The Poem


Artwork: John Piper, Beach With Starfish, c.1933

“… so many beginnings, but how to begin again?”

‘The Poem’, which despite its title is not one, builds on the Kunstlerroman tradition in its immediate portrayal of a few moments in an artist adolescent’s life. Using a luminous stream-of-consciousness evocative of Joyce, Woolf, and Kerouac, its narrator spins a comic existential account of the quest for knowledge and understanding within a ‘bleak and crazed’ universe. Out of a walk on the beach, a bacon roll, love’s ‘glistening threads’, and the absurdities of life, its unnamed hero spends his time in the sun painfully crafting a poem, or, perhaps, ‘The Poem’. 

by Fred Baxter

I walk with my hood up, head down. My chin cleaves to my chest, underground in my soft warm coat, slightly damp. My clothes, too, are wet; where they were speckled and beaded with rain a moment ago they are now soaked through. I can feel my light trousers casting a tight mould of my leg. Feel the pinpricks of rain, tiny ice-pins smarting, again, again. The tide goes gasp-sigh gasp-sigh as it gurgles and falls away on the clatter of the salt-stones. Smoke, wool, the wispy flocculence of the sky. The sky, the sea: it’s all of it white, greying and the edges and thinning out to a barely visible line sketched hazily in the middle. The rain runs, the watercolour splodges, alleys of quicksilver disturb patches of milky pastel.

The morning procession of walkers and joggers walk, jog. I feel self-conscious here on the stones by the sea, underneath the sprinkled russet of the prom. More and more: stertorous deep-sea joggers with their wobbling paunches; the clusters of cawing women under a rainbow canopy of umbrellas; always the slow advances of elderly couples, dependent somnambulants, with their blank faces and glazed-over slits. Me, – too close to the water’s edge, I can feel it compressing like a bellows in my shoe – on the pearl-butter of the beach, hood up, head down. Do they notice me, the dazed ghosts of the flat walkway? (Figure the size of a chess piece, wrapped up in black, eyes on the spilled jewellery underfoot) I want to scream; what are they all doing? How can they run about hob-nobbing and curtseying like nothing’s wrong? Like nothing’s so unbelievably bleak and crazed? I stop the adolescent whine before it reaches the front of my mind: one step, two step, the waterfall of the pebbles under my marching pavane. Must not read Ca-muss before bed.

I come away from the collapsing tide on to the prom. There’s a bench choking in flowers, hundreds of plastic-wrapped roses, irises, – are they irises? I never know the names of flowers – messages in transparent folders, pictures. I choose its nearby cousin. No flowers, no plaque. Now I can think. Think – but think of what? Thinking, ideas, inspiration: are they not common to us all? Surely this is what they do, sit on a bench and think. Them, with their ideas and their thinking. I watch my mind. A child has come shrieking with their bicycle’s rusty splint-stone rolling, mother and pram behind; I am distracted. The rain falls louder now. The rain falls … The rain falls like daggers on my heart. No. I stand up and walk towards the shelter of the grimy hotel. Perhaps thinking is for some and not others after all.

