is broken

in that final fire

that does not come

as an ending

but lies

at the heart

of all things


all the illusions

of light and life

into cold truths

of darkness, stone and ash

like ingredients

in a wedding cake

that comes out of the oven

hard as a tomb



trumpets or angels

proclaim an apocalypse


as a two-bar electric


in the living room

whose plastic coals and flames

are fakely flickered

by a calm rotation

of dusty, creaking, rusted metal blades



as the blue wisp of paraffin

in the portable kitchen heater

or the steam from Ready Brek

dissolved in warm milk

in a winter morning stomach,


as the muffled clunk and

early-morning hiss of central-heating

coming on

one snowy morning

through freshly-bled




is broken down

to the bare fact of existence

in thick pink hospital blankets

where we shit our last

in a sleeping-bag under

a rain-dripping tent

where we had our first blow-job

under the 3-tog double duvet

of couples at home,

every cry of the damned

is tucked in for the night

under a quilted eiderdown.



is broken down

in the boiler

starched with blue and pegged out

to freeze on a winter-garden

washing line


is broken down

and mixed up

and spun dry

in the magic of the new Electrolux.

everything is broken

down in the warm

flip-flopping air

of college tumble-driers



found in the woods

is broken up

—twigs and dead leaves,

and branches dank with moss—

and stuffed in the old clothes

of a guy

for Bonfire Night



is broken up

crushed to almost nothing

by time or accident

like old Ford Cortinas

at the scrap yard




you have given

will be broken up

brittle as if dipped in liquid nitrogen


all loves

will be lost or left

so much kitsch and junk

shattering across a hard-stone floor

of empty space

and swept up by a cleaning-lady

the next morning





in the warm morning breeze

on your feet

in the twinkling atoms of dust

in the warm summer light

through bedroom windows

in the warm flushes of caresses

caused by care or lust

in the warm sea

under the warm sun

on the warm sand

between her warm thighs

behind her back

everything is broken

up, down, off and away

everything is broken

and bloo

as a sky-light or a bruise


everything is broken

up, down, off and away

everything given

is given up

and back and away

everything is given

into that final fire –

into that two-bar electric fire

into that paraffin lamp

into that blanket

into that greenhouse earth

into that radiator –

zipped up

in the warm-cold sleeping bag

that does not come

only at the end

but lies

at the very weeping heart –

the oven and the fridge –

of all things


all the illusions of light

and life back in

as it first did at the beginning.


The ladybird, which is neither lady nor bird, was a sufficiently infrequent visitor to my childhood world, to justify a special welcome. The red wings with black spots, which served also, when clasped together, as a crusty beetle-like back, appealed to my infant attraction to hard, brightly coloured things, but, in an instant, could disappear into a fluttering upward moving criss-cross of black, bearing the precious thing suddenly and thrillingly away on the wind.

Most times, however, they were docile and domestic, hugging the carpet floor. I kept one in a match-box once, and fancied I could train her to do little tricks, like climb, at my bidding over ramps and bridges made of bricks and encyclopaedias. One day, my mother was making jam-tarts, and I had been playing with her on the floury kitchen table, when she disappeared. I hadn’t noticed her fly off as they are wont to do, as mentioned above, and wondered whether she hadn’t by chance been seduced by the sweet scent of the sugar, to burrow herself into the jammy centre of one of the tarts, which had already gone into the oven. The doubt was strong enough that we threw the cooked tarts out into the garden for the birds to feast on. So, my ladybird, if indeed she was entombed in them, received, after all, unwittingly fitting Zoroastrian last rites.


Ladybird, ladybird

Fly away home

Your house is on fire

Your children are gone

Sonnet on Autism #9

Sonnet on Autism #9

 close all stores, eyes & mouths

or better still just close

because we who are already always

closed as blessed stones know


there is no blooming reason

to flower out into the world

& make a mess of it

as we will


we will our selves into being

because we are pulled by others

who cannot really love us


you close off to a point

& knowing that there is no point

point to that


with my closed eyes in your hands

& we are somehow close

A Blade with no Handle

[Here is a translation of João Cabral de Melo Neto’s Uma Faca Só Lâmina. I first started working on this 22 years ago!]

