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Best of Qualm
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.
Peter Reading. Two 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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
It’s more about the giving*
than the getting**.
** ready to kill yourself
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
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.
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.
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?”
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.
... 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.
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.
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.
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.
(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.
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.