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

Sunday 30 August 2015


The Surreal

So I close my eyes:
the beautiful twins that
watch you undress –
in the dark, naked shadows
swim to enfold you.

(For F.)

23 October 1983

Naked-Woman-ShadowThe word 'surrealist' was coined by Guillaume Apollinaire and first appeared in the preface to his play Les Mamelles de Tirésias, which was written in 1903 and first performed in 1917. It used to be best known as the name of an art movement which began in the 1920s but I doubt that’s the case these days. It’s become the default synonym for anything that in the sixties they’d probably have called ‘trippy’. Nothing’s unreal any more; it’s surreal. I personally think the word’s overused. In all my poetry this is its one and only occurrence. It appears once in my latest novel:

Phoebe was the first of my family to visit after I reappeared. Ten minutes after learning I was safe she was in her car and three and a half hours later she was hanging round my neck and sobbing as if it was going out of fashion. That was surreal. She’s married and lives in Cleveland with her husband, Terence, twin boys, John and Michael and a grey hamster they named Eric for a giggle only it stuck.

It’s probably not the best word but I’d used ‘weird’ six times, ‘odd’ twenty-two times, ‘strange’ thirty times and so on. I have a pretty decent vocabulary but English doesn’t have nearly enough words for me. Earlier on the narrator makes the following observation:

He lived on the first floor but that did little to allay his fear of being burgled. Was burglaphobia a real word? He would have to look it up. If it wasn’t it ought to be. There should be a word for everything.

And later:

[T]here should be a collective noun for a group of writers: a solitude of authors. It makes as much sense as a bouquet of pheasants.

And again:

Someone should coin a word for screwed up balls of paper. It’s the sort of thing in this life that deserves to have a word to describe it.

I can see why I used the word ‘surreal’ in my poem—I am describing a fantasy and the poem has a dreamlike quality—but I still think I could’ve picked a better title. As for the beauty of my eyes this is probably the only time in my life I’ve ever described myself or any part of me as handsome, good-looking, comely or even pulchritudinous. For the record they’re green with orange flecks and I don’t hate them.

Wednesday 26 August 2015


A Blind Girl's Colours

Lost for words and
let down by them,
she repeated a simple phrase
over and over again to me,
pouring herself into each expression.

Her intensity was obvious –
its depth flattered me.

(For F.)

8 October 1983

in likeF. was not a stupid woman but she’d had a mother who’d told her she was and she believed her. I do wonder about why parents pick on certain of their children and dote on others. I only had the one kid. I only wanted the one. Anyway F. was not stupid but she did lack confidence and so, even though she knew big words, she would never use them. When it comes to expressing love most of us find ourselves stuck with the same three words: I, love and you. And, once you’ve said them, what then? What more is there to say? So you say them again with more feeling, with tears in your eyes, looking straight in her eyes.

I’m reminded of Annie Hall, the scene at the dock, New York City:


Well, I certainly ... I think that's very– Yeah, yeah ...
yeah. Do you love me?


I – uh, love is, uh, is too weak a word for what...




– I ... I lerve you.
           (Over Annie's laughter)
You know, I lo-ove you. I luff you. There are two "f's."
           (Over Annie's laughter)
I – I have to invent– Of course I love you.

I didn’t tell my first wife I was in love with her, not at first. I opted for “in like”. I’d never heard it before and as far as I was concerned I’d invented the expression. Googling it now I see I’m not alone and probably wasn’t even the first.

Love puzzles me. I’m pretty clear on all the other emotions but someone love got messed up somewhere along the line. Wonder why that is?

Sunday 23 August 2015


The Gift

"It's as good as a kiss," she said,
offering the loving cup to me,

and she smiled superfluously
her eyes reflecting my pleasure.

(For F.)

