The Razor Blade in the Peach

On the cover of Fleur Adcock’s Poems 1960 – 2000, there’s a brilliant quote from Carol Ann Duffy on Adcock:

“Adcock has a deceptively laid-back tone, through which the sharper edge of her talent is encountered like a razor blade in a peach.”

This quote has really lingered. When it comes to expressing thoughts or feelings, it’s emphasised the need for delivering a punch in writing. It doesn’t have to be an emotional punch, it doesn’t have to be a ‘twist’, but it does have to deliver some form of substance, and this quote summarises it perfectly. Of course, the roles can be reversed. There’s poetry riddled with sharp blades upon reading but underneath it all lies a soft, sweet kiwi (the fruit – not the bird!). Ultimately, poetry has to give you something new, something you’ve not read before, for it to stick. It must surprise in some way.

This might just be me – there’s this feeling you get when a poem clicks with you. I’m not sure it’s entirely describable but it makes you feel like this: ‘Woah.’ For some it might be different. It might leave you in silence, it might leave your mouth hanging, it might leave you screaming and jumping up and down. Nonetheless, if you know what I mean, it’s amazing how poetry can do that. Here are some examples of where this happened, for me anyway: Mid-Term Break by Seamus Heaney, On A Wedding Anniversary by Dylan Thomas and, appropriately, For Meg by Fleur Adock.

(If you’re interested in the reverse, the kiwi in the ball of blades idea, I’d recommend Vultures by Chinua Achebe, even though it’s quite morbid!).

The first Nesbit and Gibley book of poetry (the title still being kept a secret – for now!) is currently in the beta-reading stage. Quite a few people have their hands on copies and (hopefully!) enjoying them as we speak. This is very much necessary, as anyone who has written in silence for so long will know what it’s like to have ‘blinker vision’ – writing breathes with the fresh perspective. So, if you’re still interested, the book is very much on its way!

I think Duffy describes how exciting poetry can be in such a simple manner, and that aspect of writing has really stuck with me when putting the book together. There’s a lot of great advice out there but this has definitely stuck with me the longest – like a razor-blade, it’s left my gums still sore and scarred months after eating.

Nesbit Likes: The Eagle by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

alfred

Some of the best poetry came from the Romantics. Keats, Wordsworth, Blake, all made their efforts to explore the beauty of nature, real and raw, away from control and formality. They sought to pan out the brilliance of the world from the suds of the ‘normal’ views and exemplify it all in poetry. And Tennyson’s The Eagle might (might) be one of the best examples of this.

The poem, written during his time spent in the Pyrenees, simply put, is about the eagle. To start, the poem isn’t exactly an easy read, despite being in solid iambic tetrameter. It opens with a harsh string of alliteration (clasp, crag and crooked all aren’t easy to say quickly), the phrase ‘azure world’ completely staggers the following rhyme and it’s all a bit clunky. Nonetheless, this is intentional, and emphasises the need to consider the eagle. Tennyson doesn’t want you to rush through it; he doesn’t want you to run around the art gallery, he wants you to sit and admire.

The rest follows quite peacefully, how the eagle watches from his viewpoint, higher than any other, with the sea far below, furthering the boldness (no pun intended!) and majesty of the bird, and then the dive.

Tennyson details almost everything the Romantics aimed to do. The wonder of nature, the resemblance of humanity (in the ‘hands’ and wrinkles’), and the simplicity of it all. No tricks here, just extraordinary word economics. Two short stanzas say it all.

The final line is the ultimate finish; the shift in fluidity, from slow to fast flowing, perfectly depicts the fall of the eagle and the gracefulness in the motion. I’d argue it’s one of the most brilliant lines from the Romantics – it’s so satisfying to read!


The Eagle

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ringed with the azure world, he stands. 

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls, 
And like a thunderbolt he falls.

In Our Measure

We used to measure ourselves by the day,
In our sibling scraps, in our homework,
Our jokes, and in the speed we ran.