A Blade with no Handle

(The Utility of Idées Fixes)

A Poem by João Cabral de Melo Neto
Translated by Paul Webb
Recife, 1997-2019

Like a bullet lodged

in human flesh,

fattening up

one side of death;


like a bullet of the

heaviest lead lodged

in muscle, tipping

the weighing scales;


some bullet that has

a living mechanism,

one that’s possessed

of beating heart,


a clockwork heart

submerged in flesh,

like a clock alive

and insurgent,


a clock that has

the vitality of a knife

and is as pitiless as

a slate-blue blade;


like a knife without

pocket or sheath

that has grown part

of your anatomy;


an intimate kind of

knife; a knife for

internal use only, as close

to us as the skeleton


of those whose skeleton

has always ached,

of those constantly being

cut up by their own bones.



Be it bullet, clock or

angry blade, it is, never-

theless, an absence that

a human creature bears.


Yet, what is not

within is like a bullet:

of leaded metal,

the same compact caliber.


This thing that is not

within is like a clock’s

pulse in a cage,

untiring, restless.


This thing that is not

within is like the zealous

presence of a knife,

of any brand new blade.


This is why the best

of the symbols used

is the steely cruel blade

(best made in Sheffield):


because no symbol suggests

so well this keen absence

as this image of a knife

with no handle,


none better represents

that so impatient absence

than a knife whittled wholly

down to its bare point,


than the image of a knife

delivered up entirely

to that hunger for things

that is stoked by knives.



The life of such of a knife

is of the most startling kind:

the knife itself, or some

metaphor, can be cultivated.


And the way it is cultured

is more surprising still:

it thrives not on what it consumes

but on that of which it is starved.


You can abandon it,

that intestine knife:

you will never find it



It distills acid and vinegar

from nothingness

and other stratagems

exclusive to sabers.


And, like the knife it is,

full of passion and drive,

unassisted, it sets in motion

its perverse machine:


the unclothed blade

grows as it is worn down;

the less it sleeps,

the less sleep it needs,


the more it cuts,

the more cutting it becomes;

it lives to be born in others

like a wellspring.


(And the life of this knife

is measured backwards,

be it clock or bullet

or the knife itself.)



Careful with the object,

with the cared for object,

even if it is a bullet

of this steel-tipped lead,


because the bullet comes

with teeth already obtuse

and, with facility, is blunted

even further in the muscle.


Be even more careful,

though, when it’s the clock,

with its spasmodic

ticking heart alight.


Care is required,

because the tick of the clock

cannot keep time

with the pulse of the blood,


and the shiny copper inside

is not put off its stride

by the beating blood, even

when it has lost its bite.


Moreover, if it is the knife,

take special extra care:

for the sheath of flesh

can absorb its steel.


Its cut also sometimes

tends to go hoarse and

there are cases where metal

is broken down to leather.


The important thing is that

the knife not lose its zeal

nor that it be corrupted

by its handle of wood.



For this knife sometimes

goes out of its own accord.

This is known as

the ebbing of the blade.


It may be that it is not

extinguished but dormant.

If the clock is the image,

its buzz has ceased to be.


But, whether sleeping

or extinct, when its engine

stalls, its whole soul becomes

alkaline in nature, very


similar to the neutral,

almost felt-like substance

that is the stuff of souls

unblessed with skeletons of knives.


And this sword-blade,

whose flame has guttered out,

and the jittery clock and

the indigestible projectile,


all alike follow the process

of the blunting blade,

be it knife, clockwork,

bullet of wood or cloth,


be it leather bullet, clock

of tar, knife invertebrate,

forged of honey or of clay.

(However, when we are


already least expecting it,

the tide crashes back, the

knife springs back to life

in a shower of sparkling crystal)



We must keep the knife

well out of the way; for,

in the damp, its lightning

flash will not last long


(in the damp spawned

of gossip and saliva:

the stickier it gets,

the more confidential).


This care is required

even if it is no knife

ablaze inside you,

but rather clock or bullet.


They do not flourish either

in all types of weather;

their savage flesh thrives

only in torrid chambers.


If you will suffer them,

you must take them out

into the open air of some

wilderness or moorland.


But it can´t be the kind

of air birds inhabit.

It must be dry and harsh,

unshaded with no commotion.


Never at night. For night

puts out fertile feelers. Let

it be in the acid sunshine

of the Northeastern states.


Let it be in the heatstroke

that turns air into sponge

that makes the earth thirst

and turns grass into wire.



Whether it be that bullet

or whatever other image,

be it even a clock

that awaits the wound,


or still just the knife

that has only a blade,

of all the images the

keenest, the most vivid,


no-one of the body

can remove it, no matter

whether it’s a bullet,

clock or knife alike,


no matter what

the race of this blade,

be it tame table-knife

or savage Pernambucana.


And, if irretrievable

for the one who has suffered

its assault, still less can it be yanked

out by any neighboring hand.


Ineffective against it

are all the medical arts

of numeral knives and

arithmetical pincers.


Not even the police,

with their surgeons,

nor time itself with its

balls of cotton wool.


Nor even the hand of one

who planted, unbeknownst,

this bullet, clock or blade,

these images of outright fury.



This bullet that a man

sometimes takes in his flesh

renders less rarefied

all that awaits.


And what a clock involves,

unbiddable, insectine,

enfolded in the flesh,

alerts that flesh yet more.


And if knife is a metaphor

for something stuck in muscle,

the knives inside only

drive a person further.


The sharpened edge of a knife

biting into human flesh

goes armed with another

body or dagger.


For, quickening the soul-

springs, it gives them the impetus

of a blade, the passion

of a close-combat weapon,


as well as having the body,

which bristlingly keeps it,

dissolves not in sleep

nor in all things so vague,


like that story

somebody tells

of a man with so sharp

a power of recollection


he can retain thirty years

later in his palm, the weight

of a woman’s hand

once so tightly held in his.



When one who suffers them works

with words, they are useful,

the clock, the bullet, and,

above all, the knife.


The men in general

who work this shop

have a stock only

of extinct words:


some smothered under

the dust, others disappeared

in the midst of great knots;

words that through use


have lost all the mettle

and the grit that grips

the attention of those

who can barely read.


For this knife alone

will furnish such a workman

with eyes the sharper to see

his own vocabulary.


Only this knife and

the example of its edge

will teach him to obtain

from his malignant matter


the qualities that all

best knives possess:

ferocious sharpness,

a certain electric charge,


plus their clean violence and

exactness, that predilection

for desert wildernesses

that is the style of knives.



Like bullet and clock,

this adverse blade

quickens the senses

of all that hold it,


is capable of waking alike

all objects that lie around,

in such a way that even liquids

are graced with bone.


All that was vague, all flimsy

matter and materials, for one

who’s gone under the knife

is endowed with nerves and edges.


Every thing around

is more full of life, imbued

with the clarity of a needle,

the presence of a wasp.


The cutting edge of all things

that are is now laid bare

and those, like wax,

that appear obtuse


are stripped now

of the callouses of routine

and set about their work,

all their jutting vertices alive.


And, amongst so many other

already sleepless things,

someone cut by a knife

and borrowing its cut,


victim of the blade and

its so frigid jet, roams,

lucid and awake, pitting

edge against edge.




Back from that knife,

friendly or enemy,

that best condenses a man

the more it chews him up;


back from that knife

so clandestine in bearing

it should be carried in

concealment like a skeleton;


back from the image lingered

longest over, of the blade,

which is, most certainly,

sharpest of all.


So now, back from the knife,

another image looms,

that of a clock pricking

away beneath the flesh;


and thereupon another,

the first, of a bullet,

that is so coarse-toothed

yet bites so hard;


and thence to the recollection

such images bedeck,

so much more powerful

than the power of language itself;


and, eventually, to the

presence of raw reality

that engendered the memory

and engenders it still;


and, last of all, reality itself,

raw and so violent that

in struggling to grasp it,

every image comes to grief.


For the Love of Prepositions Part11

For the Love of Prepositions Part 11—Till Death us do Part

Till, until, unto and unless

If ever a reminder were needed that, where language is concerned, rules can, will and should be broken, the well-known phrase from the Anglican wedding vows with which I title this post is surely one of them. The phrase deviates from standard present-day English in various respects. It does not obey strict Subject-Verb-Object word order. It unnecessarily uses auxiliary do. The verb does not agree with the subject with respect to number. A colloquial abbreviated form of until is used.

But hang on! There is nothing ‘wrong’ with till. Till or til is actually older than until, going back to Anglo Saxon and beyond. Scandinavian languages still use this ancient preposition more broadly in the spatial and temporal senses of Modern English to. Until does not appear until the turn of the 12th century.

