Poetry

THE GREAT STINK

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At the height of summer, a company

legally entitled to make money

from a natural resource, discharged

raw sewage into the river that flows

through the antique city where I live –

the waters where salmon leaped and spawned;

John Milton’s ‘wizard stream; upon whose

current, Edgar the Peaceable, King

of the English, was rowed upstream by eight

vassal monarchs for his coronation;

and which Ptolemy put on his world map.

 

As yet, you ain’t seen nothing, folks! Three days

after her late Majesty was lowered

into the family vault, a Bill was laid

before Parliament. It has a sunset clause.

After New Year’s Eve in 2023

whole libraries of legislation

will be immolated – regarding,

for example, the pollution of rivers

and sea shores, the preservation of wild life,

the protection of pregnant workers,

the safety of products, and holiday pay.

 

Perhaps when the turds are jostling below

the terrace at the Palace of Westminster,

and the miasma evades the air con,

there will be enough good women and men,

true representatives of the people,

to remove this government of whining,

hollow clowns, led by yet another useful

idiot, these self-indulgent, entitled,

deceitful puppets of straw corrupted by

the dark dosh of the neoliberal

masters of the universe – who are,

even as I type, dividing the moon

and stars between themselves.

 

 

THE NOSE IN QUESTION

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 For Dr. Evelyn Davies

 

One December morning an unexpected

sun, shining through the partly opened slats

of the bathroom’s white venetian blind, lit

three nascent nodules on my nose’s right side,

budding excrescences not seen before

on this particular olfactory

organ – my neb, my schnozzle, my trwyn.

 

By January they were a tad

roseate. I entered the system

that lifts ‘the shadow from millions of homes’,

as the Welshman said who dreamed it. Named

for an ancient poet, he cured his stammer

reciting in the hills above his home

William Morris’s Chants For Socialists:

‘Come hither lads, and hearken, for a tale

there is to tell, Of the wonderful days

a-coming when all shall be better than well…’

 

I digress. I was prescribed a salve

for acne, and antibiotics; had

photos taken, and X-rays and CT scans;

my overseas travels were noted,

sojourns in Venice, Gascony, Luxor,

KwaZulu, Umbertide, Marrakech;

slices – thin as from the costliest truffle –

were tested for syphilis, and for TB;

finally, a cohort of consultants

in pairs, trios, quartets, for nearly an hour,

touched and scrutinised the three enigmas.

 

The results were negative, the blemishes

removed. Such palpable investments –

of time, technology, expertise, and care –

to ensure an old man’s nose would not be

the death of him!

 

 

SHIPS OF FOOLS

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All through our summer of low comedy –

with knave competing with knave for the

approval of a paltry coterie

of complacent fools and fearful bigots,

justifying thievery and ignorance,

jingoism, contempt and cruelty,

with the Queen finally awarding the prize

to the witless winner then promptly dying –

I have dreamt repeatedly of the French

Blue Riband ’30s ocean liner

the transatlantique SS Normandie,

sailing Le Havre-Southampton-New York.

 

Its suites de luxe were equipped with baby grands

and servants’ quarters. Its first class dining room

was three decks high, and its crew outnumbered

all of its three classes of passengers.

The government borrowed to build the ship

pour la gloire de France. Critics berated

the debt acquired in the Depression.

 

By chance it was docked at Pier 88

opposite the Jersey shore when the Nazis

invaded Poland, and France declared war.

The USA prematurely ‘interned’

the vessel, renaming it USS

Lafayette, with a view to transforming it

into a troopship. Out came the pianos,

the Lalique, the thousands of bottles of wine.

A vast glass mural in a corner

of the Grand Salon ended up at the Met.

But incompetence set the ship on fire.

Water from the hoses turned it on its side.

It was righted in ’43; considered

redundant; and scrapped in ’46.

 

…I am driving on the West Side Highway –

not as it is now but as it was then –

and approaching Cunard’s Pier 90,

where the Lusitania used to dock,

when I see smoke ahead, and crowds watching.

The Chrysler behind me rams my Buick.

The driver gets out. It is The Joker…

…The ship is on its side in the icy mud

of the Hudson. Batman and Robin

are trying to right it. Meanwhile Poison Ivy

is making off with the Art Deco light fittings…

…I have been cast adrift by the Penguin –

and other deranged, illustrious

inhabitants of Gotham City –

in a flimsy craft in the English Channel.

Bearing down on me is Adolphe Mouron’s

iconic poster advertising

the SS Normandie’s maiden voyage.

The elegant blade of the bows –

lit on one side, shaded on the other –

is almost upon me. Silhouetted against

the dark side are thirteen white birds. Their cries

are almost the last I hear except

for the Marseillaise – ‘Aux armes, citoyens,

Formez vos bataillons, Marchons, marchons!‘…

 

 

ART

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For Tod Davies

 

Two of the exhibitions from the last

Venice Biennale have stayed with me.

Both were in the centre of the city

rather than in the Giardini.

They were close to the vaporetto stop

at San Samuele on the Grand Canal.

 

The first was in the Palazzo Grassi,

on the Calle De Le Carrozze:

Anhela Ayzenberh’s IMAGES OF WAR

AT HARVEST TIME. The Kyiv journalist

curated tens of thousands of anonymised

mobile phone photos of wrecked and rusting

Russian hardware: tanks, rocket launchers,

and long range artillery against

a backdrop of unharvested fields of wheat.

