In the Ditch

IN THE DITCH

So I’m standing here, nonchalantly,
next to a bench half submerged in foliage.
It’s also on the edge of a ditch.
I’m watching David Cameron,
and one of his Tory cronies,
as they approach the bench,
clutching packets of sandwiches.
Cameron and crony sit on the bench;
begin to munch their sarnies.
They completely ignore me,
the insignificant prole sitting
at the other end of their bench.
Oh yes, I’m sitting there now, aren’t I;
not standing. How did that happen?
Oh, well. Part of me wants to warn
the ex-P.M. “Don’t sit there, Dave”
I want to say. “It’s dangerous. It’s on
the edge of a ditch, and there are also
HUGE insects, creeping around in the
shrubbery”. But another part of me
wants to leave the Tory twats to their fate.
It’s that part that wins; so I say nothing.

Next minute, one of the HUGE insects
manifests itself. A black beetle; slimy,
covered in scales, with multiple eyes,
claws, and pincers. It’s growing larger,
second by second. Cameron and crony
seem to spot it, out of the corners of
their eyes. Languid, insouciant, they
rise to their feet, still nibbling their
sandwiches. I’m smiling with satisfaction
and schadenfreude. “You need to move
faster than that, mate,” I’m thinking “or the
beetle will get you”. But then I notice
the beetle seems to have lost interest
in the Tories, and has turned its attention
to me. It’s my turn to jump to my feet,
as claws and pincers snap away,
ominously close behind me.
But what’s happening now?! There’s a
grassy verge in front of me, and the grass
is sliding, slipping away from me.
I can’t seem to get any purchase on it.
The beetle is going to get me!
No! Oh, no!

Next second, I’m falling, rolling,
off the side of the bed; my hands
pawing, frantically, in mid-air.
I land on my back, on the floor;
half-asleep, half-awake. I’ve pulled
all the sheets, and the duvet,
off the bed, on top of me. I’m lying
on the dust-covered floor; cobwebs,
spiders, creepy-crawlies, God knows
what else, all around me. All right,
maybe I should hoover the bedroom
floor sometime. It’s pitch-black;
the middle of the night. The bright
red digits of my bedside alarm clock
showing 2.45 a.m. Worse still,
I’m stuck; wedged between
the bed and the otiose wall-heater,
protruding from the bedroom wall.
I can’t lever myself up off the floor;
nowhere for my arms to push.
I don’t believe this! I’ve fallen;
done a sort of forward roll, off the side
of the bed. I’ve never, ever, done that
before, in my entire life! Propelled by
the force of the dream, the insouciance
of the Tory twats, the horror of that
black beetle.

I’ll be sleepwalking, next!

Like most people, I suspect, I can rarely remember what dreams I’ve had during the night, no matter how powerful the dreams may have been.  So the dream described in the above poem is a rare exception.  The poem is fairly self-explanatory, I think; but I have no rational interpretation of what the dream could have meant, and no explanation of why it had such a powerful effect upon me. 

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The Hemingway Toothbrush

THE HEMINGWAY TOOTHBRUSH

The Hemingway short stories:
such simple sentences, but unlike
anything else he had read.
He closed the book; it was time for bed.

He placed the electric toothbrush on its stand,
and flicked the switch. It immediately began
to flash its green light, as it charged up.
He watched the green light flashing
on and off, in its steady, repetitive rhythm,
for a few moments. Then he went to bed.

Five hours later, he got up, reluctantly,
to relieve his ageing bladder. All was quiet
and still, in the darkness of the early hours.
He came out from the bathroom, and saw
the toothbrush’s green light, still flashing,
in its steady rhythm. There was something
imperturbable, reassuring, about it.

He stood, in the darkness of the kitchen,
watching the green light. It was like
Morse Code, he thought. What message
could the toothbrush be sending out to the world?

