[I tend to avoid writing about my own experiences on this blog or in my poetry in general. However, I have recently felt obliged to post occasionally about my adventures in the Brazilian national health system. Here is a short poem I wrote during my latest two-month stay in hospital, much of it—conscious or comatose—in intensive care.]


A susurration of muzak, monitors,

hushed nurses’ voices

suffuses the silent ward.


Patients lined up as if

effigies-to-be breathe noiselessly

out into the nebulized air.

Managing Capacity: Modal verbs in the real world

There are three modal (or semi-modal) verbs of capacity, ability or capability in standard present-day English. These are can, be able to, and manage to.

All have past and negative forms. The irregular past tense of can in this sense is could.

The usages and subtly different meanings pertaining to these forms overlap and can be quite confusing. Manage to is a relative newcomer and helps to clear up the confusion.

Problem No. 1

Like most modal verbs, can is ‘defective’. It lacks verb forms other than the Present Simple and Past Simple. To make up for this, be able to is used to fill the missing forms.


[1] I can swim means I have the (permanent) ability to swim.

But, if we want to use the verb in the infinitive, we have to revert to be able to, thus:

[2] Every child should be able to swim.

Likewise, the –ing form.

[3] Being able to swim is a prerequisite for joining the marines.

Other forms of the verb need to be used less regularly in this context. But likewise require use of be able to.

[4] Present Perfect: I have been able to swim since I was a baby.

The language (by which I mean people using language over time) has found an elegant solution to this problem.

But then comes Problem 2:

The distinction between can and be able to is also used (in some contexts) to distinguish between a permanent and temporary capacity respectively.

This is subtle to the point of obscurity.

Back in the day, I used to pose conundrums like this:

[5] Algernon survived the shipwreck because he could swim.

Bertrand survived the shipwreck because he was able to swim.

Who can swim?

The answer is Algernon, but the question understandably gives rise to some confusion.

To make the answer uncontestable, we would have to ask:

If only one of them can swim, which one is it?

Can and be able to are too closely intertwined grammatically to make this distinction clearly and cannot do so at all in the case of forms of the verb in which can is defective.


This is where the relative neologism, manage to, used modally, comes in.

Manage to clearly takes over the temporary fumbling function of be able to and leaves the distinction uncontestable.

[6] He survived the shipwreck because he was able to swim.

[7] He survived the shipwreck because he managed to swim [‘even though, he couldn’t swim’ is implied]

This is a clear example from present-day English of what some contemporary linguists call ‘grammaticalization’.

This is an ugly and somewhat misleading term.

The idea is that all grammatical morphemes and lexemes originate in pure lexical terms, whose usage has become diluted over time. This may lead to distortions in the phonetic or written form of the word. For example, ‘gonna’ tends to mark the grammatical future use of the phrase ‘going to’ while its more literal lexical meaning, as in ‘I am going to London,’ still exists.

In this case, a completely different phonetic form has been spun off by the ‘grammaticalization’ process.

In other cases there is a change in syntactical structure.

Keep as a modal verb indicating repeated (usually undesired) action only in so far as it is followed by the –ing form of another verb.

[8] She keeps hiccoughing.

[9] He keeps tropical fish.

In these two sentences the verb ‘keep’ clearly has a very different meaning.

The same occurs with ‘manage’ in its modal capacity.

[10] He managed to stay afloat after the shipwreck, despite not being able to swim.

[11] He managed the shipping company for many years.

Why and when the word ‘manage’ (or ‘keep’ for that matter) came to take on this additional grammaticalized function is a much more interesting question.

The word ‘manage’ originally appears in neo-Latin languages in the Middle Ages to refer to horsemanship (the training and riding of a horse). By the late 16th century, its use in English had extended to any activity requiring manual dexterity and to the ‘management’ of a business in the modern sense. The extended modal use appears only in the mid 18th century and I suspect that its commonplace use in this sense is even more recent.

The ‘descent’ of this word from highly-specialized aristocratic equestrian skills to something as mundane as just ‘managing to get out of bed in the morning’ provides a lesson not only in language change but also in significant democratization that society has undergone in the past five hundred years or so.

It also contains a broader message about the ups and downs of linguistic change and an implicit warning.

As I suggested above, ‘grammaticalization’ is not a good word. It suggests that there is a natural downward flow from the particular to the general and that such ‘grammaticalized’ words always lose lexical force. Neither of these claims is true, as most ‘grammaticalization’ theorists freely admit.

I would suggest, on the contrary, that this seemingly universal language process, provides evidence of a constant process of ‘lexicalization’. As grammatical elements become increasingly eroded and the rules invented to govern them growingly abstruse, people naturally reach out for more clearly visualizable words to take their place.

