Domestic suburban vignette

“40, and the kids at university,
I will sit at home all day listening to Hinch
and reading Derrida; myself in the mirror,
the perfect picture of bourgeois complacency,
the daze of my life as incomprehensible
as a bar of soap.  —And, of course, I will want
something indefinable and leave my husband to get it …”

40, and the kids at university,
I won’t take shit from anyone
wearing a uniform or wielding a B.A.
who bursts through the door and wants to rape me
(phallogocentrically speaking);
punishment for writing about mirrors
or old photos of my mother.

I’ll write about firemen and policemen,
the axes and truncheons of daily life,
the ease of speech in Newtown cafés,
about the light at the end of poetry
and the bizarre satisfactions of golf;
I’ll write about all those things, like one
who knows their true meaning, when pigs fly.

“And having left him for good, for the thing
I wanted, there will only be that square of light,
the mother of myself that all mirrors are,
bringing more, little, unhappy Mes into the world;
more ghastly women, multiplying like rabbits
before their mirrors: Lacanian, suburban, neurotic …”

I’ll be here, because he’s there, away from him,
nestling in the comfortable poetry of distance
between us: because it’s not just that book
by de Sade my husband taunts me with—
it’s the whole damned city  and its monuments
to poet-soldiers of commerce—I want distance from,
we need to escape from, finally.

Who will circumscribe me, size me up,
push me out, out here, then call it wilderness?
The boiling kettle, boiling over,
tumble-dryer, its revolutions,
this dangerous Sunday supplément, that is me,
that so disturbs them and makes them go limp
and fall over themselves with desire,

sits every morning with the smell of coffee
in front of the window, practising domesticity,
and perfecting it, against every possibility of violence
or dissatisfaction.  It’s an idea that tears down buildings
and won’t allow the city of men to sleep at night.

Originally published in Nocturnal Submissions, Number 1, 1991

Dreaming of zeppelins

for Barbara Giles, when aged six

If it’s a cold war, the telegraph wires
Sing the air with a dull whir.

Fearing the thing that creeps, or
Numbers mounting without control,

No wonder our sleep’s uneasy.
Young as we are, we know

A death on the wind is coming
And what our dreams shall reap, we’ve sown.

Originally published in Fine Line, 1988

Ishmael

Sarah was adamant
the other boy should not share
Isaac’s fame and history.

“God has blessed
our own son as you must
now favor him alone.”

Uncertain, needing guidance,
Abraham dreamt
of God’s other nation,

and offered the boy
to all uncertainty,
the wilderness of doubting

God lives everywhere.
What was the farewell speech?
“Though men would die there,

He has promised
you will be great.
So you will be great.

“I must not doubt it,
but I do; and I will cry,
enough to make a desert green

“for you.”  For Ishmael,
a long time Abraham’s only hope,
he may have promised anything.

Mother and son leave
with bread, a flask of water,
and promises.

Not Abraham’s but mother’s
weeping saves Ishmael:
Men build a well, nature fills it.

“We’ll be more practical,
make the promise happen
with work, not wanting.”

They master it together:
Ishmael, the archer,
Hagar, the matchmaker.

“What a place
To make a nation!
But the ingredients are simple.”

When sons return to their father’s death,
burying Abraham at Machpelah,
voices echo in the dark.

“Father, father”
on the lips of the boys:
they might make the same prayer …

“You tempted us to hate you:
me crying under the knife,
me cast to doubt.”

But the prayer made by Isaac
to a father’s history and fame
is also his own to live in.

Ishmael whispers
the first confession.
“What shall I do

“About forgiveness, father?
You start the story,
leaving me without end.

“In my new life
I am rich with everything
except belonging.

“I do not hate or love.
My life is the plain, the sun;
and for my heart, an arrow.”

Originally published in Studio, 1990

Songs or people

Switching tunes to suit the mood
— today it could be a slice of melancholy
(sixteenth century, harpsichord and minor key)
moving in to do the demolition job, or
tomorrow something modern (with, probably,
synthetic brass and barely human voice) —
I’ll lay my head in any lap, prick up
my ears to every sad, little wish of love.

Then, sung in a pressed school
uniform or the diva’s silk gown,
it all adds up to the same thing:
screaming and loving the house down,
from where the skin shivers and twists
to where, deeper down, old dead things
rattle their bones in time and weep.

