There was no time to write on my birthday. There were hens to feed, the vegetable plot to dig, railways sleepers to haul across the field to act as a barricade by the fence of the new pig pen, the Saturday lunchtime football when our beloved West Bromwich Albion battered Chelsea 5-2 and times being as they are we were confined to watching from a scarf-draped sofa, with the Albion gnome (a Christmas present) coming down from the window-sill to the coffee-table to bear witness. And the phone kept ringing and we had to eat, and, and… so it was a couple of days later before the promise made to sit down, write and keep on writing for two hours was kept. Here, with only minor edits, are the results.
[THE WARM-UP. This is an easy stretch of the imagination I often use. Pick a situation, run with it, don’t take it too seriously. Writing, after all, is supposed to be fun sometimes.]
THE THEFT, FLORENCE 1501
It’s been a week since
unlocked the studio
emptiness on a plinth.
It intrigued him.
He hadn’t thought much
of the David anyway.
Next time, though,
he said to himself,
I’ll make it so damn big
and heavy it’ll take
half an army
to carry it out of here.
Today a woman came by
He offered her
a week’s pay to pose with
her basket over her arm,
head pushed forward
as if arguing the price
She told him no
unless she could do it
without her clothes
like the statue of a man
her idiot husband
had dragged in
when out of his head
It was in her front room,
she said. At night
it seemed to glow
in the candlelight
like marble though
she knew it
She said she’d always
her likeness done
while she was
still almost young.
OK, said Michelangelo,
with or without clothes.
It’s the way you hold
the basket and incline
your head that’s
important. The woman
looked at him, said
Why’s your neck
in a brace? What
have you done
Oh, it’s nothing,
Just have to remind
myself even if
the money’s good
I can’t do ceilings
So you’ll be here
Yes, said the woman,
I’ll be here, looking
at the flaking plaster
of the ceiling that
hadn’t been touched
in years. She
what’s one more
man who lies?
[And that done, on to writing without much of an idea about anything, letting thoughts, memories, words, anything combine and see what happens. It’s more difficult to make some sense of it, more draining emotionally and physically. Sometimes this emerges visually as a solid block, this time it seemed to divide into even sections. The title, for the sake of form, was put on afterwards.]
MESSAGES FROM THE DRIFTLESS ZONE
Somewhere in time to come Annie juggles boyfriends.
From the Soviet Union, Leonid, who smells of patchouli oil (or some such).
Annie calls him My spy! And when he’s gone, in strolls Ivan,
who might be Bulgarian and who moves around the world
without explanation. It’s said he has a wife, an actress, in Japan.
There’s an art to this to-ing and fro-ing. Some have it.
Annie’s plans recede into an invented past. Her memories
expand for years to come, and then some. When we parted
she flung her arms about my neck, whispered words long forgotten.
She wrote to me. Write, write, otherwise we are lost.
I keep her letters safe, read them now and then.
She wished me one long flight of freedom and peace.
If you make the journey you need to forget as well as remember.
Try not to predict, walk across shadows, live out the liminal days.
A shark can drift with the ocean current for hundreds of years.
When I walk, conversations cross to the other side of the road.
Back home, from the safety of the uneasy chair, I remember
hidden microphones, reel-to-reel tape recorders. I eat too much.
A day when fog never lifts, when frost thickens on twigs and fences.
A deserted farmhouse (not far from here). Barbed wire.
We woke to the sound of geese flying through the night.
At dawn a wave of mist along the field. The sun would burn it off.
This is the Driftless Zone. Even Ice Age glaciers avoided this place.
I find I forget words of songs. Small signs of disarray.
Annie plays Weird Scenes From The Goldmine.
Cross the bridge over the river of faith, she told me.
Everything the powerful will have you believe is a lie.
And in the half-light we still smell of bonfires,
and halfway out of sleep I think of bruised apples
fed to pigs and hens. I watch her go.
Years into the past, at a cocktail party, someone will say
Do you remember Annie, who played the cello
and had all those strange boyfriends?
And another will say: Yes, turned to religion, I heard.
Lived in some kind of desert. She might be dead now.
And another will say: No, I’ll bet she likes cooking,
enjoys camper-van holidays with a tubby husband
who has a job in IT. They will laugh.
I lie alone and wait for other voices to begin.
You lost a shoe as you hurried through muddy fields.
You clung to your mother’s back as you swam the river.
On the far bank it was another country.
The sky sucked snow back into clouds that looked fit to burst.
It was almost too late. Shivering, you clung to each other.
Birds sang. Each of us tries to hide our histories.
And out of nowhere I think of a young man in a church.
I love God and guns, he says. It’s obvious why.
Both disconnect him from the terror.
He is taken away. Eight women are dead.
Annie prays at a Buddhist shrine.
We must know stillness and strive for emptiness.
For the dead, the living and those not yet alive
we must bear witness. The energy that bones emit.
In temperature-controlled laboratories,
they will pore over dental records, they will
make up names for the nameless. I should
have known the trap of kindness would out.
I should have known how long it takes
to rise out of memory, should have known
what leaving and arriving mean.
Annie, when I try to talk to you, your body language
says you have other things to do. Alone now,
you play your cello, pray in a temple
high on a mountain with a view of a grey desert,
your face hidden from hail under a thick headscarf.
Give me space where there is no space, you said.
In trivial oblivion, there is dust and ash.
All of our bones. May they be blessed.
And in the town below the mountain, lights go out.
[At that point I was interrupted by a conversation, a phone ringing, the news that outside rain had turned to sleet. So the stream-writing came to a natural end perhaps earlier than planned but perhaps at the right place. It seems to be so. Perhaps, plans are unimportant. After a struggle to make a piece of writing have some kind of meaning, I like to do something else that’s daft as if to surface again and be sociable. And so, in the attempt for clarity, here is THE WARM-DOWN.]
THE POETRY CAFE
Agitated and flustered by a rush of orders, Wordsworth
shouts Sharon Olds, get your feet off the chairs,
other poets have to sit on those. Number 15, faggots and peas?
Yes, over here, says Browning, raising one arm,
not moving his eyes from the latest Bukowski.
Seriously? he mutters. I mean, seriously?
Larkin, meanwhile, is making progress with Elizabeth.
At a table in the darkest corner she rests her hand on his.
Let’s get out of here, she says. I know some better places.
Tennyson, five down to Chaucer in the table football tournament,
complains: The goalkeeper stick sticks, this is rigged.
Chaucer grins Not my problem, old fruit, and slams in number six.
Swinburne is bemused as Betjeman wins at whist yet again
and scoops the coins off the formica. Anybody would think
you knew what cards I’d got, Swinburne says. Betjeman smiles.
Holub selects Tonight At Noon on the jukebox
and stands looking confused as it spews out Adrian Henri
Live In Liverpool ’69 instead of Charlie Mingus.
There’s a collective shout of Switch It Off!
Holub kicks the machine, pulls the plug from the wall.
Coleridge runs from the kitchen with a kitchen-knife, screams
Holub when are you going to get it through your thick skull?
This is a poetry cafe. The jukebox plays poetry, not jazz.
And none of us like the bloody stuff, so nobody plays it. OK?
Dryden is mumbling, trying to make his laptop work. It won’t.
Wordsworth’s shouting again: Anna Akhmatova, put out
that filthy cigarette! She raises slowly her middle finger,
goes on reading her battered copy of Practical Poultry.
Mayer, jet-lagged, sleeps, one long plait lying in her soup.
Hughes comes in, breathless with excitement, calls out
Everybody, the meeting of the Poetry Soc is at six.
Please don’t forget. He retreats rapidly under a pounding
of rock-cakes and half-eaten pies, bleating Sorry, sorry…
Right, that’s it, yells Wordsworth. Enough’s enough,
all of you out. And the poets go, complaining, jostling,
as if evaporating in the blinding sunlight of Covent Garden.
Wordsworth and Coleridge count the takings, enjoy
the sudden quiet. Share a smoke of something green.
Flick through a brochure called Holidays In The Lakes.