I would also argue the lexical content of so-called ‘grammar words’ and even morphemes is almost never truly lost and always available for resuscitation. People may say ‘gonna’ when they mean it in the modal sense and ‘going to’ when they mean it in the literal sense. But they still know in their heart of hearts that the two are in fact the same. This is conscious or semi-conscious. But the effect may be unconscious too.

The modal verb ‘will’ for example has become heavily ‘grammaticalized’ in modern English. To the extent that in some old-fashioned grammar books it is presented simply as a marker of an English Future Tense similar to that of neo-Latin languages. More enlightened modern grammarians have entirely dismissed this notion. English has no future tense so to speak, only various forms used to express a multitude of shifting attitudes regarding the future. ‘Will’ is one of them, but its specific use depends directly in many cases on the original lexical meaning of the word (‘want’), arguably increasingly so.

To return to management. ‘Manage’ has been ‘dumbed down’ to some extent, but it has also been ‘dolled up’ in the form of the abstract noun ‘management’ to refer to a whole arcane industry of theorizing as to the skills required to best administer companies in a capitalist environment, most of which are far less specifiable than the eminently practical and verifiable skills required to rear and ride a horse.

While most of us struggle to manage to get out of bed in the morning and make ends meet, it is worrying that a term of obvious aristocratic pedigree is now being used (often mendaciously) to fabricate and consolidate a new soi disant upper stratum in an increasingly unequal society.


[I have long been fascinated by the figure of Michael Collins, the Apollo 11 astronaut, who steered the command module around the moon, while Armstrong and Aldrin stomped around on its surface, waiting, like a patient bus-driver, to pick them up from their giant leap forward for humankind.

Collins shares his name with the Irish Nationalist leader who was gunned down by more radical elements in the Irish liberation movement towards the end of the Irish Civil War.

In this poem, I imagine Collins the astronaut as a reincarnation of the Irish freedom fighter and reference the true story whereby a Cape Canaveral controller recounted the tragic story of the Chinese goddess of the moon (Chang’e), as Collins prepared to disappear around the dark side of our barren companion. Collins responded with a sexist and arguably racist remark about ‘bunny girls’.

Fifty years on, the Chinese have now for the first time landed an unmanned craft on the ‘dark’ side of the moon and chosen to name the project after this doomed goddess and her mythological rabbit companion.

My poem on this subject is guided in part by the late Tang dynasty Chinese poet Li Shangyin’s poem Chang’e. The bilingual pun barely requires comment: change with a blip or a glitch in it.

Out of respect, I first present a translation (not my own) of Li Shangyin’s delicate beautiful poem before launching into my more tumultuous, vulgar, rocket-fuelled version of it.]


Chang’e by Li Shangyin

Behind the mica screen, candles cast deep shadows.

The Great River slowly sinks, and dawn stars are drowned.

Chang-e must regret stealing the elixir—

over blue sea, in dark sky, thinking night after night


Chang’e by Paul Webb

Michael Collins nips round the backside of the moon

on his way back from death by gunfire on the way

to Cork. The man

is as far away from any other living creature

as any human being ever has been, he thinks.

Cape Canaveral tell him the story of Chang’e—

the immortality potion, the shock of eternal

disembodiment, the pining spouse, the jade rabbit—

to cheer him up.

“I’ll look out for that bunny girl,” MC quips,

as he drifts beyond radio communication

around the shiny dark side of the moon

to an audience of sparkling winking

once and future stars.

200 Section 16 Kseniya’s Hymn to Ammunition

[The grim tragicomic saga of 200 goes on. I have skipped forward again a bit at this point and will post Sections 12 to 15 at a later stage.]

One night

in Washington and Kseniya and Zhenya are whisked off

to a clandestine STD and early abortion clinic

and onto a bus.

Kseniya stops off at a gun show on the way

to buy a pink high-velocity automatic rifle,

a kick-ass pistol and fistfuls of ammunition

and another morning-after pill. She gives the change

to a pro-life protester demonstrating outside,

and poses lewdly like Wonder Woman

for other tourists on the coach.

“Look at me. All American, gun-totin’

girl,” she dances, as Zhenya sleeps

off last night’s speed balls and gin,

dribble drooling down over her snoring chin,

missing the desert landscape

of fields ravaged by pesticides

and heavy metal tumbling by.


Half-way through the desert, the guy

stuck in a seat next to Zhenya is worried

by her shallow breathing and the way she

is slumped over him chucking up

white baby-vomit over his business suit.

