From my (occasional) other site.
From my (occasional) other site.
Please note: Adult content, violence, and characters using racist vernacular.
I don’t know why we called her Lazy Susan, no idea if her name was even Susan. She weren’t lazy, worked as hard as any other hand, never complained, rode drag with her face mostly covered and her eyes slitted, said nothing about it, said little anyways. Bout the most I ever heard her say was one evening when we’d scrubbed our plates with dirt and were drinking coffee, and got to talking about who was the craziest bastard we ever knowed. She’d been listening, furrowing the ground in front of her with one boot heel like she was getting riled, losing patience, like she thought we thought how in hell could she know anyone crazy. She almost interrupted the tail end of someone else’s story, like she was a kid scared not to get a turn, started off to tell her story and we shut up to listen. Here’s what she said.
I was working on a station right on the edge of terra nullius when we got a message from our neighbour station to say one of their bonded blackfellas had gone walkabout and would we help ride out and look for him. There was a bounty to be paid. Yeah we have blackfellas in Australia, not like the blokes over here, ours are tall, very straight-backed, naked-arsed, ugly bastards, you get the impression the whole bloody land was made around them if you know what I mean, like they sprung out of trees and rocks. I can’t put it any different way. So a bunch of us got leave, we even had a couple of our own blackfellas, they were churched Bilingara and really good blokes, I liked them. The walkabout we were looking for was Anmatyerre, and they hated his people for some reason and didn’t even speak the same blackfella language as him. There were about six of us, and one of us went by the name of Grandfather, because of his white hair and beard, cracked on he was French and had fought in Napoleon’s Guard at Waterloo, but that was a lie cause he’d have had to have been there in his baby dress if anything, and we reckoned he was about a quarter boong himself and no bloody Frenchman. Anyway, for his years he made himself our leftenant and gave us orders. The two Bilingara acted as trackers and we set off with no real idea where to go, just spiralling out from the neighbour’s station. The Bilingara boys reckoned we should’ve just gone straight towards where we knew we’d find Anmatyerre and cut him off, but Grandfather said no.
As it turned out they were just about right, and they picked up what they thought might be a trail on our third day out. A blackfella’s difficult to track, but if anyone can do it then another blackfella can. He had a start on us but he was on foot and we were on horseback. At first from what the trackers could see he was making straight for his people, but then they lost the trail completely and we had to cast about for it. When we picked it up again one of the Bilingara said he’d been a clever sod and waited for a rocky place to cut off at a right angle to the east. So it was obvious he knew he was being chased.
A handful of mornings later we were riding along and Grandfather stood up in his stirrups. There’s the bugger, he yelled. He was squinting straight into the morning sun and swore he’d seen the fugitive standing on one leg, naked, blackfella fashion, on some high ground. We shaded our eyes and looked, but none of us saw anything, but that was enough for Grandfather and he ordered to set out in that direction. One of the Bilingara said that if the bloke had let Grandfather see him that was because he’d wanted to be seen and he wanted us to go in that direction, but that didn’t stop Grandfather. Not one bit.
Well, we saw nothing more that whole day, and eventually we got to this place like I’d never clapped eyes on before. No idea where we were and I couldn’t find that place again if you had me at gunpoint. It was like a red, rocky slope led gently down to a lake, only it wasn’t a lake, or it might have been a lake once but now it was a flat, smooth layer of white salt as far as you could see. And we got there just as the sun was about to go down. Well, we hobbled our horses, got dry wood from wherever we could, and made our camp there right on the edge of the old lake. We made a kind of half-circle, and the firelight reflected on the white salt, boy, I can tell you it was weird. I had the taste of salt on my lips, and it was like I could hear waves lapping on the shore. None of us spoke. The two Bilingaras drew things in the dust and wiped them out as soon as they were finished – that’s the closest anyone came to conversation. We hadn’t found the walkabout bloke and we didn’t think we would. He must have been teasing us and was miles away in another direction by then, taking our chances of bounty with him.
I woke up just before sunrise. The horizon was such a line of angry red that half-asleep I thought I must be staring at the embers of the camp fire. Then I wondered who had put a tree right there in camp. As I came to and my head cleared I first thought it must be some kind of statue dropped from heaven as a joke, then one of us who had got up to go for a piss, then as it moved it suddenly came to me what it was. It was a tall, straight, silent blackfella with a hunting spear notched in a woomera. It was the bloody walkabout bloke standing right there in our camp, about to skewer someone.
I yelled out, Hey! Blokes startled, began to move, to leap up, and the walkabout let go with his woomera. You can talk about your Apache arrows and your bloody bayonets but there is nothing like the force a woomera can lend a spear close to. There was chaos in the camp, shapes against the red dawn as blokes jumped up and bashed into each other, curses and shouts of what-the-fuck, and one of the Bilingara screaming with the spear right through his thigh. I saw the silhouette of Grandfather, his revolver in his hand, blasting off shots into the darkness. By the time we had stopped panicking and milling about with Grandfather cursing and yelling orders at us, the Bilingara was down again, blood pouring out of his leg. Maybe the walkabout had been aiming for his body, but in the confusion he’d done him just as much damage as if he’d killed him outright. We couldn’t stop the bleeding, and eventually the Bilingara boy just lay there and died quietly, with his mate singing softly to him in their own lingo.
