Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Wednesday, 29 July 2015



Splayed on the grass
In her yellow dress
Quietly pornographic
In the sickly heat

Wrinkled, sweaty
Skin-like cloth
Clings, defines and barely covers.

In the park they lock at night.
20 July 1983

I mentioned this poem when I published ‘Heat’ (#530) back in May. I find ‘Sunbather’ an inferior poet to ‘Heat’. ‘Sunbather’ is like ‘Atonement’ (#548), less of a poem and more of a setting for the imagination to wander through. For me it’s all about the last line. In my hometown none of the parks got locked at night. None of them had gates. This concept had obviously been churning away inside me. The Gardens within Blythswood Square are private and are owned by all the tenants around the square so it’s not unreasonable they’d want to keep the riff-raff out but I never thought about that at the time. There was a park and I was being prohibited from wandering through it. But here’s the thing: I’m not actually sure I’ve ever seen the park gates unlocked or anyone in the park. It’s always been closed-off to me.

A locked park appears in my new book:

Getting back inside the park was easier than he’d presumed it would be. He tried the main gates first on the off chance they might not have been locked. They were. He sighed and stared at the padlock. Inconsiderately Life had neglected to equip him with heat vision so at this exact moment all he could do was stare at it. There was a spider crawling slowly over the thing. A shaft of pearly moonlight caught it and he was so utterly transfixed by the beauty of the moment he completely forgot why he was there. It didn’t last and he felt awkward and conspicuous standing there once it ended.

Blythswood Park

Sunday, 26 July 2015


Chained in the Brain

Hiding from drab reality
in orgasmic bliss or drunken stupor;
Free for a time shorter than before –
Anonymous and without.
Forced back by guilt,
Catching sight of your reflection
in an empty mirror,
Suddenly aware of being awake
though never really asleep:
Hanging on the torture stake of the past.
20 June 1983

Twenty-nine years after I wrote this poem I published a two part essay on ugly poetry. You can read the first part here. In the second part I included my poem ‘The Rats’ (#366) as an example but really I was pulling my punches; I’d written far uglier poetry than that.

A part of me would rather have skipped this poem. Some I have—I’m under no obligation to wash my dirty linen in public—but I mentioned this one in my last post and it’s related to ‘For the World is Hollow…’ (#547) but that is the better poem; I should’ve stuck with the one but I guess I wasn’t done feeling bad about myself. The use of capitals is very sloppy as is the punctuation but I’ve uploaded it as I left it.

Ugly, of course, is not bad although we often get them confused. From my new book:

Soon the hunchback will pass by. Such kyphosis is rare these days, in fact, as far as I can remember, he is the sole sufferer of the affliction I have seen in the flesh. Perhaps he was dropped as a child or rolled off a table or had TB. He walks with the aid of a stick, of course, not exactly a club but a solid piece of rosewood nevertheless with an unusual pistol grip. Were this a children’s tale he would naturally be evil, as warped in his mind as in his body…


Wednesday, 22 July 2015



Mariko sat quietly on the Silent Way:
A tiny figure framed by a sea.
My only focal point.

Sitting with herself
in a strange sense of place...

11 June 1983

This poem sits in the middle of two rather ugly pieces, ‘For the World is Hollow…’ (#547) and ‘Chained in the Brain’ (#549). I have no idea where this one came from or what I was trying to say in it. The word ‘atonement’ is one I believe my father defined for me as ‘at + one + ment’, to atone is to return to a state of single mindedness. My dad was not a language expert—far from it—but every now and then he surprised me even if his explanations were sometimes questionable: ‘woman’ = ‘womb + man’. The etymology of the word suggests otherwise but there’s something sweet about his reasoning.

ForeverPeople1Cover_smlAt the time Mariko would have been about the only female Japanese name I would’ve known. I took it from the X-Men comic—the character first appears in X-Men #118—where she’s Wolverine’s love interest. As a kid I’d bought Marvel and DC comics when I could get them but there was only one newsagent in the whole town in the whole town that sold them and you were lucky to get two consecutive issues of any title but I remember reading issues of Batman and The Fantastic Four and some of Jack Kirby’s stellar work from that time. I started collecting seriously after I was married. I was looking for a hobby, something to take me away from the work, work, work I was doing, and collecting comics felt suitably indulgent and they were still realistically prices (about 35p each). It was a good time to get back into comics too. Frank Miller took over writing duties on Daredevil with issue #165 (July 1980) and Chris Claremont began work on his Dark Phoenix Saga with X-Men #129 (January 1980).