“I didn’t pay for this,” he complains.

Driver pulls into the nearest town

and Zhenya is stretchered off into Medicare.


Other passengers stomp angrily around.

“She gets this free, does she?” some meathead barks

“while I pay God knows what every month to my HMO.”

Driver is on the cell to his controller who is worried about legal liability should he just drive on.

Other passengers are complaining and threatening to sue.

Kseniya jogs alongside Zhenya like a security detail as she is wheeled swiftly on a gurney through the overcrowded hospital wards. Nurse pulls an eyelid back and seeing the state of Zhenya’s pupils exclaims “Jesus Christ” and plunges a syringeful of naloxone into her arm. Zhenya starts to revive.

In the rush, Kseniya has left her newly-purchased firearms on the back seat of the bus, like Christmas presents around a tree.

“Should these be left lying here?” someone inquires.

Driver trundles back up to have look. But one passenger has already picked the pink loaded rifle up and is taking aim, finger trembling on the trigger.

“Drive on,” he demands “I gotta a job interview tomorrow in Tucson I can’t miss.”

Driver has a direct line to law-enforcement in his ear and gets the call in before he is shot.

The SWAT team turns up swift as a gang of ninjas. They appear calm on the walkie-talkie negotiation channel but a sudden scare spooks them and, in an instant, their panicked bullets riddle the bus. The gas tank goes up like a bonfire into the dry nocturnal air.


Zhenya is wheeled into the overworked doctor’s office in mid of night.

“She needs her meds,” Kseniya says and they are duly prescribed.

Zhenya spends the rest of the night in a chair staring

into space hooked up to a tube.

“Where’s the bus?” they wonder when they finally get outside.

A smoky gasoline-tinged smell taints the early-morning air.

Zhenya hangs around the doctor’s car, waiting for him to get off

work. “You want drugs?” he asks. “No. Just a ride to Vegas.”

“There’s a thank you fuck from both of us in it for you,” Kseniya smiles

as they fill the car up with gas. Doc is secretly scared

but aroused by these two Russian girls.

“You were off that coach that blew up?” he asks.

“Nothing to do with us,” Kseniya moons into his eyes

drifting off the freeway into hers. “All you Americans crazy,”

she adds. “I kinda like that.” Zhenya groans on the back seat

and pops another pill. “Hell! She shouldn’t be doing that,”

Doc turns round and exclaims, almost swerving off

into oncoming traffic. “Just chill, baby!”

Kseniya coos, laying down her face

in his lap. “Just drive on. Do no harm.”


200 Section 7 Kseniya and Zhenya

[Section 7 of 200 introduces Kseniya and Zhenya, characters who will henceforth loosely guide this long episodic poem, like psychopomps, through its grim yet frivolous purgatorial landscape of political intrigue and social decay. The pair are introduced here as a fictionalized caricature of the Russian hookers who allegedly peed on Trump. The name ‘Kseniya’ is a Russian version of Greek ‘Xenia’, meaning foreigner or lover of foreigners; Zhenya is a common Slavonic diminutive of ‘Evgenia’, meaning pure in race. Although they act like sisters, these characters are thus also tacit representatives of the two sides that divide a world riven by identity politics. Both names are common sobriquets for Eastern European sex workers.

I should warn readers that this section of the poem necessarily contains much vulgar sexually explicit language and dark political satire, which may not be to everyone’s taste. I both apologize and do not apologize for that. The section is divided into four subsections entitled ‘Foreplay’, ‘Eye’, ‘Bar’ and ‘Date.’]


Kseniya and Zhenya’s dulled eyes

have been in the business for a long while now,

but they know how to put on a good show

in a hotel room, on the dark net, down there.

“Whatever Master want,” they coo,

flirting fleetingly, like serfs

through meth-damaged teeth.

“You want us dress up like schoolgirl,

pee on you, pretend we twins. We do.

Can’t show pussy juice

on US Internet? Russia free country.

Yes. You pay, we do that here for you too.”



Kseniya lounges back on the ambassador-

sized bed, smoking an Embassy and

watching a National Geographic Channel documentary

about extremophiles.

She thumbs herself distractedly. “That creep

didn’t get me anywhere near,” she laughs.

Zhenya touches up her mascara in the hotel mirror.

“They’re probably still filming us”, she notes,

blinking a little foreign matter out of one watery eye.

“Whatever,” Kseniya replies, looking up at the webcam

in the whirling fan over the bed,

sticking out her tongue

and waggling it about.