Oh, it’s sad, it’s very sad, and the orchestra
unpacks its strings to usher it in,
or it’s glad, it’s very glad to see me
and the band strikes up familiar melodies,
drums up a bit of the devil dancing
with his red hat and whiter-than-white wishes.
Either way, the very least I’d say is
it makes you feel alive and, if you’re lucky,
makes you feel, brush away the webs and dust
from places that don’t get used that much,
at the cornices and skirtings where
spiders wrap old lovers up in string
and listen in to new ones talk
of new-year-things.

There are songs or people,
waiting between miles and hours of static,
and stones for me to sharpen on.

Body in the water

Going down to the water, dark, late, night-water, smoothing
Under the moon, plate of light swaying on a mirror, witness
To the weatherchange, coatless-cold or shoulder-bare heat,
The year by year change I witness down by the water.
Not only the change of my face growing old by the water,
But all its meanings and its story dug lines in the water.
I stand under the clear, blank sky, clean slate, waiting
To be written on the skin; any hand or any writing,
Any word or any sound will do; any cloudless clear
And ink black thrill breathed leaves me wanting more.
Imagine, the body in the water sways with the moon,
A harder me, more there, more real, fingers holding tightly
Onto any skin, pressing till it breaks, and bone scratches bone.
The oldest whispers, his hand in the water, smoothing
The side of the younger me’s face.  “What do we do now?
What do you want?  What can I do for you, here, in this place?”  

‘The Mystic Writing-Pad’

In a book the lights
of day and love
gave me, life
writes itself easily on
the clear line of commerce:
someone falls
as simple as gravity,
another climbs
into strange, blue
emptiness.

Between its lines,
the mind’s silence, fires
light night’s empty dome,
and all my whisperers come
to warm their hands
and snigger.

We do not know
whether darkness there
or here, a sky
of mind or night,
protects us …

Only, the sun rises
when that sky
has washed us
of our daily fear;
and real, then,
in a lion’s mouth
we wake, the air
is clean and ripe
for breaking with
the smell of oranges
and burning bread.

The title and the poem refer to S. Freud’s ‘A note upon the mystic writing pad’ (1925). This poem was originally published in Fine Line, 1988.

Self-criticism

(1983, ‘The Breach’)

Hide and seek is the game
we play, alternating
parts, clinging to walls
just beyond reach.
Who can live with me?
he says, mocking.
Come out. Come out.
Scar says hands on head,
to your knees. Scar says
shout, then says die.
Scar gives the lie to
harmless thoughts,
then settles down
in the dark house,
corrupt little animal
gnawing at the heart
and baring teeth
that cut up memory.
Sleeping and dreaming
he’s more alive,
feeds on each hurting
image, gorged and lying
safe beyond the breach.

(13 February 1988)

Mostly there is just this
emptiness, being

ignorant of truths
that might make us happy.

Dreams peopled by strangers
I’ve become familiar with,

tonight, the stranger is a lover
rejecting me and accepting me.

“I’m afraid of you”, he says
as we begin the slow rock.

“And I am afraid of you.”

(3 July 1987)

The pink cyclamen is doing well today.
I won’t water it
so let it come to grief
in some small way.

The fern though,
which always struggles,
is a bit brown and prickly;
showing what a lot of life it’s had
and how much care I gave.

 

(13 March 1989)

When he is leaving and opens his arms around me
I know there is one place I will be small and human,
Breakable, weak, most unlike my other self.

Lips should be the most telling part. Kissing the rough,
imperfect surfaces to speak another language,
I learn how smart a silence is. And also, how

love will turn my head off like a light,
leave me stupid, thick and clouded honey.
It’s just as well I’m dumb with love —

If I thought of danger or of pain, calculated futures
or the interest gained, I would be alone.

(23 February 1990)

Ask, as if to extract admission,
or hoping to discover I am empty,

What do you believe?

and I say, “There is nothing
to be claimed today not wrong tomorrow.”

I laugh my loud, ungraceful laugh,
rub two words together, making light

for a blind and slippery god who, for all
I know, may also lose his way …

“My god is the worm
whose kingdom comes to everyone.”

(1984, ‘The King of Hate’)

Years the beast spends
dining on his own flesh,
inexhaustible passions
coming from who knows where
beyond the breach.
My arms outstretched
find a way through
glowing darkness back
to where the hate began
a life of forgetting,
bandaged head, a mask.
Come in. Come in.
He says, this dark house
is larger than love,
your heart unwired
will warm to knowledge
of superb pain,
will grow to fill
its infinite rooms.
He crowns me king
of beasts, winds me
in red fields and war,
promises all the void
will sing my name;
if only I would stay.

