“There are things we kept secret after the locking of the doors, the drawing of the curtains. Please read this by candlelight and then burn it to a flake. Be safe and reach through shadows silently towards the light…”
Sit down here, by this closed window and consider it this way: that not even dust remains of how things were before the sleep of reason; that not a carbon trace is left of what once might have been. Relax. Sit back in your chair and listen to my voice.
You know the properties of hope, of dreams, of rumours. You know how rich the imagined landscape, and how true that stranger’s voice, its cadences so clear. And then a sighting here and there of those enchanters in their motley, dancing by firelight and singing in the old tongue?
But now consider this: here, the light that shivers in my paperweight, these, the blue fumes from my cigarette, they are of the real world. Watch them with me now, just the two of us, and know from these my words and this the sound of my voice, the way things really are.
One of the wisest ladies I ever met was 'Aunt' Ellen Collins, the mother of my friend Georgie Collins. I got to know both of them, and the extended family, when they were illegally encamped whilst awaiting a verdict on the provision of an official site by Hampshire County Council. The caravans were drawn up on a piece of derelict land next to the M3 motorway. Conditions were appalling - mud everywhere and one cold water tap plumbed illicitly into a mains pipe serving the entire group of families. Eventually they were evicted and there was another two years of illegal stopping before a council site was provided. During that wait Aunt Ellen died of cancer.
Some years ago, initially as simply an experiment in post-Beat style, I began to write a sort of modern epic poem. It concerned the protagonist's quest across town - a snow-bound New York City - to find his lover. Within a few stanzas of departure the piece became so much more than just an hommage to those beloved Beats of yesteryear. I was drawn deep into the narrative and the search for an authentic voice to relate it. Others will judge whether either narrative or voice or both manage credibility on any level, but it remains one of my favourite poems.
This Sunday's Magpie Tales prompt picture had me pulling it from the files and re-posting it.
MANHATTAN TRANSFER – GOING DOWNTOWN
Starting from the raggy edge of a night of demons - Crazy Helga in a blue room across the alley, her shadow wild & ticky on the busted blind as she wails in German at her TV screen. Jesus, what a sound: something dark & spiny thrashing in her soul to cry like that.
You as the spidernet remnant of a dream, a fume that discharges in clear light.
And then, as I wash my face in windowmorning light, the snow still falling, thick like feathers, like the white silence under a wing. W. 186th – ghostblanketed cars, hydrants, phone booths, all mugged and compliant like freezeframe phantoms.
You as a lostsoul princess glimpsed on a busted boxtop in a trashcan.
So I step, a slo-mo dancer, a Magellan of the heart, a one-trick missionary with a world to lose, into the drifts and dunes and head towards Amsterdam. Julio’s got his cab on blocks by the sidewalk. He curses, half under snow with a wrench & a torch while old man Turpin turns Danish pastry snowslabs with a shovel & spits green pockholes deep.
You as a face from a crashed snowcloud, bloodless, tearless, turning away.
I sidestep the corner. Streetcenter subway breath in plumes, denying snow. In the deli the Slimani brothers rattle & blather round the kebab spit. Here is a grillbound, spice & powders corner of Algeria. On the wall the entire 1st team of AC Ajaccio, 1983, flyblown bouffant bushes dooming them to formica & disco history.
You, a rumor in the vapour bloom on chrome.
On Amsterdam cabs in chains; sunshine ghosts kicking up the crystals. One bent warrior with a stick raised like Aaron wagging the serpent, steps into white surf & disappears & reappears as one dressed in ashes for a wake. He moves like he’s been cauterized in a furnace of ice.
You as a smoke theory behind a high brownstone window.
Check into EJ’s for waffles & coffee & watch the steam reorganize the air into thick silver aboriginal mountains. I slide across vinyl amongst the prose & numbers shaken out of the NY Times - the clatter & flash of barcode headlines, the snap & flutter of papers lifting like sudden wings, from front page clamor to sports page sidewalk whisper: Giambi misses a 3rd straight game. “Felt fuzzy”, he says. Jesus, what a putz! And Sheffield’s sprain’s no problem. He’s good for Sunday’s game against the A’s. The boys kick it around - who are the king hitters? who are the dancing queens? “Who the fuck gives a fuck?” yells Nance stamping snow off her old lady boots. “Gimme a black coffee so I can stand my spoon up in it.”