The un- prefix also means till; it has nothing to do with the homonymous negative prefix. By reduplicating the temporal distance like this, the word gains a somewhat wistful, lugubrious, if not grim flavor. If you really want to drag things out, you can also add up, to produce long drawn out yawning phrases such as up until the very last minute.

We find the same un- prefix in more antique-sounding but actually more recent (14th century) unto. This word has been kept alive largely by the King James Bible, where it is used to lend duly reverent weight to joyless prognostications: “Unto dust shalt thou return,” “sickness unto death” and so forth. Different from until, unto can also be used spatially and as a fancy synonym for to: “And God spake unto Abraham” and the like.

Likewise, perusal of an etymological dictionary informs us, somewhat to our surprise, that the un in unless likewise has nothing to do with the negative prefix and is of relatively recent provenance, beefing up less or lest with a prefix that was originally on-, meaning on the condition less and borrowing some of the pseudo-atavistic weight of unto and until.

Defendants famously have the right to be considered innocent unless and until proven guilty. The until is necessary here. Otherwise, proof of guilt could be deemed to attach automatically in some circumstances and due process would thereby be dispensable.

Lest, by the way, is a contraction of the less that and means that not. It too has a somewhat intimidating judgmental or else feel to it. Lest we forget…

To return to till, readers may also be as intrigued as I was to discover that it is cognate with the verb till (prepare land for planting) by way of a Proto-German root which also gave rise to Modern German Ziel (purpose, end, goal). It is entirely unrelated, however, to the noun till (cashbox), which belongs to the toll, tally, teller word cluster.


Rilke’s Duino Elegy #4


[I’ve been taking some time off 200 this month to re-read and translate Rilke. Here is my attempt at a rendition of Duino Elegy #4. This is work still in progress. Feel free to slag it off as much as you please!]


O trees of life, when do you winter?

We, heedless, all at odds, unlike

the migrant birds, lagging and obsolete,

launch ourselves of a sudden on

the wind and drop into a listless mere.

Blossom & decay alike are known

to us. And somewhere lions still roam

and know no powerlessness, so long

as they are grand and master. We,

though, though single-minded, yet full

feel the cost of other. Hatred is our


Aren’t lovers always

thrown up against the borders of each

other—they who each promised hot

chase, home fires, and the whole wide world?

Sketched for an eye-blink there, a sharp

contrasting ground’s painstakingly prepared

for us to see. Nescient of the contours

of feeling, we know only the force

that shapes it from without.


Who has not sat, anxious before

the curtain of their heart?

It’s raised: a parting scene.

Simple to understand: the garden

is familiar. Slow pan; first comes

the dancer. Not the. Enough!

For, though so light of foot,

he is in character, and turns

into a townsman pottering

about his kitchen once the play

is done. I do not want such half-

stuffed masks; rather a puppet.

She’s not hollow. I’ll take the skin

stretched over a wire mesh, her

face of mere outward appearance.

I’m here! Whether the lights go out,

whether I’m told ‘no more!’, whether

the gray & empty mist wafts from

the stage upon me; whether not

one of my so quiet forebears

will sit down beside me: no

woman, nor the brown-eyed

squinting boy. And yet I stay; there’s

always something to see. I’m right,

am I not, father? Your life was so

embittered by mine, my first murky

infusion of need you tasted

over and over as I grew, and

troubled by the aftertaste of

so far-fetched a future, you tried

my clouded gaze. And, now deceased,

so often in my deepest dreams

there you appear fearful for me

and forgo all the composure

of those imperturbable realms

of after-life the dead enjoy

to claim my sliver of fate,

don’t you? Is it not right, you

who would love me only for

the sweet onset of my loving,

which I always shirked, when, even

in the very throes of love your

empty countenances turned

to an outer space and you

were there no more?…

And, should the mood

take me now, I wait before the puppet-

show, or rather, gaze so absorbed

that in the end a countervailing

angel must take unto the stage

to cancel out my seeing eye

and heavenward sweep the ragged dolls.

Angel and Puppet. There’s a show!

United there is all that we have rent

in twain merely by being around.

Then, from our lifetime’s seasons, comes

the ambit of all change. It’s over,

over and over, the angel plays.

