On each of the 30 days running up to my 30th birthday I wrote and posted a new poem. In their daily rhythm, they ended up acting as a kind of diary or clock, with a keen and humdrum aphasia at their core. Scroll down to read them in reverse order, starting with the final one, made up of lines from all of the previous ones stitched together so that they speak differently. I think they probably make up a collection called Autoplay.
Again, I’m looking through a bay window, | because the future marshals us with gestures. | Enough. Perhaps it is that every day | you wore your first uniform for school | towards the end of vast and massy chains, | at where something has just vanished from the sky. | If you wanna continue to look at the living| are you still watching? The screen goes blank to save | a newer blankness filling with almost exactly | the eye’s capacity for total vision unim- | Somewhere an ocean begins to sink | from windows. Was someone somewhere sighing? | What horizon might have closed the deal? | Autumn exploding on trees like muted rockets | where everybody’s song’s a different song? | With past moving oppositely, the future’s filling up, | guy, outside a window, looking in. | At evening, at an airport, at the join, | the land is tall. The light is tall. November’s full of memory, | remember? For example, remember when I said | we’re thinking of types of silence. | All afternoon the year begins expiring. | The days are growing gone, | on the chimneys as much as the sky, the blunt sky. | You’ll soon believe me absent. | For a little while now I’ve only been able to sleep. | All of our time is another time’s collapse. | Today, the trees the colours of Bonnard paintings | shaded the pond, another pond, another pond, | meeting then moving to sift across | those silent, newborn, ancient shores.
November 18th 2021
For Adam on the Eve of his 30th Birthday
On the morning of my thirtieth birthday, there’s a lunar
eclipse, the longest partial lunar eclipse
since 1440, the longest ’til 2669,
invisible, here, in London’s piles of rooms,
its mocked umbral contact of lips and lights.
Read through these days ‘n’ you’ll clock that I’m haunted
by cities, the way they both emit and omit
all the available quilt of the light, pollute
the stars in passing, vomit a column of life.
Everything that is is on a scale of its own, wrote
the recently-late Etel Adnan, then, There’s, under
it all, a tremendous weakness, comforting those
in weighted-blankets in snow, with tides of waters
moving as skin. Look at the lamp of the covering moon:
all of our time is another time’s collapse,
every day’s pre-history if there’s history yet to come,
night spills into day like red wine
on carpets, the last dark of some or other
era soaks the sky. Disclaimer: everyone
was harmed in the making of this picture.
Ask not what the painting can do for you;
ask what your country is doing to its paintings.
In this way and this, I line myself,
open a new tab and type in the bar:
Jon is flicking through stars through windshields,
Joe’s keeping a wake in Brussels,
Annie and Nick are building buildings in the south,
Roly and Becky finding the words for/in the pictures,
Tina’s singing down everyone’s chimneys hooks
we couldn’t have otherwise known,
Tom’s locking into the pulse in the Rio,
Patrick doing a no-look pass with some truths,
Ethan knowing what’s flying in the North,
Soph speaking speech into mouths,
Ollie pressing ‘enter’ and entering out,
Hona-Luisa beetling through heartbeats in slimes,
Rose sitting opposite the firehouse,
Sam putting the ‘colour’ and the ‘water’ in ‘watercolour’,
Note: for the idea of putting friends inside poems, / as for the many, many other ideas with which / I try my damnedest to live, / I’m completely indebted to better poems / by everyone from Bernadette Mayer / to, always, RJCB. / To anyone I’ve missed / you’ll get yours someday. / They’re all for you, anyway.
November 17th 2021
For a little while now I’ve only been able to sleep
by thinking my way into dreams of total freefall.
I start with an Earth a dome below, bluer
than I know how to picture, horizons lenses
like lemniscates, curved impossibly. I’m so high up
there’s nothing to signal my fall, yet, which happens
at first like a slow, swaying, sink through liquid
light, or a sac of amniotic fluid.
Then I blister past an aeroplane
in which I sit behind the wing watching
me blink through flocks of swallows and condors, cities
picking themselves together, horrent, taller
now, more total, and I’m suddenly not in a dream,
and my dataless core gets loosed all over the pavement.
November 16th 2021
Right Click, Saviour As
What price the scaffolds
of pixels among what
What testament done four
ways? What songs spoiling for
the illusion of the illusion
of choice? Hoist what bones
along the east-west lines, high
on the throats of what woods?
Let the rib taste venom. Watch
the iris pinch-zoom figures
salvaged through wind through walls.
You’ll soon believe me absent
then my absence absent too.
November 15th 2021
Gasometers at Clichy
It feels as though Signac set out to do
the house alone, only adding a single
daub a day, taking so long the future
timelapsed up around it. Look at a lack
of grass erasing the foreground, then becoming
that blank, shouldering wall by which the building
begins to forget itself, its other living
reds. The lines of something leaving, passing
through us like a ghost, exit the front of the
frame in curves. Some light is being luminous,
on the chimneys as much as the sky, the blunt sky
a bright blank allowing the house to pinch
the centre. The gasometers gather like gods or stacks
of coins to watch the work-pants never drying.
November 14th 2021
The days are growing gone.
Familiar light folds
along a field,
a room. Other feet
have known this water.
Something moved once
Wavelengths of voice,
related to cheeks
are going onward, out.
Heart, they’re vaster
by the year.
