Photographs by Jane Burn
The Circus Of Possibilities
To: Simpkins, Michael
From: Temp Account
Subject: The Circus of Possibilities
Apologies Mr Simpkins, I do not have the details
of this afternoon’s meeting. But need to inform you
that a circus train bound for the Caucasus
leaves at three forty-eight. Will you run away with me?
I’ve watched you plot mortality assumptions
with care for weeks. But I am now convinced Mr Simpkins,
these are not calculations for an Excel graph,
they demand to be tested on the steel of a high wire.
If I somersaulted towards you would you catch me Mr Simpkins?
I think you would. You can quantify actuarial risk
and yield curves so I’d stake the safety
of my rhinestoned trajectory to those measured hands.
I have informed HR. They will waive your notice period
in lieu of future pension payments.
I’m sure your wife will understand. We’ll send her tickets
for the gala performance in St Petersburg.
I’ve recruited strong men, jugglers, knife throwers
women who dance with tigers, fire-eaters
(perhaps too many fire-eaters) from building society back offices
and customer service call centres.
I have learned English and what a fax is
so this will not be difficult for you, Mr Simpkins.
Besides, this climate-controlled air conditioning
is no good at all for your constitution.
You need the bite of winter on your skin,
the struggle to peg down guy ropes in a storm.
Can you hear the steam piano? How its tune speeds up
like madness towards the end.
Log off your computer now, we’ll make Ukraine by dawn
spooned on a goose-down mattress,
wake to the stink of axle grease and toffee apples,
laughing at the growl of tethered lions.
[First published in The Interpreter’s House, Autumn 2014]
The Parts Of Ourselves We Leave with Former Lovers
Hush, hush my little sunflower, such noise
at such an hour, I thought – well, never mind
now what I thought – be soothed. The other ladies
of the house are sleeping, you do not want
them trampling down here in their bare faces
before noon. But what’s this package at your feet,
the one that seeps like oil? An ear! There, there,
it is a shock I know, but not the worst we’ve seen.
You give them locks of hair, the illusion of desire,
but some, perhaps those who cannot pay in full,
or see the world through strange shadows
seem to have this urge to give much more.
Severine received a finger once. The fat
signet ring attached like a tourniquet.
The smeared gold we said reminded us
of summer sunsets over Arles. And Babette,
she swears she could string charm bracelets from hearts
proffered on plates. Then Marie, remember
the English gentleman, the one with the cane,
the shriek she gave when she found his —
But look, you are upset again. Let’s wrap it
back up in the cloth – carefully – not to disturb
the perfect whorl, or pattern of the blood
stippled on the lobe. Look at the raggedness
of this edge. It’s not just eyes that let us peep
into the thoughts of men. Take it upstairs
to the cabinet – the Wunderkammer –
that is beside my bed. We keep such trinkets
in the drawers. It was moved from Claudine’s room,
the sound of souls tapping against the wood,
like palsied bluebottles she said, kept her awake
and disturbed the night-time callers.
[Commended in The Battered Moons poetry competition 2015]
The Fish Man
He freezes the North Sea twice a week,
packs it in his van, knocks house-to-house
with trays of rock fish stunned to ice
round Bletsoe, Scaldwell, Warebrook Marsh,
places so far inland you cannot taste the air.
He calls on ageing mermaids. Once effortless and slick
they come slowly to the door on landlocked hips.
He dangles skate wings for bait,
catches a curl of bladderwrack beneath the peppermint
as each unclasps a purse, fishes for change.
He knows a Selkie or two, trapped by nets
like promises that now hang from drab windows.
One twitches at his sea-breeze touch.
He wonders if some day she’ll grab her coat,
slide across his passenger seat and hitch a lift
back to the wide estuaries of The Wash.
Until then there’s gutted fillets, lemon soles and dabs,
the tobacco tang of smoked finnans and kippers,
cod by the pound.
[Published in Popshot, The Outsider Issue, Spring 2015]
Explaining Freedom To Those Already Free
Mama said it wasn’t right, a woman’s voice –
for all it sounded of warm molasses – gouged
into a shellac disc like that. Bodilesss.
Not even an upright piano. Not like at church,
or on that visit, once, to the Boston theatre,
when we could see the mouths of them that sung,
watch the bellyfuls of air they took and judge the singer.
Didn’t the Bible warn us, the Devil was a whisper
in the wilderness, shifting as Mississippi mud?
She’d shoo us down the hall away from the shut door
oozing music. He sat behind it, listening to the South bleed
into our parlour, night after night. What next
she’d mutter, silver melons tangled in the garden,
lynched men staring back at us through patterned wallpaper?
Told him flat, didn’t want her children grown
up choked on cotton. But the air thickened with it
just the same. Clapboards rattled, screen doors slammed.
He took to taking tea indoors with Bessie Smith and Satchmo
while she sat in the kitchen questioning the whitewashed wood.
Let him light their torch songs, all along state lines
and for what good? The blank panels stared back.
I knew that look. Meant trouble brewing.
Where I compare myself to the goddess Thetis, but not in a good way
I think of larded piglets,
pinked skin freckled
with bristle blonde hairs
– stand still won’t you
I’m almost done –
the wriggly squealing.
Other mothers have
stood before them,
serene in sunscreen.
but my swift-trottered
ones are out my grasp
again, making apple carts
of sun loungers
– don’t run, don’t run –
beyond the parasol shields
to turn handstands
in the pool – white soles
of their feet raised
like two fingers to the sun.
Don’t ask me what I’m worried about
or I’ll have to explain about colossal squid
weighed down in Antarctic seas,
scoring their barbed tentacles along the bed.
They are chimeric beasts: fish-like
with beaks and arms and teeth. Gigantic eyes
staring back through holes in nights
to sucker up what scraps of light they can.
No-one knows how big they grow. Imagine that.
They have evaded dragnets, dissection knives:
cephalopodic vampires lurking beyond
proof of film or sunlit aquariums.
But they are real. You pick out trace remains
at high-water mark on morning beaches,
the half-digested mantle that festers
in the hooked entrails of sleeper sharks.
They bloom on nights when tides and equinoxal
moons collide. To spawn doubts, gorge
on scurf drifting through undercurrents,
blizzards of oceanic snow.
I sense some nights you sense them too:
a boat that’s tipped beyond its perpendicular,
the entangled squid and whale, perfectly matched,
pitching beneath the wine-dark waves.