Must not the moribund possess

some inkling of the shallowness

of our performance; how nothing

is itself. O hours of childhood

when, behind the images, the past

was more than passed, and yet no future

lay before us! We grew and sometimes

yearned to grow too soon, half for the sake

of those who had no more than being

grown. And yet, when left alone, we

pleasured in permanence and stood

there in the gap between play and thing,

upon a point from the beginning

ushered in to being as the ground

for sheer occurrences.

Show me

a child as is, set in a cluster

of stars, and put the distance

meter in her hands! Who kneads

the gray bread of a childhood death

and bakes it hard or leaves the doughy

fruit stone of it in her rounded mouth?

Killers are simply fathomed. This,

though, death—the whole damned lot of it—

even ere life begin, so softly

to embody yet do no evil:

that beggars all description indeed.


200 Section 22 Bella

The girl he picked up at the Hefner concert

in 1999 has now grown wrinkled and old

with all the hymns to the alcohol

and the cigarettes and a splash of cheap

overpowering scent from a tempting

crafted glass vial can

still leap out like a genie

and make them seem and feel

hot and dizzy and young,

when the booze and drugs

finally kick in; can still tempt

the two of them together

as they toddle back home from the pub.

Poison—enunciated in a camp French accent—

was always her and his favorite. The exotic

stale tang of risqué sex lasting long into the next day

and beyond, if you do not wash it off.

Bella sprays the Poison she has fished out of the trash

onto her wrist and raises it to his nose. Smell this.

Sweet. They fuck. Good as the real thing. Slump

in sleep. He wakes up to her convulsing body and frothing

mouth and dials 911. Not quite feeling himself.


Discharged from hospital alone, he walks home and runs

his hands over the foxgloves in the summer hedgerows

in remembrance of Bella Donna picked

up at a Hefner concert in 1999,

now gone wrinkled and cold.

200 Section 21 Potpourri






magie noire tabac

blond Place Rouge

Moscou Paris can-

can nuit joie tabu

snuff Chantilly

fracas rose quadrille

életrique coup de dés

idole interdit l’ivresse

Ypsilon climat rive gauche

opium ivoire lumière

poison ma liberté savante

éternité trésor égoïste

Minotaure sublime poême

Lolita alchimique

J’adore le passage d’enfer

allure fragile

200 Section 19 Jessie Down

Jessie Down and Out

Jessie has been pronounced well enough

not to be a drain on NHS resources any more

and turned out onto the streets, even though

she has nowhere to go. She hitches a ride

with an HGV driver in exchange for a fuck,

hoping she has given him some vicious STD,

as he dumps her off like a sack of coal

outside the cathedral, as cold night draws in.

Jessie wanders round sticking out her hand to

passing strangers begging spare change. Tugs

at the coats of some. “I’m just out of the nut-

house,” she pleads. “Give us a break.” They shrug

her off and walk on. Jessie stuffs some garbage

up her dress to keep herself warm and make her

look like she’s up the duff again. That way the pigs

are less likely to kick the shit out of her during the night,

she reasons, and beds down on bubble wrap

in an empty cardboard refrigerator box.


Jessie Rises

Jessie is woken by a pile of newspapers being dumped down

beside her. She has slept surprisingly well. It must be the hospital

meds that haven’t yet quite worn off, she thinks. Rips out a copy

of the morning rag and reads the headlines. It is all about Yu.

She shuffles round the corner into a Starbucks. “Out!” the barista

immediately roars. MacDonald’s are less fussy, although

the early morning Eastern European worker sighs angrily as Jess

dumps a pile of low denomination coins from dirty hands

onto the counter in exchange for a prefabricated breakfast

of hash browns and sausage and scrambled egg and a plastic

cup of scalding hot instant coffee tottering on a tray. She watches

folk go by off to work through the window as she eats and reads.

I know that place, she thinks, looking at the pictures of the police raid.

It’s not that far from here. Maybe I’ll leg it there. Snoop around. See

what I see.

