We grow old because we stop being poets

Vol II: We grow old because we stop being poets


The Lime Patrol

Limes perch underneath the benches
In rows of threes and fours, squashed by the way.
Let’s watch them burn in their citrus
And afterwards, lick the juice from their wounds.

The sun sprays over forest glades
And hanging from the trees, the limes rotate
Dripping from each pore, they loosen
Ready to plunge into the hands of men.

When Captain Braccatuck held me
And rubbed the zest and peel into my gums
I gasped and took my name from him.
“Think of the limes” he told me, teeth bleeding.

We washed the skins with wax blankets
And when they started to shine, we all grinned.
The limes had rotted to the core
No matter how we shined them, they all rotted.


Limes 1



There was a man, a braver soul than me
Who marched across the deserts,
Tracking the footprints of giants,
Long dead Gods and Kings.

There was a man, a brother
Who studied the best cartography could offer,
Who tried to trace the intractable,
The lines and shapes, the details in the sand.

There was a woman, a sister
Who delved into the unprocessed arcane,
Who looked into the eye of the world
And cried out: ‘are you there!’

I was a proud man once, a father
I built a great clock, whose hands
Twitched backwards.
I wanted it to bring my children back to me.



A School Re-Union Too Early


Coming back home now means
a reunion of the old guard
and a hasty re-application
of false smiles.

Mutual assurance balloons
into the silence of mutual apathy
made none the softer
by distance or time.

We return in disembodied droves
to old, same-smelling haunts
where tar-pulled, junkyard furniture just justifies
the patrons and the taps dribbling warm brown Tetleys.

The bar staff are younger now
and therefore less likeable,
preening and giggling in front of
gaudy sachets of un-sellable scampi biscuits.

We hear how diamonds in the rough
have bloomed, whilst the body of the pack
dampened in the mildew. Cradling dirty glasses
we sip, slurp or swig together.

I see, across the bar-room floor
the fresh faced gaggle of assorted younger brothers
who, by luck or prodigious over-confidence
slipped under the radar

of old Barry, the barman,
a pit-stained, tarred and tackled
shadow of another shadow
hands unshaken, thanks un-taken.

I wish that I could huddle so nervously
I wish my eyes could dart so youthfully
or feel again the thrill
of knowing you’re too young

of course, they don’t quite understand
the finer points of the deception,
brashly conspicuous in their youthfulness,
surrounded as they are, by over-the-hills, and us.


Later on, the listless party moves
downhill, south to warmer, sweatier climes.
I disentangle myself from the bundle,
an unnoticed piece of crumbled talus,

and go sniffing for a chancy fumble
with a sputtering old flame
late of the Catholic Ladies College.
Sunk in the oasis of a beer garden

I find her under the drab and undisclosed
flicker of patio lamps and firefly speckles
of cigarette ends swarming at head level
in the concomitant darkness.

She reciprocates my attention for a while, but breaks
to tell me something, doubtless pertinent,
about rising tax rebates
and mundane disappointment returns

with a renewed, deadpan thump,
simultaneously ending a burgeoning erection
and my chances of getting laid tonight.
So she’s a civil servant now

and civil servants, I suspect
are not inclined towards dropping
their no doubt sensible underwear and groping
blind and insensible, behind the garage wall.

I remind myself that romance died
with James Brown
and slip away into the night
faltering past the cosy and or comatose.

I briefly eye a well-presented lady, sat
alone by the shadows of the benches,
who metamorphoses and becomes a man
when she steps into the light.

Is this the Shangri-La of adulthood?
Is this all that I was promised?
I toe the flecks of bright green vomit that tumbled suddenly,
vicariously, without warning, from between my teeth.

I rejoin the listless zombie march
past punch-ups and
pools of stinking copper blood,
molars bobbing like tiny boats.



There I spy an enemy of the state
rashly out on the proverbial,
snot-stained satin cravat
jaunty angled boater

eyes thickened into bloated panda peepers
by blunt pencils and spidery lashes.
For a minute we are united by the common
catcalls, jeers and threats we gob back

at the too drunk too young
crouched under the bus stop,
intent on public nuisance,
ASBO’S glittering at their chests.