22 September 1983

woman-holding-a-tea-cupThis was something F. did say to me. It wasn’t a loving cup. It was a ceramic mug and why we were sharing it I’ve no idea. Or it might’ve been a can of juice by which I mean ginger by which I mean soda pop. I don’t remember. I do remember it was something she said and not just to me but when two people are in a relationship that no one else knows about they do like to talk in code whenever possible, to touch in whatever ways possible even if only metaphorically; at I said in ‘The Ophthalmologist’s Wife’ (#552) the need for taction contact is a desperate one. And this was one of those occasions. It might’ve been in her kitchen. I want it to be in her kitchen. Her kitchen feels right. I don’t remember.

What I do find myself dwelling on is the word ‘superfluously’. An odd choice. I know what I’m getting at—the smile was unnecessary, the words were enough (and the look in her eyes)—but it’s hard to resist a knowing smile.

Sunday 16 August 2015

Becoming Abigail

Becoming Abigail

[E]verything in Nigeria is about haunting. It’s about ghosts. The dead are everywhere, and just won’t stay dead. In my Igbo culture, dead parents used to be buried in the middle of the living room and not in cemeteries. So in this way the dead are always there, to guide us, to teach us. – Chris Abani in an interview with Colm Tóibín

According to Johannes Koettl’s paper ‘Human Trafficking, Modern Day Slavery, and Economic Exploitation’ the term human trafficking was first used publicly in the early 1990s in media coverage on the prostitution of women from Eastern Europe in Western Europe. So it’s a fairly new expression but it’s not a new problem; people have been being sold into slavery for thousands of years. The term—which broadly includes include child labour, forced labour, bonded labour, forced prostitution, and so forth—is only a part of a much wider problem though, that of exploitation. The figures are sickening. Even conservative estimates suggest that at least 2.5 million children, women, and men are lured or forced across international borders every year and many more are trafficked within their home countries. The International Labour Organization estimates that at any point in time, at least 12.3 million people are victims of non-consensual exploitation.

The thing about these kinds of figures is that we can so easily forget that every one of the twelve million people is an individual; they have a name and a family and a life. Much research has established that people tend to feel more compassion for single identifiable victims than large masses of victims. The reason? Studies find that a single individual, unlike a group, is viewed as a psychologically coherent unit. This leads to more extensive processing of information and stronger impressions about individuals than about groups. (See The “Identified Victim” Effect: An Identified Group, or Just a Single Individual?)

Both papers I’ve linked to above make sobering reading but I don’t imagine either will really move you terribly. You’ll probably feel you ought to be moved but something’s stopping you. This will not be an issue after you’ve read Becoming Abigail. But before that I have another essay for you. It’s by the author of Becoming Abigail. He’s called Chris Abani and he’s a Nigerian novelist and poet. The essay is called ‘Ethics and Narrative: the Human and Other’. In part:

Baldwin said, and I paraphrase, that suffering means something only in so much as someone else can attach his or her suffering to yours. He offered this as a point for young writers to find ways to make their work compelling, but it speaks often to our general tendencies towards the relational. We feel things for others only in so much as those things can fall within the realm of our understanding. This relational model, while laudable, is also, sadly, delusional.

French writer Marguerite Yourcenar says this: “Compassion emphasizes the experience of suffering with those who suffer and it is far from according a sentimental conception of life. It inflicts its knife-like pain only on those who, strong or not, brave or not, intelligent or not, have been granted the humble gift of looking the world in the face and seeing it as it is.” But what if we change the idea of gift to choice? What if compassion, true compassion, requires not the gift to see the world as it is, but the choice to be open to seeing the world as it really is, or as it can be?

This is my hope—to create an art that can catalogue the phenomenon of our nature, all of it, without sentimentality, but rather by leaning into transformation, so as to offer up what Diane Arbus would call the veritable, inevitable, or the possible, so that we can all have that terrible but necessary confrontation with all of ourselves. Whatever we feel about specific situations, we must at all costs avoid the sentimental.

