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.

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200 Section 10 Hymn 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.

200 Section 6 Jude

[Section 6 introduces another witness to the attempted murders. The character is loosely based on Jude in Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure but could be anyone in modern Britain.]

You don’t get much unluckier than being named

for the traitor who betrayed your savior

after dinner with a kiss. Bullied for being Jewish

when you’re not, bullied for having learning

disabilities, back in the day, when that

wasn’t yet a thing. Bullied

for being weak. Bullied for trying to be strong,

when you stand up & snap & throw a brick back

across the playing field, narrowly missing some kid’s

head. Headmaster yanked you up to his office

and threatened you with a now-illegal thrashing.

Protest was useless. You just said ‘Yes, sir’

over and over again, as he battered platitudes

into your brain. Jude dropped out

of school after disappointing O level results

and got a job on a building site. Paddies ragged him

and he ragged them back, with uplifted middle-

finger, tending the concrete mixer.

Jude would trudge back to his DSS funded bedsit

and attempt to write verse;

hang out in bars; met a girl. Jessie

had dribble issues, owing to her high functional

spina bifida, and a serious problem with the booze.

Jude picked her up out of a pool of vomit outside the pub

and took her home. They fucked. Another child was born.

*

Jessie was not the stuff parents

are supposedly made of; nor Jude.

After birth, Jessie flipped; tried to drown the baby

in the baby bath; came after Jude,

cowering in the cupboard under the stairs,

with a kitchen-knife, calling Satan,

mouth frothing as she dug the blade deep

into the cheap chipboard of the cupboard door.

Police and NHS hospital staff struggled to stuff her

into a wailing waiting ambulance and whisk her away.

*

Jude had little in the way of regular income

and a somewhat wayward lifestyle,

as the family court magistrate finally put it.

And Baby Jess was thus duly carted off into care.

*

The scaffolding around the steeple looks Medieval. Some

privatized, some perilously propped up by priests and prayer,

collection plates and the national lottery. The church

totters out over Salisbury Plain, no more durable than

Coventry or Stonehenge come the end of days.

Jude looks down upon the tiny city below, and wishes

himself the will to drum up the courage

to throw himself off out

irrevocably down

into this suburban world.

*

Jude trudges past Yu and Da squirming

on the graveyard bench, hunched up

in his dark coat, and shrugs. “What the fuck!

Nothing to do with me.” Jude walks on homeward;

shoves a bag of prawn curry into his microwave

oven and settles down to watch

zombie movies on his DVD.

200 Section V Breakfast-Dinner-Tea

[Section 5 of 200 is comprises three short subsections entitled ‘Breakfast’, ‘Dinner’ and ‘Tea’, and a free-standing song entitled ‘Sad Yu’s Mirror Soliloquy’.]

  1. Breakfast

Yu’s day begins with a cold shower

and porridge, which is good for the mind.

She jogs through the early morning

fog, barked at by dogs and ogled

by creepy old men. Another cold shower.

What is good for body is also good for mind.

2 Dinner

“Hey, Yu”, someone high-fives her

over their pub carvery Sunday lunch,

gravy bleeding from rare cooked slices of roast beef

into the crevices of chunky amber cuts of boiled swede,

a little pyramid of Brussels sprouts piled up,

a dab of mustard on the side.

“Who was that?” Father snaps.

Yu dumps her cutlery down with a clash

and stomps off

to the partial refuge

of the restroom

in a rage.

Song #1 Sad Yu’s Mirror Soliloquy

They come into the bathroom here

in two by twos

to giggle about boys,

and put graffiti on the walls

and lipstick on their mouths.

They grimace in the mirror

and see themselves revealed.

I look deep in the misted glass

and see no self at all;

only the mirror’s depth and mine,

entwined in an amour.

I put a little razor cut

in an obtruding vein.

I wipe it up immediately

and wash it down the drain.

  1. Tea

‘A nice pot of tea, of course,

is what the British recommend for this time of day,’

Da lies back and intones, looking up and saluting the sun

declining leisurely in the bluish white afternoon sky

behind clouds, as if it were a fallen comrade in arms.

“You’re a Mad Hatter, you are Da,”

Yu quips back, dumping her ass down on the bench beside him

and squinting up through thick perspective-challenged eyeglasses

at the shining steeple piercing the sky. “You know that book

about the steeplejack?” she goes on, dribbling. “I never

liked it. Too grim, like. You know what I mean? Too fucking like…

You know… whatever… ‘a loser’ that’s what the guys from round here

would call that guy. You can get off on capitalism, you know, too

Da. It’s OK now. The world has changed.” Da

is slumped back on the bench barely breathing. “Da!”

Yu shrieks likes a whistle, before she is beset by a flock of demons

and wrestled to the ground by a cop, as she tries to shoo

them off like geese with wild waving wings of hands.

