Elizabeth Bishop; Nothing Wrong; Cyclomotors
This piece is about 10 printed pages long.
It is copyright © John Muckle and Jacket magazine 2007.
In Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, Filling Station,
the auto mechanic and his greasy sons are saying,
Sure, we’re greasy, that’s what we do, lady,
we grease your car, and we are who we are,
God loves us; and my good wife, our mother
oils that plant you seem to admire so much
and she lays out those grey doilies on the table.
She thinks we’re okay. Alice, tell the lady.
Thankfully, its thanksgiving, and the four of them
are sitting down to a well-earned turkey dinner,
basted in recycled engine-oil, and on the hill
specklike children play with fire, an old wrench,
beneath the thunderous echolalia of a sky
the terms of whose sympathy are hard to accept.
Alice puts down her sewing needle, it’s carved
from a wish-bone, she folds the pure white overalls
and sits at the table. No grace has yet been said,
she says none either, but her three sons thank her
quietly for their dinner before returning to their
cursing of a pig of a job, another ugly customer.
A headless chicken wanders in from the roadway
asking if its poor life wasn’t worth a bit more than
that woman’s abrupt use of it as a splash of colour.
The mechanics, as usual, aren’t listening. Alice
rearranges their words into a song, praising her,
and hissing sibilants tell you to be quiet, quiet
about this scene, for it’s from a life not your own
Nothing gone wrong, it was meant to be this way
curling around its dense privet hedges
over which you pretended not to see the future
a lawn being mowed, the click of edge trimmers
the strimmer starting up like a yawning siren.
The plans you made were the mislaid plans of
a mouse striding out with an alert nose, a pert
little mouse who was at any rate single-minded
anything that smelt of cheese being just the job
under the shade of the winning-post-tree.
Nothing changed in all those years you knew her
turning up like that out of the blue and returning
her trail of footprints ended abruptly at the border.
Only once did you catch out her weaving, once
or twice a slip of the tongue made you wonder.
There is nothing wrong, it was meant to be
this way, her payment in kind is for the right reason
and your heart is broken for a mess of potage.
Babies crying for their fathers, in the evening
some brilliant new stars will be coming out for them.
(for Lee Harwood)
Love makes us go round in circles, like a wheel
with a lolly stick stuck into it, its bogus motor
dependent on your pedal power, raising a sweat
a pain in your armpits, the pain of not being
or not being able to make that break, just a lot of noise
and the spokes bent out of true, just like Dad said
freewheeling down a hill you’ve had to climb
backpedalling on an open rachet’s click click click
around a long bend right in front of the flats.
Plenty of them, a puncture kit’s under your saddle
only a yellow wax pencil and an emery cloth is left
a half an inch of compound and a single, tiny patch
to fit over the double leaking hole of your hopes
by the side of a road from nowhere it all went wrong.
Your first stone had a sharp point to it, a flinty flick
dropped by a seagull in your path, grey messenger of God
gone off cawing: Give up, give up, give up, give up.
Give up and push it home, and don’t come back.
It’s over soon, except it’s not, except it’s a turn up
and a red plastic bowl of water from mum’s kitchen sink
a fistful of forks to bend, and not by your stroking
do they wilt, daffodils unfit for skewering a banger
or a row of fine fish fingers, each a red blob, like soldiers
marching down tummy barracks, off to the morgue now
thoughts teeming in your head like minnows in a jar
scooped from the clear waters of the rushing Mole,
turning back before you got to the edge of your depth:
a girl who lost her footing was sucked underwater.
These terrors really happened, they go on for a while
as bad as ending up somewhere you didn’t even get to
in a world exactly as your naysayers described it
but at least you can say you tried to flee the coop.
You were no chicken and your bones would not make soup
just a pile of ashes to be swept out from the grate
where the flames of your dreams had danced once
and once somebody listened, and they did your will
and this was called love in the land of comb and paper.
Life being what it is we dreamed of escapes
not as going through, over or under the wire
but as a kind of vertical transcendence;
when the sandbags in your trousers were released
you floated upwards, upwards towards heaven.
I wonder what it’s like up there? Do angels
live on clouds of candy-floss, do they have hair?
Does money grow on trees in the town of Greenback?
Does a colonnade of conker trees lead anywhere
past tares and snares and into the far future.
Probably not, but it was well worth trying
standing on the pedals on the lookout for General Custard
or swimming through it like a banana shark
ready to gobble up the highly deadly black tarantula
to make a stand on a hill high above Jerusalem
far away, far away, far away from your home
which you endured like Steve McQueen in the cooler
monotonously bouncing a baseball into his mitt
as the krauts fumed, they could do nothing.
But what could you do instead of floating in a bubble
that’s always going to pop like expectations
if any, great only to the would be escaper
playing for keepsakes, a passport etched in butter
a set of keys from milk bottle tops
a suit cut from a blanket, stained with blood?
Nothing pleases the old man, nothing is more
pleasing than to go down by the riverside
where the moorhens are snaffling up anything
as if it were the word of a real prophecy
instead of this tale for children half made up
but mainly not bothered with, half remembered tags
from the island where the trees are labelled tree
and the goats separated out by their names
into a separate but equal enclosure at the side
of the river flowing away from this half place
up towards the Hammersmith of William Morris
shuffling past, a hacking cough, in his old coat
of prayers for better times, better than these
music hall turns in the theatres of memory.
Lobby Ludd. Dan Leno. Sam Mayo in his Eton
boys’ hat, I’ve Only Come Down for the Day
turned everything to his borrowed advantage
to the amusement of those who had no such titfer.
