ON A BIRTHDAY
Now, like a classic Chinese sage,
I’ll turn to verses to defy old age,
Scorning the raw disordered city
For the true poet’s envy, spite, self-pity.
And this is fitting for a sad old fart
Since art itself’s a dying art.
For soon the maker’s role will be
Killed by the Singularity –
When supermarket checkout tills
Outdo Rubens on our baked bean bills,
And any bar-room stool ad libs
Dirty jokes to crack your ribs;
The lonely hotel guest’s beguiled
By wardrobes wittier than Oscar Wilde,
While every lift’s a soloist
With better melodies than Brahms and Listz.
Yet let our younger art creators
Lose their livelihood to elevators –
I’ll cruise through these final days
Of history’s temporary literary phase
In which inflamed imagination
Strong from pre-Web masturbation
Served a readership who’d never seen
Pixels flit across a screen.
For nowadays who feels at home
Hugging alone some droning tome
All in immobile monochrome?
Given the choice,
Who but losers toil through Joyce?
What wilderness of empty days
Drives a man to Auden’s plays?
No one good at outdoor games
Endures the gruesome Henry James.
Only folk that love forgets
Wrestle the dreadful Four Quartets.
Of those who groan through Wordsworth’s Prelude
High proportions look like hell nude.
Already see the world forsake
Verse like a turbid ox-bow lake –
A place of mayflies, gadflies, fly-by-nights
And intestinal parasites,
Where we, with self-inflicted futile duty,
Fish the infected pit for truth and beauty.
And this is why: beauty and truth
One day slapped us through the gloom of youth;
Amid this dolor, dead men’s verses
Eased our adolescent ache like curses;
Leaving grief we’d briefly dwell
In walls of words where all is well,
Where love and lust and the world’s wrongs
Are vented outward into songs,
And secret teenage dreams and doubt
On legs of lines can stride about.
So come with me, you sorry crew
Bereft of better things to do,
Your lives and loves so much amiss
You’re sitting here and reading this.
Unkillable, the need to speak
Drives our tireless treks that seek
Through sumps of dullness undeterred
These machines for being heard –
Poetry, the perfect word.
I’ve rhymed for lust, for praise, for gain
But scribble nowadays to check my brain,
Penning each sonnet, song or saga
For reassurance that I’m not yet gaga.
I might unknowingly conclude a line
With some deluded not-quite rhyme,
Or reach for rhymes I can’t quite hold
Like William McGonagall pursuing his hat in a strong breeze that is also cold,
Or like McGonagall in a Dundee tavern groping drunkenly for an exit,
Or like some would-be humorous versifier who pictures McGonagall drowning in
the silvery Tay and splashing blindly for the lights of a far-off shore and
thereby hopelessly over-eggs it.
For though composing through our charmless youth
Clammy voidings we confuse with truth
(The notions trite, the rhyming hackneyed)
Comforts us for being acnied;
And though through deserts of our middle years
We pump our output into Beauty’s ears
(Our hair departs, our bellies sag
But handsome stanzas might secure a shag);
Yet how much more old age
Demands a recompense across the page –
Here where a whip of wit confines
Our disappointments in a cage of lines;
The rabble multitudes of rage and woe
Kicked into regimented row on row;
Compressed, condensed, our pain so terse is
Crystallised at last to verses.
So let the fact I’m balder, sadder, fatter
Tame itself to subject matter.
A wasted life – ill-begun,
Bungled, fearful, left undone –
Shaped until a grace appears
That lays an absolution on these sixty years.
A VERY HIPPY CHRISTMAS
Written on a Christmas card, 1972
Here’s hoping, Clive, they’ve stopped your dope and dole,
And scrumpy’s what there’s awful lack of, Annie.
If not, I’m sending from this northern hole
To the land of clotted cream and black Afghani,
Of jam and acid tabs and skinny dips,
GREETINGS AT CHRISTMASTIME begrudged through twisted lips.
“Sid,” you say, “so tell us, how’s the weather?
Raw we suppose, all icicles and sleet,
And the snow, down here a swan’s shed feather,
Is ready-blackened when it meets the street.
Ice cracks the cobbles and the sunrise stalls,
And dogs with lifted legs are welded to workhouse walls.”
True. And clearer means colder. Rivers freeze,
Running in a tunnel under dull glass
Round bicycle bones. We’ve teeth on the eaves
And spikey like a bed of nails the grass.
A low sun in a corner of the day,
As weak as watercolour yellow, turns away.
Today I nipped outside to grab a nice
Shovelful of coke and nutty slack.
Instead, with contact lenses formed of ice
And stalactites of snot, I staggered back
To hug the empty hearth and curse in vain
(Through windows double-glazed with panes of frozen rain)
The tribes of fearsome folk who crowd the town,
Who toil upstream against the level gales,
Coughing creatures with a barbed wire frown
And faces like places where April fails,
Who spring and summer through will still complain
For the lead necklace of December days again.