On birthdays, the lines marked our height,
Creeping up the inside door frame
In pencil rungs of dates and names.

Those marks are still there, under that thick
Flashy beige we picked to sell
The house before we moved out.

But there’s no door frame here, nowhere
To brace your back, firm and secure,

No mother to lean over and draw the line
Above your head, for you to turn and check.

So we shout, as loud as we can,
In the writing and poetry we pen.

To embrace the light against the dark,
To measure ourselves again.

Nesbit Likes: The Sightseers by Paul Muldoon

Writing, when it comes down to it, is only a matter of walking. Like placing one foot in front of the other, you select a word and place, select and place. Of course, it becomes far more fluid; in fluency, this happens quickly, as any runner would know. In poetry, it’s perhaps of equal importance in how you arrange these words on the page. The attention to stanzas, in particular, is important in creating atmosphere and story telling.

The Sightseers is a great example of how a poem can shift in tone through the use of stanza length, and how it’s used to aid the climax. The first two quatrains detail how the narrator and his family drive to see the first round-a-bout in mid-Ulster, Ireland. It’s a light adventure. We’re introduced to details of three deaths in a relatively neutral light as he mentions the graveyard; this foreshadows the dark ahead.

The poem shifts to tercets and with it, the tone and feel. The uncle describes his experience with the B-specials (a special constable police force) and the violence and oppression that came with it. The full rhyme at the end assists in delivering the impact and, to be honest, it’s terrifying. The way it is told, as if in an equally neutral light, implies this wouldn’t have been out of the ordinary, furthering the horror and magnitude of the event. To add, the poem is the perfect length. Long enough to carry the information and create the build to the end, and short enough, that when we’re finished we’re left alone with a potent, unforgettable image.

I’m quite new to reading Muldoon’s poetry, having only just got down to the few collections of his poetry I have on the shelf. This was one of the first I read and god did it hit hard. This has been bookmarked for a long time and I hope you enjoy it!


The Sightseers

My father and mother, my brother and sister
and I, with uncle Pat, our dour best-loved uncle,
had set out that Sunday afternoon in July
in his broken-down Ford

not to visit some graveyard—one died of shingles,
one of fever, another’s knees turned to jelly—
but the brand-new roundabout at Ballygawley,
the first in mid-Ulster.

Uncle Pat was telling us how the B-Specials
had stopped him one night somewhere near Ballygawley
and smashed his bicycle

and made him sing the Sash and curse the Pope of Rome.
They held a pistol so hard against his forehead
there was still the mark of an O when he got home.

Proving Human

The way home is long and narrow and the forest runs along either side of the road. It’s hard to keep both eyes on the road. I can never help but stare to the sides of passing trees, backdropped by the blanket pitch that collects them in gloom and secrecy. It reminds me of a zoetrope my father gave me for a birthday. When I was younger, I imagined a character, normally something I had seen from television, running between the trunks, fast and fleeting, as if they were printed on projector slides.

I approached the infamous corner before the bridge. It has quite the reputation for catching drivers off guard. The one-way road without dips or bumps, lit by moonlight, provokes one to be generous with their speed. A few times a month someone would find themselves at the end in the mud. It’s never claimed a life. Most of the time it’s a few bruises, a few cuts, a wrecked car and a lesson learnt.

The ground was icy so I stopped the car before the road took me further. I got out to see how much of the tarmac was covered, to save me drifting into the barrier. I always carry a torch on me, ever since the wife worried herself sick about me coming down this route in the later hours. What if you get stuck, she would say, what if you get stuck in the forest at night? What if you get lost or the car breaks down and you crash? So I take a torch to keep her happy.

The ice continued, thick and black, glistening in the torchlight, right up to the corner barrier ahead. Of course, it looked as if it had been knocked down and rebuilt a dozen times. The bridge, which spans across the lake, was quiet. An old thing, people call it, and only named by locals as The Bridge in their casual conversations.

There’s peace out in the forest; far from civilisation; no homes, no buildings, no factories or farms. There’s nothing, for miles. I savoured the silence and took a second to relish the absence of the city life.