“I love essays,” Abani says in this interview, “but they’re not always the best way to communicate to a larger audience.” The way he chooses is fiction and an adjective that crops up again and again when describing his writing style is “visceral”. Talking with Patty Paine he himself says:

The act of reading my books becomes a visceral, bodily experience. It’s no longer just an intellectual. You can throw the book across the room, and this has been interesting, people, I hear people say things like, “I was reading Becoming Abigail, it took me an hour, and I wanted to throw the book out the window, I wanted to be mad at you, and . . . .” These are good, these are good things. But even people who’ve left the book, Abigail has a way, as do other characters, too, of haunting you. But it’s not that the character’s following you, it’s simply that he’s triggered something.

Cleopatra's Needle LondonThe book kept my attention, rocking as it does between Then and Now. Abigail Tansi is fourteen when we meet her—or probably a little older but not much—and has arrived at Cleopatra's Needle on London’s Victoria Embankment:

Abigail looked at the cold smiles of the sphinxes. Like them, she was amused at the ridiculous impotence of the phallus they stared at. A time capsule was buried beneath the stone tumescence containing, among other things, fashion photos of the most beautiful women of the nineteenth century.

She stood gazing out at the dark cold presence of the Thames. Breaking open a packet of cigarettes she fumbled clumsily to light one. She didn’t smoke. With her first drag she imagined she could see the ghosts of those who had also ended it here. At the Needle. Suddenly afraid she smothered a sob, choking on the harshness of the tobacco, eyes tearing. Like the loss of her virginity.

She ends up sitting astride one of the two faux-Egyptian sphinxes that flank the monument. We don’t realise how young she is and it’s a long time before we find out but we do know she has a social worker, a man called Kevin, who’s clearly been kind to her and who she says she loves. In her bag there’re only two photos, one of her late father and the other of Kevin. So how has she ended up in London? Ah, well, that would be her cousin Peter’s fault:

Peter wasn’t really her cousin, but was married to her cousin Mary. A few years before, at twelve, Abigail had been a bridesmaid at their wedding. She had loved every minute of it. The ceremony, the flower petals strewn everywhere, even the ugly chiffon dress and having to dance with Uncle Ekwi, who stank of decay in the way even the cleanest old people did.

Peter had cornered her in the bathroom. She didn’t shrink away like other girls her age might have at being surprised in the bathroom with her underwear halfway down her legs and the skirt of her dress gathered in a bunch as she squatted over the hole. Nor did she seem impressed that he was a Johnny-just-return. She just held her dress up and peed, not taking her eyes off his. Surprised at her fearlessness he kissed her, his finger exploring her.

Later, when he was back at Mary’s side, she caught him sniffing his finger occasionally, a smile playing around his lips. If she had felt it was anything special, she certainly didn’t show it, and in time it simply faded into the distance, like an old wine stain on ivory muslin. Even at that young age she knew what men were like.

Abigail says nothing of this to her father and two years later Peter offers to take Abigail back to London with him:

Peter was apparently a successful businessman in London and was very generous to the villagers when he came home, paying for a hospital bill here, new glasses there, some child’s school fees over there, and so forth. Her father really liked him and had often told her about Peter and his trips when she got back from boarding school on breaks.

“He always takes one young relative back to London as well,” he used to explain. “Imagine how lucky those children are!”

Abigail is not the first he’s taken with him. There were others but apparently “[a]ll the other kids he had taken back had fallen in with bad crowds and run away” so he needed Abigail and her father lacks the common sense to see that there’s more going on here than meets the eye. Abigail has her doubts but acquiesces. “[S]he didn’t buy Peter’s story about the other kids he took back having run off with bad company. He had done something to them, she didn’t know what, but she was going to watch him closely, make sure it didn’t happen to her.” So her reasoning’s flawed but then she’s only fourteen and all she knows of the world is her small corner of Nigeria.

And, of course, the unimaginable happens.