Tonight I risked my life and had a jar.
The landlord’s wife was cheering on a fight.
Her husband hadn’t time to tend the bar
With helping someone set a cat alight.
It was a girl trying to get it lit:
One of the posher sort, the type that doesn’t spit.
I blushed: she laughed. I shook: she bit my ear.
With football forwards’ thighs she pressed my knee
Till I ejaculated thus: My dear,
Your weight is wealth, it’s like gold, like rich fee,
And heavy as treasure your precious head.
“Are you trying to say I’m fucking fat?” she said.
I said, Oh tell me how to serve you best,
What track to take till Time’s tread shall tire;
What foe to fight, what golden fleece to fetch;
Tell me, tell me, I’d win you your desire
Though bought with crimson coins my dead head bled.
“All right. I’ll have a pint of bitter then,” she said.
I said, Oh party of my life and soul
Remove the ticking apple of my heart
And bite. We are one of a kind, a whole,
A part of a heart that is never apart.
“The only thing we have in common,
Is you’re a man and I’m a woman.”
So I left, wheezing through the freezing night
Where winds will whittle you to the white bone;
Where the streams and the smiles are locked up tight
And cold enchants whole bus queues into stone.
A skull-like moon leaned over with a grin
On suffering Sid, alone at the cold world’s rim.
But stop: through all this summer only hides,
Waiting where May-blooms clutch their roots and hold
And keep the secret – Life – that still abides
Though mean mid-winter grips, vice-cold.
I too will clutch my root and hold and stay
And be daft with the daffodils, dreaming of May.
It’s a dream of how Eden begins:
Bursting the doors of dawn on the first day,
His whiskers filled with lightning-bolts and grins
On green scene, flower bower, hoe-high hay,
The lord of Devonshire mornings has come
Where I lie, smiling at last, asleep in the sun.
from … SEX CHANGE AT THE LONDON HOSPITAL
All those years had the use of you?
On a train of London windows,
Through suburbs of rooms, and beds like meadows,
How you galloped bareback both astride
Love’s curly-haired hide!
London muttered in its slumbers
As the pre-med pulled me under.
Along gutters, down drains
Clattered like an anchor chain
As I soared
Over the roar of the Whitechapel Road,
Above the Ripper’s favourite quarter
They say betokened a surgeon’s),
And thought I saw
In the London Hospital far below –
Down in the morgue the Doctor leaning
Over the ladies softly breathing:
“What is the meaning, the meaning, the meaning
Of gash and ass?
Her one and zero, semi-colon, exclamation mark, vowel and consonant, dot and dash?
And who dared brave
Alive this binocular gaze?”
Whose hair fills the quilt
On the bed in the house that Jack built?
Why does water flow so slow
From the big sink on the second floor?
And the room of whose shoes?
And why by the bath the dentist’s tools?
And damp as a pubic pad
Whence this wad in the shower trap?
Spying a spider in the bridal bed
Oh, his dilemma of disgust
The live spider or the spider crushed!
Whenever he wanders Wapping strand
Mussels squirt on either hand.
At Greenwich Reach this dapper walker
Opens oysters underwater.
He strolls alone the Southend shore
And liquid spills from the winkle stalls.
He winks, now, and tips his cap
And shapes stir on the fish-shop slab
To watch Jack pass,
Flat faces pressing the glass.
My heart exposed
Is chambered like a Chinese word.
My guts depict
The names of God in Arab script.
I’m a monochrome tome
Trailing a Playboy centrefold,
A page from Gray’s
But in a state of nature, though, without the names.
Says Jack: ‘Here is my book.
I leave behind a
Bible for the finder.’
Shook this shape from your belly tree?
Around, carnivorous eyes of rivals, but
He plucked you from those hooks.
Bared like a butcher’s parcel,
Seeing his hard-on
All you wondered was
Oh, oh, is this what I have to want?
In fish-skin slippers
She skips across the river glitter,
Splashes snapping at
Her ankles like a shark attack,
A man-trap or hang-man’s hatch.
Insoucantly as one might take a
Heathrow Airport travelator,
Under loins of London bridges
(Whiffier than Oxfam britches),
Passing black Embankment steps
(Water lifting like a dress),
She sees her lovers fall
Through petticoats of spreading foam,
To choke on a rope of woven air.
On my belly something like the words ‘I am’
Consisting of two little roundy bits and one long one,
Which is a sort of tap or spout
For venting madness out.
I tried to hide my wet insides
(Full as an egg,
Frail as a Safeways plastic bag)
Fell out like a full cupboard,
Smelling of love.
The old go slower and slower
And here like bicycles at last fall over.