Where the new metal of the barrier meets the old stone of the bridge, that part had gone. A huge chunk of the wall was knocked through and the metal was sharp and jagged as if it had been struck by lightning. A pair of tire tracks ran between them and when my mind clicked, I jogged forward and looked over the edge. The air was still and the night was calm and the water glowed with a set of hazard lights, warm and red beneath the skin, and my heart felt shot. I sprinted back to the car for my phone, sliding the way on the ice, and then raced back towards the bridge, dialling as I went.

“Hello – police, I need the police. And an ambulance.”

“What’s your emergency?”

“A car – a car has gone off the road. Into the water. The car’s in the water.”

“Where are-”

“I’m on the Adley Bridge. Just from Compton Village. It’s gone through the railings. The car’s in the water.”

“They’re already on their way, sir. Where’s the driver? Is the driver in the car?”

“I don’t know. I don’t – The car’s in the water.

“Sir -”

“I’ve got to save them.”

I dropped the phone and rushed myself down the bank, footing my way in the small shelves of dirt and mud. I didn’t hear the crash, nor did I recognise the back of the car from the journey. God knows how long it had been in there, submerged and silent.

I lost the ground beneath my feet and tumbled forward, somersaulting into the water. It was quick to seep through my clothes, to catch my skin, and the cold caught my breath, but I got myself up and waded through to the car. The lake wasn’t deep, only then did I realise, as the nose of the car was balanced a few metres below me, with its tail end on top of it near the surface. I held my breath, took my head under and swam toward the front door, aided by the weight of my jeans and boots.

I could only just make out the shadowy figure of an old woman inside. Her arms hung above her head. Her face calm, her eyes closed.

The door wouldn’t open. I tugged as hard as I could, and hit the window with my fist, only to sound a dull thud of weakness. My lungs depleted in flurries of bubbles and I resurfaced. I shouted for help. The odds of someone else being nearby were low, the nearest home was over ten miles away, but I shouted, and sent my voice as far as I could.

It couldn’t have been more than a second after when a splash erupted in front of me. The water threw itself up and showered quickly. A head emerged in the middle of it. Stern and strong eyes looked at me, the eyes of a man with a shaggy beard and long hair clamped to his head. He took a deep breath and went under.

I followed him down. In two broad strokes he was already at the car, his silhouette cast by the taillights. He reached into his pocket, pulled out a small, hard object and pierced the window in a muted crack. It shattered peacefully. He bore his arms through, his elbow forcing out the corner panes that stuck together. The shards sailed and spun in every direction as he wrangled his arms inside and pulled the woman out, pushing his feet against the door and rising upwards.

I surfaced and crawled to the bank. The man hauled the woman up by her shoulders and when she was close, I pulled on her jacket and dragged her back onto land. I was sure she was dead, her body was limp and cold and pale. The man pressed his ear to her mouth and then pumped down on her chest with his hands, his fingers locked at the end of his pillar arms. Her body shuddered with each press, her head rocking as the man continued. Minutes passed, the man rhythmic. I watched, helpless and afraid. The woman rattled and coughed, water spewed from her mouth and ran down her chin and she let out an old, long groan.

Call it a miracle. A woman survives underwater for a ridiculous amount of time. Call it another miracle, that a man jumped from the bridge and brought her back from the grips of a watery grave. To this day, I still don’t believe how she made it.

The man collapsed backwards and the air filled with deep breaths from all of us. The woman with her head on my coat, the man sitting in the dirt.

I knew the woman. I recognised her when I shone the torch on her face for signs of life. Her name was Martha Andrews. She used to be a gardener for the rugby grounds. Rumours told she turned to alcohol after she was sacked, and I didn’t refute them after her rich, whiskey breath travelled upwards and hit my nostrils.

The man’s breathing slowed and became silent. He cleared his hair and looked me straight in the eyes, holding a blank stare that spoke fatigue and tiredness. His face, worn and leathered. And then, he quietly got himself up, and made his way into the forest, his coat dripping as he went. His footsteps softened and soon dissolved with the crunch of sticks and leaves as the sirens began to fill the night.

“Thank you,” Martha said, staring up at me with a trembling lip. “Thank you.”

And I said nothing.

The Most Of It

Our teacher told us that most of the time, you’ll find symbolism and metaphor in poetry. Poems almost speak a different language and after reading, you translate it into something bigger and find how it potentially applies to the reader and to the world.

One week, we were studying The Most of It by Robert Frost. I remember at the start of a lesson, she gave a summary and tapped it onto the chalkboard: Man asks. Nature responds. 

The poem, for those who haven’t read it (and I suggest you do, it’s brilliant!), details a man who seeks response to his questions only to have his own voice mockingly echo back off the far cliffs. He’s alone and in despair. A figure splashes on the far side of the lake before swimming toward him. He expects another person, perhaps someone with an answer, someone to join him, but instead, this massive buck emerges from the lake in a tremendous entrance before finding its way into the undergrowth, ignoring the man completely.

I remember asking what this meant, in terms of it being the answer to the mans pleas. My peers threw in their suggestions and we debated whether or not this was how God spoke, or if this was the universe speaking to him, or if the buck was communicating, telling him to get over it or something. We sought after the metaphor, the symbolism, who the man and buck represented, the deeper meaning.

When the bell rang and we all started to make our way out the classroom, the teacher changed the summary on the board to this: Man asks. Nature responds?

Perhaps there’s not a meaning for the buck emerging from the lake. Perhaps it doesn’t represent anything, and the beauty of the poem is the image itself, this grand beast in all its glory. There’s no denying the coincidence (the man asks big questions, and then something big happens) but that doesn’t necessarily mean a correlation between the two. It’s as silly as asking the meaning of life or the meaning of mountains. We know how they form, mostly know how they originate, but meaning is something entirely different, something we project onto it. The man is a man, the buck is a buck.

This poem has stuck with me for some time. I’ve spent a great deal thinking about it and the many ways of reading it. Robert Frost’s The Most of It is one of my favourite poems.

I’ve been working on a short story inspired by this piece and I will share it tomorrow. The story doesn’t involve a buck nor does it contain the beautiful imagery Frost portrays, but it’s how I’ve seen this poem. The short story is the most collective, concise manner I can communicate my weird, oddly ways of thinking.

Titled Proving Human, the name taken from the poem itself, the piece will be published tomorrow and I very much hope you enjoy it!

Water Words

When I write, the poetry finds its own course
As running water would.
Sometimes,
It begins with the waves, breathing and breaking with gentleness,
Whispering their way up the beach, filling and depleting old seashells
In these lines of equal length, as the sea climbs to the mark of dry
Sand in its own time, crawling to the bathers and tanned strongmen
Before it deflates and retreats back towards the glistening horizon.
And then,
Sometimes,
Lines
Become
Short
Like
Drips.
Rhymes
And
Sounds
Drip
-Drop
Their
Way
Down,
Echoing
The
Fall
Before,
Words
Spending
Themselves
Against
The
Skin
Of
A
Drum
In
Soft
Conga
Heartbeats.
And sometimes
They rush, the words are suddenly carried in a gushing current and are channelled and spewed across long lines and race over the flat plains of the page pulled by gravity’s swell as these words spill without pause for breath because there’s no time to stop for air as every sound is poured into the boiling flow and our pulse quickens to the rising crescendo as the orchestra bellows its flooding roar and we’re rising with it more and more and our emotions bloom in heavy tides and our senses tense as there’s no room for notes or thoughts or sentiments in this waterfall of jetting brine which cascades without a sign of ending until one fell swoop from the conductor is delivered with a flick and a swish and a bow
And then
It stops.
The water
Hits the rocks
And disperses into
Fragmented teardrops
For the finish, leaving me
With the afterthought of poetry.