We drift between the bars,
the tired and the unstable
drop off into black windowed cabs
never to be seen again

forgotten by the moment gang,
the hangers on or
the still hopeful
who paw incessantly at shoulders

grinning through cracked lips
into hollow eyes,
carousing for another round of plastic cups
and squirts of belly fire.

In the toilets of a club in town
my allegedly stuffed wallet is pored at
by a squinting imp, suggesting potions from his bag
giggling and spraying unctuous, stinging lotions into my face.

I fling my pennies in pity and leave with a lollipop
pea green, and only partly wrapped, which is promptly
purloined by a hammy fist spooling out of the crowd,
snatching and retracting in one fluid reptilian motion.

Some time later, back in the toilets
the insulting face in the mirror reflects back
a troll. I’m blemished, stippled and
overly fleshy. I’m drunk

and when I’m drunk my self-deprecating streak
threatens to slit straight across
my wrists, my eyeballs, my early paunch
mixing bloody gash and coarse rivulet into the picture.



Somewhere in the clash of cocktails,
the suspicious bubbles in the bitter
and the hangdog shots of god knows what
I left my sobriety behind and reeled into drunken town

and drunken town pops and cracks
electric neon bulbs, spinning
and writhing like snakes trying to twist
my vision and incite further expiations of the stomach.

I find, to my consternation
that ogres have taken guard at the bar,
preventing the frightened village folk
from drawing from the well.

A crowd of rugby dumplings and football
well-wishers jostle for garish liquids to pore over themselves
and to rub into their greasy sweaty chests.
I feel the inane bacchanalia crescendo.

Later, I wander back through somewhere leafy and suburban
hoping that in my reasonable, estimable vicinity
there is a crevice that fits the key
I think I lost when my pockets became holes.

I’ve wandered away from the people I left with,
the old school comrades, the brothers in arms,
the fellow prisoners of sufferance.
I think I lost them a long time ago.



The Room

The room is antique and dust clings through everything. It was the kind of scene you were expecting. Old people surround themselves with old things. This is something that seems to happen. It makes sense in a way, but it doesn’t seem all that necessary. She brushes everything and sweeps around the bed and under the bed on Sundays. The shutters of the window are large old fashioned panels and they’re very heavy. She’s also a sight under average height and she has to stretch to reach the handles. When its autumn and when its winter and the wind makes the wooden floor cold and hard and blows dead leaves into the room like little corpses she says she has, she really should, she has to shut the shutters. She struggles with their heaviness. Her fingers are old and weak and quickly go white from being held up above her head on the handles. She struggles until the big panels start to slide, moved by her whimpers. When they snap shut suddenly it comes with a crash and she twitches in alarm. She’s worried about those kinds of noises.

 She eats her evening meals in the room, and some of her midday meals when she isn’t out of the house on an errand. The high ceiling makes the room seem so quiet. She spends most of the time gazing out of the window at the birch trees and wondering why the sun can’t quite make the grey go away. She doesn’t sleep in the room anymore. She stopped that a while ago. It wouldn’t really do, she doesn’t feel welcome in the room is all. It doesn’t take much to drive her out of the door and it takes too much to make her remember the happier times. Bad memories flake off and get swept up with the dust. They get clean for a time, then they come back and her shoulders hurt from all the sweeping all the time.

Sometimes she brings something new into the room, thinking to brighten it up a little, or at least make it different for a change. If it’s a pot plant, it withers in a few days. If it’s a trinket it fades into the background eventually, becomes one more thing for her to dust. She wonders why the room never seems to change. She knows of course, but she can’t bring herself to do anything about that, after all, why should she. Better to just wait it out she supposes. Of course, she’s been supposing that for years.