The sun was coming up. Grandfather was up on his toes looking this way and that.
There’s the bastard, there he bloody well is! he shouted suddenly, pointing over towards the flat, white salt. And indeed there was the bloke we were after, crawling away on all-fours, trailing his woomera after him. One or two of Grandfather’s wild shots must have got him and lamed him entirely. Well, the old bloke himself dashed after him before any of the rest of us could move, covering the fifty yards or so like a bloody wallaby. He caught up to the fugitive and, quick as you like, whipped a leather thong round his neck, hoicked his strides down, and shafted him, rode him like a pony as he choked to death. We’d followed him a little way, and we were totally thumpstruck. Our jaws dropped. We didn’t know what the hell to do. When he’d stopped twitching, Grandfather pulled his strides up again, grabbed him by one leg, and started to haul him back to our camp.
Well, we debated what to do with our dead Bilingara. The ground was too hard and dry to bury him deep, but we didn’t want to leave him out for the dingoes, so we scooped away as much dirt as we could with our knives and anything else we could use, laid him in it, and piled stones on top in a kind of cairn. That took us into the afternoon. And where was Grandfather all this time? Well, he had spread out the dead Anmatyerre like Saint Peter on the cross, his arms and legs out like a big letter X, his eyes staring up into the sky, and there was Grandfather sitting and watching the flies settle on him.
We didn’t want to stay around. We were pissed off that our bounty was lying there and we couldn’t redeem him for hard cash, and that one of our blokes was dead. Grandfather said we were staying put to watch what happened.
Watch what? we asked, as a few more flies seemed to come from nowhere, but Grandfather said nothing more, just sat there looking at that dead blackfella. Well we calmed our horses, they’d got pretty scared during all the shenanigans and were sweating, rolling their eyes, threatening to buck and trip themselves in their hobbles. We didn’t want to be walking back or sharing one horse to three blokes or something. We packed up our gear. We made sure the cairn over our dead hand was secure, put a couple more stones on it for good luck, stood round with our hats off and mumbled a few words, and all the time Grandfather just sat there looking at the corpse he’d stretched out. We told him it was time to go.
We’re not going anywhere, he said.
Look, let’s make a scrape in the salt as best we can and bury this bastard in it, that way he may not bring dingoes here to dig up our mate, I said. I moved forward but found Grandfather’s revolver being waved under my nose. I stood my ground while he weighed up whether to shoot me and maybe a couple of the others as well, and how he’d explain that back at the station.
Look we’ve got to go, I said.
There’s nothing bloody stopping you!
And there wasn’t. we got on our horses and rode off, leaving him there. Let him stay there forever and watch the dead bloke rot and rot himself, we thought. At least I did. The others were pretty pissed off too. But he caught up with us a week later, on the back leg of our ride home to the station. He told us he had moved a couple of hundred yards off and watched through his old field glasses while the dingoes came and ate the dead fugitive, and once that was all over there was no need for him to stay. He talked about it calmly, like it was an everyday happening. Then just as calmly he told us that we’d all say we hadn’t found the Anmatyerre, and that out Bilingara bloke had fallen of his horse and broke his neck. We said nothing, just looked at each other, no way was he our leftenant any more to be giving orders about who’d say what.
When we got back to the station the neighbour was there along with our boss. Grandfather stepped forward right away before anyone else could speak and gave his version of what had happened.
Bollocks, said the boss and gave Grandfather the sack there and then. So off he went and we never saw him again. Now that might not seem like much to you, maybe you know blokes who have done crazier-looking things than buggering a dying blackfella and watching dingoes eat him, but I’d bet on Grandfather as the craziest inside.
That was Lazy Susan’s story and it was the most any of us had ever heard her say. After she finished we all went quiet for a while. No one else volunteered any crazy bastard stories.
What brought you to America? someone asked eventually.
A bloody great boat, said Lazy Susan. And that put the lid on any more talk completely.
See, the thing is, it occurs to me that Lazy Susan was more than a little crazy herself. A few nights after this one of the other hands tried to jump her and she clawed one of his eyes out, just like that. Mad with pain and rage he went after her again, swearing he’d kill her. She let him come on, let him get close, then curled one arm behind him and buried her knife in the back of his neck. Then she just stood there with her hands on her hips and watched him waltzing round and round trying to reach it and pull it out. Then she stood and watched as he crawled round doing the same. Then she stood and watched as he lay face down still with one arm crooked backwards awkwardly and his fingers scrabbling for the knife. She stood there until he stopped twitching, then she put one foot on his back, reached down and pulled out her knife, wiped it on the leg of his pants, and sheathed it. The trail boss was mad at losing a hand, but he wasn’t going to risk another one by telling Lazy Susan to get out. She was one of the best hands he had.
As it turned out he ended up losing four hands altogether. Two of the boys had been whispering about the Lost Dutchman Mine and they lit out one night. We heard them ride away, but by the time anyone was up it was too late to go after them, and anyways we couldn’t leave the herd. Then one morning Lazy Susan was gone too. God knows where and without getting paid off. Most like she shipped back to Australia, had enough of America, but I can’t shake the notion that she’s maybe on some bluff, up there on one leg, naked and straight-backed as one of her wild blackfellas, and it was her telling the story of old Grandfather that put it in her mind. Or in mine.