November 13th 2021
The world’s first urban autumns signalled
and included these, their last. Sparrowhawks
side-eye service stations beneath a henge
of moon. A petrol-coloured dome of sky
hides a dwindling fizz of insects. Simply
look at us, in love in a lapsing world.
I want to move through cold water with you,
feel its skin allow our skins, see
our oils create a complex of surfaces, lifting
off our bodies like the warmth inside a room,
like lightning teasing air apart before
it pours into the earth, a pure, fluid
arm of vibe, a muscle made of light.
All morning we sleep inside each other like crooks.
All afternoon the year begins expiring
into colour, soft fountains of shades
the trees. All night we’ll go away this weekend,
watch the world removing its spectacles.
November 12th 2021
In identical corners of emergency rooms
we’re thinking of types of silence.
In identical cities on opposite poles
we’re thinking about these cities,
which causes our minds to go the colour
of cities from a thousand feet up,
that is, no colour at all, at least
no colour I could ever describe.
Later on the walls of the gallery
each work becomes an emergency,
a room, an emergency room, or a time-
lapse film of these two cities,
lenses swooping from a thousand feet
onto me in the corners of emergencies.
November 11th 2021
The flavour of memory is desire. I want to remember,
remember? For example, remember when I said,
“The flavour of memory is desire”? Now it’s twice
been uttered, you’re compelled, backwards, upwards,
your motion towards the future a curving into the past.
Before you read the next line, observe a minute’s silence.
How did it go? Did you meet anybody back there?
Did the moan of a prop-plane brown the background?
Did the noise of sepia watercolour everything?
Did sound-FX your mind’s ‘Save As’-ed from video
games (the popping-corn of bullets over
cities, duvet-rustle-static over
radios) layer over and out the scene?
I wish I didn’t know what an MP40
feels like, but I do: warm. I wish
that through my hooded front blade I could see
a little more. Form dissolves in memory.
Bodies become a carpet of bodies over time.
The flavour of memory is desire. I can’t remember
anything. I’ll try and make it up.
November 10th 2021
Creation Myth Creation Myth
The land is tall. The light is tall. November’s full of memory.
The year and years before are casting backwards from today.
Hasn’t the daily inching of the scrub been noticed yet?
Don’t the sun and satellites reverse across the sky,
the silts of mornings redissolve into their own befores?
The eye’s colluvium compels an amity of rock,
returning cuffs of chalk to cliffs receding from the waves.
Winter holds its breath while passing by in corridors.
Siphonophores are jet-propelling lance-wise through some deep.
An afternoon relays itself across a triptych of windows,
inside the middle one of which a story’s resolutely paused.
From here, it seems, there are exactly three ways things might go.
The first is growing through themselves a land of crab and stone.
Second, bulletlike buds could fire a garden wide of the moon.
The third is literally anything else, then anything else again.
November 9th 2021
At evening, at an airport, at the join
of three different national borders,
a moth along a lance of sun.
It isn’t insufficient light
prevents us seeing
each other fully across
the streaked sphinx of the sky.
Something good and true never
lacks its defenders,
nor those who hope to destroy it,
but here, where world is open, now
through rings in ropes of snow,
don’t you go
inventing separate yous.
November 7th 2021
Windowlag/Driving South Again
Some clouds are cold inside. The room the sky
is entering is everybody’s mouth. Closing
my fists, it’s time to reel my headlamps for the night.
Fireworks frill the road, their plumes multiplying on
my windshield, the next car’s left window,
a passenger’s phone-screen. The future’s filling up
with past, moving oppositely. The future’s filling up
with past, oppositely moving. The future’s filling up
a passenger’s phone-screen. The future’s filling up
my windshield, the next car’s left window.
Fireworks frill the road, their plumes multiplying on
my fists. It’s time to reel my headlamps, for the night
is entering. Is everybody’s mouth closing?
Some clouds are cold inside the room, the sky.
November 6th 2021
The face of Christ appears inside my latte
art, live-fed to legions of follo-ollowers,
and everyone sings it back with one another
in one or another form, like a silent disco
where everybody’s song’s a different song
but, miraculously, at the same BPM.
Howdy, sports-star, what’s among the muck
today, you who make a music of mud?
A puddle couples canopies of planets
with fields. Looking down, I clock the universe.
You cap a promise with a tackle (the ground
performs a version of us in waves on impact),
asking “Who is Adam Heardman, and when
is he at home? Hello? Is anybody where?”
November 5th 2021
I visit the ward on Tuesday, in the city’s west,
autumn exploding on trees like muted rockets.
Read me your new poems? you ask with quiet zest.
I eye the too-loud telly, hands in my pockets.
I know I can’t dodge it, or what’s the point
of having written them anyway? I grab my phone
and thumb this scroll for something the right tone,
pausing on first lines randomly, out of joint.
We didn’t learn enough to justify…
Driving north, I feel like night…
Cancel every meeting with the sky…
Because the poem can’t decide for us,
I settle on this one, the first line of which goes
Hello. It’s been a while. It’s so lovely to see us.
November 4th 2021
We didn’t learn enough to justify
the killing of a good dog. Hitting
what horizon might have closed the deal?
Laika was given a window, the earth’s first
frame, her mission to look back in longing
at circles of silent faces, blank branched streets.
People also ask: Did Laika suffer?
What’s Laika doing now? Did someone call
her limonchik, little curly lemon
bug? In space, can silence turn to matter?
