In The Public Eye

Crying in cafés isn’t a common pastime. Crying in public full stop is generally viewed as a sign of weakness and instability – an inability to keep your feelings to yourself. Tears are a social faux pas; letting your brave face slip is dreadfully embarrassing. Better to strictly regulate your Great British stiff upper lip, avoid meeting strangers’ eyes, and save the sobs for the safety and privacy of your bedroom. Yet, a couple of weeks ago I found myself tearing up at a café table, in plain view of people attempting to enjoy their cappuccino froth and frothy conversation.

My brave face, my usual control over my emotions, my ability to toe the line of acceptable public behaviour, had definitely slipped. But it wasn’t my fault, entirely – the book I was reading tripped me up. One moment I was another coffee drinking café reader, the next I was clutching Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body closer to my face, to try and conceal watery eyes and a wobbly lip. A sensual, poetic story of love and loss – maybe I should have predicted it would choke me a little bit, but I didn’t. I thought I was in control. Sure, it was essay season and grey outside – I was feeling a little stressed, a little more fragile than normal – but I was fine, until some words on a page pulled on my heartstrings and kicked my composure out from under my eyelids.

Like crying in cafés, I don’t usually make crying at books a habit. Studying English Literature enforces a level of academic numbness to the reading process. I am meant to be the one in control, able to judge novels dispassionately, pick out literary techniques and analyse the author’s intentions – how can I break a narrative down into themes and images if I’ve got tears in my eyes? Anyway, isn’t getting weepy over printed pages a little immature, a little bit too Twilight-fan?

We have these strange rules about emotions and about privacy. Films are easily labelled as ‘weepies’; apparently the cinema is an acceptable place to cry alongside strangers. Maybe it’s the cover of darkness that exempts us from the usual social emotional-embarrassment – no one has to awkwardly look away from your tears under the glow of the silver screen. Or maybe it’s because the movie business is built on shared experience. While some may leave a screening dry-eyed, if a ‘weepy’ prompts some sobs from you, you can usually rely that there will be someone sobbing harder a few rows back from you. Our collective fear of social stigma can be soothed in the cinema auditorium – it’s ok to get a bit emotional if others are too.

Books don’t have quite the same defence. Reading, like crying itself, is seen as a private experience. Since we ditched the bards and their lutes and started reading curled up on our own, our relationship with books has been purely ours. There’s no 10-foot high Hollywood projection telling anyone else what you’re seeing in between the lines. And there’s nothing we like less than not being able to explain something, or stash it away in a clearly labelled box. So when the private experience that’s meant to be contained in a book’s pages spills over into the public space we get all confused and muddled and don’t know where to look. An involuntary tear (or shriek of solitary laughter for that matter) is like the book reader’s nipple slip.

But surely that’s part of the strange joy of reading – that strange feeling of displacement between the world you’re sitting in and the one you find in your hands. The escapism of books is widely discussed; we readily accept that those people on the Underground clutching well-leafed novels are trying to leave the body odour rush hour for more exotic, exciting scenes. However, it is often not the total immersion into a sci-fi dystopia, or a romantic utopia that provides the thrill of fiction, but the, sometimes uncomfortable, partial immersion in two worlds at once. Perched on a sofa in the corner of a café, I hadn’t lost myself entirely – I was all too aware of the caffeinated customers and hip baristas around me. It was precisely this odd disconnection, the sense of hovering between the people in the pages and the ones around me, and for a while not fully belonging with either, that caused the sharp lump-in-the-throat sensation. It was the very understanding that the emotions prompted by the imagined world weren’t allowed in the real one that forced them to show themselves. If there’s one way to guarantee something, make it just a bit against the rules.

Being stabbed in the feelings by fiction is often seen as silliness (I mean, you’re an adult, don’t you know its not real?), but this presumes that our normal, everyday world should always be taken seriously – that to be a grown up is to not let yourself trip up into emotions and imagination. ‘Weepies’ provide a safe space for these usually regulated emotions to emerge for a while, but books, and their ability to hold you in multiple spaces at once, make you question the rules of reality you usually find yourself in. Maybe the brave faces can only be unmasked if café society hosts a few more involuntary, but not unnatural, ‘silly’ tears

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Fool’s Gold

Why do I think that to be worthy of attention I must shrink myself down?

Maybe it’s because all literature presents itself as carpentry
And I want to be a poem to you.