I am pulsing out this message for you, Nick;
only for you. I care only for you, and your teeth.
You might think you are alone in the world;
that no-one gives a two penny damn about you,
that you are a cold, selfish bastard,
that your life, such as it was, is behind you,
that only dementia and death lie ahead,
that you had too much to drink again, last night.
But none of that matters to me. I want you to know
I am here for you, Nick; only for you.

 He smiled. This is what his world had come to:
a man and his electric toothbrush. He went back to bed.
The toothbrush continued to flash its green light,
sending its message, throughout the night.

Electric toothbrushes have been on my mind quite a lot, lately.  I was having problems with my old toothbrush, just before Christmas, and I finally bought myself a new one just after Christmas.  At the same time, I was reading a collection of Ernest Hemingway’s short stories.  I hadn’t read any Hemingway for many years, and I found myself impressed by the sheer literary art, compressed into simple, declarative sentences.  I was particularly impressed by the earlier short stories, featuring Hemingway’s altar ego Nick Adams.

In short, it was the conjunction of these two occurrences – my concerns about my electric toothbrush and my reading of the Hemingway stories – that led to the above poem.

 

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Dear Editor

DEAR EDITOR

Dear Fiona, thank you for your email,
rejecting my poems.
As always, when rejected, I scowled,
felt despair, wanted to howl.

Then I re-read your email;
repressed the anger, the bile,
when I saw your final comment:
““The Great Verses” made me smile”.

Twelve inches make up a foot;
thousands of feet make a mile.
Inching along in my writing,
one of my poems made you smile.

I’ve done little in life, I confess.
Life often seems pointless and vile.
I’ve done something, now. I’ve done this:
one of my poems made you smile.

I’ve always found submitting my poems to literary magazines and journals a frustrating experience.  When I first started out, I would try to read as many of the journals as I could, before submitting poems to them, in the hope that it would give me some idea of the sort of poems they were looking for.  But I soon found that there were so many to read that I was spending too much of my time trying to read them, and it still didn’t seem to help me in my quest to get my poems accepted.  I’ve since found that I seem to have more luck just submitting poems on the off chance, and hoping for the best.

All the writer wants is for his poem to be accepted, and, if it is rejected, to know what the reasons are for the rejection; but that hardly ever seems to happen, as the editors are too inundated with submissions to be able to respond adequately.  I recently submitted poems to a literary website, only to receive a reply stating that, although the editor “. . . found much to admire in the poems”, he regrettably didn’t think them “right” for the website.  I wanted to shout at him, to ask him what parts of the poems did he admire, and what parts did he think unsuitable; but I suppose I should have been grateful to have got a reply at all, as, nine times out of ten, all you get is a blank rejection and “Thanks but no thanks”.

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Genghis

GENGHIS

Strange sights are liable to be seen,
at any time, on St. Martin’s Street.
This very afternoon, for example,
I looked out of my bedroom window
just as an elderly man on a motorized
single-person vehicle – designed,
presumably, for a physically handicapped
person – drew to a sudden halt,
right underneath my window.

Nothing strange about that, you
might say; but wait, just give me
a chance to explain, to elaborate.

I had seen this man before,
several times, in fact, walking
along St. Martin’s Street, but
never before on this
striking-looking silver vehicle.

He is a short, stocky man with a
distinctive, Asiatic appearance.
Narrow, slanted eyes gaze out,
fiercely, from a lined face toughened
and seasoned by many arduous years.
A bristling, dark moustache covers
his upper lip. He wore a furry,
Cossack cap, with flaps
hanging down over his ears.

As I watched, he pulled a half-bottle
of Vodka out of his pocket,
unscrewed the top, and took
a hearty swig. He then kicked
his silver steed into life, and
headed off, along the street,
for all the world looking like
Genghis Khan, on a Mongolian
plain, ready for his next exploit
of rape and pillage.

See what I mean, now?

