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The appeasement

 

Tonight the river will use up its last yards

and ashes will fall from the clouds.

 

Thirteen full moons since heaven smiled.

The families all gather as dawn’s eye opens.

 

They are praying they won’t be chosen

and no one will venture outside.

 

Morning grows full of repentance and hopes,

sacrifice, promises of labours to come,

 

and one door bears the bloodmark insignia

that summons the home’s last-born.

 

At noon Nauri will lose her daughter

in front of an enraptured crowd,

 

the air cloud-heavy with majestic incantations

as the child is given to the sun.

 

Today when the wind has risen above the ghost estuary

fireshreds will awaken like birds.

 

And by tonight Roella will haunt the atlantic,

the ocean sky weeping with a dark snow.

 

 

 

This, I am pretty sure, was published in ‘Poetry Wales’. A regional mag, and something of a step up (in commonly perceived status and circulation, not necessarily quality) from the other pieces I had accepted. I remember being chuffed at the time; guess it was the high point because nothing else on that level followed. For all that, I have reservations about it. The language is nice, but the depiction of some tribal village was constructed out of cliches in my mind, not from any real place or people. The deliberately exotic-sounding names are gorgeous, but a bit silly. It all seems rather inauthentic to me now.

There might well be some foraging in the loft done this weekend, and if I find evidence to the contrary about where this was published, will edit the above! So far all of this stuff has been taken from a booklet I circulated amongst friends and family, and which are the only poems I have on my hard-drive. They’re the ones I thought best out of all that I wrote up to that point (and I wrote little after). There’s more to come, but not that much more. I will try to find the paper copies of all the other material (I really don’t know if I even kept all of it); my hunch is that there’s little if anything in there of decent quality, but you never know, and if I find more good stuff, here it shall end up.

UPDATE, 19/8/13: Just as well I checked because ‘The Appeasement wasn’t published in Poetry Wales, it was in a mag called ‘Borderlines’. Not only that, but I haven’t had anything else in Poetry Wales, nor have I ever sent them any material! So what was the one which had me chuffed? I’m not sure because having found my old poetry files and all the magazines I collected, there are a few mags which are better than I remembered (the poems are another matter…) and it was perhaps a tad unfair singling out ‘Smith’s Knoll’ as the only decent one…more to come on this I’m sure.

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They come and go and they tell you things.

Some of them love you, some of them

take your thrown scraps of past

like pigeons with shrapnel of bread, stuff.

 

The room’s darkest corner has an alcove.

A parrot is there and his gimleted stare keeps on.

Parrots never smile. This caged one succeeds

in being unobtrusive; it’s no mean feat

for a bird so violent of plumage

(constellations hide there).

He never says anything and sleeps when you do.

Alert, his perching-bar is ragged, unstranded

by the fretful claws of months.

 

His food is what he sees. He thinks he is guarding you.

 

 

 

An odd little poem this one. I’m pretty sure it was written after hearing Suzanne Vega’s song ‘Marlene on the Wall’, except of course here it’s not a picture that keeps watch, but an animal. Parrots never smile? Not sure about that for starters. Is there such a thing as inverted anthropomorphism? They don’t express a mouth/beak movement equating to a human smile; doesn’t mean they’re not feeling it…Anyway, the person in this was meant to be an actual journalist and the parrot’s simply journalistic, watching with more acuity than it’s owner I’d like to think. There, the non-inverted variety to make up.

The old guy

 

plays calypso on his mouth harp, some blues,

and chords with wings, incidentals

beat a little, slap hands,

make good-natured argument in the still air.

Wrinkles rolled up like blinds,

you can’t see his eyes; he’s not blind

but he’d smile if you happened to think

otherwise, he likes the blues thing,

plays it up for whoever’s passing.

He’ll hang at some bar, drink warm beer,

make a talisman out of his pet glass.

He’ll wander out for sunset, stubble whitened

like sand, sit on the corner there,

pick out goosefreckling notes and play them slow

with his crumpled old mouth, his old breadboards of hands.

