Category Archives: Poetry

First There is an Island

Later this week I’ll be taking a trip down the country, and also down the years. On Sunday 12th June, I’ll be reading a poem in Sandown on the Isle of Wight.

I started off writing poetry seriously around 2004 or so, as a kind of preliminary to practicing the longer forms of writing that I wanted to do. I still write poems from time to time, but mostly only when they literally mug me on the street and force me to (like this one did). The resulting works may be brief, particularly since I got interested in the liberating constraints of classic forms like the sonnet, but they burn through a lot of creative bandwidth in a short time, like fireworks; my mind has been busy with longer things in recent years, and as such poetry has become something of a back-burner discipline, a skill gone somewhat to rust, like riding a bike down the promenade after years of driving long distances.

But you know what they say about riding a bike, right? I dragged myself out of retirement in response to an unexpected commission, one of the weird synchronicities that life throws up every once in a while. See, a few years back I got sent by New Scientist to review an exhibition at the Lowry and interview the artist, one Katie Paterson. I enjoyed the art and our conversation, and wrote it up the only way I knew how, through the lens of science fiction.

It turns out that Katie appreciated that particular perspective, and the resulting review. Around a year ago, she emailed me to ask if I’d write something to accompany one of the stops on the “tour” for an artwork to take place in 2019, titled First There is a Mountain. And of course I accepted, volunteering to take the Isle of Wight gig — because the Island is just across the water from that other island, Portsmouth, where I spent half my life, and where I started to learn to write.

Quite why I decided to write a poem, and why said poem ended up as the thing it is (the commission was almost comically open-ended regarding form and word-count, which was both a blessing and a curse) will have to be a story for another time, I think. But if you should be in the area, you can hear me doing the debut reading of the piece, entitled “The point of the work is the work”, at 11am on Sunday June 12th 2019, somewhere along Yaverland Road in Sandown, as part of the Hullabaloo festival of arts, science and seaside kitsch. I’m looking forward to it, and to seeing some old friends while I’m there.

Opportunity cost

The people who lived in the portal were often compared to those lab rats who kept hitting a button over and over to get a pellet. But at least the rats were getting a pellet, or the hope of a pellet, or the memory of a pellet. When we hit the button, all we were getting was to be more of a rat.

A tiny (and, by comparison to the rest of it, fairly on-the-nose) slice from Patricia Lockwood’s extended-poem-essay-memoir-thing “The Communal Mind” at the London Review of Books — an astonishing piece of writing which somehow manages to capture not only the tumultuous sense of deindividuation that led to me bailing out of the birdsite, but also many of the reasons that having done so continues, years afterwards, to ache and itch like a botched self-amputation. Brilliant, disorienting writing for disoriented times. Do go and read it.

Brownout

I’m not sure what they’re calling it these days.
In my time you were “gouching”, “nodding out”;
there’ll be some other name for it, no doubt,
as language shifts its shape. But this malaise
remains unchanged: that head-down slump betrays
the use of morphine (or her daughters) like a shout
for help in silence. Mud-caked knees bent out,
his fingers blackened, burned, the way he lays —
like sleep released him from the pain of fear’s
reflection in the eyes of passers-by,
rejection every moment of the hour,
each hour of the day, the month. The years
slipped through those fingers, somehow — who knows why?
His fall was his, perhaps. His landing’s ours.

Rhyme vs. Reason

The why of my wanting you differs each time.
(The wanting, returning, is always the same.)
So strangle my reason and drown it in rhyme:
to query the telos of love is a crime.
(And I know there’s only one crook in the frame.)

The why of my wanting you differs each time;
this quiddity mocks me. Intense and sublime,
the language of love is revealed as a game
that strangles my reason and drowns it in rhyme —
so reason must die, then be buried in lime
and rise like a phoenix on feathers of flame.

The why of my wanting you differs each time;
in doing so, wanting refuses regime,
revealing the heart as a phoenix to tame.
I’ll strangle my reason and drown it in rhyme,
have faith in love’s meter and tempo, and chime
the bell in my chest at the sound of your name.

The why of my wanting you differs each time.
You tangle my reason; I crown you with rhyme.

Gimbal Lock (Degrees of Freedom)

It isn’t unpredicted, more unplanned.
This failure-state inheres in poor design
a limitation in my arm, my hand
my robot heart. This space, now undefined
degenerates, dimensions folding in
collapsing down to null infinitudes;
the target sweeps through zenith, and I spin
rotating through the same old attitudes.
My wrist is bound by singularities:
a universe of moves that I might make
but which is right? No way to tell. Degrees
of freedom: roll, or pitch, or yaw to break
the gimbal-lock paralysis of fear?
Now thoughtless thinking turns me to nadir.