Blast drafts rapid ease in stone
a man harps lame in the tongue
repeating place-holder words
forgotten as uttered
by an ear sewn back on in time.
The slow or fast
life reconvened after time-out
does not contain joy.
Meteor scatters a ton weight
of dust on the FM hiss.
A voice nudges over the threshold
on soft peaks and is captured
giving effect to desire
and a ping of sour music.
The open flower platform
The hat that the hand wore in rehab
is French for billiards and in no way chastened.
The language in him fitting like a champagne cork
between startled eyes
is a lesson in loosening tongues
in advance of the big night.
Making the room work hard in an effort to hear
downshifted remnants of an echo without walls
the means of producing sound literally dead
in these parts, at this time, are welcomed as equals
back-masking the cosmic slop till the dots merge, inviting suicide
(only a card-sharp home but the room speaks fluent Thai)
the assault ceased.
The caller withheld their number.
Botox my frownlines, let my eyelids droop.
If I open one eye with a finger I can still see
habit subtract lip-service from a foot of pride,
seed broadcast in empathy:
we is good boys. I another you is the longer pronoun
carry me nowhere faster than a crushing train.
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2005. Best Scottish Poems is an online publication, consisting of 20 poems chosen by a different editor each year, with comments by the editor and poets. It provides a personal overview of a year of Scottish poetry. The editor in 2005 was Richard Price.
This poem is not straightforward and seems to use the semantic and sound content of its language in the indirect way that music and visual art can. Lovers of modern music and modern art are not put off by obliquity and neither should lovers of modern poetry be. In fact the riches of such work make for the satisfying results of re-reading.
Without wishing to lessen the interesting mysteriousness of the poem, the traditional ideas about January are surely here as well. It is a broken down, isolated-feeling time of year, where resolutions may be the words ‘forgotten as uttered’, when going back to normality (such as work) after the holiday’s satirically uttered colloquialism ‘time-out’ is a return that recognisably ‘does not contain joy’. Reflecting on what has passed in the last year is a kind of listening to what has happened, evoked metaphorically by the striking phrase ‘an ear sewn back on in time’. The near-comic strangeness of an ear making a sound – surrealism, for once, does seem an appropriate context within which to see this poem – and the knowledge that the sound is ‘forgotten as uttered’ suggests that the traditional introspection of this period is illusory, a short circuit rather than a live circuit. Nevertheless the conventional sense of ‘an ear sewn back on in time’, a surgical achievement that is probably more called for in the usually more violent and accident-prone holiday period, at the same time offers hope for the coming year.
The darkness of the winter month allows meteors to be seen more readily and these, the poem suggests, also have an electrical effect on a figure listening to his or her radio. My reading of this part of the poem is of one listener clinging on to the sound of his or her own voice as well as to any radio sound: vulnerable signs of life in the new year not quite in contact with each other. Recovery, as all New Years promise, sometimes in the teeth of the last year’s evidence, is suggested by ‘re-hab’, but by the end of the poem (which, rewardingly, is too rich to provide more than a sketchy interpretation here) there is a feeling – like Mallarmé’s speaker in ‘Brise Marine’ wishing to be off with the sailors to anywhere but here! – that the crushing paralysed sense of near-oblivion may only be met by a reciprocating and dangerous urge to move.
‘For January’ was written in memory of the poet Barry MacSweeney, who died of alcoholism in May 2000. Here are some things that went into its making:
- ‘I’m not going back / to the slow life / where every step is a drag’ (the song ‘Fiery Jack’ by The Fall. Barry was a Fall fan).
- ‘Let joy be unconfined!’ (Byron, ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’).
- Meteor scatter: a mode of propagation of VHF radio signals, where the ionised trails of meteors allow very brief snatches of signal, known as ‘pings’, to travel hundreds of miles beyond their normal range.
- Stochastic resonance: the phenomenon by which very weak signals are often easier to read against a background of white noise than against silence. Also some reference to Electronic Voice Phenomena, where believers listen to recordings of electronic noise (frequently the hiss heard between channels on an FM radio) in the hope of hearing messages from the dead. Cf. Meteor scatter.
- Soft peaks: the ideal consistency of beaten egg-whites which are to be folded into another foodstuff.
- Barry’s handwriting changed radically during a spell in rehab in the mid 90s.
- ‘Downshifted remnants of an echo without walls’: the red-shifted cosmic background radiation left over from the Big Bang, in a universe interpreted as finite but unbounded.
- ‘Cosmic Slop’: an LP by Funkadelic.
- Back-masking: the practice of including subliminal messages, recorded backwards, in commercially-recorded music. Often credited with encouraging suicides among susceptible teenagers able to understand language spoken backwards.
- John Searle’s ‘Chinese Room’ argument against artificial intelligence (in the poem, ‘Chinese becomes Thai’, for reasons of euphony).
- ‘The assault ceased’: ‘Sithen the sege and the assaut watz sesed at Troye’ (the opening line of the mediaeval romance ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’
- ‘Foot of Pride’: a song by Bob Dylan. Barry was a fan.
- ‘We is good boys’: quote from a letter to the author, written by Barry from rehab.
- ‘I another’: ‘JE est un autre’ (Arthur Rimbaud, letter to A. P. Demeny, 15 May 1871).