You in the window waterscape, drawn south on a hundred streams. Which should I follow?
Through Morningside the snow’s a grey dreamscape. Bloodholes switch to emerald - the churn & spin of cop cars crying out loud across Cathedral Parkway. I’m highstepping from bootburrow to icefield, clogging deep & sliding hard. I drop dark beneath the streets - the visceral heat of the subway neon and the echo of the footstep cough & scuff, the hoot & slam wind. A rocking conspiracy of furtive travellers, wall-eyed or wrapped in paper winding sheets.
You as a hiphop chant in the wheels between Parkway & Columbus. Say my name, say my name like you’re winding up a spell.
At Columbus Circle the lights go dim, the brakes bind and for a moment we are all of one breath in the tarry dark. Then, singing his pain like a cantor, a guy in a Mets sweatshirt & a baseball cap with a busted peak jumps up. “We’re fucked, people!” he yells. His voice is like stones in a can. “We’re fucked! This the last train to San Fernando & we’re going down!”
You on the upline platform at Delancey & Essex in a brakeman’s cap from Dave’s Army & Navy. Blew me a kiss & turned into a winter fume.
Washington Square’s a cloud chamber, the heart of cumulus. My footprints turn secret & die behind me. The edge of everything touches my face & whispers in multiple falling voices. Bleecker carries me on a twilight current, turning, turning, the thick river, past the cameo flash of Mr Piombino hip-deep in front of the trattoria, dug into his own canyon down to the sidewalk, his spade disputing logic with the falling snow that beds thick in around his feet. Two cop cars, chained wheels flailing, and three kids in mufflers dancing like full moon maniacs through their slush & mud parabola. The ghost of Sid Vicious shivers on the corner of Bleecker & Grove in charcoal & tarnish. Nothing but slogans & a thin soul against a night of hustling bars looking for the trick who will whisper where his mother went one spectral Christmas Eve. Hell - once just his father’s name would have been enough to light a candle in the dark.
And now Bleecker crosses Broadway where the snowplows rule. Surgeons laying the white flesh bare. And I catch up my breath & I check the beat of my Magellan heart, cruising now into a safe harbour. The still pool of the East Village, the Stuyvesant rendezvous whose lights bleed pastel thin through still falling snow. Dido’s bar & grill whose door now unplugs & in a draft of steam it’s your tune comes stumbling onto the sidewalk in a spindrift of crystals and memory like you knew each step I took, each high step sliding down Manhattan’s lattices on hope & a dream unconsumed to seek you out, painted onto the inside of the glass in your logger’s coat, in your cossack hat like you knew & sliced the moment fine as ice & called me home with your spilled tune, its colors running in the current, and you rising sideways & your head turning in a mist saying my name, saying my name like you’re winding up a spell.
I've been working for some time now on my first video poem - a poem as soundtrack to a video presentation. Time plus the mastering of some new skills are impeding progress, but I'll get there.
Meanwhile, here are two of my poems in video format. The first - 'The Green Man' - was composed and edited by Dave Bonta, whose blog Via Negativa is a model of the format. The second - a poem called 'Stopping' - is the product of the equally enterprising Nic Sebastian, curator of the wonderful Poetry Storehouse.
Both the poem and the instrumental 'Joy' commemorate the life of Joy Fraser, who died in 1997. She was the mother of Doug MacGowan, my friend and band-mate.
Joy was an enormously energetic lady, passionately interested in people and in the world around and beyond. I miss still her wild sense of humour, her generosity, her grace under pressure and that invaluable sense of being in the company of someone to whom one feels entirely attuned.
A long time gone. New traffic on the stairs tracing your even pace over the risers; other long fingers turning, turning the wine glass stem; other laughter wrapped in the leaves of your voice.
How easy to live in this reconfigured world: an exchange of horizons, alternative sunsets, a hill, or no hill at all.
But easy too the swift self-gathering into one's own shadow on street, in hallway, or on that same staircase when tears reflux without warning and there is only what was.