There is a wall of catapulting rain counselling the murky thread-loose awnings of the hotel, firing squads of perfect rainsphere, in each a minute diorama of the beach, the sky. As soon as one falls loosely about the puddled tarmac another takes its place, widening glutinously and dropping silver-streaked, globules with the world in them, again, again. Out of the rain now I take down the hood of the raincoat and shake my hair about, like a dog. It sends a sheet of shining droplets spinning. I can see through the windows into the dark restaurant of the hotel, the chairs still atop the tables. I remember sitting in the very table closest to me on an empty Easter Sunday, feet just grazing the floor, in a collar so tight it was a starched noose. I had four different meats from the carvery and my parents and grandparents discussed Their European Concerns. A black-jacketed staffer enters the half-mirror made by the window, we lock eyes for a second, I turn away. I sit down on a metal bench at the foot of the hotel steps, just covered from the rain.
Is it that difficult? Thinking, I mean, poetry, ideas. I’ve read enough of them; my little row of black-scratched paperbacks, they’re full of them. I have a little fake-leather notebook with me. Pen, pencil. Tap, tap, feel, stationery strip-search. In my inside coat pocket is the muffled outline of what I take to be a writing implement. With slight revulsion I see it’s the red monogrammed fountain pen my parents gave me last Christmas, lacquered in the cloud-light with its proud gilt initials splintering into gleam. We got it in red, your favourite, and did you see the initials? So clever! I can hear my mother say, carefully folding the wrapping paper to iron and reuse. My father, sated and smiling distantly, his hands crossed over his round belly. I begin to write, but no ink comes out; I have etched a faint letter into the page, and I make quick jagged zig-zags until a deposit of blue-black blotches the paper. Ode to the Sea, underline. Cross out. On the Beach. I pause, looking for inspiration. I stare out at the quivering grey for a moment, watch the balking rumble, the rain, the pouring, the old man snoring. I start drawing aimlessly, lines, boxes, sinuous, striped. What was that word I heard the other day? Yes, vertiginous: nice word. What could it mean? The vertiginous rain falls from a black sky. Cross out vertiginous. How to begin? Father’s family name, flowers for herself, David Copperfield and all that, once upon a moocow: so many beginnings, but how to begin again?

The seagulls moan and circle the dull whiteness of the sea. The runners and school runners run on, leaving the beach empty for me and rain, the rain. The rain falls like angry sheets of white. White. Bite, sight, light, fight, kite. The rain falls like angry sheets of white, the cloud blocking the Sun’s light. I remember the poems of primary school, the acrostics, the haikus. Did Wordsworth ever write a haiku? I realise that the cuffs of my jumper are wet under my coat, heavy and slimy where the rain sinks through to the skin. I can’t help remembering how it was laid out for me, arms folded behind like a bowing courtier, or a straightjacketed one. They must have started cooking breakfast in the hotel; there is the stench of fish brine and cooking fat, I want to be sick.
I wonder how my parents are spending this mutual splinter-second of time. My father, walking to another day of crunchy numeracy, and another, my mother busily dusting, polishing, preening, poaching: how can they keep from laughing out loud, hysteric at their ridiculous existence? Does no one else realise? I get up from the beach and walk from the grimy beachfronts, putting up my hood against the rain’s scarlet pelt. There are a few morning laggards left scrawling about on the prom; do they not realise? I feel as if the beach, the prom, the salt-sprayed beach-houses will fold back and reveal lights, a set, the insidious costumes and props; will I still follow the petty script in the darkness of the studio? Will my eyes not be dazed by the heady white lights, the watchfulness of the acclaimed director?

One-step, two-step, importuning hemiola. I follow my feet away from the beach and to the high-street, where permed octogenarians wait under awnings, butcher’s, baker’s, for the rain to abey. The clock in the town hall strikes the hour in one metal plosive: nine o’ clock; I have been out for three hours. If I push four, my mother will begin to worry, tip-toeing open my bedroom door to find a colony of towels, clothes, and crockery but no son. I’m hungry. I take down my hood and walk into the acid rank of the butcher’s, trying to keep from retching for my stomach is a starving acrobat. I ask for a roll with bacon and egg from the portly purplish butcher, who grins conspiratorially. I realise that I went to primary school with the assistant, gaunt and pimply, snipping sausage skins. I ignore him; I’m not in the mood for memory lane, and besides, I’ve forgotten his name. Paying with a glinting giggle of embarrassing change, I see that the rain has stopped, content with sliding down drains and somersaulting from shop eaves. The sky’s diaphine tissue glasses over, and narrow bands of sunlight shoot through its wisp. I bite into the cushiony yolk and it runs down my chin. Why is it that people say there is no God? I think suddenly. For how on earth is anything explained without one? Something can’t just happen from nothing. Atheism is a rather silly position, I think. But what’s beyond? Form, absolutes, darkness, structure, eternity: I want to know, to understand. I shudder; I’m not fond of thinking about these things. One-step, two-step. Two feet and a hollow diamond in the sky.