I’m mimicking the artists and alchemists
A carving and refining process
A labouring effort
A series of dissolutions to revelations
Philosopher stones
I chisel
I want the sphinx under the rock face
The marble goddesses drawn out from their boulder beds
Hacked away to smooth serenity
The kernel
The core
The heart of the matter and the crux at the centre
The grain of truth and the holy grail
I am my own crucible
I plunge depths hoping to hand you a pearl
For you can’t hang the ocean from your earlobes
As I hang on your lips
Gathering each dropped word like a jewel
You are treasured already
I keep you locked in my chest
Can I act as your mirror and reflect back your glow?
All the poets have told me I must
But your sun deserves stars not a moon.
I would part the seas for you.
But what are waves to your flames?
You warm me with one flash of your eyes
I search in the dust for starlight
I sand my surface
Smoothing the cracks and craters
All I can find is fool

I scatter breadcrumbs behind me
Hoping they will lead me to myself

Summer

Let’s lie under palm trees
And brush palms
Like holy palmers kiss
Or however William said it
But fingers crossed
Not star crossed
Just moonlit
You look twenty years old
Let’s go to the opera, I’ll let you take my hand
Let’s cross over
Let’s make up
Some silly daydream make believe
Human again
We’ve fallen down the rabbit hole to boogie wonderland
Let’s Cheshire Cat grin
And not disappear so fast this time
Break the fast
Break a few eggs to make an omelette,
We need those guys
Drink the coffee
Smell the sunshine
Wake up and seize the roses
Wash the bowls.
How’d you like them apples
There’s a man on the bridge who doesn’t seem real
He’s talking princes and princesses
And hold on forever
And there’s waltzing the streets
Boogie wonderland
Blame it on that
Let’s go to the beach
Or the African plains
You be the bloodhound
I’ll be Kool
But not as cool as you think
Just curiouser and curiouser
I want to be in your gang

Resting Place

can i curl up under your collar bone
in that hollow place
just beneath the ink of your tattoo
can i crawl into your nooks and be cradled
held tight in the crook of your heart
it is cold out here
i can feel the air slice through my skin
can i just rest my head for a while
in between your angel wings
you could use them as blades
if you turned me the sharp side
but keep them blunt a brief time
let me sleep
let me lay my body down on your arm
i am weary of travelling
the road is not smooth, i am sore
can i wrap myself round the nape of your neck
put my crown up close to yours
can i cling on to you until daybreak
the darkness reaches out to my core
can i hold on to your littlest finger
make your hairline my ceiling and footprint my floor
can i hang on your lips
can i unlock your hands
let me need you
let me stay here ’til dawn.

Grey

Dog shit foot stamp
Another rainy day
At least you’re not down the mines, you’ll say
Well the joke’s on you because sometimes it feels like just six feet wouldn’t be enough ground over me.
Try sixty.
An upside down tower block with me on the final floor.
Shame about the view.

The joke’s on you.

I’m mine.

Ecstasy

it is an exquisite ache this feeling
that has somehow climbed beneath the layers of my skin
it sits in the space between my ribs
and plucks at my heart strings
it is unharmonious
a cacophony of throbbing
a groping grasping drumbeat
i am gasping from the strain of it
can no one tell
there is a bull in the china shop
and im pulsating red rags to my extremities
well that explains the drums
body clock countdown
i am under siege
i am a battleground
i am fighting a losing war
the horns are out and the time is up
i have been invaded without my knowledge
my body temple is a fortress
and schemes are hatched and reared within my veins
the mad are running the madhouse
the blind are leading the blind
the locks on the bars of my ribcage are shaking
the bull is straining at its reins
i am not big enough to hold it
cant anybody tell
this trembling unsteadiness
is a trampling in my hands
heavy breathing and short breaths
the creature’s playing on my wind pipes
chaos in my chest
i have been taken over
my chest no longer mine to treasure
digits finger nimbly my gold
i have been undug and ousted
i play second in this game
my framework has been dismantled
i am crook’ed cracked and shaken up
time to surrender
the bull will have his way

Reflections

You know that feeling?

That, who am I and what in the name of all the chosen prophets am I doing here, kind of feeling?
That feeling that it’s not your hand you can see at the end of this limb that’s somehow attached to whatever, you, are…

Maybe it’s the light. This harsh, artificial light is enough to make anyone want to slit their wrists just to see if what’s inside is red.

Just to see if, you, can feel it.

I sometimes think my hands could do incredible, over powering things.

Strangle something.

Stroke the soft part in between a person’s thighs.

Hold a gun against my head and see who laughs at that.
For example.

Look. Under the light I can almost see my veins.
My, veins?

Sometimes I look into my eyes in the mirror and it takes a full five seconds to realise the pupils, these dark holes in that dark, savage face, are my own.

You do know that feeling, right?

Alice through the looking glass.

Except Alice wasn’t lit by strip lights in a sterile bathroom.

Alice was the creation of a pervert.
Fantastic wonderland that is.

Now the vein on my neck is visible. Popping? Is that how people say it?
The vein on my neck is popping.

Like bubblegum.
Like Marilyn, Lolita, Alice bubblegum.

Like a kiddie’s balloon.

Like a cherry.

Pop.