Did her young blood curdle with ozone?
Did a slick of cold enter the core
of her eyeteeth? Did her eye become
the earth, her nostrils dazzle into atmosphere?
November 3rd 2021
Carry On Carrion
The city’s people’s patterns looked like mortar.
I think we’re talking Wednesday, here.
The river’s water’s heaviness was looking like
a long grey sock, until it reached a deeper
water, and began to look different.
The coming crises wore their finest cloaks,
flashing a bit of ankle, the fonts of theatre
menus. Oooooooooooooooh, Matron,
I thought, and headlonged out the coffee-shop
to shelter inside the rain. What undid
me in the end, wet entering my espadrilles,
a clutch of skeletal piano chords dribbling
from windows, was someone somewhere sighing,
We get it, man, stuff’s like other stuff.
November 2nd 2021
Driving north, I feel like night
might as well owe me a picture.
The slow, beaded rattle of the lit
parts of the A1(M) ribbons me out
until I’m like a sword of ice in space
choosing a planet to orbit. The screaming, alien
boredom of my lonely engine hums, and
I’m speaking aloud with the dark before I know it.
I see an oval of road / nor the trees which don’t abut it.
The mountain is vast / see how easily I eat it.
The morning is coming / like a residue I leave it.
Somewhere an ocean begins to sink
beneath a blooming rug of oil.
At the edge of the bowl of my headlamps
the florid tares of night beckon me home.
November 1st 2021
Last night you dreamed to me about someone
who gave birth to only an eyeball. It seemed to
have a sentience, a pulse within the pupil,
an expressive turn, nudging itself along
with a tail of cramping muscle and ocular nerve.
After the usual fight between the scalpel of science
and the balloon of love was won, like a Spielberg film,
the eye’s capacity for total vision unim-
paired by flesh or thought brought the droves
of faithful, seeking the cease of seeking in
the absolute centre of sight. My turn came.
I spoke to the fluted iris. Am I lucid
dreaming, or dreaming of lucid dreaming?
It coiled beneath itself, rose a little, and appeared to nod, yes.
October 31st 2021
Lines Supposedly Written Avril 14th
As the day’s edges appear
to slope outward or away,
we’re beginning to talk past each other.
“The only difference between ‘jet suit’
and ‘Jesuit’ is a question of technique
on how best to ascend”, you say.
In lofty beams, infidel bunches
of boysenberries are beginning to go
ripe inside the megachurch.
Something thrown is cutting
a wake through a window.
“An orchard is quite like a brain.”
Today, for the first time, you both
‘heard of’ and ‘heard’ a peal of bells,
the terms modulate, attack, release, decay.
I follow you through: every room
of a Bruce Nauman retrospective;
a ribcage of pews; a sheet of laser
making a canopy over our heads
at an Aphex gig near some docks;
a conversation over pianos.
We’re beginning to talk past each other,
to slope outward, or away,
as the day’s edges appear.
October 30th 2021
and throw your face through your face
– Graham Foust
Cancel every meeting with the sky.
Forward all my calls to the colour-
field. I’ll be staying in the abstract, today.
It’s time to claim to fail to climb
out from the depths of my mouth. Let the oat
milk curdle. Forget to freeze the halibut.
Regret is finding the rub of the truth that even
hitting backspace simply sends you to the future,
a newer blankness filling with almost exactly
what went before. Now I’m receding into now
regret’s this week’s worst hangover, a pain like fireworks
through mud, like trying to throw your face through your face
or the boiling veins in your eyeballs. Still, what we do
here’s the stuff of gods. The roots are also the cosmos.
October 29th 2021
Are you still watching? The screen going blank to save
itself, or cutting cold to a red-brick maze?
You can only live so long before you hurt,
at least, a fly, only long so long
before you’ve slept in every room of longing
’s curious house, which generates its corners
more the more you try to turn them. Sleep
mode overcomes me, haunted by the next episode,
my future queued in stacks like postcards sent
before untimely death (the only kind), arriving after
over what appears to be that “It”
that nobody won’t shut up about. Anyway,
if anyone’s still watching, I go blank
to save myself, let the autoplay ride.
October 28th 2021
You can learn a lot about yourself
by your relationship to rain, what
you use to interrupt it. Palm, tongue,
or jerrycan. Crown, rib, or eyeball.
Strychnine local waters lapping loosely
in the font begins the beachside funeral.
Over by the buffet, forcing meat
between my teeth, I bump into a guy
who says, as rain tattoos the sand, buddy,
you’ve gotta forget what death does to a face –
mouth folding like a shattering zeppelin,
eyes like an oval of sky fizzed with flame
then greyer than fog in front of rotten temples –
if you wanna continue to look at the living.
October 27th 2021
I bumped into another autumn morning. Ouch.
I admit it, I was looking over my shoulder
then over another shoulder, then over there
at where something has just vanished from the sky
like Poussin adding pigment to remove
a flock of pigeons from beyond a citadel,
painting, therefore, aftermath itself.
Like long-exposure prints of rivers, every
painting is a painting of an after,
the present moment streaming into history
behind the canvas like inks in fast water.
I run my throbbing head beneath the tap
and think, does ‘me’ begin at skin
or some other, further cloud.
October 26th 2021
Is a grounded group of birds a flock,
still, or is their recognition based
on leaving lakes behind? Is a toast
a prayer to drink, a prayer a toast to God?