(29 December 1989)

I’ll go urgently to slay some small enemy,
grind them to dust in my teeth;

words wanting to make summer cold
and, in this eye, a look that sours milk.

Having my own way, the mood
would make love stoop and the world red.

It is madness. I admit it. I am mad.
—But you, who could be enemy, be grateful

there are means to make me sweet.
Do not submit. I love strength.

Only point my head to the thing which is —
whatever it is: the cup’s flaw; your or my

own human ways. —And watch me melt.
My mad, sweet violence is completely modern.

(18 March 1990)

Everything dies in my backyard.
The effort of planting is wasted
on stone and sand.

Dear J., here is the thing
I have learned about M. Merleau-Ponty’s
the sayable and the unsayable … 1

Everything said was meant.
I tear it up with the roots
to show you I am dead.

Though that unsayable part
grows, next week
I will bring flowers.

Don’t ask
Where are they from?
I will buy or steal them.

(A Prayer, 8 April 1990, Palm Sunday)

I pray to speak as musicians
pray; those whom I trust, more than writers,
since they may speak without need to tell.
With this desire, without end of longing
for that sound to fill me, I am contrite,
and offer my imperfect contrition
to the hope I shall not end in Hell.

O Lord, whose music made me,
I beg you, do not leave me soundless
where I am, believing nothing, and my mouth
numb with lies. I am in pain.
Say only — to this silent, shapeless
form of life I have, you might give remedy.
With that uncertain knife I could untie my tongue.

(8 April 1990, excerpt of a letter)

“… always at each other’s throats — and who has reacted to that in a similar way. I am shocked to find a person, my exact opposite in the choice of object, whose desires and the energy which drives them appear to be organised in exactly the same way as mine. The attraction — ‘curiosity’ would have been a better word — seems to go both ways. There are all sorts of questions which follow from this, like ‘Why am I not on Cogentine?’ I started ‘writing’ when ––––––’s illness started to become apparent (we are approximately the same age, he a little older).
“There are these short sentences which keep coming out of me now, saying ‘I am mad,’ ‘I am dead’ or ‘I am in pain.’ When I write them down, in the middle of short poems (they have always been somewhere physically in the middle of the poems, neither at the start nor at the end), I start to cry. More curious: I have just noticed that each time I came to write them, I put them in italics, as though they were the names of books on which the poems were commentary.”

(18 December 1990)

I am two men.
My head is a rock
in shining sand.

And the sun,
which is going down,
leaves the sky the same color

as the ocean is. This rock
—giant, lichen smooth,
dark, as it always was—

is fixed, one eye up,

the other closed in sand.
I am half free, half blind.

My seeing eye rolls up
to see the day is gone.
Stars light the way.

And the sea’s black waves
pour in my sleep,
and wash the earth and me.

I’ve forgotten how the story goes. Wait a moment. It will come to me … we wake, the air is clean and ripe for breaking with the smell of oranges and burning bread. He interrupts me to complain that the dream I have been re-telling was cribbed from a poem called ‘Jerome’ — “And a man’s soul thankful for it knows not what, The air is washed, and smells of boiling coffee, And the sun lights it” — a poem called ‘Jerome’ by Randall Jarrell, and also that the writing he has seen — he has only seen it in bits and pieces — betrays a lack of that imagination which would press the facts of the life I wish to describe into a form able to be comprehended, tasted (he talks about writing as though it were a feast, something a person sits down to, to press into the mouth, which satisfies a hunger; and this, even if it is true, is what I object to), tasted and digested. There is no point in arguing. I have not cribbed. I have merely shown how I have dreamt another writer’s dream. One morning Randall Jarrell rose from his bed, after dreaming, after lying half awake, half dreaming, and his flesh was young, and his soul thankful for his body’s sleep, and there was the smell of boiling coffee. “Now you are talking to me of desire and love, and all that sadness which follows on the heels of wanting, and I tell you that a story, such as the story you want, cannot express the truth about these things. Desire is shapeless, painful, empty. —And love, love is the feeling which fills emptiness.” Naevolus, as I shall call him – not even knowing at this stage who he is or where he has come from — because he reminds me of that discarded gigolo with whom Juvenal spoke, wants, now, just at the moment it cannot be given, the story of love, in which everyone lives happily ever after, in which death itself is dead and life is the slave of fiction, forgetting how life ends. The slave who ploughs his master’s field has less trouble than the one who ploughs him! In all those fables of love, morality and hope (“‘Look, father, what we’ve brought home!’ cried the children, and they heaped the witch’s treasure onto the table so that pearls and precious stones spilled in all directions. From that day onwards all their troubles were over and they lived happily together for many years.” “They followed the piper down the road, never once looking back at the town of Hamelin. With him they danced over the hills and far away, to a new land where people were kind and generous and always kept their promises.” “Cinderella, who was as good as she was beautiful, found husbands for her sisters too, who were wealthy and kinder than they had any right to expect.”), in those fables which are the hope life is, their lie grinds screechingly to its end in a child’s sleepy head.

