Sand dreams

Here is where I retreat,
under yawning bark and view

releasing a tiny, forgotten universe
held together by lashings of memory.

I imagine owning the fabulous adornments
of a reckless youth, brittle inventions

or useful battle scars, the bright ferment
giving birth to aged sighs, a slow release.

To sit and sift through novels of a past
that feels real by its invention

with old rocking-chair men poring through
dusty tabloids of shuttered, bygone hopes,

cursing and loving the past in lamentations,
possessing it again in monochrome

under cover of roofs, hats, denials.
Devotion in this place takes no shape

dissolving out of reach and view,
though the past is always underfoot.

Or we invent it without seeing, without knowing
we have pinned all our hopes to its mast,

much as the earth astounds the castaway skies,
bracing the stars, the dream’s quiet music.

The Wall

The wall, which he had come to count now in seconds rather than metres, seemed to fortify him in a way that coffee no longer did, taken strong and hot and smoking with the bitterness of a thousand cups punching you in the neck, first sipped then embraced throatfully in a torrent of gulps, and even after those three cups poured straight from the, what was it, canteen? flask? maybe a pot? he still felt brisk and unbalanced standing here, looking over his small patch of horizon and world.

This was still when it was afternoon, just, when you could feel evening heading in your direction like a traveler running after a bus, with all its little whispers turning into panicked shouts, knowing that anything would be possible, that the thing might hold up and hoping it would, because you needed the promise of order and the pitch back to be strobed in a certain way so that the nothing happened and the harmony of routine held its place. Otherwise it was going to mean everything would boil up and scald you, and you needed to calm the language of sweat and palpitations that he had going already, a nagging voice that would drip down his cheeks even if he needed those five or nine seconds from here to a steady position where eye and finger meet up in the mind, pinching the horizon together as they found a tiny dancer leaping like he was giving the worst audition for the Nutcracker, but in two seconds with a single round of applause he would crumple up worse than the swan, no encore and a lot of quiet. Quiet was good.

Facing the clouds and holding his head steady, he rubs hands together to stay warm and reaches for a moment that happy state where you feel the earth itself is still, where we aren’t the ones moving but everything else is harmonising around us. What are the words you could invent to describe this thing that people have felt but never find the time to think about, because they’re always fretting on investing, politics, foreigners, the length of the line when you go shopping and people start clucking and making snide comments under their better faces, when their little devils pounce and reach for fists and blood. Except then he remembers that his son, somewhere else, might be having the very same daydream, or is it a realisation, an epiphany, an unclouded moment, except it’s not as if he’s going to share it with him. If he could, and is this father or son or both, who knows which has the words because he doesn’t, he would hover over the boy’s homework, count up all the glowing ticks and pause at the smiley face sticker with the mouth that looked like it had met the sore end of a knife, ignore that reaction, where had it come from? and give the kid a real firm but soft tussling of his hair, he would have. He’d tell him to keep doing that, getting lots of those stickers. Lots of posters on the wall, lots of art and even stories and photos and the good things and feelings, there and at home, he imagined. Nice, nice things on creamy, inviting walls with smooth surfaces that you could lean up against and feel safe and calm and not, with the passion of your forearm against her neck and

he has forgotten where he is, but a crow makes its rounds and he knows again, where now is.

They’ll be tucking them in at night. If you want to call it that. You could write a whole chapter, one for each of the parents who would better be doing it than walking into the empty bed, eyes demolished and hungry and weeping and hopeless. There are a lot who don’t give a damn, too, but. He sees it, in the time it takes for the mind to rotate through the scene of Maria, say, she’s just a face he gets from her book of mourning, missing the scent of a child and its smiles and the snaps of photographs that show it mountaining up, all of that is real enough even if she isn’t. It’s somewhere, he knows, though it’s easier off if you just think of them as a hundred or so, all the same in the dark, all going off with the lights out and their mouths crinkled and ajar and brains burning insidious thoughts of repentance and rage and ‘why mes’ and you know that there won’t be tears, because toughen up and be a man, especially in here, down there.

They say it’s easier to face if you empty your mind, try not to put it into any particular order but just gather it up into a satchel or a bag or a bucket, something large enough and steady enough to take the loose ends and hold them, then toss them over the side so that they escape. You can try and take it and look over the edge, or you can just let it free.

