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Qualm September 2003
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QUALM Sept 2003
WALLS OF THE PEOPLES
The Great Wall of China
was built on ridgelines and blood
between the weeders and the gallopers
and soon poured across by both.
It is said to be the only
man-made thing visible from space.
Not true. Nearly everything is,
space being just a hundred kilometres
up from everywhere.
This wall was to separate
high cuisine from tent cauldrons,
marshalled text from shaman chants
and exams from that horizon mood
which welcomes things from space: cats, opium,
Antarctica, polyphony, unbound feet.
ON THE NORTH COAST LINE
The train coming on up the Coast
fitting like a snake into water
is fleeing the sacrificial crust
of suburbs built into fire forest.
Today, smoke towers above there.
We've winged across sills of the sea
we've traversed the Welsh and Geordie
placenames where pickaxe coughing
won coal from miners' crystal lungs.
No one aboard looks wealthy:
wives, non-drivers, Aborigines,
sun-crackled workers. The style
of country trains isn't lifestyle.
River levees round old chain gang towns
fall away behind our run of windows.
By cuttings like hangars filled with rock
to Stroud Road, and Stratford on the Avon,
both named by Robert Dawson, who ordered
convicts hung for drowning Native children
but the Governor stopped him. God
help especially the underdogs of underdogs
and the country now is spread hide
harnessed with sparse human things
and miles ahead, dawning into mind
under its approaching cobalt inked
Chinese scroll of drape-fold mountains
waits Dawson's homesick Gloucester
where Catholics weren't allowed to live.
There people crowd out onto the platform
to blow smoke like a regiment, before windows
carry them on, as ivory phantoms
who might not quip, or sue,
between the haunches of the hills
where the landtaker Isabella Mary Kelly
(She poisons flour! Sleeps with bushrangers!
She flogs her convicts herself!)
refusing any man's protection
rode with pocket pistols. Which
on this coast, made her the Kelly
who bore alone, when it was real,
the guilt of European settlement.
Now her name gets misremembered:
Kelly's crossing, Kate Kelly's Crossing
and few battlers on this train
think they live in a European settlement
and on a platform down the first
subtropic river, patched velvet girls
get met by their mothers' lovers,
lawn bowlers step down clutching their nuclei
and a walking frame is hoisted yea! like swords.
AN EARTHLY CAUSE
Because against the brown of the wide heath
out there that afternoon the shape was small
and pallid, bare and still,
it could have been a body: for a while
it was. When it resolved
into a pair of them, the pair of us
fell to explaining them: that they were young,
no second thought, that they were girl and boy,
they did appear to be,
in love of course, to sit so far away,
to have walked so far in such
persistent heat, to have so very far
to trek back to this path was a notch for love.
We had had days of sun and weeks of sun.
If this affair began
when that began, that would have seemed a sign,
a deal of two good hands,
a garden tended for them. As the dawns
continued foggy, burning off by nine,
belief would harden to a sense of fate,
in retrospect at that,
noon their witness, noon their intimate,
passing them ahead
to noon again, till what they'd happened on
would seem to have been waiting. Such a faith
can make it to the winter, but the days
continued hot. Today
was one of them, incensing heat, a sigh
that is all s. Our minds
were on to them, we couldn't let them be,
not now. Their attitude, in the tall tale
we spun as we walked on, should sour and turn
against the light, the sun
itself fall into question, a dry plain
spread before them, distance
measure what they had. If the heat stayed
relentlessly they'd find an earthly cause
at hand to blame, associate their lives
with that, hear old beliefs
and blush to. They were picking up their stuff
by now: we hurried on
along the path in patterns of late sunlight.
Jack Beeching (1922-2001). Three late poems.
Snowfall, extravagant in its caress,
puts a white clench on every twig and bud,
leopard to linger along sinking branches,
frozen white fur to crenellate the mud.
Spring rituals of plough and secateur
had just begun, the day that Charlotte painted
blossom to look like snow. Her hand felt cold.
Time took a turn. That night, the snow decanted.
A SEAMOUSE FEARS A CATFISH
A seamouse fears a catfish, and the starfish
yearns for the firmament. Anemones
wave petal fingers, even torpid seaweed
predicts the weather. Solitary crab
wears armour, squid could sign his name in ink.
Language emerged from whale trump and bird cry.
Some came half-heartedly out of the sea,
touched by the ebb and flow of tidal wave,
birth twice a day. A fish flew in the air
to dive back like a bird, a giant whale
gobbled shrimpling, ancient shark smelled blood
and spent millennia as scavenger.
Shore was a frontier between then and after.
Cold blood grew hot there, crawlers found their feet,
matricide now: from this white foreshore wave
no birth of goddesses, along the tideline
plastic strangles inkfish. Oil on water
traps childhood, seabirds, Venus and tomorrow.
His head dropped off, and fell into his lap;
hinge at the neck no longer took the strain.
He was a stiff, unbending sort of chap,
a man inclined to overdo his nap.
His open mouth fell downwards on his crutch
though all done neatly, and he felt no pain.
His wife soon put his headpiece on again.
He looked like someone chewing butterscotch.
Peter Reading. Ten untitled poems.
Mister, we are worse than the excrement of hogs
(which does nothing wrong,
but only enriches the earth),
for we crack on rocks the backs
of our supertankers
(which we dispatch
despite our retrospective intelligence),
and thereby, for reasons of avarice,
Today, once more,
Well, Mister, as I have elsewhere remarked,
it is a fucking good job
that it all doesn't matter.
Dusk falls: young girls,
an old calligrapher
(moon frosts his room)
confronts a page
This Sixth Molar,
by years' ravages,
abstract it, Dentist, please -
first bit of the whole foul heap
to go for good.
A spectrum sphere, child's blown bubble,
incongruously wafts past a window
of the Globe where we imbibe while we may;
a bewildered sparrow flackered through
the fleeting vigour of a once great mead-hall.
This morning he scrawled
one Haiku of no merit.
This falling darkness:
that of which he is able
is a failed Tanka only.
bakers' ovens' fragrance:
new bread -
we live for one day more.
As Artemis or golden Aphrodite,
Penelope shone there on his return.
[But men age quickly in adversity.]
My guide to me:
"This subfusc flumen,
so soon traversed,
may not be recrossed."
He is reading to his wife:
approaching the fiction's end,
he decelerates -
who does not regret last lines?
We have ditched most of the draff:
the unbidden spineless books,
the grot-gathering gubbins,
the outvogued vestments,
the cracked crockery,
the pot pig moneybox,
the Morecambe Bay mug,
the vintner's final demand,
the last-but-one's divorce papers,
the last home's deeds,
the chimp's wizened scrotum souvenir,
the bulk of the whole fucking shitheap.
That which remains is a cleared desk
and a time of appointment.
Take the long approach,
by foot through reed beds,
the sea seeming to get further,
everyone you pass
with pairs of identical toy dogs on a leash.
Once through the car park,
which someone has a franchise on,
and has built a kind of cafe in -
in a hut on top of another hut
- the beach is several floors
of steep tide-formed terraces,
half a dozen fishermen
with fixed rods and lines
spread out at regular intervals,
earthing them to the sea.
Gulls fish at the limit of naked eyesight.
will show no evidence of fish.
But oddly, amongst the wrack:
an empty still shrink-wrapped
supermarket carton, with a label saying:
That day, as she sorts through
pebbles to pick out
only the roundest (such richness requires
specialisation and focus) the sound
of the sea breaking on stones
will be a pitch or two from tearing
the mesh that binds -
and exhilarating for no reason.
Then just faintly boring.... Try to skim
stones that just sink
in the swell. Only one, in a lull,
will skip five or six times,
seeming to contravene a basic law.
SPRING STORM EMBLEMS IN GREEN END
Bewilderment of the fallen rook chick that's mistaken
the bars of a drain cover for the twigs of its nest.
'Profligate' spring scatterguns its short-lived leverets
and one-night-stand apple blossoms on the wind -
as gravid, as glorious, as gory as Victorians
burying six or seven from their nine or ten -
or the menfolk of villages marching to manure
sprays and rashes of paper poppies in a field of jackets.
The drenched hare-brained form-hugging hare that sits
to take its shower of pesticides like a man.
Other emblems here! A pair of greenfinches and a swallow
in Green End, dipping over a field of still green corn.
The blue and brown of a three months' daughter's eyes -
uncertain after whose, if after anyone's, to turn.
QUALM March 2004
I was wrapped in mine
On arrival, and it hit me,
The orange undersea light
Of the day of birth.
I was safe, though,
Unafraid of drowning
In the strange, new element
I had dropped into,
A man in a bathyscape
Of throwaway skin,
Old veins, post-natal,
Making his way in the world.
Some spoke of greatness,
Others of safety at sea.
Of the lying-in ward
Three pillars remain
And a great emotion.
Mother, am I beloved,
Or who else wears it now,
My dried skin cap,
For luck, on another ocean?
THE AIR MOUNTAINS
They are his mountains, the Air Mountains,
And they hang there, in childhood
And old age, and everything in between
Is a mirage, though he does not know it -
The wadi where he grows, the chequerboard of green
That is high Numidia. Bishops and proconsuls
In an immemorial game. The grafted olive takes
And bleeds clear oil, and the night,
Its superstitious shadows vanquished by reading-light,
Wakes to a dawn of advancement, in the knowledge-factory
Of Carthage. Where a door opens,
Coin is taken, and a hermaphrodite
Shows him upstairs, to the lewd Mithraic rites
On the mezzanine. Two hired women, seven men,
Kicking each other away, on the filthy sheets,
An octogenarian watching.
Darkness, but for a shaft of dusty light
Above in the roofbeams.
Lux interiora, he has taught himself to call it
All those decades later, when Rome itself is no more
And Carthage a weed-grown think-tank
For the defeated, in the lee of Punic Wars.
Lux interiora, light from within.
Desolate middle age, and the strength to begin -
To stumble down the stony watercourse
To Bizerta, a shadow in black robes
Among the landowners, their aloes, corn and slaves,
Their amulets against the Evil Eye,
Their lares, household gods, instinctual drives,
Their horses cannoning loose, and their crazes to die.
Foreshortened, the years crowd up to him like horizons.
Childhood again is near.
The sea, imagined once in a glass of water,
Again grows small. Concubinage, war
And orphaned knowledge, are no-roads to the interior.
There is snow on the Air Mountains. He is going there
To be cold in the Sahara
So far south, and know an impossible climate -
Hoggar, Atlas, Mountains of the Moon
Hanging outside gravity, before and after time.
For Erica Segre and Doris Heyden
Fishhooks of light
in the fountain with fish;
a hotel dream
of handcuffs of bone -
of diving with goggles
of shaved turtleshell.
Then jolted awake
as your head, the head
of a crawling bee
with that of a stag-beetle:
as hilarious as hideous.
But your new coat
of hives, a hairshirt
second skin, requires
some serial shots
of pure adrenalin -
from the big nurse
with the bedside manner
of an all-in wrestler.
It's Christmas morning
in the Hospital Belen...
Later you're a weird
lone child again -
the one for whom
coincidences happen -
though sheer nonsense
for the daylight gods
the exact timing
of your full-body alarm
with her fall to the floor
and flickering wait there.
Now you're left talking
into a black phone -
the connection broken
at a stroke between
her loved voice
intricate brain. Still
all ears for yours,
with a new vocabulary
of ingenious unseen
"It is greenish or bluish-black when raw"
That piece you wanted to write,
about a bluish-black
- that is, live, lobster -
alluding to both Beckett-Belaqua's,
and the one painted by Albrecht Durer -
it wanted lines as articulated
as the legs and shell
of the pre-boiled thing itself -
no less, no more -
and the requisite amount of armour.
You needed it to scuttle across
the bottom of a page of news,
and into its ruled box.
Where like a lobster in a lobster-pot,
having consumed its bait,
it would trace out its confines
with elegant feelers -
through ninety degrees -
trapped sea-wolf in deep salt water.
End of summer Victorian Cromer
with its spray lashed promenade
still goes a little into the sea on stilts,
three winding flights down
from the dank former elegance
of the towering Hotel De Paris.
There's a variety show on the pier,
graced by minor, former, soap stars.
Lives are brought here to breathe,
expand, and be photographed
on the beach. Days to remember,
free of what it means to be home.
One nil down to Germany,
a pub crowd lows with a single voice.
While a mother with a bruised face
teaches her daughter how to throw
chips from the pier, for wind-riding gulls,
which fail to catch them as they fall.
TRAVELLING THE BRITISH ROADS
Climb out of mediaeval one-way
and roundabouts make knotted rope
of the minor British roads
but legal top speed on the rocketing
nickel motorway is a lower limit!
I do it, and lorries howl past me.
Sometimes after brown food
at a pub, I get so slow
that Highland trackways
only have one side
since they are for feet
and hoofs of pack horses
and passing is ceremony.
Nor is it plovers
which cry in the peopled glens
but General Wade's chainmen
shouting numbers for his road
not in the Gaelic scores
but in decimal English.
Universal roads return as shoal
late in the age of iron rims.
Stones in the top layer to be
no bigger than would fit in your mouth,
smiles John McAdam. If in doubt
test them with your lips!
Highwaymen, used to reining in
thoroughbreds along a quag of track,
suddenly hang, along new carriageways
or clink iron on needy slave-ships,
but waggon horses start surviving
seven years instead of three
at haulage between new smoke towns.
Then railways silence the white road.
A horseman rides alone between villages;
the odd gig, or phaeton;
smoke and music of the bosh
rising out of chestnut shade:
Gypsies, having a heyday.
Post roads, drying out, seem strange
beaches, that intersect each other.
When housemaids uncovered their hair
at windows, and newfangled
steam roller made seersucker sounds
there were swans on the healed canal,
and with the sun came the Queen's
Horse Artillery in tight skeleton coats
to exercise their dubbined teams
watched by both fashionable sexes
in bloomer-like pedal pants.
I knew to be wary of the best dressed,
decent with the footsore,
but frontier-raffish with all
because the scripts they improvised from
were dry and arch, but quickly earnest.
From that day, and the audible
woodwind cry of peafowl, it was half
a long lifetime till jerked motors
would ripple the highroad
with their soundwaves, like a palate,
and kiss its gravel out
with round rubber lips
growling for the buckets of tar
and another life to the autobahn
nothing joins, where I race the mirror
in a fighter cockpit made posh
under flak of Guy Fawkes Eve
over the cities of fumed brick.
MEETING OF MINDS
When we meet, I and my neighbour Michael,
we tend to agree
we'd like to strangle someone.
Who that is depends. I for instance
might have in mind a certain person
and he an alternative but we listen
to each other, deferring
to the other's grievance, the facts of each case.
There's no telling how far the blame extends
- we both know full well it does extend
far down the road and back in time and way beyond
the bounds we've set - but in fairness
we find it helps to keep the numbers down
and not to overreach ourselves. But then his dog
has had enough of what, in his little world,
he probably thinks of as just standing still
and makes a series of resentful tugs
braced at the leash until, behind his back,
my neighbour rolls his eyes and I agree
with a nod. Must be off,
he sighs and me: Right see you soon then Mick.
translated by Jamie McKendrick
SEPTEMBER 2001. MADDALENA ARCHIPELAGO, ISLAND OF S.STEFANO
This small island riven underwater by U.S. submarines
where my great-grandfather planted citrus fruits and vines,
built cowsheds and brought ten cows from the mainland.
Their trembling hoofs on the boat, the wind on their backs
only struck till then by rain from the north.
They're still there, horns mingled with the sand,
deep-rooted skeletons, close up to the rocks, no longer afraid,
no longer distinguishing pasture from sea.
QUALM October 2004
A drop of something cloudy blue
hangs between two grave, attentive breasts,
which sway back and forth
like cobras under a cloth.
Her nipples flicker on and off
in amused disbelief
as I do the Indian rope trick
with my gin and tonic.
The liquid dawdles for a moment in mid-air,
then changes its mind
and comes down gradually
all over her top half.
Her nipples give me ten out of ten
as I write my name and telephone number
on a damp paper napkin
and take up smoking again.
Sitting here idly, overlooking the sea,
watching the fishing boats setting out
for distant fishing grounds.
Seeing only her face, her arms, her neck,
the leisurely flow of her hips
rising and falling on the swell.
I went over my loved one's face
in ink, for something to do.
I wanted to see how she looked
telling me not to.
I traced a well-worn path
back and forth between her eyes
in search of crumbs.
I ran the gauntlet of her tantrums.
I gave her horn-rimmed spectacles,
blacking them in
where her eyes accused me
of following her round the room.
I joined up her eyes and mouth
in a rough-hewn triangle, a monkey face.
Wasn't I her pet?
Her little marmoset?
I went through the paper
and the paper beneath,
crossing out her kindness to the dog.
My pen snagged the corner of her mouth,
spattering ink on my cuff.
Jagged lines shot this way and that,
tearing her skin,
as I scribbled my gaze on her.
Peter Reading. Four untitled poems.
After three years in orbit,
Genesis slams headlong
into the Utah Desert
(neither parachute functioning),
data capture - a billion,
billion atoms and ions
from our modest sun.
The objectives of Genesis,
to peer at the very beginnings
of our little solar system
six billion years ego [sic].
But scientists have been left
peering into a large hole.
(Not for the first time,
Genesis goes all to shit.)
Sir, Sir, will eu emploie
Cockes, kytes, croes,
Rookes, ravens, divers hoopoes,
Cuckoes, curlues, kakapos,
lch one in his kinde?
"Ham, Ham, it's muckle late:
Nothing can ever be done,
Things are intractably thus,
Those having precognition suffer
Heat Death beforehand."
I see Mi people in deede and thoughte
Are sette full fowle in synne.
Bestes and fugols with thee thu may take,
He and shee, mate to mate;
Nathless, hit be Mi lykinge
Eall lif for to destroye -
Destroyed eall thes weorold shall be,
E'en eower shippe, gentil Noye,
Eower cargo's rich biodiversitye,
Each cell sincan.
"I dree mi Weird,
Wi due regard to eower deityship."
Trebinje; six a.m.;
autumn; bank of the river,
a burgeoning Ficus; pausing
to pick one, I flushed from wet roots
a Little Bittern (tiny,
fast-flying, wing coverts cream
against black - and I'd heard it barking
and barking through the night
every two or three seconds).
Outside the Café Dalmacia,
opposite, there was a young girl
sweeping; I crossed a bridge
and asked for pivo - she brought it,
along with a local newspaper -
that was a good place, good beer...
Thence to (then peaceful) Dubrovnik.
Who'd've ever thought
that the bozo who came to lunch
[Well, we won't live long, we know that;
but, while we do, let's love, thus.]
FRESH FROM THE RIVER
Here's something cold for you -
the intelligence of water.
(I should like to see you shiver).
Lay down in its riddled path.
It will soon work you out,
intricately at first, then harder,
lifting your back from the bed
so you're half-fish, half-woman.
Years after you've surfaced
shivering, golden, I'll be here,
student of the river,
the cold pool where you lay.
Which of these pebbles is you?
Of all my childhood's pebbles
it's yours I want right now
in my palm - the tide's bells
rang it ashore, touchstone
of my middle years.
Were we ever this alone,
my stone heart? Come here.
Let's walk as far as the quay.
And when the tide turns
it's your turn to find me.
Inside this stone, someone
has laid a track for my life.
It runs from a seaside town
inland, through a deep valley.
On both sides of the cutting
trees keep their feet, find the sky.
I am travelling alone.
I am not to know
how you almost boarded the train
or to hear, this far in
the cries of a gull
tunnelling out to sea.
Jack Beeching (1922-2001). Three more late poems.
DIFFERENT RUSSIANS ON THE COTE D'AZUR
The Russian tart glitters in catwalk chic,
A spit of vitriol in a silver flask,
Hair like a spray-gun or a wind-swept ferment,
Swagger her easy-money attribute.
Why need the Russian mob fly in their talent?
Less vulgar those who came by sleeping-car,
Bringing false countess, raffish governess
To aspic yesterday. They dreaded reds,
And lost their sweatshops on the Viborg side.
Their manor houses burned above their heads.
Phlegmatic waiters now for thug and doxy
Pop champagne. Meanwhile these ill-at-ease
Come-latelies grope for cash and naked knees,
Swilling like cart-horse or Slav politician,
Roaring like men whose dreams are a disease.
Tug through the long grey hair of the dead old woman.
There is a natural limit to endurance.
Follow the stream. Luckily, there is a limit.
Tug through the fugue of her polluted life.
Comb out the long grey noose of drifted flood.
A river tainted? Luckily there is a limit.
Coil up this hair, and cover her stone face,
An all-night rain, each drop a bitter tear.
Luckily, there is a limit to endurance.
LAST SUMMER'S GIRLS
Puppy, rampageous over empty sands;
Windbreaker, furtive in the tamarisk shrubs;
Up and down coastal roads, a loud Lambretta.
This bay incongruous: tilted fishing boats
No longer photographed. Last season's girls
Wear winter clothes, eyes wet from foam or tears,
And stalk like cats amid the crowd of gulls,
Or finger hair, or push reluctant prams,
Incredulous that they were filled by summer.
31 people died in the King's Cross fire in London,
November 1987. One remained unidentified.
As the crowd exploded like billiard balls
Through the ticket turnstiles, and King's Cross
Swallowed its rush-hour, its determinate mass,
I thought of the silent bicycle in our hall
Unclaimed for days, and the frightened girls upstairs
Askance at water dripping from their lightbulb,
Wondering who it was who lived up there
On the roof of the world, a pattern of footsteps
In the small hours, a Tibetan monk gone astray
Or an Irishman in London, without roots.
You could be no-one here, you could pass away
Unheeded, in the general conflagration
Branding you like a shadow to the walls
Of its wind-tunnels, its sub-millenial stations.
There are many hells ... One is to be free,
Unknown, the ashes of identity
Gathered after death and claimed by no-one.
So if I seem, on the public telephone,
A disembodied voice across a city
Shouting into a mouthpiece, calling home,
Remember the hour, the date, the place, the name.
QUALM April 2005
A WRITER'S RETREAT
20 girls, 4 teachers & a Theatre Company
keep me in my room (Room 5) all day
where I am ironing & writing - writing/ironing -
until they seem to be the one activity.
At night, smoke slinking down an unlit passage.
('Whose turn is it to buy a bulb?') I press
my face between the door jamb & the door
to sniff. Smoke. I'm sure. A burning smell.
The Fire Doors banging now, wind helping them along.
Rain sending little insects in. The taste?
Molecules of water in the air. Yes.
Black bin-bags piling up outside the barn.
There's something moving in The Sculpture Studio
- a fusion of movement, colour, and humour?-
Mundos Bizarros, Automata Artists? No.
20 girls, 4 teachers, Tina Turner & Marvin Gaye.
The washing machine downwind of me
works its socks off (ha, ha) spills its guts, refuses
to open wide - it shivers like the central-heating pipes,
chugs like a white jalopy, goes nowhere.
The piano at 11 pm, or tuneless whistling.
A car dead set on Cambridge (9 miles) now & then.
4 buses every day. Impersonating rain, trees
rattle their leaves. - Writing this out
time & again.
that I must not forget
I have no heart. . .
As I push the bell
for help, she speaks -
she says, 'THE SMELL
IS MAKING ME SICK.'
(We are caught between two floors.)
Avoiding her face,
trying not to frown,
I stare into space
till the cable creaks
to take us down
- broken, weak
waiting for the doors
to slide apart
WHY YOU CANNOT GO DOWNSTAIRS
Because it's early.
Because it's dark.
Because the cat is sleeping on her chair.
Because it's rude
to wake next door before the sun.
Because it's cold.
Because the wind and rain intrude
wherever they can, to leave their mark
here and there.
Because you should still be asleep.
Because men and women work below,
moving sticks of furniture for fun.
(Listen. You can hear them creep
about our rain-soaked rooms then go
the way they come.)
Because the clocks
need rest as well.
Because your toys
are curiously terrible things
before it's light.
Because of noise -
talking books, mechanical wings
flapping like mad in your toybox,
footsteps, laughter, even breath.
Yes, even that.
Because it's night.
Because we're in a state.
Because you'll catch your death
down there, alone without a light.
Because it's early/
because it's late,
don't leave us yet.
THE GHOST IN THE MOTEL MIRROR
The sumptuous tackiness of the motel
Told me its tale before my plastic key
Triggered the wink that worked its magic spell.
Behold! A stage set for adultery.
I hardly had to look, I knew it well,
The stained, upholstered suite, the huge TV,
The wine, the mattress big enough for three.
Nothing amiss as far as I could tell,
Except a face I wasn't looking for,
Watchful beneath her wrinkles in a gleam
Thrown from the looking glass that faced the door.
Drawn curtains chasing mirrors with a beam?
Or love's impenitent ghost that to ignore
Would mean I knew it was myself I'd seen.
Two sections from A LAMENT FOR THE MAKERS (a work in progress)
Try to remember
How the weather of before
Emancipated the leaves.
'0 wild west wind' is layered
Thick with voices.
'How the sick leaves reel down in throngs.'
'In wrothe winde leves
Laucen fro the linde
And lighten on the grounde.'
De ramis cadunt folia
nam viror totus periit,
iam calor liquid omni . . .
The same and more.
Most of what our bones know
Has been said before.
By the water's edge
Eurydice is leading Orpheus
Into the pit,
Slipping joyfully through
In her sparkling dress.
Now they will be together
Forever. Why didn't they
Think of this before?
Blinded by fog,
He forces the baize,
Then the black door.
Out, buzzing like maniacs,
Swarm the flies
From their bed of maggots.
One Saturday morning there was a single uncovered window.
There was a dog running out front
And there was an enormous tension
As if a string quartet were tuning up
On a diving board high above an empty swimming pool.
For this was the dream you'd had.
The sun had come up raising a whole foot in deliberation.