I know as I sit here that somewhere there dies a boy
in a street, his mouth filling up with leaves.
I know when I leave here my blood will transform a cup
in the mouths of my friends. I know I’ll never know
quite how or when to say goodbye,
but hope it’s known, in general, that I wanted to.
Towards the end of vast and massy chains
I am, I think, responsible for dim
and spacious griefs. Forgive me. Cancel Christmas
if it helps, swap my soul (goodbye) for thine.
October 25th 2021
Open onto morning like a blister
– line removed for use in a different poem
The days like grains on grains don’t heap.
A moorhen’s summons calls us to the mornings
of our cells. A suburb of children with scoopnets
in fists disturb the throats of frogs. Frogs throw
their voice with a sound like wet glockenspiels.
Bernadette Mayer writes a duck
flies away / using circles. By
the end of this line, you’ll have a new memory
of wanting to feel the way you felt the day
you wore your first uniform for school.
By the end of this line, you’ll have a new
memory, a new memory of the previous
line. A kid throws crumb, then crumbs, then the whole
bagel at a duck, using circles to give the world flight.
October 24th 2021
The days like grains on grains don’t heap
– line removed for use in a different poem
Open onto morning like a blister,
biscuits of light covering either eye
like cucumbers in a cartoon spa, I turn to be
unable to see your blinded face for sun.
The mathematic edges of the calendar
solve into the number of how many towels
we can set to going dry on the bannister,
whether or not the cat’s saliva dropped
like chaos into my coffee, its pattern of heat
coiling into my palms.
If love is not
enough, perhaps it is that every day
we wipe away each other’s gunky sleep
from the ampoule-shaped ducts of our eyes,
then take it in turns to do the same for the cat.
October 23rd 2021
Because the poem can’t decide for us
if winter’s yet begun
because the future marshals us with gestures
learned before we’re born
because everything I’ve said could fit inside
an ampoule of ice of your spit
because “we are not in the same place”
because “the subject is unaware of our presence”
because I turned away before the clouds completely occluded
because I’m looking through between two windows to where I’m sat
because it might not happen only
because it already has
because the poem decides all this for us
you obviously have my permission to do this.
Note: the lines “we are not in the same place” and “the subject is unaware of our presence” were spoken by, I think, the popular Dutch artist Casper Faassen, a slick and polished Art Fair favourite who nevertheless summed up this idea nicely enough. The poem as a whole is a response to a better poem written by Rowland Bagnall.
October 22nd 2021
The things of winter lurch into your path.
Some branches paw agog the space that’s grown
an emptiness between them. Foxes sniff
the fibreglass on undersides of cars,
a knife of wind in either nostril, limbs
about to clutch into a scrabbled exit.
The air is only cooling, can’t quite get
cool. There aren’t the peals of bells beyond.
Again, I’m looking through a bay window
at the outside of a window set
into the same wall. To be clear,
the bay protrudes enough for me to see
back into the room in which I sit
ignoring the foxes, the lack of the sound of bells.
Antaeus Ad Astra: A Poem
A few months ago, Jeff Bezos went to space. Sort of. The CEO of Amazon, richest man since Mansa Musa, and compulsive ten-gallon-cowboy-hat-wearer blasted himself off into (and beyond) the sky in a rocket which (as many have noted but which bears repeating) looked extremely like a massive cock.
10 minutes later, he was back again, having cusped beyond the Kármán line (the sketchily-defined boundary separating the upper atmosphere from outer space) for a couple of seconds, alongside his other crew members.
It seems you either buy into this mission or not. You’re either entirely on Team Bezos or you’re part of the carousel of dick-joke memes. Maybe something as baldly immense as The Cosmos defies nuance (to say nothing of someone so baldly and corruptedly rich as Bezos). But is there some other possible response to the new Joy Ride Space Race? What can we think about other than ‘wonder’ on the one hand and ‘willies’ on the other?
The wonder of space is twofold. It is, of course, the ‘Final Frontier’, a vacuum so total and terrifying that it draws us into itself. We have a compulsion towards the unknown, and nothing defines the unknown quite like space. But, perhaps even more potently, we’re drawn out into the abyss so that we can look back on ourselves. Its blackness is a mirror. Centuries before Bezos’ bell-ended rocket, outer space was imagined as a vantage point for self-searching. Dante, Chaucer, and many of their Classical precedents imagined upward ascents with the goal of looking back. Cicero’s famous passage relating the Dream of Scipio sees the Roman General carried up into the cosmos to look down on Carthage. Once there, he views its smallness and fragility with scorn.
But let’s consider a more optimistic version of this trope. In Jean Corbichon’s 15th Century French translation of the 13th Century On the Properties of Things by Bartholomeus Anglicus, a very curious image appears (see above). Four men, scientists or philosophers, look through a porthole down onto the globe of the earth, deep in discussion. As an excellent video from Birkbeck, University of London, explains, this picture makes us “think about looking”, and think about ourselves.
Where this vision differs from Bezos’ is important. In the picture, our planet is spiked with structures, and the alien terrain on which the men stand is a flourishing natural landscape. This might easily suggest to our modern mind a group of environmentalists lamenting the urban sprawl which makes Earth look bristling, uninviting. The phallic upward thrust of architecture is envisioned as a globalised competition, a capitalistic impulse which, in reaching upwards, in fact sees us fall away from the Golden Age ideal of Eden. The alien garden (which researchers identify as including recognisable flora from across the globe, from Europe to Baghdad and Jerusalem) and its turban-wearing philosophers offer an attractive counterpoint to the globalising consumerism of Christianity and its spires, below.