So that’s what he

A most stern story (a la Gogol)

One arrives at the First National Proceedings on the Work of Alexandr Pushkin ready to be somewhat underwhelmed. Indeed, apart from the typical guests that one anticipates at these outings, showboating figures attired in velvet, sashes and sporting the most recent fads in moustache wax, there will surely be little in the way of good company. Even so, a figure as estimable as Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol must remain steadfast and determined in attending such a grand and important event. Amidst the grime and detritus, the lower echelons of the literary community, one might still find oneself amongst grand and important men discussing the most inimitable of creations.

You must only remind yourself that you are here, near the very heart of St Petersburg, where there are grand arches and marble columns yearning upwards towards the celestial, a fine reminder of the majesty of the occasion. Gleaming, polished balustrades beckon you to take flight in your shoes, less impressive than would be preferred, and dance upwards to one of the locked rooms in hypnotic flight. There, you would discover a lady whose mind would first be turned to questions of costume and then the day, perhaps reciting to her mirror a few witty lines of Pushkin’s verse.
Also, the fair young maiden might be occupied with other concerns, knowing that she would surely face pursuit by potential literary suitors who might come upon her lightly, offering an apposite phrase to draw a tinkling laugh.

But reader, I am sure she would be a miserable and deceptive harlot. Even knowing that an author – a dramatist! – might not make for an enviable husband, all women are frauds. I find all women I encounter beautiful for that blissful, brief and transfixing moment where they take you in through their eyes and promise endless sweet nothings. A marriage later and they have suddenly draped themselves in an apron, doubled in size and volume, a borscht-ladling, penny-pinching scoundrel who will deceive you into a life of endless misery. At her instruction, you will find yourself hunched over meaningless and grave work, a bureaucrat losing your sanity until the end of your wretched existence.

Where was I? Needless to say that I had preferred to remain on the lower level, avoiding unnecessary tangents and turgid romances that might eventuate. All this time, remaining nonchalant, I had nestled myself not far from a portrait that I took to represent the master of this fine estate, though done in such a way as to underplay his porcine tendencies. Remaining calm, I had been scouting for conversation or stories that might be gathered up and tossed around into some marvellous metaphor. One should always have a few startling anecdotes handy.

For you know what these gatherings are like, reader, they are the same in every city around the world. All deliver the tired, worn-out air of the stale, academic type who attires himself in buffoonish laughter and cravat, thinking it will provide him with sufficient import. Yet for some, like Yevgeny Matrovic, the addition of such overbearing details (even a monocle!) no doubt suggest that even the most plain of creatures believe that an outfit will allow them unrivalled attention and disguise the intellectual void that is sorely empty. Yevgeny’s presence here would have been a surprise to those who knew him five years prior, a neophyte to writing and an unflinching slob, who seemed to believe an afternoon or two would allow him to trot out a few breathtaking pamphlets. The man is little more than a pig-dweller.

“Aren’t we writers such self-absorbed, envious fools?” Yevgeny cackled, to rich applause. We need not look too closely at the cheap irony he was seeking to score against my abrasive observations.

But we were elsewhere, attempting to listen in and gather the day’s fruit from the little twinkling conversations that might begin with a discussion of a supposed controversy and lead eventually onwards to a brief quoted line from Eugene Onegin, and then back again as sure as can be to whose brother had been recently promoted, whose uncle embarrassed for a set of trousers bursting at the inseam while attending a febrile patient, too far gone to be startled by the spectacle. It is the frequent and inexorable nature of man that we are a discursive creature, bound to redirect our minds to whichever matters come our way.

Perhaps, if I can one day get around to it, I will sometime tell you about an unfortunate argument I had with a bookshelf on its stubbornness. Though I must make it clear that a little bit of inebriation having been involved, it will be necessary to present this incident through a slightly less efficacious figure – call him Petyr Dumbovic – and substitute the bookshelf with a candelabra which momentarily adopted human form, though all the other cretins lacked sufficient insight to notice this shift.

What a waste, these hours, waiting to be approached by a worthwhile figure from the wings. As if the others in the room had not, by this point in time, noticed that they were in the presence of an inheritor of Pushkin’s mantle? Proceeding to thrust my half-eaten blini in the direction of the floorboards, I took my leave of this most pathetic occasion.

Drifting out into the afternoon’s sudden inrush of fog, I contemplated how I would best make my vitriol known. I would write them a most stern letter. Or perhaps a story, a tale whose sweeping insights they would be, as always, too thoughtless to fully appreciate.