Jessie Out and Down

The close is ringed off by police like an atomic bomb

has just gone off. Jessie slips round the back, taking care not to cross

the blue and yellow crime-scene perimeter tape, down along

the muddy banks of the brook where lazy folk dump their trash,

slipping, cursing, picking up knick-knacks that might have some

monetary value somewhere down the line. You’d be surprised

what rich folk toss out. A still corked bottle of Babycham;

a bauble box, shards of willow-pattern crockery, a baby’s diaper,

talcum powder, an intact bottle of French perfume still wrapped

in the fancy packaging of the franchise from which it came. Jess

scoops them all up in her skirt and wades on along the brook, enjoying

the feel of the cold water and stones on her booted feet,

the weeds lapping against her thighs. A UFO appears in the sky

tracking her. They want her clues, she thinks. Or maybe her meds

are just wearing off. She reaches a point where the brook runs

out through a rusted metal pipe into the sewage treatment plant.

The UFO—or is it a police helicopter—is still hovering around.

She panics. ‘Better get rid of these,’ she thinks, and ditches her treasure

under some rotting leaves. Sheds her clothes. Tiptoes

over the corrugated ruddy tube and dives, like a diving bird or an Olympic

athlete, in an arc into the fetid waters below and disappears.

200 Section 18 Yu Home

Yu gingerly turns the handle

and shoves the front door open

over the accumulation of local

advertisers and electricity bills

under the letter box in the hall.

The TV and the living room

furniture have all been taken

off by Special Branch. She

treads the uncarpeted staircase

up to her empty bedroom;

looks out through the uncurtained

window over the greenhouse

and the garden fence, the sewage

treatment center, the steeple

in the distance like a hypodermic

needle piercing the sky, the unseen

ancient circle of mystical stones,

the chemical and biological

weapons facility, the motorways

speeding through rolling downs,

the big city, the white cliffs,

the P & O ferry, continental

Europe stretching out far

and wide from the Gare du Nord

out across the unconquered

endless steppes of her motherland.

200 Section 17 Porton Down

[Section 17 of 200 is divided into two subsections. The first recycles the comic bickering middle-aged couple, She and Hen, from 17. The scene is loosely based on a dimly remembered real event from my childhood, in which my mother insisted—out of sheer nosiness and bloody-mindedness, with no political motivation whatsoever—that we drive up as close as possible to a high-security chemical weapons facility. The second subsection contains a series of strophes and antistrophes sung by fictitious choruses, in the manner of chorus and anti-chorus in the earliest Greek tragedies.]

Part 1


She and Hen drive up to the gates

of the chemical weapons lab

south of Salisbury Plain. A grim sign

on the gate informs chance visitors

intruders will be shot on sight.

“Drive a bit closer,” She demands.

“I need a good look at the place,”

she adds, as Hen protests but still obeys.

Soldiers appear,

and Hen rams the gearstick into reverse

and presses the accelerator down

with frightened foot. “Bloody

coward, you,” She grumbles, looking back

at the picnic basket now pitched off of the back seat

onto the oily floor of the clapped out old car.

“And now you’ve ruined our packed lunches too.”

Part 2

Chemical Weapons Experts vs. Conspiracy Theorists

A Chorus for Two Choirs


We drive to work in modest

little cars and supermarket clothes

that no-one will espy.

We check in with our finger-

prints and swap our jeans

for hazmat suits

as soon as we arrive.


We hang around the ancient

stones and rail against the sky.

From time to time a naked

woad-smeared man crawls

under the barbed-wire fence,

so long as he is not afraid to die.


We work with lethal chemicals

and spy around the world

to make the world a better place

for ordinary Joes.

We handshake with the Saudis

and spend our hols in high hotels

that loom over the deserts

of the UAE. We drain the minibar

and join the dancing Bedouins

in their revelry. We toast

arms dealers and dictators

with glasses raised over an open fire

and bid with spells the winds

and Djinns of change come in

to desolate your holy land.


We are the police that free

the world of weakness and of crime.

We tap away at night with keys

to prove fake news and

false flags downed

their towers of avarice

and delight and blame

them for the violent work

that we ourselves have done

with language. We spin

a web of lies around

your carcass of a soul and mind,

cocoon it in a comfortable crib

of our inventing and send

you off far into space

to languish and to dream

to no avail.


We put our passports

in our jacket pockets

and wend our way

on government-paid

flights back to our little homes

within easy commuting distance

of our work at Porton Down.

Our toxic legacy outlasts

all prehistoric megaliths

or seams of coal. Our mortgages

are paid by spooks, our cellars

dug in deep and sealed and packed

with weapons ready for the end.