#WADOD – Day 20: March 20th 2019

Works and Days of Division – 29 poems by Martyn Crucefix

Drawing on two disparate sources, this sequence of mongrel-bred poems has been written to respond to the historical moment in this most disunited kingdom. Hesiod’s Works and Days – probably the oldest poem in the Western canon – is a poem driven by a dispute between brothers. The so-called vacana poems originate in the bhakti religious protest movements in 10-12th century India. Through plain language, repetition and refrain, they offer praise to the god, Siva, though they also express personal anger, puzzlement, even despair. Dear reader – if you like what you find here, please share the poems as widely as you can (no copyright restrictions). Or follow this blog for future postings. Bridges need building.1960s Graham and Elsie Hale - Winsley Rd

Wednesday 20.03.2019

‘now my bones take on the white of alyssum’

 

now my bones take on the white of alyssum

my bones

those mossy cushions in a grandfather’s front garden

 

my bones

though he’s long been in his grave

his daughter revives him without knowing how

 

his bones

time and again his bones where she sits in the morning sun

in the sun room

where the giant Scrabble board is stowed

 

his bones beside the giant ivory-coloured letter tiles

she will score twelve with the name of a flower

 

his bones a white perfume

her bones

 

my bones

trying to become an unobtrusive white bedding annual

an accident in the stonework of a bridge

 

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My Brief Career in Medicine

Last week I posted about my daughter’s absence, away now studying Medicine. As some of you will know, this is where I once began too, many years ago. Without any shred of exaggeration, it was a formative time and the following account of it (which first appeared in an earlier version in Agenda) tries to make some sense of it. 

1.

It was a hot August and I had a vision of a child, a baby staring at me, wanting to be lifted up. It lasted only a few seconds but I returned to the red-roofed Wiltshire house where I’d spent most of my 18 years, happier and now resolved. I could not turn my back on such an opportunity.

I’d applied to study Medicine for reasons I cannot now recover and may not have been clear even at the time. I’d had a series of interviews during the Upper Sixth year but only rejections had come back though I was held on a short list at Guys in London. Yet I’d already been struggling to focus on Biology, Chemistry and Physics, preferring to pick up the blonde, resonant body of a guitar and play Neil Young, David Bowie, Lindisfarne, you know the sort of thing. I had written songs but very few poems and those few from an almost complete ignorance of poetry. Shakespeare and Chaucer at O-level really was about it. My models were exclusively song lyrics which I listened to intently, following them on the lyric sheets inside the unfolding gates of album covers. My head was unhelpfully full of phrases from Van der Graaf Generator’s Peter Hammill and Jon Anderson of Yes – one a merchant of genuine, existential, gothic angst, the other a lyrical fantasist. Then Guys rang to offer me a reserve place to start in ten days time. Then came the vision of the child.

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2.

Because of the lateness of the arrangements in getting to London, I lodged in a room in Crookston Road, Eltham Park and commuted into London Bridge. The city I’d been parachuted into was in the midst of the Provisional IRA bombing campaign. The Medical School worked us hard though I never found it easy, or easy to devote myself to it. Within a week or so, we filed into the long upper room overlooking the inner quad. The windows down one side were filled with pallid light, a cloud-light flooding in from the London morning. We had watched a film which included queasy moments of blades easing through human skin though, even as I watched, it struck me as less informative, more likely to be readying us for the shock of encountering our first lifeless body.

His head was to the pale light of the morning. His feet were dry and yellowy and up-turned from the horizontal table where he lay. Though he’d once been human, he hardly seemed to be any longer. His skin was tough and thick-seeming, exactly like leather. The mound of a belly rose and fell to his groin dusted with greying pubic hair, a shrivelled prick and half-hidden balls. His legs ran on, thin and bony at the knee down to the up-turned toes. We all avoided looking at his face.

I wish I could remember who made the first cut. One of us must have done: into the leathery skin above the sternum. The blade needed pressing firmly and the upper layers peeled open a bit like a zip fastener, down towards the abdomen. We did not give him a name though we turned up to visit him every week for the rest of term. But then, he wasn’t ours alone. As we gradually opened up thorax and abdomen, arms and legs, students in the year above us were coming at other times and we’d arrive to find his skull opened, his cheeks slipping down his face, his eyes suddenly gaping and exposed to the light that greyed and wizened as the winter term progressed.

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3.