Last Sunday afternoon, I was listening to an interview, on BBC6 Music, with the American film director Jim Jarmusch.  It was a fascinating interview, mainly about Jarmusch’s love for the music of Iggy Pop and the Stooges, but towards the end of the interview he spoke about his latest film, which features poetry by Ron Padgett.  Jarmusch said that Padgett was his favourite poet, and was a member of the New York School of poets.  I knew a bit about the New York School, but had never heard of Ron Padgett.  I went online, to see what I could find out about him, and soon came across a YouTube video of him reading one of his poems – Nothing in That Drawer.  I can recommend it, for light entertainment value, if for nothing else.  The first line of the poem repeats the title: Nothing in that drawer.  The second line is the same.  So is the third line.  And so it continues; fourteen lines, all identical.  Padgett himself comes across as a droll, very likeable individual.  He explains that he wanted the poem to have fourteen lines to emulate the classic form of the sonnet, and the way he read the poem gave slightly different meanings to each line – although the words were identical.

Anyway, the main point of all this is that the New York School of the 1960’s were known mainly for “freeing-up” formal verse; making it more spontaneous and free-wheeling.  Some of the poems can read like fun, fact-filled personal essays.  The next day – on Monday afternoon – I looked out of my bedroom window, onto St.Martin’s Street, and saw the events described in the above poem.  I just sat down and wrote it, spontaneously; just as if I were – like Ron Padgett – a member of the New York School.  I think it works ok!

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Cambridge: Bare Feet

CAMBRIDGE (3): BARE FEET

First exploratory walk: Mill Road
and environs. A girl, walking, alone,
some distance ahead.

Tall, slim; curly dark hair cascading
onto shoulders. A long skirt,
flowing down to dainty ankles,
and bare feet.

I looked twice, and then again.
Autumnal weather, wet pavements,
and bare feet. Flagrant, glorious,
bohemian bare feet!

My random wandering suddenly
acquired new pace and purpose.
The white feet glimmered against
the dark sheen of the footpath,
hypnotising me, as I followed her,
from a circumspect distance.

She led me across the green expanse
of Parker’s Piece; the bare feet
no doubt squelching
in the damp turf.

She tossed her head;
the curly locks beginning
to glisten in descending drizzle.

I followed, in a trance. She could have
stepped out of a Pre-Raphaelite
painting, or been one of those gypsy
daughters of Augustus John.

She turned onto Mill Road itself.
Could she be going to the college?
No; she walked past the college,
turned left, entering,
I now saw, to my surprise,
a graveyard. There was
a graveyard, right next
to the college, and I’d never
noticed it before.

The white feet now
shimmered over loose shingle.
I winced in sympathy; imagined
sharp stones cutting into soft soles.
But she strode along, oblivious;
those soles must be tough as leather.

I loitered on Mill Road, respectfully
leaving her to her devotions. I gazed,
unseeing, into shop windows, waiting
for her to reappear.

Ten minutes later she emerged
from the graveyard, crossed
the road, and disappeared
into “Arjuna”, an appropriately exotic
emporium of grains, pulses and spices.

The bare feet lodged in my mind,
accompanying me back to my tiny bedsit,
where there was barely room for me,
let alone extraneous mental luggage.
They hovered in my head,
palely gleaming, ghost-like,
for the rest of that evening.

I rehearsed conversational gambits
for our next meeting, entirely unaware
of the sad truth: I would never
see the girl again.

So preoccupied was I by the bare feet,
the irony of the graveyard adjoining
the college eluded me:
that hothouse of fervid young minds,
all that striving, to study, to succeed,
to make new friends. And right next to it,
the visible reminder
of how it all ends.

Like the last item I posted in this blog, this is another poem in the continuing, autobiographical series of reminiscences of my student days at Cambridge (1976-79).  Incidentally, the shop called “Arjuna” is still there, on Mill Road, forty years later!

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Cambridge: The Bedsit

CAMBRIDGE (2): THE BEDSIT

A sobering, saddening thought:
I could spend the next three years
of my life squeezed into this box,
this tiny room, complete with bed;
my family, my friends, a world away,
in South Yorkshire.

