All night they have been touching meat,
thrusting trolleys stuffed with cheek,
shoulder, ear and leg, and now the day’s
come back to life they’re closing
Smithfield market; sewing up the partly
butchered, washing off the blood.
I watch them from my office vantage
as they strip their overalls. I button up
my collar for handshake after handshake,
to present our creative for clients to dissect.
The past lowers like a theatre set.
Axes swing for human heads, the gallows
start their jig, men sell their unwanted wives,
and horseshit is piled high beside meat labelled fresh.
Where does it go? Depots mainly, on the edge
of Kent and Essex. Try the Dartford Crossing.
Sewage treatment, substations, traffic heavy,
anonymous; a perfect place for murder.
They keep it stocked in wooden crates on endless
shelves on endless floors in subterranean
bunkers: love contained like unsold cargo,
or books un-pulped; the self-help kind, flat packed love
for easy storage, love damp and jaundiced.
Love worn on no one’s sleeve, love rattling
as shattered ceramics on the tusks of a forklift.
How does it get here? It just comes for early
career researchers, who mill about the aisles
dressed in protective suits, who unearth
platonic love from cases, like plutonium,
careful not to spill a drop of all this used
and wasted love. They’ve heard the rumours,
spots, blindness, madness, mania, jealous rages,
fits and giggles, homicide. Winners
of the Turner prize are shipped in to build
collages to chronicle its decline,
or replicate Rodin’s The Kiss from unworn
engagement rings, dredged from drains, rivers,
pawn shops, and love-locks clipped
from the Pont Des Arts to pause the weight of love.
Musicians have the sound digitised,
the moans like warping steel or wood,
a chorus of altered mass. Meanwhile,
the poets, in rubber gloves, read the charred
and tea-stained letters, the cached emails
from dumped lovers, to recycle Eros
from the mulch of love’s organic compost.
The sun will bleach the butcher’s awning.
A pig on the spit will roast till crisp.
The page in the fire will ripple to dust.
But frequently these permanent effects
are cauterised and reversed in a second,
then all it has taken rewinds from ash:
the smouldering soot and timber awakes,
the bricks wind in layers and climb,
the roof unfolds, the clouds of glass
spool back to web the window frames.
The sky is a laughter of orange and red;
our hollowed homes are burning again.
I rose as the milkman planted his bottles
in our plastic cradle, to help you scrape
the windscreen’s frost, never a curse on your lips.
At Stratford Market I watched you lift
boxes of cabbage and leek, your arms as thick
as horse’s thighs, your vest always damp with sweat.
You loaded the buyer with England’s growth.
The sun ploughed light into the market’s heart.
Your lips loosened as you drank into morning
and lit up the doings of countless nights,
how even the Krays were spreading the fruit,
how business advances by spill and spread:
how money that lasts is made by blood.
A cotchel of stock and a packet of ponies
was all retirement afforded, as time deferred
and we overlapped: I rose and started the engine.
On the rank I handle the headlines. My hands,
already dark from notes, sweat the bad news
from the paper. At home, my son, who put in
the line breaks, works in the light of a desk lamp.
Here we are, both with precision –
you, selecting crafted letters
with straight literate edges,
in the copy shop, the searing metal
cooling and the sound of paper
reeling through the cylinders
like a stylus playing silence –
and I, arranging punctuation,
writing the family Hansard.
The difference lies not in desire
(once, I’m sure, you loved that work,
the printing press camaraderie
those well-earned Friday pints,
for after all, these are your stories),
but in the grease behind your nails,
the overbearing furnace heat,
the burn marks on your webbing.
Compare that to my lack of scars,
the ink soap washes off.
At Farringdon Crossrail my spade struck
neither leather ball nor ceramic bowl,
but a seventeenth century plague victim’s skull.
Heavy. Its sockets were filled with muck.
As I held his skull I thought of the sod –
how he went untreated, no anaesthetic.
I took a photo of bones arranged like sticks
in the plot where death laid him, where now I stood.
I stood in the plot where I laid him dead.
Dead from his groin to his arm-pit cave
where the boils spread till he coughed up raves
of blood. A corpse cushioning his head.
Commissioned to dig the old graves free,
I dug the fragments of fibula and femur,
the bones of the fourteenth century,
until the soil was shovelled clean.
Back into digging, I shovelled the turf
over my shoulder until six feet deep
my spade struck rock. I pushed the heap
of bodies down, smoothed over the earth.
Hammered a post, no monument
or list of stone-carved names, but a caution
not to cross this land, this hastily undone
field, plagued at Farringdon, north of London.
Against Our Government’s Advice
Motherwell, township of tinbox and container crate – held together
by metal sheets, sermon, song and violence – our Government
warns we lock our doors at every set of traffic lights, robots
in your tongue. But cows crossing to feast on bin-bags force us
to stop. We deal our Rand through bars. A shopkeeper, in broken
English, asks if we are the BBC. I learn the three-part handshake.
In the tavern we are two moons in the night, we ask the questions,
they share their hookah pipe.
……………………………………..Back on the road, shacks
peter out, the sky grows panoramic. Our Government says
stop for nothing, or risk a gunpoint carjack. By a ditch, a Vervet
Monkey poses, I stamp the clutch and brake. We snap it beside
a lion’s footprint, the beans of the toes recently shaped.
At the hotel our butler serves a braai of Sterling’s strength.
He’s surprised I know the handshake and fetches extra baking meat,
and against our Government’s advice we invite him to sit and eat.
B Road Lay-By
Wind down the window: onions fry in lard,
a finger-thin beef burger whispers on a grill.
Other seasons may discover a stall of Kent cherries,
blackberry and Braeburn juice or doughnut peaches.
But tonight the menu’s meat: cow, pig, maybe horse
for lorry drivers, RAC vans, the family on a shoestring,
the learner restricted to non-lit passages,
the country’s near forgotten maze of beta roads.
OK Diner, the Little Chef, Little India, Chinese China,
the UK’s largest adult store, are all closed for the night.
The Roman keep, the botanic garden, the steam
railway museum, the battle site, the ruined fort,
the secret Cold War mausoleum, have sent
school tours and eager parents away to view the present.
The ketchup-covered tabloids pile up in the bins,
their dates mashed together by cold tea and rain.
This plot, partitioned from the empire, is a slip-
road out of England. There’s no MP or constituency.
There’s no one to blame. A tree full of Tesco bags
rattles like a broken toy. A rusted Ford Granada rests,
clapped-out and burnt, clamped by an oak’s trunk
is a playground of vines with an 80s mixtape
unspooled in the glovebox. Relief, sought in ragged
scrub, abuts Auto Trader and a spoon.
With the company of his generator rattling close
to expiration, he’ll fuel those who chance upon this back-
neck of nothing where carbonized St George flags
are lifeless in wind. Twice, the van with CLEAN ME
fingered on its rear, pleads to remain ungoverned
in this scrubland of a hamlet. But on the third,
against the odds, the van gasps into life and reignites
the night; there are miles still on the clock.
John Challis lives and works in Newcastle. A recipient of a Northern Writers’ Award and a Pushcart Prize, his poems have appeared in magazines including Magma, Poetry London, The Rialto, and on BBC Radio 4.
Advertising (Butcher’s Dog, 4, 2014)
The Love (Poetry London, 82, 2015
Arson (Avis Magazine, 2015)
Hand Composition (unpublished)
Plague Ground (Avis Magazine, 2015)
Against our Government’s Advice (Magma, 57, 2013)
B-Road Lay By (The Rialto, 83, 2015)