Closing your eyes you stepped out
Choosing a different foot for each step
As if you were a caterpillar
Always another foot, another for the stair, another for the invisible
Watering can placed in your path,
The basket, the stone, the burdock plant reaching to your shoulder.
You paused knowing where you were
Just inside the gate, fiddle case in hand
While something joyous and panting ran past
On the pavement that unseen loop of asphalt stretching to the lesson,
With tussocks of grass to be stepped over.
He blindfolded you that day so you could feel the intervals
Rather than watch your fingers
His fingers resting on the nape of your neck
Do you remember correctly?
They slid ever so gently over your T-shirt and came to rest
Where your spine joins your buttocks.
From then on you walked to music lessons, fiddle case in hand, eyes wide open.
We have adorned a white wall with scars,
Yours a child's fiddle,
The varnish chipped, not a secret of the Cremonese,
The strings floppy, the pegs loose.
But there it is, a lesion of sycamore and spruce
Ornamental on a white wall
Above a pot of philodendron out of control.
Seven years you toiled like a lost princess
And swore off all childish games and squabbles.
In your heart there's no silliness
Only the passacaglia of duty correct and formal.
Never call the fiddle an airy instrument
Though you might take its compass
Beyond Biber's high A squeal.
Call a scar an ornament
With its Archimedean scroll
Its proportions from Pythagoras.
You now hate all things mathematical
And dust down your fiddle
The thing itself scratched and tuneless
Containing silence, all childhood's loss.
What intelligence comes from the sea?
The tourists waddle off their cruiser,
Their flip-flops sticking and unsticking
From the soles of their feet.
In the alleys swifts scream, tilt and fade
Above light commerce. Their lines of flight
Are rubbed out against the dusk
As soon as they are made.
A breeze stirs bunting for the Pope,
A tittering white and yellow.
He and his court will come from the sea
In a growl of power boats.
We walk through the hustle of Dubrovnik
To the seaward side of the city
To a café on the cliff where the wine
Is pricey and acidic.
There we gaze down at the shocks
Of waves against endurance
While around us skinny cats filch crabs
From crevices in the rocks.
Brian Waltham (1925-2002). Four unpublished poems.
Kirsten went, we think, because her
Bedroom was colder than Rekjavik.
Nina arrived with a nervous breakdown
And took it away again, slopping it
All down the stairs.
When Marlis had gone we found very
Curious things in her bathroom.
Not-here Gutrune was not here
And maybe is still in Leipzig.
Marie-Jeanne was wonderful.
Anna had a problem about going to bed.
Carla had little bears in her bed,
Lotte had a problem about getting up.
On the second night Ernestine
Installed a boy-friend. We think
It was the wrong boy-friend.
On the fourth night she went.
Elke was wonderful.
Ingrid was a little bit pregnant,
Isobel had her own way of shopping,
Which interested the police,
Jennu, like a plump bird, homed back
Suddenly to carefree Stockholm.
Now there's Maria, of whom our small
Son says: "she's good at snap, but
I don't think she'll last."
As prelude to the rest,
He may undo buttons, reach
Back for the clip of her bra
And kiss her breast.
At this conquering session
He knows what breasts are for
And moves to full possession,
Never thinking of them on loan
From one as yet unborn who will
Claim them as his own.
"One more peep from you lot"
Yelled dad, putting out the light,
"and they'll come out from the wallpaper."
And they did.
Fifteen tigers labelled A to 0,
Nine and a half lions with
Holiday snaps pinned on and a
Small herd of badly smudged rhinos,
All of them boss-eyed and wanting
To get back into the wall.
The kids used potties to
Clean up the nervous droppings,
Tried to keep the noise down,
Offered illegal crisps and smarties
And then began the job of
Shoving them back in.
The lions went in best.
Seven whole ones and three tails.
Some of the tigers would only
Fit in upside down.
Still at large are the surviving
Rhinos and one snake pencilled
With the eight times table.
Ah no, not again that wall
With the horsey photos and
Big dolly on the pillow and
The narrow concave bed, sweat
And tit all rolled together
And she wanting it all again
"My son, you prayed for big tits."
"True, Lord, but..."
"Aren't they big enough?"
"Enormous, Lord, but I've been rethinking
This whole question of tits and...."
"Get back on the job my son."
Like painting that matters,
The paint never dries.
The hopeless search for my socks,
Tripping over big dolly on the floor,
The squawking from the bed and the
Waste bin waiting like a mine
At the top of the stair.
QUALM October 2005
BUTTERFLY MEMORY OBJECT
The simple outlines of tulips:
What makes these war flowers?
The war recycled like an earthrise
Photographed from the distance
Of a six-day-old moon.
The crags of their petals
Dance out space with the smoothing action
Of the mouth's own slidings
Till their two-sided skin
Bayonets the softer parts of shells.
Still deadly places are folded
Into an unburial ground, where resting
Soldiers tell the munitionettes
They're easy to sleep with,
And for your button a kiss.
One should not pay pearl-price
For old velvets, or the chair which assists
The work of the skeleton, the scalloped mirror
Basking in lustre after sunset.
Many doorbells had been out of order
For years, despite the sold-off triangle
Of land the gardens continued to be taxed
By the lucky owners of shoes.
A grey trembling flame left the ceilings
In profound darkness, which gave them
A patriotic look, as if they were peppered
With handwritten letters, or fingers
Seemed to walk across the breast.
Wrinkles in the elbow called memories
Slept in our daytime clothes.
When the two ships were made fast
Together, in a grotesque bouquet,
Having twice changed the name
On her bow and stern, they started up
Car engines to muffle the sounds to come.
A happy music during sad occasions.
When they poured perfume into their eyes,
And also ate snow, she healed their skin
With potato leaves and sugar,
Hugging the fact that this was her house.
LEMON WITH WHITE JUG
The ghost island passes us by,
Its Greek name, meaning watchful,
Like a cloud bent back upon itself
Blown smooth by the wind.
Its village, furrowed with cold,
Lays a bed of colour
In the unaccepted space between
Your upper eyelid and eyebrow-
Doors of lawless scarlet,
A purple that can be tied.
Now a dream begins to value
The fretwork of the small red crowd
To its nth foundation, the cool,
Bleached mood in the languish
Of your neck,the gospel-net
Fletching of your arms.
While love and its technologies
Drinks the working day from your palms.
Walking towards the camera
is how we'll remember him
and how he was caught off-guard
like anybody's uncle
back from fishing, conning us
with an angler's fiction
that the catch was his,
that it had been a good day
and tomorrow he'd be off again
while the weather held.
Just a tilt of his head to the left
and a hint of whatever it was
that might be closing in,
to be run and run, to become
the clip we'd know him by
but fail to decipher. Unexceptionally
this was any doctor, yours or mine,
although along the pavement
of a mild suburban avenue
the very stones cried out.
'This tiny blue planet is home to something special -
ourselves." Jeanette Winterson
The skaters at the Rockefeller Center
As they do each year
Have set iron to ice
In extended family chains
Or intimate links of coupledom,
And the patterns they make
Are the frequencies
Of a New York Christmas
Going out on the air
With this global message,
That love is tenacious,
That every warm breath
Which floats on the ether
Through clouded neon
Comes wreathed in its glow,
That because of their loss
They are ghosts already,
Though a hand in a glove
Or an arm round a waist
Will be what they remember,
And to vanish unloved
From this tiny blue planet,
This world of our making,
Its glory and error,
Is the worst that can happen.
So the skaters crowd in
To the Rockefeller Center,
The dead and the living
With willed affirmation,
A hesitant grace
As the ice-rink shines
In its diamond brightness
Unafraid of the cold night's
And beyond the endless sky.
after Germain Nouveau
Nothing of either of them
is left in this room
no slipped-off summer lace,
no neck-tie, hardly a trace
of their passion, only
here on the curtain, look,
a gold pin caught in its hem
and gleaming like
some poisonous insect's
beauty sleep, the evidence
of his great reputation
and her self-respect,
which with its sudden silence
might have troubled them.
AT THE WINDOW
after Paul Eluard
Grief's night-watchman, forehead
pressed to the glass, I look out on a sky
of double darkness, yours and mine,
our single rooms, the loss of you
and in each hand the lifeline
of a merciless horizon. How can I tell
which one of us will find the other
if we trace it to its source? Already
in the dark together, how can we know
which of the two of us is missing?
Brian Waltham (1925-2002). Three more unpublished poems.
The climb on whisky crutches,
The lovely upland where a man
Can be himself again,
The challenge to anyone in this pub.
Before he stumbles,
Try his bow.
Try pulling your seventy pounds
Fast enough, true enough
To stop what was coming.
Then, after Crecy, you might
End up here, scattering deadmen,
Seeing other deadmen in
The bottom of a glass.
Up here, dicing on the brink
Among her moans and shoves
I say to myself, 'quick, think
Biscuits, lumps of cheese,
Heavy duty gloves, adjustable
Spanners, 5/8th washers,
Think upsurge from the sink...
ERROR. NO UPSURGE.
KILL LAST MESSAGE
Think downsurge, and her mum
And heavy duty washers that
Are never going to come
And this morning's news
Drought in China, trade gap widens...
ERROR. NOT WIDENS,
And experts' views, missiles on cruise,
I.R.A outrage with washers, upper lip
And everything reasonably stiff as I
Balance along her endless sulky fuse.
He for what he could be
Plus x equals what
She wants him to want.
She, for what he thought
She was plus x could
Simplify both of them.
They try and find x.
Mostly it's zero or
So big it won't fit
On the page.
But sometimes they
Forget the rules
And by accident
It comes out right.
A RITE OF SPRING
My mother-in-law foretold a clear, raw night.
Frost would spoil blossom of scrupulous white
Except for reddening where petals joined their stem.
So to pluck them might have pricked a tree, caused harm.
Their scent was delicate, too sweet almost
And there was bitterness, a sorrow that would last.
I touched the trunk of an apricot, its fissures
Were like those of trees grown for lifetimes, not years.
I was dismissed after duty as a porter.
The barbecue became a sacred brazier.
Charcoal and kindling were composed on it.
My mother-in-law brought wood blanched from rot.
My wife, her mother, my daughter were to smoke
The apricot trees. Resigned, stubborn and ironic,
Woman, crone and maiden wrapped in hoods
Were to flap or conjure smoke over flower heads.
As night fell I watched the foolish or the wise
Feed wood on to the lucid heat beneath the trees
And become mysterious, vanishing from sight
As the blade of moon and the stars were blotted out.
At sunrise the garden glinted like scratched tin
Though round the trees were circles of moist green.
In late July branches of the apricots
Split and fell from the weight of perfect fruit.
Given that the damp patch in the plaster
is "ectoplasm" of the Malaspina
walled up alive with one of her favourite hounds,
and that if you put your ear to the pine cone
carved in oak on the four poster
then you'll hear
the beating of a cuckold's heart;
and that everything in the empty stone hall
except the Peacock Throne
was firewood for the occupying Germans,
you slip your guide and take a corridor,
and then a winding stair
which takes you into the windswept clear,
on a ledge above Liguria.
MAN AND SHED
'Newton showed in his Principia that if attraction had varied as the inverse cube
instead of as the inverse square of the distance, the heavenly bodies would
revolve, not in ellipses, but in logarithmic spirals, rapidly diffusing themselves
and rushing off into space.' Theodor Andrea Crook
He wants this shack shed or hut this outhouse
of the mind, of wood paint-peeled by salt wind
on a drift-fire shore - a looking to find
a trace of himself back beyond the dry dock
of a wrecked life, a sign on the walked sand -
not this fuck-hut or 'writer’s retreat' -
aimless Googling - or tin affair on the allotment
amongst the actual, the radishes,
the car on blocks, the flowering rhubarb.
All wrong. Like the missed appointment
in a motorway cafe: ex-wife and kids waiting
northbound, traffic watched rushing south
like Newton's notional cube-squared planets,
in earshot of the burger bar.
The hare, its eye all rods, sees everything
in black and white. Runs all roads,
sits tight in its form, a narrow scrape,
until the last minute. Is leaping from one thing
to another, emblem of dialectic,
steering with its ears. Has numen, slaloms at night
on the A14 in your taxi's headlights.
Tell a captive hare it's to die in the morning,
find it dead next day from the sheer
superfetating power of suggestion.
Screams with the voice of a child when caught,
is otherwise silent. Provided skin for parchment
in the age of illumination, and felt
to dampen piano hammers, in Victorian parlours.
'Electric Seal' to furriers - and Kropotkin
with a natural anarchist, no friend
of the bourgeois rabbit. Called to witness
at a witch-trial: houndstooth marks, forensic
evidence, on the bruised thigh of a woman
hunted in the form of a hare. Is seeking
the gap or smeuse at the far end of the field
that will take it kicking into tomorrow,
small bucket of blood pumping
through an outsize heart. Watch a hare in flight
for an idea of the limitations
of the human frame. Or a tracked hare weaving,
doubling its mazes of scent for the pack,
writing itself - now in, now out - of the picture.
QUALM April 2006
Peter Reading. Two untitled poems.
Hilbre, winter, high tide.
Over the West Hoyle, hurl and white swash, and above,
the sky the colour of Blaenau Ffestiniog slate.
And the long-ruined sandstone lifeboat station brine-lashed,
the slipway thrashing the saline assault into spume.
Past the pyramidal buoy,
close to the wavetops and hurtling into the wind,
Red-throated Divers and Common Scoters and auks,
and the day was ornithologically unforgettable,
and the friend I was with then is fullfathomfive (as you might say).
Hilbre under thick snow,
compacted ridges of two weeks' ice on the foreshore,
above the foam at the foot of the lifeboat slipway,
into the face of a Beaufort force seven, a flake-white
Larus hyperboreus (2nd winter);
and over the flat of the Hoyle,
creaming and distantly sibilant flow-tide breakers
flushed up a fast-wheeling blizzard of silver and white
Calidris alba, and Donahue (thirty years dead)
observed that he wouldn't forget this day till he died.
In the year of 1609,
in a ship of 300 ton
with 160 persons
outward-bound for Virginia,
we was surprised with a most
extreme violent storm,
when our fine vessel, though new,
fell into a great leak
so as all hands and passengers
was forced for three days space
to exert ourselves to save us
from sinking unto the deep.
But notwithstanding incessant
pumping and casting out water
by buckets and all other means,
yet the brine swamped all the goods
within the hold, and all men
was exhausted and spent of strength,
gone to sleep, overcome with labour
and hopeless of any succour,
yielding ourselves to the mercy
of the sea's tempestuous onslaught.
Sir George Somers, at the stern,
observing the plight of the vessel,
desperate of relief,
looking every minute
when that the ship would sink,
he espied land which to his eyes,
and in Captain Newport's opinion,
was judged to be that dreadful
coast of the Bermodes,
which islands was full of all nations
and accounted to be enchanted
and inhabited by witches
and devils, which grew by reason
of monstrous thunder, storm,
and tempest near unto those isles,
also for that the whole
coast is so wondrous dangerous
of rocks that few can approach
but with unspeakable hazard
of surf thrashed high as whale-spouts
and incontrovertible shipwrack.
As severe seas pounded our hull,
Sir Thomas Gates, Captain Newport
and Sir George Somers agreed
of two evils, to choose the least.
So, in desperate resolution,
they directed our vessel towards
those islands, where our ship,
by God's Divine Providence,
ran fast, at the rise of a roller,
between two vasty rocks,
where it lodged, wedged, without splint'ring.
And we hoisted out our boat,
and we landed all of those persons
in good safety, and, come on shore,
we was soon refreshed and cheered.
Though salt water did great spoil
to most of our lading and victuals,
yet some meal was well recovered,
and many particular things
for our common use was preserved;
and the soil and the air seemed sweet.
In a northern capital the light is rationed.
The capital is near but recedes.
A traveller waking in a no-star motel
re-boots from not knowing if he's who where
or when. And proceeds, in a white hire-car.
In his jacket pocket a map of its bodywork
detailing three tiny chips in the paint;
a contract giving comprehensive cover,
unravelling in the unread smallprint.
Whiteness is his leitmotif. Snow-light
filtered through a blind; the dirty whiteness
of last night's driven through snow;
a tight ream of paper unwritten on.
An intricately unique star of ice-mote
splintering to dissolve on eye and screen.
The slow sound carried by oaks and elders -
white noise of the green world he's imagined
speaking to him, in season, of life at the rim.
Somewhere at the roadside a spill of oil,
uselessly composing fossil rainbow.
A POSTCARD FROM CHIMALISTAC
Jesuits have left their cliffs of gilded wood; Franciscans stone fronts of rock candy.
Pet ferret with velvet collar in Coyoacan. An iguana on a shoulder in Queretaro.
A man is walking draped in a carcase. Raw midday delivery from a flatbed.
The Colt 45; the Remington; the actual desk at which the death sentence was signed...
...the short and narrow painted coffin of Maximilian, scaled to a botched embalming.
The saddle-topped stools in the saddle-bar are going nowhere at the cocktail hour.
Cornering at altitude in the Sierra Gorda, a recent roadkill of headless wild burro.
Standing room only, for a glimpse of the bloodied Christ with the head of human hair.
Crutched and legless at the toll-booth, his proffered cup receives a splash of pesos.
In its case in Chapultepec the (Madagascan) Emperor scorpion emits a turquoise light.
Two night notes on a steam flute: the camotes vendor on his rounds in Chimalistac.
Cupped to drink the light, two hands out from under a rusted Lecumberri prison door.
Ice-block on the pavement; jacaranda blossom roadside; sunlight on an electric fence.
Yes waking hardly knowing if you're here or there. Before the place clicks into place.
CCTV; barbed wire; armed gatekeeper; Guadalupe in a niche. Someone is at home.
A herbal tea, a cigarette butt: signs of the slept-over burglar in the empty apartment.
PIER ON FIRE
One of those seaside towns in which the out of use pier
seems always to have recently been on fire.
CATSEYES REMOVED on the approach - briefly
more oddly advertised service than road warning.
A clammy barrier of weed at knee depth in the sea,
another a fly-magnet marking high-tide on the sand.
A wind that's whipping blond grains into your eye.
Encampments of wind-breaks and plaid blankets;
hard-boiled eggs and squash in a flask.
Now it's the grey out-of-date photo of the front,
still available as an insert (look to see yourself there)
beneath the cellophane on chemically pink rock.
It's the magnified eye of a goldfish from the fair,
bagged in its tight bubble of clear water.
HOUSE WITHOUT EYEBROWS
I remember, almost with my entire body,
How you were torn. It was wind-still.
A room of idols. You were light-blue
On the inside, drowning in darkness,
And the sun also spread a despairing
Light for me. Great sheaves of lightning
Stroked your neckless face, your straight
Throat, your small, smooth head,
Your yawning eyes and wide-open hands.
They brought a blue-green aura to your upper body,
Though you were brown-violet on the outside,
With a darkened alertness, without blue,
Not an atom of blue, the blue well taken out,
The blue fog of your dress a muffled creeping
In the breathed yellow of your blouse.
But your arm, made up of all whiteness,
Underfed, warmed the sleeve,
Your hair, unwound, touched the ground
Like a track in snow or a coin's
Embossment. A dance comes to mind
Though the blood-red words of your skin
Stand in the worn grass and have no wings.
i.m. William Brandon 1885 -1944
This is the man to whom I owe my life -
And I never met him! Tearing off his clothes,
Quick, quick, on the Ypres salient, there he goes
In terror, from the threat of an almost-wife
Called Chlorine, Phosgene, Hydrocyanide,
Leaping the duckboards, past the slaughtered cows,
His handkerchief soaked in urine pressed to his nose -
Aboard a troopship home. I might have died... .
Then Peace, the killing bottle, and the dropsy
Of the South Seas. Watch as he drowns in air
Like all the other shades, who were never spared
To take a native woman and grow older
In fake Paradise. Hear their shuffling steps
In the sightless realm, a hand on each others' shoulder.
All rose, all became, in their own way,
Masters of the globe.
And I watched them,
Human being that I was, outstripping me
By degrees, in field and classroom,
Grasping, so quickly, the calculus of change,
And later on, in great laboratories,
Stationary, all hand and eye
As the catalyst dripped in, and the colour changed
And the white magic of fume cupboards
Zoomed upwards - poof! - like a mushroom cloud.
Already, they had it over me.
Method. Accuracy. The suspension of feeling
For the matter in hand. Laughter was for afterwards,
Wisecracks, and the lines from Oscar Wilde
Who had an answer for everything.
The Eroica symphony - music while you work -
Played through a screen above us, raised the tone.
There were women - colleagues and assistants -
In starched white coats, already deckled
With the yellow of titrations,
Bright asbestos gloves and plastic goggles
Not concealing, for an instant, their femininity -
But that was for afterwards.
Afterwards has arrived -
They have moved, the masters of institutes,
To the promised lands, and the countries of the future.
Cities are for touchdowns,
Conferences. God observes their sabbaths.
One of them dropped me a line the other day.
'I once saw Man as organs, now as enzymes... .'
Not, mind you, that I envied him,
I, with my jar of pens and my Olivetti,
Dealing, like an alchemist,
In concentrates, precipitates, and the retrograde heaven
Of my very own angel, nailed to the wall.
POEM ABOUT HIM
yes, this is the poem, i tell him,
which is really about you, about
your not believing that you have a poem
in you in spite of being so pretty, a real
simple man asleep within himself,
so fresh and athletic - always
in need of a female to fuck (or vice versa),
and to impress by soothing away
her lines in an instant or less
as the lights fade and the distances condense
closing protectively like pleasant memories
knitted together by interlocking lies;
"out of this bed do not desire to go,"
i command him, knowing that
this poem is really about me, about
my believing that i no longer have a poem
within myself, so fat i am and in need of his
adoration, so lined that i want him kneeling,
stretching me like pastry over the dining table
in expectation of the poppy seed and raisin filling,
so scared at three in the morning
when a panic attack floods my brain using
the cochlear nerve as a secret entrance,
but this is still a poem about you, i insist,
about your believing in nursing the sunrise (you)
above a fortress with no windows (me) -
you talk too much, he says smiling,
so pretty, so athletic, so in need of a fuck
here and there, there and here
QUALM October 2006
after a Gaelic lyric in the Book of the Dean of Lismore
Honey is the call of any bird;
Honey a human voice in the Land of Gold;
Honey a crane's song, and there is a heard
Honey Bun Da Threoir's waters hold.
Honey is the calling of the wind;
Honey the cuckoo's voice above Caise Con;
Honey in uncluttered, random sunlight,
Honey blackbirds' songs till sunset's gone.
Honey the eagle's cry at the Red Falls
Way above the Bay of Morna's Boy;
Honey the cuckoo's call beyond the thickets,
Honey is that pause in the crane's cry.
My father Finn MacCool had in his war-band
Seven squadrons ready to fight any
Man or beast; when we unleashed the deerhounds
They lept ahead, their baying pure wild honey.
BULLET FROM A BULLETIN
In the low grass, the hardly grass,
the crabgrassed bald lawn, snake
ceases itself, becomes the O in reflex,
not the acid reflux, no, the universe
has its day right there, the O for
forever, the O for omphalos, and cheerio.
Taking the sound right out of the air
and placing it on your spine,
you, spiteful and dancing, sidewinding even--
I am sigmoidally yours, can you hear me?
From the hardly grass you crawl out
from beneath the palm, now a stick, a sticker.
In grade school we knew which spigots
turned and why. O painful eternal turning,
the saint's on the spit, the hiss left on--
park the car on a curve so we can
get away. One way rental, say it
three times. Its accelerator leaves you
behind, in a yellow stripe. You call instead.
What about the circuits in the phone,
the molecules arcing into the head,
or that aching that peasants, bent almost halved,
suggest, curling like they have cast off
a shell and need one? Like hell is a circle.
Girl, girl, girl-sentries on cliffside
lean out. Rain-wild,
they wave, spare hand on hem,
It's safe here. Safe.
Men slide the deck, barely glance.
Soon no girls but one waves.
She hoists her skirts.
A trick, screams the captain.
To the men who scavenge,
she worked and went home.
To the girls who wring out their hair,
she widowed Charybdis.
Safe? She knew too much
what was safe and what was not.
No child would pull inside her rival
in any storm, for any port.
ASPARTAME, Ars Poetica
The snaky alphabet in line
still fits in the car tuned
to desire, its big D
in favor of the Hell-
crept-in kind of
whisper, the ruined-
plumped word is now
that even a folderol-eating
habit like this
is a wound undressed, a me
left staring because
the damn goatherd
wants the flock bleating
decibels to a Tribuned
or Timesed scree—
you know the goatherd, blind,
loose-fingered, a real talker,
father to the Gameboy’s pell-mell
squat hero already mooned
by a million wrist-flicks. Free
wit! Free wit! a starling
mouths for crumbs.
The furred lonesome self
sniffs in its bunker, marooned
yet pen-fed, hoovering
Aspartame off paper.
My Très Riches Heures and Miniatures
In the North Wall
Snow drifts all the way, cowering ewes in the lee –
marrum stalk, it's me! But will you dip, set curve
to lip, and ask no one whose end you serve?
The Fin on the Crest
A land-wind rifles the foaming bank
ripping through breakers that curve to the long bay beyond –
the fetch of a spume-fluke brushes your hand to sink.
For miles along the beach the thousand feet, the thousand
faces smudged as heedless they wave back to thousands more.
Flaying the fields bares a broad plain studded with shells –
and these light-headed crows, a-dangle, close enough to touch.
The Sea-Shaped Rain
Draping the serrated horizon, grey flags,
and the pale moon flares above the pill-box to the west –
chained to its stake by the gateway hawthorn
the Alsatian has shut one eye, let the invader pass.
These hundred-odd rooks at sunset
motionless on the tillage, while
the jagged teeth of thumb and bucket
memorize the whitewashed wall.
Script for the Margin
The zigzag hand of a sanderling racing the rim –
two pale ounces of headlong rush, wanting a hinder toe.