Secondly, this image is an imagined one, not a literal spaceflight. It’s an accessible vision, inviting debate and discussion, a matter of perspective and thought. We, the viewers, stand alongside the scientists, seeing what they see, participating in their talks. With them, we look down on ourselves. It’s an image of fantastical ambition and wonder, but at all times a shared and humanised one. Let’s not forget that this illustration appears in a book which discusses everything from outer space to people’s spit. There’s a democratic spread of thought and vision, here, alongside which Cowboy Bezos’ billionaire posturing looks to have missed the point, taking an overly-literal approach to the question.
Jeff’s trip to almost-outer-space reminded me also of the mythical figure of Antaeus. A giant from Libya, Antaeus was an unbeatable wrestler. The source of his strength was contact with the ground. If his opponent threw him down, he simply gained greater power, stood up, and won the match. It was Heracles who finally had the smart idea of lifting him up, therefore rendering him powerless.
Seamus Heaney wrote a beautiful poem about Antaeus, imagining the giant’s troubled interior monologue, the insecurity of a power which knows its own fatal weakness. It’s an acute skewering of the kind of overcompensating male panic which might, for example, see a divorced man spend millions of dollars on a dick-shaped spaceship. Heaney’s Antaeus is proud and bombastic, inviting all challengers, as long as they meet him in his cave. His weakness he describes, in a delicately-hinged oxymoron, as “My elevation, my fall”.
Watching, during a time of unimaginable crisis, the world’s richest person tap our global resources of money, time, and collective attention to fuel his own project of elevation felt, to me, like a great fall. It also literally was a fall, if looked at in a certain way. At the peak of his flight, Bezos was at zero-G, beyond that Kármán line, and so the whole concept of ‘up’ became arbitrary. His rocket had fallen off the world. He’d entered a zone in which up, down, and any other hierarchical construct, fell away into nothingness. Hopefully he learned something.
The poem below imagines Antaeus as an aspiring astronaut (Antaeus Ad Astra of course meaning ‘Antaeus to the stars’). His desire to rise above the earth I imagine as the result of a childhood experience. Reading an Atlas of the earth, the child Antaeus feels compelled to consume it whole. His vast and sensuous ambition leads him to put his tongue to the page. He tries to eat the earth, but it rebukes him. He rises away, hurt, defeated, divorced, and vows to keep on rising, separating, relishing the pain. Only when he achieves this solo pursuit and finally breaks free of the atmosphere does he realise, like Heaney’s Antaeus, that his elevation is his fall. If the poem hopes to mean anything, it’s in occupying this kind of all-consuming mindset to expose its fragilities. Also, the rocket is a bit like a penis.
Antaeus Ad Astra
Snow makes shapes like flame.
Crystals of atmosphere blister on contact
with the obliterative heat of the metal.
Zones of sky implode around the rockethead.
At the peak of its parabola,
like any flung thing,
the craft hits, for a moment, stillness,
an apogee of bandied zeroes,
no gravity, no miles-per-hour.
A pulse preoccupies the universe
with this first of our fallen-off,
dawning into dark like nothing’s womb,
the absoluteness of an infinite ‘before’.
Before which, years before, imagine Antaeus,
younger (though eternal), crouched
above his Atlas laying on the ground,
corrupted spine split and abused, wrestled
shoulders set against the muck of earth,
open on pictures of world; corrugated rivers,
fluked mountainsides, ruffs of contours
rippled over land, carpets of ocean.
Billionaire-to-be, the boy-Antaeus
tongues at the print, wanting hot mud,
a bristle of poison bracken, earthblood.
But the world retracts its meadows like a count
down. Taste recedes to page and ink.
Saliva blots Pacifics like a mould.
And Antaeus rose blushed above.
In backing off the Atlas-world he feels
the sinews strain, wrought air-flesh
stretched like creaking cling-film between
his aching chest and the earth-page,
feeling the sweet juice of a welcome pain,
like bothering the blooming scab of a wound
or nudging an ulcer in a pocket of gum,
suffering elevation, going on being loosed.
Now, as T-minus crumbles into zero,
the rocket lists away from the globe,
the curled-up-seahorse of the human self
among some subcutaneous sac
parts its soft protuberant beak, as if
to speak anything at all to mark the break.
And, for a moment, every human eye
across the planet squints through silent distances.
On the cap of the rocket the atmosphere’s remaining
ice and ozone boom into a thin
balloon, and Antaeus the astronaut
leans to stretch his nose across the Kármán
line, hand over head over heels in love
with the selfhood of his solo oblivion.
With an inward sigh the vacuum enters
his body prising away from its own material
and he floats. Muscle and tissue catch
a drift away from every part of themselves,
and tides of blood begin to lilt and waft
like cleaned-off meat in kitchen sinks.
For the few bought seconds outside
of our globe does Antaeus gain a purchase
on the arbitrated network of ‘up’?
Does once again his fisted tongue
taste ink? Does inky dark begin to bulge
capillaries across his brain? The shiver
in the backs of his knees give him to know
the incontestable reality that up,
down, and every related idea, do not
exist, there’s only motion, falling (out,
away, or into place), relation to
the peopled and its opposite space?