Just after the junction where the side-road curves away to the prison car-park, the main road begins to slope gently upwards. If you didn’t know this was because the railway ran underneath you wouldn’t realise it was a bridge. I know, I realise. To me it’s a zone of demarcation – that’s precisely the term I use, along with the fancy word liminal – because it marks a transition between town and suburb, amongst other things. As I climb up onto the stone wall and test the slightly rounded capstones with the soles of my shoes, I take in the other demarcation. To my right is the pavement, three flagstones wide, and the busy road with its double yellow lines worn by constant traffic; to my left, between the bridge and the side-road and the railway line is a piece of scrubby ground where the grass is grey from the winter drought, and a couple of forlorn carrier bags flutter from the bare branches of alder trees.
It’s one of those days in early Scottish spring when the sun never gets above the brim of your hat, but leers from the cover of mobile grey clouds. I’ve walked past the car-wash, the flagpole belonging to the construction company, and the Inch where drooping crocuses are already being obscured by new, blind daffodils. Ahead will be the grey, Victorian ribbon-development, its 1930s hinterland, its parked cars. If I make it. Right here is an edge-territory, a frontier.
At the moment I’m a kind of non-event, I feel. The wall is only my head height above the pavement, and only little more than that to the grass on the other side. This thing has hardly started, and if it stops it will never have happened. Does that make sense? It does to me. I start to compose a shopping list in my head, while my shoes slow-march, continuing to test their grip on the capstones. I get to milk, cheese, and compostable rubbish bags before the wish that I’d chosen slightly flatter heels overtakes it. These are my day-shoes. I could have worn trainers. I tell myself that would have been cheating, and in any case it’s too late to go back and get a change of clothing – a change of clothing will mean a change of heart, I will find myself somewhere else, telling myself my plan is a stupid one. I will laugh, busy my fingers with stuff, listen to the radio.
They tell you not to look down from a height. But looking down is the whole point. I have to. To my right is normality, the difference between myself and the pavement is no more than it was before. To my left I can see that while I made that shopping list I’ve walked past the point where it’s possible – just – to jump down and land with a jar, maybe injuring myself a little but not badly, and I could have done that and walked away shamefacedly. I’m now above the tops of the alders. A dozen-or-so sparrows are maintaining a shrill argument, chasing each other from branch to branch, and I’m higher than them. To jump would be to fall. In five or six more paces I’ll be above the railway line. Now I really begin to appreciate what it means to be betwixt and between. I wish I hadn’t brought my shoulder-bag. Slung across me from left to right like a satchel, it makes me feel as though my weight isn’t even – I’m sticking my left hip out slightly to compensate, I’ve spread my arms out a little for balance but I’m holding one higher than the other. This is wrong. A piece or mortar between two capstones is slightly loose and I’m unsteady. My body’s hot but my hands are freezing, and my armpits have started to prickle.
I obey the command not to look down. Not to look down. Coward! Failure.
That’s the point at which I meet myself coming the other way. It’s not a mirror image, because she is – I am – wearing a shoulder-bag that crosses right to left. She tells me I’m not playing by the rules, I’m not doing what I came up here to do. It’s not about getting from one end of the bridge to the other it’s about – here’s where she uses, deliberately, the term suicidal ideation – looking down, about knowing the difference between one step to the right and one step to the left. One step to the right means a jump to the pavement and to the normal world. One step to the left means a handful of seconds of fear, a split-second of pain, and a long-deserved rest. I tell her I want to live. She won’t let me pass, grins cruelly and tells me that if I repeat that often enough I’ll even believe it. Her voice is the fast pulse hammering in my ears.
Two things happen together. On the road, a heavy articulated lorry passes, and the whole structure of the bridge shudders. On the track, a train speeds through the bridge, sounding its klaxon. I bend my knees, spread my arms wider, regain balance.
She’s no longer there. Somehow I have passed the summit of the bridge without knowing it. I’m still in danger, but when someone shouts “Jump, you silly cow!” from the open window of a passing car it doesn’t matter. The walk from here to the point where the heights are equal and I can allow myself to climb down is a formality. I just do it. I have done it. I’m there.
Scrambling down, I bark my knees against the wall and land heavily. The soles of my feet smart from the impact with the pavement. I brush my knees, inspect my hands for dirt. I need to blow my nose – I realise I’ve been sniffing as I walked the wall and my eyes are watering – so I get a tissue from my shoulder bag and, while I’m at it, some cologne to cool myself with. A police car pulls up ahead of me, its nearside wheels come up onto the pavement, its hazard indicators and its blues flashing. It takes and holds a liminal betwixt-and-between place, half on the pavement and half on the road. Two officers – a young man and a young woman – in hi-viz vests get out. There’s an empty foam-plastic box from the Indian takeaway skittering along the edge of the wall, impelled by the wind that has sprung up. I fasten the top button of my coat. The male officer back-heels the food container carelessly, and it lodges under the car, trapped by the nearside front wheel. He stands in my way while the young woman directs traffic around their car.
“Have you been on this bridge during the last few minutes, madam?”
“I’ve just crossed it. Why?”
“We had a report that someone answering your description was seen walking on top of the wall.”
“Good Lord! Why would anyone want to do that? Would they have broken a law?”