We know from the opening chapters that Abigail survives but she’s clearly a damaged individual. The question is: How damaged was she before all of this? When Abigail was born her mother—also called Abigail—died. And even though she was a babe in arms at the time her mother’s death comes to have a terrible effect on her:

The shape of that Abigail was so clearly marked, the limits traced out in the stories that filled the world around this Abigail, that it was hard to do anything but try to fill the hollowed-out shape. Insatiable

This is the Abigail she’s trying so desperately to become. In the meantime her father has allowed himself to become crippled by the loss of his wife. And try as she might his daughter can’t fill his void:

She pulled up her left sleeve and absently traced the healed welts of her burning. They had the nature of lines in a tree trunk: varied, different, telling. Her early attempts were thick but flat noodles burned into her skin by cashew sap. With time came finer lines, from needles, marking an improvement. But there were also the ugly whip marks of cigarette tips. Angry. Impatient. And the words: Not Abigail. My Abigail. Her Abigail? Ghosts. Death. Me. Me. Me. Not. Nobody. She stared at them.

This burning wasn’t immolation. Not combustion. But an exorcism. Cauterization. Permanence even

I’d heard of children cutting themselves before but not burning:

Insatiable for her mother, she would seek out anyone who had known Abigail and offer to trade a chore for an anecdote, trying to create memory, make it concrete, physical. She collected vignettes about Abigail, hoarding them fiercely. Then late at night, when all was silent apart from the occasional call of night birds and dogs baying at the moon, she would unwrap them in her mind and feast, gorging herself. Sated, she traced their outlines on her skin with soft fingers, burning them in with the heat of her loss, tattooing them with a need as desperate as it was confused. She tried to talk to her father about this need to see herself, but he couldn’t understand what she meant. Or maybe he just pretended not to. The desire to be noticed for herself didn’t go away though. She couldn’t be the ghost he wanted her to be.

Is Abigail a victim-waiting-to-happen? Is that what Peter sees in her from the jump? Perhaps. But one thing she’s not is a two-dimensional statistic. Even though there’s abani_becoming abigaila lot we never learn about Abigail it’s hard not to think of her as a flesh and blood individual and not simply a character created by an author to make a political point. She existed—or at least did her best to exist—before she was ever taken advantage of.

There is much symbolism in the book but the most obvious one that jumps out at you is cartography. Transforming her skin as she does she turns herself into a personal and collective map of trauma. At one point she shows her social worker her scars:

“This one is you, this, me. In the middle is Greenwich. Here,” and she was down on her stomach, “is my hunger, my need, mine, not my mother’s. And here, and here and here and here, here, here, here, me, me, me. Don’t you see?” and she showed him the words branded in her skin. How had he missed them when they made love? But he had. “This is my mother,” she was saying. “This is my mother. Words. And words. And words. But me? These dots. Me, Abigail.”

This is a heart rending tale but it’s far more than a record of a young girl’s exploitation—that bit’s over in two or three short chapters—it’s a study in the nature of identity. If there’s one thing Abigail could not be or become it’s an anyone. She could not, despite her best efforts, become her mother. Only in London, bereft of any form of identity (having come over on false papers) she does become something of a ghost. But is there ‘life’ after ‘death’? In a conversation with Zuade Kaufman (which you might want to leave until after you’ve read the book because there’re a few spoilers) Abani had this to say about his creation:

[T]his young woman has so much taken away from her and yet she continues to be human. Even though she exists as a fictional character, when I read it sometimes I think: “Where does this come from, because I don’t remember even writing half of it.”

She humbles me as a person, and that is sort of the impetus behind this work. [That,] and all these amazing people in the world who will not be broken…

You can read the opening four chapters here and a long essay here in which Abani discusses the origins of the novella which, again, you might want to leave until later. You can also hear the author read a selection here.

Further Reading

The Chris Abani Bibliography


Chris Abani was born on 27 December 1966 in Afikpo, Nigeria, to an English mother, Daphne, and a Nigerian Igbo father, Michael. In 1968, young Chris, his mother and four siblings fled Nigeria to escape the Biafran War. They lived in England for three years, and subsequently returned to their home country, where Michael had stayed behind to work as a Red Cross official. He is the author of six books of fiction and seven collections of poetry.