In My Footprints

VOC-0011 29:03:2078CCB148 

“You’d like it here. It’s very red. Remember when we went to Fired Earth? Spent ages looking through those shades of red for the living room. You, heh, you were all engrossed in them and I kept saying ‘Red Room.’ It was backwards for ‘murder’, sort of, didn’t really work. Wasn’t actually that funny.” The landscape stretched far ahead. He turned around and counted his steps. “Not much else to do.” He placed the beacon deep into the dirt. The drill burrowed into the rock and out of the top popped a small bulb. It gave three small blips of light and then switched off.

“I’m… I’m just heading back. I think it’s about a four mile… four mile walk. Landed a little bit off course but I don’t mind the stroll. You know I followed you? You left after we got home. You said I wasn’t any help with the paints and I didn’t know what to say. Had a bad choice of words. I said something like, ‘Are you going to Moorder me now?’ I don’t know why I said it, but you left and… You left and I followed you. I know you said it’s for you, your moment to get away, get a breather. I knew you were mad and you would have killed me if you know I was behind. You went past Mike’s place. He said hello and you ignored him. I wanted to catch up and say I was sorry. I didn’t get a chance to tell you the shade you picked out was… well, beautiful. I know it’s only paint and it’s only a room, that’s what you said, but you had a such good taste for making it feel… making it look good. It made me not care about watching those programmes with you, it was nice to just sit in the room. These are supposed to be journal entries and here I am in my first one talking about our bloody living room.”

He looked behind. The tip of the beacon poked out above a small pile of rocks. Leading back he saw the two trials of footprints, the one returning veered left and right. He sat down with his back to the ship.

“I wish I could follow you here. I don’t know what I’m doing. You’d think it’d be great. Win the survival lottery. Wear the title of saviour of humanity. I’d trade it all for those two extra months with you.”

He titled his head. The sun bright above. A trial of smoke tore through the sky with a small, white shuttle leading it. “I wish you were here, we could meet the neighbours together.”

VOC-0011 29:03:2078CCB148  – end

Change

He’d come in everyday at 9:10am. He’d slowly make his way up to me, tilt his hat and ask how I was; it normally followed by a chesty cough. When I was getting the bag ready, I’d hear him slowly make his way around the store, coughing as he went, dragging his stick along the floor. He’d return with the same three things: a pint of milk, a copy of The Local Racer and a bar of caramel chocolate, the latter for the wife, as he always said. He’d then ask for a pack of 40 Camel cigarettes, and it got so often that I had them scanned, bagged and on the till for him when he returned, sometimes even before he had come into the shop. Every time when I gave him the bag, he’d say “I’m going to kick the habit, I’m going to kill the smoking habit. Tomorrow.” He’d laugh, cough, and wish me a good day.

Anyway, the rest of the day was punctuated with visits from the same locals. Marnie, from the charity shop, came in and bought her fruit and nuts; every now and then she’d include the latest diet magazine from Good Health. William came in from the post office for his lunch. He always looked so dishevelled and tired and would always be fishing out pennies to pay for his plain cheese sandwich. Franco, from the restaurant, came in and always bought a lottery ticket. He always said “Make sure you give me the winning one this time.” That got old pretty quick. He owned the restaurant next door, which was never busy. It got slated by Ramsay. Then, just before we closed up, Higgins would come in again and ask for another pack of Camels. Had to give it to him, even though I had already cashed up the till, so just handed him the packet and told him to bring the money the next day.

You get stuck into a routine, working there. When you see the same people everyday, the small changes in their appearances and purchases spoke volumes about them. You could read people through the numbers on the till. Marnie stopped buying her fruit and nuts. Not long after, she began to put on weight – but she was a lot happier. William spent more money for his lunch and began to pay in notes. This told me he got a better job at the post office. Franco stopped buying his lottery tickets and went onto scratch cards, I suppose he worked out there’s a better chance of him winning with them. And Higgins stopped coming in, instead a boy took his place. He was silent on the shop floor picking up the milk, the paper – but not the chocolate. After I figured he was running the daily errands for Higgins, the boy told me the wife had given up the chocolate. For her health. He’d then ask politely for 60 Camel cigarettes. “He’ll kick the habit. He’ll kill the smoking habit. Tomorrow,” the boy would say. It wasn’t followed with a laugh.