 

The second was across the narrow calle

in the small church of San Samuele:

TALKING WHITE MEN, dedicated to

Diego Garcia’s indigenous

inhabitants, and only comprising

four large holograms – of Tim Berners-Lee,

Noam Chomsky, Richard Dawkins, and

Henry Kissinger – showing each subject

on an endless loop with no sound except,

through the open doors, the vaporettos

slowing, idling, accelerating.

 

Both caused much controversy. The Kremlin

and Downing Street respectively complained

to the Italian government. Supporters

claimed that the continuation of the war

and the expulsion were shameful, and needed

continuous exposure. That summer

and autumn a number of anonymous

YouTubes appeared. One purported to show

the exhibit in the early hours

when the power was supposedly switched-off.

There was still no sound but sub-titles

suggested Chomsky and Kissinger

were arguing both about Israel

and the International Criminal Court,

Dawkins was frequently shouting, ‘Selfish Gene!’,

and Berners-Lee was speaking machine-code.

Another seemed to show, in profile,

the disembodied and larger-than-life sized heads

of the two principals in a minibus

in the car park of the Elysian Fields,

a Jefferson Heights retirement home

in the Catskills. The most viral featured

a very large rat, with Putin’s head,

setting fire to uncut fields of wheat.

 

The following year each season made the earth

a little less inhabitable

for humankind. During one long night,

in late December, high water rose

as usual, but did not ebb. All

of the islands of Venice – that most serene

of cities – were engulfed.

 

 

Note: the poem was first published in the Summer 2022 edition of EAP: THE MAGAZINE – https://exterminatingangel.com/eap-the-magazine-archive/.

SOCRATIC DANCING

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 Love made me journey as often as I could

from Birkenhead to Birmingham by steam train

in 1962 – from Woodside’s glazed roof

to Snow Hill’s canopy of girders –

stopping at Chester, Chirk, Gobowen,

Oswestry, Shrewsbury, and, through the Marches,

via Wolverhampton to the ‘Workshop of the World’:

a landscape of fields, canals, small market towns

becoming blackened terraces of cobbled streets.

 

That year I had opted to study

Ancient Greek Philosophy. The journey

would be a couple of hours of silent reading.

Aristotle’s treatise on ‘Coming To Be

And Passing Away’ fitted the rackety-

rack of the wheels, the odd spouts of steam,

the curvetting of telephone wires,

and the colours of weathers and seasons.

But Plato’s Republic, with its heavy

humour, ponderous dialogue and smart-arse

front-man, Socrates, had me counting the sheep,

and admiring the sepia views of Rhyl

and Scarborough above the seats opposite.

 

Perhaps Socrates was dyslexic. He left,

as far as we know, nothing in writing.

Untutored in the classical authors

I had thought his historical fame

dependent on the puppet master alone

until, this year, I came across a piece –

in Practical Mechanics, I think it was –

about his young friend Xenophon: rebel

mercenary, military strategist,

kindly trainer of horses, writer.

Each morning, for exercise, Xenophon

describes how Socrates on his verandah

would dance, a cappella, as it were.

No doubt it was the old man’s tripping

of the light fantastic that prompted

Athens’s Watch Committee to accuse him

of corrupting the youth of the city.

 

Somewhere in Wolverhampton, on the end

of a terrace overlooking a canal,

was painted in white, with a sign writer’s

precision, ‘ETERNITY! Where will you spend

ETERNITY?’ As we passed I would smirk,

as young poets in love are wont to do.

 

Woodside station has gone, and, everywhere,

the steam and the smoke and the soot, of course,

but maybe the graffito, weathered,

is still there, a ghost. Socrates chose

to drink the hemlock rather than self-exile,

as his friends and followers urged. More dangerous

dead and chronicled, he must have guessed,

than forgotten on some sparse islet,

dribbling into his wine.

 

 

NUMBER 6

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For Arthur Kemelman

 

‘To find the right road out of this despair [the pain of those who walk through the night blindly] civilized man must enlarge his heart as he has enlarged his mind. He must learn to transcend self, and in so doing to acquire the freedom of the Universe’. THE CONQUEST OF HAPPINESS, Bertrand Russell, 1930

 

The village post office in Penrhyndeudraeth,

Merioneth, was very busy

during the Cuban Missile Crisis

with telegrams to Kennedy and Kruschev

from Bertrand, 3rd Earl Russell – philosopher,

logician; mathematician, author;

moralist, socialist, pacifist.

 

He lived nearby, down a lane, in a late

seventeenth, early eighteenth century house

with a veranda that commanded views

of the Glaslyn estuary, Porthmadog,

Traeth Mawr, and, south east – if the earth were not

almost round – beyond the tip of Ireland

the Americas. There he had been

labelled – “a believer in free love…

a free thinker…a commie”. ‘Americans,’

he believed, ‘are terrified of thought’.

 

Below, on the promontory, hidden

by deciduous woods is Portmeirion,

the fantasy village, where Russell once stayed –

an invited guest with Noel Coward,

H.G. Wells and King Zog of Albania –

and laid the foundation stone of the Dome,

a modest homage to Brunelleschi.

 

Perhaps one bright afternoon in ’66 –

on the veranda in his cane chair,

observing the sun over the Atlantic,

smoking a pipe of his favourite

Friborg & Treyer’s Golden Mixture –

he thought he heard, vivid as in a dream,

someone declare, ‘I am not a number…’

 

 

DEAD ELEPHANTS

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THE WEIRD SISTERS

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THAT MEMORABLE SCENE

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