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MIKE BARLOW

HOUSE PLANT
THE VIGIL
THE PAINTING
IF YOU WERE A SPY
COLD BREAD AND BUTTER PUDDING
SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
GETTING THE TIME IN
TONIGHT
TIMING
ORCHID DREAMS
A DEATH
KEYS

ATTITUDE
CUT OFF
PROSPECT STREET
TREMORS
THE BALCONY
THE LOGIC OF WIRES



HOUSE PLANT

It was her attempt to green me, 
a gift to encourage husbandry, 
but put it in a corner where the light was poor, 
forgot to water it.

We struggled for a while together, 
but there was something 
we couldn't make each other hear. 
Long afterwards I'd catch myself 
misunderstanding still, 
talking as if she was there.

Eventually I moved her gift to the light, 
kept the soil moist, watched it grow, 
admired the veined dishes of its leaves, 
the tapering lobes, 
those silver freckles 
echoing some forest skin.

It grew tall, stooped over me to hear, 
quivered as I spoke, 
the perfect listener, all ears, 
and its reply - the spiked bud 
of a new leaf
that I would one day find 
unfolded for me.



THE VIGIL

I knew you
as a rough and heavy hand on my head, 
just once or twice, 
enough to keep me in my place; 
as a fair man who treated everyone the same, 
held them wrong until they proved themselves; 
as a face turned the other way 
whenever someone wanted you to listen.

I knew you 
as an absence, 
away in your allotment, 
coming home with onions or swedes for tea, 
the eczema of dried earth on your hands; 
as a pile of pornographic magazines 
I once found in the toolbox in your shed; 
as a snoring from the old chair in the corner 
when we tried to watch the news.

I knew you
as a cough ripping the shaft of your throat, 
a gob of phlegm sizzling against the fireback; 
as a crown of spots on a pitted nose, 
trees of hair sprouting from your ears; 
as watery eyes, lids drooping to reveal red rims, 
eyes that once were tinder
and would burn at the slightest word.

And I knew you 
when my grandmother died. 
You talked to me of God then, 
that mean bastard in the sky.

Now I sit beside your box, 
on the table you once boasted cost you sixpence, 
see you in a white shirt and collar, 
black suit, trimmed hair, nails manicured, 
hands clasped uncomfortably, 
oiled and powdered face, 
your carefully closed eyes 
avoiding mine.


THE PAINTING


I'm held there by its presence, 
mystified, try to read its marks and textures, 
find a clue, a way in as it hangs before me 
giving nothing but itself away.

I close my eyes, imagine how 
he might have laid the canvas 
on the studio floor, stood over it, 
considered for a while, 
stepped back perhaps and squinted, 
dug his hands deep in his pockets, 
hunched his shoulders. 
I see him absently pick a brush up, 
or an old blunt knife, 
then put it down and roll a cigarette. 
Before it's lit he moves.

Working plaster, marble-dust, cement, 
pigments of white, grey and ochre, 
sand and some of the earth he comes from 
he paints a wall.

He makes it so it crumbles at the top 
to show the layers that hold it, 
the difficult edges, the complexity 
of everyday matter. He watches 
how the stuff he works with works, 
how it pulls and pits, 
scrapes and corrugates, 
reads surfaces for marks, thumbprints, 
scratchings he can turn into a sign. 
He scores lines
as if he wants to write 
but can't think what to say;
then carves into if, so it seems like 
someone's breaking through.

But here he stops, stands back, 
considers, once more digs his hands
deep in his pockets, moves away

leaving me hunch-shouldered in his absence
my fingers rolling an imaginary cigarette


IF YOU WERE A SPY
If you were a spy
you'd quote me Wordsworth as I passed:
'Dust as we are, the immortal spirit grows
Like harmony in music;'
your face an uncrackable code
as you awaited my reply: 'There is a dark
inscrutable workmanship that reconciles
Discordant elements.....'
Nor would you bat an eyelid
at the dangerous ideas inside my heart.
You'd sacrifice your flesh to mine.
You'd do it for your country,
let me in without a visa
then steal my DNA.

In the middle of the night 
you'd sup out like a dream 
find a call-box on a by-pass, report 
to your anonymous controller, 
remove the roll of microfilm 
secreted in your navel.

If you were a spy
I'd not see you again,
except as a distant figure in a crowd
who might be someone else.


COLD BREAD AND   BUTTER PUDDING

In 1968 The Prague Spring reached Coventry 
where I remember sitting on a floor 
strewn with empty coffee cups and lecture notes 
with a woman I'd grow old misunderstanding.

We fed each other bread and butter pudding
while chanting to the news
Dubcek, Svoboda, Dubcek, Svoboda!
All over Europe it was the season
of kisses blown at tanks,
flowers placed in gun barrels.

But in the morning as we disentangled
from the narrow bed
to breakfast on last night's left-overs,
Dubeek and Svoboda
were already on their way to Moscow.


SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT

Sometimes its like playing hunt the thimble.
I get so close I burn. But the voice
that eggs me on's no kindly uncle,
doting aunt. There's a hint of malice
in those mocking tones, a taunt I recognise:
my worldly older cousin, now a blip
in the family's history; everyone tries
to change the subject when his name comes up.

I' d run his backstreet errands: sealed packets, 
flash cars with engines idling. A fiver 
bought my silence; I thought I'd cracked it. 
No one explained the frogmen in the river, 
the police car at the door or thought to quiz 
a nine year old. I've not kept secrets since.

Now silence is a luxury I'm pleased 
to live without. I travel to unspeakable events 
and speak of them. The careful words I choose 
must make their mark, my grubby-fingered questions
touch common wounds. I'll peer into the face 
of grief confront the lost, seek put the missing. 
Facts are, I've learnt, more intricate than fictions, 
their truths more slippery, lies more convincing.


GETTING THE TIME IN

He's not right suited.
It's cold and there's folk about.
Came up to get his time in.
Six hours at six pounds an hour. Cash.
Beer money, a present for his grand-daughter,
a day out for Madge.

Comes up different days each week.
No routine. His business.
They'd like to know, but they won't.

The plumber's van by the barn.
Always one to watch, that Mick,
even at school. Snitched
when they taxed chips from the third years.
Soft too. Wouldn't fight.

So he pulls his hat down, 
tries to walk without the limp. 
Takes off with the chainsaw, 
down to the woods, out of sight. 
Stays there, stays at it. 
Even when his back gives.

"Just you watch it lad. All it takes
is some nosy bugger to twig and make a call."
One day he'll slip, the saw snag
or his back take for good in the valley bottom.
Until then its different days each week.
His business. Cash. Getting his time in.


TONIGHT

I stare through the window as town lights slide
about the surface of the river.
I'm eating a bowl of cornflakes. Miles Davis
moves up beside me, the pure blade of his horn
cutting the day loose. And John Coltrane's here too,
just to my left - my good ear- and his breath
is eight bars of what no-one else can tell me.

Reflected in the glass, a voyeur
mimics how I put the spoon to my mouth, 
dribble milk. I kill the lights, turn the music up. 
I'm no longer hungry now it's dark.

If I close my eyes friends I never thought
I'd lose touch with crowd round. One wags a finger,
laughs, one smiles her seductive gap-toothed smile
knowing I'll never make the move. And one,
who shakes my hand to introduce himself again,
wears a pallid mask and the suit he kept
for christenings and funerals.


TIMING
From the radio a bluesman plays single notes 
with impeccable timing. I think of him, 
his ordinary living - an old janitor perhaps, 
entering an empty concert hall, shuffling onstage 
to lift the piano lid and start boodling.

Imagine this music in that space, the resonance
of improvised chords, the pauses
trembling sometimes just long enough
to touch silence, the sound of hammered wire
singing to plush seats, drapes, ornate plasterwork;

the molecules in the air refigured into a spell 
that would outlast the moment 
this solitary player quietly closed the lid, 
shuffled off-stage to resume his rounds, 
checking windows, doors, air conditioning.

All those who'd come later, be it to hear 
Beethoven or Benny Goodman, would know 
as they found their seats and settled expectantly 
that already there was something 
important in their lives they'd missed.


ORCHID DREAMS

A couple of chasers and he's away. 
Tonight it's some gadger on the allotments 
grew a rare orchid in a makeshift greenhouse-
old pallets, window frames, corrugated pvc, 
made a barbed wire cage, padlocked the door.

When he found the door unhinged, the wire cut 
it was every conservatory and greenhouse in town, 
nicked so often it had to be jail- nine months, 
put on 'gardensí and there it was, behind the governor's azaleas, 
company for a red-band's cannabis.

Come discharge he kicked off, tried for extra days 
but they sent him on his way. He's regular now, 
no sooner out than he's smashed a shop window. 
Police arrive, he's waiting. Or he's burgled 
the garden centre and phoned from inside. 
Screws keep his overalls ready, treat him like staff

Nice one, we smile- the usual smile. Someone 
throws a long look at the ceiling. We've time still. 
One last round, the road home, the town's ghosts 
huddled in their shadows, street-corner shufflers, 
red-eyed derelicts, orchid dreamers.


A DEATH

The Chaplain away, it fell to me 
to tell him. We sat in a bare room 
on tubular chairs, shouts 
and bangs of landing life outside.

I watched his mask- the glazed eyes, 
lumps and scars from god knows what-
tremble, come alive, fall, fold. 
His head dropped, shoulders shook.

The urge to touch an arm or put a hand
on his shoulder seemed as much
for my sake as his, so I sat still.
He willed the clock back, I willed it forward.


KEYS

There are five of them. They hang 
from their chain like the fingers 
of a smashed hand, 
divining-bones.

One for the gates that clang time still, 
one for heavy-hinged doors to lock 
the day down, slammed answer 
to a question out of place.

One for the cell of my office, its calendar, 
its outside line, one for the desk, 
its cabinet of sins, and one 
a token no one can explain.

The long chain swings from my waist. 
I'm a key-slave shackled to their spell. 
Nagged by gravity 
they wear my pocket thin.

Sometimes I'll reach a gate to hoik out 
a mesh of metal wands in a knot 
of links I have to shake free 
like a shaman's rattle.