The teeth and flutes of the snowline
and this whistling gate: all the north-easterly will allow.
Broaching a wing-beat heavier than doubt
they err from their fastness in streaming sand;
washed by the land-tide, talking of what
they cross our horizon for the point.
After circling the house for half a year
I still measure time in these gobbets
said he, thinking her clumps of hair.
Jack Beeching (1922-2001). Three late poems.
MAGDALEN INTO CAIRN
Stoned her to death? Why not? It was unanimous.
All who stood around raised a hand.
Everyone stoned her to death: democratic,
Stoned her? And very popular.
Hundreds of eager faces.
Stones for confetti
As if for a mock wedding,
And one last miracle. Stoning to death
Turns a maiden to a cairn.
THE RICH WHITE WHALE
The harpoon blonde in fishnet tights
Has lit her lamp and cut the pack
And dozened out a zodiac.
Converge the curtains, dim the light.
Her fat, ejaculating whale
Hangs there from a golden nail.
The hero lingers in an ambuscade,
Opal in bayleaf, thus invisible,
Flesh of an eyebird, incorruptible.
The dry gaze of a witch, a dragonfly
Smile, like a wall garnished with broken glass
Comes down the stair, her reptile feet on tiptoe.
Spindles that twirl each personal firmament
Come close like loadstones. Give her back her smile.
Say the first word. Accept the mortal risk.
As, in two faces, fantasies like clouds
Enlarge, disperse, on common ground they trade
Her salamander fur, his narwhal horn.
I'm going out tonight in my black coat,
my front gleaming white.
I'm the last man in the world
to wear top hat and tails
to make his calls.
The ladies shout that I am hot.
I raise my hat to them.
What extraordinary beings
are let out after dark
to thrill and frighten us with their smiles.
I follow one to the kiosk where she works,
a hybrid creature
in gems and artificial fur,
who claws my face for me.
What was that snarl and fluster
up against a wall? What cried and shook
and tore itself apart?
I draw up the sides of my mouth
in the signal for pleasure.
My breath comes in plumes
along the embankment gardens.
Just as you thought they had disappeared
forever out of your life, setting you free,
there they all were once more,
that just-fucked freshness clinging to their fur,
their tails curled into tight little knots
like dollops of whipped cream.
A lot of people have been looking at me recently.
Oh, she's too disgusting. I see you've changed your
hairstyle again. Why don't you kill yourself next time?
I'm cutting down on mirror checks - 100 an hour
is about average - tv screen, microwave, people's
glasses, a knife while eating, if I can eat anything.
I wanted to cut myself into little pieces, then everything
would be all right and I would pass the audition.
Obviously I've been doing it all my life - kitchen knives,
or break a cup and use the side of the handle.
Better still, smash a mirror and use that. I wanted to
push myself down the toilet and flush myself away.
I stuck my hand down my throat and tried to rip my
insides out. I thought if I let out all my breath
the mind would be over there. The band promised to call
by seven o'clock. It's seven o'clock now.
QUALM April 2007
(for Valerio Magrelli)
A monarchic silence as of the grave
reigned in the Peter and Paul Fortress
where Peter had tortured and killed his son Alexis.
The felted floors and felted walls answered nothing
to Kropotkin's knocking. He exercised his arms
with the wooden stool and walked seven versts each day
up and down the cell. On the small oak table
he wrote The Glacial Period and Orography of Asia
when that vindictive Romanov, Alexander II,
finally conceded him pen and ink -'just till sunset',
which occurred at two o'clock in winter.
Summer 1875, after the mass arrests, the silence broke
and a series of taps spelt out KTO VY?
(Who are you?) His friend Surdokov, as it happened,
and a peasant, below, who lost his mind.
The Cyrillic alphabet was broken down
into six rows of five letters, which made
conversation slightly less laborious.
Moved to the House of Detention,
weaker now so he could barely lift the stool,
but one step nearer his glorious escape,
he narrated to the young man in the next cell
the history of the Paris Commune
which took, however, a whole week of tapping.
How irresistible all that ill-will is! It lures you
onto its silvery walkways and you find
your nimble feet glued. A fat shape,
unbearably beautiful to its own kind,
a factory of silk and toxins, registers
by touch your entrance and attempt to exit.
The whole device which seemed an airy disc
is now 3D, its flatness trampolines
in vibrant rays and parterres. Voices of fraud
slide along the wires. What looks like a door
opens its mouth to sing, but shuts without
audible utterance. On the fang's tip,
already withdrawn from your thorax,
a droplet with a green tinge gathers.
My mind is full of women.
the dome of my skull
must be stove in
for such a stream
such a fountain of love
In this shadow land
I roam like a pilgrim
or a monk.
Round every corner,
a silent face looks out,
pale as a gravestone.
(translated by Jamie McKendrick)
The teenage con-girl in martial arts gear
hooks me like a numbered fish out of the night
and holds me up to the light like a ten pound note.
She lets me go ahead of her up some stairs,
through a door marked "Chinese Stock Exchange".
"You pay me now I come back later," she explains.
I sit down with some other lunatics in front of
a big old tv set with the sound turned down.
Karl Malden's nose pokes suspiciously into our lives
from some long ago "Streets of San Francisco".
"Will she be long?" I ask a man in pyjamas.
"Not long," he replies. "Tonight very busy night."
We disappeared into tunnels, sucking sweets,
out-staring our tears
in the darkened windows
of third class carriages,
knowing that JADS would be waiting
at the other end of the line
with his clip-board and pen.
Now the long tunnel of night
throws everyone's thoughts and faces
back upon themselves.
How long ago and far away we look,
sitting together there without moving
in the dark train
that is travelling beside our own.
All stand lined under
the trees in the deep dark.
Thankless, most of them.
Who told you that?
Most of them, but thanks
hangs overhead anyway,
its shape writhing
over the line,
and there in the deep dark,
intricate but over,
Mama, calls out a mouth,
No this, no that,
Mama calls back.
A dog clacks on tile, shut-in.
It sounds like dancing, it sounds
desperate. The ordure from this
suburb is known to be delicate,
a wasp's worth, not Paul Bunyan's.
No one today wants feeling
left on a plate, they have disposals
and recyclers. It's the boy in every man
with an ax but no more trees, a boy who still—
what a surprise!---hungers, calls out.
Livid, the blue infant you forgot in the sink,
slid of course on his side so much you think
he's about prove you're truly jinxed.
Right him amid the mixed drinks
and he writhes, he rails, he pinks
up nicely, a dolphin color, its unlashed blink.
Actually lose your life?
Stars mill, cartoon stars
on sticks coming off your head,
and the soul, always bacteria-
shaped, takes off
because of wind which we still think
is trouble instead of
hot and cold rubbed together.
But losing it? You put money down,
you have papers to insure it.
The rats in the drawers suggest at most
except for the lead. Yet any Ganges
will do, the motion
of the cartoon frame flowing with re-definition,
with ash sticking to rocks
we never thought of, gone.
Brian Waltham (1925-2002). Three unpublished late poems.
My neighbour is in trouble.
He saw for sure a cloud of
Happiness go past his window
And grabbed a piece, which
Howled and screamed to be
Allowed back into the cloud,
But he clutched it and wanted
It double and then the bomb
Went off and of course among
The rubble they called the police
Who came with howls and screams
But said that all this was the stuff
Of dreams and arrested all of us
Who even indirectly attested or
Avowed that there really had been
A cloud or that for release of it
He had grabbed a piece of it
Or that now dancing among the rubble
He is in trouble.
Don't talk to me, unless on that graph
You are right up there with the truly mad,
About our splendid separate armour.
Tell me instead how fragile is what,
Clumsily and well-meant, was pieced
Together to be you and me.
Tell me, and let me echo it, of an
Emergency leaf-birth, high up,
Protected by tribal love.
Tell me how easily you, like me,
Can be picked open like thistledown
That sought nothing but a home.
Tell, ask, of imprenetrable steel we
Might have wanted. Say your face,
Say what you see of mine.
Such as cloth hands stuck out from
A pillow, moles under the carpet, the
Very young put their quick secrets
Where we can't miss them,
Except in the long meanwhile
The kind of hurt they don't yet
Know where to file.
The very old have stigmata, marks
Frozen in sand, papyrus rolls fat-
Squashed or tapered like roadway cones,
Incunabula rich as the Book of Kells
Or bare and bitter: in any case
Archives past decoding by old minds,
Old fingers, to show what were or
Never were valuable lives.
And midstream are those who, at
The flick of a wand, might fold it
Within something very simple,
But wade, waist-high against water
And more water, reaching down
Below dolls and codes for rock
That will steady a tremulous foot.
QUALM October 2007
“Let me guess – light-heavy? The perfect weight,
the Scottish Weight, two hundred pounds,
a hundred in each hand – bam! and bam!
– A bit of both!”
My third night in Alex,
Second at "Torbit's", the place he ran for men
on a peaceful slip-road just off the waterfront.
Already I am his Scottish Friend, that being
the first thing I would say about myself,
shutting my book . . . . he takes advantage of a lull
to slide his favourite chair up to my table
and starts to kid, that we were what, twin
pharoes of granite! – in the evening tide
of floaters, that his litter of puppies drew
to take their dinners there; that he had friends,
friends everywhere, in Danzig, Aberdeen,
Smyrna or Mitylene, "all homes to me",
had made his grid of friends by selling raisins;
that this small trade he did, the meals, would lighten
his retirement, "make new friends, and help
to make ends meet, oh sure, a bit of that!
But we must let you order. ... Hakefish? Could
be good. You might prefer the chops? – Nice choice!
Hiranthus! Down! Harai!!
"Two hundred pounds –
What they get now, Robinson, Patterson!
. . . You boxed? – Only at school. – I always say,
boxing was like a school to me, taught me
the ropes, you'd say, the size of the referee.
But listen to what it kept in store for me
in nineteen twenty-five. At Hamburg Halle.
Just then, I'm making a name, you see, I'm out
from the undercard, the girls are all over me.
Now this old licensee, looked like a reptile,
lived at his desk there, or in a wheelchair,
he made the match for me to fight Iceberg. –
Iceberg. – The guy who'd lost to Johnson – blond,
not German, – Fortune was his name, Jewish,
but not a German. And he was practically
world champion, just then. Europe at least,
two feet in the House of Fame.
Day of the show,
this louse, this lizard guy, he hauls me in,
clips off his big cigar, and says straight out,
Torbit, you won't be going in with the Iceberg –
So I ask, why? – He tells me, the man's dead, –
stabbed in the ribs, out in the Begelstrasse,
heat of an argument – money, a lady –
some yarn. Would you believe it? Never mind,
he says, we've filled his stool for you – sure, a
third of the purse. I ask him, what's he like?
He shrugs. Does he care? – Says, he's big, he's thick,
could be good, could be rubbish. And that's been
my watchword ever since. This great lump,
I had to hold him up to knock him down,
I never boxed again. You want the lamb?"
Pride of the hunter in going, he said it, 'insensate'.
He's gutted a freshly killed doe
and found her young wriggling inside.
Exterminates the brutes as you whack a rabbit
annoyingly forcing air through its windpipe
like a pinched, deflating balloon.
Don't call it a scream. The absence
of vocal chords in both rabbit and balloon.
Bodhisattva in the shape of a hare
shook his fur before he leapt into the fire,
sacrificing himself but not
his parasites or passengers.
Remember? You cover our child's eyes
but the shrew squeals in the mouth of the cat.
I lift the spider from the bath,
return it to its serial-killer's hoard of body parts.
As each storm-induced brief interruption
to the current sets the answerphone to default,
I slip out to the call box to call us -
to hear my own voice replaced
by one that's digital and robotic.
To hear, time and again, the 'please call later'
of a party-goer's party-trick,
having swallowed helium from a balloon.
WORLD'S SMALLEST FAIR
There's a smell of fry and ketchup on the green.
Plaques of blue, of violet neon,
late September dusk and small rain.
One mini rink of dodgems, one roundabout
for toddlers, no takers.
Some kind of pygmy pony, hunched tethered
behind a caravan. And on the one stall
(You don't have to knock it off -
only touch a coconut to win)
there's the chance to take home
badly made soft toys that just look wrong.
Or like the animal familiars
crowding to the railings, roadsides, crimescenes,
graves on unconsecrated ground.
From Tatlin's tilted metal frame - to the coral
snake's tail in attack mode and hurricanes.
The minaret in the desert at Samara,
the confected twisted columns of Churriguera.
Faint celestial bodies through Hubble,
the pattern of leaf scars round an extinct tree.
The spiral brush-work of late Hokusai.
Bookbinding; the brooch of Tara; black holes;
DNA. Air traffic control -
stacked planes descending in spirals.
The squid-like ammonite a chambered mollusc,
its polished paperweight spiral on a desk.
The unsafe iron exterior staircase which leads
to the former maid's brick quarters on the roof.
The encyclopaedia article which begins
'Our solar system lies in one of the spiral arms
of a disc-shaped galaxy...' You're in the spiral,
it's not of your making, but down to you:
part stalled fairground ride - you see the lights
of the city from the summit as your boat-shaped
individual open capsule swings and creaks slightly
in the wind - part hidden circuitry. The eye exceeds
nature, Leonardo said so; Goethe that the straight
line's masculine, the spiral feminine. Flaubert planned
La Spirale, a work about nothing.
Shavings from a carpenter's bench, crystals of sulphur:
examples of 'beautiful spirality'. The insect
that's walking in a right-hand spiral, needing
to keep turning to the left to reach its tomb-like
centre. Like a reading eye, on a page of pure text.
SIGNS AND PORTENTS
Medieval as it was, I was taking no chances
The day the Prime Minister walked under a ladder.
Up went my umbrella and, sure enough, no farther
Than two metres from a newspaper stand I glanced off
A loose chunk of eighteenth century fire-brick
That came away from the south wall and fell
On the Minister who followed behind. I could tell
From the gasping crowd that stone had done its work.
At the funeral all admitted it was not my fault -
Except Condolences Dineen, who claimed that my umbrella
Was his. We argued this insimulatio for days, the area
Around our shoes growing white with talismans of salt.
THAT NOVEMBER OF VICTORIES
(for Brendan Ryan)
My bare feet are in the sea and a froth
of salt and water washes over me
the way time does in its own ebb and flow.
It is power and its relentless wave motion
that hits the sand. What has gone out
will come back again, sure as the moon.
If I lower myself and become wet all over
I can hear the applause of that November
in the not too long ago. In this Kerry surf
it is the crowd around Dick Spring, kingmaker,
a Labour wave called 1992; a cleansing wash
around my ankles, the sea's wry promises.
(for Joe Gavin)
Emblems of the Hellenic world of trade, Ionian, Olympic, a Byronic BA,
Cruise past the waiting windows; touch down, gate or disengage.
Each European driven to Ithaca, each creaking console turning to complain
Of its burden of suitcases, each with a Mediterranean assignment;
Each bag falls like an exhausted marathon runner at the gate of Athens:
The flight attendants in smart uniforms tell us to be alert and wait.
This is the Europe our fathers could never have imagined as they fled
Westward, across the ocean, leaving Queenstown and Genova tear-stained.
Behind them as they fled entire civilisations were waking from a sleep,
An exhausted sleep of wars, a long nightmare of occupations. Europe was
Never as alert as this, not in our lifetimes nor in the lives of our fathers,
Alert with untaken journeys of pleasure, as full of its own trade
As the quaysides of Boston or the blue furnaces of Philadephia.
I think of those journeys out of something. A flight out of Europe:
The spars creak and the sea folds and unfolds to remonstrate with time,
To show its wrists to the wind; to show its broken chains to the sky
As now the young Europeans show their passports and IDs with such
Nonchalance, and lack of interest. The whole of Europe's on the move
Again, but this time into itself: the idle moves to the working part,
The cold North seeks the hot islands as if Greece could hold enough light
To satisfy our darkness. I've just said farewell to the companionship
Of the great, to Dora Marryanis in Athen's Town Hall,
To a beloved Spyros Mercouris speaking at the Pnyx, making a promise
To support the work of poets, Spyros who brought Greek sunlight
To the Big Screen, who watched Melina become a singer of genius,
A genius of phrases, beautiful and nonchalant as a Greek cigarette -
So that we wonder what it is we are looking for
And we wonder what the fuss was about, and the budgets that wounded cities,
And wonder too as we sink into the grace and ease of an Hellenic life
Where it was our plane journeys began, what politics and foul weather
Made us board our plane of exile, this sun charter called Capital of Culture,
And I think of the Hellenic canvas of James Barry, and how it all began;
Not to mention, in passing, the Hellenic ideal of Europe in our scholars,
WB Stanford's book, the songs of Father Prout, etc., etc.,
Or whether our plane took flight much later than that; in our father's time:
The Berlin Airlift, the harrowing films of the Holocaust and the vileness
Europe is capable of; or Melina Mercouri's dream, her idealised place
Where a child might grow tall with European-ness, at home and in love
From the Shannon river to the Danube Volga, or Vistula; consoled
By culture for all the horrors of war and exile .... Until quite suddenly
I see, clear as a glass of water from the Nagle Mountains, a ragged
Child, a little gypsy boy or a child coming home from a Talmudic lesson,
I see that child grab his one precious suitcase, a cardboard case marked 'Europe',
And all my hopes go with him, all the cut-stones and the sunken treasure.
GIRL ON A MOTORBIKE IN INDIA
Here, straddling the surge of a two-stroke,
your hips hovering over a grubby pillion
at every jolt of the dirt road, where the trees
throw up their trunks to holler back at you
the engine's racket, and every thicket
wants you for a bride -
Here, where your mouth's smudged
to a go-faster stripe and the wind rushes in
on your shouts, you fly your hair
like a flag, and the afternoon's turbocharger
whips you downhill, gathering speed -
Here, shouldering through blurred villages
on the whiff of gasoline, and your voice
urges headlong into the dazzling river -
Here you are weightless, and light's fingers
are too slow in reaching you. Your knuckles
whiten. Your heart flexes its red wings.
Jazz up your GTIs with spoilers,
subs and stereos then cane it down the ringroad,
windows open with your mates
bouncing to dancehall, hip hop, what the fuck
will take your fancy on a Friday night.
And make it wild. Get in a few
down at the Wetherspoons, then join the crew
for Aftershocks and Breezers somewhere
with a jukebox just to get the juices
flowing, bring your peeps out on their feet,
then take it down the club, your mates
knocking back Bud and braying ghetto, getting down
to Fiddy Cent and Dizzee, eyeing up
the talent, getting lucky getting
laid and leaving early with some fitty
who will grope them in a taxi,
fuck then fuck off home. Saturday
you don't get up 'til twelve and you
get KFC for breakfast, play some Gamecube,
PS2, visit the missus or your mum,
go down the pool hall then the pub,
watch all the thugs get drunk then tear it up
just like last night but more, more drinks
more drugs more razzle dazzle and more dirty beats.
Sunday. Mind your head and maybe chill
with DVDs or downloads, see the family
and psych yourself for Monday and another week
of temping, selling, fucking, all the shit that
gets you through to the weekend. With luck
you'll do it all for years to come. It's pirate music, yours
because you took it and you'll dance
and drink and screw to it, be cool to it,
but all this time keep moving to it
past the rec, the Tescos, the estate, back down
the ringroad past the crematorium and out.
Mist and blanket bog, where the ice sheets vanished.
But it is here, according to the books,
Cloudberry is to be found –
In a single patch, on the north face of Dart mountain.
I can see you looking at me
As if to say 'What? In this weather?
Are rosehips, reddening haws and deadly nightshade
Not enough for you? Poisons, panaceas
Bursting from the hedges
Of half the country?'
Call it bakeapple, for all I care,
As the Canadians do. Alp and tundra,
Bog and blasted heath, are its chosen ground.
As for me, I'm through with life reduced
To the great indoors...
I want to go back
Just once, behind all that is Ireland,
To the age of free migrations
Where a man sets out, with only a Word in his head
And the needle of a shattered compass
Guiding him, through what is now no more than landscape,
With its huddle of frightened sheep
In driving westerlies, blown bog-cotton
Trembling like the beards of a million prophets
Leading their chosen peoples out of exile –
To eat of the tasteless fruit
Of universality, rooted
Like myself, in the invisible,
And belonging everywhere.
QUALM April 2008
HIDE AND SEEK
This love thing's
One big game of hide and seek.
Whose turn now
To crawl beneath the stairs
Or slide behind the coats?
Eyes tight and count to ten
'Ready or not, here I come'.
But whereas once
We hid impatiently
In eager and ill-suppressed
Expectation of discovery,
Now, it seems,
The game's for keeps -
One hides for good
The other never seeks.
PLAN DE GUERRE (Diary of an Aspiring Author)
Came to town
A putative superhero
Come to burn
With blazing enjamb-
ments and fiery rhymes.
'Take me to your leader,
I'll soon behead the bleeder,
Bludgeon all derisions
With my armoured stanza divisions.'
Of secret gas
Succumbed to spies
Disguised as fans
And blew all plans
As from a gun
Shot the lot
And my bolt
Just for fun.
Of high explosive metaphors
In the centre of a crowded room.
But all for whom?
Over the heads
Of every guest.
From hand-whittled bows
At the circled wagons
Of literary London.
And no one took
Bit of notice.
Locked the door
And me within
And well secured
Downloaded from the net
Detailing construction of
A baby atom
And set to work.
(the parts are readily available -
no need these days
for awkward reads
like shakespeare, yeats
No, any fool could put this
in a trice:
it's one part post-modern tease
to two parts sleaze)
Just set timer
Try not to miss the boat
Only a retard
With their own petard.
Success at last:
I knock 'em all out
With the fallout
Which leaves just me
In my jungle -
A giant tree
In the end was the word -
The dernier cri
for le tout paris
in the rue vieille du temple
just what they please
and contempt flows
from parisian carafes
Where do poets go
in paris now?
not to the rue vieille du temple
not to the bourgeois-boheme marais
quartier juif and quartier gai
(there's a venn diagram worth a gander)
used to come here?
or some gitane-toting philosopher
an a-la-carte sartre
in polo-neck and beret
master of all he surveyed.
The intellectual is dead
of a big head
now tourists sit
in his stead
eyeing each the next one over
wondering 'is that a noted author?
or some other?'
don’t they know?-
the intellectual is dead
long live the euro
what napoleon never could
we're all shoppers now
pigs at the trough
measured in debt
of which there's never quite enough
on the rue de bretagne
red wicker chairs
and marble topped tables
are all that remain
of parisian dreams
or do I mean fables?
on the boulevard ancien
My heart's a pendulum
That hangs by arteries
Within its cavernous surrounds.
Place your head upon my chest
And you may hear it tick.
Or could it be
That the proximity
Of your magnetic personality
Might make it stop.
In our old age, the grand other
is still one letter short of me.
His house still gleas with onstrous china,
his irrors reflect eery ouths.
Though hard to say, each word jupy, epty,
I still pronounce accurately the text that hangs
above our bed. Late in the evening
perhaps a new accent will slip
its quaint socking
inside his ercerised vest.
Femage, homage ...
though I stand here, hands cupped to the ceiling, a bunch of dried sage tied in purple string, lit at noon to waft smoke through the hall, I can't worship the new goddess,
Across the floor a hundred goddess banners:
Rhiannon, Isis, Athena, Cybele, Morgan.
Sophia births with upstretched arms between leopards.
The undines hold the space with slapped stone.
A swollen wicker belly bags the dollied corn.
Glittery altars are braided with loose wheat ears.
The old statues, more thighs and stomach than hands and head – my goddess altar is all theirs.
Perhaps it's the presence of three stones from a man's garden and a lefthand fingerless woollen glove I wore when I last held my lover's hand – that deflect a shock of recognition on first hearing Avalon backwards.
Worse - heights frighten the men here
Melisso – you are called to climb the scaffolding. Pull
her straight. He refuses to hear.
Such a scared little white wing pinches my ankle
among the feathers, sheaves, pebbles, bowls of water.
whoever is spelt by, if it works, your name.
THE FICKLE IMMORTALITY OF NAMES
Since he died, I call anyone Joe.
It isn't his name that's dead.
When a life is sliced in a section, you see the filigree of timings, a school of pause.
By choosing the mad marquee of storm
that suddenly rushes towards a walker,
strangling him in guy ropes,
Joe may not have erred any more than my refusing local honey (it glows on another table) in the café that's always for sale.
Sun fires the glass to warm
the visiting dead. A soul
for each round of bread!
Joe, hi, it's me.
Oh, that’s not in the script!
It's true, the whole of our street was rooting for Germany – West
Germany – even my Dad.
After the semi, Sir Alf had said – guarded, as if he were making
a layman's translation
of soldiering terms, and getting everything wrong but the sense –
that his novel formation,
this 4-3-3, had "smothered the Portuguese play at source,
like an E-lectric blanket – "
which anyone knew, meant Stiles kicking the pants off the
But then I had visions of Martin Peters, the one who was always
"ahead of his time",
pale as a ghost at night, going through the doors and private rooms
of an old people's home
and striking softly, before their fingers could close on the "help"
bulb or the bedside light;
or, I might wake in the wet at the thought of the Glasgow polis entering
mine, a couple
of Roger Hunts in pursuit of a misprint – the boy in this very bed
who was heard to be
warming his lions – as if he had three of them cubs stitched to the
plaque of his Y-Fronts.
Not the one low wood note in barn or wood. The barn's gone
to conversion, where silver sportwagons replete with satnav
idle in their newly gravelled drives. Or the owls in their sanctuary,
their chicken-wire aviaries, the particular row we returned to
with its owl on the ground like a kennelled dog - stir-crazed
neurosis or instinct in its head-rolls and strange cries, its three r's
(repetition, repetition, repetition), imitated by our daughter for days.
It was intent on nothing, sounding the air for an answer,
history waiting to happen, a rustle in open field or leaflitter....