Smiling, I walked on.


Note: this is something I wrote on the spur of the moment for students I teach, mostly because I thought it would be enjoyable. And strangely enough, it was quite fun to write (though I’ve let it taper off near the end because I’m aiming to keep it to a certain length).

A grammar of taste

The sky speaks.

She (or he, it is still too early to quite decide) is caught up in that hour before morning loses its solitary scent. Ignoring the kitchen’s light switch and working from the ingrained comfort that comes after months in the same place, her mind drifts, loose and roaming, to where the traces of dreams are yet to be fully scrubbed from the eyes’ grimy corners.

From the window of the apartment looking into hers, four flights up and across a slightly nauseous gap she has learned to bear, a camera flash, or a too early glimmer of sun. Or just a lamp flicked on for long enough to confirm the hour is yet small enough for a return to the luxurious coma of sleep, a few more placeless, anaesthetised minutes before facing the day. Sometimes a light is just a light, a trick the mind offers us, rather than a question. Sometimes it is also the hand behind it, reaching outwards and guiding.

Her fingers (and we seem more sure it is a ‘her’, if reading mannerisms and outlines allows us a clue) clutch an orange, bought two days ago, moving slowly over its pores. With a thumb nail, pressure and a little leverage, soon the bittersweet notion of citrus breaks free. She expects this to happen, knows it with a familial reassurance, but smiles a little anyway, content with this tenderness meant for her alone, this moment. It is a singular pleasure, one of very few she’ll permit herself throughout the day. With its stubborn weight of routine, soon the rigid hours will own her again, she will serve them. Soon, she will check off tasks and the hours, meetings and nods and handshakes and a mind knotted up in the daylight life that eats into night, where even then are there few shadows to escape into for their little pleasures.

As she pops a segment into her mouth, this could be her madeleine moment – someone should call her now, coincidentally and early, that they might together appreciate the cool spice and tang of this shared reprieve – but her tastes these days come more from the self-improvement section, not her childhood indulgences. She gave them up, gives them up, in order to keep reaching and floating and moving. Past loves have faded, for the most part, and they say exes are best remembered in their most rancid form, to fan away regret, rather than regurgitated from that confusing emotional pit. She prefers not to let her mind turn down those corridors, though what can she do in those unscheduled absences when the wind rushes in, umbrellas are unfurled from sleeves, and couples link arms to hurry down grey-slopped streets together?

Best to remember that she knows where to draw her mantras and heroes from, now. The commute to work, still by train on a practically gentrified line, is filled with a self-talk of generic phrases congratulating her on upgrading her attitude and wardrobe, reminders and rehearsals about how posture and volume lead to partnership, faint echoes of Mrs Waugh in fourth grade and those constant reminders about “stiffening up your spine, girls” that now seem to be the best-selling creed of bleach-toothed success stories.

She cycles through her morning playlist, much of it at a tempo fast enough to psych you up for an adversarial joust or performing CPR, whichever comes first. Days require you to be versatile, even within the monotony. Chomping at the bit for action, her foot detaches from her thoughts, in a tss tss tss, a nodding blur that almost matches time with the train’s steady rattle, a free and cracking whip of motion and force and elsewhere. Her mind works up a sweat.

Portrait #12: Woman contemplating an orange near daybreak.

She’s caught up with the way the rind slips her little hints of memories, though she doesn’t get to choose which ones. She’ll go there anyway, resting an elbow on the chopping board, and even taken somewhere else she almost notices that the light may have flashed again. It seems she’s tallying up the purchases she’ll need to make, a mental inventory. The necessary maintenance and chores and taking out the trash that will be added to calling her mother for a second time this week. Add extra chocolate to the list, coffee beans, new tumblers. No new tumblers. No more tumblers.

Can’t we get her to focus, even in these empty minutes before the freeway whirs into life, on something other than the here and now?

The sky is watching, or will be watching, speaking in tongues and rays and indecipherable little hints that we ascribe a mind of their own. We must give her a grammar of taste, a way to name the dangling emotions and savour the run-on thoughts as more than a slow stream of juice that wets lips and appetite.

Speaking to an empty room, though, the sky offers nothing this morning. Nothing that will be taken.

But it has time, it will be here tomorrow too.

As she exits, she pockets a fruit for later, and hurries off to join the whirring crowd.