When she wakes up in the middle of the night and hears soft, soft noises coming from the room, she has to struggle with herself. She knows she should go and investigate, that it’s really her duty to go and investigate. She gets out of bed and struggles into her nightgown. She’s left her slippers a little too far under the bed and it’s a bit of a strain to reach them. It grinds her back and makes her ache. She moves towards the room, still sleepy, but she’s used to this old routine by now, it’s happened so many nights before; Frank is coughing up blood again.

When she opens the door and goes into the room she realizes with self-mortification that she’s left the shutters open tonight. The crisp cold air has shuffled through the windows and spread itself all over the room and its freezing now. Spots of leaf litter dot the floorboards, conspicuous against the bronze wood, like evidence that’s been taped out in a murder scene. Frank is lying on the bed. Of course he’s lying on the bed. He’s always lying on the bed, he hasn’t moved from the damn bed in five years. He’s at that stage now, so the doctors say. They never really tell her whether it’s the illness or the depression that’s keeping him in bed. They just make vague statements about ‘complications’ and leave him where he’s not taking up any time or making any mess for the system to clean up.

Frank was such a good husband. He was. He’s just wound down too early. Just burned down, when he still had some time left. It’s the room, she concludes. It’s always been about the room. Frank was fine before the room. But, then again, the room was fine before Frank. They used to hold evenings in there during summer, when there was that big old mahogany table instead of the bed. They were inseparable now, Frank and the room, just the same. Except that there was a difference. She hated the room, detested it, and Frank, she loved Frank with all her heart, wiping blood from the corner of his mouth, hand cradling the soft back of his head, waiting patiently for his life to end, and she guesses, take hers with it.

Limes 2


These memories were painted in the powder-paint of my brother’s ashes.

My brother was an artist in his youth. But of course, so was I, so that wasn’t really relevant, you didn’t need to know that. So he and I, we used to paint peacocks onto canvas, making music in their tails and it often seemed like they used to sing the patterns off our palettes. They were real good in those days. Back when once, I don’t know, maybe twelve or thirteen years back the vicar had come round the neighbourhood dog-collaring and of course my mother had let him in a bit for tea and it was raining something fierce of course so he came in to dry God’s tears off by our fire, and he happened to notice them, by way of a glance, those peacocks on the wall just over the mantelpiece. He stopped his jawing right then, all those pretty Bible quotes and dos and don’ts and just stared. When they put it up in the church, on the back wall, my mother made such a flap of it, made my brother and me go red and shifty-footed all through the sermon, our mum just sat, proud as punch, straight up in the pew, beams all around for us, trying to catch an eye straying on the peacocks so that she’d know who to talk up in the coffee slurping and the biscuit crunching after the service. I remember, clear as cut glass, my brother’s fingers, light as summer air, brush tips tracing tiny patterns on the tails.
He’s dead now, so I guess that doesn’t matter either.

When I bought the studio in Hoxton, spilling my final pennies for a pretty city view, the heat had almost left it all. The last embers of summer had begun to fade, all the colour in the city leaching back inside the buildings and hiding down with all the private thoughts and dreams. Public parks began to lose the brilliant spectrum of ice-lollies, garish picnic rugs, the vibrant, voyeuristic hues of too-tight hot pants, winking at the captive eyes. London turned grey that autumn. The city was as like a mirror to my palette, mixing colours only brought cheap flickers of vitality that turned drab whenever they were stroked across the canvas. I soon ran out of money. I couldn’t seem to paint without the colours, images would never fix properly and I ruined so much canvas with trash; a butterfly that curled up into jelly, a blotchy mess of shells that should have been ears, a Venetian waterfront scene that wouldn’t stay and sort of melted into unsightly smears of blues and greens. Nobody bought them. The truth is I didn’t try, nobody would have bought them anyway and one night I got drunk and took a pair of scissors to them all. I guess the truth is I’m not really an artist. Not much of one at any rate. Shelling my way through art school had been simple enough, all smoking pot and wearing loud scarves and talking the right kind of trash about ‘Abstract Expressionism’ when pretty girls were nearby. The final examination passed off a breeze, just a bit of tracing from a fairly obscure Rothko I’d googled, and of course a couple of peacock fronds I’d snipped out of an old piece and washed in baby-blue, shouldn’t forget them. That was three years ago now. God knows how I’ve survived since then; artists were ten a penny in London in those days, failed artists you didn’t even have to pay for. Sooner or later, my girlfriends all left me for competitors and contemporaries, the kind of men who had the talk and the money to hand, the sort of men who could pay for the privilege of not being so alone with their thoughts all the time.
It took me back, that kind of thinking.

