigmata are where there were the strings.
—No strings attached! I said, as if I understood. But I felt banal.
—I am paralysed and I wish to embark first, then she said, in a very calm, crystalline enunciation. Please let me know what time I should be carried on board. Her eyes became lovely, and she held out her arms and smiled.
Her hand, my friend’s, as we walked, was sweaty and lay in my hand. But it was also supernaturally expressive, articulate, even voluble, and calming, as if I was loved.
—She then made a rattling, gargling sound with her throat, as naturally as if it were a continuation of conversation by other means, she continued. I got into bed beside her, she said. I closed her eyes. Closed mine, which were on fire and afloat in tears which strangely felt not clear but black or brown, as if the colour inside my eyes had run. It was all just more like a birth than a death. When in the end she went I felt just like she had just been born into someplace else. Leaving me behind in the womb. And I knew one day I would follow, too, to the same else. My nose was running, so I used her sheet.
I thought of a glass paperweight, globular as a snow-dome and floored in fluted glass flowers, set in a dingy windswept room. We walked amongst interesting epigrammatical epitaphs :
Live as if you are dying.
My Deadly Beloved.
Because you are.