The stars, turning, have no backs to turn,
going on away into increasing speeds,
their boiling mass of total surface just
faces in every direction, forever.
Grimacier: A Poem
The best piece of video ever captured did the social-media rounds again recently. It takes place in a corridor in a club somewhere, sometime during the mid 2000s. Mike Skinner of The Streets is gurning his way through an interview, extremely obviously under the influence of loads of pills.
“Peter Mandelson, right, went mad”, he says. “In the ’80s, Peter Mandelson lost it, big time.” The interviewer here tries to get a word in edgewise; tries, it seems, to make some kind of pun on ‘Mandelson’ and ‘Mandy’. You can’t blame him for the effort, but it’s just not happening.
“Nah, nah, he started, like, hearing voices in his head and shit, telling him to, like, kill Tony Blair, and shit”, Skinner goes on, his face a druggy-as-fuck picture of concentration and conspiratorial focus. Bass thuds through walls, and we hear the screeches of a string sample. Skinner’s face then subtly perks up, more magnanimous, coolly triumphal: “But he came back from it!”
Let’s press pause for a second, here, and acknowledge that Peter Lord Mandelson has once again, unfortunately, ‘come back from it’, re-established into a position of some power by a floundering Sir Keir Starmer. On the 11th of May, in the Guardian, Mandelson claimed that Labour can win back voters by ‘looking out, not just in’, before going on to thinly veil his instinct for self-promotion within unconvincing Starmer-support, and also (probably deliberately) display an extremely loose grasp of what ‘hard left’ means and how Trade Unions work, among other things.
Whatever the voices in Mandy’s head are telling him (and it seems, as ever, to result in a political theory and praxis that is at a distant, convoluted remove from the real world), we can thank them for the phrase ‘looking out and in’ in the current context.
Looking out and in at once is one of the few things poems are good at doing (and, incidentally, something people who’ve taken a bunch of ecstasy are very good at doing): an overshared, performed introversion. The whoosh of a good poem or a good, gurning, pilled-up monologue is an aspect that seems to have more than one face, to perform ‘seeing’ from various vantages, to define interiority by glancing it against the everything outside, but to distill all of that into one focussed runnel. It’s like seeing twice at once, an over-actualisation of the self. Who knows how much it means, but we’re left with a sense that it does, at least, mean. This kind of simultaneous looking is important, and I’m convinced it’s something that art and poems can teach. It allows us to face trying circumstances, tragedies, futures with acuity and understanding, exercise judgement and fellowship in moments of historic transition. Am I saying quite what I mean? Maybe not. It’s been a long year(s).
The UK is undergoing a transition, of sorts, from interior to exterior. July 19th 2021 has been dubbed ‘Freedom Day’. It marked the government’s lifting of almost all measures that had been put in place to fight the spread of coronavirus. It’s a move that’s sent some people back out into clubs to gurn and grimace their way through their ecstasies, while leaving others gurning and grimacing in disapproval behind their stolidly still-worn face masks (presumably, those who buy into the concept of ‘Freedom Day’ now see the United Kingdom as having joined the long (and potentially lengthening) list of countries who can celebrate their independence from the United Kingdom).
In its many-faced, multidirectional, divisive, historical, obfuscatory, post-colonial, late-stage-of-the-capitalist-empire weirdness, Freedom Day got me thinking about the figure of the Grimacier. Paris at the start of the 19th Century, after the Napoleonic wars, suddenly turned around to find itself a cosmopolitan city of many peoples, a hub for culture and the sciences, at once the world-dominant power and experiencing a sort of ongoing crisis of identity. Scientists flocked from around the world to catch the lectures of Alexander von Humboldt before he escaped again on another expedition. Artists from across Europe hurried to the Louvre to sketch the various cultural curiosities reaped from Imperial plunder before they were all strenuously repatriated. Old money promenaded amongst the bourgeoisie and rubbed shoulders with a boomingly cosmopolitan populace. It was, in short, a time of furious inward-outward movement, and a period of self-reflection at the end of an era, much as we find ourselves in now.
The ambulating, self-reflective Parisian populace were a primed audience, which saw the rise in popularity of a large class of street performers, one of which was The Grimacier. As Colta Ives puts it, when discussing Louis Léopold-Boilly’s grimacing self-portraits (one of which is seen at the top of this page), “The Parisian population, which grew enormously in size and diversity during the nineteenth century, delighted in examining itself from every angle. The “grimacier”, a popular street performer of the day, mirrored the appearance and emotions of the city’s inhabitants.” The job of the Grimacier was to make faces.
An aside: visiting France at the outbreak of the Revolution, Madame Tussaud, of wax museum fame, was imprisoned after being denounced as a royalist by a Grimacier. The revolutionary performer spotted the Tussaud family in the audience of a small theatre and alerted the gendarmes. Madame Tussaud narrowly avoided execution (she even had her head shaved ready for the chop), and spent some time thereafter making waxy death masks of Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and other victims of the guillotine. Was the face of this Grimacier in her mind thereafter as she moulded the visages of her sculptures and founded her famous London museum? Making faces is often adjacent to making history.
Another aside: ‘making faces’ is a sort of tautology – ‘face’ probably has roots in the Latin ‘facere’, ‘to make’. So, like Sahara Desert means ‘desert desert’, ‘making faces’ means ‘making making’. Or reflecting reflecting. The same thing twice in two ways. Tautologies are interesting in the current context because they enact a collision between sameness and difference, another kind of ‘simultaneous looking’ that’s important to the poem which follows this sort of intro/essay/thing.