Kseniya picks the olive with a toothpick

out of her third straight gin, chewing

thoughtfully on it. “Love and peace!”

she blurts out. “You what?” Zhenya snaps back,

one eye firmly on a guy on the other side of the bar

giving her that look. “We do diplomacy,” Kseniya

goes on. “While guys play their games with guns

and bombs, we work with kisses and piss like UN

whores, with no limits and no borders, just

to keep peace.” Kseniya concludes.

“Shut the fuck up, Ksusha,” Zhenya

shoots back. “You don’t half talk a lot of crap

when you’re pissed.” “Like Florence Nightingale,”

Kseniya dribbles on into her half-empty glass,

as Zhenya marches off across the bar in pursuit of prey.



“Do you think I’m pretty?” Zhenya, already naked,

and high, talks into the mirror, as the secret policeman

she has just snared, struggles clumsily to peel off

his jeans on the hotel bed. “Yeah,” he grunts over her ass.

“I mean really pretty,” Zhenya insists, eyeing him

backwards through the dressing table’s mirrored glass.

“Fuck yes!” is the best he can come up with.

“I could be a movie star,” Zhenya goes on. “Sure.

Yes you could,” soldier boy pants, as Zhenya

eyes him pityingly with curled ironic lips,

a twinkle of cynicism sparking in her dark

dilated pupils meeting his.


‘Life in the UK’

Should anyone, to left or right, be in any doubt as to how hostile the current UK government is towards potential immigrants, check out this online test of knowledge of ‘Life in the UK’ and try doing it yourself.

Quite apart from the blatant neo-imperialist and pro-monarchy bias that pervades the test, it is obviously designed primarily to ensure that most candidates fail or (better) to deter them from even trying.

I was born in the UK and lived there for thirty years and like to think that I am fairly knowledgeable regarding its history and culture. I scored 20 out of 24 on this test. The pass mark is 18. God help you huddled masses if don’t know your ‘crown dependencies’ from your ‘overseas territories’!

Seriously. This test is shamefully and shamelessly ideological and racist and fundamentally flawed and unfair.

Anyone who still harbors a soft spot for Theresa May and feels sympathy for her in the self-inflicted Brexit pickle she now finds herself in would do well to remember that, as Home Secretary, she oversaw and entrenched this harsh immigration policy for six years. And those of you on the hand-wringing left who still pine for the ‘third way’ of Tony Blair should remember that it was Labour Home Secretary David Blunkett who first proposed introducing such a barrier to immigration in the paranoid aftermath of 9/11. Shame on both sides.

Globalization, which is the only viable way forward, cannot work unless freedom of trade and the international flow of capital are matched by an equal freedom regarding the global flow of labor and movement of people. Either you embrace both sides of the globalization equation and push both forwards with equal zest or you reject both and retreat like troglodytes into your heavily-armed protectionist caves.

The lop-sided middle way has brought us only to the bitter impasse we are all living through today. It is time for politicians on the liberal left to stop fudging the issue and hedging their bets and to be brutally honest about where they and we really stand.

200 Section 8 Tweedle Dumb and Tweedle Dee

[Section 8 of 200 introduces the characters of Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dumb, whose role in the poem echoes that of the hookers Kseniya and Zhenya. Dumb and Dee, however, are far less likeable figures.]

Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dumb

play dumb on CCTV in the police interview room.

“We love your Thomas Hardy. Great

poet. Great social realist. Jude,

climbing the spire of magnificent cathedral,

worker man. Your great prehistoric

megaliths. National heritage,

national trust. We get it.

Like Siberian Rock Art, our Lake Baikal.

We come to honor you as businessmen

and tourists and fans of sport

and bands, to do a deal that suits us both.

We do not come in vengeance

for Beckett slain or Jude undone

or for the slight your virgin queen

once did our Tsar Ivan.” Dee grins

as Dumb goes on to sum it up

with creepy nervous smiles.

“We come make money; fuck your local girls,

have a good time, not kill.”

“Piotr the Great worked in your shipyards like docker

back in day,” Dee adds. “He learnt your skills;

brought back wheelbarrow from you and now

we fly to stars and moon and Mars, and take you

with us on our ride. You give us stars of rock; our star men

teach you how to truly fly to stars. We are your

interstellar Uber drivers.” “We bring vodka, good

cheer, pussy galore. We love your pop

quizzes and pubs and football pools

& teams. Your bookies & hooligans best

in the world,” Dumb adds. “Just like your banks,

tax laws and property deals.”

200 Section 9 Duet

[In this 9th Section of 200, Jessie—Jude’s psychotic girlfriend from Section 6—and Yu—one of the poisoning victims—cross paths coincidentally in the grounds of the hospital in which they are both interned. The scene, of course, is entirely fictional.]

