Po etry P oet r y F) The Mauve Tam-o’-Shanter It wasn’t meant to start like that: my sister’s best friend in a hat plucked from her head on Elie beach by strong Fife breeze and me – in reckless hot pursuit – its rescuer. The deed bore fruit beyond all expectations, each signed up to please the other for a lifetime. Lurch of bells in an Anstruther church, reception at a festal hall, a honeymoon in Norway: these grew from my act of chivalry. Last year, attacked by something terrible though small, you hummed our tune exhaustedly – then closed your eyes on three decades, our nuptial prize. Oncologists could do no more than shake their heads; and so a journey once begun so flippantly reduced to one man gazing at a polished floor, the fateful bed’s occupant as still as stone. I held your hand. The ancient bone beneath the flesh had been there since the dawn of time: you were an immemorial fact which none could cancel. Our staunch pact could not be broken. None could rinse away the rhyme and reason of that Elie beach and everything within our reach: the home, the kids, the rich years spent, our maiden kiss, and a blown hat I deftly caught. Those numbers don’t add up to naught. and yet I sense it wasn’t meant to end like this. H) At a provincial zoo Two owls conversing as darkness comes to the zoo. The owl in the cage asks What is freedom? The owl on the outside asks What is confinement? I ask What is it that brings two owls together to talk as night falls? The zoo-keeper says Love and philosophy shape the wisdom of owls. I) The Examiners Where the house is cold and empty and the garden’s overgrown, They are there. Where the letters lie unopened by a disconnected phone, They are there. Where your footsteps echo strangely on each moonlit cobblestone, Where a shadow streams behind you but the shadow’s not your own, You may think the world’s your oyster but it’s bone, bone, bone: They are there, they are there, they are there. They can parse a Latin sentence; they’re as learned as Plotinus, They are there. They’re as sharp as Ockham’s razor, they’re as subtle as Aquinas, They are there. They define us and refine us with their beta-query-minus, They’re the wall-constructing Emperors of undiscovered Chinas, They confine us, then malign us, in the end they undermine us, They are there, they are there, they are there. They assume it as an impost or they take it as a toll, They are there. The contractors grant them all that they incontinently stole They are there. They will shrivel your ambition with their quality control, They will desiccate your passion, then eviscerate your soul, Wring your life out like a sponge and stuff your body down a hole, They are there, they are there, they are there. In the desert of your dreaming they are humped behind the dunes, They are there. On the undiscovered planet with its seven circling moons, They are there. They are ticking all the boxes, making sure you eat your prunes, They are sending secret messages by helium balloons, They are humming Bach cantatas, they are playing looney tunes, They are there, they are there, they are there. They are there, they are there like a whisper on the air, They are there. They are slippery and soapy with our hope and our despair, They are there. So it’s idle if we bridle or pretend we never care, If the questions are superfluous and the marking isn’t fair, For we know they’re going to get us, we just don’t know when or where, They are there, they are there, they are there. J) Refusal Shoes The management have a quota to fill. So we have a frontline job to do, protecting this country from aliens. I have walked the line of Regulations too often, feeling like I’m auditioning for the TV version of Men in Black. This one claims he is an Anglican vicar, delegate to a conference at Lambeth Palace. I’m sure they have proper Churches in Nigeria, not just the happy-clappys or the ones with those sonorous titles that sound like a prophecy in their own right. He obviously didn’t buy the dog-collar or his smart barathea blazer in Duty Free at Lagos; his softly spoken World Service English is better than mine, or yours. No, it’s the shoes, not your usual sandals or crocodile skin, or black Oxford loafers. Brothel creepers. Blue brothel creepers. I nearly sang him the Elvis, except he looked as if he’d heard it before, had a homily ready. I haven’t seen a pair in public since 1978, the old Teds and Rockers are dying off; Rock’n’Roll’s not dead, just in a coma. Mind you, Little Richard found the Lord, so did Al Green, & Elvis sang Gospel. If he says anything sensible about comfort or spiders, or he can’t quote from the Good Book, he’ll need a miracle or a sign from God. Time for my Nancy Sinatra impression. TLS/Foyles poetry competition 2007 Shortlisted poems: a poll of readers to decide the outcome A) Acts With regard to these acts: removal of clothing, nudity in front of females and before prayer, the belly a heap of wheat set about with lilies, a brood of men with bushy locks, black as raven, the shaving of beards O daughters of Jerusalem, exposure to extreme temperatures, hot or cold, short shackling to an eye-bolt on the floor, spikenard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon, three hundred and fifty incidents of self-harm, a garden inclosed, a spring shut up, a fountain sealed, hoods, goggles, lap dances during interrogation, fear of dogs, the use of dogs; the acts in question were perpetrated by known government officials, their teeth a flock of sheep, evenly shorn. C) The Adder’s Skin A desiccated trophy in its box With snapped clay pipes, Pink dentures and a dried-out fountain pen, The memory of its swarthiness unlocks These sinister, ophidian Black lozenges and stripes That slithered through a fossilizing world Its bringing out so vividly uncurled. He’d stunned and slit it, leaving just the flesh, The serpentine Remains dumped in a coil the heat dispelled, Then stretched its skin like patched-up battledress On crowds of soldiers as they swelled, Assembling line by line Long trails that in the twinkling of a eye Snaked all the way to Mons and Picardy; Then went himself, sloughed off his fifteen years To make his mark And join his brother dead somewhere in France And