The job of poems, like that of the Grimacier, is often to reflect the reader, or the world, back at themselves. But slant, askance, dialogically. From many angles at once. And, also, to ask readers to participate in a moment of performed history, creating a tiny theatre where revolutions can be enacted.
The speaker in the poem which follows is a Grimacier. He’s in Paris at the start of the 19th century, but also somehow in a contemporary city. Let the setting be fluid. He takes into himself a heady mixture of stimuli – the sounds and sights nearby, the distant frontiers of contemporary colonial activity, the feeling of his own blood inside him – and crunches them together into the lines of his face. He then begins his performance, making a series of complicated faces, hoping to catch the eye. He’s aware that history can happen in his clowning, but he’s also just trying to get by.
As the UK unlocks itself this summer, it risks plunging the world into even greater covid despair. The visible effects of climate change are becoming impossible for even the most committed skeptics to ignore. Fascism is spreading its combination of inward-looking xenophobia and outward-looking Imperial thirst throughout, at least, “The West”. The whole world’s making a face right now. Things look bad. The poem hopes, looking outward and inward through a fog of words, looking up into a weird kind of sky, to find some kind of reflection or response.
“But he came back from it!” Mike Skinner says. “He fucking came back”. Then, without breaking his rhythm, he lifts a second microphone we now realise he’s been holding all along, and delivers, as though it were simply the next sentence of his Mandelson story, the opening lines of ‘Turn the Page’: “That’s it. Turn the page on the day, walk away. / Because there’s sense in what I say. / I’m 45th generation Roman / but I don’t know ’em” – which we’re confused to find that we are now over-hearing, amplified from somewhere else, behind a wall, mingling with and puncturing through the background beat we’ve already grown accustomed to. Skinner walks past the interviewer and moves, both out (of the corridor) and in (entering a vast room), through a doorway, into the sound of his own magnified voice, suddenly onstage, addressing a roiling mass of bodies, reaches over a mixing desk to tweak some levels, all the while speaking with punch and rhythm, all the while gurning and grimacing with a hugely human power. Whoosh. The Grimacier-In-Chief. Ecstatic.
Inside my eyes, things are happening at once.
Things are happening at once in the lines of my face.
It’s a version of Paris around 1810. The trebly
chirp of bluetooth speakers in parks, later.
Intimacy’s as naked as my blood, today,
as if anything looked better from a distance.
An afternoon of varnish chips from clapboards
of bouquinistes as buskers pinch harmonics.
Sands from the Sahel brush the city’s skins.
A system of rainbows makes a dome over Bamako.
A blank glop of fishes’ faces lines
a nearby stall, many-coloured-silver,
smelling rankly of ocean and gore. A dancer
extends a finger, accusing the space at its tip.
From these my performance takes, or doesn’t, what
it needs to catch the eye, or fail to. Look.
Face: the bruising shock of seeing the scurf
of bits of flame snowing down on your home
or, worse, a large beloved building
of some storied faith or firm.
Face: an infant’s boil-red cheeks as chrism
slops its welcome to the world of wetness, cold.
Face: the dull calm thrill of hearing
the hush of traffic or water, airish and kind.
Face: I’m looking at a doorway through
a window in a doorway into where
we once lived. On it, the undersides
of insects appear. Behind me, too-
smooth stones assume new shapes on soil.
Are you even listening? Am I?
Ask the violets what they think of the earthquake,
or the pavement what’s next from the ambo,
and you’ll get a gurn in reply as your spoils.
A series of thirty-five expressive heads
makes a range along the streets. Look,
the whole world’s making a face right now,
the exit strategy a fog of words,
sky gone the colour of bronze under blood.
Note: the Colta Ives stuff on Bolly and the grimacier is taken from Romanticism & the School of Nature: Nineteenth-Century Drawings and Paintings from the Karen B. Cohen Collection, a catalogue for an exhibition of the same name at the Metropolitan Museum of Art which ran from October 2000 to January 2001
Crash Blossoms: A Poem
In March 1914, the suffragette activist Mary Richardson used a meat cleaver to slash several wounds into the Velásquez painting known as The Rokeby Venus. She was protesting the previous day’s arrest and violent treatment of Emmeline Pankhurst. After Richardson herself was apprehended, she was quoted in the London Times as saying, “I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the Government destroying Mrs Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history. Justice is an element of beauty as much as colour and outline on a canvas”.
At the outset, it’s important to acknowledge that Richardson, in her later career, semi-cloistered yet sanguine in the Cambridgeshire countryside, with her adopted son and ducks, became a card-carrying fascist, participating in Oswald Mosley’s BUF. It’s also important to acknowledge both that the suffragettes were intersectionally unsound (put bluntly, they were racist and classist), and that their success in gaining suffrage for some women in 1918 may have been helped by the home-front events of World War I as well as post-war coalition politics. What is sure, though, is that Richardson’s escalation of the cause to include the violent destruction of property was a vital step forward for a years-old movement which had begun to languish and equivocate.