I still visit the village. My parents live down there and when I’m around, I’ll get the bread for them in the mornings. I see the same people, although they don’t recognise me, what with my beard and hair and that. It’s a relief to see how people are. I saw Marnie outside the bank, she was thin and her hair was full, she looked really well. William was in a suit with a briefcase, walking with urgency towards the post office. He looked liked he owned the place when he entered. And ‘Franco’s Restaurant’ was now a cafe and was roaring with customers drinking coffee and eating cake. He looked happy, too, though I spotted a lottery ticket in his hand.

One time, I saw the boy. He was older. A man, I suppose now, he may well have been in his early twenties. I was walking past him and caught a glimpse of what he was carrying. He had a pint of milk, a copy of The Local Racer and a chocolate bar – no cigarettes, though.

Perhaps Higgins finally did it. He killed the smoking habit.

God, I wish it were that way around. I wish it were that way around.

Voices to the Heavens

“He was mad, he was. Mad as a bat – is that the phrase? Mad as a bat? Anyway, he was mad. I don’t mean a bit loopy, I don’t mean a bit crazy; he was down right mad. But that doesn’t mean we didn’t like him.”

Jones took a sip of his coffee; he slightly recoiled to the bitterness and heat and then set it down onto his coaster. “On his first day, Toby was late. He came in wearing his big boots and holding his plastic bag of food, his bowler hat just resting on the top of his head, and he shouted “Monday, 9:13am. I am late by thirteen minutes!” The whole office laughed, that brought colour to the floor, that did. Funniest thing, you know? Most people try and slip in past Fredericks if they’re late, dip underneath the cubicles, crawl under the tables. Toby just belted it to the everyone.”

“He kept doing it. Every day of the week. “Tuesday, 9:05am. I am late by 5 minutes!” “Friday, 9:26am. I am late by 26 minutes!” Each time, it never failed to make us chuckle. Fredericks tried to hold a straight face, being the boss and all, but underneath you could tell he found it funny. It just became a thing that would happen in the morning. He was late everyday but he always made up the minutes.”

Jones sighed. He kept his eyes on his hands, watching his thumbs tumble over each other on his lap. “I took him home once. Drove him back after the Christmas dinner. He told me he couldn’t drive home so I took him. I was sober, I didn’t mind. You know me, you know what beer does. What it has done. I got him home – silly sod, he told me he couldn’t drive, I thought, you know, it’s because he’s pissed, but turns out he didn’t have a car. That’s what he meant. He laughed, the first time I ever heard him. It was warming, sweet; he cut himself off shortly afterwards. I took him in, shut the door and left.”

Jones took another sip of his coffee. This time, he didn’t recoil to the taste nor the heat. He had his eyes fixed on the surface of the drink, watched as it rippled under the breath from his nostrils.

“Caught one of his neighbours on their porch as I walked back to my car. Well, he caught me. He said, ‘I hope that man sleeps tonight.’ I spoke to him for a while. He said Toby was new to the house, he had only moved in since he started working with us.”

“He said that he would hear him shouting. Like he does in the office every morning. He would shout ‘Tuesday, 7:45am. Thought of it again. I will not do it again.’ ‘Wednesday, 9:05pm. Did it. I did it again. I’m sorry.’ ‘Sunday, 10:29am. Overslept by 29minutes. I’m sorry, my Lord.”

“My Lord?” I asked.

“That’s what he said. Toby said ‘My Lord.’”

Jones looked up towards the mantlepiece.

“That boy was repenting. Every time. Every time he was late, every time he did something bad, he would shout it out to the heavens. Loud and clear, for whatever reason. That day they arrested him, his neighbour recalled his words as they took him in. His torso was covered in blood, his hair was pulled out in tufts. ‘Saturday, 7:35am. I did it for you.’”