 

 

 

Something a little different. This is, as was pointed out to me a couple of times, a much warmer piece of writing than most of my stuff. I think it wouldn’t be inaccurate to apply the word ‘cold’ to many of my poems. I would go so far as to call many of them harsh, not meaning unkind or cynical, but casting a cold, clear, rather unforgiving light. It has its own kind of beauty, or at least I was aiming for that (somewhat erratically!). ‘The old guy’ relents a bit and looks at its subject a lot more sympathetically. I loved and still love blues music and the mythology and language it is steeped in, just can’t get enough of it, and this little portrait of a John Lee Hooker-ish guy (that’s him right there at the top) playing his harp and guitar is one of the surprisingly few poems I wrote about music.

 

Her hands had brought life to their coldnesses,

taught contours

that intimated language, a litheness.

Her practice was long.

 

The sculptress felt ready now;

repeatedly, she would stop and touch the raw stone,

feel the tension of skin,

the functioning tissue, the blood’s song.

 

She chose to carve those white leaves,

clasp them around her as

petals under the freezement of snowfall,

a preservation.

 

Encased wholly, she left herself to dream,

to hang the colours of her dreams

out to dry under a stone sun,

that they bleached to the whiteness of bone.

 

After a hundred winters

she knew she had failed; her colours remained

pale inside her,

the arteries and nerves, the powder-cold veins.

 

Being unable to move

behind the eyes of a figurine

she resolved to summon her dreams again

and pour them out as water

 

like rainwater that forces the stone

around catacombs, blood

that shapes the bone with its flow,

or hands that divine the statue’s mould.

 

 

And, slowly, a fountain trickles into life

amid the chalklines of memory

in a dark room of figures

somewhere in the vaults of a forgotten museum.

 

 

 

Really not sure what I was on about here, what the meaning was. Think of it as a sort of fairy tale. It’s a poem that, whilst containing really good parts, seems to add up to less than the sum of them. The result, perhaps of shaping the whole thing round an image or phrase which had come into my head, then just seeing where it led me. I did this quite a lot and I think that may have been the case with ‘Sculptress’ – it’s more a collection of semi-structured images than a coherent whole. Not exactly badly written (I really do still like the second and the ‘catacombs’ paragraphs a lot), but written to no real end, and while it sounds like there was an implicit or subconscious theme I can’t extract it now either. Feels like there was something better in there, some sort of parable, which I didn’t quite bring out. It had an alternative title, ‘The Fountain’s Birth’; not sure which one I like better. As you’re probably gathering, generally dissatisfied with this one!

03:16

 

I saw

from the beginning

to the end.

 

I missed nothing.

There were no interruptions;

no impediment to my view.

The scene was amply lit.

I could hear, though faintly.

I could not make out precisely what was said.

I watched.

 

With total clarity

like hard light from behind the storm’s edge

with strange slowness like an action replay

with isolation

like laboratory specimens

with a halting lack of emotion

like nervous actors on their stage

even with beauty

 

It took three minutes, sixteen seconds.

I watched.

I did not switch on my light.

My telephone, four feet to my right, I did not use.

My hands, feet, voice were still.

In the struggle she had lost one of her shoes.

 

Twenty-five others saw from the apartment block.

They used their eyes;

not their lights, telephones, hands, feet, voices.

Like me, they watched.

It took three minutes, sixteen seconds

.

The shoe was about five yards away, by the kerb.

 

Afterwards,

when the participant had been removed

and only the children pointed

where the paint had been spattered,

we learnt who we were

in cautious glances

and kept the secret that all of us shared.

 

Here

we know that in one way we belong

as we walk together

and walk alone.

 

So this is the other one I had published in ‘Smith’s Knoll.’ Perhaps in this form, perhaps in a slightly different form. This poem went through so many different versions; it was rejected about a dozen times first, with me changing something or other each time it came back. For a long time it had a truly terrible title other than the one above, which I am most certainly not revealing. But it turned into one of my best poems, I think.

