Portrait of a Young Man

 

I’ve seen it – I shamefully catch glimpses

Before you turn. The head, hung; and the fringe

Concealing lost eyes. Oh, that I have seen it.

 

You haunt the room like a portrait. The colours

In unsteady strokes, give the candle to your face

An uncanny effect. At times I fear to broach it,

 

That matter of the mind. It is the brooding

Unpainted black of the unobserved background,

While you pose unwilling in the midst of it.

 

It makes a still life of you – of us all.

Even the flowers in their vase hold still.

Even your hand, and your graceful demeanour

 

And the perfection of everything: these are lines

Painted in. The face does not change for me.

See how a gilt frame is a remarkable cage.

 

How to draw life, then – how instead, to trace

Your true vertices; bring tones to that lost face,

Or through soft strokes, that palour to assuage;

 

And if for a second, I can draw a smile

Onto your picture, however strange or slight,

For me that is the finest work of art.

 

Softer Wonders, Still

When first I tried, I could not abide

Subtle miracles.

I craved all spectacles of light, and fire, and will:

Without lightning, cursing overheard, or

The rage of oceans; without my crying

Defiance of the earthly might

And grimly wakened graves,

There could be no magic.

Every light must tend to shape its prism,

I felt: every action to acuteness, every

Effort to a dread asceticism.

My books, and my books, and my books

Did teach me such a false philosophy.

I know not when: but gently did a mist

Descend upon the ocean, whiten it

To a rich obscurity

Until no more was there a sought horizon;

And the mountains where once I had held

Fierce battles against the sky,

All rage and fire, once;

They too fell, those heightened heartaches fell

To the touch of mere atmosphere,

The kiss of clouds,

Clinging to the cool of that soft mist.

I raised my hood, gazed further to it,

And seeing what I did,

I lowered my hand.

Sometimes the dusk of the world

Is everything, and nothing.

And here, I become everyone and no-one.

And from all this I did unlearn

To rage. I learnt to see

The patterns of the cloud, the motionless roll

Of the mildest mist;

My practice and my craft have taught me well.

I abide and dwell in softer wonders, still.

Things I Never Learnt To Do Entirely Well

This really has nothing to do with “Things I Wish I Had Learned”. I am not talking about wishing to become a helicopter pilot, or to speak fluent Portuguese, or play the guitar. That would be far too relatable. What follows is a list of things I was quite sure I could do like any normal, functioning human being, but which through even the slightest amount of self-awareness I soon realize I have no sodding idea what I am doing. I have been performing shallow parodies of the following entries my entire life, on a wing and a prayer; and I have learned to do them now by autopilot, effortlessly, and entirely wrong. I imagine the same applies to a lot of people: but let’s just see how much of a collective failure we all are here.

Shaving

This one is a biggie. To this day I cannot, simply cannot shave without causing some level of disappointment: pain, which ranges from “mild discomfort” to “full-blown laceration”; and accuracy, ranging from “passable” through to “Why Did You Even Bother Shaving This Morning.”

Part of the problem, I am convinced, comes from the fact that I had no strong father figure in the house when I was a young lad. Nobody to tell me about the treacherous regions of the face, the sharp angles, the deceptive curves around the lips. I tried a few internet tips, by way of self-education, about hot water and using the right type of shaving foam, and endless marketing about the many-bladed razors which are just destined to cut away through all of life’s facial problems. Bollocks. It is a skill which I now imperfectly accomplish in front of a mirror, on a daily basis, with a great deal of rue. Stupid man-face.

Walking

Obviously, I walk. I am not going to pretend otherwise. In fact I walk quite briskly, rarely falling over or scuffing my shoes, without flat-footedness or imbalance. An excellent walker, you might think. First grade ambling, sir.

But I look ridiculous. Or at least, I think I do. I occasionally see myself in shop windows, and my legs are bloody all over the place. Not drunkenly side-to-side waltzing with tipsiness, per se, but they instead do this thing where they fling forward for each step and make me look like a pair of compasses on the march. I hate it. And if I try to correct myself, of course, I look even more desperate: face contorted in concentration, fixating upon my Bambi-legs as I stumble on. It is very easy to walk, and I do that all the time; but to walk like a real boy, I have yet to learn.

Hair

I am sure my hair is, in its natural state, quite smooth and thick and lovely and harmless and peaceable. Probably good hair. But I can do nothing with it. I somehow missed that lesson in secondary school where the architecture of hair was most thoroughly explained. I see passers-by with their glorious manes of gorgeous bouncing boyish hair, and I just want to set a blowtorch to them. Mine cannot be tamed, so. Product flattens it; minimalist approaches drive it to a state of nature which frankly makes me look like an escapee. One day my fringe and I will live in peace and harmony: until then it is very much a daily war of attrition.

Pissing

Again, I am not saying that I have never actually pissed because, I don’t know, my parents somehow overlooked that as part of my education. Far from it. I piss on a daily basis, I am, er, glad to say. But I cannot piss without feeling that there is a little more to go. Always. Do you get this? Shaking does nothing; waggling, using a sheet of paper, even. I can’t entirely, properly, perfectly, completely piss.

Worse still, I cannot do urinals. I can’t. At best I stand there and pretend it’s a cubicle and hope to god nobody stands next to me and shatters my illusions. Most evenings out I just close my eyes and think of England and hope I start pissing before someone quite without realizing it, in their own misguided way, pisses on my own parade.

Tying laces

I do a double-knot with two loops. This apparently makes me a girl. They hold pretty damn tight, but by all accounts this is to my discredit. Somehow. Seemingly, I can’t do anything quite right.

Cutting an onion

I have seen them do it on television. Real people. Even my fiancé can cut onions without his face being wrought asunder by tears and anguish. Whereas, you see, it is an atrocity exhibition every time I so much as look at an onion.

Further to this, I am convinced that I cut them into the wrong segments, because I cut them the wrong way. Imagine this: I cut them in half, take one end, slice down from the top or tail, remove the first layer and dice from there before removing the off-cut tip at the end. It works for me – or so I thought. Now I am reliably told that this is perhaps the worst way of cutting an onion there is. The worst, they say. Worse than cutting it with the knife held amongst your toes, dancing around the kitchen while singing the Horst Wessel Lied.

Speaking

I talk like a BBC announcer from the fifties, but without the… élan? I sound like an imposter-posho. Not actually refined, and not actually well-spoken, my voice really lends itself to parody. I am like Stephen Fry’s illegitimate lovechild from a difficult first marriage. Almost refined, but missing a crucial certain something. Legitimacy, if you like.

My nemesis: Writing “the” on a keyboard

This one, people: this is the worst. I learned to type “teh” from a very early age, a frightfully unhelpful skill, and since then I have never quite looked back. Every time I even think of the definite article, I mangle it in my mind and thumb my way through the letters of this incredibly fucking simple word like an illiterate. If it wasn’t for auto-correct on Word I would probably have been institutionalized by now.

For the avoidance of doubt: most of the above is exaggeration. I am almost a well-rounded human being. But good lord, there are times when it doesn’t bloody well feel like it. 

The Written Hour

There’s worship in the way I silent sit,

To practice verse:

With candles in dark corners I have lit,

All thoughts disperse;

There’s sacrifice in how I pour this wine,

And dream it up:

Each word is water, transmutes into mine

In mine own cup.

There’s knowing in the keeping of a pen

For evening arts;

And cunning in the craft of hearing when

This silence starts.

There’s something in the sound of it, fast kept

As I begin it:

When the witching hour awakes, all dreams are slept.

There’s worship in it.

At times I truly see the connection between poetry and magic. Incantation, conviction, imagination; conjuration, curses, blessings; secrecy, artistry, and wonder. I think all artistic endeavour is a craft. 

An ode in auburn.

 

Remind me of the summer sifted, gone,

Of furrowed leaf-falls, only sailing once:

Remind me, that we live in silent autumn

In a dead month.

 

I’ll remember how the bonfire evenings threw

Great haze behind, great fire in high tower:

Snap fire, the groaning wood and night aglow

In the night power.

 

Speak of evenings, fire-worked and swept in awe,

Of promises and knitted scarves fast kept;

Or, how the trees were held in auburn fire,

And my heart wept.

 

It’s getting to that time of year where odes sort of happen. Autumn occurs. Trees go through extreme mood swings, the weather doesn’t know if it’s coming or going; misty mornings and insidious nightfalls. We’re in the hangover of summer. We need to be put to bed. 

All poetry written in autumn, I am afraid, will sort of be a footnote to Keats. That goes without saying. I’ve worked a sapphic ode with a few half-rhymes together. Sentimental, fond, a bit foolish. But I rather like it. 

The dry temperament of a blue sky

 

A high, dry blue, like a fine temperament.

All around the sky’s a mural, painted to

Perception. Distant-hung the firmament

Abides the time and day, is waiting to

Announce the moment at its due election,

All tendencies to tend to true perfection.

Fly

 

I had dreams where it happened. From what I recall,

The landscape was indistinct: aspects of castles

Visited hazily in childhood, ramparts over

Opaque forests, a river drowsing through a valley;

A marketplace nearby, and all the life and clutter

Of a thousand forgotten things and passers-by;

Sky, dream-coloured. From what I can recall

You were there, and you told me how simple it was.

I denied it – even in dreams, I somehow denied

I could do it. But you were there, a little way off

By the archway to the city. You gestured at nothing

And said, in no voice that I can quite now remember,

“Whatever is done is done. So do it now.”

And still I can feel it: that shifting reluctance

Which changed into movement, of racing downhill

On a hilltop which, moments before, could not be:

And the heavens were tangible, like a sleeping mist,

And the rush of my running was lifting me up,

I could do it by lifting my heels off the ground

And for that second before I so tragically opened

My eyes, I’d done it: for one dream of a second.

 

Now waking, I said: “What is done is done,

And you do it, by lifting yourself off the ground.”

 

This could either be about chasing your ambitions and realising your dreams in life or, in a way more literally, about having a dream in which you are flying. I will leave it up to you to decide: whatever suits you. 

Incidentally, if you’ve never had a dream where you’re flying, frankly, you are missing out. It’s very simple. Just run, run so fast that your dreams can barely keep up with the landscape: and at just the right time, lift your feet off the ground.