TO BRENDA WILLIAMS ‘WRITING AGAINST THE GRAIN’ by Barry Tebb
It was Karl Shapiro who wrote in his ‘Defence of Ignorance’ how many poets
Go mad or seem to be so and the majority think we should all be in jail
Or mental hospital and you have ended up in both places - fragile as bone china,
Your pale skin taut, your fingers clasped tight round a cup, sitting in a pool
Of midnight light, your cats stretched flat on your desk top’s scatter
Under the laughing eyes of Sexton and Lowell beneath Rollie McKenna’s seamless shutter.
Other nights you hunch in your rocking chair, spilling rhythms
Silently as a bat weaves through midnight’s jade waves
Your sibylline tongue tapping every twist or the syllable count
Deftly as Whistler mixed tints for Nocturnes’ nuances or shade
Or Hokusai tipped every wave crest.
You pause when down the hall a cat snatches at a forbidden plant,
“Schubert, Schubert”, you whisper urgently for it is night and there are neighbours.
The whistle of the forgotten kettle shrills: you turn down the gas
And scurry back to your poem as you would to a sick child
And ease the pain of disordered lines.
The face of your mother smiles like a Madonna bereft
And the faces of our children are always somewhere
As you focus your midnight eyes soft with tears.
You create to survive, a Balzac writing against the clock
A Baudelaire writing against the bailiff’s knock
A Valйry in the throes of ‘Narcisse Parle’.
When a far clock chimes you sigh and set aside the page:
There is no telephone to ring or call: I am distant and sick,
Frail as an old stick
Our spirits rise and fall like the barometer’s needle
Jerk at a finger tapping on glass
Flashbacks or inspiration cry out at memory loss.
You peer through a magnifying glass at the typeface
Your knuckles white with pain as the sonnet starts to strain
Like a child coming to birth, the third you never bore.
All births, all babies, all poems are the same in coming
The spark of inspiration or spurt of semen,
The silent months of gestation, the waiting and worrying
Until the final agony of creation: for our first son’s
Birth at Oakes we had only a drawer for a crib.
Memories blur: all I know is that it was night
And at home as you always insisted, against all advice
But mine. I remember feebly holding the mask in place
As the Indian woman doctor brutally stitched you without an anaesthetic
And the silence like no other when even the midwives
Had left: the child slept and we crept round his make-shift cradle.
At Brudenell Road again it was night in the cold house
With bare walls and plug-in fires: Bob, the real father
Paced the front, deep in symphonic thought:
Isaiah slept: I waited and watched - an undiagnosed breech
The doctor’s last minute discovery - made us rush
And scatter to have you admitted.
I fell asleep in the silent house and woke to a chaos
Of blood and towels and discarded dressings and a bemused five year old.
We brought you armsful of daffodils, Easter’s remainders.
“Happy Easter, are the father?” Staff beamed
As we sat by the bedside, Bob, myself and John MacKendrick,
Brecht and Rilke’s best translator
Soon to die by his own hand.
Poetry is born in the breech position
Poems beget poems.