She wakes up three months later, bewildered,

in an NHS hospital, nurses offering her tea.

 

Sheep and Goats

Sheep and Goats—A Footnote to Testing Tests

A Chinese High School math exam question has recently gone viral on YouTube.

It goes something like this:

“A ship is carrying 74 goats and 35 sheep. How old is the Captain?”

As it turns out, there is nothing new about this question. It has often been used over the past forty years or so to test the ability of students to identify ‘fake’ questions, tolerate ambiguity or develop ‘critical thinking’.

The story in fact goes back even further. The French novelist, Gustave Flaubert, posed a similar question to his sister, who was beginning the study of mathematics in school, in a letter dated 1841.

This ultimate origin story is in fact the most interesting part of the puzzle.

In France in the 1840s, universal education was still in its infancy (literally) and many, left and right of the political spectrum, questioned its utility and the motives underlying the introduction of a nationwide school curriculum.

On the right, it was viewed as an attempt to uproot people from their local culture and encourage less privileged members of society to question their lowly status and the class system as a whole.

On the left, intellectuals such as Flaubert saw it as a recruitment drive aiming to produce a mechanized bourgeois society organized exclusively around industry and finance, at the expense of poetry, mystery and genuine human relations.

It is for this reason that Flaubert jokingly poses his sister this pseudo-problem, as she is about to embark on her academic studies.

The answer Flaubert was begging was presumably that an artist (and by extension a person) should be free of the constraints of science and finance and thereby at liberty to choose certain things.

Different from Flaubert, however, in whose communication, the ironic intent is gentle and apparent, recent versions of the question are applied en masse, perhaps with benign intent, but with the clandestine purpose of ‘tricking’ candidates into providing incorrect answers in the interest of ‘scientific’ research.

Online discussions of actual responses to this problem include some very revealing examples.

One Chinese candidate recently looked up the average weight of sheep and goats and the bureaucratic requirements regarding age and experience stipulated for a ship’s captain charged with carrying cargo of this bulk within the territorial waters of the People’s Republic. This candidate concluded that the captain must be aged 28 years or older.

Flaubert would have hated this eminently unpoetic solution. But it is the best, if we assume the question to be a fair one.

Other literal-minded question solvers have not been so resourceful. One hapless French student, confronted with the question in the late 1970s, argued desperately that the number of sheep plus the number of goats is too high to be the age of a person, while the number of sheep divided by the number of the goats is too low. Therefore, the correct answer must be the difference between the two values given.

Flaubert would have hated this candidate’s unctuous but desperate efforts to please his or her masters even more.

And yet, who can blame candidates for not taking such a question seriously in the context of the ordeal of a math exam and attempting to answer it in these terms? Just as experimental subjects consistently pumped up the electric shocks administered in the Milgram experiment.

The ‘sheep and goats’ question is not really about math education, but rather, like the Milgram experiment, about obedience to authority.

People come up with ridiculous answers to this question, not because they are foolish or uncreative, but because they are conditioned to do so by the constraints of an authoritarian educational system.

The experiment is actually self-defeating in its own terms. There are many genuine math problems that have no solution. This may be because no such solution has yet been found or because (more troublingly) it is impossible to find such a solution. Evidence suggests that cases of the latter are by far more numerous.

This means not only that we all know much less than we think but, more worryingly, that there are many things we can never know—not because of our own limitations as human beings or those of our technology, but because of the essential ambiguity and inscrutability of the things themselves.

Disturbing this may be, but we would all be better served, were this fundamental uncertainty included openly in our school curricula and political discourse, rather than used divisively to test the supposed degree of intelligence or stupidity of students and tests, or politicians and voters; sorting them, by way of some kind of authoritarian trickery, into groups of sheep and goats.

So far as math and other questions are concerned, ‘Duh’ is often the best answer. Gödel, Homer Simpson and the Zen masters told you so.

200 Sections 3 and 4

[I press ahead with posting this long dark poem 200 about (literal or metaphorical) poisoning. Here are Sections 3 and 4, which take a somewhat Gothic allegorical turn. Bear with me. I promise it will get more comical in later sections.]

200 Section 3 Newcomer

A flash of electricity in a retort

& I am born lethal from birth,

seep, weeping, from the distillation tube,

over the stained wood of a lab bench

made of felled trees. I spray my first

toxic inspiration of this foul world,

back out into the unmasked faces

of my progenitors. Adopted,

I fall into the arms of nurses

veiled by headscarves and masks:

a well-adapted happy psychopathic child.

200 Section 4 Alma Miasma

The ghost she gave up

is now the guest of her whitened face,

her breath smoke, her make-up

gas mask. Tubes of lips and nose

no longer connect her

to the perfumes and pollen

of the world. Morphine numbs her.

Her last expiration of methane-scented breath

clouds a mirror with germs,

sighing out fecundity, radiance

still in her glassy lifeless eyes.