But the barn owl that was unwrapped from newspaper, having flown
headlong into the glass. Unmarked in death, with its boxer's
shoulders, packed face feathers, faceted god-like face.
The old sods, they're looking forward to the time
when they'll be needing to ask their own way home.
To stopping someone with the question:
do you know where Mr So-and-So lives? -
and it's really them - short-term memory
intermittently and all but gone.
A recently appointed postman would do.
Though they don't figure to be receiving much mail
outside of hospital appointments, offers of credit,
other such junk. The kind that's dropping even now,
like the quality of mercy,
into an inch or so of burst-pipe water -
at the stage just before it begins to float and turn,
bleeding its bright yellows, pinks and blues.
Inside every pencil:
the neutron star
that's waiting to get out.
To release it,
just draw a line.
Burnt paper in the cold grate
to tail-feathers of ash.
From the fish-
glue on an envelope
in a darkening room
a faint phosphorescence.
THE DEAD LETTER
The study as if someone has just left the room
and failed, for sixty-odd years, to return.
On its desk a last dead letter, faded ink
all but gone. A copy of Empire or Democracy?;
an igneous paperweight suffocating in its dust.
On the floor an antique, outsize Dictaphone;
a smell of desiccated newsprint and books;
two-volume Stalin, in several languages,
and be-suited Chinese visitors, conspicuous.
And the narrow, low, bullet-proof doors
of the blossoming bouganvillea-draped house
seem small as an entrance to a tomb:
rusted home-made and riveted like those
on a prototype tank, time-lock or submarine -
fitted after Siqueiros's (brief crazed and failed)
left-handed foray into homicide. The earth-
floored guardhouse is a converted garden shed
next the chicken coops; its guard's toy-like
Remington with red-painted stock
is kept in the lobby with the photographs:
Trotsky with head in a big bandage,
'moments before death'. Detectives in hats,
grouped around exhibit A, the ice-pick.
Trotsky with nurses and medics, 'moments after'.
Brian Waltham (1925-2002) Four more unpublished late poems.
To be dead fair, she did all she reasonably could:
Low heels, a shoulder stoop, a slightly bent knee,
Crimping her neck, watching carefully where she stood,
But, looking at it squarely: she was taller than me.
I too did my best with more than two-inch heels,
Standing uphill, straightening my back,
Think tall I thought, you're as tall as it feels,
But what I needed was to be stretched on a rack.
We never said it, but eye-to-eye upright didn't work,
She must, like me, have felt something of a clown,
Or that we shared a kind of long-and-short quirk.
For at least two reasons we were best lying down.
It had to end. Her cat said I was shorter than her,
That Iago of a cat who couldn't even purr.
Pulling ivy from an oak
Is High Court stuff, judging,
As you never can, the
Fault-lines in a marriage.
As they each plead their case
You need an armoured wig, proof
Against falling nests, mice-bones,
Enraged ants, sleepy spiders
And the pungent sticky mess
That has kept them together.
Which was husband? Which
Of them loved best in that
Sub-atomic world beyond
The best of your books of
So, my nearly gone
Out of this year,
Let it come, hands-on
Wasn't a bad year
Was it? Well anyway
Sod it, that's what
Both of us sighed
And mortally tried,
But neither of us
We both wrote
Quite a bit of verse
And - wait for it,
You can see the
From at least
Twenty miles -
It could have
And we share
(like Gods whose
Names for the
Moment escape me)
Thing that we pass
Back and forth,
This mean, envious,
Bulbous living package,
This unforgiving eye,
Which you quarrel with
And so do I,
But doesn't lie.
Act dead, master fear,
So the bushmen say,
Give off no smell of fear,
Keep eyes inward, never
Risk the merest flick
Of eye to eye.
Then, so the bushmen say,
It may come close enough
To probe you with touch,
But will soon back off
In search of other prey.
Here it is best to act
Dead-alive, crazily to
Face outwards, to stare
Down what seems to
Be its face, daring it to
Show its eye, to show itself
As huge and bare,
And then, drenched in the
Smell of fear, to find
Nothing there and knowing
It is there to stay and will not
Leave you in search of other prey.
QUALM October 2008
Derived from chav, we call this charivari -
rough music from us roughnecks plus a skit;
our instruments aren't made by Stradivari,
they're anything that we can reach to hit.
The drum to Ambrose meant eternal death,
but that's exactly why we like it most:
enjoy your wealth until your dying breath,
for then you'll spend eternity as toast.
Shaw's Hell was full of amateur musicians -
we're worse than amateur, yet we're up here
to give the lie to art and its beauticians
for one day of the calendar each year.
Jerome thought sinful music sounds so good,
the pious kind should strike one's ear as raw;
so if we seem less polished than we should,
we're just obeying Jerome's higher law.
The music that the Antichrist will play
is beautiful beyond our power to tell,
and Paganini took our breath away
as Lucifer his soul on death to Hell.
You've heard that truth is beauty, beauty truth
like one was Castor and the other Pollux -
forgive the language of uncultured youth,
but Cockney Keats was talking Hampstead bollocks.
Because the beautiful can prove untrue,
you sometimes need to heed Tom, Dick and Harry;
we're here to drum that message into you,
for that's the meaning of the charivari.
THE ACID TEST
Unsure of you
I clip a snippet
From your love
Of litmus paper
It turns a violent red
I scratch my head –
Time to recall
School lessons in the science hall
Chemistry and all
When secret agents
Produced profound effects
For observant boys to note
On inky foolscap –
But not I
My mind that day
Was on the field of play
Or blowing spitballs
Through biro barrels
Or carving compass art into the desk
I never knew if alkaline
Or acid was the brew
To turn the oracular strip that hue.
Back to the now
And this red question mark
That holds us together
Or sets us apart
If but I knew.
HOW TO DIE (‘Ça, mon âme, il faut partir’)
To die ecstatic
That's the trick -
To cheat death
With a winning smile,
With a final breath
no different from the rest,
Or a lick of the lips
As if to say
'Hey Big Guy
What kept ya?
I thought you were never gonna show',
A last laugh
More of an embarrassed snort
and the mock involuntary cry
You're shorter than I thought
By half' –
That's the only way to go.
I've a drawer
Where I file
Past lives –
From bottles drunk
On joyous nights
Inscribed with dates
That mark the peaks
My heart has scaled –
A dozen champagne stoppers
Pregnant with a memory each
That now escapes me –
What's in a date?
If only I could recollect
But all I have
From bottles popped
And a hangover
From trying to remember
(Two poems translated by Sebastian Schloessingk)
Buddha The Suave is becoming bored
in his palace of jade:
not even the sound of the gushes
of aquamarine dissolving
in the opal fountain
or on the fire coral
can make his smile bloom again.
Up here in the clouds there's no harmony
- reflects the Suave One - and doesn't get it.
The topaz is silent, cockerel yellowhood.
Silent the rubicund ruby,
even the emeried emerald
Then Buddha realizes -
in the palace of suspended jade
what's missing is the earth,
the deep cavern
where the jewel is born:
ancestral sound, maternal,
spreading in waves,
mixed with gross gangue.
Up there, in the rarefied air,
even the most precious stone
sounds out stifled, and falls silent.
navirambling the bristling typhoon-corrugated clouds:
entropy retaliation for terrestrials
devoid of memory of the planet's
every eco-equilibrium effort
and minters if anything
of hypocritical eco-incentives:
who sows the wind then reaps
the proverbial tempest and who
doesn't have the head for it better have legs
to flee the Dismal Eco-Wrath.
Dear mum and dad, I expect,
With all the paint falling out of the sky,
You thought I'd forgotten you.
Wrong! I detect your presence
In the exuberance and wit of deciduous trees!
Last week we had to fling a wall over a wall,
But we got the wrong wall:
We flung the wall over the wall
We were supposed to fling over the wall
We flung over that wall. It's difficult to explain
And I have no great facility with language –
My eloquence marred, perhaps,
By my curtailed education.
Thank you for Seven Types of Ambiguity
And the box of brandy snaps;
I'm afraid I don’t understand either of them.
At that time it was customary to wear a complete adult human skeleton around one's neck, which made moving house harder than ever and embracing almost impossible. There was a wild panic to the blue sky. The clack of our skeletons as we leant in to embrace, until we came to associate affection with clacking. But still we dated.
And of course had I known my own family had been abducted earlier that afternoon and were concurrently undergoing torments similar to that which it depicted, I mightn't have enjoyed the film so much.
Towards the end of the second act the torturer offers his victims ice cream and popcorn while they watch him "work", which I thought was clever and funny.
But maybe a bit too clever. And I didn’t like the inverted commas around "work" – it made me want to say the word "vomit" in inverted commas.
I felt the urge to explain it to the rest of the cinema. 'We are implicated just by observing!' I whispered to my date, who looked up from her copy of Empire – which described the film as "a sadistic circle-jerk of the lowest order."
She took my shoulders and kissed me on the forehead.
'Peace,' she muttered.
The police had filled my house with graphic photographs of the crime scene. _____ __ ______ _____ __________ __ __, ______ ___ ___ ________ ___ ____. ___ _ ___ _ __________ ______. 1 When I complained, they told me I was entitled to my opinion. As I sprinkled instant coffee granules into our cups of real coffee, (a post-structural drink I liked to call ""'THE SIMULACRA BESIEGED!'"").
I reflected that the torturer had taught me a valuable lesson which, on closer inspection, turned out to be a cliché:
The last crisp in the bowl is a rat who has eaten the last crisp in the bowl.
Should you ever feel sickened by your own thoughts, take a moment to pity those who spend tens of millions of pounds and enlist the help of thousands of technical experts to realise their own sickening thoughts in a form that can be inflicted on millions of others.
You think her ageing is a barrier to my wanting her? I could have been the lover of her antecedents even: any aspect of her. But particularly her sense of mission as heralded by that unknown black-eyed Italian priest who impregnated her grandmother.
I could have been his. But only because, being an atheist, a New Woman and a smoker, I would have wanted to see him defrocked.
Did he think his cope and chasuble and key to the door of St Mary Immaculate in Sydenham (or was it Leytonstone?) were unassailable?
Last night she slept under the lightest tog duvet and dressed particularly well for bed but still woke in the dark, sweating and shouting: 'This way.'
AT SEA IN STONE
One photo shines out, whorled in black,
a white thumb, an umbilical latch
to my immigrant grandothers, Schmidts, a pygmy
index to more green pages,
more painted flowers, lavender and buttercup.
A reading is a caul
and a café window,
to a harbour packed with water.
A duck swims away from a boat,
tugging waves with it.
Therefore I'm not only chronological,
(the thumb is up, a bitten inch of proof) –
see the boat hang, touching its brother, cling
to the duck across the chockful bay,
a marshmallow on chocolate-smooth sea.
Tourists stand at the edge
of an unfenced cobb. The boat moves
on its rope to reach them.
If I had no thumb, like my uncle the carpenter,
I'd still be printed in black whorls of wave.
QUALM April 2009
In Rio, cobalt peaks wore
ochre suburbs and children
and stair-stepping samba
convoyed tipped nudes down.
In Lisbon, a singer
coins plinked on the dado
(obrigada!) of her fado:
from no love again
men trailed back to ships
and the ropes they wing-walked
made a vast wind-lobed brain.
Black, chipper and white
street mosaics of Lisbon,
pavement-scrolls of Rio,
Which produced more civilizations,
yellow grass or green?
Who made poverty legal?
Who made poverty at all?
Eating a cold pork sandwich
out of greaseproof paper
as I cross to Circular Quay
looking down the last Harbour miles
that the world-ships furrowed
dates this day to my midlife.
Out of my approaching then city
rise towers of two main kinds:
glass ones keyed high to catch money
and brown steeples to forgive the poor
who made poverty illegal.
And the first Jumbo jets descend
like Mates whose names you won't recall,
going down behind the city.
This midlife white timber ferry
scatters curly Bohemian glass
one molecule thick, afloat on green
dark of laws far older than poverty
and I hold aloft my greaseproof rose
for hand-to-mouth, great hoister of sails.
She is delighted afresh
every dawn, to unlid
perfect nothing. That sphere
which extends from the blue
beneath her lashes
clear out to the horizons
of the detail-balloon
that contains all the air.
Blues she sang for years
through colour washes
are gone with the thickening
glasses that narrowed reading
and blind-girl craft work,
the contacts that sucked, bleeding.
Since technology got up
off a Red conveyor,
razored an aqueous ring
and, lasing a layer,
skimmed all that history
off her inner sky,
side clouds have vanished.
She needn't stand demurely
fuming, among ignorers.
Now she rises to her character.
IN MY WILDEST JEANS
If these are the hollow eyes of "mid maturity,"
the map of veins beside the nose, the beard
showing up like iron filings underneath the skin,
then these must be the over-stuffed jeans
of material success, the ones with a zip
that shyly presents itself to the world,
a hint of underpants and vest
suggesting a breakthrough into seriousness.
Am I a better person now, with a fat arse,
flip-flops and a back-support for the car?
In my wildest dreams I never looked like this.
I walked around like "The Man fom Laramie,"
practising my cross-draw and return.
I leapt in the air and fell, clutching my stomach,
twitching occasionally. In my wildest dreams
I was only pretending to be dead.
What were we thinking about,
when we climbed up into the fork
of the lookout tree
and kicked the ladder away?
It was almost impossible to get down.
That was the whole point.
We wanted to eat a peach somewhere interesting.
We wanted to dribble peach juice on the world.
(previously unpublished and firmly attributed to Philip Larkin
- see Writers page)
Shooting your spunk into a girl
Is life's undoubted crown,
But leading up to it isn't
And neither is leading down.
THE DAY MOTHER CRIED
everyone and I stopped breathing
Word bubble suspended, an Xmas ornament,
everyone in bits in reflection, maybe
even thought, a confluence of broken glass
and not enough light. Baby's O's
almost a pucker, could it be a kiss?
Faux night day night in answer. No elves.
The "justs" arrive. Repeat is one thing,
e.g. the man could be Dad behind
the paper, or Man. The dog chews
off the front page. Qualms in the kitchen,
the ham incense, prayer someone drops
into the forkfuls, the air cubed hard.
The dishtowels wet themselves,
Baby flails, our hands come clean,
all the chairs in the room an ad for home--
let quiet swans swim in it.
The banana plant ails, an onion
really, no tree, all furl. Bugs
plug its leaf sheaths, dust
if you don't look close.
Entrapped tropics: all summer
a miracle of shoots, the spume
of a magician's scarves, fruit
an embarrassment, so sexed.
No giant overwinters. Instead,
cut and bound, just the plume,
the susceptible engine. You spray
a last rites, glory over. Dust in review.
Charles is Julia's but only after her brother
Sebastian, who meets Charles from drinking
then throwing up in his rooms at Oxford,
has him. The next morning jonquils
alter the first impression. Out of one bouquet
a note to come to lunch at noon,
signed by Sebastian, and his silly bear,
who, too, could ask forgiveness
for last night's walk of shame.
At lunch there are plover's eggs to start with,
a passionate speech by a guest stuttering
strangely. When Sebastian has Charles
many more times at his real home,
Brideshead, mansion turned playhouse,
chapel turned gallery, turned actual
fortress, the Flyte who stands out, threatening,
is Julia, with her lap dog burrowing
in the dark place that is actually
warmer for her childless marriage,
vacuous adultery, airy religion,
the dog called a baby, a flirt, a toy.
It's as if Charles is already lighting Julia's
cigarette in the car together,
Charles Ryder and Julia Flyte.
Charles, clock without a pendulum,
clock good for a ship, the time ball
crashing down the spoke atop a kind of steeple,
at one in the afternoon, several ships fire,
giving mariners everywhere something
to go by, for their own chronometers.
Who shall go in for the scraps,
after Charlotte would botanize charmingly,
who is the child, naked, but twelve,
standing before the adult cutting her nails,
is a cutter. Kristeva says nail parings
are no different from menstrual blood, urine,
black feces, wounds, cuts, red vomit,
not unlike a corpse, in the Powers of Horror,
when the inside is mixed with outside,
life with death, Eros with Thanatos.
Who marries young to the father’s friend,
paints and cuts paper into a piece so small
you couldn't touch it apart from
your fingernail sticking to it.
PEBBLES AND BONES FROM NATURAL PLACES
Fast drinker with no Zen tea left in the square-shaped purple mug, you're help in some rooms,
help-help in another kind of lighting with the flexibility of this: Now how much time
do you have? All the tea urns, silver samovars, all on the table, worth collecting,
if not worth having such as the sideways but tall UPS package that your younger brother
into it hits an artery, trying to open. Your brother says, I was trying to open my scooter.
Pound says the girl asks her mother if she can open the light. The light of Henry-Moore-
of-Pebbles-and-Bones-from-Natural-Places fame. Outside, winter light rather than Irina
on the Sun Porch, Mary with her Father, Moore Carving on Vacation in Italy.
Winter with competing interests such as earlier silence. What are you trying to remember?
If it's not the riddle about fishnets, then reliving stops along one line of the train, trainwreck
songs, suicide on the train track, by 7 a.m., the body’s gone, the human hambone song,
rhyme, name songs, someone's name whose father moves South, opens a frame shop, kills
himself, time when agency-existence isn’t in jeopardy, when there's a touch-your-shoulder
without your shoulder—and your latest shoulder, if it's still life-like as a good ear.
QUALM October 2009
He moved by night. He went alone.
He crept through corridors of stone
Into her reveries of bone.
He'd drawn a blank. The bird had flown.
His friends were fled, his cover blown
And this time he was on his own.
In Peter's Chair the Pope was Joan.
She cursed him in an undertone:
You reap the crap that you have sown.
He wouldn't listen to the crone.
He heard his own testosterone.
Out there beyond the panic zone
The night was right as pheromone,
A scattering of starlight thrown
Across the void of the unknown,
The wind became a sousaphone
Beneath the howling of the drone,
His homicidal chaperon.
Her wildernesses overgrown,
Her staunch, indomitable moan,
He guessed, though he was never shown.
He moved by night. He went alone.
THE SPIDER SONNET
'The solution to pollution is not eating spiders': Newspaper headline
The solution to pollution is to stop ingesting spiders,
Just say no to the arachnida that copulate inside us,
How they pullulate and ovulate, the octopod articulate,
Auriculate, testiculate and oft times unguiculate,
The narrative of nightmare and the stuff of holy terror,
They're the creatures that convince you all your life has been an error.
So you're sicker than a parrot and you wish that you were dead?
Just you wait till they migrate and drill themselves into your head.
Creepy-crawly, creepy-crawly with a subtle sideways motion,
Some detestable detritus from the bottom of the ocean,
Something feral, fanged and furry with a flush of nasty habits,
Now they're ferreting like ferrets, now they’re rabbitting like rabbits,
Now they're occupying occiputs and populating dreams...
Eating spiders isn’t nearly as attractive as it seems.
RULING CLASS SONNET WITH CAPITALS & OBSCENITIES
Bad people are out there, extremely bad
And into some extremely scary stuff,
Unreasonable people, BLOODY MAD
DOGS to be frank; you have to treat them rough.
Their purpose is to overthrow the state.
Democracy is not the thing at all
And utmost rigour is appropriate
Countering forces so inimical.
Complete the enclosed therefore, in triplicate
With photographs, two for each and one for luck
Attested by a Justice of the Peace,
Vicar, solicitor or, WHAT THE FUCK,
Some nob, then send it back to the Police.
NONE OF US NEEDS TO TAKE THIS SORT OF SHIT.
ALL IS SAFELY GATHERED IN
Morituri te salutant,
Alan Jenkins, whom we can't repay
since you fêted us with Clicquot
on our bachanalian nuptial day.
Harvest, and the neutral combine
shears the puny full-grown to the stubble
(fetch the shoebox, fetch the shovel, as a chap might say).
Toodle-pip (and don't think you'll be very far away).
In the old days
you would have been charged
one obolos to cross.
There became so many passengers
that the Authorities
had to lay on more ferries.
Today it will cost you
1,200 euros, £1,000, 1,377 U.S. bucks, 130,380 yen
to achieve the further bank.
To fly to the mark faster, you fly in, out
of the Marriot Lobby, without patronage,
no bellboy you know from kept luggage.
To Kendall Square from South Station,
you walk through a major intersection next,
Hampshire, where you could have been chasing
with a short-winged hawk, direct off the wrist
in the air, whose attack is flight,
called hawk-of-the-wrist, who doesn't wait
for the game to be put up.
It might have looked like sneezing,
with your arm out, feathers shooting past your face.
It might have looked like an orgasm,
feathers covering your face like hands.
It's a pure one-hundred yards towards the circle
you remember, the brewery with its patio seating out
around the waiter you've come to Cambridge for,
around him like a whole covey of young for several seasons.
DRESSMAKER'S LAY FIGURE
And in that one shop are all those heads,
called displays, spare parts of a mannequin,
dressmaker's lay figure, or sexless busts,
you don't know, but see the wigs with mullets,
rat tails, fringes, of horse hair or human hair.
The French invent the guillotine,
and the historian who knows it all
rubs the knobs of shoulders passionately.
The dancer's mother requests John
the Baptist's head on a silver platter,
and the dancer asks on her mother's behalf.
How high? If your lover asks you to jump
off a cliff? Having gone through the mother,
now your mother goes through you
for things. You know it hurts to behold,
behold mother, father, brother, child,
history. The historian's greatest thrill
being mid-run going down on one knee, pissing
in public, secretly, and no one would even see
the small stream or anything out of you.
HUNTING FOR SCORPIONS
The boy takes the WarDance crew to the scorpions, miniature lobsters,
having followed the camera all day, carrying the tripod during footage
of Rose, whose voice goes thin, high, so soft the crew decides on her last,
but whose story who doesn’t know, imagine two parents broken, pieced,
heads in cracked pots. This time I would have asked not for an egg,
but asked my father to give me a scorpion's kiss, or the scene of a self-embrace,
the poor thing killing itself with its own stinger on the point of its tail,
in a ring of fire it would rather not enter. The boy the crew chose first,
filmed without Q and A, taught UNO, boy with raised eyebrows,
with washed foot, xylophone pieces he aligns in the frame,
Donald Duck and Goofy T-shirt, with words for a rebel soldier,
boy embracing or hijacking another Northern Uganda sunset.
I want to touch the harmless bones of the xylophone, the stock skull
with ants crawling over it, the good corpse, not the bad corpse, decomposing
carrion, not yet picked over by birds, virginal, not yet married.
ALBDTH (Good Vibrations)
Averell Harriman went about his business, ignorant of the new ear on his wall
Lev unveiled the etherphone to Professor Ioffe in October 1920
But the work of cutting through the permafrost was exhausting
Despite this flicker of rekindled interest within the Soviet Union, Lev Sergeyevich
still remained dead to the Western World
The sight of Lev, standing at attention, arms outstretched, his two hands
hovering, fluttering, and diving in air around two antennae, willing melodies into
being, was spellbinding, even to the young physicists who took scientific
wonders for granted
He held out a pile of civilian clothes to the inventor and suggested he change out of his prison rags
TO MARKET -- 3
Lucian Freud ($33,725,319). Collectors renewed their attachment to the artists from the London School with some outstanding bidding 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 which resulted in a new record for Francis Bacon. Home again, home again/Jiggerty Jig. His 2 metre-high painting, Portrait of George Dyer Staring into a Mirror (1967) fetched $4.9 million (including fees) with a pre-sale estimate range of 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 $2.5-3.5 million. On February 9, 10, 2005, 6,7,8,9,10. Lucian Freud beat his previous auction price record when Red-haired Man on a Chair ,an imposing 1962-63, 4,5,6,7,8,9,10 canvas (originally estimated at $1.2-1.8, 9,10, million) sold at Christie’s for $3.5 6 7 8 9 10 million. In June, July, August, September, October, November, December, Bella, a portrait of one of the artist's many daughters painted in 1982-83, found a buyer at Christie's for $1.6, 5 4 2 1 million. Back to Steely Wooly. At Sotheby’s, a self-portrait entitled Man with a Feather went under the hammer at $3.7 million (including fees) matching its high 6 7 8 9 10 estimate. Number 10. TOP TEN ARTISTS,2005.
AS LUCK WOULD HAVE IT
Scene: Hotel Sordid, Las Vegas, Nevada
Enter: Fat Anguish, Walter Hopps (Stamping
Of feet), Field Marshall, Marcel and Teeny, Big Foot,
--a whole cast. Enter: Sun from the rear
[3,924 I win the Jack-pot!] Rising to its full
height, Sun sheds such blinding light
cast to bandage eyes, right arms outstretched
pointing across the desert sands.
Scene: The Golden Nugget. Enter: Tart
Donald and Betty Factor and Betsy Asher
(collectors) sat chatting: his Monte Carlo
system, this and that. [4,254. Jack-pot
winner that I am, I congratulate ME!]
Walter, To himself: Marcel's eye on
the game's one thing, his lack of interest
in my unexpressed desire, another.
Marcel, as an aside (obscure): as
Metaphysics, the velocity of her love vaulting
naked over opaque order at all points has her
falling panting into a further dimension!
Aloud, to Walter Hopps: Put your chips on that
table and let's see what happens. (Nothing
happens.[I shall have the Jack-pot!]
Walter Hopps nods and smiles.
Scene: Stardust Hotel, Las Vegas, an oasis.
Enter running: Slim Anguish, Walter Hopps,
Richard Hamilton, Teeny, Onion et al.
Again the croupiers spin the wheels
Enter: Motley Eye, powdered in stars
and jasmine clouds. [ I saw you from afar]
Hands Hopps a ticket for tonight's National
Lottery, Powerball, Mega Millions.
Scene (often stolen but as often set)
Marcel: Place seven chips on the corners
of the high numbers, [ I'm going to win the lot!]
and we'll see what happens. (Later) Make
Diagonal patterns. … Set them out diagonally.
Walter: Whadda night! Soft touching China night!