Abani started writing stories when he was six, had his first piece of short fiction published when he was ten, and wrote his first novel, a thriller entitled Masters of the Board (1984), at the age of sixteen. Because the narrative recounts the attempt of an ex-Nazi officer to seize power in Nigeria, the country's real-life authorities accused Abani of providing the blueprint for a failed coup against the Babangida regime in late 1985—an absurd claim devised after the purported leader of the conspiracy, General Vatsa, was found in possession of the book. Following these allegations, the writer was sent to prison, where he spent a total of six months. The publication of his second novel, Sirocco (1987), again elicited a violent reaction from the authorities. They destroyed all copies of the book, closed down the publishing house that had issued it and arrested the writer once again, holding him for a year at Kirikiri maximum security prison in Lagos. After he was released from jail this time, he composed several anti-government plays that were performed on the street near government offices for two years. He was imprisoned a third time and was placed on death row. Luckily, his friends bribed government officials for his release and in 1991, immediately after being freed, Abani moved to the United Kingdom where he remained until 1999. He then moved to the United States, where he now lives.

Over the course of his career, he has received numerous awards and distinctions, including the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award (2005, for the novel GraceLand) and the PEN/Beyond Margins Award (2008, for the novella Song for Night).

In addition to his occupation as a writer, Abani works in academia. He used to be a Professor in the Department of Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside, and is now Board of Trustees Professor of English at Northwestern University in Illinois. Finally, he is also active in the publishing industry, as the founding editor of the Black Goat independent poetry series, an imprint of Akashic Books whose title humorously refers to its creator's complexion, astrological star sign and self-avowed stubbornness.

Wednesday 12 August 2015


For F.

Two one-legged men
limping down the road
sharing a single crutch
and each, in turn,
being a crutch to the other.

Both must go on
for neither has the strength to alone
and neither knows how
to leave the other.

16 September 1983

Murphy with border 1-6 ratioThis must be one of the oddest love poems ever and yet that is what it is. I hadn’t noticed before but it’s interesting that here we have more damaged people. The Ophthalmologist’s Wife (#552) was blind and, metaphorically speaking, so was her husband and now her both characters have lost a leg, a support, e.g. a spouse. I always liked the metaphor here but I was never that crazy about ‘For F.’ as a poem; it lacks. I eventually turned it into a story in my novel Milligan and Murphy:

          For a while they lay there like three sardines. Finally Milligan spoke up. “Mr Ahern?”
           “What is it, Mr Milligan?”
           “Would you tell us another of your stories just to help us get off?”
           “Certainly, Mr Milligan, I most certainly shall.” He considered for a moment. “Did you ever hear about a thing with two heads and three legs?”
          Milligan hadn’t. Murphy hadn’t either but didn’t let on.
           “Is it a joke?” he wanted to know though.
           “Not in the way I imagine you’re thinking, Mr Murphy, but some would say that life is the joke and we are the butt of it. Once, gentlemen, there were two men; almost two men, should I say, because neither was whole; in fact, there was a peculiarity common to each of them; for both men, at one time or another, for reasons best known to themselves, had been relieved of the burden of a leg; the right leg, as it happens, in each instance; and, as it happens, as things do; they found themselves together on the same road and headed in the same direction. It appeared to them that there was no good reason not to travel a while together. It was the first time either of them had met a fellow amputee and they thought they might have much to discuss. As it also happens, there was little either had to say about the inconveniences of unidexterousness that the other had not experienced first-hand. The topic was exhausted quickly and they limped on their way in quiet contemplation of the road ahead since neither found they had left much behind them worth thinking about. They travelled slowly for the most part. Misfortune struck after the first furlong. The crutch of one became caught between two rocks causing the man—let us call him F.—to stumble and fall. Vainly attempting to save himself he lunges for the crutch and in doing so snaps it in two in such a way as to render it irreparable. What is the other man—let us call him M.—to do?”
           “Don’t know,” replied Milligan not realising it was a rhetorical question.
           “The man’s options are limited, mainly, it has to be said, by his adherence to certain Aramaic and Greek texts, particularly one tale, which may or may not have been just a story, concerning a citizen of Samaria which he understood to be a town in Palestine named after some man—though not the resident in question—who once owned a hill, of all things. Should he stay or should he go? He owed the man nothing. It had been taken for granted that they would stay together until they parted and that that time would come at a time agreeable to either one, though not necessarily, both of them. This was clearly not the time. What to do though? M. was in a quandary. He was utterly perplexed. The answer was simple, of course, as all the best engineering solutions are; so straightforward that it took them a full hour to figure it out: they would share the one good crutch they had between them.”
           “I don’t follow.” Milligan was not one for puzzles even when he wasn’t falling asleep.
           “F. stood to the left of M. and leaned on him. M., in turn, leaned on his crutch and so, with two heads and three legs, they set off into the distance. From time to time they swapped over and F. would take the crutch. Interestingly, when I met them several years after this event, they were still together with only the one crutch between them. I asked them why and F. said quite simply that they had never found the need to vary the arrangement.”
          Milligan said nothing; he was asleep.
           “Did you really know those two?” asked Murphy. “Or is it just a story?”
           “Mr Murphy, I have known those and so many like those.”
           “And yet you travel alone.”
           “I do, I travel alone, but that is a story for another day. Good night, Mr Murphy.”
           “Good night, Mr Ahern.”