Death Of The Novel

If “Game of Thrones” characters were on Reality Shows. What your favourite High School book says about you. 22 classic book titles made better with butter. All of these (clearly necessary) bits of information are literally at your fingertips – they are only a scroll and a click away on Buzzfeed. They are also all handily grouped together under the banner of ‘Buzzfeed Books’, so all the bookworms out there know they are in a safe space. Keep your Kardashians, over here it’s a strictly Kafka zone. Well, Kafka and as many references to ‘The Fault In Our Stars’ as possible. And this can only possibly be a good thing, right? There’s no need to wait around for a talking rabbit to chivvy you down a hole these days, the Internet opens up a Wonderland to anyone with good connectivity. What did the bookworms of our parents’ generation do without the chance to see classic authors reimagined as punk rockers? Did readers of the past have to, like, actually read?

The dangers of the endless scroll are well known by Generations Y and Z – the generations who swapped 80s hair and political protest for nail art and apathy. We are the Facebook kids, the ones who flick between ten tabs and maintain multiple conversations on different devices simultaneously. It is unsurprising that we are notoriously deficient in the attention span stakes, when list articles flood the interwebs and thoughts and opinions are broken down into character counts. We can have everything at the touch of a button, from personality quizzes to cat videos to JK Rowling’s latest soundbite. So in this digitised age, when books have morphed to Buzzfeed Books, where do printed paperbacks come in? If it is hard to get through a single article without being tempted by a series of word-nerd tattoos, or any other online update that may as well be inked with the words ‘eat me’, then it is easy to imagine a complex 500 page work of literature being constantly interrupted by internet interference, before being finally put down around page 230.

Tim Parks, whose novel Europa was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1997, recently spelt out this fear that we are living through the death of the long novel. Parks points his finger at “the seductions of email and messaging and Skype and news websites” lurking inside the very technology many of us use to access our latest literary work. A 21st century Dickens, Joyce or Bronte would have to compete with this buzzing background of updates. Our current horde of esteemed novel writers like Parks, Ian McEwan, Margaret Atwood, Hilary Mantel or Will Self (there’s one more list for you) are battling against “the constant state of distraction we live in”. If our senses are bombarded on all fronts at all times, then “the concentration, the focus, the solitude, the silence” which are Philip Roth’s prerequisites for “serious reading”, as opposed to light, fluffy airport reading (because if literary grand masters don’t like lists, they often love hierarchies), may be out of reach. Perhaps Will Self is correct that “the literary novel as an art work and a narrative art form central to our culture is indeed dying before our eyes.” Will we soon have every novel broken down into a series of episodes, with convenient ad breaks, tea breaks and pauses to tweet our response?

Parks’ anxiety about the erosion of literature is seeping into many writers’ circles, with echoes of digital fear emerging from many leading novelists’ mouthpieces and pens. However, this pessimism is hardly a shockwave really is it? It’s Will Self and Philip Roth for goodness sake – they are not exactly known for their sparkling sunshine perspectives on the modern world. Their darkness and intellectual questioning and probing are some of their attributes that make their works of fiction so compelling. And compulsion is surely the point in this discussion. So this generation and the rising generation of Millenial readers, who were born already caught in the World Wide Web, are easily distracted by bitesize chunks of information and social media, that does not necessarily mean that we will not be equally as distracted from the physical world by a literary masterpiece. We are greedy with our information consumption, that is true, but if something has the ability to fascinate then the cat videos may have to wait. If we are the generation that can devote 24-hour stretches to Netflix series and camp out for book and film releases, then we must have some concentrated staying power. Could it really be that this ringing of literature’s death bell may in fact be a panicked over reaction from a set of authors worried by the rapidly changing world they see around them? And, if this is the case, could it be that this is the younger sibling to the panics of 200 years ago, when printing was the big technological dog threatening the written word? After all, as British critic Frank Kermode wryly observed in 1965, “the special fate of the novel, considered as a genre, is to be always dying.” And anyway, what could be more hipster than reading a hardback with your vinyl playing?

Sunrise

Ghost memories

Metal detectors and gulls

Calm sweepers, mechanic creatures

Fallen angels and purgatory guardsmen

Limbo hour

Horizon line blue

Scavenger hour

Sunlight filling the sky like water in a bag

Light leaks from under the clouds

Clockwork waves turn over the new day

Impressed

Press into me

Like the flowers you gave me

Pressed between pages

Rose petals stuck to paper sheets

Printed lines of your city streets

Imprint me

With fingerprint markings

Cover my body

Invisible bruises below the skin

Lingering touches traced within

Smother me

Take away my breathing

Caught in my chest

Dilated pupils and fiery lips

Fevered faces launch a thousand ships

Crush me

Like crushed blooms in books

Weigh me down

Not crumpled balls of paper

Solid cores taking anchor

Flood me

Like a wave with no warning

Storming beach fronts

Two by two away to the sea

Pair of birds, pieces of me.