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Denying the Dealer

Denying the Dealer

A hand on my wrist, two eyes fixed on mine.
He was scrawny, dark-skinned, in a loose-fitting shirt.
He’d seen life in the raw, clambered up from the dirt.
“Come ‘ere, mate.” He whispered; looked quickly around.
He had the edge, now; I’d already lost ground.

He showed me his boxes; watches on display.
“Best quality, mate; yours for five quid today.”
Harassed, all my life, by encounters like these;
my heart was now hardened; immune to such pleas.
My demeanour proclaims me a mild-mannered mug;
but in these scenarios, I am more like a thug.

I was firm, unmoved by his confident spiel.
He persisted, still sure of sealing the deal.
He pushed three boxes into my bag, with a grin.
I pulled them out, gave them straight back to him.
He pleaded: his family, his kids, their needs.
I walked off, impassive, taking no heed.
He pursued me, wildly, eyes now confused.
Again the three boxes; again I refused.

He stood, despairing; looked up at the skies.
I’d seen the look of disbelief in his eyes.
“I had you nailed as a mug, and I’m always right.
You were sure to roll over; no hassle, no fight.
You had the full treatment; the best I could do.
You weirdo! What is it that’s wrong with you?”

I started this blog in April 2012, which means that I’ve been publishing a new poem, every two weeks, for over five years now.  It’s not so easy, to come up with a new poem every two weeks.  From time to time, the wells of creativity run dry, and I admit that I am going through one of those periods at the moment.  I plead this in mitigation for the fact that the above poem – Denying the Dealer – bears a marked similarity to an earlier poem, entitled Dodging the Dealer, that I published in this blog on February 7th 2013.  Following on from my comments in my previous post about how much I admired the comic poems and parodies of Wendy Cope, I started looking back through some of my own attempts at comic poems, and came across Dodging the Dealer.  I thought it could do with quite a bit of revision, and, by the time I’d finished, I thought I’d modified it and stripped it down so much that I could justifiably call Denying the Dealer a completely new poem.  Well, almost!

 

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Peach Schnapps

Peach Schnapps

I drink it as a nightcap, so potent,
so sweet, my senses swoon under its sway.
But a drink of such richness,
so delicious, so strong, I know,
deep within, to drink it is wrong.

At first, half a glass, then a little bit more,
each successive evening, my trembling hand
pours a more generous measure,
then more, and yet more. So enticing,
in its guiles, resistance is futile.

I laugh to myself, shamelessly,
openly admit my dependency.
This is my laudanum;
I am with de Quincey.
My belly balloons, voluminously.

When I look in a mirror,
unsurprised, I see
an unsettling image,
staring back at me.
The bald head, swollen cheeks,
dull gaze, sickly grin,
of an ageing, chubby cherub,
unrepentant, steeped in sin.

My eyes close; I slide into ecstasy.
Coleridge and de Quincey swim towards me,
waving and smiling beatifically.
We link hands, we three, condemned to be
doomed souls, sinking, slowly,
in an opalescent sea.

I have had no qualms, in many previous posts in this blog, in stating that alcohol is, for me, one of the pleasures of life.  But the pleasures of alcohol bring with them the attendant dangers of addiction, and I have, occasionally, found it a bit of a struggle to keep “moderation in all things” as my guiding rule.  The above poem resulted from a recent flirtation with the addictive properties of Peach Schnapps; but you will no doubt be relieved to hear that the addiction came to an abrupt end, as soon as I read the small print on the back of the label, and realised that 100ml of the liquid contained 278 calories – mostly in the form of sugar!

 

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Instruments of Pleasure

Instruments of Pleasure

Cherry-stoner, apple-corer,
bring delight, impose order.
In a world of mush and mess,
they cut through cleanly,
ease the stress.

Cherry pulp, cherry flesh,
submit to the simple press,
thumb down on the silver gun;
the stone bursts out, its race is run.
Hard stone removed, at your leisure,
softness, succulence, simple pleasure.

The apple-corer’s humble duty:
a perfect circle, simple beauty.
Hand on top, a firm push;
no need to chop, no need to crush.
It performs its function, equals its station;
pips and core leave the equation.

Cherry-stoner, apple-corer,
bring delight, impose order.

Cherries are currently in season in the UK, and I usually try to incorporate them into my “5-a-day” fruit and vegetable regime around this time of year.  Because I don’t indulge in them during the winter, it always comes as a bit of a shock when I bite into the first cherries of the year, and encounter the large, hard stone in the middle.  This year, for the first time, I found myself thinking of how to extract the stones – instead of just chewing around them, as I’ve always done before.  I went into a large department store, deliberately looking for the appropriate device, and was pleased to find one, and purchase it, fairly easily.  The first time I used the device, I was immediately impressed by its efficacy, and by the explosive force it generated.  It’s basically like a staple-gun, with a steel rod, or plunger, that drives through the centre of the cherry.

The results were so pleasing – being able to eat cherries without worrying about the stones – that I started to think about similar devices for other fruit.  The next time I was in the department store, I bought an apple-corer, and found that equally effective in increasing the pleasure I get from eating apples. It was when I used the apple-corer for the first time that the idea for the above poem came to me.  For someone like me, who invariably finds difficulties performing simple manual tasks, it’s just a joy to find devices like this that work so simply and effortlessly. 

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Sleep

Sleep

Clocks do not work properly
at night. I have learnt
to treat my bedside clock
as an untrustworthy ally.
I trek across an arid desert,
an endless duration of hours,
yet the clock tells me
only five minutes have elapsed.
I turn over in bed, look again
at the clock; it tells me
an hour has gone by.

I retreat to my bed at night,
to seek the nourishment,
the restorative powers of sleep.
But sleep is a mystery; it baffles
the best minds of modern science.
It is more than capable of frustrating
my puny efforts to reach it.

Normal laws of physics
do not apply in my bedroom
at night. Time contracts,
stops, stutters, starts again.
Time expands, sometimes infinitely,
sometimes like a band of elastic
that stretches and snaps, suddenly,
like the calf muscles in my legs.
I awake in unbearable agony.

There seems to have been a plethora of programmes about sleep on TV and radio recently.  How much sleep do we really need?  Why are more and more people having difficulty sleeping?  What happens when we are asleep?  Why do we need to sleep at all?  And so on, and so on. . .  I suppose it’s one of those universal subjects we’re recurrently obsessed about, partly because nobody seems to really know the answers to the questions.  Then you have the related subject of dreaming, which is even more mysterious.

I never sleep well when the weather is hot, as it has been recently, and I have been trying to sleep on top of the duvet, instead of between the sheets.  I was awake early one morning, after another unsatisfactory night’s sleep, and I suddenly started getting ideas for the above poem.

 

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Green Water

Green Water

I lie in my bath
of grassy green.

Verdant green,
of youth, not age;

herbaceous green,
of parsley, sage.

The green thrust up
at pavement verge;

the green that grows,
with sway and surge.

A white-topped green,
that bubbles and blinks;

a sagacious green,
that tips you the wink.

A vibrant green,
that glimpses with glee

a harmonious haze
of bath gelee.

I murmur with merriment,
break into a laugh.

I rise, like a giant,
from my Badedas bath.

Long-term followers of this blog will be aware of my liking for luxuriating in a warm bath, reading poetry anthologies in the bath and often getting ideas for new poems in this way.  I normally like to use some sort of bath foam, and have experimented with different commercial brands, over the years.  I remember that, when I was in my early twenties, I became particularly fond of “Badedas Indulgent Bath Gelee”, despite it being considerably more expensive than similar products.  There was something exotic about it; it was supposed to contain extract of horse-chestnut, and I was impressed by the vivid green colour it produced, as well as the stimulating aroma.  I was a fan of the James Bond books at the time, and remember thinking that Badedas was the sort of bath foam that Bond might well have used.  Having forgotten all about it, and not used it for many years, I recently decided to try it again – and have now fallen in love with it once more, as the above poem testifies. (I feel obliged to comment, at this point, that OTHER BATH GELEES ARE WIDELY AVAILABLE).

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Old Scarlett

Old Scarlett
(Robert Scarlett, 1496-1594)

Enter the cathedral. He is still there,
painted onto a wall, above a door.
A bizarre, intriguing figure,
Robert Scarlett – “Old Scarlett”,
immortal grave-digger.

What a story he could have told,
what a life he must have led,
enduring to be so old;
yet living with the dead.
Like a leech, or vampire,
perhaps, sucking their blood,
for sustenance, as food,
a hunger that must be fed.
Unsurprising, perhaps,
his surname means “red”.

He buried Mary, Queen of Scots,
and Katharine of Aragon,
with hundreds of others,
their stories long-gone.
He had an unquenchable
lust for life; aged eighty-nine,
he wed his second wife.

Look again at the painting;
a tiny detail, almost unseen,
gives an edge to the image
of this man who buried queens.
Stocky in build, stout, not lean,
fierce character, pugnacious mien;
a direct gaze, sturdy in the hip,
there dangles from his waist
a slightly sinister whip.

As followers of this blog will know, I live in Peterborough, Cambridgeshire, and Peterborough happens to have a notable cathedral, which dates back to Norman times.  I constantly castigate myself for not visiting the cathedral as frequently as I should, but I do like to read about its history, and the local history of the area.  It was while I was reading a book about the history of Peterborough that I first came across Robert Scarlett, who was described as one of Peterborough’s most legendary residents.  Scarlett was born in 1496, worked as a gravedigger, and was employed as sexton by the cathedral.  His main claim to fame is that he buried both Katharine of Aragon and Mary, Queen of Scots after their funerals in the cathedral, but he is also notable for living to the age of 98, and for marrying his second wife – only a year after the death of his first wife – when he was 89 years old!  It is possible that Shakespeare based the character of the gravedigger in Hamlet upon Scarlett.

As soon as I read about him, I wanted to write a poem about “Old Scarlett”, but it wasn’t until I found out that there was a painting of him in the cathedral that I realized how I could actually do it. 

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The Race

The Race

The clocks have been changed
The days stay longer
In their place
Already
I am losing pace

The year begins
To tighten screws
Already
I begin to lose

A quarter of this year
Has gone
The year to me
Hardly begun

No matter
How I come and go
How I struggle
Toe to toe

No matter
How hard I try
To reconcile
To live and die

No matter
How to allay fear
To harmonise
The speeding year

No matter
How it’s dressed in rhyme
Already lost
The race with time

The Easter weekend always comes, to me, as a kind of marking-post in the year.  Winter is over, we are now in the middle of Spring, with Summer fast approaching.  I’m sure it must be a phenomena common to a lot of people, but, as I head towards my late sixties, I seem to be astonished, year after year, by how speedily the year seems to be passing.  I started having the first thoughts about a poem on the subject when we changed the clocks a few weeks ago, to mark the change from GMT to BST, and “The Race” is the final result. 

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Cambridge: The Punt

CAMBRIDGE (5): THE PUNT

This is anything but relaxing;
clinging onto the sides
of this precarious craft,
as it wobbles along the Cam.
My first time in a punt, and,
I swear to myself, my last.

And then it happens,
as I knew it would: a collision,
on this congested course,
and suddenly the wife
of the prize-winning novelist
is in the water.

She shakes the sodden hair
from her face, like a dog,
and swims, not with a dog-like
paddle, but a powerful breaststroke.

She had told me of idyllic times
on Greek islands, when she
and the budding novelist
were young lovers.

Now, her breaststroke
cleaves through the Cam,
as it must have once
done in the Aegean,
in those halcyon days.

