Yesterday, years ago, tomorrow and today
-go with this collapse of time it's part of the joke-
this bloke comes out of a library and meets a tramp
propped up against the wall where Oxford Street
ends in St Peter's Square. Tramp -piss soaked
weather stained, with the usual vacant stare-
lifts his finger skywards and says:
If God's looking down from somewhere up there
he'd see that this library rotunda
looks no different from a merry go round
but with books -not painted horses- kept inside.
Know what I mean, mate?
So tramp takes a suck at his smackinacan
while man thinks: Wait. Don't wait.
Keep your head on straight.
Don't walk. Walk. Follow your feet.
Then he ricochets off down the street
like someone spun dizzy from a machine
at a fairground or someone just for fun
shot from the rifled barrel of a gun
and with a clutch of books beneath his arm
he wonders just what time it is -and what day-
just as you may wonder what page we're on,
where we're going with this, what year we're in,
and what age the man is. So, first of all:
he's a young man, not much more than a boy
(amongst the borrowed books is -just published-
His Toy, His Dream, His Rest which in time
he will grow to know & love & find (repeatedly)
dreamsongs 90 & 265 echo in his mind (repeatedly)..
...anyway, this young man -to tell the truth-
is partly me; and if it's true that I am you
and you are me then we are partly like those three
blokes, who at this point are new to this tale-
-an Englishman, an Irishman and ... no...
...a Mancunian, an Aussie, and a guy from Guyana-
who we see walk into this bar on a street round the corner
from the Classic which is screening a double bill
(Giant and Persona) just down from The Palace
where, two years from now -or has this time
already been? -Lowell George -soon to be dead
or is this only a dream? -at a sound check for Little Feat
will sing Willing to rows of empty seats.
But that's just by the bye, let's focus in:
-the guy from Guyana is China Jimmy
and he knows Farokh Engineer, while the Manc just wants
to flog the Aussie two tickets to the cricket
and our man with the books, unnoticed, passes on
-not hard, by the way, since he doesn't exist
being just a desperado, a gorilla in your mist,
an organisation of matter, a narrative trope
to move the tale from A to B to C.
He's a matchstick man on which I hang a hat
he hangs a coat and we hang our tattered dreams-
but go along with it. The fact that all of us
can be represented by a single man
-a pilgrim Everyman unstuck in time and space
with his head -in truth- all over the place-
is also part of the joke. So watch him
at Charles Street smile at a kid in a queue
and wonder where his road will lead to.
Will he meet cute with his happy ever after,
then, years later, share the cliche and the laughter
as he tells the tale to contented friends
of how running to class, late for the sky,
they collided, spilled books in the street
-Cat's Cradle, Bird Lives! The Drawings of Paul Klee,
Tender is the Night, Decline and Fall, Smallcreep's Day
and as they knelt down, felt glances meet
and in that fleeting instant -both knew?
In another lifetime that might turn out true
but not today when, crossing against the traffic,
he doesn't even know what tomorrow holds...
that, stood on the steps of The Deaf Institute
while a flakey headed drunk shakes his fist
at the rain rammed dark and light polluted sky
above the pulsing artery of Oxford Road,
he will sense the seasons in his bones and skin
and suddenly, clearly and forever know
that however strong should be our need to go
no road, no sidestreet, no footpath or line of desire
can ever take us home. This -of course- is hardly news
but because time makes sure that no-one goes
to the same place more than once- he will pick
and pick and pick at the only thread we know
-the one that binds us to the dead and to each other-
until every image -the fields at dusk in which he walked,
some old street of dreams down which you zoom and fly,
this world in which we live and grow and, grown, begin to die-
will some day fade to a whispered word
a murmur of light caught in a closing eye
the path of a cloud or a bird and then
an empty sky against which something still
will knock, still knocks, is endlessly knocking
-a child's imagination, a branch on a door,
a wooden wheel creaking across a floor
an old man's cane, the steps of a dancer-
and because it is our nature to want to know
he'll ask who's there but get no answer.
First published in "How Many Roads Must a Man" Edited by John North published by Braemar Press in 2010.