After about an hour I begin to win.
My numbers just keep coming up.
[60, plus 200, and a thousand,
and 007, I win the jack-pot too!]
Scene: Cesar's Palace, Sin City, Nevada.
Picture this: Tart, Betsy Asher. They speak
As one: Talcumed bedsheets stardust
memories celebrity matrices, we are all
as doves tossed against a hail of bullets!
[I've always been lucky, tho'] Mean-
whilst Marcel, he of the Field, continues
sagely to call the numbers. Exeunt those
boisterous fools Fat Chance and Slim
Big Foot and Onion running their usual gamut
Pointing across the desert sands.
Jack Beeching (1922-2001). Three late poems.
OLD VILLAGE WOMEN CARRYING LOADS
Loaded with fruit and wine, the women lift
Burdens of memory, their heavy flesh
Such wrinkled trash as no one, now, will touch.
Yesterday's dalliance marks their loaded stance:
Pink satin once. Exuberant as drink
The split peach of their sex. No passing face
Will ever turn those burdened women young,
Nor bellarmines of wine confer on them
Apple of love, gulp of oblivion.
GOING, WAITING, COMING BACK
Nothing doing nothing night. No conquest.
Night of neutral nothing, no, not even
Negative responses. Nothing. Nothing.
No progress. No rebuff. No sort of answer.
No questions, either. Passing faces muffled.
No secret smell. No perfume, breath or sweat.
Not hers, those pale hands clad in black. No sound.
No footfall, shadow, cough or even sigh.
Wait in perplexity. Turn, and go back.
Not that a poem marrying love and death
Comes to an end. When northmen first saw roses
They took the blooms for fire;
And now, without a breathing-licence, are you
Really a citizen? That manumitting smile
Faded, last night, into the bedroom wall.
When heart starts hammering, and breath comes hard,
Time called at last, all equal and all orphan,
Depart you must; every dead man's effects
Turned over to his heirs. Remembrance, terror,
Expectation of bliss? Final extinction.
Off you go, and this time, no survivor.
You served your time. The ship of fools pays off.
Scattered hillside ashes are feeding roses.
The headlong, drowning seaman finds his mermaid.
QUALM April 2010
I shall pick up and play the violin
my hopeful great-uncle made for me
out of seventy-odd planished bits of maple,
its scrolled head a ruby-tinted fern.
It sailed across the ocean in a coffin
and is still stretched out in a velvet box,
the E string snapped like a sawn cable.
A musician who played it judged it a fine
big-voiced burly fiddle
though with a wolf note in the upper reaches.
Wolf note to which I'm perfectly attuned.
I do not think it is absurd for you to say that nothing is something,
since no one can deny that 'nothing' is a noun.
Anselm of Canterbury
If nothing is the opposite of something
then it too is something and not nothing.
Or is that just language rushing in
to fill what makes the intellect recoil?
It's us not nature that abhors a vacuum,
though in frictionless space there's still a fraction
more than nothing, if not enough of it
to slow the planets in their orbits.
But the full moon hides its emptiness
and every plenitude its opposite;
the present buckles into nowlessness
that lasts for never as a dark star draws
downward threads of light. There nothing exists,
couching like a sphinx among the rubble.
M4, NEAR WOOTTON BASSETT
Slumping in the driver's seat
stretching to reach the steering wheel
staring up through the big screen
holding the slow lane,
there is still a lot to find out
with that logarithmic sense
we keep while we're losing quantity.
Sit up, sit straight when I'm passing.
Remember your warrior version?
I used to hate it.
Now I don't know.
Like the vicar with ten allotments
this surprised me: a lord I met
(maybe a baron, maybe an earl)
where a mist scabbarded trees
with frayed material that fitted
the shape of branches exactly,
said his gift was to spot
from the door, on any surface
of any room in his country
mansion, dust. Myself, I need
to stand in sunlight to see
that silk-unsettling thaw.
CONSIDER YOURSELF TRAINED?
We were very angry, very cold
beside a road that had fallen quiet.
The queue behind was self-controlled
like hungry eaters on a diet.
An old woman was going to miss
a Celebration. We'd come from one.
I could still hear Buddhists chanting
Refuges. A girl who'd gone
brought back a message to us - up
the road there'd been a crash. Our coach
was stuck. Regret was porcelain.
We stamped. The ground took our reproach.
A man spread wide his arms and spoke
poetry, a sort of Tennyson
to the adjacent crossing light,
which was forbidding no one
in red, and allowing none in green:
'Oh amber rest, oh amber rest,'
he charged the inaccurate machine.
It failed, along with us, its test.
I didn't mean to overhear
the scrape of chair legs on the floor
and sour breath of the bored, enshadowed janitor
nor how he conflabbed on the stairs
(it echoed in the squarish well)
with an ingrate from HR, how you
were falling basementwards, towards
the ferret-sprainted woods where mats
of needles are being disturbed and skulls
of foxes, badgers, falcons, bats and shrews
emerge like eggshells of the news.
I heard the round of sirens in the night,
the airless click of satellites.
I heard the muffle and the timely knock,
the seconds jerking round the clock,
lonely and insomniac,
the sound of no one coming back
to fill and free the lock. I heard
a drunk man shouting COCK
and shrunken voices answering No,
his loiter in the orange yard
and how he turned to go
against a wind that breathed your name.
I heard the water cooler's hiccup send
a bubble of the future up,
an iciness to be my friend,
and how beyond the traffic's burr
your cough performed a Pyrenees of grief
upon a screen - as I was dropping off - I heard,
between the dog barks and the Word of God,
a vixen's scalp-contracting scream.
I heard the silence of the room.
I saw the silence of the moon.
Home, what it means to us and to our cousins
beyond the silent edges of sky and moorland,
houses and decors, the gorge that insists upon
a street ending on its knees in the sea, does not
extend as time does and memory pretends across
a garden evenly, unlooked-for fall of snow
in the lonely night. It all depends. The fire's dark grate,
the murder in the quarry, the cowbell of broad beans
hitting the pan's bottom and You and Yours
chattering to themselves in an empty room: nowhere
and nowhen did this happen but to you; was home
for no one else; and blood means nothing. So go there,
test the smell of bacon, read the spines and prints,
tear discreetly at the paper round the switch
to see the years and colours underneath: this pattern,
geometrical, hieroglyphic, reminds me that
Egyptians sent their dead out from the world ensconced
in riches, for that journey like the rest entombed
in dark rooms of inertial objects, homely garlands,
foodstuffs sealed in urns in lieu of those voices.
LAMP. ARTS AND CRAFTS MOVEMENT
The fields are brown candlewick.
We're warming the earth
after a long and darkish winter.
It's a map of itself.
Standing water, the pools
and the flooded fields, are smashed holes
in the stained-glass green. The black hedges.
By the embankment the stream's
the artist's signature
ruled under by a flat canal.
At this godly height, the trees' skirts
cover their ankles; would they remember us?
There's the huts and halls we constructed,
their ploughed roofs glowering
like the pipes of organs. There's ferns and chervil,
pinked nettles and halberd parsley.
There's the smoke, getting in the way;
a woman, going into the gorse,
and a man, moving towards her.
They seem so far away, those people,
and so strangely dressed. So open.
A numbered sticker on my hipflask.
Our toy sun casts not light but shadow,
a beam of coal-dust playing on the world.
I'd thought I was the bird rising. Now
I see all this wickerwork and think:
it's a funeral pyre. It's chilly. The light
whitens on a land of angles.
TWO UNTITLED POEMS
unto its day
and what we bury there
is all of ourselves
to only ever
and never sufficiently
(still sometimes too much)
but even I
who rarely dream
and when I do
can't see the worth
stand in the cemetery
of months gone by
one foot upon the shovel blade
for what I might unearth
Death's a mess
But here's the worst of it:
The great humiliation.
Yes, there will come a time
Flies lay eggs
In your head
Get used to it
Maggots need to live too.
I know you say
You'd happily provide a banquet
For a pride of lions
Down on their luck
But such is not your lot
Not even vultures
Praying on your corpse
Nor the jolliest hyena
You are destined for worms
on an ocean
on a leaf
no sight of land
no bird calls
and the language of the stars is greek to me
which way is east?
and even if I knew,
what course is true?
and have I stores enough to last?
as long as words exist
I will persist
and when storm-tossed
tie myself unto the mast
and revel in newfound expanse
I'll drink the maddening saline brew
of disembodied texts
and over chew
of mixed messages
and revel in expanse
watch sea and sky elide
and nature bend
for Scylla and Charybdis to collide
and 'til I meet my salty end
I'll revel in expanse
but can she frighten me away?
and will I she?
why should I worry if I do?
let love be mightier than fear
or else be shamed
to sink beneath the waves
and in the meantime silences
and yet uncannily carefree
and in this state
in breezy song
to careless winds
the captain's log:
no sight of land
and take my chance
and not be bound
upon my leaf
and hold it fast
within your heart
cling to it
as to a raft
on storm-tossed seas
if i cry
it's not for you
but for the death of love
for you the only thing that flows
from an overwrought volcano
like vesuvius awaking
in a fit of indigestion
eyes up from the belly gazing baby
retching magma innards
now imagine this:
self-obsessed and decadent
into these hills
now long forgot
you worshipped once
and brace yourself
THE PRAYER OF HARRIPU TEKOJAARVI
God of Earth and God of Iron,
God of Fire and God of Fear,
God of Truth and God of Lying.
God of Living, God of Dying,
God of Sword and God of Spear,
God of Zara, God of Zion,
God of There and God of Here,
God of Kent and Worcestershire,
God of Sorrow, God of Cheer,
God of Leopard, God of Lion,
God of Marduk and Orion,
God of Never, God of Near,
See my prayer like smoke arisen,
Free my wishes where they wizen,
Be the soul of my malison,
Soon, soon, soon.
God of Water, God of Witches,
God of Air and God of Words,
God of Hedges, God of Ditches,
God of Irks and God of Itches,
God of Beetles, God of Birds,
God of Butchers, God of Bitches,
God of Vocals, God of Surds,
God of all Diminished Thirds,
God of Karshish and of Kurds,
God of Scant and God of Riches,
God of Nooses, God of Hitches,
God of Hermits, God of Herds,
Take a heart that fears to fly now,
Wake a heart that wants to die now,
Make a heart one piece of sky now,
Soon, soon, soon.
THE LOVE BUG
The Love Bug will bite you if you don't watch out: Fats Waller
Alone in a library a lovely girl
Begins The Faerie Queene of Spenser,
And as she pushes back an errant curl
The Imp of Poetry attends her,
Squats by her shoulder, whispers in her ear,
Though what he says to her is far from clear.
Perhaps he instructs her in the Rhymer's Art,
His Course in Seven Easy Stages,
Conjuring Artegall and Britomart
From countless crabbed twin-columned pages,
Perhaps he enumerates her secret sins.
Perhaps that's why she blushes and he grins.
He grins, she blushes and she's beautiful
Entirely – so the poet Auden
Blazoned his sweet boy's ceremonial.
For Poetry is Holy Jordan
And she is Poetry, of course she is.
Except that verse is lies, and she's the biz.
For she's the Faerie Queene and he's the frisky
Rude Mechanic Bottom, waster, weaver,
Wordsmith and manchild, marinate in whisky –
The Single Malt, the Gay Deceiver,
The Poet's Passion and the Poet's Crutch.
He's onto something but it isn't much.
What isn't much is all he's got, and this,
The perfect shadow of a sonnet,
Stands for the imperfect shadow of a kiss
And everything dependent on it,
Counting the moonbeams, swinging on a star,
A SMALL HALF FOR KIT MARLOWE
They that love not tobacco and boies
Are fools. How true how very true.
My song of songs, my joy of joys,
After the fevers and the frets,
The Himalaya of my debts,
This is as joyful as it gets.
My loves all culminate in you,
My Wonderland, my Timbuktu,
My pattern and my equipoise,
My marmoset of marmosets,
My sweet of sweets, my boy of boys,
My Rome, my Babylon, my Tyre,
The pinnacle of my desire
My light of life, my flame of fire,
And sharer of my cigarettes.
QUALM October 2010
HUNGERFORD BRIDGE IN WINTER
Second by second
night shoves sun
are lined with in
from under. You're
your cloth as you
here to there.
THE CHARGE OF OLDER CHILDREN
The pause at an amber light is not so brief
he can't use it; he can turn on you
or drum his fingers on his knees or draw
a stone hedgehog out of a bag or quote
a useful thought such as: 'Say anything -
it buys you space for sense.' Or, angering
at the slow pull of a handbrake
while you idle your foot on the pedal, he can
leap out, slam the door shut so hard
it takes some seconds of green to hold back.
Listen. Along seats, floor,
puckered duffle, smocked swag,
hinged Gladstone, ditty, satchel,
undegradable plastic bag
murmur: 'What are you for,
gut, heart, stomach, skull?'
AT MELT POINT
If it gives way
when I walk
call it water.
That does not
mean I'm not
of the Meltings –
that it's not
Say that the eye was 'the window onto the soul'.
Albrecht Dürer painted one into his own eye
in his self-regarding self-portraits, and inked
the transom and mullion of a window
into the eye of his watercoloured hare:
both hyper-realistic detail
(the animal was before him in his studio)
How you caught your own eye
(by which I mean mine, for le moi est toujours
unawares at the well-bottom
of a black-glazed tea-mug,
looking older, stranger, nothing like your own.
How I only knew that we were finished
when I saw the light in your eyes
for your new lover, switched off for mine.
The eye is not a camera.
More like an entire photographic workshop
with no interest in producing 'stills'.
A nineteenth century biochemist,
a German, dissected the eye of a guillotined felon,
in order to make an 'optogram', a photo
of the last image on his retina.
Then, un-deterred by its total failure
pinioned a rabbit facing a window,
chopped off its head, and laid its excised retina,
cut along the equator,
in a solution of alum for fixation.
Next day he saw the window,
'with its clear pattern of bars'.
and several actual murderers –
including the woman who gouged out the eyes
of her mother-in-law to erase
the image of herself wielding a hammer –
ran with the idea of the tell-tale eye.
As the overdose of anaesthetic was fed in
to put down my old lurcher
I stayed to close his slowly glazing eyes
and thought of 'Building a Wall' -
the pioneering cinematic short
in which footage of Victorian workmen,
demolishing a wall, was then reversed
to show them pickaxing it up again.
Thought of the lethal flow reversed, that miracle,
the laid down held dog's sideways fall
becoming a gentle rise.
from the by-pass, we needed you to show
that you were all there. Could you squeeze
the nurse's hand? Your first word was 'water',
then 'give me something', meaning morphine.
As I reached to caress your hair
you smelt on my hand the nicotine
from a single cigarette, despite the handwash
in alcohol. Thought you saw a missing button
on my shirt (it was actually undone),
as the world resumed itself, in endless detail.
‘No more poems about fathers, or painters, or about writing poems.’,
I'd want this piece about our father
to have something of the texture
of Schwitters' Workmans Picture -
some glued-on gauze, a piece of copper pipe,
drips of solder, torn glass paper.
And to somehow speak of the fact
that when he 'lost' a leg, and then his bladder,
it occurred to him to connect
the tube from his bag
to a small tap soldered to a false leg strut,
making of himself a mended machine.
Never mind that it didn't work out -
a project as impractical
as his unpatented, unpatentable
an idea to strike it rich,
worked at and re-worked for years.
Foundered, though, in its own failure
to connect, it comes out instead
as an object poem about bonfire nights,
our Guy an old blue boiler suit
stuffed with lagging, shod with workboots -
the image of himself that our father
committed yearly to the flames.
With the pets stowed safe indoors -
and myself, just out of the picture,
absorbed by striking Bengal matches -
their gem-like green, their red glamour.
A QUESTIONNAIRE FOR DEITIES
Ever ponder your divinity?
Or lack thereof?
Are you a God?
What kind of God?
A demi-? semi-? demi-semi?
Or the whole hog
Full fat, full on,
Deity of deities:
Or, quite simply,
No moniker required
The Guy who put the mono in theism.
Are you Omni-potent?
Or homme nouveau?
Complete the following
The worth of this,
You are a bounteous God,
With designs upon the creation
Of a world.
a/ Fill it with unnecessary suffering,
With just this measure of violence
And this of ugliness,
Apportioned for best effect
Best known to you
And make in your image
In whose breast
All reverence dies
b/ Lay open nature
Split her bounteous belly wide
For the pleasure
Of the sentient few
And bathe them in your blessed light
That they endure
No mortal woe
You are benign
Of your stratagem.
How many die
In how much pain
And with whose name
Upon their lips?
a/ A million children?
Mewling for their empty-breasted mothers?
A million more
And wielding guns
That far outstrip their frames?
Ten million others
Cowering behind the lines
Rotting in body
And rotting in mind
Their final prayer
To you each night
The other lot
With greater might?
b/ The blessed elders,
And no others,
Gorged on life
And seeking grace
In the magnanimity
Of Your embrace
Passing to a better place
At sleep or prayer
Are you alone up there?
a/ A one-man show
In a one-theatre town
The solitary centre
Of an otherwise
b/ Do you share
With other god-like types?
With nymphs, satyrs
And their ilk?
Or with an anti-one?
A fallen angel,
Some evil bod
That tempts loose souls
To break Your mould?
Do you face competition
From Gods in high dudgeon?
A bitter pantheon
In heavenly dungeons
Bound to rocks
Or bearing the weight
Of the world
On their backs
Are your followers fanatical enough?
(5 points for each affirmative)
Do they murder in your name?
Without a hint of shame?
Will they torture?
Forego all pleasures of the flesh?
Wear barbed-wire vests?
Flagellate themselves with birch?
Lash a stoner?
Stone a sinner?
Burn a witch?
Would they sacrifice a son?
A first born one?
Massacre the innocent?
Self-immolate upon a pyre?
Castrate a choir?
Raze a town to build a shrine?
With a blade?
Or with a bomb?
Blow themselves to kingdom come?
On buses? trains?
Detonate their Calvin Kleins?
Ignite their Nikes?
Despatch the infidel
By any means
Persecute the apostates?
To the seventh generation?
All the above?
Are there no limits to their love?
Mark ten each a.
And nought for b.
All totted with the honesty
Concomitant with divinity
(A bonus for duplicity)
Nought to twenty:
What kind of way
Is this for deity
You're little more
Than Santa Claus.
Twenty points to fifty:
With the fear and trembling
Less of the sage
Discover your anger
Consider an act
And arbitrary vengeance
Famine or pestilence
Rap some knuckles
Crack some heads
Or give it up.
A hundred points or more:
You are the Man
You stand no crap
You take no shit
Vengeance is truly Yours
You're in control
Ok but if You are
Really so secure
Why read this far
To know the score?
Brian Waltham (1925-2002)
Four more unpublished late poems.
This, says the wall, is a good
Place to sit out of the wind,
Now that the sun is going.
This, says the vapour-trail is
Your in-flight movie hauling
You south to get the sun.
This says the ant is quick back
This says the chain-saw across
The valley is where you get yours.
This says the forty tonner
Is fruit coming north so
That there never was winter.
This says the sun is the
Best I can do when March
Drags me down.
This says the rook may
Be a night you wouldn't want.
This says the cloak across
The barn is minding time,
The time to mind the fire.
All that was before you were tall, before
You fought off your treacherous siblings.
Prone here among heat and blackberries,
Siesta for everyone except the ants, I may
Get it wrong, that procession, almost a
Queue down there along the valley floor.
Perhaps, earlier, not valley at all before
The impossible morning. Instead a sea
Beginning to be shore, an emptying
And only after that the careful folding.
For sure there were reindeer and bears
Like ants headed south, anywhere south,
Not planned, not from choice but
Away from deepening lifeless ice.
Round my foot an ant carries a leaf
Ten times its size and in the hazy bend
Of the valley is Homo Erectus becoming
Habilis shambling north and on ringing
Cobbles the left-right Romans faced
In a moment with the mob who
Beat them in the end.
Like a tiny yacht, the ant climbs and surfs
With its prize while all else is pilgrims, crusaders,
Two-way traffic fleeing war and plague, friars
With their streetwise talk, cannon, muskets,
Winners and losers and, like ants who have no siesta,
Those of the wounded who can walk.
All that was before I could lie here drugged
With air, trying what once seemed easy:
To be you with no history but branches
And understand your restless fan-vaulting.
ACROSS FROM HERE
You winter book with your pin-point
Headings and margins, you balance-sheet
Of hectares, chapter on chapter of what
Is the case in fact, you small print of
Terms, conditions and exceptions,
Black-letter law, girders under the contract.
What do we sign, to what are we bound
Staring at a skyline of each singly punctuated
Tree, gaps where glaciers bullied their way,
Hill that was a lake, farmhouse deep undersea,
His slope ditched away from her poor dowry,
A metre of earth on stone lobsters and shrimps?
What do we ask as you look back with an eye
Empty of pity, you and your flick-knife
Wind and your grey friend, the sky?
Please can we soon be fooled again by
Your chessboard of maize and rape,
While these branches hide their thighs?
Give us now myopia, peering at off-white
Blossom, wondering what its name is.
Leave us to pin back a vine or a bolted
Rose armed for murder or, sloshing in
The ruts, to pick muddy violets.
THE DYING MAN
He's the dying man,
The dying man,
Come and meet
The dying man.
Look how thin,
Look at his skin,
Look at his eyes that
Let the dark in.
He's not old,
But touch him,
Feel for yourself
The marble cold.
You want tips on
How to die and go
Up on high?
Get your ear
To his lips ...
Sometimes it's nothing.
Sometimes he's dead with
Nothing more said,
But more often he is
The dying man,
The man who is dying
And if it's not too late
He'll tell you straight
And with no lying, what
It is to be dying.
QUALM April 2011
The smallest girl
in the wild kid’s gang
submitted her finger
to his tomahawk idea -
It hurt bad, dropping off.
He knew he’d gone too far
and ran, herding the others.
Later on, he’d maim her brother.
She stayed in the bush
till sundown, wrote
in blood on the logs, and
gripped her gapped hand, afraid
what her parents would say
to waste of a finger.
Carelessness. Mad kids.
She had done wrong some way.
Only here, at the head of a pack of hounds
In a tenement room, on a patch of waste ground
Everything, man or animal, might share,
Did the humans, telling her she was not all there,
Abandon her forever or a while
To wander the forest of cities, like a child
Suckled on wolf’s milk, smelling of dog,
Unable to defend herself, or beg
In a common language. Knowing the Word
But no grammar. Panting in surds
At the packs of the concerned - the half-sisters,
Half-brothers, cloned from the masters,
Finding her where they left her, curled
In the forgotten corner of a lost, unfallen world.
STAVROGIN AND THE LAME GIRL
Years later, in childless age,
She’d remember. Her strange complaint
That autumn of married love,
His sullen reading, page by page -
The Possessed - by the kerosene stove
All winter. ‘Be a saint
Or nothing’ the priests had told him.
And slowly, body and soul,
They’d grown together. The halfwit,
Sister to Captain Lebyadkin,
And Nikolai, who’d married her for a bet.
Nothing, not even the catkins
Tasselling branches, greening in Spring,
Could equal that miracle summer, ten years long,
With the rumour-mongers
Silenced, and the immaculate Face
Etched with suffering, spiritual hunger,
Unclouding out of shame, disgrace,
Between them, like a moon...
A fist at the door -
Lebyadkin, drunk. Behind him a rabble,
The world. She’d sit there
Gazing, all her cards on the table
Splayed for patience, into her looking-glass –
And the stove, where he’d read The Possessed,
Grey ashes now. They were all dead.
The miraculous had happened, just that once.
Abstractedly, out of her wits,
She’d tear at the hunk of black bread
And go on living, to outwait
Her libertine, her prince.
A ROOM WITH A VIEW
I don’t know how any civilized person can watch TV, let alone own a set - W.H. Auden
But now I see civilization through new square eyes
since buying a TV with two square metres of screen.
Better than Debord at seeing through the spectacle
to the bone beneath the bling, it focusses as fairly
on the diva’s bleached moustache as choral acne,
with equal liquid-crystal clarity from gods to stalls.
Brilliant as walls of Pre-Raphaelites, TV is wallpaper
beyond Morris, more human because it is moving,
which can inspire us all to poetry as it did Ashbery,
like the campfires our half-ape ancestors watched,
evolving so they'd be able to change the channel.
Alms, please, be kind;
there is no sadder thing
than to be blind
in a Yorkshire spring.
Santon Bridge’s Annual Lying Championship,
being an amateur event, bars all politicians.
Prizes are hogged by agricultural braggadoccio
in the style of Airedale Heifers or Skipton Tups:
cattle so huge they need individual postcodes,
rams’ horns winding up in different time-zones,
pigs warping Earth’s magnetic field and so on.
Later, the contest over, all the visitors gone,
they talk of dead holes, often doing so by not,
representing them by gaps in the conversation,
their mention a breach, their existence a breach,
avoiding new charges for the disposal of bodies.
But in lambing season, roadkill of badgers drawn
by smells out of their knowledge suggests them.
Questioning spades could turn up for the books
corpses, fur-edged like old pages, rank and filed.
YEAR OF THE RAT, RAT OF THE YEAR
At the N.F.R.S. Show
they’re playing the Stranglers -
the Fancy’s at Bradford.
The New Wave floods in,
now more goth than punk;
the mohicans wilt
on the no-longer-young.
I’m here for the poetry
bred in these shades,
the gradings of love,
the songs of its names:
Flame Point, Champagne,
Opal, Mink, Dove,
Silver Fawn Rex,
the Dark-Eyed Self.
Five extracts from a long poem.
A gap in the trees,
water accelerating through
two lumpy boulders
that narrow the brook,
the cabin door ajar:
swallows can nip through trees
taking midges on the wing,
a toad can hop
on to a rough surface
from the cool element
it swims in easily,
I can appear, hair spiky,
for my early morning piss,
all of us a word forming
the moment a mouth opens.