Took me back it did, back say more than a few long years now, back when I was just gone sixteen, still living in the old village with my mum, my dad and my brother. It was a dripping hot sun, red as a tomato and I remember I was sweating something awful running up the hill to our old oak. ‘Our’ oak I say, I shouldn’t really be talking such a claim as all that, but oftentimes we’d spend our off days up the tree, me, my brother, and Mary.
It was Mary I was running for, because, quite simple; it was Mary that I loved. I was in the prime of my youth those days and heedlessly in love, stuck and sinking every time I saw her pass or caught her eye. When we finally kissed it lit my blood up like I had fuses in my veins. She was everything to me, the kind of first love that just takes over and turns you all upside down and over the place. We’d been courting now for awhile. I’d been let out early from chores, should have been a punishment for coming home so late last night (I’d been kissing Mary in the oak till sunset) but mum had taken a funny turn from the heat and she hadn’t the energy to hen over me. I was tearing up to the old oak like I say, hoping to catch Mary up in the high branches to do a bit more kissing. When I got round the bump and caught a good look at the tree I thought I saw something queer so I got down on my belly and got to wriggling, trying to catch a proper sight through the branches. There wasn’t a breeze in the sticky air, but I could catch the leaves rustling and swaying a slight. Peering up through the branches got me a shock. My brother was in the tree, perched on a thick bough, and just right next to him sat my Mary. As I watched, she slowly dipped a shoulder blade and tipped her freckly nose, twitched her eyelashes in one coy movement as my eyes caught out the procession of a single bead of sweat, stealing from her armpit and beginning its long, steady path over her pale pearl ribs, cresting the curve of her hips and disappearing just out of sight as I realized she was naked. Well, not ‘all’ naked I should be saying, only the top half, and my brother was kissing her with some sort of passion, not the awkward fumbling kisses I’d had her used to but a subtler character of kissing that taught me something of the world in just the watching of the thing. Now as I spied them I saw my brother getting out some paints. We liked, in those days, to come and paint for a spell up in the tree, hoping to show the village that we were more than just silly faded old peacocks. But this time there wasn’t any him and me, just him and Mary. As I watched I saw him dip his thumb and fingers into the paint, bringing out a crowd of bright dripping orange tips. Now Mary turned her slender white back to us both, and through the stillness of the air I heard her tinkle-laughter like ringing silver cans and my brother started off painting on her bare back. He had some nimble hands my brother did and sure as day they made some beautiful shapes. On the orange he started weaving yellows and browns and when the finger dancing finally stopped and I thought the magic was all dried up and over and I readied myself to come up and blow a storm. But down again his fingers went flashing, bringing up a deep blood red like a murderer’s hand. Over the top of all these swirls he traced a single crimson eye and it seemed to me that this eye was staring right at me, burning me over for peeping up at it. There would be fireworks later. Oh yes, a ruckus and a terrible raze that we never quite managed to fan out.
But at that time, under the red-eye glare, I crept away in silence.