I throw away my half-eaten breakfast, and the red pen too. The roll may have appeased my churning stomach, but I still feel sick. There’s still a jangle of coins in my pocket; with a glance at the burnished files in the display I see my shuffling feet go into the chain bookshop. The girl at the counter picks at her dirt-ringed fingernails, sinewy sheaves of her golden hair straggling from a frenzied crown. She is about my age. I have seen her with her leopard printed girlfriends on plastic Friday evenings, she in her choice insouciance, my stalking night retreats. One whistling November her eyes met mine among the wheezing breaths of the night bus; I saw a pained intricacy through the liquid shadow, she turned away with a flush. I imagine touching her marble flesh, her strewn-grain tresses. I shudder again, and escape to the alleys of books. The sparkling universes in her glassy eyes … her glassy eyes … Did she look up from her ravaging machinations when I came in? Did she recognise me? The nape of my neck feels hot-to-the-touch. I try to push her likeness out of my mind. One, two, the leather infantries, the shelves, the unending rows. I read the tilted surnames: Dickens, Bronte, Eliot, Fitzgerald, Forster, Maugham – Morm? Mow-am? – the citrusy paperbacks: Orwell, Greene, Amis, Ca-muss, Sart-tre; philosophy, theology, politics, theory; Derrida, deconstruction, postmodernist, ontology, autonomy, intertext, syntactic, integritas, consonantia, claritas, – what did it all mean? If it is possible for something to be, if it is possible is actual, then it is actual. God is such a thing, necessarily. Therefore God exists. I read these words days ago – what on earth did they mean?

The variegated rows, the unending rows. The companion, the guide, the comprehensive, the complete; aesthetics, metaphysics, ethics, ep-ist-te-, epist-te-mology: all featureless spectres. I want to know, to understand. An image of her dilutes into memory’s eyes: her busy hands, her hazily drawn up hairstyle. I can hear her tap-dancing fingers drumming the countertop. Is this how people do it? Think, prophesise, imagine? The star-spun eyes of the prophet in the wood, exulting, dazzled, and the booming commands, the glitter of world-making stardust … Claritas, the narrative poem, her lustre, my costive ire, we had a mutual splinter-second once, once. Between the lines, the white metal bookshelves, I shut my eyes for a second. The white lights of the ceiling flash in ochre and fade. When I open them again they gambol in neon, many-headed, burning up and stretching in straight shining tendrils. I turn to leave, bravely darting half an eye to the counter. There she is, looking up, with an open smile on her face. And one cracking on mine, too. 

The clods of white have blown back, fast-forward of their wispy trajectory, and the heat of the sun clasps my face. Fear no more the heat o’ the sun. Where had I heard that line? Your eyes, the silky mirror. Mirror. Sirrah, Clearer, Nearer. We are a breath nearer, now, among the books. Does she realise? Look at the eyes. They follow me along the high street, glistening, their sappy gossamer-threads, pulled taut like skin against the bone, held up against the sky, reddening and see-through. My shoes splash in unmoving sky-puddles, after-images of rain painted in flat pinks, light blues. There is a grittled spoor of car-exhaust oil on the pavement, catching the light in rainbow glass-shards. Is this how it feels? Thinking, ideas, dream, myth. Happiness. The little things. I can’t help but smile, feeling the glistening threads about me. 

I look for the notebook, but remember I have thrown away the red fountain pen. I turn the lines over in my mind, hoping I don’t forget them. One-step, two-step, long, short. One, two, the steady beat of my heart, and the heart of every passer-by, and every heart in everyone. One-step two-step, I walk, I walk. 

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