Water drop round as the letter O,
a single contraction of my mouth,
therefore pure as a vowel can get
until gravity tugs a leaf to let
water run and me to eavesdrop
on conversation upon stone, tin and earth
whose meaning is hard to make out
though possibly I’m not meant to
as from darkness into a world unshaped,
loose, liquid that absorbs my footsteps,
I move, rubbing the sleep from my eyes
so as my vision clears discourse blurs.
The robin’s throat quivers and gives forth
neither recognition nor a threat.
In the stream mineral on mineral scrapes.
Or to go at the beginning of spring
when sound is not ghostly but mineral.
The creak in the brook is ice breaking.
Then I blink as the light slides down twigs
like an eagerness to do something novel;
a melting, my daughter has pointed out,
hanging on the tips of pine needles;
to describe the moment before their weight
causes them to fall as innocence
or ignorance is not simple.
I am blinded and cannot see
through a scattering of old snow crystals.
Is this rebirth or an opportunity
to repeat error? I can’t measure
the moment when each drop of water tumbles.
Robin, great tit, blackcap, redstart,
thrush, fieldfare, wren and starling,
a woodpecker drumming on the bark
of the tall pines for beetles
and martins at full pelt squealing.
A slowworm flickers out of sight
between wild garlic and ragwort
under a briar rose’s thorns
close to a grey wagtail chick so young
it can only flutter to a stone
In the middle of the brook
where it calls and calls while I look
at the orange throat of its desire,
the sign for a parent zipping
to the stone then dipping, dipping.
Ragwort almost unnoticed
on our cabin’s shadow side
under the maple’s winged seed
idling down in soughs of air;
ragwort, multi-petalled, yellow,
a minor g-type star
barely visible to the eye,
inedible to all except
the cinnabar moth which thus
makes itself obnoxious to birds.
Is it one of the numberless
crowding my writing lamp at night
which are not to my taste either?
What consumes the cinnabar moth?
What devours otherness?
You see the word Taxi, the only light,
pulled up beside the Minster, the massive
Gothic Cathedral with the largest lancet window,
they say, on earth, made of 100,000 pieces
of grayish-white glass, The Five Sisters.
In another window, monkeys carry a coffin.
Outside, you cross the River Ouse in the salt air,
remember crests line Lendal bridge,
with five lions of England, the passant kind,
on guard and pacing, prehensile,
with one front leg raised as a warning,
and dragon’s tails gushing to the sides and up.
Their heads face out, turning owl-like on some branch.
Maybe like the monkeys, they are pall-bearers,
to carry us across the cusp of death, our mouths open
to hysteria, fear, the Fountain of Laughter,
the task of weeping, short gasps, or first cries.
The face of a woman you see alter as you enter
Lemonade or ginger beer with port or raspberry cordial
go into Barmaid’s Blush, not Red-headed Slut or Sex on the Beach,
also flushed-face. You must be willing to try things that will not work.
Like all that happens in the held-up line at the E-Z Pass,
when you're wired as teenagers with Vodka and Red Bull -
the way you make each other come with your hands, in traffic.
Inside a felled White Poplar, Maiden’s Blush, or Blush Cudgerie
the heartwood’s only rosy when just cut. Wet, bright ribbon wood.
The trees ripen young near water courses or rainforest
with lemon-gold apples and young blossoms
that face downwards. You want to bleed the first time,
not like the girls who were broken in from riding horses.
You don’t know what you wish for,
only what you want next-- a fire alarm in the dormitory
an ADHD student’s breakfast left burning in the oven,
smoke to scoop you out of your flat in flipflops,
to become one of the huddled undressed around the building,
but warm in a favorite father-figure’s sweater,
the parcel crossing the Atlantic with it: cashmere, long, very
Land’s End, worn without pants or underwear,
like shirt-dresses, androgynous and free. Outside like this,
the whole hall arranges an Easter brunch at the Charles.
Your father told you about the flood in Fort Wayne, Indiana
where his mother said to run, mother without a shirt on,
naked up top, her hand around the gold knob to lead the way,
then told to go back up quick, throw something on.
Nipples like maiden’s blush, rum and raspberry,
or a moth’s reddish markings on pale wings.
THE CHIEF DIFFICULTY
However little reason he had to love his father,
he stood near the body, at the mouth of the vault,
on his bad legs two hours, face bloated from
late paralytic stroke, playing the part of
man that is born of woman, the chief difficulty.
Wearing a train five yards long, his best cloak, a wig,
the Duke of Cumberland could be a bride
or an orphan. He’s a clouded leopard,
a burrowing owl in the cold,
whistling duck with its face bent back in its feathers,
keeping up a low profile in the grave scene, every
seventh man bearing a torch. Mourners with light.
There are mourners who kiss caskets
and who say they don’t, but do sixty-seconds
after the next guy, they’re laying down a red rose
or a cigarette, kissing their hand, pressing it there.
On the other side of the plot, family to comfort.
Try not to, try not to in your mind
remember someone dying as you’re talking to them,
when one second later as in sleep he vanishes.
An important person cries upon entering
the picture, swoons and wakes to smelling salts.
Horace Walpole, man of letters, tells us
that one mourner, busy looking around
to see who didn’t show, busy mopping his eyes,
doesn’t look where he’s going, feels the chill of marble
through his shoes, steps on something soft,
carpet-like, keeps standing there
on the Duke of Cumberland’s train.
The Duke the son, the chief mourner, the orphan,
sinking with heat, trampled, weighed down.
I wait with a body, too afraid to move.
I’m in my car, beside a man thrown from his motorcycle.
In a pile-up of traffic, I can’t not wait next to him,
He is below me, laid out, head at an angle in a helmet.
QUALM October 2011
THE BACKROAD COLLECTIONS
Verandah shops with history
and houses up dry gully-bends
proffer gouts of laundered colour
out into their gala weekends,
recycled fashion displayed
under bullnose eaves, down corridors,
cerise, magenta, nubbled teal,
lilac overalls that were a steal,
yellow bordure and buttony rib,
pouched swimsuits, cretonne ad lib
in front of blush crimson sleeves.
City buyers carry off sheaves,
tie dye, mai tai, taupe lingeries -
and cattle who haven't yet entered
a building wander, contented,
munching paddock under their last trees
till a blowsy gold-ginger horizon
built up out of the day's talk
glorifies and buries the sun.
A nude moon burns the newsprint version.
I saw a snake swimming in the stream.
It moved in time with the minute changes
Of the ripples over silt and pebbles.
So at first I thought it was a reed
Or a long wild iris leaf folded double.
But then it seemed to tilt of its own accord
Against the cool current and I made out its head
As it broke the surface then paused,
A mottled yellow like a linden bud,
On a stepping stone’s rough, warmer edge.
It withdrew once more into the water
So nonchalantly at ease in the cold
Until the liquid and mineral mutter
Accelerated and the snake rolled
Sideways to slip between tree roots in the bank.
I left the cabin that night with you to look
First at the stars and meteors burning up
In the atmosphere of our dying planet,
Then watched the stream with its scintillants of light,
The tail-end of a galaxy shaped like a snake.
There was a rustling near us. Not the creeping
Of a mouse. It was too continuous, too slight
Like a breath avoiding words which wait on the tip
And back of our tongues so that language fails
And stays unformed in the dark heat of our throats.
Something is crawling up the side of the house.
It has been all my life.
Bony or scaly, it’s not ivy or clematis,
But a matter of belief.
Someone not entirely friendly is dancing on the roof
Though his rhythm can’t be caught.
Neither waltz nor jig nor galloping hoof
That tapping could be fate.
Breath that’s icy cold spirals up from the cellar
And speaks with a serpent’s hiss.
The fire that enchanted like a storyteller
Dies away to wordlessness.
It’s not the cat on the doorstep, the dog whining
For me to let him in.
It’s not a bird or the wind in the chimney,
But my sense of mortal sin.
For this is not how I thought love would call to me.
It chills me like winter rain.
Neither angelic nor human nor beastly
It whispers to me in pain.
BAT FLYING IN DAYLIGHT
It must have been like this for those two little girls
A hundred years ago in a magical wood
Through which a stream intoned arcane syllables:
A sudden erratic swoop, a hovering
Above glinting water, tumbling over itself,
Then off, its return immediate, quivering
In a frantic exhilaration of paper thin wings
Through which the sun poured so the fairy caught fire
Yet did not burn. Instead it seemed to be beckoning.
I watched it flicker away again then glide
Close to the tarry surface of a telephone pole
Its claws scraping purchase, its head to one side
Attempting to make sense out of the daylight air
Through birdsong and insect rustle, its own soundings
Beyond my hearing crying, “Where, where? Where, where?”
AFTER THE WAKE
Just us left
some were in the kitchen washing dishes
tables were stacked
chairs chocked into teetering towers
the baked meats wrapped
the rubbish bagged
all set square
then someone said
a photo of you four
and what a lucky mother to die
before any of us
we took hands
stood like a palisade
one of us quipped
we know what this photo is for
how we laughed
the one who had scanned the family album
for the funeral slide show had complained
how there were shocking gaps
no photo of her with this one or that
so now whichever of us went first
there would be a pic of all of us
holding on to each other’s hands.
I wish I lived in Texas
And owned an oil well.
I wish I had a Lexus,
The longest car in Texas
And people craned their necks as
I drove it. Bloody Hell,
A Lexus down in Texas
And a lot of oil to sell!
Each year to Monte Carlo
I’d travel in my yacht.
As tall as Philip Marlow,
I’d stroll round Monte Carlo,
A rich man’s pastoral – O
How happy then my lot,
The Prince of Monte Carlo,
And what a lot I got!
I toast you in the fizzness
Of vintage fine champagne,
Its fundamental Is-ness,
Resides inside the fizzness,
And thus transacts the business.
I drink to you again –
The Is-ness, fizzness business
Of vintage fine champagne.
O’Malley is an unfrocked priest,
Siobhan an evil nun.
Blackbush, a bald, bog-trotting beast,
Leaves half the countryside deceased.
He is their bastard son.
Bereft of ordinary joys
He thrives on blood and guts.
Alas that peasant girls and boys,
Poor, ignorant hobbledehoys,
Forsake their peasant huts!
He tears their flesh, he drinks their gore,
Oblivious to their moans.
When he has crammed his cursed craw
He flings the corpses to the floor
And crunches up the bones.
Of course we know the Catholic Church
Is more or less to blame.
High time we knocked it off its perch.
Vile Priestcraft left them in the lurch.
It’s always been the same.
How the bulldog barks at every bird it sees,
leaving its game. Once he crashes through the window
onto the balcony to defend against
the parade of installation artists
marching in the Fringe Festival, and breaks half a pane to see
the bicycle decorated as a lobster, scuttling.
How Lonnie Glosson’s harmonica says back to him, I want my mama,
and then, I want a drink of water. He plays with his talking harmonica
Why Don’t You Haul Off and Love Me?
When you sit alone, you hear that teenage boy again, saying his nerves
hurt. You swear you hear the quietest shudder in your body,
from fear, unyielding self-abasement, disgust, or the cold,
but don’t see the flash which would have been a dead giveaway.
Your dog doesn’t even look at the three chickens in the yard,
not the one with zig-zag zebra stripes and a rooster’s cockscomb.
Burton says the causes of melancholy are God,
parents, and old age. With all the kinds as diverse
as the sections of the head opened, cut up.
Josiah Wedgwood’s jasper version of Flaxman’s Portland vase,
engraved by Blake, perfect in Dr. Erasmus Darwin’s Botanic Garden,
also the name of his book, The Botanic Garden: The Loves of the Plants,
the cheapest copy sold at Lightning Source.
Another kind of copy, your playing Scrabble with your mother,
your playing mother and child, where one’s much smaller,
the other a mountain, two mouths, wise, undeservingly
kind, which is why Henry Moore keeps up
with Henry Moore: turning the Madonna into knee, elbow, oval
with points, row of sleepers, all inventions
on the level of Reproductive Physiologist Howard’s work
with panda births or on the level of the penlight in the month-old
giant panda’s mouth like yours.
You might be quiet in the kitchen tonight,
but you have things to say
that you can write in a journal for now, the way an assault victim tries
to remember behind which building,
with which witnesses there before the blackout, how his eye got to
looking like this, how long
before his neck isn’t swollen and he can get a haircut,
and ultimately, where his friends went.
You can draw something instead of taking a picture
right away. You can make a concept map they teach you in school.
You can see how others have done it, yelling, codes, away messages,
marking, notes in the margins. See Sir Isaac Pitman’s Stenographic
Sound-Hand leaves us dashes and curves for consonants,
dots and pecks for vowels, Milton and the Bible in the Mikmak language,
complaints to the New Church, and what are complaints without a vowel scale
and a shorthand system? If unmedaled in every event,
can this make you more famous,
more in line to find eight golds wheeling around your neck?
When the mouth dies, who misses you?
And to destroy Earwig,
Captain John Smith talks to his diary,
you would lay Kexes
near the bottoms of trees,
set the section
of woods aflame.
To gather weasels, you would take a lizard’s
gut, beat it in half a pint of water,
and pour it on the ground
near the weasel haunts.
But to gather moles,
stop the live mole
closed in an earthen pot over a fire.
When the mole feels the heat,
she will cry,
which will draw all the moles
in hearing about her.
Maybe for Smith, her shorter
and shorter sobs
mean her pain diminishes
like saltwater the dry rice draws out of
your destroyed cell phone battery
after you’ve cried into it and it won’t
turn on. But you still feel awful.
The adders in the out-house,
occasionally, to get rid of them,
you would burn Wall-wort,
scatter Rue and Worm-wood,
and the scent of these will drive them,
all venomous creatures, away.
As will the smoke of the burnt soles of shoes.
Then, swollen with pride, into the snare I fell
Of fair fallacious looks, venereal trains. . . .
John Milton, “Samson Agonistes”
1 Handel Oratorio, St. George’s Church, London
Samson in a tenor rage waited at the altar
for his disloyal wife to appear and offer him
freedom from the prison in Gaza, and tender ease
in his old age. He waited and waited, and waited
for her to enter. After five minutes, the conductor said,
“I’ll just go see what’s keeping her.” A long time after
he came back to tell us Dalila had been locked in
the borrowed changing-room at Sotheby’s next door,
the fair singer imprisoned in the temple of Mammon.
Finally, she entered, smiling, with all her venereal trains.
2 Seminar Room, Texas
The teacher who approached Milton through the footnotes
smiled and asked who could explain Dalila’s “venereal trains”.
He loved nothing better than to hear wrong answers,
but was struck dumb by the raised hand
of the southern belle, who’d never spoken up before:
“Professor Sonnichsen, would that be some kind of gonorail?”
QUALM April 2012
OFFICIAL PROPOSAL: REGARDING OUR TOWN’S “PROBLEM”
—After Ross White
And so the arbitrators have ruled upon the problem,
the burgeoning and backbreaking problem,
the problem like a swollen gland,
like bruised shins and chafed skin,
the problem that chews with its mouth open,
and never says “excuse me,”
and stalks our alleys with its dog-breath
and mean left-hook, proliferating
on every street like redroot pigweed,
gnawing the foundations of our homes
in the tradition of drywood termites, the problem
that poisons our cisterns and lures our puppies
over the edge of Ye Olde Great Cliff,
the problem that spoils our milk and turns
our children torpid, the one that inspires
our neighbors to avoid us,
and us to sometimes level mountains and nations,
yes, this problem
has been ruled upon by the arbitrators,
and the arbitrators have ruled as follows:
it can be solved.
What need be done is simple.
Our townsfolk must produce precisely one citizen,
one adept and plainspoken citizen,
a citizen who—mind you—might be truly
difficult to unearth, possibly a relic of an age
that eludes even the memories of our eldest elders,
a citizen who probably reeks of dust and disuse
and languishes in the mop closet
of some library or antique dealer.
This citizen must then stand in the center of the town hall,
and explain what all the fuss is about.
This must be done without the clenching
of the fists or the raising of the voice,
without even a hint of the death-I-wish-you tone
or the pox-on-you glare of the eyes.
WHAT WE KNOW OF THE FUTURE
All night, rustling through the sheets,
a man finally rests his head on the breast
of his best girl. He listens to the pitch
black, listens to her breath and imagines
it’s first wind of the season. Unable to sleep,
his body is the forest the wind
will tumble through. Soon he’s aware
of the heart. Its slow beating
brings to mind someone setting out
on a journey. He thinks of footsteps,
then the low rhythmic turning of tires
on an open highway. If he followed
that road, it might lead to a yawning
ravine, a dry place of buzzards
and busted rocks. Or perhaps it continues,
stretches the length of years, leads
to a wide pasture. On the other side,
there’s a tiny house where he
and his lady are very old.
They sit together on the porch,
drinking tea as the moon sways
like a paper lantern above the cabin.
But by now, the man has fallen asleep.
Already, that road is disappearing
and a new one is forming. Or this
has already happened. Or it will.
In your billow my small boat went adrift;
from sure I was alone, afield, afar.
When you left me, I went ajar.
Of me, the soldier was ware.
To me, he was verse. He turned
His circle around my square,
Whiled me sunder, took
Me back and curled in
My ear. My mother settled my look
From akimbo to askance, while the moon
Alighted on my branches in a chorus
Of feathers and wind. Soon
I will make a sea and meet
A sailor to be asea upon.
He will bind me in his winding sheet;
I will abridge him in my arms.
We’ll build a shore on which to run
Aground. We’ll beach the sun.
Kin is who we’re akin to,
A way’s a place we make of will,
And it is you astride in me
When I say Adieu.
you’re the sort
who puts out
too much ink.
The world around
you is awash,
a blotting pad,
for what you think.
Who’s at fault:
the blotch who failed
to absorb your thought,
or the nib,
who bares your doubt
not as a dribble
but a gush?
SWEET WISH BEAN
Even though you furrow
like a snake, and wander
like an ant, even though
you broke the brim of my fedora
when last you drank the devil’s
vinegar, even though you thief
through my candle and my light,
I want you at my five-fingered hand.
You are my fork and knife.
You wear me on your body
and strike me with your fear.
You vine me across your wishing-
bone. Let me be a stone
mortared to your chimney.
Let me be new wood growing
into your grain. I’ve taken you
internally. I’ve borne your train
of skin and sweat and salt.
And though you cross me
with your black bottle, and though
you weed me from your brass ring,
I am your buckeye and your broom straw.
Switch off the snakeshow. Call off
your rattle. Leave me not
in cheatgrass. I am your silkroot
and your slippery elm.
You are my one-way water.
syntax virus after Sylvia Plath
Undertaker, melancholy of mouth,
Ass to the curb, and some-nerved,
Lungs like a hummingbird. A nonsense
Thumbs-up on the don’t-don’t ode.
A thread unraveled from its bobbin,
Skimming the planet as comets do.
Loud as a pin drop from a prison cell
On No Fool’s Night.
Oh low-leaner, broad butter pat.
Clear as day and forgotten like rent.
Closer than a heartbeat.
Upright itinerary, our stay-at-home king.
Loose as a gosling when away.
Like a trap that catches a goose.
A murder of crows, no wings.
Still as an American dream.
Wrong, like naught from naught.
A dirty bird, with my shameface on.
Brian Waltham (1925-2002)
Four more unpublished late poems.
In this land where, inter alia,
We both seem to live, it is
A courteous kind of fighting:
No lives lost, not a nose broken,
But the truth is we’re
All of us writing.
And writing is not reading,
But writing needs reading
Sure as talking needs heeding
Or the infant Einstein
Read me, read me, read me,
But our land is short of readers
And, scribbling hard, we ask
Where are the bleeders?
My pane-squashed face goads
A Taipan to rear and strike.
A thump at the half an inch
Between us has me jerked back
Enough anyway to have me
Dream-running the few hopeless
Yards from fangs to nothing.
It helps that in here
God usually intervenes,
But even the glass remembers
Only just in time.
Walk up, walk up,
Try your strength!
Hit the butt with the club
And see the marker fly up
On the pole.
I can see you’re a lusty lot.
You won’t stop there.
‘Good’, yes but you’ll do
Better than that.
‘Powerful’, now we’re
Getting somewhere and
Now ‘terrific’ and then
If you ring the bell,
Well then, gentlemen,
I ask you.
You sir, step forward and show
The lady what you can do.
Hold the club in both hands,
Yes, you’ve got it, now lift it up
Slowly, keep your balance, face
This way, no don’t step backwards,
And now hit that butt as if it’s
Everything you hate.
Neither of us shaven, we stare
At this late flowering, this riot of
He sways a bit and waves
His tin of meths.
“I think it’s pyracantha.
But where are the blackbirds?
They usually scoff the lot.”
He, I guess, turfed out of the spike
For the day, and I posting a
Careful letter to my bank.
We stand aside as a
Well-dressed woman allows
Her big dog to shit big turds
In the middle of the pavement.
He swigs his meths and I
Go off to post my letter.
... the now famous cap-badge, designed by Edward Seago, of the mythical warrior Bellerephon riding Pegasus, his winged steed. It’s said that the distinctive colour of the beret on which it is worn was chosen by Daphne du Maurier , but she denied this. Given a choice of colours by an undecided General Sir Alan Brooke, a soldier simply chose the one he liked best...
British Regimental Uniforms
Even when blind in one eye, and bed-ridden,
you devised impossible ‘accumulators’
requiring six or seven utter outsiders
to win in sequence of an afternoon.
The coffin’s wheeled in on a gurney,
like a patient into a theatre.
In a back row three too-short-looking men
wear pencil moustaches, and scarlet berets.
We sing the one hymn, the ‘official’ hymn
of the Airborne or Parachute regiment.
In pregnant Anglican slow motion
the vicar describes you as a ‘great free spirit’,
trying to seem as if he knew you from Adam,
or from the next one in line... The contents
of your council flat have gone for £65.
I’m thinking of a childhood holiday in your cafe
in Torquay, where you kept a pet monkey –
how rules must have been different back then.
A pressed button closes the curtain,
and we file out into the memorial gardens.
A railwayman, a sergeant major
reduced to the ranks after a drunken brawl;
an entrepreneur with a firm for painting
white lines in the road; a nightwatchman;
a figure on the beach, wearing with some style
the fright costume of late middle age: thick
bi-focals on a perfectly bald head, barrel
chest in a string vest; slacks and blurred tatts.
A fat man who fought three strokes and said
Stopping smoking will be the death of me...
But it still seemed so right, the bitter intake was sweet
as you sat on the steps, down from the flat,
and lit a coffin nail up. Serial last requests,
or maybe a gambler’s coup de grace.
Two puffs and put it out – light up for one more
(this way you made a King Size last half an hour) –
a light fresh breeze, the sun on your face;
some passing sights, dimly made out.
‘Time enough to reflect’! And all
the wonderful noise, of the bog standard street.
THIS ROOM, WITH ARSONIST
If you believe in the soul, you’re the thing inside the other thing,
half corpus, half ethereal light, the idea the body’s only necessary
so the soul can inhabit the world. If you don’t believe in the soul,
inside you is a scratchy racket, a dark sizzle and rotor hum,
the idea of the body as faulty machinery. Tom says his mother’s body
couldn’t sustain the idea of itself. The inside of an idea is axons
rapping dendrites. Inside, everything is verging on rupture.
Inside my blue shirt is the undershirt with a tear in the shoulder,
inside the tear, the skin inside which is a network of capillaries
blooming when the shoulder catches an exposed nail in the hall.
Even so, we want to sit and sip our mojitos in sun.
In the muggy run of summer, our faces irradiated until the skin flakes.
Inside my face is another face come to take its place. It too is my face.
It’ll never grace the cover of Vanity Fair. It will not be inaugurated.
And this inside the already large and growing catalogue
of things I’ll never eventually do. No go spelunking. No passing calculus.
No sub-orbital space flight or cocktails on the Queen Mary.
Inside the membrane of what-won’t-happen-again
are organelles of the what-happened-before. Inside, says Tom,
is the image of his mother’s face, luminous and holographic in xenon
beams of approaching headlamps or luminous and holographic
strolling in sun but not a lucid sense of what she looked like.
The lucid sense of the pier is stuck into the roiling murk of the lake.
Inside the lake are ions in undulation, and inside undulation,
phonemes meaning a thing billowing with gravity which is invisible
but pervasive inside everything. Tom says after his mother’s body
undulated with cancer, it smoldered in the crematory
until all that was left was the idea of his mother’s body.
No more strolling. Just axons and dendrites inside Tom,
memory as a room with an arsonist inside it, her face in dissipation,
as inside the match head, the bright idea of fire, and inside the flame,
the dark idea of luminosity as a thing consuming itself.
Mother, that’s my batty consciousness assembling inside you.
Comprised as it is now of meat and diction,
in the lunar hues of this image, subaquatic, parasitic,
ungoverned by any syntax,
it’s an organ without any function. It becomes and becomes
until it becomes a thing excreted,
like an utterance, like a dispatch addressed to no recipient.
In the future it’ll drive a big car.
It will amble and brood and canoodle too in the funny buzz of
afternoons in the beer garden
in an altered state, we say, as if the mind is performing
an acoustic version of its electric album
or is a foreign lingo in bad translation, but in this early portrait,
the soma poses schematic,
a charcoal sketch of the self, this inkblot anatomy
without music, without politic,
without ethnic or epistemic, no language bickers and rambles
in its braincase, no neural parliament
in session in its soft tissue, this mute floret,
dumb as deity, dumb as moon.
Hosanna to the gracious and eminent genius I never heard of.
Hosanna his opera opening in Minsk, his art exhibition in Zurich,
his graceful field theory and double album of great hits.