Having said that, I find it a little embarrassing  and there’s a little story behind the reason why. Years earlier, in my teens, I flukily picked up a rare paperback called ‘Deathbird Stories’ by Harlan Ellison (sensationally good cult US sci-fi/fantasy writer) in a little bookshop that used to sit (and may conceivably still sit…) just below the archway in the High Street in Totnes, Devon. Why I bought it I don’t know, since at the time I had almost certainly never heard of him, but I thought it was one of the most amazing things I’d ever read. The most powerful story to me was the first one in the book, ‘The Whimper of Whipped Dogs’, which tells pretty much the tale I re-use in 03:16. It was based, as Ellison made clear, upon the true story of Kitty Genovese, who was fatally stabbed in a New York street while numerous onlookers watched from their apartment windows, doing nothing to stop the crime which was happening before their eyes. As I read ‘Whimper…’ and for many years after I was unaware of this incident save for the mention Ellison makes in his book. When I wrote 03:16 I referred back to the book, but not at all to the original incident; likewise when I was explaining it to editors, crediting Ellison with the inspiration, but not citing his own source. (The details in 03:16 like the time duration and the 25 watchers, may be changed from Ellison, which also may have been changed from the real incident.) I assumed the Kitty Genovese murder was a shocking but obscure news story, since forgotten by most. I was, of course, totally wrong. It was a case that gained a huge notoriety, and remains so to this day. This much I finally learned far, far later when I started taking some psychology courses – finding out that not only was the case famous, but had basically single-handedly initiated an entire field of psychological research, that of bystander intervention…

So that’s why, though I think this is an oldie-but-goodie, I find it a little embarassing, ’cause it does show up my ignorance as I wrote it. That was in pre-internet days of yore , but I kinda feel that’s no excuse in this case…

 

And all I could say was I don’t know

when you asked me what I saw

 

up there, in minutes

clenched in the fist of an instant,

and us inside

the skin of that animal

we once would have called machine.

 

I don’t know.

 

At that speed light passes in blind moments.

Dark speaks the sentences in between.

 

I went on living

in rooms of time,

each cell in my body

candle-snuffed out,

 

relit in the same instant

in another location.

 

I do not think I heard darkness.

I may have become one of its words.

 

And now, here, back in the place

where life happens,

with the stars all safely

chalkmarked up in their pinholes,

 

everything’s wrong,

 

and you with your eyes hungry

in curious fright,

 

hungry like light and as slow.

 

 

Another sci-fi-type thing. The idea is, it’s about someone returning after travelling faster than light, and when they get back things are not quite the same…Doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me, but I think it does succeed in creating a certain tension, a certain mood.

Slow machine monsters

 

 

 

The shapes have come which turn clouds into pumpkin-ghosts,

swollen as cauliflowers with cauldrons of eyes,

pulsing with knowing, tentacle-furling,

distended by slow machines

of current and counter-current, the dreaming sad flow.

The will of something that just can’t be seen,

the smoke of an entity

hides in corners, barely off-reach

but still unresolved, the tangible potency

of an unformed beast

that is not right, not what should be,

or want to be, or want to be half-seen:

the haunches dissolve

before the dog-jaw appears, the tusks

and hooves are not quite there,

misjuxtaposed. The malevolence is real

and the intent to strike fear

can’t be mistaken. It seems controlled,

the constant shift around the brink of being,

neither running people off

with an actual, awful shape nor drifting away –

clouding the issue and draining the charged day.

 

 

Another Jeremy Reed-phase poem. He had a particular rhythm which he used again and again, and which was fatally easy to imitate. I was able to write quickly at this stage when I had that rhythm and had by then a substantial (but thematically quite limited) store of imagery of I could draw upon. There was a while when I was writing a complete poem pretty much every day. Most were atrocious though! ‘SMM’ was written very fast indeed, almost as fast as I could physically put the words down on paper, with virtually no changes afterwards. Pen and paper first, then typed up with a manual typewriter – way before my first computer… Before too long I eased up a little, which was no bad thing. It’s always better to think about what you want to say, rather than just writing because you’ve decided to write something that day and you can.

 

 

Winter is sidling past autumn,

spring crawling over summer’s roof to see.

