By ALAN WALL.
The Art of Writing
Charlemagne at forty taught himself to read
but never mastered writing:
all that fiddle and faff.
Carolingian script for his eye not his fingers.
And King Alfred dictated his works
in seminars crammed full with Anglo-Saxon scribes
pushing a stylus through the parchment of his words.
Was writing then unregal?
Queen Elizabeth’s cursive Italian script
says not. Each magisterial epistle
a calligraphic masterpiece.
James Joyce blinded by the latest operation
welded words together from a hundred languages
dictating in a Paris apartment to Samuel Beckett
chosen amanuensis of the day
more grateful for the task than Milton’s daughters.
Borges too shaped with his mouth
what every silent page took down.
The one time Jesus wrote was in the pericope adulterae
fingering the Law in its dust of condemnation
before kicking over
the lethal script
beneath his feet.
An Explorer Sends A Letter Home
Watch them count on their fingers:
the greater the number
the larger the frown.
Each islander starts from a handful of plenty
(in the palms of his own singularity)
goes two four seven ten, crisscrossing digits
to arrive at a cat’s cradle of extinction.
How explain this to our son, my love?
So much accrual, of years boats visitors,
scientists with tweezers and lenses
all adding up to something which at last
equals nothing so much as a zero.
Demonstrated, or tried to, how so many creatures
boxed caged skinned stuffed
destined for menageries,
would populate our well-lit urban jungles with their iron railings,
coloured maps, catalogue descriptions of fauna and flora.
Outlined taxonomic benefits:
tracing our features in homologous species,
a genesis to be discerned in sundry fossils.
Each opposing thumb another crossbar
on the ladder of creation.
They merely point their antique smiles
to mountains and skies, then dance.
I’ve missed their meaning, I’m afraid,
our translator having gone off hunting for the afternoon.
Time for them, it seems,
extends no further than these villages,
one blessed coastline where the sun is drowned
so lovingly each evening by its ocean.
What treasure then
in so many dinosaur footprints moulded in rock
or jellyfish three million years old
impressing shallow echoes in a limestone codex?
One of them poisoned his crab-eating macacque
as if burial here
must be a cleaner fate
than survival among such bonemen and botanists
in a far-off public garden
boasting its royal charter.
Dead Letters Sent…
This is Monday, so it must be Patmos
keeping a dark eye on the street outside
ear for the sound of boots that march
so crisply through the curfew.
Tuesday: the day, according to my diary,
I described his dragon to you once.
You ordered Wanted notices
pasted up in newsagents’ kiosks.
We never really disagreed
concerning strategy and tactics,
essential elements of liturgy, public prayer, and crowd-control.
Wednesday: I hear them clear my works:
rubble in Clio’s back yard
where garbage is recycled as utility. My manuscripts
you burn to add a tongue’s warmth to your tepidarium.
Thursday: uncondemned I am, of course.
except to such obscurity as I deserved in your service
rendering the almanac’s lexicon lean, slick, subservient.
Friday: back now to Petropolis.
Osip recites to Nadezhda until each line’s secure in memory
then forty hours on rattling trains
to the small apartment where she takes the old
exercise book out from its hole
writing each remembered word with such care
silently and in the dark.
Saturday: I pray all day,
the latest monk to sit here
beseeching my own much-needed restoration.
Their pharmacopeia, replicated from a medieval monastery,
offers rainbows of contentment, alternating with oblivion.
Sunday at last, when even the Almighty rested.
Caesar, whatever his present nom de plume
craves hullaballoo for bright festivities
chanted chansons in torchlight processions
no longer from me. I have been signed off
to sit here mooning with a pension and a raven quill.
This last month they start to leave
doors and windows open, inviting my departure
as though there were no speeding traffic to negotiate
no trains to step under
no man with eyes bright under his dark brimmed hat
to follow you down empty streets at twilight.
I’ll take the hint at last, step through the door
walk (as though it were a free man walking)
down the avenue.
And when tyres squeal
and the horn locks its contralto siren
no one round these parts
will pause long to record the incident.
Our epitaphs grow interchangeable.
Commodity: seven-branched candelabra
Ruskin called it illth.
Feel that moth on your tongue
befogging its own syllable.
Say it thrice and lexis grows furred
an extinct monopod
in an abandoned cave.
Where deep in the dark is a light
whose gleaming heart
Illuminates the worst and best of us.
East south north and west of us.
Bright wings sizzle.
One insect heart explodes.
Vessels from the sanctum sanctorum
turned into drinking trophies
by that mighty king Belshazzar
shortly to see
his name up in lights.
The writing on the wall.
‘Only real because it is imagined.’
Thus William Blake.
‘And we are nihilistic thoughts
in the mind of God.’
A word that means jackdaw in Czech
flapping its two dark syllables
over the page’s void.
In the Très Riches Heures
spin downward helplessly
But Blake’s Dante
made in the last year of his life
display a vortex of lovers
soaring upwards, intertwined
knots of immaculate desire.
but cerulean blue.
In this dream I am in the attic
of a Georgian terraced house
wooden floorboards warped nails visible
and I stare at the books
exquisitely tumbling hither and thus
first editions here incunabula there
a codex on the floor a scroll
encircled by ribbon
aquamarine and frayed
the First Folio leaning hard against
A Study in Scarlet
in that Supplement to Mrs Beeton’s
blurred first emergence of Alice in 1865
out of register with itself
and as my hand reaches out for one
Alan Wall was born in Bradford, lives in North Wales, and studied English at Oxford. He has published six novels and three collections of poetry, including Doctor Placebo. Jacob, a book written in verse and prose, was shortlisted for the Hawthornden Prize. His work has been translated into ten languages. He has published essays and reviews in many different periodicals including the Guardian, Spectator, The Times, Jewish Quarterly, Leonardo, PN Review, London Magazine, The Reader and Agenda. He was Royal Literary Fund Fellow in Writing at Warwick University and Liverpool John Moores and is currently Professor of Writing and Literature at the University of Chester. His book Endtimes has just been published by Shearsman Books, and Badmouth, a novel, was published by Harbour Books in January. A collection of the essays in this series is published by Odd Volumes, The Fortnightly Review‘s publishing imprint.