Collegiate bohemians must tack portraits of him in lucid reverie
to walls over their futons, over secondhand BarcaLoungers
in wisps of incense above the clutter of ashtrays on cardboard boxes
doubling as end tables. Their instructors might pant after
his endorsement and their boyfriends probably swoon,
but I never heard of him. I’ve read dozens of books
and never once encountered his sequence of fractured sonnets,
never once his instructional manual. I never rode in a Bentley
or wore a TAG Heuer or had his skill for dismantling his critics
so magnanimously, but this theme of not doing, of not achieving
is one I return to often driving past the pale motels that flank
the tollway west of Aurora or when I’m deliberating
between heads of lettuce in the Dominick’s grocery store or when
I’m digging into the pouch of peanuts on a shuttle to Annapolis
conceding to myself I never will have cause enough
to purchase a tuxedo, how this is true for most of the lot of us,
most of us fungible bodies thrown at a problem not altogether
certain what the problem is, as in war only less heroic, as in revolution
but less righteous. No confetti or bunting will greet me.
I suppose it’s good to arrive at this early, too, so as not to feel
threatened by it at some critical juncture as when attempting
to grease the palm of a maître d’ or contest a traffic violation
or when children are watching. No atrium is filled with any experts
awaiting my expert opinion, and it’s this sense of feeling finished
with the self I return to most on warm, overcast evenings
in my minor apartment listening to the high-pitched locomotive
of cricket noise, buzz of the high-tension wires, the neighborhood
of intermittent elms, how far away everyone is, and me nearly dozed
on the sofa watching the ball club drop another series to Houston,
the squat shortstop up for a day or two to take the place
of one of the extraordinary wounded before returning to the minors,
to the slow crawl of bus travel across Carolina, to a spot on the bench
in a rainout, slouched and spitting sunflower seeds into a puddle.
QUALM October 2012
THE FALL OF 1981
The fall of 1981
as if a year may be an empire.
It is not true to say that every year is a life
born in spring, born in winter
in a summer morning where a chrome container
sits on the windowsill full of ashes.
And every day is not a lifetime
where you travel smooth into death
listening to accounts of the brain
which is always to blame
and the corn that covers America
in a yellow armour.
Your body is not a planet
not a galaxy peppered with old
mistakes you can’t even remember the names of.
Whole dimensions go AWOL
though you recall
this bad moustache, and the laugh under it
as Buster drank beer from the carpet
or such and such a smashed side mirror, and a plum
and the recurring smell of shoes
pulled white with mildew from a wardrobe.
Birds don’t have a song, they make a sound
you might as well say
the song of breaking glass
the song of doors.
One by one I am eating up the seasons.
I mean, one by one the seasons are eating me up.
It would be easy to say that I go where ventriloquists’
dummies go when ventriloquists die.
But oh! There you are at your window again
you pull back your white curtain
and say |yeah|
to someone I don’t know about.
THE CALL OF DEATH
I call you with my hand.
I only have one hand.
I only am one hand.
In the palm is where I do my thinking.
As they say a sailor plays out a rope
I play you in.
The Dalai Lama when a boy
was kept secret as an owl.
I will be that room
with no exits and entrances
with no windows
with no walls no roof and no floor.
DEATH IS RECOGNIZED AS A FRIEND
I knew you as the one who had placed birds
in places where birds might not be –
in the cool lightwell of the hotel
among the laundry; or on the sky
as a kind of momentary lettering.
Your authorship was everywhere:
in the close but never to be touching hands
of figures in ancient paintings
and in the smell of burning
that came up from the subway
and the grooved black and silver stairs of the escalator
vanishing neatly into their combs.
WOMAN CONFIDING IN DEATH
Sometimes I feel my body expand
I am heavy in every direction.
I dream that I am drunk
too drunk to walk or speak
and I crawl along the dream earth.
Is it possible to be a great, unwieldy vessel
made of dense material, hollow,
and somehow still be rising
as if drawn into an empty sky by gravity?
I could have been a scientist
the kind who gives names
to the members of a group of wolves.
I could have been a ship, making my effortful sounds
It’s more about the giving*
than the getting**.
** ready to kill yourself
MOST BEAUTIFUL AND MOST WONDERFUL
God says Yes,
The Devil says No,
Darwin shrugs, says Take it slow.
God says Today,
The Devil says Tomorrow,
Darwin maps out a million years of sorrow.
A million years of sorrow,
And grandeur, too—
God says Wake,
The Devil starts to snore,
Darwin sidles out the side-back door.
WE HATED OUR LIVES
We hated our lives so we dug up the fern
And gassed the azaleas and emptied the urn
And severed our fingers and salted our toes
Which caused us to stumble, but that’s how it goes
We jetted to India, jetted to Spain
We scattered our clothes in the wind and the rain
We gobbled the photos and drank all the ink
And tortured a Gabonese charlatan shrink
And who would be waiting, upon our return?
Our kids, at our doorstep, expressing concern
my daughter fell;
I caught her. Still,
I couldn’t speak with my wife,
couldn’t walk back the what-if;
and for what was left of the day,
I felt bereft and wanted to die.
I like a good cup of joe—
not thrown in my face, or soaking my yo-yo,
but just, you know,
in a cup.
ALCOHOL, MY THIEF OF TIME
I partook of two cautious glasses of wine the other night.
It was magnificent. All the beauty and the sadness
of the world came and danced on my forehead.
That last ruby musk mouthful
tipped out of the glass
into an orifice.
Like a match lighting a fire
or like quenching a fire.
Jejune, farouche, louche, gauche,
unmindful of profit and loss,
off-kilter, jaunty, unyielding,
to bluster, to prate,
to take pleasure
in one's own stink.
The white metal skeleton horses,
their tallness as delicate as a giraffe's,
confer over a cargo boat.
One horse turns, stares off the flat frayed plain.
They were lost for an hour in a mist. The boat
sails.They relax as if, strolling
the shore with all their metal exposed
they're at home where the ghost of Tall Man Darez
scavenges the rubbish mountains.
A camel of scrap gets sixty cents.
Loads are gathered in distressed crates and heads
of backless trucks wait for their flesh.
THE MADNESS OF CAMILLE CLAUDEL
I talk to thikes.
Does that bother readers?
Stupid English, Camille would say.
my small town of
questions. This is a place
of privacy which is wrung from
wrong that right soon.
I watched cloud nest last night
in Heaven's Gate. Now dawn rises
great statues. We will cheer
your works through streets sanded under
While you have clay,
you will dismiss Rodin
who tracked your genius to England
in Mont de Vergues
asylum. Quiet loss.
In executing a hero,
fingers. And we'd have thrown
dies of your profile among those
who made Justice,
Boadicea, for London
sculptors swarming here. So, swallow
then shut up. All
dawn does is shape with rays,
chase cloud into much mad marble
It was dark in the theatre.
I pulled the tube out of my throat
when the camera hit the empty spot
and rang against softness, trying
to take the measures I'd agreed.
The retch my stomach made was practical.
Pulling the tube out copied it.
The endoscopist's hands also
copied the retch. But I was the more shocked
to find I'd rushed towards those doors
with the large rubber flaps that shut
automatically behind trolleys
(like stomachs shut, not always well,
which is why I was there), and shocked
to hear the endoscopist calling me.
Not to swallow the tube again
nor hear how such procedures are
counter-intuitive but to be wrapped
in a white cellular blanket
on the bed. The two young nurses
who had held me too gently till I'd pushed
away, now wheeled me to the ward
past where the next patient waited.
I lay quiet and listened to the bark
of a wolf in a cave. I felt
its pelt sturdy enough to wreck
my oesophagous if I called to it.
It growled through my stomach's sphincter,
'I will spring. You won't be warned. No
idea you can hold to when I leap.'
My head is so small on my neck,
small camera that imagines
stomach as food bag. So stomach is, held
by me and another creature.
Not a wolf. Surely there is not
a wolf. Some other. I must be guarded.
THE GALLERY OF COINS
At the table for high-rollers, a man bets all:
the red chips, the blue chips, the wallet.
But that’s not enough, so he pulls out his car keys,
his wedding band, all of it, everything,
on the table. He adds a string of tomorrows,
Future earnings, whatever kindness
some stranger might one day bestow upon him.
He’s not sure what a soul looks like,
but he does believe in the body,
so that goes on the table:
the kidneys, the eyes, the heart:
you can have it all if—
A crowd has gathered. Imagine this was
a painting. If so, the burst of color
is a portrait of greed, and perhaps
the man is so completely drunk
he can’t recognize that what he thinks is a table
is really a mouth. It will devour everything.
Even I understand that much.
But I witness this scene from a great distance.
And who am I—afraid of heights,
the dark, God—
who am I, to see this moment
and walk away, unable to watch
what happens, and what happens next.
ELEGY IN WHICH I'M UNABLE TO TRAVEL FASTER THAN THE SPEED OF SOUND
When I saw his body—which was no longer
his body, but something else, a replica
of his body, an artist’s rendering of his
body, a replacement body, something
made of wax and hair and human tissue
and shaped to look almost identical
to the way I remember his body—the air
left my lungs as if I was a balloon
and grief was a slow needle held
by an invisible hand. I don’t know
where that air goes. I don’t know
if it stayed in the room to be breathed
in by others, to be absorbed by their
quick blood, to be rushed through arteries
and to later supply their brains with oxygen.
If so, what sad thoughts might they have thought
in the moment that oxygen found them?
Pain moves through the body at a rate
of three hundred fifty feet per second.
This means pain travels fast, but not as fast
as sound. This means, when someone speaks,
pain is slower than that language. If someone
would have said, “Please,” or “Help,”
those words would have made it to the other side
of the room, or through the door, before
the feeling—inside your clenched fist—
of your fingernails
drawing blood from your palm
registered in your brain. But I don’t remember
anyone saying anything like that.
I don’t remember anyone speaking.
QUALM April 2013
BIG RABBIT AT THE VERANDAH
Big rabbit at the verandah
fleecy-chested and fawn
nibbling clover, Easter rabbit
not much like the humble
face-scratched hordes we would shoot
clear-shack! pea-shack! with rifles,
leave straining, boil for the pigs
or let stink, underground mutton
in days when yellow cows
would crop to our house doors
because undermined pasture was collapsing
seawards. We buried toothed traps
because it was war and we were losing.
Only with the cushion-udder Holsteins
our land was hard put to support
did science send our enemy
to tremble blind on dung-stony hills.
Even dairy children
eased off shooting those for sport.
Grown sons restless to dress modern
compared town wages with Dad's will
and came back as grasses were healing.
Our old brindle war sickened new
settlers. Cow peas stopped being grown
and dogs gentled four-wheel-drive cattle
in through wire gates. Dairy roofs
dried to blood. After snuffed billions
Rabbit, you look edible and risen.
THE MUSSEL BOWL
Of adventures by palate
lately, my finest was a soup
in which mussels had been served
and, the shellfish being shared,
no one minded my lifting up
the bowl to play
a whispered in-continuo of sup
in that yacht club down the Melbourne bay.
AS A COPPER MONUMENT GREENING IN DEW
I’m in love with a woman who doesn’t love me also I don’t know why.
I earnestly inhabit my barstool daily mulling the crossword puzzle
in the USA Today, but she never strolls over all coy and jaunty to say,
Yes, love, that’s a gun in my pocket, but I’m also happy to see you.
She doesn’t wisecrack or tease, Hey, hombre, come give us a peek
under your burka. She goes on lounging at the other end of the saloon
with some other guy who’s unconscionably in love with her also,
some guy with his brand strategy refined, with a Bacardi
and wingtips, a svelte linen suit. He’s studied her demographics.
He’s ventured his capital. He streamlines his supply chain,
leverages his assets, and corners her markets, but for all the color
in the pie charts of his PowerPoint presentation, there isn’t any hint
of Kandinsky. For all the lunar blue in his klieg lights,
not a flicker of any celestial. Still, I’m eclipsed by him in love
with this woman who doesn’t love me also I don’t know why.
I shutter my windows and double-check the deadbolt,
though she never comes prowling. My passwords are twenty-letters long,
they contain three foreign numerals, two random characters,
but she doesn’t come hacking. If she shattered my patio door,
I wouldn’t holler. If she invaded through a gape in my gate,
I’d only invite her. I’d offer plantains and tobacco, petrol
and saffron, a samosa, a mimosa, but like a mistress in morning
she rushes always away, so what’s left is a sheepish disquiet
like waking into the ruined estate of a hangover. I’m in love
with a woman who doesn’t love me also. I don’t know why
aerial drones patrol all her borders, a barbed wall encloses
her Iowa of piety, her insular Dakotas. I’m in love with a woman
who doesn’t love me also I don’t know why, but my condition
is a dusky aftermath, is a stance of waning, is like the last act
in the life story of a wood fire, replete with a terrible sense
of warmth and mournfulness. I’m an ember caught in her wind shear.
I’m a paper lantern run aground on her breakwater. I’m a seedpod
ferried in the mouth of a seabird and spat on her shore. She’d prefer me
returned to whatever jungle blossom loosed me, her fences electric,
her guard dogs awake at their stations, her snipers alert in the birches.
She doesn’t need my queer number cluttering her phonebook. She doesn’t
want me crooning in her area code. She needs no brute approaching
her stoop with less than a dinar, less than a carnation, the sandstorm
of my body tumbling toward her, a rush of dust, a front of grit,
an erasure of her prim, her darkened horizon.
took back the mountains (“You didn’t scale them enough, quitters”)
but left the sea
(“Fuck the sea—
it’s all backwash and bitters”)
McCarthy, it’s Joe
Lloyd, it’s Harold
Hickory, dickory, Jesus,
The dark does what it pleases—
The squadrons roll out,
Somewhere: a shout,
Hickory, dickory, Jesus.
AMY CLAMPITT, WARY HUNTRESS
(for blesséd art)
in the very
of the West Village
Poet! Poet! burning bright
(Even though your words are shite)—
In your solipsistic sigh,
Note the echo: I I I.
Where the image? where the twist?
(Look: a plodding laundry list.)
Did you smile your work to see?
Would these poor lines please Emily?
Poet! Poet! growing dim,
Offer up a prayer to Him
Who gave us terror, grace, and Blake;
Then take a vow, for silence’ sake.
Hannah Baker Saltmarsh
“Love as strong as death, cruel as Sheol” Song of Solomon 8:6
Two bikes with the white baskets slain on the grass, a fleece blanket edged with novels
and berries at dusk. Slammed like this onto the blanket with her husband, their faces
in the folds of books, the pregnant woman remembers the wrestling before they had her
belly to protect. Here anarchists cradle guitars in cross-holds on the iron-cast bridge,
their skin-and-bones dogs sighing through jowls. The bridge where a kayak slides under,
the paddle flapping like hands wailing down red fire stairs. The sky bruises at nightfall,
blood orange crawls out, blots the blue terrain, and the expanse above reaches
for the torso-shaped bayou, collapses in darkness. Nothing wrong the first sign of sex
is a teenager’s bruised lip, a chewed ear, a sucked purple shoulder, a gnawed armpit,
bodies devoured in a daycare parking lot. Or the first sign he cares, a string of neurotic
text messages and missed calls. What of the S&M group on Craigslist pooling
their fetish-warmth over red velvet cupcakes at the café, discussing the latest in
vagina jewelry? A woman says she has to wait til her fiancé get back, but whittles away
at a cuffed guy whose eyes drop to the pavement. Who’s to say what’s kindling?
A senior with the last name Love we see in the evening news looks like those women
that come with the silver picture frame in the store. A picture of her in a halter dress
the colors of an Ocean City dawn against the backdrop of a helicopter waving a white ad,
then the high-tide spits up pearl necklaces. A picture of her whole body caving around her pug
on a beige couch in the family room. She was going to be the maid-of-honor in her sister’s
wedding. The sometime girlfriend of a lumber entrepreneur’s son. Both athletes from Maryland
and on the brink of graduating from an almost-Ivy. They held hands that day at Boylan Heights.
She hugged his family. The love-hate pendulum must have seemed normal, even his irate emails,
I should have killed you. Her teammates saw them. One time their relationship status read
It’s Complicated on Facebook so they warmed other mouths. He’d been drinking all day, mostly
with his father at the golf club. The night he breaks in, someone below feels the walls and voices
splitting. A roommate, in late, finds the body like a pile of dirty clothes
on top of the bed, wishes Love didn’t stay in that night, miss the party.
The defense says he was incapable, a drunk jock, a dud grenade, altogether.
You sleep with your musketoon, musket,
cutlass, and pistol, don’t die
in your sleep or while at sea during the hurricane,
the gash in the side of your ship,
then that rack of sea burials. You’ll die a lone casualty later.
You don’t work straight through the winter
on Freelove, but take breathers at Walker’s,
the Grape Lane shipyard,
the house with apprentices sleeping in the attic:
Mess Boy, Hammock Boy, Dictionary Person, Nascent
Director. Everyone calls the small collier ships
cats. They move faithfully as on a street
that keeps going forever but changes names
all the time, even changes directions as a one-way different ways
like a monogamous lover who surprises.
Your sea legs are wobbly chopsticks like Twiggy
who lies down on a moving elephant’s back
for a perfume ad, the scent on the magazine-
page insert. Her fur coat wraps once around her slinky arm,
then falls down the elephant’s flank: a weird version
of Cinderella’s pumpkin-carriage where she rides on the leafy top.
You want to help, that’s why you’re an armed understudy,
but you keep seeing yourself as a skinny boy
with long fingers, knocking the enormous silver-gilded
pineapple off the over-mantle many times
before growing the plumage necessary
to ruin everything else on that mantle
or find that someone else’s failure becomes yours.
You’re tired of being that guy.
You want to touch everything as the Ocean Investigator.
It’s like wanting to be Davy Crocket, Sherlock Holmes,
MacGyver, Shakespeare, or David Michael Baker Cowboy.
Like wanting to invent a timepiece you can hang up,
the brilliant long-case clock, a twenty-four hour
soothsayer to tell you the earth’s revolution
in an ordinary home like it was nothing.
But watch out before the older men comment
you’ll full of hot air, watch out when you go around
saying your one eye’s better than any other two.
On Lucky Bag day— the grab bag of dead men’s weapons
and ware—which is worse than the college-town vintage shop
slued with housedresses from nursing-home wardrobes,
because the shipmates kiss, stroke, inhale, wail over
their dead friend’s cloak, hand-spikes, spyglasses, cleavers,
still hawking away at this loot—
they eyed yours after the Minnie Ball,
bidding fair for your life
1200 paces away, whizzed through your heart.
QUALM October 2013
SONG OF THE SELF-RIGHTEOUS
There is an end to suffering, but we don’t want it.
Instead, we want to watch suffering from a distance
like a cooking show where the oven-cradled food
emerges smoking into the air, ruined, but still
the guests are encouraged to taste. Nothing so sweet
as food you don’t have to eat. Nothing so kind
as enduring what you don’t mind. O bland heroes,
there is work to be done! There are numbers to run
and stats to compile! How many people have died?
And was it worth their while? If it ain’t broken,
let’s break it, said the sharks to the fishes.
Life is delicious. Who would want to miss it?
ESCAPE FROM L.A.
I’m the guy that all the guys your mother warned you about
warn you about, but even I am crushed by this city that weighs us
down with a million stares. It pins our body to the corkboard.
It preserves us behind glass. Who knew ether
would taste so sweet? O cotton. O candy. O perfect skin.
All may enter, but none can win. It’s a cunning hell
where the damned dream they’re in heaven. Is this heaven?
Then throw me back to Earth. Give me acne scars and rolls of fat!
Give me poverty! Give me debt! Or at least let me forget.
INTO A MODE OF EXCESS
I was offered a hand and I took it. But three hands were not enough.
A successful life with a single head is an optimist’s dream. All transplants
are proof of failure and this templated body is now a template for others.
The Hindu gods had it right. A dozen arms, an elephant head, the body accepted
for its exceptions. The Greeks prized Argus, he of the hundred eyes,
and when each was blinded with a small knife, he was revered for the sockets,
oracles of silence. Speak in tongues with your many tongues. Say my name
until it becomes meaningless, until all you hear is your heart’s dialogue with your blood.
Royalty was marked with a six-fingered hand. So much more secure the grasp
on what makes us betters. Come the revolution, we pruned the hand in protest
until the hands learned to prune themselves. I admit we were wrong. Where’s the tail
evolution stole? Our extra teeth gone obsolete? We are less than we were.
Come scalpel! Come surgery! I elect to be among the elect! Once, I counted
every bone in my body. Each to each, they added up, but I found myself wanting.
By the time I reach the basket of rose petals
held by the young girl with the green sash
there are none left. Still, she holds
the basket out to me
like an air steward offering sweets
in the last fifteen minutes of the flight.
I breathe in the smoke
of myrrh from the censer
and breathe it out towards your photograph.
If this were a waltz it might go something like:
in space sound don’t travel and everyone floats
won’t somebody light my candles
It would be sung in the voice you sang in
when you sang Johnny Cash
and there would be a visual element, of course
a silent film of a free diver
frogging down from the sparkling surface
to the place where the very water
becomes the sinking anchor tied to your feet.
The stone with a muka rope
tied through a single chiseled hole
the one we’ll give a name to when it washes up
a thousand years later in the shape
of an island white with gulls.
We wrote words on pieces of paper and stuck them to our foreheads.
My mouth was on the plastic tap sticking out of the plastic bag.
Later I used my lips to free the sound of an insect from you.
I miss you (buzz). Pass me your lighter.
When I opened the door there was a cake on the front porch.
Someone had made patterns of waves in the off-white icing.
A single word in capital letters sang itself in chocolate.
Oh where is the cradle and where is the crime
Won’t somebody light my candles
There’s fire in the chapel and ice in the rhyme
Won’t somebody light my candles
Is it possible to perform this word? To own this word?
To kick this word once in the face and want to do it again?
Is it something one can acquire, like land or collectibles?
Oh yes, yes it is a veritable killer whale of a word
creamy and foamy in its black and white propensities
and its refusal to speak English.
I am trying to leave you behind, my love
I am trying to leave you behind
The boat was a mouth, the word was a whale,
the moon was a flying fish, the swoop of a letter.
I miss you, it’s like a cave in this mouth.
It’s a terrible saxophone solo.
It’s what passes for a lie down.
TAP DOGS MUSIC
roaring with air
white gold slopping over
smoke fallout everywhere
Open the tap-hole
steel light is blind
intense as a searchlight
The scorched hook-steerers
down in the spatter
spend crib times heel-and-toeing
a new ferrous patter
on sheets of cooled plate
since these works will soon close
and spangling metal
will set in black floes.
Hannah Baker Saltmarsh
The bomb’s smallest victim
makes the front page with the headline, Dead Baby
Highlights Conflict, where a newborn
serves some higher journalistic purpose,
but the father, a journalist never in the habit
of crouching to the earth, speaks only in choke-whispers,
his throat scrawled open. What do you do with the baby
clothes when they no longer smell like him?
You could make a quilt of his onesies
like the woman online did, pushpin it to a hallway
wall guests turn from, looking for the bathroom.
Do you give them to a pregnant friend,
keep a few to touch
and talk out loud to,
or sell them all in a black garbage bag to the thrift store?
All artists hoard traces of the past.
Victoria DeBlassie making artwork out of hundreds of oranges,
dried down to brown-gold peels hooked together
into a sculptural fabric to give you back the suck
and scent of an orange. She convinces the train-station stand
in Florence to give her the halved, straggly-pulped
oranges after they’re pressed,
ripped, flipped inside out, juiced.
In San Francisco she takes rinds from restaurants
like a mother-skunk dipping her head in the garbage pail.
In Albuquerque, her yoga studio and her sisters
cast off rinds like a t-shirt over a tank-top.
From her own and everyone else’s breakfast,
she collects the shells to craft A Smell Wall, Accumulated Matter,
Interior Walls, a pair of leather pants, and a whole igloo.
In a breastfeeding class, they told me sucking
and tearing at the rind, bending it back as you tore
the flesh in your mouth, suctioning,
bursting the pulp, this was suckling
compared to plopping a straw into an orange slice
to draw up one drop, bottle-feeding.
My great-grandmother sent naval oranges by train to my father
from her groves. Every year after she passed, my grandparents
mail-ordered oranges at Christmas. When I named my daughter
for my great-grandmother, I started buying winter oranges
big as grapefruit. I could see how Freud’s Anna O.
lived off oranges and drank no water,
just the splashes of juice dripping from the rows of pulp,
and the back of her hand rubbing it off her cheek.
Tonguing the tips of her fingers, how could she ever know thirst?
New Orleanian telephone-wire birds
tight-lipped over street-level shootings:
the aimless stray the co-op clerk couldn’t duck out of
like a picture you don’t want taken now,
then his cabbage-rose blood hits the asphalt;
the random homicide when bikers chase midnight heels;
the teenager, fired at for just looking at a man’s SUV
sleeps in wires in ICU, coming to.
Is this all you’d see, if you hit pavement, shot:
a wirescape of birds spaced along fiber-optic
branches, with few actual trees
nodding their antlers of leaves?
Maybe leaves with lemons still green.
Is there only looking up? The rainbow skittles
in a teen’s palm tumble, the face-down cell phone still talks.
What you last see, does it blare and torture
as the last real pulp of a life?
Framed by Newsome in a baroque, gaudy gold
with a trim of neon sheet-cake flowers,
a matting of chinchilla fur.
Captured as a cathedral-dome cut-out of sky,
light, and a wirescape harp-strung to poles.
Is this what children graze-wounded or worse
at a jazz funeral see last, having swayed
into someone dancing’s lap?
Who open-fires on a second-line
and its caboose of twin drippy babies,
pear yogurt in their wrist folds,
their blotchy gums bursting
with three peaks of a tooth?
Who interrupts the song of women who, in chaotic tenderness,
rub and tunnel into their babies’ necks
and thigh-folds? Shaking, dip-bouncing,
laughing the squeal-trill of birds.
Who wants to hear the ages, let alone the names of
those in our city whose lives were lost to violence this week
with our without mercies, at an altar?