‘The Silent Way’ is made up. I was looking for a Japanese-sounding place name and that was what I came up with. I was never happy with it or the poem in general. I felt out of my comfort zone. I’d read very little Japanese-style poetry—mostly poems by Ezra Pound—and so why I was trying out this form of poetry at this time in my life quite bewilders me.

Sunday, 19 July 2015


For the World is Hollow...

In the salty darkness
Something horrid and familiar
Fading in spasms
Numb security, fading
I'm fading away

Wrapped in guilt
Drowning in dreams

11 June 1983

star-trek-for-the-world-is-hollow-and-i-have-touched-the-sky-vintage-style-television-posterThe title of this poem comes from an episode of Star Trek, the eight episode in the third season, ‘For the World is Hollow and I have Touched the Sky’. In this episode, the crew of the Enterprise rush to stop an asteroid from colliding with a Federation world, but discover the asteroid is actually an inhabited generation ship. The title sounds like it might be a quote—Shakespeare perhaps?—but if it is I can’t find it.

I don’t credit the quote and this brings up an interesting issue, one of plagiarism. Oddly I don’t recall ever writing about this emotive topic before. There have been news reports recently about an author who’s facing a prison sentence for “plagiarising” Borges; he took Borges’s short story ‘The Aleph’ and “remixed” it to make a new literary work. Is this plagiarism? It’s a sticky one but the simple fact is there’s nothing new under the sun. Unless you’re going to do a Joyce and invent your own words everything you say has been said by someone. Where do you draw the line? Here’s a sentence from my new novel:

There are so many gauntlets to run, ferrymen to pay, narrow gates to squeeze through and briar patches to negotiate.

We have an idiom based on an old-fashioned military practice, a nod to Greek mythology (or a Chris de Burgh song if you prefer), a biblical quote (Matthew 7:14) and a reference to ‘Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby’. There’s not an original thought in the whole sentence. What right do I have to use it? My logic is simple: like Pablo Katchadjian I want you to make the connections. I’m deliberately standing on the shoulders of giants. Authors have been doing this for years and there’s no one more guilty of it than Beckett. His books and plays are full of what gamers would call “Easter eggs” and it’s a delight to find these. Of course most people don’t find Beckett’s because they’re so damn obscure but they are there.

There’s an interesting article here about Star Trek and Shakespeare including a list of all the episode titles based on his plays. It’s a long list. I’m also not the only poet to find inspiration in that Star Trek episode. There’s another poem here.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015



The best little novel you haven't heard about – Oprah's Reading List

This is the second book by Michael Kimball that I’ve read. The first was the slightly odd The Way the Family Got Away, slightly odd in that its two narrators are a seven- and a three-year-old trying to comprehend their family's journey through a series of towns after the death of one of their siblings. It’s quirky, perhaps even gimmicky; it’s definitely risky and not all readers were willing to get on board with him. Us—a revised version of How Much of Us There Was as it first appeared in the UK—is a little more of the same. Only this time Kimball’s gone to the other end of the spectrum: our narrator is an old man. Exactly how old is never made clear; he can still drive but he’s also frail and sometimes gets confused. At first I actually thought the narrator had learning difficulties—and perhaps he does but that’s never made clear—because of the clipped and precise way he tells his story:

I picked the telephone up to call for somebody to come to help me get my wife up. I covered my wife up with the bedcovers to keep her warm. I pulled the bedcovers up to her neck. I brushed her hair back away from her face with my hand and touched her cheek. I held my fingers under her nose and over her mouth. I couldn’t feel any breath coming out of her anymore. I held onto her nose and tried to breathe some of my breath into her mouth. There didn’t seem to be enough air inside of me to get her to breathe.

I was afraid to leave my wife in our bed, but I was also afraid that the ambulance might not find our house. I walked out of our bedroom, down the hallway, and up into the front of our house. I turned all of the lights in all of the front rooms of our house on. I opened the front door up, stood in the doorway, and turned the light on the front porch on too. I wanted them to know that it was our house and us that needed them.

This has put off some readers. For example Goodreads reviewer Mary writes: “The narrator felt too reduced to a six-year-old child in the style Kimball chose, which I realize helps to create vulnerability, but also subtly diminished my ability to take the narrator seriously.” I agree the style of writing is very deliberate and it does feel a little contrived, at times, as if he’s twisting the man’s natural phraseology to make a point. As is usually the case with things that come across as simplistic, a lot of hard work went into getting the tone of this book right. In an interview Kimball writes:

It was draining to write and I managed that by writing the novel pretty slowly, just a little over 100 words a day or so. And I spent a lot of time with each sentence, putting down one sentence after another in a deliberate fashion, embedding a kind of feeling in each one. Sometimes, it felt as if I were laying bricks or stacking wood, letting all the feeling accumulate little by little with each sentence until I was working with something overwhelming.

I think the reviewer in Time Out Chicago got where Kimball was coming from when he wrote, “The sentences and even paragraphs simulate the stunned but dutiful response to the suffering of a loved one: short, raw and somewhat elliptical, wrapping themselves around the small tasks at hand and the larger questions constantly raised.” He incidentally gave the book 5 stars.

But back to the story.

The man’s wife has had a seizure and is rushed off to hospital. At first it looks like she’s not going to make it. She ends up in the Intensive Care Unit and for days the old guy hangs around wishing she’d come back to him:

The doctor told me that if she did anything again that she would be able to hear again first. He told me to talk to her. He told me to ask her for small things.

I asked her to open her eyes back up. I asked her to move her eyes back and forth under her eyelids so that her eyelids would tremble some. I asked her to smile or move her lips even a little bit. I watched her eyes and her lips for a twitch or for any other kind of change in the way that her face looked. I held onto her hand and asked her to move her fingers, but she didn’t move them or seem to touch my hand back. I asked her if the bruises on her arms from the needles and the tubes hurt.

Amazingly she pulls through but it’s obvious her seizure’s taken its toll on her. She gets to go home but both her husband and she know that their time together is limited:

She couldn’t get up to walk anywhere even with her walker and she couldn’t move or talk much anymore either. She didn’t want to live as little as she was then, only sitting up or lying down.

So we began to practice for how and when she might finish living and dying. We practiced more seizures, but the shaking made both of us afraid. We practiced strokes, but she was afraid that might leave her only half as much alive as she was then. We practiced heart attacks, but she didn’t want her heart to stop first. We practiced overdoses with aspirins and vitamins. We considered slitting her wrists, but we thought that would have hurt too much. We tried to do a suffocation with a pillow, but I couldn’t hold the pillow down.

We mostly practiced home death. Neither one of us wanted to go back to the hospital. But we practiced hospital death in case the ambulance came back to our house and took her back there. I got appliances from around our house and plugged them in around my wife—the microwave and the coffee maker, the alarm clock and any other appliances that had lights or numbers that lit up or that made beeps—and then I practiced unplugging them.

When the Wind BlowsI’m not sure I’ve read anything as poignant and painful as this since Raymond Briggs’s When the Wind Blows which tells the story of an old couple clinging to each other after a nuclear attack on Britain by the Soviet Union. It’s a graphic novel but not one for children which must’ve confused some parents when it came out because Briggs is well known for his children’s books.

On the surface both books are simple enough stories told in as straightforward a manner as possible and yet that’s where their power exists. Society complicates things. Death has become a costly business. As has dying. And living’s harder work than it really ought to be too. We’re told that so many things matter—the logo on our trainers, the size of our TVs, the cars we drive—when really, when push comes to shove, living itself can be quite enough. Towards the end of her life my mother subsisted on microwave chips, the woman whose war cry was, “You are what you eat.” And it’s the same with this old couple. Arriving home to find there’s little left to eat—everything’s gone off—they settle down with a bowl of dry cereal:

We knew that it didn’t matter what or how much we ate. We knew that we wouldn’t be alive and be together for much longer.

Us is a work of fiction but Kimball breaks off his storytelling every now and then and starts to talk about what clearly was the inspiration behind this story, those he himself has lost. Like his Grandfather Oliver and how he coped—and failed to cope—after the death of his wife:

My grandfather was hurt, but none of us could get inside of him—not the doctor, not the pictures, not his sister or daughter or any of his grandchildren—to make it stop.