It’s turned out nice again, the old man says,
he should know, as your mother should know
better than him a tune from before she was born
uselessly passed on like the violet twist of salt
hidden in a packet of Smith’s potato crisps it’s
a cone of bitter brightness milling the future
out of the pain of her labour: a woman who had no
charm, just him: a woman who had nothing.
That man running across the end of our street
clutching his life like a split bag of sugar
who was he, where was he going
to knock on a door with no knocker?
The alarm’s going off in your head again.
Your time is running out or something
your planned obsolescence is somebody’s nosegay
and you’re going to have to let go
of him, his terrible last journey
watching somebody’s aeroplane in the park
soaring, sliding off, catching an updraft
rising, swooping in your old dream of it.
The plane’s packed up, two small boys and dad go back
to the car, drive home somewhere
nice and warm, hang up the toy by a thread.
They’ve learned the model aeroplane trick.
If there was a real meaning to any of it
it was passed on as you watched them.
Just a man running across the end of our street
clutching his life like a split bag of sugar.
Faithful are the wounds of a friend
coming round for a cup of tea
sending his wreath: goodbye, see you soon
the bad taste joker at your funeral
to whom you could never make
it clear that time isn’t what it seems
except it is, everything is
laid out for the operations of intuition.
How do stupid people know what will happen?
How? They seem to know alright
or think they do, full of their deep convictions
ready to put you in the slammer
then off to barbary in your windjammer.
A weakness on your mother’s side
sure to steer you onto the rocks again
while they rub their hands in glee.
Advice to a child: don’t make friends.
If you do, choose the open-hearted sort
difficult to tell apart sometimes
from those chest-thumping grin-a-lots
who can’t help wanting what you’ve got
it’s in their nature, it’s in the genes
to thieve and cheat you out of your birthright
which isn’t yours by birth or right.
Faithful are the wounds of a friend.
They’ll come and give you a lick
on the old friends lollipop
on the air-raid shelter of childhood memories.
They dream only of Antarctica
of sticking a great big iceberg up your arse
called history, and the livers
don’t melt away are living on
in your memory, for a time anyway
if you give up your seat
on the bus for them, for the ghost of an explorer
who’s only a yesterday.
Is the lake bottomless?
Does the water keep gurgling up from down there?
or does it come over
in its grey sheets from forever?
This fine thread that will not go around
the hem of your too long garment
it’s only a stretched hair clip
on the dressing table of stray fibres.
Time for another drink of cool water
refreshing but meaningless
as sex is in the love of worker bees.
Come back, Kollontai. I liked you.
Back to the old woman, neither kind nor wise
and particularly blind on her right side
her bible full of slips, full of hopeful commentaries
that might make the next world okay
for someone like her, who would find a bitter taste
in ambrosia. Let her depart in peace.
Let her hand go, her robot grip on your life.
Somebody had to look after her, it was you
who had to put her life on hold, a paused song
still unresolved into its middle eight.
Have a heart is on your T-shirt, I saw you
pushing her along in her chrome wheelchair:
you’d no more harm he than a seal pup
my lover of beautiful, weak, fragile beings.
Naïve people often do stupid things, harming
what they love, and clever ones will bullshit
about how they loved humanity for a while until
the world did them its wrongs. I’m one of them.
My grandmother dosed me with her castor oil
and shuffled off into the unworld of the grave
but she taught you how to blink back your tears
under the stiff hairbrush of a lover’s touch.
There are three of them, the boy is in the sidecar
the man smiling a thumbs up, gripping the handlebars
his wife behind, done up for a funeral or a wedding
smiling, all of them, smiling for the box camera.
They’re in a blue study, the light is behind them
at a kerb on a street they probably lived in
and pleased to be mounted on this outlandish contraption
to still be looking out at us from a forgotten past.
Keep it simple, they appear to be saying
We’ll do the rest for you, and not by pedalling either
just by shrugging at the slowness of the motor
propelling us so inevitably towards you.
When we get there the boy will be in need of a razor
my wife will be an old lady, reluctantly beside me
as we hobble towards the light of a seashore
where seashells are scattered for the picking
to look at a man who is still heroically swimming
as we wait for our smallish motor to cool off
and begin to unpack all of our belongings
these things we know are ours to keep on holding.
The boy stretches his legs, running down to the sea
looking out where the black teeth of a pier are protruding
from waves lapping like the tongue of a thirsty dog
and the clear sky is revealed as a drink of water.
John Muckle attended the universities of Warwick and Essex and later started the Paladin poetry imprint, which had an impact in the late 80s. He has taught at various establishments, including Essex University and Ithaca College, London, has also done various other jobs, including Care Work: one of the subjects (along with Walter Benjamin) of Firewriting and Other Poems (Shearsman Books, 2005). Cyclomotors (1997) was an illustrated novelette set in the early 50s, The Cresta Run (1987) was a book of stories. His writing has also appeared in Troops Out, Republican News, Not Poetry, Rockdrill, The Guardian, Active in Airtime, The Journal of American Studies, PN Review, Poetry Review, Great Works, Pages, Intercapillary Space, Poetry Salzburg, Jacket, Shadowtrain, and in the anthologies Seeing in the Dark and Brought to Book (edited by Ian Breakwell and Paul Hammond). His study of Allen Ginsberg is in The Beat Generation Writers, ed A. Robert Lee (Pluto Press, 1996) and a long essay on Tom Raworth’s poetry is currently appearing in PN Review.
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