For now, the teenager who pedaled a child’s bike,
who breathed at his reflection in a man’s big car,
hangs on, his blood wiped from the courtyard driveway.
QUALM April 2014
NAFANUA, THE SAMOAN GODDESS OF WAR, BECOMES A CREOLE
Nafanua lays the flesh of smoked freshwater fish
against the skin of her belly
she is as dark as an octoroon
or a quadroon even.
Against the skin of her belly
a lover the colour of a brown paper bag
or a quadroon even
the colour of river shrimp and lake shrimp.
A lover the colour of a brown paper bag
who could pass for black or white
the colour of river shrimp and lake shrimp
Nafanua melts down to a golden roux.
Who could pass for black or white?
Nafanua with a body soft as pig fat.
Nafanua melts down to a golden roux
runs in shining streaks down to the open mouth.
Nafanua with a body soft as pig fat
Nafanua with a belly like a salt trout
runs in shining streaks down to the open mouth
of the brackish Pontchartrain.
NAFANUA, THE SAMOAN GODDESS OF WAR, TALKS ABOUT HER FRIENDS IN PHILLY
Last night I spoke to the prophet
in Philadelphia by phone
I told him Lucky Dube was dead
That is just about the last straw he said
Lucky has always sung about peace
and now we need a sniffer machine to find it.
Today, Tammany (who is often mistaken for Jamaican)
gave that look to his uncle
Tammany never washes the pots
just eats the food and lets it rot
Uncle threw the pot at Tammany’s head
and banged him up against the wall.
Now, no one can find him
he’s turned into something and flown away.
There is a boy called Willy Cramp
who lives next door with his mother
she makes him stand outside the eye hospital
while she brings coloured sailors home.
I watched through the side window one night
when Willy Cramp came home
I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry
there he was, standing in the rain
wearing a ruined umbrella like a skirt.
O LE ALA O LE ALOFA (THE ROAD OF THE LOVING HEART)
Robert Louis Stevenson d. 3 December 1894
At the hour of my death
start cutting trees
from here to the peak of Mount Vaea
Wear good boots and take water
this heat is hard on palagi.
Victorian ladies panting
the intimate smell of stays
the insides of pith helmets
the undersides of breasts
of taupo and kitchen girls.
Strike up the band
all fourteen of ’em
chicken, ham, cake
rounds of Claret Negus
flavoured with rum and limes.
tumble my stovepipe trousers
in the waterfall
throw in the lion skins
the lady angel in the parlour
the darkened medicine room.
Drink the soup
and remember the Samoans in Stuart tartan
who cut all night
all the next day.
Take the hand dug road to Vailima
o le ala o le alofa.
O le ala o le alofa is the name of the cross island track built for RLS by Samoan chiefs in gratitude for his practical and moral support during their imprisonment after the rebellion of King Mata’afa in July 1893.
When RLS died Samoans cut a path from his house to the top of Mt Vaea where he was buried.
taupo: unmarried titled woman of high rank
Stanza 3 is from RLS’s Vailima Letters
Face the facts, you will have to learn the new system.
The one you knew is (out-and-out) moded and dated.
Its odder traits you took for quirks of a friend
are now archaic as o’er. Remember when
the world was flat and our schoolpapers were graded?
Face the facts. You will have to learn the new system
because what we know keeps bubbling up and then
goes the way of all bubbles, Bub. You inflated
its odder traits, took them for quirks of a friend:
poetry shelves that began in PS, the “ten
thousand things” several decimals underrated.
Face the facts. You will have to learn. The new system
is tougher, sure, but we’re coming in on weekends.
So much old work gets jumbled, reduplicated.
Its traitor’s odds you cooked for firks of a trend,
but your number is up and the system is down again.
It was super once (now we whisper -annuated).
Face the facts. You will have to. Learn the new system:
>It soldered rates / chew tuck / fork work / suffer [end].>
Two anagram poems (see writers page)
THE STATUTE SCHEMERS
Look at us: caged nerds, welling
lot. We dallied. Gunk groan, cess
we reallocated, dusk longings,
treason. We doll-suckled aging
Once I sunk low, stalled ragged.
I called, nagged soul networks,
a decade skull-wrestling—no go.
Drunk and collegiate, we gloss
a kind lull. Togaed congress, we
a gesturing, swollen deadlock.
Look at us: declaring news, gelding
legend. Look at us: scrawled
ledger’s end. Look at us: clawing
dragons we legislated—no luck.
long sidetracked! Law’s loungelong
rugs I walked, adolescent,
words alkalescent. Go, indulge
legal ranks, ego. Did we consult
lost works? Language declined
designed laws to lurk, congeal,
weld strong a Decalogue’s link.
Golden rulings awaked, closet
skeletons wiggled, a cauldron
scalded us. Roll taken. Going, we
desecrated walls. Gun-looking,
scandalling, we sold out. Greek
words snuggle like anecdotal
lacunae, linked word toggles….
A lackluster, doggone swindle.
The Child is Father of the Man.
Fetal heathen from ditch, his
thin mother has filched fate,
she lichened him forth fat at
once, a Hamlet’s third Fifth.
Faith teethed him. Half-scorn,
half-chafe, the Id-monster hit
him. Teased. Oh, nth heart-cliff,
affliction. He thrashed them,
harsh mind effect. Hail to the
chief, hoist them fatherland
anthems, their hitched offal,
that fresh filth. He-comedian,
he fetched animals—Thrift, Ho-
ratio!—he shafted them. Flinch
then, child. Fear is the fathom.
for Heteralocha acutirostris
the telltale silks of volcanic expulsions -
mark of the surrealist, Mercury -
our world's hobby, permanency,
tore the lifetime off its back,
chapters the vine
particle by particle you are beamed offsite
boiler in the solar teaspoon,
sharpener, unzip you from your tree,
a colonialist who keeps two roadhouses
and you can enter neither
a supper of soot
at each equator
two white dynamites;
the eggshell lady
light-years and much
too much hydrogen
the intervening dust-up
obscured by emulsion
minarets of molars
the erasure of the surname
tablespoons of planet in the gullet
a soft decaying mammal to nest in
world-heart cannot distinguish
the invader in the quicksand,
she has not undergone much chapel;
they give a two-naked-eye-opener of a cold
to erase the giving land
I can see you fighting, but I cannot save you
The surface tension
of a floating unit
The sound of a theremin.
The moon out one window.
The earth out one window.
An ion in a polar
a lovely firework in the eye.
in a malignant tumour
on the brain stem.
The undulating edge
of a severed ring finger
replete with ring.
The sound of death
In the event of failure to ignite
you are buried at sea in your ship,
in the sea of space
Fishermen will know exactly what I mean,
old maps show this quite clearly.
This sunken forest, you can still turn on a lathe;
a hundred thousand years submerged.
The fault scarp scooped the mudslide
for a full day's ride.
One day you looked up
and finally it was happening; smoke
not from the mouth of the cloud piercer,
but the range to its right.
I saw it once, but nobody believed me.
They are whom the hot mud will come up to,
it's coming to get your ko and your tauihu.
for safekeeping. It's a secret eruption.
The huge ugly hole fascinates motorists.
The flexing claws of the seatop volcano -
these are cone collapses -
but underneath, yes, sunken forest.
If you choose a king tide
and take a walk on the Waitara beach,
when you are out far enough
for the waves to cover your ears,
to see the leaves emerging on the treetops,
the small crowned extinct birds,
the one large huia to karanga
with the pearl of a bubble in her beak -
Ko: digging stick; tauihu: canoe prow
Karanga: A part of the powhiri, the Maori welcoming ceremony, an exchange of calls by women of the receiving and visiting parties. Karanga follow a format which includes greeting each other and addressing and acknowledging the dead.
SONG OF THE SINGLE-MINDED
The ants scent their future, one-by-one,
the planes divide the sky, the blood
pushes through darkness till the light calls it up
through a needle, ocean currents drag life
in an endless loop – ignore the Sargasso –
of reproduction, Monarch wings litter the earth
in mile-long swatches of poisonous color,
each virus fills a cell with itself until
the cell explodes, grass reaches through
the soil in bud after bud poking its crown
through the ground until the original dies
and all that’s left are copies and a barren spot
in the yard, eventually you are so far away
there is no trace of where you came from.
THE THEORETICAL TASTE OF MEAT
In theory, everything is theoretical, everything imagined
in the brain but never proven. Ye damnéd philosophes
and your mind games! Once thought, they can’t be returned.
No telling how many minds you’ve copied yourself onto.
And to what avail? In the world of the real, everyone believes
they are the player, but we are, each one of us, only played.
Take this bacon. Charred black on the edges, rusted blood
between, the cooked flesh still spits and steams, and yet
the taste itself is unimaginable. It can only be tasted.
And who’s to say I taste bacon and not broccoli? Or that you and I
would ever taste the same meat or touch the same grease?
As a vegetarian, you’re shackled to the raw animal deal of it.
Let me put it this way: It is different money the homeless dream of
than that you finger in your pocket, and let there stay.
QUALM October 2014
The scent of the sequoia is an exact match
for the pine tree air freshener dangling
from the rear-view. I hadn’t noticed
the sameness until we stopped to stretch
our legs. Parked up in the roadside dirt,
I took a leak, peered into the high dark,
whistling – as you do… Bear in mind,
this is just a sketch. There is a later treatment,
where we drive on into the sinking light,
squinting at the fledgling stars through
a windscreen milky with photo-activated dust,
and come to a clapboard garage, little more
than a shack, furnished with hubcaps,
antlers, trade calendar, doors thrown wide
to the warm evening. The mechanic emerges,
rolling his hands around a ball of rag, overalls
blackened from chest to crotch, his cue –
the engine idling to a stop. He nods,
wanders over, and the first thing he says is,
‘What seems to be the problem?’
I bring a pail of water, grooming brush, a fresh bale of hay
You must always approach him from the side, my father said.
Step clear of the fog that floats between a horse’s eyes,
and let him know you’re there. Put out to grass, freed
from the lunacy of men, he’s just an ordinary neddy,
carried a story in the belly of a man. I take in the profile,
the cocked foreleg, the elegant taper from mottled haunch
to brittle fetlock, the veins strewn like ravelled lengths
of bladder wrack. No wings, no fanciful addenda.
An ambry, with the north wind locked inside,
sifting the world through flared cringles, caught
between man-stink and a pocketful of sugar.
FOR THOSE OF US WHO GOT UNIVERSITY ENTRANCE ACCREDITED
DUE TO THE EXCELLENCE OF OUR SCHOOL WORK THROUGHOUT
There was white-water rafting
down the Buller River
bunks and three days of biking
which for the asthmatic exchange student
from Argentina made the oxygen
and nitrogen of the chill gorge air
a kind of chalice she sipped from.
There were parrots – kaka.
One nearly took the lesbian P E teacher’s
head off the first day but she ducked.
She and I were the ones scared of heights.
When I leaned back over the soft bank
in my harness, the ropes tight in my damp hands,
and gave myself to the word abseil
I could hear her all the way down there saying traitor.
MASSIVE TUNNEL BORER
The two halves drill towards each other
eating through the mountain
When they meet
the tunnel could be said
to be complete and the machines
bury themselves on that spot
become part of the mountain
it being uneconomic to retrieve them.
Each half is the size of an aircraft.
Each, no doubt, has its trajectory
mapped remotely from above ground.
What appeals most
is not the action of the tunnelling
or even the burial
these topics having been
well-traversed by other machines
but the way they use their food
how they shit out reinforcement
turning the gravel, the mud
the mountain’s insides
into a concrete that prevents
the new tunnel’s collapse.
Perhaps this is where
we went wrong.
The new girl at work is not my colour.
In the Library of Quiet I sort
volumes on Silence and tidy racks
of Absent Sound. The capacity
to boom is blocked as if speaking (banned)
is all male voice, not our thoughts. She is
my partner, and we are a hand
of black and white. In the Torazza,
five hundred steps to the folios,
the sun glazes petals of half-lit
July above the desks. We touch arms.
She's not my colour but she is my shade.
THE WYRDLIGHT SISTERS
Living in Hell, the little fires were useful.
Charcoal lined our life,
so soft to lean on night.
We had a library there. The books were covered
in ash dust. Devils
came here with us. They thrive.
If they go back to Hell I might go back too –
my sister is outed
as a sorceress.
Why stay here when I know there’s no pain in hell
as bad as slander?
Whistling wind is a witch,
says our neighbour, gardens are spellbound, he’s seen
wild weeds ride a giant
slug of punishment.
My breath’s hot magistery will transform him.
Walking to the cinema sewing quick
small steps fitted to hold me
from slipping, I see men ahead swing
their legs. They are tacking particles
of flesh to the street, large as they come in,
pressing past each other, shrinking
as they go out.
It's true that once I swung my legs.
I played in open dirt not the dark.
When I asked to see Kiss in the Tunnel
I was made to sew perfect stitches instead.
All day, threads floated from my hem,
loose, long, children under suspicion.
POSTERITY, LOOK OUT
About suffering they were never wrong,
the future. Forever, grown sinewy, began
young. Beginners' feet furrow whatever
fungus-rot, brain-fog. They were never we.
They were never surgeon-bait, gruff-won
gains, frog-brown. Were they even future
wags? They were never fringe-of-burnout,
grub-to-go ruffians. They were never new
fur, we as we. They never forgot being, urn—
either/orgy. Were never buff, gaunt snow
bunnies. Were never a growth effort, guy
yawn, buffoon gesture. Were never right
either. Were never us, now, baggy turnoff,
guffaw tongue. Sir, they were never born.
NAFANUA, THE SAMOAN GODDESS OF WAR, GOES TO NASHVILLE
She goes with him to Nashville
as if it were some place you could go to easily on a bus
he takes her to an outcrop of rocks and says:
This is where the Mississippians mysteriously disappeared
and then the Cherokee and the Chickashaw
and the Shawnee followed.
Nafanua sits like the single white resident
in a tiny settlement called French Lick.
Zero point zero percent Native Hawai’ian and other Pacific Islanders
are stuffing the holes in their houses to the sounds of ghosts
and their quiet piroguing down the Tennessee River.
Eleven thousand Kurdish are joining the cult of angels.
This is not what she was expecting
they’d been heading for a place of amusement and lost the trail
the guy in the hat is called Joe Cheek and not a Nashvillian at all.
From far, far out in the wilderness comes a noise
that sounds like honk-a-tonk-a-tonk-a-tonka.
QUALM April 2015
LETTER TO A MOTH, DYING IN A LIGHT FIXTURE OUTSIDE
We’ve both made bad decisions.
And so what? It’s not the end of the world
until it is.
The way we’ve yearned
looks like the jaws of a steel trap
as it takes the leg of the animal, like the animal
who gnaws through its leg to free the body
from the leg, the way blood flutters
from that leg then eats into the snow,
how the snow offers up its life as it turns
to steam, how the steam enters the night air
to touch whatever flies through it.
The beginning of time. You.
The trillion stars as they rip
through the dark to devour the dark.
But the dark is without end,
isn’t it, dear Moth?
It’s warm, patient, and slings a little “Welcome” sign
above its balcony. Let’s say, it’s not just you:
everything flies into that flame.
Let’s say a man enters a motel room and weeps
his secrets into the neck of a woman he’s just met.
The light outside bangs on and off.
Have you ever entered that room?
Have you ever been that man? No.
There was no man.
Just the lantern swaying in the heat.
Just the body. Six legs and crumpled wings.
You, with no mouth to beg for what you want.
Mail transported at a specified transportation rate in containers (owned by carriers)
on airline flights scheduled to depart between 6:01 a.m. and 8:59 p.m.
— United States Postal Service, “Glossary of Postal Terms”
Do not place other types of light in the Daylight Container.
Not the blue light of the TV that glows and sighs like loneliness
into living room after living room across the country.
Not the illuminated billboards as they promise
a Jaguar and lottery tickets. Only daylight.
Not the strings of Christmas bulbs your neighbor leaves
up through July. Not the bonfires on the horizon
or the moon that puckers like a poison apple. Only daylight.
Only light that flits through clouds, circles you
and trembles like a hummingbird. Only light
from the sun gathered in preapproved mason jars,
insulated coolers, or padded envelopes.
Did you think this was elusive, holy, impossible
to contain? Maybe it is.
But if you manage capture some, you can take it
to a Daylight Container to be saved for later usage,
or sent to anyone you love. But only between
the hours of 6:01 a.m. and 8:59 p.m. Send it too early,
the light will falter forward, wheeze and totter,
collapse like a bad knee. And if you send it too late—
then it’s just too late.
TO MILK A UNICORN
Unicorn milk is unbelievable stuff; the highest of the twenty-nine angelical liquors in the enumeration of Averroes. The resolutely bovine get a spiteful buzz in the small of their backs by saying it's no better than cow's milk, and that a unicorn far from being more than a cow, is but a cow, one horn the less. Still, purists compare it with a woman’s milk and to the upbeat it gives joy. And, but like most incredible things, it’s hard to come by. This is how you must get it. First, go into the woods, the darker the better, though not too dark to see. Clawing wet cobwebs from your face, find a place where curdled fog-streamers are lapped in the inguinal folds of branches, and it smells of mud, fern, Spanish chestnut and honeysuckle. The thrushes and the blackbirds sing, but quietly and sadly, and slowly, and at a deeper pitch, so that it sounds not like singing at all, but moaning.
The unicorns at first will look like mist, but glowing brighter than mist. Sometimes their horn is gilded and their mane is blond. This is a trick of the light tumbling as if down a chimney through the forest’s needles, webs, dusts, nests and leaves. What you have to do is to look fazed, in trouble, malfunctioning, forlorn. Tangled strands of thick hair blown across your face; some drops of blood tugged from your cheek by a bramble thorn; burrs, sedge and torn nettle-leaves caught both on your crushed-velvet skirt, which is a becoming bottle-green embroidered with wildflowers, and on your flame-coloured jerkin crudely sewn from enormous dead leaves. Something either back to front, upside-down or inside-out to your eyes. And even a fizz and soft sparks from the mussed or felted wiring, fine as hair and wrung by life from a rent in your neck. People who don’t know what they are talking about say it is better to be a virgin. They are like those mushroom fanciers who spread self-interested disinformation. Because, no offence intended, soon a unicorn will come, perhaps several.
So – express delight, but in no more than a whimper, because however confidently they cluster round you, they are shy creatures and will soon bolt, even at the thudding of your own heart. Most unicorns have green, grey or brown eyes with vertical pupils and an alert, kindly gleam, not like a target or a cat. But what you want if possible is one with one green and one grey, one grey and one brown, or one brown and one green eye, shaded by thick white lashes. The black ones with dark green eyes are also special. So choose your unicorn, choose the very most best, and take it with you ever deeper into the forest, leading it by the kiss curl that curls down its forehead like a rill, until you find a glade where the sun glares through a sink-hole in the blackish, bluish canopy and warms and illuminates plump grass. Which, exactly like your skirt, is studded and spangled with cornflowers, bull-rushes and Indian corn, and pansies with smudged eyes, and dawn-coloured crocuses and unripe strawberries; and which looks as if lit from beneath, shining its own lime-green light (with purple patches) on the underside of the unicorn’s belly and the frog of your chin. But which gives with a shuddering squelch making brown water trickle around your unicorn’s feverish hooves, clumsy and much too big, not canted but drummed, shaded with white fetlock, and the colour of scorched amber. A hollow boom betrays, beneath the saturated grass, the existence of dry rooms filled with twigs and leaves.
Now, curry comb, hoof pick, dandy brush. Fetlock, withers, pastern, rump. There is a Dobbin or even Boxer quality to unicorns, and they will stand still, their legs planted wide and their ears swivelling pleasantly, to be groomed or, later, when you have their trust, ridden. The next bit is the tricky bit. Can you bear to kiss their hot, pink lips, not glazed like our lips, but made of marshmallow skin with stray white hairs, and flobbery. Though mild, they are simple beasts, and sometimes they will think you are giving them sugar and try to bite off your nose not out of malice but stupidity. Kiss their lips, caress their ears, suck on curly strands of mane, and even tail, out of which if you like you can fashion a living wig and a false moustache, and make them close their eyes by kissing their felted eyelids and blowing along their lashes, whilst all the time (behind your back) hiding a suede bridle inlaid with silver suns and copper crescent moons and fitted with a silver-gilt art-nouveau Pelham bit adorned with figurines of wood and water nymphs or, if you cannot afford one of those, a bridle made from binder-twine, its reins not plaited but strung, more loosely than a violin bow, with not blond but blonde hair, or black or auburn or grey. The bit must not jingle, nor must your nerves. So, go on caressing the unicorn’s ears, but quietly slip the bridle up its face, over the rifled, twisted, barley-sugar-scented horn, clear as a feverish icicle of Coca-Cola, and not frosted but as polished as a lolly already sucked. Rub its kiss-closed eyes and caressed yet swivelling ears.
Then use your gentle thumb and forefinger in the corners of its lips to open the mouth for the bit. It will shake its head, breathe grassy breath in your face, and pull back, and rear perhaps, but this is a formality. Last but not least, the milk. If you go on caressing your unicorn’s ears, it will grow languid and lie itself down in the grass, tuck its hooves with their polished copper shoes under its neat belly, and dreaming it stumbles, will twitch and brace itself in a hypnic jerk. Its breathing slows and you can slip the bridle off (you won’t need that anymore) and the unicorn, bridle-less and suddenly resembling a naked woman without her glasses, will toss its head, though without conviction. Then you can blow the conch you have hidden in your clothes, part your own legs, lifting crushed-velvet skirts in ruched swags like a safety curtain to your two hips, one on each side, as milky as unicorn pelt themselves and forming with your milky legs a kind of proscenium arch with a high escutcheon or cartouche. Then, after coating it in your living spit, just as you slick an udder with its own milk, impale yourself so, so slowly, in starts and fits. The sensation for the unicorn is the sweetest in the universe, and it will be yours to take home and keep. But be careful. The point is sharp. Unicorn horn can be really, really sharp.
Brian Waltham (1925-2002)
Four more unpublished late poems
May there in Heaven
If not, it will be
An eternity trying
To explain to the
Dry Gleaming Ones
What wetness is,
That where I came from
It was all water before
My mother screamed
And there was the
Breaking of the water,
That staring at a
Puddle in a carpark
Or one small drop
Shivering in a leaf
Was staring at
That if Heaven is
To be itself, then
Not too far from the
There must be a wood,
Untended, damp, rife
With the smell of damp,
And in it the sound
Of water falling an
Inch or two on water.
For one thing, although they move slower,
Your hands get clumsier, brush a fork off a
Table, are less than pin-point accurate in
Reaching for a cup, shave what the mirror
Says is there, but among folds and hollows,
Leave unfarmed too many holts and hangers.
And you look at these vein-proud, blotchy tools
And very quietly kiss them.
For another, although they move slower,
Your feet, by just that crucial much,
Underlap/overlap a downward stair, behead
A treasured toy, tread sideways unbidden,
Fail to miss the edge of pavement dogshit,
Don’t like shoes, get cold without them.
And you look at these, your servants, and want
To bend near enough to kiss them too.
Oh come on! Let’s spend more time on
Shirtbuttons and bootlaces, let’s admit that
Putting on a sock is not at all easy, let’s
Read what for the first time we understand
And will forget before the week is out.
Egypt, in its pride, put other heads on us
So that we could be Gods.
Lion or Hawk to get a kingdom,
Cobra to seat a throne,
Dog Anubis to guard a tomb.
Bast came late, not much before the end
Of the whole glorious all of it.
Bast, from Bubastis, mistress of love
And matters feminine.
A local Goddess, never major,
Small images, but always with
Two cat-ears that wouldn’t miss
The drawing of your breath.
Goddesses can’t die, but when
They buried her they gave her
Mice, mummified mice.
They thought hard about
That journey, cat here to cat there.
THE TOMB WALLS OF SETEKHY 1
They go sideways:
Princes and priests, masters slaves
Measurers scribes sleek large-eyed
Tending women, even the
Animal-headed Gods, all
Cardboard cut-outs going left
Or right to where their faces point.
Nobody looks at the dead king.
Dead of night behind the church, a gibbous moon is riding high,
Giant leeks like monstrous phalluses, assault a starry sky,
Onions glisten, fat as footballs, whiter than the breasts of houris,
Vicar’s digging, digging, digging, sweating like a thousand furies.
Peapods stuffed like bookies’ wallets, beanstalks broad as Hattie Jacques,
Tender tendrils twisting, twining, groping, grasping at their stakes,
Vicar’s forking dripping, dropping tons of dark, nutritious mulch
Down gigantic steaming trenches gaping like the Devil’s gulch.
Beetroot rooting, parsnips titillating as the rain comes hissing,
Passionate potato tubers, grinding, gasping, gagging, kissing,
Lettuce lusts like sails a-billow, copulating radish roots,
Vicar’s stamping, stumping, stomping in his massive hob-nailed boots.
Swampy stench of Sex and Violence makes the darkness fierce and feral,
Any kids who cross the heaving churchyard cross it at their peril,
Gravestones steam with vegetable couplings, but our vicar’s shed
Bulges with the horrid little skulls of the untimely dead.
EDGAR ALLAN POE’S RECIPE FOR HAGGIS
Sausage in a stomach bag is what a Scotsman calls a haggis.
Haggis makes the Scotsman hairy. Haggis makes the Scotsman brave.
Follow closely my instruction, you can test it to destruction,
Home-made haggis in a bag is such a dish as heroes crave,
Such a dish is so delicious, what they wish and what they crave,
Heroes risen from the grave.
Get your butcher to deliver, of a sheep, heart, lungs and liver,
Chop them finely with an onion, oatmeal, suet, salt and spice.
Boil with water in a copper for as long as you think proper.
Stuff your stomach, boil your sausage for as long as will suffice,
Boil with turnips and potatoes for as long as will suffice.
‘Neeps and tatties’ mashed are nice.
QUALM Oct 2015
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.