“None that I know of, madam.” The young woman comes round the front of the car and scrambles up so she can see over the wall. She looks over for a couple of seconds, then lets herself down again. She kicks the food box loose from behind the front wheel of the police car, picks it up, and shoves it behind the passenger seat. She doesn’t like litter, obviously. The young man looks at me and I look at him. I tell myself that, okay, I haven’t broken the law, but they have by driving onto the pavement. I won’t tell them.
“Well, if I had seen anything like that – if I’d seen someone who looked like me, even – I’d have noticed, if you know what I mean. I mean, well, I don’t walk around looking at my shoes.”
“No, maybe not.” He looks me up and down, just once. The young woman is talking into the microphone clipped to her lapel. They need to be somewhere else. “Well… you mind how you go, okay?”
They get back into the car. The blues stop flashing and the car pulls away. Five minutes walk from here is the supermarket. The sun’s out. I grin and shake my head. The supermarket has a café where they keep sausage rolls hot under a lamp, have a shelf of wrapped cakes, and serve flat white coffee. I’m ravenous.
My T.S. Eliot Prize-nominated collection of poetry I am not a fish is still available direct from the publisher, though I suspect that they might be about to take it out of stock. So if you don’t have a copy right now might be your last opportunity to get one!
I have to say that I’m proud of the collection, written specially for the publisher after their having selected me from a competitive field and published nowhere else. None of the poems are online, none are blogged, tweeted, Facebooked, whatever. If you want to read them, you’re going to have to get them in print.
Let a few reviewers and readers blow a trumpet for me:
“A highly unusual book, with a rich collection of characters…”
“Marie Marshall is a poet of substance. Relatively speaking, I would place her at the level of the late Sylvia Plath…”
“… her poetry is poignant and of a rare beauty.”
“… I am smitten…”
“… a great read…”
“…Marie uses words that intrigue, make you want to know more and draw you into a world of surprising thoughts…”
When I posted a short article on ‘difficult poetry’ a while back – and here I jump in and admit that I tend to shy away from explaining my own poetics – I didn’t realise that another poet, one whose work I admire, was going to pick up the ball and run with it. Daniel Paul Marshall (no relation) has thought long and hard about the subject, gone deeper into the issues, and written more on the subject than I could hope to. I commend his article to you.
Daniel mentions Dylan Thomas. Thomas is a poet who had a great influence on my writing at one time. I didn’t try to write like him, but rather I felt myself drifted along on the flotsam of his words, his transferred epithets, his god-knows-what. So I thought I would celebrate him today with one of my ‘easy’ poems from the past. This is a straight-down-the-line sonnet I wrote in 2008, and it uses some of Thomas’s words, as quoted by Daniel.
Closing time at Laugharne
I miss you – yes I do, you boozy Celt!
I’ve half a mind to hear you spin a yarn
While you, with pints of stout beneath your belt,
Traipse homewards through the rainy streets of Laugharne,
From Brown’s Hotel, where we propped up the bar
Till closing time. What’s closing time to me
Or you? Come on – the Boathouse isn’t far –
Down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack sea!
There’s pen and paper ready for your muse,
A bottle, and some glasses for a toast,
We’ll sit, and laugh, and rhyme a while, and booze –
But, Duw, dear lad, you’re nothing but a ghost!
Can such as you go, gentle, into night,
Or did you rage against that dying light?
As this year marks the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution, here is a story set in the years leading up to it.
You ask me if I was his bodyguard? Or rather you tell me I was his bodyguard and hardly wait for me to confirm it. So why do you want to know, comrade? I can tell you nothing worth hearing. There must be other records somewhere more use to you, if you want to find things out. Why not go to the top and ask comrade Khrushchev? He’ll know, if anyone will. He says there were ‘mistakes’ made, he has denounced the ‘cult of personality’, so it beats me why you are so curious about all this anyway?
All I know is this. In nineteen-oh-six or thereabouts, I was in London for the great Social Democratic conference. I wasn’t a delegate or anything like that – I was young and I had come along for the adventure. I loved the adventure. All the ducking and diving in the shadows, all the drinking, the cursing, the toasts – down with capitalism, down with autocracy, down with the Tsar – all the disguises, the robberies, the swindles. All that was back in Russia. It was so much more exciting than the politics, and I don’t care if that is a shocking thing to say. But the politics was good too, for all that. During the conference, and the days on either side while we were in England, people would sit late into the night, arguing over a bottle of London spirits, Mensheviks and Bolsheviks were drinking buddies but hated people in their own party, Internationalists and Jewish Bundists got pie-eyed together and sung the ‘Marseillaise’ and the ‘Internationale’, and then screamed denunciations at each other in the conference room. The girls who came along for the ride… well… had come along for the ride. I guess some of the strong personalities there had seduced them, in one sense or another. People like the ‘Old Man’ – that’s what we called comrade Ulyanov, even though he was young enough then.