As history invents its new dualisms, as the polarising and narrativising effects of ‘real-time’ shifting into ‘remembered-time’ take their toll, the famous story of a suffragette acting violently against a nude painting settles into an easy interpretation. Most suppose that Richardson’s iconoclastic ire was directed against the painting for its objectifying lewdness. No doubt contemporary reactionaries would see it as an example of cancel-culture, Velásquez’s notoriously ‘creamy’ pigments axed like Pepe le Pew for violating some imagined puritanical standard.
As valid (as vital) as conversations about the male gaze in art history are, Richardson’s words printed in the Times suggest that they’re of less importance in this instance than at first it seems. Richardson has little interest in silencing or cancelling history: she’s in dialogue with it, amplifying it, revivifying it. She recognises Velásquez’s contribution to the pursuit of beauty, and to it she adds her theme. It is now, of course, an accepted fact that slashed canvases and acts of ‘vandalism’ against artworks can themselves be considered art – from Lucio Fontana’s auction-house favourites to David Datuna eating Maurizio Cattelan’s banana. But, long before the fad, Richardson was both an activist and a performance artist.
Destruction in the service of justice, she suggests, is beautiful. Remember at least this from Keats: that truth and beauty are fungible. Anything whatsoever done in the service of justice and truth is a beautiful act. “No justice; no peace”. Quite right. And no beauty, either. At many important moments of history, a destructive, passionate intensity is called for, and the peculiarly Northern European breed of staunch, besuited, do-nothing moderates are exposed as the wilting stems they’ve always been. We’re at one such moment in the United Kingdom, now.
Starmer’s policy-constipation is catching up to him. A year in, his leadership has started to look very jaundiced. On current polling form, if he’s the Labour leader at the time of the next election, they will lose, and lose hard, even against the most glaringly incompetent government the UK’s ever known. For the party, and the country, to survive, it needs to place policy-led socialism and trade union collaboration at its very core, instead of practising it as some form of appeasement of the fringes (if ever at all).
Starmer’s practised non-action is often dangerous, pandering stuff – visiting homophobic churches or refusing to condemn racism towards the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller community within the Labour Party. In trying to broaden his appeal, his bloatedly expansive acts of ‘moderation’ are often at the violent expense of those people he is supposed to be representing. To borrow a pun from the poet Geoffrey Hill: is Starmer the judge “dispensing, with justice”, or simply “dispensing with justice”?
On which, back to Richardson: notice she says that justice is an element of beauty. Perhaps we might read this as meaning “some small part of” beauty, a piece of beauty plucked from some larger originary source. I choose to believe she means that justice itself is the elemental force of beauty, its very fount and fulmination. The zeal and verve of Richardson’s destructive act, its jouissance and its justice, is beautiful, just as the toppling of the Colston statue was beautiful, just as the Kill the Bill protestors are beautiful. The zeal and verve of the police officers, chopping down perversely on unarmed and defenceless crowds, using protective shields as weapons, are the very definition of ugliness. Not only because they are violent, but because they impose hegemonic power rather than justice.
‘Crash Blossoms’, which appears below, is a poem I wrote this week with all this in mind. The poem is angry at moderates; angry at Keir Starmer; angry at the British media’s obfuscation around the Sarah Everard tragedy and the mishandling of its aftermath; angry that fascistic control and police brutality are looking ever more at home on England’s streets. Being a moderate in such an age is itself an act of crippling violence. Acting violently in the pursuit of justice in such an age (in all ages) is an act of beauty.
To explore and enact these feelings, the poem takes the form of ambiguous newspaper headlines whose syntactic brevity make them unclear. Classic examples include, “Giant Waves Down Queen Mary’s Funnel”, and, “Squad Helps Dog Bite Victim”. Since 2009, these linguistic curiosities have been called ‘crash blossoms’ after an example in the newspaper Japan Today which read: “Violinist Linked to JAL Crash Blossoms”.
The poem keeps that violin for its first line, and repurposes it as a sundered symbol: a musical instrument always means ‘harmony’, but that ‘v’ gestures towards ambivalence, division. From there, the crash blossoms into colliding phrases and divided meanings, always trying to spiral down to some landing. The poem does violence to its own formal (private?) properties, in hopes that something blooms between the cracks.
I think “crash blossoms” is a sort of ludicrously beautiful pairing of words. It is itself testament to how beauty arises from a clash of opposites – that plosive crash, those quiescent but emergent blossoms. I also think that the neo-lib, metro-elite-style linguistic gag of them points towards a greater and more dangerous kind of practised ambiguity in the Western media. But I think, also, that within the confused cloud of our own contemporary crash, something might immoderately blossom; something beautiful, and something just. With all this in mind, here’s the poem:
Oblivious violin keys count vapour clouds early evening convos as reactionary censors miss piggy over thirst fears. New House plants decay clearing leaves behind the windshield shards. Call for order satisfied falls. Many again with colours on stand.
Afternoon launches set aside as rain bars spring across the sky once more. Ageing flames return to cause, happening to happen. Global church signals benefit wounds. Plural people dig punctum developing in the sky, concrete meeting spirals.
You sometimes make a dust a dark dust by sweeping away your little words. Secret paint colours rise in the land. Hand holds hand up through cracks in the rain covering proof from the world’s every water. Gripping talk in coffeeshop explosion.
Note: the two lines “You sometimes make a dust a dark dust / by sweeping away your little words” are a warning from Elizabeth Barrett Browning to her husband, Robert, about being over-succinct in his poems (the link between this Browning quote and the phenomenon of crash blossoms was originally made by Ben Zimmer in the NYT).