Ahead of this year’s Forward Prizes for Poetry, The Telegraph is publishing all five nominees for the Best Single Poem prize. Today’s poem comes from Will Harris. His pamphlet All This is Implied, which explores his British-Indonesian heritage, was a Telegraph poetry book of the year choice in 2017. His latest book, Mixed-Race Superman, is an entertaining and thought-provoking essay on identity that ties together an unlikely range of subjects, including Odysseus, Barack Obama and the Matrix movies.
He began writing SAY mid-flight, on the back of a Ryanair boarding pass, while his father was suffering from a serious illness. According to Harris, this poem is "about my dad’s breached body; about fear and borders; about our desire for wholeness and purity; and about the illusion of flow that can only be maintained by violence".
A brick-sized block of grey stone washed ashore on which was carved
the word SAY. My dad picked it up at low tide and two months later found
another, and another saying LES. We worked out that rather than a command –
like Rilke’s flow – it was the name of an old firm, SAYLES, which sold
refined sugar, with plantations in the Caribbean and a factory in Chiswick.
As capital flows, accumulates and breaks its bounds, so too had SAYLES
broken into various subsidiaries. Slipped, dissolved and loosed. You find
all kinds of things at low tide. One time, a black retriever came wagging up
to me with a jawbone in its mouth. What can’t be disposed of otherwise –
what can’t be broken down – is taken by the river, spat out or lodged
in mud. The SAY brick took pride-of-place on our chest of drawers –
masonry, defaced by time, made part of the furniture. My dad decided
to give it to you, in part because you’re an artist and he thought it looked like
art, but also, which is maybe the same, because it suggested reason
in madness, and made him – made us – less afraid. Last week, there was an
acid attack. Two cousins, assumed to be Muslim, having torn off their
clothes, lay naked on the road, calling for help. Passers-by crossed the street.
Things break, not flow; it is impossible, however lovely, to see the whole
of humanity as a single helix rotating forever in the midst of universal time.
Flow, break, flow. That’s how things go. Is it? What are you trying
to say? After the operation, they stapled shut his stomach. As the scars
healed, it became harder to discuss. He drank as if he had no body – nothing
said, admitted to or broken. Flow, break, flow. Gather up the fragments.
Now he is back to saying The country’s full. Why are they all men? Four months
ago, in a flimsy hospital gown, the fight had almost left him. In a tone
you’d use to distract a child, the nurse told my mum about her holiday to
Sumatra in the early ’90s. He likes custard, she replied. We told him when
to cough and when to breathe. He clasped a button that controlled
the morphine. Bleep. Bleep. What did the blue and green lines mean?
The sudden dips? What was the nurse’s name? I chose not to
keep notes. Thoughtful as moss or black coffee, or as the screen of
a dead phone. That’s what eyes look like when you really look at them.
Inanimate. Moss, though, is alive enough to harvest carbon dioxide,
to grow. Yesterday I googled thoughtful as moss, thinking it was from
a Seamus Heaney poem, but only found a description of the poet
“grown long-haired / And thoughtful; a wood-kerne // Escaped from
the massacre”. At school, we learnt that wood-kernes were armed
peasants who fought against the British in Ireland. I imagined them
(and him) as thoughtful kernels, seeds that had escaped death by being
spat out. I am nothing so solid or durable. What are you trying
to say? For years I made patterns in the air, not knowing what to say,
then you came and pointed out the paintwork cracked and bubbling
on the wall beside my bed which, though it stank, I hadn’t noticed.
The streetlight sparked on beads of damp. Your skin smelt bready, warm.
I couldn’t say how bare my life had been. The stillness in the room
was like the stillness in the air between the heaves of storm. We flowed
into and out of each other, saying – what? Saying. Not yet together,
we were incapable of breaking. Cradled in pure being. The paint flaked,
exposing streaks of poxy wall. I remembered a church where the saints’
faces had been scratched away, taking on a new expression: alien,
afraid. Some days I must look alien to him. Scary. One poet said
the devil was neither blate nor scaur, incapable of being scared. I sleep
scared most nights but feel no more holy. Once I pronounced “oven”
oftenlike my mum does, and a friend laughed. The cracks appeared
beneath me. In the years before we met, though I wrote, I was too scared –
too scarred – to speak. Flow, flow, flow. I wanted to be carried along, not
spat out or upon. That SAY brick picked from the riverbed proved that
broken things still flow. What are you trying to say? When you asked
me that I closed my laptop, offended. Why? It never mattered what
I said. Whether you speak up or scarcely whisper, you speak with all
you are. To the eye of a being of incomparably longer life – to God
or the devil – the human race would appear as one continuous vibration,
in the same way a sparkler twirled at night looks like a circle. In darker days
I couldn’t say that to my dad, slumped in front of the TV with a mug
of instant coffee. Saying it now only makes me think of times I’ve held
a sparkler – the hiss and flare, the after-smell – which runs counter
to that whole vision. One morning, gagging on his breathing tube,
he started to text my mum, but before he could press send his phone
died. He couldn’t remember what he tried to say. I can’t remember
what I tried to say. Flow, break, flow. You hear me, though?
Originally published in The Poetry Review
Mixed-Race Superman is published by Peninsula at £6. To order your copy, call 0844 871 1514 or visit the online Telegraph Bookshop
Will Harris will be reading with the other shortlisted poets at the Forward Prizes award ceremony at the Southbank Centre on September 18; southbankcentre.co.uk