No, I wasn’t there for that kind of ride! I was one of ‘Comrade Soso’s Dykes’ – does that shock you? Look, I was just a country girl, daughter of a wagonner and a half-Chuvash seamstress. A runaway, if you like. I got in with the revolutionary crowd in provincial towns, and earned my keep as a lookout during armed robberies – that’s how the revolution was financed, don’t look so damn shocked. Then it was on to Moscow. Oh it all seems to have happened within the space of a week, when I look back, but I must have bummed around for a good couple of years. Then I got the chance to help smuggle delegates out of Russia for the conference. They needed a woman or two to pretend to be someone’s respectable, bourgeois wife, and so I became an actress for the Party. In fact I made two trips – Moscow, Petrograd (yes all right Leningrad, but it was Petrograd then, or Sankt Petersburg to keep the Tsarina happy), Helsingfors in the Grand Duchy, and Copenhagen, and then back again to pick up a second husband. The conference was due to be in Copenhagen but some petty bureaucrat or spook knackered that for us, and we went right into the belly of London, right into the heart of another capitalist empire – “Oh be thankful for those idiots in liberal democracies,” we all used to say.
The meetings were almost farcical. There were uniformed police – British ‘Bobbies’ – taking notes, taking the names of anyone and everyone who went in or out. I gave at least six different ones. They were more interested in the English people who came in there of course. They couldn’t have cared less about what happened thousands of miles away in Moscow. I doubt if any of them even knew where Moscow was. Then the Old Man took me aside, and my friend – she always insisted in going by a boy’s name, Ilya, even though If anything I was the more butch of the two of us – and told us he wanted a guard put on someone. He wanted him kept safe at all costs, because he was vital to the revolution and he was always getting up to mischief. We wondered whether the old man thought he was a spook. The Old Man picked us because we weren’t about to get seduced by anyone, and because we were tough, and dedicated Bolsheviks. He knew we had seen the gendarmes and Cossacks at work back home; we knew how cheap human life was and we weren’t sentimental about squashing a few insects if necessary.
This man, the one we had to guard, I’ll never forget meeting him. Actually I had already seen him around and wondered who he was. He was going by the name of Ivanov, but everyone called him Soso. That was his nickname. Right from the start he told me to use it. That’s how the Old Man introduced him to my and Ilya too.
“I want you to meet comrade Soso,” he said. “Look after him. Don’t let him stub his toe.”
Soso pretended to scowl at the Old Man for saying that, but his eyes were twinkling. He looked to me like he came from the Kavkaz Mountains, maybe an Ossetian, but then how would I know what an Ossetian looks like anyway. His hair was bushy and swept back. He was unshaven, he had a moustache and a beard, and a bad complexion. He wasn’t big, and he walked with a bit of a limp, and I think his left arm was paralysed, or half-paralysed, some unhealed injury maybe, but he wasn’t weak. In one of the drinking bouts I saw him put his arms round the waist of a man four centimetres taller and several kilos heavier, and just lift him right off the ground.
Ilya and I used to work eight hour shifts babysitting Soso. When he slept, at his lodgings, one of us would have a bedroll and sleep across his doorway. At the time we didn’t know whether we were keeping him in or keeping folk out. We weren’t allowed to leave his door; we even had our own pot there on the landing, if we needed to piss. Ilya used to come and bed down with me, and keep me warm, and kiss me, and we’d make love… very quietly… and you can wipe that leer off your face, comrade. It was a tender thing. It was good. And how would you know different anyway!
You can stop stamping your foot. I’ll tell you all about comrade Soso – it’s my story and I’ll tell it exactly how I want to.
Soso liked to go wandering at night. Some of the delegates went up to the music halls and restaurants in their spare time, pretending to spy on bourgeois society, but really they were green with envy and enjoying being celebrities amongst London’s radical artists and writers. Middle class intellectuals the lot of them, who would run a mile from a real revolution. I have squashed better bugs. Soso used to like to go down into the streets where the fog was, where the crime was, where the prostitutes and the cheap pubs were. He loved all that, down in the East End. He loved to see all the low-lifes, all the thugs, and he wasn’t scared. I went with him, and I got to like all that too, in my own way. Maybe I liked it because he liked it. Anyhow, it was during my shift that he went out most of all. I was dressed in man’s clothes, and carried a revolver, and I went with him.
“Tania Petrova,” he would say – or did he simply call me Tania? I can’t remember… “Tania Petrova, these are the kind of people I mixed with in Baku, in Gori, in Tiflis. They’re essential. Forget radicalising the thinkers, forget preaching propaganda; get the scum of the streets on your side, recruit the psychopaths, the knife-men, the racketeers. That’s the way to run a revolution. Rob and ransack to pay for more guns, use the guns to mow down the gendarmes and the Cossacks, recruit more and more thugs, bring them on-side. Rob more banks, trains, coaches – for more money to buy more guns, and explosives too. Otherwise when the big revolution comes, you’ll have this corrupt underworld out of control. Get it under control first, use it, make them your eyes and ears, make them your teeth and nails. It’s the only way. The bourgeois are too squeamish for the job.”
He said all this to me as we walked through those dark streets, breathing in fog and soot and coughing it out again. He would spit on the pavement, and I would spit too. A spit for a spit. He talked in Russian to me, but he had an accent.
“But Soso,” I remember saying. “Won’t that bring corruption into the revolution? We are Communists, Bolsheviks, people with ideals and principles.”
He laughed. “I would punch your face if you weren’t my friend! The revolution is corrupt and corrupting. It is corruption taken to the extreme. No, it’s above corruption, beyond it, it transcends it. Haven’t you read Machiavelli? The Prince is far less boring than Marx. I read Marx, interpret it by Machiavelli, and preach the Gospel according to Ivanov. Did you know I once trained for the priesthood? In order to be true revolutionaries, we must be corrupt beyond anything that has ever been before; this is because we are going to overturn everything, smash everything, start from the ruins and build on top of them. It is going to be glorious. And do you know what, Tania, it’s going to be such fun!”
“But isn’t it capitalism that is corrupt?” I asked.
“Capitalism? Of course capitalism is corrupt, but it is stupid too. We must never allow capitalism to get smart, Tania. No, we must destroy it for good, and soon. While it is still stupid. You realise that when we hang the last capitalists they will have sold us the rope with which we do it!”
Once he showed me he had a pistol in his belt. I showed him mine, and he beamed at me. He liked me. He really liked me. He said so. No, no, no I wasn’t one of his women. You just don’t get this, do you! But I liked him back. I really liked him too. He was… good to be with.
I learned more about politics from the two or three nights he and I escaped together into London’s back streets than I did from any political lecturing. We talked about spies, and the Tsar’s secret police. He reckoned our ranks were riddled with informers, and I was shocked by this. To me it seemed ridiculous that anyone could mouth revolutionary slogans without total belief in them. Surely they would choke. Surely there were no spooks amongst us.
“Don’t be so damn dense!” he said to me. “If the Okhrana hasn’t got at least half a dozen agents amongst the delegates in the conference… no, a dozen… then it isn’t doing the job the Tsar pays for! I admire the bastards, you know. They’re devious, clever, two-faced. They are right in our midst. You know of course that we have people in the gendarmes working for us, and people in the ministries in Moscow. But our penetration is nothing compared to theirs. They are so professional. They have us by the balls, and most of us don’t realise it, or don’t want to realise it. We can’t have a meeting to make plans without the plans going straight to the Okhrana, yet we don’t know who half of them are!”
You have heard of the Okhrana, comrade, the Tsar’s secret police? Yes it’s true they were everywhere, more than most of us realised, and they were pretty clever; but they were never quite as clever as Soso thought. Time and again they let Soso and the Old Man slip through their fingers. But Soso was convinced, and when he was convinced of something, that was that.
“I’d let my boys off the street deal with traitors,” he said. “And it’s better to wipe out two or three people too many than to risk letting one get away. I’d rather lose a couple of mice than miss one rat.”
I told him I thought that was unkind, but I remember he spun me round to face him, and began to talk quietly and vehemently.
“You can’t run an empire on kindness, Tania. And believe me we are going to run a whole empire. We are going to take it right out of the lifeless hands of the ones who are currently running it. There is a war going on. No one has declared it, but it is raging. And in wars people get hurt, people die, wives lose husbands, mothers lose sons, children lose fathers. But the war goes on. It’s like amputating a leg. If you cut close to the gangrene then you might leave rot on the stump. You have to cut away good flesh with bad. And another thing, the more people die, the harder things get; the harder things get, the madder people get; the madder people get the more politicised they get. It doesn’t matter whether they’re politicised our way or our enemies’ way, it matters that they are politicised. The whole thing feeds on itself. And in the end, so long as more of them die than us, who cares? Wars are about killing more of the enemy than they kill of you. But you can’t be sentimental about your own people. You don’t win a revolution by counting the cost. Everyone is expendable, except perhaps the Old Man.”
“And perhaps you, comrade Soso.”
He chuckled. “Yes, perhaps me too. Because I know things, I understand how things must be, and it’s like I said – you can’t run an empire on kindness.”
I have never forgotten that phrase.
Hey – here’s something you won’t believe, if Soso is who you think he is. He was a poet. He dragged me into his room a couple of times to recite to me. And he would do the same as we walked those streets. I think he had written them in his own language when he was younger, but these were Russian versions he recited to me. I can remember one…
When the lantern of the full moon swings and drifts
across the heavenly ceiling above me
and its light shining out traces pale fingers
on blue horizons
when the clear trilling of the nightingale’s song
starts the leaves softly fluttering in the air
and the pan-pipe’s notes away in the mountains
sing of sad yearning
when snows melt and rains break the cluttering dam
and the spring breaks free to wash away the tracks
and there is a rustling as the breeze wakes
tossing the trees’ heads
when the patriot who was driven away
by the enemy becomes worthy again
and when the sick man who lives in the darkness
sees the sun and moon
(How did it go? How did it go?)
Then I who have been oppressed begin to feel
the mist of sadness break and lift and recede
and up rises hope for a good life to come
in my grieving heart
As I am borne up and away by this hope
my soul rejoices and my heart beats softly
but is there a small doubt dragging at hope’s heels
is this not the time?
Yes, he was telling me that one – I think I got it right, it’s not wonderful but it has something – he was reciting that very one as we walked along through the fog. I remember hearing the slight scrape of a footfall somewhere behind us, and then I realised I had been hearing it all that evening but it hadn’t registered.
“Soso, we’re being followed!”
“Didn’t you know?” He looked a little startled. “He hasn’t exactly been concealing himself. Isn’t he your back-up? Isn’t this part of the Old Man’s arrangements? He’s been following us for the past two nights.”
“No it isn’t. And I had no idea he had been with us that long.”
“A damn fine bodyguard you are, comrade Tania Petrova!” Soso hissed to me, and we started to walk a little faster.
