Tuesday, 14 May 2019

A Poem about Coughing

Currently suffering what I would gladly bet is the single worst sore throat ever endured in the entire history of humanity, I am taking refuge in a number of remedies, some old favourites, some kindly suggested by others, and trying to shake off the lag of lack of sleep, brought about by endless rounds of coughing.

At present my throat feels as if I had recently swallowed a bag of burning nails, and in the midst of these otolaryngological horrors, my mind is not especially attuned to the writing of poetry.  However, I have dug out an as-yet unpublished laryngeal lament from a year or so ago, dedicated not so much to the wider scourge of sore throats, but to the simple, old-fashioned cough.  It pretty much sums up all I have to say on this contentious subject, and I submit it below in solidarity with all others choking under the yoke of microbial misery:


Scurrying hubbub
of rough, gritty bugs,
gruff grubs, bristle-barbed,
scraping chin's interior
with fluff-stuffed bushy brushes,
scratching skin and writhing
in a wriggling din of tickling -
noxious mob microbial!
Grisly gang, gut-tugging -
croak-provoking crew
of beserk bordotella,
and belligerent, beserker germs!

Bacterial brigade, withdraw your troops,
retreat into the recess of the throat's
dark tunnels, fade into a vortex
of syrups, dissolve like salt in snow -
most mendacious mouth-mauler,
irksome irritant, throbbing, throat-throttling thug - 

I've tried to be polite but look:
for pity's sake, just sling yer 'ook!

Travelling Late - Two Poems About Uncomfortable Train Journeys

Over the past few weeks, I've had reason to commute home from Leeds. This in its self is nothing new - indeed, more hours of mine have been spent on trains, and quite a few of them heading in and out of Leeds City Station - than almost anywhere else on earth. Travelling to or from the city of one's birth is always a reflective experience.  About ten years ago, at a time when I was again living in that city, I wrote this poem drawing on my thoughts on an outbound journey:


The old bridge with its large iron rails like big brackets
deep enough to hide between is gone.

My grandma’s flats are still stacked up
like rows of soldiers trenched and battle scarred.

Gentrification hasn’t reached this far
but further on through city streets the station beckons me -

and across the tracks shuttling northwards or to London
and its otherworldly newness, it’s panorama meets the eye:

glossy offices and clocks, rockeries of hills, a weedy rail-side
lurching out to slip roads and the motorway,

industrial estates, and the dictatorial brow of Leeds Parish Church,
bearing on us like the glare of some Victorian Headmaster.

The city  glowers at me from behind, in all directions,
and even straight ahead there are reflections.

The poem above describes an afternoon or early evening journey.  More recently, my interactions with the station have been nocturnal, often on the later trains out of the city.  This, as ever, has been a demoralizing experience, and often quite a dangerous one.  Saturday trains are not much fun these days, and by the time it gets to five or six o' clock you can be sure that every carriage will be stuffed to the brim with drinkers, determined to prove they are enjoying themselves.  The guards stay away, the conductors give them a wide berth and remain secluded in their cabins - strongly implying that payment for travel is voluntary.  As the night wears on, the more uncivilised the train becomes.  Without exception, the noisiest are those within the 50-65 age bracket.   The young, either priced out of partying, or possessed of better manners, are scarcely present, and where they are, rarely compete with their belligerent seniors in terms of yobbishness. The emergence of this newly predominant, thrusting class of drinker has not come about overnight.  These middle-aged delinquents did not suddenly wake up one morning and decide to wreak havoc on the nation's trains.  They are, rather, the remnants of their own younger generation's city-going boozers. The same folk who, twenty or thirty years ago, propped up the bars of Yates' and The Feast and Firkin, never stopped, so that those who once painted the town red with Lambrini and Skol, are now simply painting it grey.

As the train juts into Leeds, it is filled with abrasive packs of short-shirted blokes hoarsely bellowing out-of-tune chants, communicating in strange, monosyllabic and monotonous dialects unknown to human tongue.  Like British Donald Trumps, confidence inflated by that bombastic narcissist's ascent to power and the fake legitimacy this ascribes to a Stone Age code of conduct that had, for a time, seemed buried in the recent past, they hold court, with burning red faces and bulging checked shirts.  With roaring football chants and desperate grins, they ache for the illusion of belonging and contentment, shrieking and guffawing sadly and with thinly concealed bitterness, as if as much to persuade themselves as anybody else that this brief escape from the flatness of their lives really has served to fill the holes within them.  Leaving town, and burrowing into the dim-lit decay of Armley, Bramley, miles of estates punctuated by scrubland and the deserted bathos of empty car-parks and abandoned forecourts, the trains are even rowdier - wobbling stages for the final acts of grotesque comedies played out by lonely, fat and balding bigots embodying every embarrassment of Britain's past, scared and uncertain of its future.  These drunken trundles back to the terraced eternities of Wortley or the battered backstreets of Bradford, are their only chance to shine - time capsules where casual racism is the norm, where sexist jibes and language banished from the modern workplace might be met with furious but warm-spirited ripostes from equally inebriated middle-aged women.  These tired purveyors of old jokes, and their brash female counterparts, seething with venemous tongues and unleashing tirades of invective as the bottled-up frustrations of the decades come tumbling, spluttering and cursing from their mouths, rule the roost - subject all and sundry to their transportational imperialism, and no doubt in the morning, deadened with hangovers, have completely forgotten the vast majority of what was said and done.  They will join workplace jeers about "disruptive teenagers" or "bloody immigrants,"  drowning once more in the myopic muddle of Daily Mails and the maudlin logic of the tap room.