Omnipresent noise; busy, bustling traffic
on Mill Road, throughout the day,
throughout the night. The walls so thin;
interpenetration of outside and in.
The vans, the buses, the taxis, the trucks,
careering over the thin strip of pavement,
through the walls, into my life; into my dreams.

I plugged in my record-player;
lowered the needle onto the grooves
of “Our House” by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.
They sang of cosy rooms, of lighting a fire,
in a very, very, very nice house.
Nothing was right, yet it soothed me
through my sadness that first night.

A couple of months ago, I posted a poem entitled “Cambridge: Arrival”.  Triggered by the news reports of the latest GCSE results, it was a reminiscence of my arrival at Cambridge to start my degree course in “Humanities”.  Writing that poem started a fertile stream of memories and recollections, which has resulted in another two poems – with more to come, I hope!

 

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Power Outage

ATAVISTIC

First Man sat, stupefied,
in the sudden silence.
Felt, instantly, the chill,
seeping into the space
vacated by the waft
of warm air from the heater.

He got to his feet, befuddled
by the blackness enveloping him
so abruptly, so completely.

Blackness; underlying everything,
integral to existence,
yet so alien to him now.

It pressed upon him,
muffled him, constricted him
with converging walls,
with unseen objects.

Blind, bewildered,
First Man stumbled
to the window,
but didn’t get there,

for the light had already
returned, and First Man,
now Homo Sapiens again,
was re-admitted
to the golden ease
of civilization.

On the last two occasions when I’ve experienced a power-cut (or “power outage”), I’ve ended up writing a poem about it.  There’s something about the sheer intensity of the experience; how you are suddenly plunged into a completely strange, alien world.  The latest experience occurred at a time when I just happened to be reading a crime fiction novel entitled “The First Man” (by Xavier-Marie Bonnot – I can thoroughly recommend it!)  The “First Man” of the title refers to our primitive ancestors, before the Neolithic Revolution.  When I started writing the above poem, I suddenly realized that an effective way to express the bewilderment and alienation caused by the power-cut might be to use the images of primitive man contrasted with homo sapiens.  This also solved the minor problem of what to use as a title for the poem.  I was simply going to use “Power-Cut” as the title, but then remembered that was the title I had used for the poem I had written on the previous occasion.  I think “Atavistic” is a much more resonant title than “Power-Cut (2)”! 

 

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Monk Music

MONK MUSIC

Mathematics and jazz; could the coupling be worse?
Jazz; not music of verse – chorus – verse.
Thelonious Monk – resonant name;
on “Bag’s Groove”, say, at the top of his game.
Marcus Du Sautoy listens, ecstatic.
Euclid’s Theorem! Infinite mathematics!
Monk’s random plonking is the key,
unlocking the secret. There could be
an infinite series of the primes;
chords in harmony, chords that chime.
This be the verse, these are the rhymes;
these are the numbers, by Monk in his prime.
Discordant tunes, escaping the ears;
creating the music of the spheres.

Serendipity is often influential in the creation of a poem, I find.  I was listening to an interview on the radio with the British mathematician and writer Marcus du Sautoy, in which he spoke of his enthusiasm for all forms of music, including jazz (he plays the trumpet himself, and several other instruments).  He was also publicising his latest book, and he spoke of the excitement engendered by recent developments in mathematics that hinted at a possible infinite series of prime numbers.  Later on, that same day, I heard an interview with the British poet Ian McMillan.  He was enthusing about his love of jazz music – particularly Thelonious Monk – and said that listening to Monk gave him the impression that, at any time, an infinite number of improvisations could emerge.  The random occurrence of these two interviews produced the above poem.

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Holy Brewing

HOLY BREWING

The Scottish super-lager I am drinking
has a golden logo on the can:
the fierce visage of a hawk.
In a gold band along the bottom
of the can, it states: “This beer
is Crafted in Scotland, using
the Holy Brewing method.”
Glasgow Cathedral and the Sabbath
are also mentioned.