We turned into an alleyway, but found it blocked at the far end by three or four men. We looked back into the dim street we had just left, and saw several more converging on the mouth of the alley. We were trapped. And lagging at the rear of the gang was the man who must have been following us, a man I recognised from the conference. No I don’t know his name… it might have been Pavlov or Popov or Pachenko for all I know… don’t interrupt, this is my story and we’re getting to a good bit. We were trapped in this alley, and one of the men at the far end spoke to me in English.
“You slip away young feller, and pretend you ‘aven’t seen nothin’. We want a word with Ivan Skavinsky Skavar ‘ere.”
“Less of the young feller!” I said, reaching inside my coat and pulling out my revolver. Soso did the same, moving round so we were back to back. The men on each side of us had already rushed in to attack us, and realised their mistake to late, as my first shot caught one of them in the chest. He fell, and two of them tripped over him. I shot the fourth as he skidded to a halt, before he could turn back and run, and then I shot the other two before they could get up. I think I was lucky. All my shots were killing shots, and if they hadn’t been I believe they would have rushed me. I turned round and fired my remaining two shots over Soso’s shoulder. I don’t know whether any of the men who attacked from that direction had already run off, but three were motionless on the ground, and the man from the conference had only just turned tail. Soso levelled his gun and fired. The man dropped. Soso turned to me.
“Thanks for deafening me,” he said. And as we went over to where the man from the conference lay, he added “Did you know I was a hunter as well as a poet and a seminarian?”
The man from the conference was lying on the ground, groaning. Soso turned him over with his foot, and looked down at him. Then he checked the chamber of his revolver, and patted his pockets.
“Well, Pasha,” he said to his fallen enemy, whose name he seemed to know. “Who would have thought it of you – an arselicker of the autocratic system. Who are you working for? Who are your accomplices? I don’t have time to beat it out of you.”
The man said nothing, just shook his head and made a face because of the pain. I could hear running feet somewhere, but I couldn’t tell whether they were running towards us or away from us. I remember tugging at Soso’s sleeve, and that he looked at me, nodded, and shrugged his shoulders. Then he levelled his revolver and calmly executed the man on the ground.
Looking round he said, “Damn, we’ve made a mess. This could have been ignored in Batumi, but not in London. Let’s go… young feller!”
So we went, as quickly as we could without looking like two murderers on the run, back to his lodgings. Before, it had felt like we had been wandering for hours, zigging and zagging through a maze. But Soso seemed to know a route back to our starting point with hardly a corner of a kink in it. On the way we threw the revolvers into a culvert. We didn’t want to get caught with them. That was the last night-time walk with Soso. The conference broke up, the Old Man relieved us of our babysitting duties, and I hardly saw Soso from that moment until he left. He did say good bye to me, though. I’m sure he did. Ilya and I travelled back together with false passports which said we were sisters. We even got a cabin together thanks to a donation from one of the Old Man’s bourgeois British admirers. Oh how bureaucrats will believe pieces of paper! Ilya was Polish, and yet they took us for sisters at every border we crossed. But she and I got to sleep together all the way home. Sleep was what we did too. Mostly.
No, I never saw Soso again. I never saw Ilya either. She disappeared years after that in one of the first party purges I’m sure. After the revolution I drove a tractor. And I have done my duty as a Soviet citizen. Dyke or no dyke, I was already a grandmother by the time I drove one of the last ammunition trucks to reach Stalingrad during the siege. And no, I am not going to say Soso was Stalin, and I am not going to say he wasn’t. This is my story, and I have told you all I am going to tell you. Ask me again tomorrow and I will deny it all. I am a good Soviet citizen, a good Communist. I am old. I am tired. Piss off. Leave me alone!
But the fact of modern poetry’s being “hard to read” can be extolled as a virtue in and of itself […]. In writing that is propelled by sonic associations, for example, what one might call musicality, the result may, paradoxically, be a form of realism, giving the poem’s language material reality, palpability, presence, and worldliness. Such difficulty, even when it doesn’t produce conventional sense, may be engaging in its own right; or, from another point of view, it may be disengaging. It may be emblematic of resistance, elaborating a rejection and even a defiance of the production of totalizing and normalizing meanings, in resisting dogmatism, it may create spaces for ambiguity, provisionality, and difference. […] it may serve to roughen the surface of the work, so that it catches one’s attention, impedes one’s reading, wakes one up to reality. (Lyn Hejinian, The Language of Inquiry, p330)
I am grateful to a friend of mine for pointing me in the direction of the above quotation. It comes from a book of collected essays by one of the late 20c’s most challenging and fascinating poets, and one for whom I have a great regard. I say 20c, but of course Lyn Hejinian is still with us, and long may she remain. My reference was to the fact that it was in the 1970s that she, along with the likes of Barrett Watten, came to write a type of poetry that attempted to put the reader and the reader’s interpretation at the forefront of the creative process.
I have often, in conversation and on line, mentioned Roland Barthes’ famous essay ‘The Death of the Author’. These days it has become fashionable to scoff at Barthes, but for me he will always remain someone who forced home the important lesson that it is impossible to isolate The Great Poet-Goddess and Her Great Work from what came before and what comes after, that this Great Work is a work of a moment’s completion, after which it is totally free of the further influence of the Great Poet-Goddess, and is the property of all of us.