You can still buy a copy of Milligan and Murphy as an e-book from Smashwords or as a paperback from FV Books.

Sunday 9 August 2015


The Visit

Sympathy and Apathy
sat side by side in
the old folks' home,
neither knowing what
they were doing there.
Not really.

(for Elizabeth Gray (91))

4 September 1983

Elizabeth Gray was the oldest member of our congregation. She’d be born in the 19th century. The Wright brothers hadn’t even begun their experiments in flight. I had always been stunned by her longevity as a child. She was a small woman, wizened and carnaptious. There’s a good Scottish word for you. Or crabbit—there’s another one. You did not disrespect her. I remember where she lived quite clearly because we had to park the car and take a footbridge across a… I’m guessing here but I’m pretty sure it was a railway line although perhaps a disused one. Now I’m older I realise you could easily get to her front door by car and Dad simply chose to park where he did but it added to the woman’s mystique. Her house suited her. My parents had gradually got rid of all the utility furniture but not Mrs Gray. Or was it Miss Gray? You know I think it might have been Miss. She’d been a concert pianist Old Womanwhen young. I never heard her play though. Can’t even remember if she owned a piano. The old guy who used to appear at our door from time to time selling soap, his wife had also been a concert pianist. She I did hear play. She took one of my wee tunes—I fancied myself as more of a composer and less of a poet in my early teens—improvised around it and made me feel utterly incompetent although I’m sure that wasn’t her intention. But I digress.

Elizabeth was suffering from dementia. She had lost her short-term memory and needed to be put into an old folks’ home. I only visited her once—the two Roberts took me—and it was to have a huge impression on me. I didn’t recognise her for starters. She had crumpled up ever further. We use the expression “sucking the life out of” but, seriously, this woman looked as if something had literally sucked the life out of her. We were there for about an hour. She thought I was my dad which was fine; she liked my dad. When they brought her to us she was clinging to her handbag, an old-fashioned clutch handbag probably dating back to the fifties. My mum used to have one. Even empty it was solid. The old woman kept opening up her handbag and raking through it looking for her house keys. The staff had her keys but she kept forgetting. All she knew was she needed to go home. She was quite upset that she couldn’t, didn’t know where she was or why and only wanted to go home where she’d be safe. Were we here to take her home? So the two Roberts would calm her down, explain where she was and why and she’d nod and understood and then a matter of seconds later she would begin taking though her handbag again. Our entire visit consisted of repeating the same five minutes over and over again. It was tragic. You could see her memories vanish before your very eyes. She didn’t last long. A few weeks. I’m sure I went to her funeral but I can’t remember anything about that.

Wednesday 5 August 2015


The Ophthalmologist's Wife

He married a blind girl
I remember –
a quiet thing with
empty eyes.

Desperately tactile,
she longed for the night,
and the marriage bed's
gift of homogeneousness,
but he couldn't see
and she often slept alone
as he burned the midnight oil.

(For F.)