Beyond the bars a shadow in a recess shifts. 
Let us through boss? 
A dash, a skin of dust, 
a sparrow on the gym roof.
 

ATTITUDE

If we won the toss Iíd hang back.
When it came to batting order
I knew my place, eleventh man,
hoping the afternoon would pass
under the elm tree with Dicksie or Lewis,
discussing sisters and their boyfriends,
who saw who doing what to who.

If we were fielding Iíd volunteer
for long-stop. Nothing worse there
than a few wides and no-balls.
Once, caught napping, I was put in the slips,
mere yards from the wicket where some
all-rounder whose name escapes me now,
patted the crease ominously.

In the no-time-at-all it took to register
his drive, it felt personal. Had I not
caught the bloody ball it would have made
a hole in my chest the size of
Desperate Danís fist. The leather stung
but what stung more was the way the whole field
caught their breath, gasped my name.

Top boy froze, still poised post-drive,
stared through me to his boundary.
Out for a duck. The rest of the game
I tried to look the business, knees bent, ready.
Luck was with me. They sent the ball
anywhere but my way. At the end of the day
Iíd no idea which side had won.
 


CUT OFF

Invisible stuff you take for granted
should come free, like fire or thought.
But youíre in the dark again,
no telly, no fridge, no cooker,
the red bill hidden where red bills hide.
One of those defining moments.
There and then you renounce
what you donít understand: phones,
space flight, garage bills,
self-assembly furniture,
neighbours, their children;
and anything invisible that changes things:
electricity, glass, music, language.
You sit on your own in Neanderthal dark
waiting to discover the wheel.



Prospect Street

In this age of  backpacks, sling sacks,
shoulder and bum bags, how strange
to meet a man with a suitcase.

Not one of those designer jobs
with telescopic handles and trolley wheels,
but old fashioned pulpboard,

its veneer of brown plastic
peeling at the corners, tinny handles
and spring locks laquered to seem like brass.

It had a look about it of the new world,
crowds disembarking onto a jostling quay,
or the old one

where it might have lain with all the others,
hurled into a windowless room
or down a dead-end corridor.

But he was young, this immigrant, the age
I might have been when I bought my first
rucksack and had those dreams.

He asked the way,
showed me a scrap of paper, an address
in a script as laboured as his accent.

I shook my head, explained
Iíd lived here all my life
and hadnít heard of  Prospect Street.

From the look on his face it was hard to tell
if he didnít get a word I was saying,
or simply didnít believe me.

 

Tremors

Outsideís quiet as a deaf manís symphony
though you go on about a storm in the night,
headbanging wind, firecracker hail on the panes Ė
from the east, as the New Year pushed its way
towards us from Siberia, the Baltic, Yorkshire.

I heard nothing, hair-cells long since flattened
like a cornfield after summer gales. Friends laugh,
say Iíd sleep through an earthquake. Not so, I say.
Some nights I feel the house shudder as if
thereís a motorway in the valley, fiftytonners
tonning it south; or The Water Boardís here
with a JCB at 3.a.m.; or, worse, some seismic moleís
found shangri-la under the gable wall. But the point is
a week ago I bet not one of us as much as
twitched in our sleep while a city few had heard of
shook itself to rubble in a minute and a half.

  

The Balcony

Let me tell you what I can see from here.
The river runs fast and swollen past the quay,
a swirl of debris and foam, and a few ducks
ferry-gliding. On the grass below
the homeless man with the handle-less suitcase
takes his shoes off, cools blistered feet.
Past him two girls stroll to school, 
blue-stockinged legs scissoring under micro-skirts;
a young builder from the new flats up the road
gives them more eye than is decent.
Bunches of tattered flowers hang from the railings
where someone must have jumped or been run over.
On the other side the bridge-pier carries
new graffitti, the spraycan flourish of a name
that for a moment looks like yours. Beyond this
an ambulance injects a note of urgency
while trafficís held back by a hearse making its point. 

If we look at the sky, you used to say,
we could be anywhere. Whatever balcony
you find yourself on now, do you see
these same brisk clouds: that one, shaped like Tasmania,
or that one there breaking apart at the top
like a crumbling Iceland? Or is your sky sapphire blue,
wheeling sea-birds and the stab of sunlight
on a distant plane? Maybe itís battlements of cumulus
hosts could ride above, or believers pour from
announcing the second coming. Donít believe them.
Wherever you are, you could be anywhere.

  

The Logic of Wires 

Only what needs to be said, you insist.
I admire the way you strip life
down to the logic of its wires.
But some things take a lifetime to explain
while new ideas accumulate like junk mail.
Stuff them in the bin, next day thereís more.

My headís an open door for anything
blown in off the street: free offers,
conversations round parked cars,
bogus meter readers, Beethoven
struggling from the flat across the way
and at moments such as this,
diminuendo footsteps, yours, treading
the disembodied swell of circling traffic.

At night what makes me shout out in my sleep
propels you to the spare bed.
I fear one morning Iíll wake up alone
to find my hairís gone white, my mind
just a space birds twitter through,
the logic of my wires completely blown.