And that last phrase – ‘the property of all of us’ – is a principle that drives much of my poetry these days. I write for everybody. I write my poetry to turn it over to you. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to read. ‘Accessibility’ isn’t the point. Everything is inaccessible until you access it, and to access something doesn’t necessarily means you’ll instantly ‘get’ it.
People seem to think that it’s all right to be really into, say, Wagner, and yet also listen to Country & Western, and Trance. But not the other way round, for some reason. That’s where class and intellectual snobbery rear their ugly heads, and conversely intellectual reverse-snobbery too – yes, it works both ways. And all of this makes people feel that they can’t pick up something outside their comfort zone. We fear the facile and we fear the difficult.
But my message today is that difficulty belongs to all of us. Lyn Hejinian’s words at the head of this blog post seem, at first sight, not to offer much satisfaction. They are not a key to interpreting the intentions of a ‘difficult’ poet’s work, they seem to leave all that up in the air – it might be this, it might be that, it might be the other. But that is nothing more nor less than openness. It is an invitation to take a piece of ‘difficult’ poetry (or art, or music, or whatever) and run with it. If you don’t ‘get’ all of it, so what? Get what you can, make something out of it, play with the words and with the associations they spark in your own mind.
My poetry, at least some of it, resides here. Pick it up and run with it. It’s yours.
In case you missed it elsewhere, the latest (Summer 2017) Showcase at the zen space is now published.
the zen space is an e-zine for haiku and related in-the-moment words, and I have been the editor since it started six years ago. Yes, with this issue the zen space celebrates its sixth birthday! The latest Showcase includes not only haiku and other recognisable Japanese-inspired forms in English, but also some poetry it’s hard to categorise. It also features some beautiful mandalas from our most ‘quoted’ artist Marie Taylor.
Although I say it myself, it’s a good ‘un this time. Check it out for yourselves – click on the Mandala below and follow the links.
I had a CRAFT moment and clean forgot about the April issue of Jersey Devil Press (the May issue’s already out, as you would imagine!). I have a poem in that April issue, with the title Sergeant Cuff names a rose ‘Catherine Earnshaw’. It was originally intended for their ‘Victorian Mash-up’ issue, but the editors slipped it in ahead of that. Jersey Devil Press is notoriously difficult to get something accepted by, unless you hit precisely the right note for them, so I’m belatedly proud. This is the first time I have submitted a poem to a journal for about five years (I stopped while I was writing my collection I am not a fish and I never got started again), so I’m doubly pleased.
Check out the April issue here, and maybe keep an eye on JDP as a whole, as there’s always some good stuff in there.
In a town not far from here there lived a beautiful young woman. One day there was a knock at her door, and when she opened it she found a man standing there holding the frame of a casement. He was a swindler, but she did not know this.
“Good morning, Miss,” he said, “I have here the unique and wonderful Golden Casement, and I offer it exclusively to you for the bargain price of fifty coins.”
The young woman reached over and tapped the casement.
“It’s wood, not gold,” she said.
“Ah, Miss, its name is ‘Golden Casement’, and though its apparent nature is wooden it is golden in its magical qualities. It has the property of being able to discern the difference between some one who is wise and someone who is a fool. A wise person looking through it will see beauty, a fool only ugliness. Yes? I see you are interested, and it can be yours for fifty coins. For a further fifty coins I will set it in the wall of your house, and for a further fifty I will make its properties known to the whole town!”
The young woman was indeed interested, because as well as being beautiful she was a little vain. She paid the swindler his hundred-and-fifty coins, and he set the casement in the wall of her house. Then, while the young woman sat at her window, he ran round the town telling everyone about the wonderful properties of the Golden Casement. Everyone flocked to see it and to gaze at the young woman, and because she was young and beautiful, everyone was glad to feel inside that they were wise and not foolish. The swindler, of course, slipped away from the town and was never seen again.
Thereafter the young woman spent all her time sitting at her window, enjoying very much being admired and told how beautiful she was. The townspeople never tired of coming to see her, and indeed the news spread to neighbouring towns and villages, and people came from far and wide to look at her through the famous Golden Casement, going away relieved to know that they were wise and not foolish. But as time went by she grew older and her beauty began to fade. Still the townspeople and visitors came, and still they said how beautiful she was, because none of them wanted to admit to being the slightest bit foolish.
Age and vanity and a lifetime of doing nothing but sitting behind a window being gazed at eventually took its price. Her former beauty was lost, the wreck of age untempered by kindness or modesty set in. Still townspeople and visitors declared that she was beautiful, because none of them wanted to appear to be a fool.
One day a little boy joined the crowd outside her house. He hadn’t heard the reputation of the Golden Casement, and when he looked in at the window all he saw was a mean, old woman.
“How ugly she is!” he cried. Someone put a hand over his mouth and hurried him away.
Eventually the woman died. Perhaps the handful of people who put her in her coffin realised the truth of the matter, but they said nothing, and when the townspeople buried her they raised a monument to her as the most beautiful woman who had ever lived.
The little boy who had spoken the truth out loud spent the rest of his life in an asylum. The swindler went into another country, where he taught two apprentices the mastery of swindling. Those two taught another two, each of whom taught another two, each of whom taught another two, and so on. That is why the world today is full of swindlers. And storytellers.