It’s very rare that I try narrative poems, and this is a narrative, albeit a bit too melodramatic for its own good. I wrote it when I was feeling depressed, and although you don’t have to be sunnily optimistic to come up with poems, if you’re depressed and you actually write about the depression, it’s a dead cert that the poem will fail. I think that’s what happened here. I’ve projected feelings of uncertainty on to an imaginary relationship, and, just to complicate the matter, maintained the habitually flippant voice I was using at the time (June 2005).
The thing I notice about all these poems is that they are a little too self-regarding. But revisiting them in public like this makes me realise that any poem written with the best of intentions is likely to contain at least one good phrase, and here, I think it’s ‘trade tannoy’.
I could be dissuaded of that, mind you.
Two people meet – on a steamer, say – the water
like molten glass, the rudder pulping the wake.
They like the sound of each other. They overhear
their conversations, look through their lives
through lorgnettes, trade tannoy. They make hay
while the moon shines. The breezes crease them
with laughter, with the curiosity of klaxons
hooting over an empty bay. They exchange
a number of numbers, and on the deck that night,
the purser hears their voices chiming the hours.
One of them says, My life is so complicated, it
is suffused with loss. The other hardly hesitates:
Well, mine is simple. And at that moment, the dawn
starts sowing the water with rain, like falling spores.
Doors open, close. A cabin-boy, hefting a holystone,
scrubs the planks where they sit, held in deckchairs.
For a fortnight, they feed the gulls with further crumbs.
Their language, at an angle, eats their hours, as if
staving away the silence. It is as if they crammed
their mouths around messages, as if they were phoning
each other so often that the operator, flexing her ears,
is burning. As if they read each other like a script.
It is May. The screws turn and churn and cease,
and ropes are thrown, lasso the capstans. The boat
heaves to. For one of them, the game is almost up,
the future flashing her eyes, her luggage locked,
portered ashore, winched to familiar harbours, and
her passport sorted. He knows. He sees her recede
into her distance. He feels her journey home, his bones
believe her. The throng jostles the dock. His heart
breathes like a hammer, and he hugs the rails
unwillingly. There was something sharp in that last
lingering dialogue, the one in which she insisted
that she was no mystery, that he should travel in an
opposite direction. It is still May. He understands
impermanence as well as the next. When he flips
into the water, his lungs are suddenly hungry.
The waves part. And no-one hears him, drowning.
You can hear the poem here: