It is not quite true to say that I don’t remember writing this, but I have no very conscious recollection of anything other than reading the diary entry – perhaps it’s in Tomalin’s The Time-Torn Man – and seeing some potential for a poem there. I was aiming at the ‘clipped air’ Hardy mentions, and also aiming at making it a dialogue of sorts. It reads to me now as if it is unfinished (which does not mean that whole swathes of it could not be hacked out as well).
Misapprehension. The shrinking soul thinks its weak place is going to be laid bare, and shows its thought by a suddenly clipped manner. The other shrinking soul thinks the clipped manner of the first to be the result of its own weakness in some way, not of its strength, and shows its fear also by its constrained air! So they withdraw from each other and misunderstand.
(Thomas Hardy: diary entry, 3 January 1904)
My hand convulsed yours. Or thinks it did,
and hides in a pamper of pocket,
nubbling at nothing. The cloth conceals
the way that its fingers, fretful,
rehearse their four notes for the thumb
on the dummy piano of the palm.
Get a grip. A palpitation in the lip
will give away the heart’s hard joy.
To say nothing of grief, which I will
come to in a minute, conscious
of conversation. Let me carry your shopping.
How many pounds in a kilo? Will you pay
with wampum, or is that what you’re wearing?
I was cornering the queue, beside the ziggurats
of flatbread, when I saw you punching
a hole in your pocket. We shook on it,
or perhaps we didn’t. I took my smile
and snapped it shut, like a bruised suitcase
I was carrying for someone else. No-one
could have tampered with it. Packed it myself.
The hours passed like passengers.
They gazed at the spaces between the seats,
at their feet, at the treatise on organic fruit
to which they all subscribed.
You are rigid, like a mother’s stare
when her hand is clamped to a headstone
and there is no space for the flowers to wilt.
Please do. From here, those seven-storey blocks
look just like spotless dominoes. My name
is somewhere on this key-fob. You see?
My fault. I am as dreary as a dimpled eye,
or the dictionary of a professional mendicant.
Your boots ride off in separate directions,
trembling like shallow water over gravel.
You look like a colonel with his raised arm
saluting the wrong regiment, after an hour
of diligent drill, the clean heels beating retreats.
Somewhere in the confines of a car park,
where all the quisling pigeons surf the crumbs
for comfort, two people are gathered together
by the wind, and swept apart.
Hearts don’t understand the language.
They are stiff as acrostics, as frost.
You can hear the poem here: