Tuesday 19 December 2023

Three Poems by Alan Morrison

 



Little Father Time trilogy:

 

WhatsApp Mr Time?

 

Him they found to be in the habit of sitting silent, his quaint and weird face set, 

and his eyes resting on things they did not see in the substantial world.

"His face is like the tragic mask of Melpomene," said Sue. "What is your name, 

dear? Did you tell us?"

"Little Father Time is what they always called me. It is a nickname; because I 

look so aged, they say."

 

                              —Part V, Chapter IV, Jude the Obscure (1895) by Thomas Hardy

 

 

A message is spotted 

too late from Little Time

a bitterly literal

interpretation

of something offhand

one of his parents

said in a moment

of deflated spirits—

that they were having

to do without because

benefits were capped

from the third child up—

mealy words like mouldy

bread swallowed by

a malnourished son

whose skin was a sickly

weak-tea grey

brow scrunched in earnestness

innocence twisted

in his harassed stare,

who tried not to eat

too much so his younger

siblings had more helpings

of processed slop

from foodbank tins    

on their paper plates

as his parents scraped            

each pinching penny— 

Now he’s removed himself

to make more room

so his siblings’ bellies

be filled by his absence—

his parents found him

dangling from a coat hook

on his bedroom door

like an old discarded jacket—  

on his thrown bone

of a mobile entombed

on the bed like a miniature

sarcophagus (or

marbleised aborted foetus)

his last WhatsApp message

remained unambiguous,

unencrypted, impressed

permanently like an epitaph

chipped in stone or

the abbreviated Latin

inscribed on the reverse

of an old copper penny: 

 

dun bc we r 2 menny    x

 

 

Liskeard Eighty-Six

 

I first found my mind lost in Liskeard

Like the deranged seagulls that encircled it

Even though it was landlocked,

That slaty town of steep narrow streets,

Grey-stoned, interminably bleak—

We’d been taken there on a rickety ride

By obsolete ambulance over beyond

Rain-dark tussocky Cornish hills,

An inaugural Sisyphan pilgrimage,

One of numberless to come, to consult 

A Sphinxian psychiatrist to fathom 

The cause behind my epic absence 

From school, & the pathological

Intrusive thoughts that plagued me,

Made a monster of my mind turning it

Against itself—Stop trying to be God

The cryptic psychiatrist said, referring

To my macro-conscience, my sense

Of Olympian responsibility for my family, 

For my unhappy parents & the poverty

Of our lives, for everything that happened 

To everyone I loved (& everyone I hated),

But I didn’t know how else to be, took

My mother as example, her martyrlike 

Self-sacrifice for our sakes, her aura

Of Catholic guilt—obsessive-compulsive

Disorder was an obscurer condition 

Back in Eighty-Six, probably hadn’t been

Properly labelled then but more vaguely

Adumbrated as anxiety or obsessional

Neurosis—the psychiatrist, my confessor,

With his penetrating stare, would also 

Comment, with an ambiguous smile

& a moral elasticity, that he might like 

A scrapbook of the images in my mind

That tormented me, attempting to 

Absolve me of moral agency so that I

Might readjust mentally to the dreamlike

(More nightmarish) ambiguity of the mind 

Even in daytime, stop policing my own 

Thoughts & giving them overimportance, 

Omnipotence—but he’d try in vain, 

Even though I tried at times to uninvent 

My intrusive thoughts, untie the mental 

Knot I was in, it never prevailed, because 

Instead I ruminated incessantly—

The obsessive’s reversion—& each time 

I thought I’d ‘solved’ one thought, I’d 

Find several more would grow in its place, 

Mutate & divaricate in every direction, 

Hadn’t yet learned, as I would never, 

To burn the stumps of the severed heads 

Of this Thought-Hydra to prevent them 

Replenishing & growing again which was 

Impossibly done by some effort 

Of supreme will no one had, not even 

A worried god—my mythology would 

Go on growing outwards in its morbid 

Bloom of mouldy Gorgonic carageen 

All along the walls of a Byzantine-

Patterned Carrara marble labyrinth 

Of deepening imponderables; back then 

I’d not been diagnosed, it would be years 

Until I would be but I would come close 

Myself through focused reading, ploughing 

Through therapeutic prose in obsolete 

Self-help pamphlets kept since the Seventies 

By a confidence-lacking father who’d once 

Tried to teach himself the rudiments 

Of self-assertiveness as advertised in 

Nerve-advertisements—nerves was still 

The vague, almost mystifying 

Approximation of my ‘problems’—

Only a decade or so later would I be 

Prescribed the chemical means not 

To burning but at least numbing 

The nerve-ends of that Hydra’s severed heads: 