By November, I’d already bolted back to Wiltshire a couple of times and instead of medical text books, I’d started reading Hardy, Lawrence and H.E. Bates. In a poignant reminder of happier times, the school asked me to choose books for a prize-giving at Christmas. On a trip to Bath, I bought Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers and Lawrence’s England, My England. In Trowbridge, I scoured the second-hand bookshelves of Newbury’s, a bric-a-brac shop long since demolished and one morning I found a copy of George Eliot’s Silas Marner and a book called The Manifold and the One by Agnes Arber. I knew nothing of the latter but must have been attracted to the philosophical sounding title. In my growing tribulations at Guys, I was becoming deep. The questions I seemed to ask myself more and more yielded no easy answers and I had a notion this was called philosophy.

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The Arber book is a wide-ranging and syncretic survey, drawing on literary, scientific, religious, mystical and philosophical traditions, in pursuit of the experience which Arber defines as “that direct and unmediated contemplation which is characterised by a peculiarly intense awareness of a Whole as the Unity of all things”. Amidst the dissections, test tubes, bunsens, the red- and blue-dyed lung trees and chemical equations with which I uneasily engaged back in Southwark, I found consolation in Arber’s idea that life is an imperfect struggle. In those winter months, failing to work hard enough or get a firm footing in a bewildering city, I did not read passages about the “inevitable appearance of the awry and the fragmentary which we isolate in our minds” in a philosophical fashion. Rather this was my daily diet, strap-hanging on a delayed train into London Bridge, sneaking into emergency exits to catch the second half of Diana Rigg in Pygmalion on St Martin’s Lane, trudging up a drizzly Charing Cross Road to buy sheet music I could ill afford, drinking with others in The Bunch of Grapes on St Thomas Street, complaining how much work I had yet to do. Not doing it.

Already letters to old school friends were raising the prospect of leaving Medical School. When Arber wrote of the limited and artificial confinement of conventional thought (“a hard and fast orthodox system of logical regulations – many of which resemble the rules of a complicated game and have little concern with the attainment of truth”) I felt she was talking of my current studies. I had developed an attraction to the esoteric – it made me feel more justifiably the outsider I felt myself to be – and I got untold pleasure from hearing that masters of Zen Buddhism might declare to my lecturers, “Supreme Enlightenment goes beyond the narrow range of intellection – Cease from measuring heaven with a tiny piece of reed”.

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4.

But work piled up rapidly in the new term and after renewed attempts to devote myself to it, the old patterns of neglect and procrastination returned. Even though there were months left before I managed to act on my desire to leave, to beat a retreat from the big city, to set a new and more deliberate course, still the length of remembered time seems short. After Lawrence’s Apocalypse and Sartre’s The Age of Reason, I raced through Cohen’s Beautiful Losers, bewildered by its episodic narrative, its explicit sexuality. But it was Arber’s utterly different book that haunted me. One evening, staring out at Eltham, I wrote: “Down in the street / the puddles turn to raging light / night-time folds away the day / packing up the sun. Turning / through the broken stars, over, under / the chosen Far, making for homeward”. I listened to Radio Caroline in the evenings when I’d managed – not always and increasingly less often – a couple of hours of legitimate work. Dylan’s “keep on keeping on” fell on reluctant ears.

Then travelling blearily east from London Bridge, I forgot to grab my briefcase before stepping down onto the platform. It was a self-inflicted injury but had little real influence on the string of failures I achieved in the final exams. On another day – it was my nineteenth birthday – Margaret Thatcher defeated Ted Heath for the Conservative leadership. One day – it was a Friday – a train from Drayton Park failed to stop at Moorgate, overshooting the platform into a dead-end tunnel at 8.46 in the morning. As I walked gloomily from London Bridge through the black, wrought-iron gates of Guys, forty-three people had died.

Three months later I found myself sitting in my bedroom in Crookston Road, the growl of the busy A2 in the distance. I stared at packed bags and felt calm if utterly becalmed. One day, months later again – this was now the end of a second strangely untethered summer – the thought had begun to form that I might see myself as a student of philosophy, maybe work harder at the writing.

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Into the Swims – or She’s Leaving Home

A remarkable thing has happened in our house this week. My daughter’s room has been tidied – and it has remained that way.

The duvet is unrumpled on the bed. A phone charger remains thoughtfully unplugged on the floor beside the bed. The pages of Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend have not been turned any further. The few coins on the desk wait to be spent. No rubbish is accumulating in the plastic bin beside the desk. A laundry basket has been emptied and seems not to be refilling as it usually does. There are few clothes hanging in the wardrobe. The door stands open onto the landing for days on end. There is hardly a movement in the wave-shaped mirror beside which, vertically, a friend wrote in pencil  ‘Don’t crack the mirror’. Actually, to be truthful, there is the slightest of motions to be seen there – it’s me standing in the centre of the room, staring around.

