ADVANCER, John Clegg

Vol XVII: Advancer

John Clegg was born in 1986 and is studying for a PhD in Durham. Some of his poems are published in Succour, Magma, The Rialto and online at


I go through a forest where there is no woods, through a river where there is no water, through a village where there is no house. I knock at a door and everybody answers me. The more I tell you, the more I shall lie to you. I'm not paid to tell you the truth.




This was the empire of antler,
walrus ivory, soapstone and marten furs;

this was a choked democracy
around a marketplace where local kings

of seven lakes or less demanded
garrisons; this was a a trading post

where silverscrap and Arab coins
by weight changed hands for whalebone.

This is a town below the mud
where ninety graves so far have been

disturbed: soldiers on stools,
two children end to end, a seamstress

wrapped in leather, seal-
hunters, shamen, priests, and one

clutching a shinbone notched
in what is now an undeciphered language.





We feared the moss. We hollowed out
our ancestors and packed them with it,
left them smouldering in bark canoes.
On terminal moraines we blessed the moss
as herald of the thaw. Our children
got down on their knees to kiss it.
Kind moss insulated our pagodas,
bedlinened the herder on high pasture,
kindled grubby smoke for sacred visions.
We combed the moss. Our mosseries
were envied by the Emperor himself.
Spore cases, every size and colour, hung
like fireworks. We bred moss patiently,
too subtle work for human lifespans.
In the war we mulched the telegrams
demanding anasthetic or poison moss.
Our holy valley stayed unoccupied.
Today, the only sound above a whisper
is the meal-gong. I meditate at night
on whether we are really growing moss.
Our mystics say the moss is growing us.



Hair Cuts

Hair-drifts in barbershop corners,
flushed hairballs in the sewers,
and hair ash from cremations.

Intimations of horror:
the wigshop district in Paris,
the duvet stuffed with human hair.

Scissorblades' beard residue.
Wrong colour hair snagged in the teeth
or found on the collar.

Hair seen in dreams.
Ploughed fields of hair,
hair snarling up traffic and hair

on the tip of the tongue.
Chaste hair sprouting in seminaries.
The unheard songs of hair,

buffalo-hair in waterholes,
hair as an allegory's counterweight.
The nerveless overspill. Death's cress.




An odd claw of bone
from the hub of the head,
once covered in velvet
and cabled with blood

now ossified utterly -
only the swerve
and feint of its grip
like a magnified nerve

to mark it organic.
It twists like a thought -
a petrified thicket
which broke in the rut.



A Dead Racehorse

An ancient flaw in an inch of metal
securing the horsebox onto the towbar
broke your back, but a deeper error
began your gallop in curb and bridle;
I've stuck up a poster next to the kettle
charting your evolution, each era
when every horse was a slow endurer.
I like best the one toward the middle

who grubbed for roots as the glaciers melted,
pigsize, toe jutting out at the shinbone.
You don't remember her rangy muscle,
how easily she'd have spooked and bolted
at storms. At least your death was sudden.
She died old. She left an astonishing fossil.



Day of the Dead

They keep away from carnival. Some barmen
may remember those odd customers
in suits and ribbon, certainly in masks,
who never touched their drinks but found a corner,
split the deck and played Shithead till daybreak.

Then again, they're hard to keep in view.
The cleaner in the morning, sponging tables,
would have been surprised to interrupt
their game, but she'll forget them in a blink
or in the time it takes to pour cachaça.

Their conversation stays so low and level
they might be running through the bar's accounts.
‘At last year's carnival I ate plum dumplings;
juice the colour of patinaed brass,
and batter, plasma underneath the lanterns.’

‘Beer so cold the bottle must have ached
to carry it’, says someone else, his voice
fizzing with static, like rain on a brazier.
One says: ‘A wrong note from a bent trombone.’
Remembrances are stakes they gamble for.

You'll see them as you cross the small tin-roofed
cantina after carnival, hungover,
bursting for the Gents; they'll scrape their chairs
across the concrete floor to let you pass,
until the day they recognise, and beckon.



Marimba Music

Here's the montage: skeletons trample an anthill,
a slit fish twitches on ice, the generalissimo
grinds his cigar-stub into a communist's belly.
Sparks rain on the foundry floor. Monsoon-rain
pings off the improvised mortar still hot
from a volley, and in the canyon revolutionaries
trigger a rockslide to buckle the train-track.

Turn down the radio's endless military waltzing
and let the marimba from nobody's quite sure where
provide a counterpoint for your inertia: this revolution
is made up and you know it. The dungeons
are not overflowing with carcasses, ringleaders
won't be hanged in the square later this evening.
And marimba chimes skedaddle down a back alley.

Las Perlitas, La Bicicletas, El Negro Jose.
I love the jittery bolero, its metal tang
the way air is supposed to taste after lightning.
Each struck note dissipates instantly, refines
the quiet around it: those tiny pops of silence
are seed-pods of the real revolution, red flower-buds
like Miguel Hernendez coughed from his TB'ed lungs.



Your poems have to lie. I had a choice.
The skull I'd forked out half a fortune for
was worthless sarawak orangutan,
not caveman from the Downs: I'd been half-cut
on whiskey, paid in cash and woken up
to find it straw-wrapped in a packing crate,
receipt attached. A showman's pet
two hundred years old, maybe? Chips of gloss
were peeling off the cranium: a con,
a flimflam. I'd been made a mark

and though the man who sold it was long gone
I saw another way to get revenge.
The jawbone rattled loosely on its hinge
when I unhooked it, pried away the teeth
and dug through my display case for a vial
of fossil fangs: that was the turning point.
I laid them out like watchgears on black velvet,
pared the canines with a needle-file
and blunted the incisors. Grey dust shone.
Its human half came from the family vault.

Some folk believe that when God made the hills
he planted fossils as a test of faith.
That's not far wrong. The forger builds a world:
a present and a long past of his own.
The conman who fobbed off a monkey skull
on me had mentioned Piltdown. That was where
I picked to bring his artless lie to life,
to sculpt a kind of truth that would endure
from what he'd sold me, what I could flesh out.
I guess the lying art was in my bones.



The Origin of Man
after Giacomo di Verona, C15th

In a reeking, filthy workroom
man was sculpted out of oozes
so unpleasant even I, who
sleep in shit, can't scribe their odours.
If God gave you brains, you realise
that this shanty for your soul
which for nine months was wracked by gales
rose from dirt, was built of dirt.
And then you pushed yourself, stark naked
down that burrow, slick with blood...

All other beasts can pay their maker:
meat or marrow, wool or leather.
Only man whose skin is worthless,
only man whose flesh is sour,
tries to pay with pus and dribble.
Just a soul, and that a shattered
bauble, leaking lies and murder.
Look in front and look behind: life
swims around you like your shadow,
here at once and gone at once.