Following on from my previous post, this is the next episode from my continuing autobiographical reminiscence of my student days at Cambridge in the late 1970’s.  As in the previous post, it features the wife of the novelist Barry Unsworth, who was later to go on to win the Booker Prize.  It will come as no surprise to readers of this poem that this remains the one and only time I have ever been in a punt!

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Cambridge: Greek Drama

CAMBRIDGE (4): GREEK DRAMA

Six of us, crammed into the intimate
interior of a portakabin; our first seminar
in Greek Drama. We are all unknown
to each other; anticipation, tension
simmers in the small space.

Anagnoresis:
We give our names to the tutor, and
a little, unexpected drama of our own
unfolds. The woman sitting next to me
appears to be twenty years older
than the rest of us. When she gives
her name, there is a slight intake
of breath by our tutor. He hesitates;
says a man’s name, questioningly,
and she is suddenly revealed to be
the wife of a prize-winning novelist.

I have never heard of the novelist,
but feel a thrill of awe. I am sitting
within inches of – I could actually
touch – the wife of one of those
fabled beings: a writer. And not just
any old writer – a prize-winning novelist!

 Hubris:
The novelist’s acolyte; could she
initiate me into the sacred rites?
With her as my guide, could I
enter those hallowed groves,
and walk with the gods?

Hamartia:
Yet she seems so normal,
so human, even slightly gauche;
laughing nervously, shaking back
the fringe that hangs, curtain-like,
over her eyes.

This is the fourth episode of my on-going autobiographical poem recounting my student days at Cambridge, back in the long-ago days of the late nineteen-seventies.  The main character in the poem – the “wife of a prize-winning novelist” – turned out to be Valerie, wife of Barry Unsworth, who was later to go on to win the Booker Prize for fiction, with his novel Sacred Hunger.  Valerie and I became great friends over the following three years, and I was a regular visitor to the family house on Garden Walk, where I also got to meet their three charming daughters.  Later on the marriage broke-up, I moved to London, and, eventually, lost all contact with Valerie and the Unsworths.

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Accident

ACCIDENT

I’d just crossed to the other side
of the road, at the Zebra crossing.
The beeps had just stopped, when
the sudden sound of impact shattered
the air, like a crack of thunder.

I saw the shock on the faces,
the hands flying to the mouths;
heard the screams of horror.
Then, the rush of the crowd;
the mix of human concern,
human curiosity.

I turned my head, in fear
of what I would see. He lay
beside his bicycle, holding
his head, silent. I knew
that, a moment before,
he had been pedalling
across the Zebra crossing;
unique thoughts and feelings
cocooned in that head.
I knew the sudden, nightmare
sensation, as the car had hit
him; the incredulity, that this
could be happening to him.

Twenty yards ahead
of where he lay, a dented car
pulled to a ragged halt.
People rushed towards it,
fuelled by shock and anger.

I watched, for a few minutes.
I could feel, I could see
the brutal import of it all;
as it once happened to me.

I was walking along a public footpath one day, during Summer last year, when a man on a bicycle rode straight into me.  He was going at pretty much full speed, and the force of the impact completely knocked me over.  I fell on my face, my hands and my ribs, sustaining gashes to my lip and my hands that needed several stitches.  I was lucky not to have broken any ribs, but my ribs and chest were severely bruised, and the bruising took over a month to fade away.  The cyclist was thrown off his bike by the force of the impact, but he jumped to his feet, apparently unscathed, and proceeded to berate me, while I lay prostrate, bleeding onto the pavement.  “This is all your fault!”  he shouted at me “I warned you!”  He then remounted the bike and rode away.  I’m convinced he must have been either drunk or on drugs.

So, when a similar incident happened, a few days ago, in Peterborough town centre, it had a real impact upon me.  This time, however, I wasn’t the victim; it was a cyclist, crossing the road at a Zebra crossing, just behind me, and a car – trying to beat the lights – drove straight into him.  As soon as I got home, I sat down and wrote the above poem, while the incident was still fresh in my mind.

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