Serotonin reuptake inhibitors; 

But until then, I remained tangled in 

My homespun mythology of worried gods, 

Petrified at the potency of thought-power 

I perceived I possessed, & all I wished for

Was to be powerless, not a worried god

Looming over my loved ones, surveying

Every movement & gesture & vibe & 

Suggestion, just as I sat there feeling

Completely lost in that carpeted room 

In the clinic curiously furnished with 

Tatty old toys all along its low-lying 

Window-sill, discarded infantile comforts, 

& a sad little empty doll’s house missing 

Its miniature furniture, sparsely decorated 

With garish wallpaper, gazing in on its 

Half-enclosed shadowy interiors made me 

Feel as large as Gulliver, or giant Alice 

At the White Rabbit’s house cramped in 

The creaking rafters after having drunk 

From an unlabelled bottle & grown to 

Enormous size, the pebbles thrown in 

Through the tiny windows would symbolize 

My dropsical scruples, & any little lizard 

Sent down the chimney mutate into 

Anything from the fount of metonymy 

Just as the strange slaty & scaly town 

Of Liskeard, its hissing, spikey name, 

Like piskie, the Cornish for pixy, become 

An aural signature for the feeling I had 

At that time of fright, risk & dread,

A slowly dawning sense of the danger 

In everything, every thought, every feeling, 

That augured so many headstorms to come—

A chilly school morning sky flaming red,

& all I wanted was to feel safe & secure,

But one cannot escape from one’s own head;

Maybe I’d not had enough discipline

Instilled in me in my liberal upbringing,

But the sudden cold drill of a martinet

School inspector who’d visit me at home

To prod me with his Navy-grey iron stare 

& threaten to have me taken away to

A ‘special school’ where I’d have to board

During the week, if my school attendance

Didn’t improve, was a bitter medicine

Which only traumatised me further, as did 

His other threat to prosecute my parents,

& the only way to get a stay of execution

Was to agree to see a psychiatrist 

On a twice-weekly basis, & so we did, 

For four years, & not once at any point 

Did that psychiatrist attempt to elucidate 

My condition, only ever saying that I 

Was just “extremely sensitive” or that I 

Suffered from “nerves” & never revealing 

To me either the invisible observers 

On the other side of his treatment room’s 

Two-way mirror—I always had the impression

That he had been more interested in 

The details of those intrusive thoughts

& images & Byzantian ruminations 

For his own private fascination than 

In trying to find a way of treating them, 

But at the time he seemed to me a friend, 

The only person in authority 

Who didn’t sit in judgement over me, 

Who didn’t threaten or criticise me, 

Who listened to my deepest anxieties 

With no hint on his face of moral shock—

A phlegmatic Sphinx, archetypal self-

Possessed psychiatrist, but the trouble is 

He only left me with—to mix metaphors—

The memory of his mystifying smile 

Which, like the Cheshire Cat’s, eventually 

Vanished into vagueness unintrusive…

 

 

Bruised Fruit

 

"I should like the flowers very, very much, if I didn't keep on thinking they'd be all withered in a few days!"

 

—Little Father Time, Jude the Obscure (1890) by Thomas Hardy

 


I

 

My parents were lapsed middle class,

They’d skidded down the rungs

Of the social ladder, & came to work

Shifts in manual jobs—Dad’s once white 

Collar now blue, Mum once a housewife 

Now a mousy pink collar in a care home;

We were—as sociologists might

Mythologise it—‘relatively impoverished’,

Sometimes abjectly, & were isolated

In our privations, part of no community,

Suffering in partitioned hardship, 

Prisoners to an unaffordable mortgage

In a dilapidated, unheated cottage. 

 

 

II

 

At school—at least when I intermittently

Attended—my classmates were working class,

Some were abjectly impoverished, 

Indigently thin, etiolated for lack 

Of vitamin, & I had to pretend to adapt 

To their idioms & affectations feeling 

An imposter not in material terms but 

In terms immaterial: I was of a different 

Sensibility, a progeny of shabby gentility 

& nostalgic residues still yet to be fully 

Extinguished, expunged, bruised fruit 

Of a chipped China fruit bowl, splinters 

Of brittle eggshell-light crockery 

Curated by a declassed father mentally 

Trapped in the rapt trauma of vanished 

Familial comfiture; translucent in 

The unenticing sun that exhausted me,

Rinsed me with indiscriminating light—

A deracinated Oliver Twist-cum-Little 

Father Time cast into unsympathetic 

Circumstances unequipped for 

The physical sphere, left to figure out 

How to be in a place where I had no 

Agency, to find & define indefinable 

Fear—fear of losing self-identity, 

Petrified of forever being defined 

In the critical macro focus of others’ 

Consciousnesses, to be reduced to empty 

Components, to become complete unperson. 

 

Thus was the curse of classlessness, 

Of rootlessness, to be part of no 

Community, to share no common 

Bonds with other schoolchildren, 

To have habits & hopes & interests 

& ways of expressing these that were 

Out of place among one’s classmates, 

Never to be accepted as one of their own, 

Yet sharing in their immiseration, 

Material limitations, reduced 

Circumstances—all the while looked 

Down on by those better-heeled but 

No more sophisticated in tastes; 

To be in limbo between social stations, 

Misplaced in purgatorial triage, 

Tacitly sent to a Coventry of restive 

Nerves & distanced relatives, my comfort 

Clothes confiscated, neither one thing 

Nor the other, neither fish nor fowl, 

But some strange amalgam, a chimera 

Of characteristics, mixed class, a hybrid, 

An aberration, & to feel nothing but 

Numbness, emptiness, interspersed 

With fleeting terror, to regard oneself 

To be in error, faulty, non-functioning, 

Unconnected to the scenery, 

Insubstantial, an aberration, to start 

At beautiful mutations of one’s own 

Shadow-aspect, a thought’s desolation, 

All the beauty & wonder to be always 

Spoilt by the prospect of inescapable decay, 

Slow bruising shadows—to take no joy 

In fruit for anticipating its inevitable 

Bruising & souring long, long before 

Its ripening in the fruit bowl has happened—

That is the nature of my affliction,

Anxiety, dread, apprehension, 

A praecox of trepidation—to not be 

Able to enjoy the flowers for seeing them 

Withered while their petals are still in bloom.


 

III

 

Unreconstructed soul, 

Out of place, out of time,

An imposter of my species,

Burdened by an incurable

Sense of responsibility

For everything & everybody,

For everything that went wrong,

Weighed down by shadows,

A mind’s overcast skies,

& underneath everything,

Every thought, every feeling,

An overwhelming sense

Of dread, of loss, of absence,

Of something fundamentally

Wrong with the world—

No matter how I masked,

No matter how I clowned,

Under it all, the sadness,

Always sadness, washing

Everything in its lachrymose rinse,

Immovable, unfathomable,

The deep & bottomless

Inexpressible sadness 

Of existence—the sadness

That is limitless, spaceless,

The stuff of the universe,

The substance of the stars,

The paints of Dutch Vincent... 

 

To only be able to see 

The withering in the bloom.

 

Alan Morrison is author of eleven poetry collections, most recently Anxious Corporals (Smokestack, 2021), Green Hauntings – New & Selected Poems (Caparison, 2022), and Wolves Come Grovelling (Culture Matters, 2023). He was a winner of the Bread & Roses Poetry Award 2018, and highly commended in the Shelley Memorial Poetry Prize 2022. Journal appearances include The Fortnightly Review, The London Magazine, Long Poem Magazine, Vsesvit (Ukraine). 

He is editor of international webzine The Recusant and its sister site Militant Thistles. These poems are from his forthcoming twelfth volume, Rag Argonauts (Caparison, 2024). 

Links:

http://www.alanmorrison.co.uk

http://www.therecusant.org.uk

http://www.militantthistles.com 

 


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