We took her to university last weekend. We miss her. And in the absence of more detailed news we’re pretty sure she’s having a good time. She’s never friended us on Facebook but she somehow did so ages ago with my parents. So we hear remotely about smiling pictures, roseate cheeks in flashlight, black backdrops. I think yesterday she was supposed to be attending her first dissection (I remember that vividly – more of that in a later post perhaps).

In the mean time, to wish her well and permit myself some lovely sentimental thoughts of her in younger days, I thought I’d post a couple of older pieces I wrote which feature her.

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Both these poems originally appeared in Hurt (Enitharmon, 2010). The first derives from a walk we pursued when she was about 5, I think. By walk I mean, she walked a bit and I carried her on my shoulders the rest of the way. This was probably in the hills near Sedburgh – sheep country, close-cropped grass, heather, little stony paths. I suspect we plotted a waterfall or two into the route for a few squares of chocolate (temptation) for her and her older brother.

One thing after another

The ivory, angular vertebra I found
the day after the day my daughter found

and tried out her new word – fuck –
was bony, spiky to touch, rough as fuck.

I thought: Depths! Essence! Bone!
She bent to it, touched it, turning bone.

Leave it, I called. She said, Is it real?
White in the grass the contrast was real.

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The second poem is later, from an occasion when we were visiting Canadian cousins, staying in a house in the Lake Country north of Toronto. To me it felt like something out of early Margaret Atwood and we spent ages fishing from the rickety wooden dock, paddling in a rowing boat and (as here) swimming out to a tethered raft (she has always been a good swimmer).

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There is a well-buried allusion to Milton’s Paradise Lost in the middle of this poem – from the description in Book 1 of the fallen angels or devils closing in around Satan (“their doubl’d ranks they bend / From wing to wing, and half enclose him round / With all his peers” ll. 616-8). This is the second part of a sequence called Wilderness:

See my flesh and blood

here, bright and true

as a sun on the rise,

she launches herself

from the anchored platform,

flies into the air

over the blue-lit water,

unaware of tethers

beneath the surface,

of ropes, trailing weed,

slime, mud and scales

stiffening in reaction

to her vigorous action.

Here she is, hanging,

all parts my daughter,

curling like a ball,

the sudden black water,

while the white trunks

of ten thousand trees

cram the lake shore

and enclose her round.

All sounds hang back

as she arcs and peaks,

begins her slow bow

to the pull of gravity,

the smash of water,

the great churning

of foam and white limbs

yellowing as they spread

to carve out stroke

after buoyant stroke

into the swims of joy

and grief she’ll tread.

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Telstar (August 1962)

Play this while you read ….

Listening to the radio on an August Sunday evening, while Mum irons in the sitting room. She is waiting for Sing Something Simple, its opening verse in sickly sweet harmony: ‘Sing something simple/ As cares go by / Sing something simple / Just you and I’.

We seem to be grouped round, very close, all five of us. I am sitting high up to the wooden bureau which then stood on the back wall. Perhaps I am drawing or writing and the blue and white radio with its plastic round dial and padded plastic blue back is standing on top. Before Mum’s programme comes on, we catch the end of another, hear a record being played. This music begins like some mistake, crackling and buzzing as if the clumsy tuning dial on the radio has been nudged but eventually and incongruously a tambourine or hi-hat is tapping somewhere, electric guitars are labouring up a scale to a climax and the main tune begins to a galloping drum beat, instantly hummable on guitar and electric organ: da-da dah, da-di-da-di-da-dah.

Dad is trying to explain that the opening buzzing and hissing really is a satellite relay tuning in and I believe it – maybe he does too – and my thoughts are off into the air as the melody repeats itself, urging upwards in later sections which twangle in a more unearthly fashion and – despite a horrible earthen, earth-bound lurch to a higher key later – the climactic growling male voice – ah-ah-ahh, ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ahh – sends me away into a faux modern state of mind.

I’m not sure I am envisaging anything you’d call space – its blackness, cold and starry – but something far looser, more ill-defined, one place sending messages across distance to another; long empty spaces, but spaces more my familiars.

The clouds moving in a procession across the big sky to the northwest of our red-roofed house. The width of the darkened fields opposite the house. The canal’s black water. In places, the ripple of stars.