where, somehow, a small god interferes To gas him, give him one last chance To shovel through the dark Then shut it in this box where no stray flare Can pinpoint what the adder’s scales outstare. He’d lift if gently, test its brittle weight, Then tell me why When taking life you’re best to save its skin And so let toxic stillness fascinate Long after any normal perishing, Long after each clear eye Cold rain and clouds of chlorine turned opaque Had chilled into the dead skin of this snake. E) The Modified Mercalli Scale of Earthquake Intensity I Beep-beep: a zebra finch motoring between perches, a peaceable age of entwined fish. II Sensitive souls on upper floors with seafood pliers, demolishing crab claws. III A family spirit rattles her own portrait, scrawls moustachioes on it. IV Parked cars rockabye with lovers. With lamb’s blood, the governor daubs his front door. V As every pendulum fails the sleepers awaken. Church bells peal themselves. VI Citizens flee the bullring. Radios play “Begin the Beguine”, shopkeepers cave in. VII Architectural ornaments crumble; the veil is rent. A wild pitching of press tents. VIII Branches crack, a tower falls. Water levels rise like mercury in dead wells. IX Earth is open for business. Crumbs on broken dishes marauded by zebra finches. X The governor struggles to adapt: A crab-claw hand, the whispering toenails of a rat. XI Rail tracks grow serpentine, cockroaches bide time. There is cake, there is wine. XII Tidal meadows, ghost towns. Communications down, the angels elect their new thrones. From more than 3,000 poems entered for this year’s competition, the editors of the TLS have chosen a shortlist of eleven pieces, printed in random sequence below, from which readers are invited to select the winning poems. Those wishing to take part in the judging process should fill out and return the voting slip printed at the foot of page 13, or e-mail email@example.com , by June 28. Readers are entitled to one vote each, identifying your chosen poem by the letter affixed to its title; you may also offer a second choice, which will gain half marks in the adjudication. Beneath these letters, you are asked to fill in your name and address. The results of the poll will be collated and printed on July 13. The most popular poem will win £2,000; runners-up will receive a total of £1,500. B) Beach Kites Is this a new way of being born? To feel some huge crescent personality Burgeoning out of your shoulders, Winging you over the sand, the sluggish sea? Mile upon mile of contaminated Wash is Tucking a cold March sky into the horizon. You can drive no further. Look down at the thrashing water, The upfalls of its reach Failing, failing again to take the cliff – Sandpipers hunch on the geomorphic lodge – Rock face and wave force, story without speech. But it’s one thing to pause at the cutting edge, Another to face the evolving beach, the gap Where the road stops and the dunes heap And the wind blows fiercely in the wrong direction. One gaudy comma ascends . . . another . . . another . . . The air is rocking alert with punctuation. Grey sickle cells cluster under a microscope. A jumbo wasp, a pterodactyl, a peacock feather Jockey for space against moon-parings, rainbow zeppelins, Prayer flags – imagination battling with imagination, Spotted species chasing the plain – as out they float, Strong men steering their wild umbilical toys Away from the girlfriends in the car park, who Leathered from heel to neck in steel-studded black, Headscarfed against the wind, seem coolly resigned To an old dispensation, a ritual of mating That puts up again with the cliff-hanging habits of boys. Is this a new way of writing? The heroes off flying or fighting, the women waiting? K) The Side Line The pile of spent pistachio shells his fingers burrowed through in search of salty bullets, that urgent click of carapace upon carapace, brought to mind the sound of Scrabble chips in their white cotton bag, fingertips searching each face for the indent of a letter: the high numbers, the smooth blanks. Some players insist on laying all the pieces face down, taking their pick on the basis of fate. Just staring at the back of his head as he’s getting them in at the bar should tell you the nature of the man. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. His sideline – so casually thrown into our talk of what we do and where we’re from: the spitsealed pledges, the celebratory all-night sessions. This along with the curved leather armchair, the gold jammed onto his fingers, gave him the air of a don. That’s Don – as in Corleone. G) Incident Like any other day, the early sun slips slantwise through the criss-cross railway bridge. The long-haired, hare-lipped porter counts down the creosoted tiebars to Worcester and to London; the gravid schoolgirl in the bunched-up skirt lolls under anniversary flags and lights a cigarette. Behind the private parking sign a dog barks in bursts of three and a plane starts up from nowhere out of a pale blue sky, distant and staccato. It is still so early ants skim fast as waterboatmen along cracks in the sun-crazed asphalt; the platform thrums the onrush of the Paddington express whole minutes before it passes and before the news comes in, wireless and incredible. At ten the porter hauls down the bunting. The clustered passengers mutter and go home, past the dog barking on and on in threes. It is very still. Smoke-drift scents the wind behind the trees. D) The Fair Issue Sits the Eton Entrance Exam Hopscotching or hoofing a ball along the lanes, or quashing their whoops on strawberry chews – the boys don’t notice you follow your father out of the gates where swans that web the banks are queening through the time in hand, as boys in canoes are fleeting upstream, you follow your father on cobbled routes where men in blackest gowns stamp the ground, floating in weeping willow breeze till heat that falls from gargoyle towers opens you out . . . Circling back to where you saw the boys, as dark as the darkest lobby where you quietly stand in a corner, where you follow your father’s cardoman whisper telling you how your brother will follow, one day, in the footsteps of maharajas!
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