Sometime, in late winter, I sold, and for a while it made my life better. I’d been commissioned for a series of paintings and I had some money to fix myself up and to lift myself out of it all. It was so much better having money. You could be seen again, a man got more visible, things could start happening, and you could start feeling whole again for a change. This fancy townhouse restaurant got wind of me somehow and because I was local and simple to fix up, they asked me to come in and show them some of my work. I had a real panic that night. Truth was I hadn’t painted a thing in weeks and really I had nothing but a few old sketches. I got drunk the night before the viewing and I’m glad as hell I did. It woke up something inside me. I got some paints together and started with that damn red eye, right in the centre of the canvas. When I got down to it the autumn just leapt out on its own. I was late to the appointment, but they loved it. They paid me a handsome advance for the piece and asked me to produce a series in the same ‘tone’ for bringing out the ‘flavour’ of the restaurant. I took an immediate and intense dislike to the manager, but the money was good and it wasn’t like I was fixing for choice. I decided to get very drunk that night. That eye had put me in a sure odd mood.
Things were coming back to me of late, the kind of things a man didn’t want to remember.

My brother’s funeral was in late May. Nothing seemed quite right. The flowers were tasteful, but seemed out of place. Nobody could really remember what flowers my brother liked, or if he actually liked flowers, or what songs he’d have wanted playing. Everything seemed so counterfeit, so conspicuously chosen from a typical funerals brochure that the vicar might have brought out from behind his desk, and it just sort of felt like everybody else’s funeral. Maybe that was the point, to distance it all, I don’t really know I was stinking drunk at the time. We didn’t speak. Well obviously we didn’t speak, he was dead after all. We hadn’t spoken I should say. I really felt I should have painted on his coffin. I really did. I wanted to reach out somehow and it felt, I don’t know, ‘appropriate’.
What the hell could I have painted anyway? What could these fingers of mine have done to make a difference?

I lost the job three months in, something about ‘not fulfilling the stipulations of my contract’. I guess I can’t argue with that, I hadn’t painted a damn thing, not for them, not for anybody. Except, I have painted. I’ve finally painted. And this time, it’s something from me, something my hands have done. I’m drunk again (I suppose you might have guessed that by now, though). I’ve been sat in front of this painting for awhile now. I imagine that I might fall asleep in front of it eventually. I’m hoping. I’m hoping that I might doze off, that my forehead might just slip gently onto the canvas, that I could somehow fall through it, tumble into it, fall, dream, wake up underneath the shade.
My brother’s in that tree. I can see him waving tiny, pale fingers, fine, delicate fingers I can almost remember painting.





I caught your eyelashes
Falling from the window sill
And knew that tears should follow.
I followed the tracks, wetting the soil,
Coming out of the downpour
I had sprinkled before my toes.
Paths spiraled under dead wood
Between long, dissimilar rocks,
And sometimes between the legs of giants
Who were smelling the glut within the clouds.

I drank quite sweetly of it,
Quite sweetly indeed.
I took it to my bed and flecked the sheets,
Such was my lack of care.
It was only then that I realized
When the heat haze had receded
How haunted I’d become.

And when my father laughed at this
His mouth, the cut of a spade edge
Teeth blunted by a richness I knew too well
I took the other fork.
A new path, sliced into a chalky wilderness
A softer, altogether humbler trail
Echoing my long shadow,
Showing me how
To kiss your beautiful footsteps,
And follow you, always.



Grandmas Chiffon Family

The old grey Corsa empties out
Its banks of mummified relatives
Bound up in flaky sheets
Or traditional wools,
Chiffon, Durham silks and dip-stitch nightmares
And you weather greetings, unanswered platitudes
Left unanswered.
Inside the heavy downy cloud spool
Of vermillion perfumes and caustic scents,
Clings to the sofa-shrine, packed with ancients.
The cackling ritualizes and crescendos,
Until finally, in a sly and scrupulous aside
Your brother in law inquires as to whether
He got the joke.

And you laugh, when you should cry
Because that coven of toothless vampires in the corner;
The matriarchs and spurious grandmas
Have taken too much blood from you
And tears are all that you have left.
Then, almighty God, deliver you,
The party games begin.
You ponder as you try to flap
A paper fish across the room
And let your spoilt nephew win
How time has taken you to this place
And locked the doors on you.

But I bear these vicious ceremonies
Lackluster reminders
Of important family ties
I know there is a solemn note
Behind cheap port,
Lipstick on desiccation
And a flapping paper trout.
The usual symptoms
When a life goes out.

Limes 3