 

Summer has become tortoise-like, fashioned a shell,

crouches down in handfuls of short potent heatspells.

 

Autumn, though, has edged into the glade where winter was;

now these two have swapped and an emptiness of days

 

has separated them where no weathers at all are.

A white noise of bewitchment hangs in the thick air.

 

Winged beasts and floating monsters can faintly be seen –

borderline signals on mistuned television screens.

 

The confusion of seasons has left phantoms where they went from;

planes of weather are tilting at angles which are wrong.

 

Good weathers and bad have been slewed to odd adjacencies.

Streets are spitting up hailstones, leaves flying up to join trees.

 

 

Presaging a later interest in environmental concerns? Perhaps…this one was written at the end of an autumn which I remember as being all over the place weather-wise, veering back and forth between summer, full-on winter and all points in between. Just the sort of thing that’s become normal over the last few years in fact. Climate change was something, well I had certainly heard of it back in ’91, but how much else I knew I’m not sure. Not much. But writing this poem I distinctly remember I was thinking of a change that would gather pace ineluctably and be ongoing, not just a short disorientation. It was probably fanciful rather than based on knowledge though. ‘Confusion’ seems to start off slightly lamely but gets better as it goes along, looking at it now. It was part of a phase of being under the influence of Jeremy Reed, who seemed quite hip and who liked other authors I was into at the time like JG Ballard. But it was definitely just a phase; I got tired of him after a couple of books and moved on both reading and writing-wise.

Home from home

The silent enclaves are

where gaunt footsore exiles

finally stop to rest.

Tolls can now be counted.

 

Pens which dwarf factories

are bound by just fences;

men and women queuing

are kilometre-long,

 

seemingly pointless and

far-ended by makeshift

grey bungalow longsheds.

Nobody is talking.

 

Things just happen slowly

on mats of scrubby grass.

Always coming, new clumps

of humans, dizzied:

 

weariness, the sheer scale,

the relief of getting

to some form of seating,

warm food, things such as tents.

 

The quiet fire of hope

flares quick and then slowly

shrinks, hands up its dark ghost.

It’s no match for waiting.

 

The eyes of these people

can be guarded and old.

Clouds hide all the sky here.

They are as close as walls.

 

Realisation draws

itself slowly and sure

on these long-lined faces:

resignation to time

 

and the lack of answers.

The mist makes these camps seem

not islands but the start

of the edge of the world.

 

 

Going slightly over to the dark side with this one. Obviously I was thinking of some kind of refugee camp, but where from or where I saw or read about it I don’t know. 1990 Gulf war aftermath? That would fit time-wise. But it might be that it was something that developed into a generic image my head as a result of a number of different things I saw on the news or read about over time. I’ve a feeling it was deliberate to avoid saying whether these were victims of war, famine, natural disaster or other cause/s. Just as well really, as to tie it to a specific place, time or event would, I feel, have stretched it a little beyond its credibility, which was limited by its not-particularly-well-informed 22 year old author (the photo is a much more recent one and I chose it for what seemed to be a placeless quality; something to do with the way you can’t see their faces. It’s actually from Libya). Having said that I think it holds up OK in retrospect. Just noticed, this appears to be another one where I experimented with a fixed form – 6 syllables per line – when I thought that Peppers was the only time I tried that out.

 

Time stops: it’s not an event,

not sudden

or something you’d notice straight away;

 

more a draining of colour,

a sly detuning in the when-ness of now.

 

You can walk and go nowhere;

horses run in slo-mo

while the ground holds still beneath them

instead of moving backward.

 

Light becomes viscous,

clogging up.

 

People do things and their actions don’t occur.

It’s an absence.

The curious speak: what’s going on?

 

They’re saying nothing.

Nobody hears what wasn’t said.

 

We have all wound down with the clocks.

Whoever can start things up again

isn’t here today.

 

The silence can be thunderous.

They may have found another diversion.

 

The air is thick like honey,

everyone trapped in bubbles.

One of a few vaguely sci-fi-ish pieces I wrote a few years later than the majority of the poems – about 1995-6…