(27 October 1991, Memoir of My Nervous Illness)

We hate the thing we fear, the thing we know may be true and may have a certain affinity with ourselves, for each man hates himself. The most interesting, most fertile qualities in every man are those he hates in himself and in others, for hatred includes every other feeling — love, envy, ignorance, mystery, the urge to know and to possess. It is hate that causes suffering. To overcome hatred is to take a step towards self-knowledge, self-mastery, self-justification and consequently towards an end to suffering.

—Cesare Pavese

i

It is always night here. I wait for blessings
Which, to me, being a black creature—all unconscious,
Never seen, ungrateful, hungry, parentless
And discontented — shine like someone else’s sun,
Pin-pricks in the dome.
To this darker self,
The lighter one, with which I live, is alien.
“In the beginning of everything, he begged
To enter, talked and talked like a salesman,
Wanting to know all my secrets. I gave up
And let the bastard in. … Now, he grubs around
In all my dirt, builds verses in the cellar,
And walks the wall between our rooms.
He will not let me sleep.”

II

My head, a crawling nest of insect thoughts, accuses,
Rehearses, is bursting to release its teeming sound.
I no longer know whether I am sane or mad. My hatred
Is an ecstasy, showing me I am alive; that will surely
Kill me unless I free it from my mouth and speak.

I know what must be said, the truth which has pressed
Its thumb into my eye and made me submit; it is simple
Enough, and I will say it … And I also know what cannot be
Said, the same truth, ineffable and shadow, of my self
Which falls behind me, a trail of words as long as a life.

The world is full of proud men weeping at the sky,
Who will not learn that longing never dies.
I am one.

iii

“To be loved is better than freedom.
You are mine. I am yours”, we sing.

All lovers, loving done, lie together in their being, mouths stretched
In the O of its silence and fatigue. An extinguishing quiet comes
To rest on this skin where they went to say they were not vagrants
And without meaning. —It was a fire in their being that lit the tree.
They sleep in the ashes of their act.
The dream they have, of wretched
Animals, longing to possess, the quantities, the bartering and sums
Of love—counted out in disappearing fragments—,
Which whispers as they sleep, and wakes with them, is jealousy.

iv

I woke from a dream at three o’clock, my body thick with oxygen.
My ancestors, white-bearded and huge, wrapped in seal-skin,
Whispered their language at my suit and hat …
I glimpse myself,
And know what comedy the world has run to.
“Enough”, I said, fearing to know more.
Today I was the owner of my face.
I shaved and took it out, let the sun light it, made it speak.
I will not be an open wound.
I will become nothing.

v

My chronicle is a contest
Between self-hatred and understanding.
I believed—

“It is best not to have a head, best not to have those things
That come with it. There’s beauty to see, I admit,
But also, as Tolstoi said, the spectacular absence of meaning.
And there’s music, that promissory note whose sum
Is never paid. I don’t want it. Cut off my ears.
And the dumbest of my senses—this nose. If only
To tell me how rotten flesh is, who needs it? Not I.
Spite my face and cut it off, too. A brain might be something
To keep, don’t you think? —It is the home of memory.
Tear down the whole house.
The world has been shaved
By a drunken barber. It comes, stumbling toward us,
Bloodied and awful.
It is best not to have a head,
Best not to live with pain. Beauty, music, senses, brain,
Come to nothing. This is what I know today. And at my work
With whiskey and razor, I cut at the past of things,
The muscled and unloosenable fact of remembering,
As if to cut would make me free.”

Now, you—those of you
Who still have heads—look at what the headless world has come to.

(28 February 1992, Advice to Myself)

Teachers, in their classroom mode,
Will point the way down any road.
Before you go, remember this:
That getting lost is half the bliss.
—But take a compass and a map,
The way ahead is full of traps;
And pack some warm and woolly socks,
The future is an oblong box.

Poems in this series were published in Cargo, Number 7, 1989, and Perseverance Poets’ Collection 1991-92, 1992

  1.  Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s book is called The Visible and the Invisible