Stage fright

I switched on the radio
For the weekly one-hour show
Where they talked of art and poetry – the kind
That reassures and makes you feel
That the stuff you do is real
And you share a space with others of like mind.

At the top, the host declared
They were live and being aired
From the Poetry World Series in LA.
Ten finalists would read aloud
To a huge, adoring crowd:
Whoever garnered most applause would win the day.

This was all brand new to me,
And my curiosity
Was off the dial as the first contender stepped
Up to the waiting microphone
And in low, portentous tone
Spoke of hard times down in Arkansas. Folk wept.

Next, a young girl from Mesquite
Skipped on light iambic feet
Through a sonnet to her lover in Fort Worth.
Then a wit from Pasadena
Shared a scurrilous sestina
While the audience convulsed in fits of mirth.

A professor from Cornell
Had his pretentious villanelle
Swiftly and deservedly shot down in flames;
Half the room was sent to sleep
By an ode to raising sheep
From a softly-spoken citizen of Ames.

As the show’s denouement neared
No clear winner had appeared;
The compere called the last contestant to the stage.
A nervous cough, then he began.
And as I listened to the man
I felt a sudden wave of nausea and rage.

I sat rigid in my chair
Cold sweat prickling in my hair
As the poem flowed out, line by gorgeous line.
Not a single word was changed;
Not one stanza rearranged.
Every dot and comma in that thing was mine.

When he finished, silence fell.
Then a vast, ecstatic swell
Of approbation rose. No question who had won.
With the trophy in his hand –
And a cheque for fifty grand –
He was on his way. His new life had begun.

As the host closed out the show
I leapt up and shouted ‘No!’
Logged into my blog and scrolled back frantically.
Many years and posts had passed
But I tracked it down at last.
The winning poem. Word for word. And all by me.

Wasted long hours flicking through
All the Likes, but not a clue
Emerged from readers’ avatars. The trail was cold.
Punched a hole right through the wall
At the injustice of it all.
But I had to face the facts. I’d just been rolled.

There’s not much that Time won’t heal.
I regained an even keel
And my levels of resentment slowly sank.
And I chuckled at the news
When the critical reviews
Of the winner’s new collection came. They stank.

I kept writing anyway.
Then the doorbell rang one day.
Two LAPD policemen and a guy
From the Poetry World Series
Who explained there had been queries
Over who the victor’s work was really by.

They had probed and dug around
On the internet and found
My original. The case was black and white.
They’d confronted Mr Winner
With the proof he was a sinner;
He was going gentle into that good night.

They said the title now was mine
And I told them that was fine
But I didn’t want the cash or silver cup.
Being famous ain’t for me:
Leave me anonymous and free
To do my own work, my own way. And make things up.

 
 

Legend has it that Albert Einstein conceived his Theory of Relativity while riding his bike. I, on the other hand, only ever seem to come up with nonsense like this. Make of that what you will! N.

Crossroads – Part 3

Deep darkness closed around me as I lay there, wide awake:
A shapeless dread swirled in my head; a fear I could not shake.
As the church clock in the sleeping town tolled out the midnight bell
I dressed in haste and then retraced the steps I knew so well.

One empty road ran west to east, the other north to south.
And where they met the stage was set. My heart was in my mouth.
The full moon slipped behind a cloud. A silence fell. And then
A voice I knew: “Well, well; it’s you. And so we meet again.”

I turned. There Satan stood once more. He gave a ghastly smile.
“How long’s it been? I haven’t seen you out here in a while.
What brings you to this fateful place at this ungodly hour?
You here to make a deal; to stake your soul for some new power?”

I took my courage in both hands. “You broke your word,” I said.
He didn’t speak, but my knees went weak as I saw his eyes glow red.
I went on: “We agreed that you would help me write some stuff.
And in return my soul would burn. You said things could get rough.

I know in hard times and dark days is where real poems are;
But with everything that’s happening, I think you’ve gone too far.
You’ve unleashed forces much too great. What gentle heart can cope
With all this strife, endure a life devoid of joy or hope?”

The Devil laughed. “I’m sorry, son; not sure that I can see
The problem here, but so I’m clear: you think it’s down to me
That Brexit, Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and climate change
Have come along? Well, boy, you’re wrong: yeah, I’m good, but my range

Of diabolic miseries for you folks ain’t that wide.
I ain’t to blame, though it’s a shame I’m not. God knows I’ve tried.”
“But what about our bargain?” I protested, feeling bold.
“I’m way too stressed to write my best. I think I’ve been mis-sold.”

Ol’ Satan shrugged. “It ain’t my fault you’re led by cheats and fools.
I tempt ‘em, true, but only you elect ‘em. Them’s the rules.”
He grinned. “Don’t worry. You can trust your pal Beelzebub:
Be sure they’ve got a special spot in my infernal club.”

Then he sighed. “Truth is, this Devil gig ain’t all it used to be.
I do my worst, but they get there first. They’re running rings round me.
And when I look at all those crooks, the charlatans and liars
Who run the show, I think: ‘You know, perhaps I’ll just retire.’”

We stood there at the crossroads, just as we’d done twice before.
“What now?” I said. He shook his head. “This time, son, I’m not sure.”
He smoothed his Prada jacket, gazed down at his cloven feet.
Then shrugged again. “Can’t help you, friend. You finally got me beat.”

I snapped. “Come on: you know I have to write of the events
They’ve ushered in; but I can’t begin to make the slightest sense
Of all the rage, division and the damage being done.
Hard as I try, the well’s run dry. Help me, O Wicked One.”

Then Satan looked me in the eye. I shuddered. “Very well,”
He softly drawled, and my whole skin crawled. “Then pack your bags for Hell.
I’ll give you all the words and grit you need to be the voice
Of unity; and then let’s see if you live to rue your choice.