And who am I to pooh-pooh this
as holy baloney?   The Ancient Greeks
had their Dionysian dances,
Dervishes whirl in ecstatic trances,
and here I sit, sipping my holy super-lager.

When those first two pints of Barnsley Bitter
went down, at that gloomy pub,
in my gloomy home town, I found myself
floating, above the everyday fug.
This was my transport to a higher realm;
my elixir, and – admit it – my drug.

We are now besieged by a spate
of spiteful, threatening information:
the damage done by alcohol. The front page
of the newspaper proclaims the awful truth,
in bold headlines; conclusive, scientific proof:
drink alcohol – any alcohol at all – the risk
of inducing cancer goes through the roof.

But here I still sit, solemnly sipping.
Ominous warnings cascading
all around me. The sun on the
horizon, slowly sinking.

I was provoked into writing the above poem by reading the headlines on the front page of The Indy newspaper.  Quoting the results of recent scientific research, it claimed there was now “conclusive proof” of the “deadly risks” of drinking alcohol.  The overall message it gave was simple: drink alcohol – any alcohol at all – and you may as well be signing your own death warrant.  What particularly irritated and provoked me was the hysterical, overbearing note of the article.  There has recently been a growing escalation of negative news concerning the effects of alcohol, and this newspaper front page seemed to bring it all to a dramatic climax.

I have always found the pleasant, relaxing effects of alcohol to be one of the indispensable pleasures of life, but if this wave of negative news continues, it won’t be long before I start feeling as if I am one of a persecuted minority – like smokers are nowadays.

 

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The Second Tattoo

THE SECOND TATTOO

Pain – intense, persistent,
probing pain, as the cobra
was inscribed, so slowly,
so agonisingly, into the paper-thin skin
on my chest – that was all
I remembered from the first tattoo.

This time, pain was remarkable
only for its absence. “You won’t feel
it, mate” my genial tattooist
informed me. “The skin’s thick
on your neck.” And so it transpired.
Instead of gritting my teeth, I was able
to chat idly as he worked. We speculated
on the likely outcome of the upcoming
general election. In no time at all
he had finished, and I was looking
disbelievingly in the mirror at the
large, dark blue spider’s web on my neck.
He’d made the spider larger, and the
web smaller than I wanted, but no matter.
There it was, undeniably, on my neck;
to be there until the end of time.
I couldn’t believe it had happened.

I walked out of the shop, with uncertain
steps, into my new future, where I was
now transformed into a yob, an unsavoury
member of the underclass, a boozer
and street-brawler. I would certainly
be fired from my respectable office job
upon my return to work.

But I was to find, to my amazement,
my disappointment, my chagrin,
that no-one turned a hair.
A tattoo on my neck, so what – did they care?
It may as well not have been there.

A few weeks ago, I published a poem entitled “The First Tattoo”.  It described my thoughts and feelings as I went to a tattooist for the first time in my life.  I had a perverse urge to get a large tattoo of a cobra done on the front of my throat, and I particularly wanted it to be highly-visible.  In the poem, I recount my disappointment when the tattooist refused to put the tattoo where I wanted it, and would only agree to inscribing it lower down, on my chest.  The whole experience was so painful that it deterred me from getting any more tattoos, but the urge to have a visible tattoo on my neck persisted, and I finally achieved this objective twenty years later.

There has been much public debate in the UK recently regarding an edict prohibiting members of the police force from having “visible tattoos” – i.e. tattoos on the hands, face, or neck.  The debate has raged over whether the police force is kicking itself in the foot, by preventing numbers of perfectly good candidates from entering the force, due to this edict.  The argument has been that, these days, visible tattoos are common among members of the public, so why should police men and women be barred from having them?  I can only say, for myself, that I have never given a thought to getting tattoos on my hands or face, but I have always had this rather strange obsession about getting tattoos on my neck.  I can also say that when – after much doubt and hesitation – I finally got a tattoo on my neck, nobody seemed to give it a second glance! 

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