At least I’ve assumed these sections are memoirs and the narrator is not the grandson of the old man and woman. If he is then where there hell were his parents when their parents were going through all of this?

Death is a process. There are tick boxes: No circulation—check! No respiration—check! No brain activity—check! But there are more than a few people walking around with a pulse who’re already dead inside. Because their reason for living is no longer there. And it becomes abundantly clear from the very start of this book that that’s what this couple are to each other. So it’s a book about death and dying but more importantly it’s a book about love. In an interview Kimball says:

The novel was written out of feelings of loss and grief, but mostly out of love–for my grandparents, who I spent a lot of time with when I was growing up. Instead of method acting, it was a kind of method writing. I wanted the reader to feel what I felt. It was also a way to go back and remember my grandparents, their house, their garden, their car, the way that they talked and moved—and that was a kind of small comfort.

Caring for someone who’s dying can be hard work especially if you’re not in the best of health yourself. Mostly love has to be expressed in practical ways; that’s all there’s time for. You do what’s enough. And at the end for most couples—at least couples like the one described here—it’s enough simply to be together; that’s all they can really do for each other. To continue to be ‘us’ for the longest time possible:

We wanted it to be daytime all the time. We didn’t need much sleep anymore anyway. She had saved so much of it up while she was sleeping in the hospital and I wanted to be awake for the rest of the time that she was going to be alive.

We unplugged all the clocks and anything that had a clock on it. We used our extra time awake to slow the rest of our time down. We cooked and ate and sat and talked and waited and moved and walked and we did it all slowed down. There wasn’t anything else that we wanted to do but be awake and alive with each other.

It goes without saying that this is a sad book—it’s a terribly sad book—but it’s a book that will go right over the heads of some people. I’m fifty-five and my wife is sixty-seven and I can picture me in this situation in the future. I’m not sure the seventeen-year-old me would’ve been able to project himself that far into the future. There are times it veers towards the maudlin and I could feel the shadow of Mitch Albom lurking in the background but I don’t think Kimball ever gets overly sentimental; this is a practical couple and their love is expressed in practical ways. No one weeps or sobs. The old guy cries once. But there are no histrionics. Just one terribly futile gesture involving a suitcase which I won’t spoil for you that I have to say did get to me.


michael-kimballMichael Kimball was born in 1967 in Lansing, Michigan. He’s the author of four critically-acclaimed novels, including Dear Everybody, The Way the Family Got Away and Big Ray. Each of his novels has been translated into many languages. His work has been featured on NPR’s All Things Considered and in Vice, as well as The Guardian, Prairie Schooner, Post Road, Open City, Unsaid, and New York Tyrant. He is also responsible for Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard), the documentary films 60 Writers/60 Places and I Will Smash You in which dozens of people each tell a story about an object that has some personal meaning for them and then destroy that object in whatever manner they wish. He has also published the book Words under the conceptual pseudonym Andy Devine. Oh, and something called Galaga, a video game book. No idea what that is.

He blogs here.

Sunday, 12 July 2015



To understand you must experience.
What can be experienced can be conquered.

You are my nightmare –
I will not dream you anymore.

6 November 1982

For most of my life—certainly in 1982—I have rarely been able to remember my dreams and when I did they certainly weren’t nightmares. In recent years—since my last breakdown (very tempting to try to see a connection)—I constantly wake up fully aware that I’ve been dreaming and often reluctant to leave the dream behind. Mostly I dream about work and by that I mean my dreams are set in offices or businesses although not necessarily office and business I’ve worked in or for. I clearly miss work or at least I miss the workplace. I still work, seven days a week, but it doesn’t feel the same working at home; bringing work home was somehow different. Work defined me as it does so many of us. What’s one of the first questions we ask of a new acquaintance? “And what do you do?”

I don’t think I’ve ever had a bone fide nightmare and definitely nothing you could describe as night terrors. I’ve never woken up screaming or thinking I was falling or being chased or naked (except when it was appropriate to be naked and let’s not go there). It doesn’t matter what I watch or read before going to bed or what I eat. I don’t have bad dreams. I suppose I should be grateful but I do feel a little cheated. Here am I writing about a nightmare and I’ve never had (or at least remember having) a proper one. I don’t meditate. I don’t medicate. I simply go to bed and close my eyes.


Wednesday, 8 July 2015



"I don't have to do this," she said,
as she was led into the room,
in an almost spoiled voice –
implying concession –
but she was not corrected.

As there was no screen
behind which to undress
she asked for the lights to be doused
and hid in the long shadows.
6 November 1982

I find this a very uncomfortable read and it’s one of several poems written about this time I’m not sure I could write now or would want to write. I remember Ian McEwan saying much the same about his early short stories. Like ‘Old Walt’ (#514) it leaves eyeeverything to the readers’ imaginations. It’s about dignity. A woman who has clearly lost control of her life is still trying to hang onto something.

Beckett once recalled an occasion when Sir Ralph Richardson “wanted the low-down on Pozzo, his home address and curriculum vitae, and seemed to make the forthcoming of this and similar information the condition of his condescending to illustrate the part of Vladimir ... I told him that all I knew about Pozzo was in the text, that if I had known more I would have put it in the text, and that was true also of the other characters.” I mention this because this is also true here. I have no idea who the woman or girl is, where she is, why she’s there or what’s going to happen to her although I suspect it’s going to be unpleasant. I’m sure this admission will sound odd to non-writers (and many writers who create lengthy backstories that never end up in their novels) but I’ve never needed that. I think this is because I know my characters are cyphers. They’re not real. No female got hurt or demeaned in the writing of this poem.

Sunday, 5 July 2015



Ob lies in the hallway
and thinks of flies.
The flies on the cadaver of his past.
In the sticky heat he lies
and dreams of flies.

lands on the silent body
and pauses for a moment
as if it could remember.

Its first act of change
the consumption of its past.

6 November 1982

This is the second of four poems dated 6 November 1982. This tells me something. Some, if not all of these, are old ideas that I’ve deliberately sat down, worked at and decided were good enough to call finished. There are a couple of other blocks like this which we’ll get to eventually if I don’t decide to pack all this in and go and do something interesting instead. (Nod to an old kid’s show.) Looking at this one it’s pretty obvious what I’m on about. My wife has left me and I’m trying to decide what I want to do, who I want to be for the rest of my life. But it’s hard to let go of the past and I keep revisiting it even as it’s becoming less and less appealing to do so. The metaphor is obvious and not especially well executed. I just couldn’t find a not awkward way of saying ‘What-was-Ob’. And why Ob? Obliterate? Obituary? Objectify? Obsession?

For the record I was not brought up to believe in reincarnation although I do like the trope as a literary device.


Wednesday, 1 July 2015



The man with the strange name
passed her by
thinking strange thoughts
in a stranger's tongue.

His dark clothes caught her eye
for a moment
and then he was gone.

A feeling came and went
but she didn't know its name
and tried forgetting
what she wouldn't want to understand.

6 November 1982

I wrote ‘A Marriage’ (#541) on 27th June 1982. So it’s been over four months since I’ve produced a poem and a couple of months since my wife left me. And then this little Beckettian number pops out similar in theme to ‘Itch of an Amputated Leg’ (#538) and ‘Heat’ (#530) only this time the observer is a female and their eyes don’t meet. I’ve never really had a clear image of the man. I supposed he was probably a Hasidic Jew but it wasn’t really important. All that mattered is that the two characters were alien. In Milligan and Murphy there are a couple of instances where one of the brothers locks eyes with an animal and I find myself returning to this again in my new book:

I approached my bench in the early afternoon to find the [cat] lying doggo on the ground beside it. As I went to sit it opened its eyes, which had been shut, identified me as the source of the disturbance, did a quick risk assessment, decided in an instant I was harmless, feckless and most likely worthless and went back to basking in the heat. An hour or so later it got up and padded off in search of some shade. And that was that. In retrospect I am not sure what passed between us during the split-second when our eyes met but it is the only time I have encountered any creature and felt I was in the presence of a kindred spirit, a fellow dosser. I use the adjective kindred reluctantly—it falls short and I dislike the mystical undertones—but I can think of no other that comes close.

And earlier on in the text:

A preposterous fluffy lion was sitting as regally as in could in the centre of the bed. He stared at it and the lion stared back. If it was complicit it wasn’t letting on.


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