A POEM AS A NET

[‘One can regard poems either as closed and sealed, as impermeable structures, or as net-like constructions with which new experiences can be caught again and again…’ – Hans Magnus Enzensberger on his long ‘summer poem’ from 1964. Translated by Michael Hamburger. Inside the back cover of my aged copy of the Penguin Modern European poets edition of his Selected Poems from 1968 are some shorthand notes of a ‘double fatal’ accident at the junction of Corporation Street and Oliver Street when I was working as a news reporter on the Rugby Advertiser. I had obviously forgotten my note book when I did the morning police call but had my copy of Enzensberger’s poems in my pocket. Needs must… Like the note of the accident, Enzensberger’s description of a poem as a net is something that has stuck with me down the years. It seems to me to capture well what I often try to do with a poem. Here are today’s attempts, as they fell into the net.]

THE HERMIT CLOWN

I hide in the woods, listen
to buzzards bickering. Over
the field a flicker of swifts.

I don’t hear the rhythms you hear.
Some days words won’t come.
Songs don’t sound the same.

I made a living of laughter.
Stupidity check-suited me,
painted my face white, lips red.

Do I dream of you or you of me?
What is it we’re afraid of?
Mist brings back this and that.

Owls live here. House martins, bats.
The blue cobalt crust fungus.
Orchids are early this year.

A hare slips past a fallen ash.
A squirrel stops and stares.
Tell no-one. Let me stay.

TOGETHER WE TRAVEL IN AND OUT OF OUR SONGS

Next door it was Chris and Doris,
then Ron and Pam, and then Ray
and Heather. None of us spoke.

My father, shaving without need of a mirror.
Hot water from the kettle, a little soap
(too much a waste), the old shaving brush.
He looks out over his immaculate rockery
to the tightly pruned gooseberry bushes
and lawn big enough for two chairs
and an iron table painted black.
And he looks further, to the wild part
of McPherson’s garden that once
belonged to us before grandad sold it
for a fiver on a handshake one rainy
afternoon at the end of the war
and which now is good for nothing
except shelter for feral cats
that yowl in the night.

The kids from the aid and adoption society
lean from the rotting sash window
as Santa calls out Merry Christmas!
And one, the smallest, reaches down
and touches his beard.

I step into a church where clowns gather
to honour their father, Grimaldi.
Here come both the Emmett Kellys,
father and son, depressed, repressed.
There’s Lou and Charlie, Felix and Ernie.
Popov’s brought his Sunshine Smile.
It’s time, says the priest, to reflect
on how much joy you gave.
Remember the happy faces of children.

Otto and Nicolai, nervous, hold hands.
Cepillin says I’m too young to be here.
Slava and Chuchin say We’re too old!
They shout as one to Glock: Don’t sing!
Afterwards we’ll stroll in silence
to lay flowers at Grimaldi’s grave
behind black railings in a place
where children play.

Together we travel in and out of our songs.
I remember the tunes, you the words.
It was the year you asked your mother
Can someone love two people at the same time?

I wait to order a drink in the bar where clowns feel safe.
Lou, propping his oversized boot on the foot rail, tells Charlie
The first time I wrote a poem for a girl she laughed and said
‘You didn’t write that, you stole it from somebody who can write.’
Kids like me didn’t write. I asked her out.
She laughed again, shook her head in dismay, disbelief.
The innocence and stupidity of it.
My brothers got to hear of it. They laughed too.
Charlie isn’t listening.

The girl sits alone as the party goes on several floors below.
She listens. Closes her eyes.
It’s windy outside. The flat is so high it sways.
The girl is bored with it all, bored with herself.
On her wall she has a map of the world.

I step out of the cold into a cafe
as a man introduces himself to a waitress.
Jeffery, he says, and holds out a hand.
She is carrying a tray.
People look away.
I take a medium Americano
to a long table by the window.
I look at the news on the phone.
Twenty-seven drowned in the Channel.
Two people murdered their child.
I hear the little one saying No one loves me.
Jeffery is one of life’s interrupters.
It’s the truth, no lies, he tells Ray and Ruth.
A must-try restaurant if you’re in town.

I walk out of the cafe into the wind.
My legs struggle through shadows.
Two thousand years of miracles.
Just one I’d wish, for a child.
It’s too late, I know, but still…

A man can still fall through a hole in the ground.
The sky cracks into sleet.
The crack spreads across us.
Our skin is brittle and parched.
By a frozen border families
wrap themselves in thin rugs.
The risk of crossing water.
I remember you laughing as we shovelled fire
into a hole in the snow.
The frailty of it all.
In the cafe the in-boxes fill with Black Friday savings.

Homeless curl in doorways.
A government minister says he can’t possibly manage
on eighty-two thousand a year.
Another files an expense claim
for the electricity he uses in his stables.
The wind is picking up.
Sleet becomes snow again.
In another town at the switching on of the lights
a girl is knifed.
It was never supposed to be like this.
Believe me, said the singer, it’s a new dawn.
Good morning people.

I hear you’ve combed out the curls in your hair.
It was somewhere around here, yes, just here
where we met, where we missed each other,
where we thought it could be forever.
In the wind a plastic cup spirals into the air.
Waves of memory slap each other.
Waters are rising around the world.
On a beach angry men stop a lifeboat from launching.
What are we afraid of?
People desperate enough to climb into a boat
that will never float?

A boy scratches a coin along the side of a car.

I can still see you in the room,
trying to work out a song.
The melody, the chords, how
to find the heart of the words.

Out of a dark house
an electric bass
and a woman singing:
A different way to be.

Hope is the edge of a boat,
falling and rising
and falling again.

Will we see each other again,
do you think?

I pass another cafe.
A clown sits at the counter,
head-down, warming
his hands on a cup.

Next door it was Chris and Doris.
then Ron and Pam, and then Ray
and Heather. None of us spoke.


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