“The fact is, son, you’ll waste your time: most folks have no desire
To be disabused of their own views. You’ll be preaching to the choir
Or trying to win round hearts and minds that were made up long ago.
Don’t look to me for sympathy when it turns out I told you so.”

“That’s not quite what I had in mind,” I said. The Devil glared.
“Oh really?” he asked sneeringly. “Not many men have dared
To answer back; and those that did are wishing fervently
They never had. You think I’m bad now? Just you wait and see.”

“I’m sorry, Mighty Prince,” I gasped, “I really meant no harm.
“But I’m not a man who thinks he can do anything to calm
A fevered nation, heal the fractures, make the whole thing right.
I just need ways to get through days and sleep again at night.”

The red flame in his eyes died down. I gulped and breathed again.
“Son, I like you. But I can’t do a thing to ease your pain:
Remember that my job is spreading discord and despair.
I’d lose my clout if word got out that I’d been known to care.”

A faint light touched the eastern sky. I said: “Time’s running short
And here I am, still in a jam. You know, I really thought
That third time would be lucky; you and I would seal a pact
And we’d both win from our part in this hellish double-act.”

A sulphurous cloud erupted as he snarled: “Boy, don’t you see?
“These crazy times are full of rhymes for you; but look at me:
I’m old-school and I can’t compete with this new breed of hood.
Thought I’d done well at raising Hell; but these bad boys are good.”

The earth revolved. The bright stars wheeled. The Devil gave a cough.
“Well, that’s it, son; I guess we’re done. High time I headed off.
But you keep writing, boy, you hear? This is the lot you’ve drawn.”
A puff of smoke, and I awoke to face another dawn.

 
 

My latest poetic encounter with the Prince of Darkness…a little light relief on a day as hot as hell. N.

Self-appraisal

I want to write
Not to have written.
Better to bite
Than to get bitten.
Forget I ran:
See how I run;
What counts is can
Not could have done.
It’s about the ride
Not where you’ve ridden;
When you’ve nothing to hide
Nothing gets hidden.

For all I’ve seen,
What am I seeing?
So much I’ve been
What am I being?
The one who makes
Or one who made
Wrong calls, mistakes
A mark, the grade?
Time to look ahead
Not back, because
The older I get
The better I was.

Analogue

Capture

 
 
 

Needless to say, this is not my real handwriting, which is as wayward as a shopping cart with three wheels, and harder to decipher than the Engima code. But I am a true believer in the power of ink on paper, and everything I post here starts out that way. To me, it’s important that in this virtual, digital age, writing remains a physical action, and that poems are truly created and take tangible form – even if only to feel like I’m actually doing something! . N.

Sensory deprivation

A slug of moulded plastic, trailing a single wire.
A simple (so they blithely tell me) sensor
That, somehow, feels the thousandth-of-a-second tug
From a passing pea-sized magnet
And from that infinitesimal impulse
Calculates my ground-speed
And telegraphs the blessed motor
All stop or full ahead.

Until it fails.

And in that moment,
Heart in shoes,
I am crushingly aware
That I have no idea
How any of this works:

I cannot make, mend or even comprehend
The least of all the myriad devices
That make my world go round:

No wheels, axles, cogs or clues;
They go about their work
Silent, motionless, inscrutable,

Leaving me on the roadside, wondering
Exactly which of us
Is truly in control.

 
 

Suffered my first away-from-home system failure on the e-mtb yesterday (error code 503 means a speed sensor issue, for any interested Bosch Performance CX users out there). Fortunately it happened a) fairly close to the main road; b) less than four miles from the bike shop; and c) during opening hours. All painlessly resolved thanks to Danny and his excellent crew; but a reminder of our profound, unthinking reliance on technology that we (or at least I) increasingly can’t fix ourselves, and don’t really understand. N.

Harvest

From the hot road
I watched combines make wide-wale corduroy
Of gasping fields cast in bronze and gold;
Racing balers trailing fine brown dust
Build their fleeting henges and tight-rolled scrolls of straw;
Felt the fat, satisfied summer –
The goodness and greenness of the place –
Wrap itself around me.

I come from here. That can never change.
Its deep rhythms are my heartbeat;
By its moods and seasons, I measure out my own small days.

In these dark times I cannot look upon it as I did:
Forces far beyond these gentle hills conflate
A love of one place with a hatred of The Other.

But this country is deep-grained in my hands, clings fast to my boots:
I am bound to it, and it to me
Until I too am gathered in, and finally ploughed under.

 
 

Events of the last three years have changed the way I look at the UK. But on a long, hot ride yesterday, I came to realise that it’s not my local tract of countryside that’s changed: it remains as lovely as it ever was, and I still feel very deeply about it. That, I guess, is one of the worst aspects of what our politicians are doing: their nationalism taints any innocent expression of love for the place one lives in. Just one more item on the lengthening list of things I’m not sure how we fix, or forgive. N.

Father and son

They put Dad out to grass when he was only fifty-three;
Looks like the world is getting set to do the same to me.
Different situations, generations and times;
But it wasn’t his fault then; and sure as hell it won’t be mine.

He wasn’t digging coal or building cars or welding steel;
Don’t matter that your collar’s white: the pain’s the same, and real.
Another blameless victim of the corporate machine
When some new broom blows through the door and sweeps the whole place clean.

I kept my independence, fought to follow my own track;
No status, no security; no one ever had my back.
I sweated through the hard times, found the means to make it pay;
Now our so-called leaders seem hellbent on taking it away.

Our country’s on the edge; and when it goes down, so will I.
All I’ve built reduced to ashes in the blinking of an eye.
With you beside me, maybe I can find a different fate.
But I’m scared, my heart is heavy. And the hour grows late.