20 August 1983

In Samuel Beckett’s play That Time he talks about a place called Foley’s Folly. Although not the most autobiographical of writers Beckett did regularly incorporate the names of familiar places in his works, e.g. in Waiting for Godot Vladimir recalls a visit to the Eiffel Tower and picking grapes in the Macon Country. When the writer Eoin O'Brien, who had set himself the task of tracking down and photographing every geographical location ever mentioned by Beckett for his marvellous book The Beckett Country, looked for Foley’s Folly he encountered a problem: there was no such place. O'Brien thought it might be Taylor’s Tower but that was not it. So he had no choice but to approach the author who, at least on this occasion (he wasn’t always as helpful), pointed him in the right direction:

Sam pored over the photographs, fascinated by the beauty of the place, but then, to my disappointment, informed me that he had never been there. Instead he directed me to Barrington's Tower, which, of course made much more sense in that it was close to Cooldrinagh, where he had been sent "supperless to bed" in punishment for his childhood peregrinations. When I asked him why he had changed the name, he said: "Eoin, there's no music in Barrington's Tower."

I’m sure Beckett would’ve been more than familiar with what Samuel Taylor Coleridge had had to say about poetry:

I wish our clever young poets would remember my homely definitions of prose and poetry; that is, prose = words in their best order; poetry = the best words in their best order.

Which brings me to my poem. Homogeneousness (or, alternatively, homogeneity) means “composition from like parts, elements, or characteristics”. It’s the right word—and the better of the two—but a five syllable word is a bit of a mouthful and neither is especially musical. Homogeneousness is the softer, which is why I chose it, but I would’ve preferred something else, a three syllable word ideally.

The English lexicographer Henry Fowler wrote: “Those who run to long words are mainly the unskillful and tasteless; they confuse pomposity with dignity, flaccidity with ease, and bulk with force.”

I doubt Beckett would’ve agreed with either Coleridge or Fowler and I’m happy to stand on his shoulders. He was every bit as careful with the words he chose in his prose as he was in his poetry. Why have two standards? That said, frequently the English language is just plain unhelpful when it comes to available synonyms. I’m not sure what I would do today with this poem. It’s fixed in my head now and I wouldn’t change it but I still struggle with that eighth line. Any suggestions?

sad woman

Sunday 2 August 2015



An uncanny attraction
for something unseen.

The mystic eroticism
of imagined nudity.

Glimpses in the eyes
of things unsaid.

Can you hear the sea
in sea shells too ?

(For F.)

26 July 1983

Thus begins the next phase of my life. Ten months after my first wife left me I found… now here I really want to write “the next great love of my life” or even “the first great love of my life” but the words don’t feel right. In July of 1983 I would’ve written it and believed it but by June 1994 it was all over. If you’re a regular reader you’ll know that in December of 1996 I met Carrie, my present wife, but there were two others in between. I’m no Picasso—far from it—but I tend to divide my poetry into blocks based on the woman I was with, in love with or besotted by at the time. This, then, is the beginning of the Poems for F. period—Blue period sounds so much cooler—and, at least at the start, there are a lot of poems dedicated to her. My first wife got one, the not even slightly romantic ‘Mental in Glasgow’ (#457), although ‘Yesterday’ (#466) really should’ve been dedicated to her. It was the one and only love poem I ever wrote for her and, had you asked me, womans-face-sketch-iiat the time I would’ve sworn I was in love with her. Maybe not so much after all.

‘Shells’ is not really a love poem. I don’t do traditional love poems. I write poems that read like a guy in love wrote them but they’re not always very romantic—wait until we get to ‘For F.’ (#555) and you’ll see what I mean—but I can tell you, in July 1983 there was only one thing on my mind although I’m not sure it was love. I’m not sure it was lust either but lust did get in there and cloud the issue for a while. This, then, is a you’ve-got-my-attention poem. I badly wanted her to be my muse.

F. was married when I first met her although she and her husband separated shortly afterwards—nothing to do with me—and so I saw in her a kindred spirit, a shell of a person, hollowed out and fragile.

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