It has to be a thin world surely if you ask for
an emblem at every turn...
Read Vincent's 'Being here' on Tuesday's Poem, and his discussion with Helen McKinlay as they cover sincerity, the first person, freedom, and more.
There is something so celebratory about Emma Neale’s poetry, about its eager, informed, needle-eyed engagement with the contemporary world, that it seems the very thing for this final Poet Laureate blog of the year, for what we still, with our perverse and saving optimism, call ‘the festive season’. Thanks to Emma for these unpublished poems, for their kitchen-familiar and cosmic-wide attentions, for running the hot thread of such linguistic flare and precision through whatever occasion she takes up. These seem to me the kind of poems that begin with readers but end with partners, in their take on how things are, and how we talk of them. This is poetry in that ancient tradition of ‘speaking for us all’, of making scenes and events that we find are about ourselves all the time, even when they may at first move so confidently in that Rilkean dimension of ‘beauty and terror’. Good poems to end one year, and to begin another.
The small change we slip into the beggar’s hand
press there as if it’s a close cousin of love
is like the coin we would drop into the well
at a garden of remembrance:
may this small kindness be the penance
that takes care of the world’s poundings
an offering to the skittish, feral gods of hope
that still crouch somewhere inside
the electric lights and night store heaters,
the fridge’s motor, the stitches in the children’s blankets,
beside the pantry’s packets of red lentils and raw sugar,
under the thin-worn patch of carpet in the hall,
lares et penates,
please bar the terrorwolf, terrorcrow, terrorsun
terrornomics and terrorment
from our doors.
(After reading Manjit Kumar’s review of The Reason Why: The Miracle of Life on Earth by John Gribbin)
Once upon five billion years ago
our solar system was being formed
and lo there was a minute part
of the unimaginably colossal universe
that was like existential porridge:
just right. For this zone
held riches of metal elements
which could forge an orb like Earth,
and Jupiter was there: right place, right size,
to hurl water bombs (asteroids and icy comets)
in this direction, pretty early on.
The newborn Earth once hurtled into
another planet, Theia; part of the fallout
was the moon, which really is a kind of mother now:
for it protects us from Jupiter’s gravity
and collisions with cosmic rubble.
After that smash up with Theia,
Earth was thin-skinned, and has been shaky ever since:
which can be terrifying, cataclysmic,
but in turn helps create optimum conditions
for the miracle of liquid water.
Which is as good
for questions such as why
the thought of the way you carefully pinched
a sweet square between thumb and index finger
to tap off the extra icing sugar
as you searched perhaps
for the least hurtful words,
or the way you wore your shirts
until the collars had a nibbled look
although your ties still shone with the sleek gloss
that said somebody else, somewhere, loved you;
or the sight of a man pushing a supermarket trolley
filled with budget cans all the way to his damp, dark flat;
or the glimpse of another drinking super-strength beer
on a street bench at sun-up; or the battered plastic
baby gear on sale for next to nothing
at the Salvation Army store;
or the crass trash along the banks of the Leith;
or a son’s small fists pummeling my ribs;
or the fact of foreign superpowers arming factions
that split and re-split along blood, tribe, regional or religious
but note, never gender lines; or the headlines
that say 30% of preventable perinatal maternal deaths
are suicides; or the article that details the rape of a young girl
by god-fearing men that led to their lynching
by other-god-fearing men,
which triggered violence and disorder nationwide;
or the last recorded song of the Dusky Seaside Sparrow;
or the sensation of my hands plunged into soap suds
while outside someone’s voice lifts querulous
at rainy Friday twilight,
time bleeding from us all
like fossil fuels from broken well-heads,
should bring such waves
of strong, dark, pent,
that will not crest,
that rise and rise.
He knows she can’t reply.
The cell phone in his hand
fits like an amulet, a locket
that could show a rare old photo
of the dead: delicate gold hinges only
turned open when he’s alone.
He keys in her name, a phrase,
He’s under a kowhai whose yellow flowers hang down
as if a woman tents him in her sleepy hair.
Six tui tilt and tip in black arabesques
fold the air with a crêpe paper rustle.
He closes his eyes against vertigo,
presses the bark
that runs rough as unhealed grazes;
imagines a room maple-coloured
like a ship’s cabin and another man
who hears her breath
as if she is a child crouched in a wardrobe
waiting for the dark’s hard sounds
to resolve into words.
He enters her name again.
His thumb tingles as if the keypad
were a cool metal zip
lifted from the hollow in a neck,
wooden toggles slipped from their soft cotton locks.
He imagines the back of her head,
the stitches of her collar,
the fibres that sundust an earlobe.
Ridiculous human thing,
he types in another line of evidence,
again deletes it.
Buttons his coat right up to his throat
as if to head somewhere colder:
the wharf, say; oil-scummed water;
salt-sting squall; a place to gather a fist of gravel
as if everything launched and left to sink
is simple boyish sport.
The tuis’ coal-smoke ballet
ignites to black shimmer:
banks, plummets, surges higher.
He slips the phone back into his pocket
where he holds it
like a smaller hand he must warm,
fingers tipped on its skin
as if to a mouth:
Let’s not say anything more, now.
Rain in a fine mist tilted the afternoon
into underwater dark
as the bus pulled up to the lights
in late winter London traffic
where barrier tape, road cones and fluoro safety vests
snagged the eye like candles in the gloam
or delayed, milling carnival floats.
Every passenger turned to look:
books, phones, papers down, even ear-buds out
for the man next to me
whose head had danced hip-hop
every stop since Leicester Square.
A vivid fragment from the street event
had scudded up a high-rise’s face —
a balloon, I thought; or maybe festival celebrants
would dot every tower balcony from here,
waving banners, belting out songs
for a team win, or in the name of International Day
of Something I’d Clean Forgotten.
You’ll have guessed already — being either older,
less naïve, or skintight with optimism
than I was then—
about the man on the window ledge
his face a pale indistinct circle
his thin body in a dark blue suit
and the cop in the yellow emergency vest
trying to coax him gently back
into whatever life had led him there.
The compulsive thing then
in the cold, crushed silence of the bus
was to think and think
what could push a man so far
but understanding a little more, now,
of how many succumb,
how many ways they’re driven there
what I find this poem listens
and listens for over time
is what words came
as if the years were trees,
low, amber sounds in his mouth
welling like sepals or serum,
what did he know, what did he know
to say, that lone officer
beside the agonised man,
his own legs dangled alongside his
into the breach, the cannoning cataracts of air?