A couple of years ago I wrote the poem below, and its content could easily be applied to my more recent experiences of the late train out of Leeds.


Night-encircled spidergram
of steel, wires, concrete gangplanks
stretched between rails
which look like strips of DNA,

this box of blackness
jazzily sashed
with electric light
rumbles, rocks, erupts
into riots of testosterone,
walkways throttled by stampeding feet,
and in a jungled brawling of discord
revisits Babel on a city's spew -
bulbous lubbers
stumbling on board,
stinking of KFC,
bellies full of booze,
as if whatever thoughts
coagulating in those thick, brick brains
can only dribble out in grunted spit or beery guffaws.

All meaning has been neutered,
individual opinion shredded,
on this swamp of a train
where every man's reduced
to slumped and muggle-headed
slanging bouts, 

each carriage drips in death's greased grime
as the stench of cheap-fried flesh
permeates like disease.

As we stumble, judder out of town
through scrawls of streetlamps,
beetle abyss-bound
into a morbid vortex of thick black,
a midnight etched in threads of passing trains
as bars of light meet bars of light
and fizzle fleetingly through windows
framing dark expanses of post-urban waste,
empty pitches,
dim-lit stations,
cemeteries whose thin grey graves are filed
like tax returns or love letters,
a cold and lonely coffin of a world
within whose shadowy, ill-lit peace
I begin to slowly feel at home.

Congratulations, Simon

I'm not that interested in the Poet Laureatship concept but must say I support the appointment of Simon Armitage to the role - indeed it is one I have been predicting for years!  His poetry manages to be accessible yet expertly crafted, often nuanced and yet quietly relevant, and few practitioners have brought poetry into communities as inclusively & successfully as Simon Armitage.  I think his work has exactly the right balance of accessible appeal and a background in community arts for the job, with a quality and distinctiveness to his writing which distinguishes him from simply issue-driven poets.  Two alternative front-runners for the role would, in my estimation, have been Lemn Sissay and Kate Tempet - however, Armitage is more of a known name beyond poetry and I can see either or both of these poets maybe getting the role down the line.

I met Simon Armitage twice in the late 1990's, and my "claim to fame" is having been present when he was comissioned to write the thousand-line, book-length poem Killing Time for the Millennium Dome - my former English teacher was the woman who commissioned him - but my defining memory is of a reading in Leeds just before Christmas, 1999, at the long-since defunct Borders bookshop.  The disjointed excerpts seemed a travelogue of sociology - society as monster, gobbling its voracious way through news cycles of wars, greed, famines, and environmental entropy, with a section refering to a recently famous hot air balloon expedition:

We could do worse,
couldn't we, than balloon? Could do worse than peel
            the skin from the soul
and dither and drift in the miles of airspace between heaven
            and Earth, could do worse
than quit the sink estates and the island tax-havens,
            look down cartographically
on town and country, golf blight and deforestation,
            the veins and arteries of roads,
the blood-clots of traffic lights and service stations.
            Could do worse, surely,
than clink glasses, balloonist to balloonist, mid-air,
            over invisible borders,
over East Timor, Rwanda, Eritrea,
            catch the breeze
and exchange personal gifts as tokens of good fortune,
            thrown basket to basket. 

Behind him, the black December sky was pricked by the glitter of Christmas decorations, and the window loomed down onto the city streets as if we were ourselves aloft in the balloon, looking over a world aching to be healed, and the moment seemed to distill, in its summing up of a thousand years of history, the brief and now all-but forgotten sense of resolution - world weary but optimistic - shyly, audiaciously, daring to emerge as a kind of collective hopefulness as the old century - and indeed Millennium - merged into the new. The emotion was palpable, the intimacy between reader and audience cementing a tangible unity.  I left the bookshop with the profound conviction that as we soared towards a dizzying new age, humanity, to coin the cliche of innumerable school reports, "could do better"- and that we would.

I wonder what direction Simon Armitage's work will take now that he is Laureate?  Given his much documented love of popular music and background in community literary endeavours, I can imagine we may be seeing quite a few link-ups between those areas and poetry, in live settings.  And as he is based in Yorkshire, this can only be a good thing in terms of exposure for the region.

One of my favourite works of Simon Armitage is his 2012 Stanza Stones anthology - produced for the Ilkley Literary Festival and featuring a plethora of poems by teenagers and based on a project in which poems were carved onto rocks among the dramatic landscapes of the South Pennines.  Being a South Pennines resident, I was delighted to notice that one of Armitage's contributions gives praise to that most unsung, and ever-present, heroes of our district - the rain.  It is hardly surprising, as the poet hails from Marsden, near Huddersfield, one of the rainiest parts of Britain. He has lived in Huddersfield for many years, and it was in that understated Yorkshire town that I was myself living at the time of the Killing Time reading.  Several of us would crowd into a cafe in the town's Byram Arcade, eager for a glimpse of one of the UK's most notable poets - but never catching one. At the time I was struck by how soaking wet Huddersfield was - in the winter of 2000, the town recorded a downfall of 99mm, compared to only 33 in Leeds - but having lived in nearby Sowerby Bridge for over 7 years, I can now wholly endorse and celebrate Armitage's cloud-pollen, / grain of the heavens, just as I celebrate this timely and exciting new appointment.

From Rain 

Be glad
of thse freshwater tears,
each pearled droplet
some salty old sea-bullet
air-lifted out of the waves,
then laundered and sieved,
recast as a soft bead
and returned.