Under the high tide of his hair line,
When searchlights found
Zeppelins swelling over London town,
And the bulging truncheon
Of some constable on point duty at a busy junction,
And bursting from earth the Tube between
Aldgate East and Stepney Green,
Were tauter than motorbike petrol tanks,
Their lovely lack astride
Like the missing bit on women's bikes.
The dick is homeless now
That he fought for once with the sweet girls of London town.
It’s where her curves
Tighten to a spiral, where her limbs merge.
It’s a home’s heart,
New loaf, gold bar, warm hearth;
Is floating like a frisby where
Her lovely lack, propped on nothing, surfs on air.
Is hidden as the new moon
That nevertheless rules;
Gathers the world like an eye
Then looks away.
Among her limbs like loaves
It’s a caper or clove.
God gave her dough
One fold more,
Though the seal
Never quite healed.
(Or did a doctor
Cut Cupid’s wound across her?)
It’s the stair
That isn’t there;
It’s her drowned mouth,
Little vowel, thatched house.
Her smile glitters,
Where she circles it in ripples.
It’s lipped like a splash:
They will rock in its outwash;
And read between
Its nested parentheses;
And let it fly,
From limbs they hope to untie;
Her sleepy middle eye,
Crying, ‘Lord let me pass
Her belly’s Welcome mat!’
The tide was down like trousers
So we crossed the rocks like razors
To poke in raggy pools that smelled of pee.
Then the moon silvered the sea
So the pools were mirrors,
With polyps, oysters, blind devourers –
Until I woke,
The sheets foaming over our throats.
I dreamed I waked
As lovers on my counterpane,
Little as fingers, in single file,
Fell to their fate from my inner thigh.
Then from my window saw
The river’s course below
Appeared an empty trench because
Its all-enfolding waters were
Our common element like air.
A wind of water lifted flags,
Bubbles like balloons flew past,
And over neighbour buildings swirled
Migrating men instead of birds.
In hospital gardens, weak and slow,
Roses cold as crystals grow.
They suck dirt.
Is sun, that pale soup.
Thin, in rags,
They shiver by the path
Where I run to my love
Sick with our rich blood.
Stale, passionless and grey
Ageing flesh rehearses clay.
Tamed thereby I make my way
Uncomplainingly towards decay.
Whatever thrills your body brought you
In the end it turns to torture.
Joints dissolve and hearts attack,
Our bones our own relentless rack.
But no disease
Stings like these
I feel the fate of things I hold,
This plate in bits, this table sold;
The falling curtains, broken chair;
These socks are lost, these trousers tear;
My rancid underpants a wreck;
This hat in rags around my neck.
And then one day
A soiled mattress dragged away.
It leaves the bladder
Slides down a ladder
Stops for a smoke
Laughs at a joke
A donkey-back ride
The see-saw and slide
Swings on a tree
Never thinks about me
Oh hurry up pee.
If a man is snatched away,
Back into yesterday,
And yesterday flies back
Like a lit window by a railway track
With the small figure lost within,
How is it for him
And all the glad loud folk,
Gone like smoke?
Scar on my left thigh.
Hail and farewell,
And faithful legs and pigeon toes
Weak eyes and pointy nose –
Goodbye all those.
And bye-bye likewise gob and knob
And every hidden inner blob
That mostly (thank you) did its job.
Farewell flesh that did okay
At giving me a place to stay
But starts to whisper, “On your way,
I’m tired of hauling you around all day,
Let me be clay.”
Dead, that bastard master who
Suspended me from grammar school.
Dead the railway gaffer pea-brain
Who nearly crushed us with the steam crane.
Dead or daft the magistrate
Who fined my ass for ABH.
And all those girls who turned me down –
Grey and fat and dowdy now.
I grow old, grow old.
Once upon a time my cock
Was happy as a cuckoo clock.
But cogs of time that once renewed it
Caught my wedding gear and chewed it.
Now my dick’s
Forever stopped at half past six.
Once it brimmed with optimism,
Spouting gouts of joy and jism,
Now this fountain’s downward pointing –
Just a hose
Ensuring urine clears my toes.
Once I chanted thrilling bits
From manuals for Airfix kits,
Extracts from the Highway Code,
The shops along the Old Kent Road,
The causes of the Civil War,
Requirements for a leg-before,
The workings of the off-side rule,
And half-forgotten junk from school
To stop me coming.
Now lady parts are only plumbing.
How I shouted, ‘Praise the Lord!”
How I came a spinal cord,
Bumping down from heaven’s gate,
Pumping out my body weight,
To hit the floor.
And here I’m stuck for ever more.
Sad old geezer,
Past lust or praise –
But how chatter fills his days!
How he chatters, clatters,
Flesh in tatters
Just a yellow old jaw bone
Dropped by his headstone,
But clackety-clack without pause
On the pit’s rim his nasty jaws
And yellow teeth and pointy chin.
Let’s kick the thing in!