Yu is well enough now to be wheeled out

of ICU into the woods out back, to get

some sun on her skin and try out her still

unsteady legs. She stumbles over the turf

and almost yanks out her drip. Jessie

is on her meds now and now allowed to wander

the grounds, fingering the dead bark

of trees and the strange fruit drooping from

their branches, looking up at the sky, picking

berries from the ground for the next

occupational therapy session. Jessie

is an avid reader of the morning newspapers,

highlighting parts with yellow marker pen,

cutting bits out and sticking them up on her wall.

She recognizes Yu instantly. “The Communists,”

she exclaims, rushing up toward her, pointing up

to the sky. “They ruined my life too.

With their Sputnik rays and the mind gas

they channel through our TV. They got my husband;

took him off to Pyongyang for reprogramming.

But the NHS saved my baby, took her off

to be cared for by Margaret Thatcher

and her offspring. She is in a good family now.

Now God makes these babies grow for me on trees,”

Jessie smiles and drops a fistful of catkins and berries and nuts

into Yu’s trembling hands. “You can keep them,”

she adds. “This is a free country. There’s plenty to go around.”

And skips off back into the woodland, whistling,

as a tear dribbles down Yu’s cheek and

she is wheeled back to the ward, nurse

reassuring her, rearranging her hair,

tossing the woodland fruit angrily away.

200 Section 10 Kseniya’s Song to Liberty

[Followers of my work may know that I ‘have a thing’ about ‘plane coming into land’ poems. To my mind these are the modern versions of the railroad-track poems and songs of the early to mid-20th century or of the ‘fear of shipwreck’ motif in the erotic poetry of Ancient Rome. Different from railroad poems, however, which tend to follow a highly predictable rhythm, ‘plane coming into land’ poems veer from cacophony into eerie calm, with unexpected line breaks and cross-cutting shifts of rhythm, before thrillingly but anti-climactically touching down. It is, therefore, much harder to get them right.

Fortunately, I am helped in my latest outing into this nascent subgenre by my beautiful invented assistants—Zhenya and Kseniya—in particular, Kseniya, who provides a little added in-flight turbulence with her mock rendition of Emma Lazarus’s iconic Statue of Liberty poem. Apologies to anyone who may be offended by this.

I am letting these mischievous characters get the better of me a little and take control of ‘my’ poem. But I am very happy to cede to their will. I like trying to write in voices that are not entirely my own. ]

Kseniya’s Song to Liberty

‘Our wingéd legs span oceans’

Kseniya opines, as pilots

turn the engines off

and they descend

graceful in air

over the statue raised to liberty

into the airport named for the slain

president. Kseniya refuses

to belt up, or take her seat,

or take the miniature

of vodka from her mouth.

“Here stands a bitch on heat,

a mother-fucking mother of all

orgasms achieved

across the seas.

My headlight eyes look up

to you and roll

in swoon that’s fake

and snare your storied deeds,

with copper and aplomb,

dumbed voice and puckered lips.

From fabled ancient lands, weary,

impoverished and breathless,

we set foot on your fertile over-

peopled soil to suck the life-blood

from it and breathe our poisoned breath

over your young, our way

lit by your horny lady in the harbor

and the smoldering torch she bears

to tempt the huddled sailors,

sirens, slaves,

far from their homes

to tempt the seas and dash perhaps

their hopes and limbs on rocks

that are no more their own.”


Zhenya stirs from sleep.

She’s slept the whole flight through.

“You got that memory stick?”

Kseniya: “Course I do.”

200 Section 11 Zhenya’s Song for the Opium Poppy

[Since I already have five new sections of 200 more or less ready for publication, I am going to try posting them in reverse order. Some, like this one (Section 11), are songs; others are more narrative in nature. Although the characters will be introduced in more depth later in the posting/earlier in the poem, some of these sections nevertheless serve as free-standing pieces of verse.]

Zhenya’s Song for the Opium Poppy

I crave the needled thread of joy

that tracks my veins

and sews my life into the history

of my country and the world

that flowered and flagged on Afghan plains

and falls in showers of florid blood

from overflying planes in England

on Remembrance Day. A Jihad bullet

pierced my father’s throat

and he is heard no more: reduced

to zip in body bag, thread sewn

in loving shroud and fresh red flowers

atop a grave site in St. Petersburg.


I, in a toilet somewhere, honor him

with drugs prescribed by docs

and decadence and despair. And

somehow in this misted ritual

of self-destruction and remembrance,

we two are one again.