Nobody’s closed a coal mine down
Or shut a shipyard in this town.
No locked gates at a lumber mill;
No steel plant dark and cold, but still
It’s ten a.m. and here I am:
Laid off, redundant. Not a damn
Thing I can do about it; they
Don’t seem to need this man today
Is all. Meanwhile, more bills arrive.
I know that, somehow, we’ll survive –
We always do – but life has left
Me on the sidelines. I’m bereft
Of solid skills. No place for me
In foundry, field, refinery,
Construction site or factory floor.
It’s hard to see what I’m good for.
You’ve got something to advertise?
Sure, I can help you: I’ll devise
Some clever lines to help it fly
Right off the shelves, make people buy
This thing they never even knew
They needed. This is what I do.
But not today. I’m not required.
Just sitting, waiting to be hired.
(So if you need some words that rhyme
Give me a call. I’ve got the time.)
Ah, the rollercoaster ride of being freelance. For five months, I’ve been working almost without a break: this week, things have dried up completely. After 15 years, I should be used to it, and I know the phone will start ringing again, but it doesn’t stop the silence being scary as all hell while it lasts. This is when I wish I had a proper craft or trade to fall back on! N.
The train bursts from the city, racing down
Towards the warm coast. Every mile that flies
By, blurred in grimy glass, helps exorcise
The weary ghosts that stalk me in that town:
Of lives I might have lived; what could have been
Were I a different man, or had not seen
The blood and filth that stain the golden crown.
Was it my curse or cure to realise
My own way ran through woods, beneath wide skies
In open fields, by winding lanes? I’ve thrown
That switch now, taken my own track: I’ll stay
True to it, follow it to come what may.
They say there’s no
Dollar so low
Someone won’t stoop to pick ‘er up.
And that may well
Be true. But it sure as hell
I am not that man –
Or will be.
I’d rather keep hold
Of a single bright penny
Than a hat-full of gold.
Better not have any
Than get greedy fingers burned.
Nothing wrong with money
But you can keep your funny
Business to yourself; I’m not your guy.
Got to put food on the table
But a man should still be able
To walk tall, look himself straight in the eye.
I’m going to show your little deals
A shiny pair of heels,
Take that straight and narrow road I’ve always trod.
Call me a fool: you may be right
But I will sleep sound tonight.
A few bucks down, but in the black with God.
As a freelancer, I’m sometimes forced to be less choosy than I’d like to be about the kinds of projects I take on. That doesn’t mean I’ll do anything, at any price. Sometimes, I’ve paid a high financial price for turning down work that didn’t sit right with my principles (which some would say are a luxury anyone in business, and especially freelancers, can’t afford these days). But at the risk of sounding sanctimonious, I’d rather be poor and clean than filthy rich. Luckily for me, my family feels the same way.
That time has come. The streets are silent, cleared
Of people. Even dogs have disappeared.
All doors are bolted, blinds and shutters down.
A fear spreads like a sickness through the town.
And so the morning’s passed. The sun hangs high.
Hawk circles slowly in an empty sky.
Bare brown hills shimmer in the summer haze.
Clock on the wall counts down the end of days.
How many times now have I faced this pain:
Seen it go down, then watched it rise again.
One round is all I have, and if I miss
I’m dead for sure. How did it come to this?
The church bell chimes, and as its echoes fade
I step outside. This is the only trade
I know: another day, another fight.
Collect my fee, move on. No end in sight.
Don’t get me wrong; working freelance has its benefits. Lately, though, the pace has been relentless, and it’s felt pretty lonely; but when you’re being paid by the hour or by the job, it’s hard to turn any assignment away. I guess this poem could also be about anything we find ourselves doing over and over, wondering when we can finally hang ‘em up and find a little peace.
Prosody note: the couplets were there right from the start; I was 10 lines in before I realised I was writing in iambic pentameter. Just sneaked up on me and shot me in the back.
They handed us our call-up papers
Along with our degrees
In the golden summer of ‘91;
To be thrown into the endless fight
And lost. But I refused.
So while my mates
Packed up their kit, pulled on the uniform
And went to take on the world
I dug in among my fields and woods,
Watching the battle’s bright sky-bursts
And hearing its rough thunder from afar,
Raging against the folly of it all
With quills cut from white feathers
I was handed in the street.
Now they sit, gloriously pavilioned,
Freighted with honours and worthy scars
Commanding legions, lands, and all the spoils.
While I fight on,
Day-by-day and hand-to-mouth,
Beneath no banner but my own
And though my gains and conquests
Are slight and insecure
I claim each little victory as my own,
And trust that I will triumph in the end.
Out on the dream-dipped dawn-run road once more,
Alone, but less than lonely: stop to drink
A pot of supermarket tea; restore
The caffeine balance, shake off sleep, and think
About the life I’ve chosen, all that’s brought
Me to this place, at this ungodly hour –
Freewheeling, independent, never bought
But just for hire, beyond all corporate power.
And though I am not rich, still I possess
Great things unseen, more valuable than gold.
Long years have proved to me that more is less.
I do what’s asked of me, not as I’m told.
A hard and twisting path, rebuilt each day.
This is my road. I know no other way.
Last week I received a very tempting offer of full-time employment. I agonised over it before deciding to stay freelance: I couldn’t quite let the security of a regular payday win out over the freedom to walk, ride and leave my mobile phone switched off in the kitchen drawer. So, yesterday saw me hauling west to see some of my favourite clients as though nothing had happened. But on a subtle level, it clearly had, since I wrote this little affirmation to myself on the way. Freelancing isn’t for everyone, but it seems to be right for me. All is well. N.
Come, brand me fool: I will take no offence.
A motley coat is all that I aspire
To wear – no suit fits my uncommon sense –
The wild wind’s liberty my sole desire.
I have my charter, blow on whom I please
And speak my mind, unblushing, where I will.
I mock the world, not to insult or tease:
My jests medicinal, each barb a pill
To treat infection. What the wise ones call
Their sensible pursuits of status, wealth
And comfort, I’ll make light of; though it gall,
My folly is a physic for their health.
For if their Real World is sanity,
I’ll gladly live a fool, be mad – and free.
Lugubrious he may be, but Jaques is one of my favourite characters in probably my favourite Shakespeare play, As You Like It. This start-the-week sonnet is inspired by his famous speech in Act II, which follows his first encounter with the equally splendid jester, Touchstone. To my mind, we poets are the sane ones: it’s the rest of the world that’s crazy. And if anyone knows where one can get hold of a motley coat these days, do let me know! N.
Close of business
For my mind today:
It’s been a strict
Eight-hour forced march
On hard roads
Of others’ choosing,
The telephone bawling orders
And the Inbox driving me
With frequent lashes
Of its electronic whip.
Now the rest of me
Weary with inaction
Rises up; a quiet insurrection
Fomented by the sun
Shining in my window
And the swifts
Like black new moons
Racing over heaven.
The world has made a market of my hours:
Those that remain
Till sleep claims me
Are not for sale.
I am free.
I wish that I could be a noble knight
And roam the kingdom wide on errantry;
But there are now no dragons left to fight
Or damsels in distress that I can see.
Yet I can still assume a gallant manner
Though chivalry be dead: I ride alone,
A freelance, fighting under no man’s banner
But that I choose; my destiny’s my own.
What need have I of any sword? I wield
The pen – a weapon mightier indeed.
I have this screen before me as my shield;
My lady’s favour all the spur I need
To accept the challenge of my daily quest,
And fight on, dauntless, to my nightly rest.