Hymn to Ubiquitin

[A Poem inspired by Covid, CRISPR, and Uber drivers]

Ubiquitous utraquistic

Everyman, Jack-of-all-trades,

master of none, born

between Gen-X and Y2K;

skipping fickly from one

strand to another, promiscuous

and Promethean in dour

grinning grim-faced

gigolo-like work.

Excellent in its underdog job.

*

Dandy, punk, yob, digging up and dishing out

dirt. Tagging off and turfing out shit.

Done up to the harlequin nines,

sweeping, cleaning, clearing up

sorting, drawing, dragging out,

tearing, putting, breaking down,

getting through and by and around;

cajoling trans to cis and back;

happy hanging out around nucleus

and microvilli and organelles;

shepherding oocytes and apoptosis,  

rocking babes in cribs, shrouding the dead,

ubiquitin always gets the gig.

*

Telephone operator, wielder of

Solomonic sword, signalman,

scribe, air-raid warden, fire-fighter,

nurturer of fruit in the womb;

maker, keeper, winder-up, repairer,

of watches and clocks. Cogsmith,

grandfather, cuckoo, grim reaper,

bearer of babes and arms. Harbinger

of doom. Swiss Army knife

of complexes and molecules.

Whip-cracker, share-cropper, master,

dealer, trader, bondsman, serf.

*

In the Chronicles of ubiquitin,

homo sapiens and brewer’s yeast

are kissing cousins—human souls

a bad off-batch

–a foul experiment gone wrong.

More dead wood in the family tree.

*

In the time of ubiquitin, the élan vital

has made but baby-steps

through emptiness. In the light-years

ubiquitin spans, intelligence

is but a handful of bytes, a few bits

and bods in a cytological bag, urging us out back

towards the stars.

*

Ubiquitin is the alien

knitting within…

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Back Catalogue # 6b Bridge and Ford (1994)

[As part of the ongoing project of publishing poems from my back catalogue and in response to the #WordPrompt prompt ‘Bridge‘, I am posting this 1994 prose poem entitled Bridge and Ford]

Bridge and Ford

A bridge is no place. A road in the air, thrown between never more than two separate earthbound regions. Normally obviating something – water or a drop – that is of another element; to which it nonetheless owes its name.

To claim a bridge has arms and hands wedded at the centre of gravity forever would be a sentimental exaggeration. 

Bridges pull themselves up by their own weight: an exercise in the reflexive mood. A complex of just stable tensions. Concrete and stiff cables swaying in the wind. Fragile strength. At times calm and strong; at others rippling and turbulent.

Yet, all bridges, of whatever character, share the same destiny. The same project; the same end. Slung by human beings  – a non-illusory rainbow – between unlike places; denying or defying something of an utterly unlike nature; generating association.

Like a word whispered cleanly in the ear. Through an air, willing yet alien. 

*

A ford, conversely, is a place where nature cedes right of way at times, depending on whimsy or season. Semi-permeable, it does not link entirely unlike things. Folk on either side speak the same tongue. Have grown up together. At a sensible distance. Road and flow blend together in a pleasing rhythm. A proper name known by heart; but without meaning.

View (2021-2022)

[This most recent poem, inspired by the view from Guararapes-Gilberto Freyre International Airport in Recife on a nowadays rare foray into the outside world, was originally composed with a view to celebrating my planned leaving of Brazil for the first time in 25 years. That departure has yet to come to pass but the poem remains. It has a 14-line sonnet-like structure.]

View 

The view sprawls out from Bon Voyage,
from vultures circling the landfill,
from battlefield where church repelled
invading Dutch to hill-ascending algal
bloom of slum and concrete river.

In middle-ground, workers ply jets
with fuel and prechilled food and keep
the rainbowed tarmac of the runway clean,

while, at my feet, a yellow bem-te-vi,
trapped by the fake canopy of sky that is
the airport roof, hops round and pecks at scraps
of rice strewn on the un-swept food-hall floor.
As if this transitory stopping-place meant to provide 
some sort of haven for every fleeing flying thing.

Back Catalogue # 12 Summer Winter

[To return to the suspended project of posting items from my extensive back catalogue of creative writing, here is a piece from 1998. Around this time, the tone of my poems took a much more somber turn. This short piece inspired by the semi-arid region of Northeast Brazil was written shortly after my mother died, at a time when I was feeling increasingly homesick in Brazil. Often minimal, doleful, my poems from this period dwell on drought, the inversion of seasons, nostalgia, a perverse longing for winter. Some foreshadow my later work on urban landscapes.]

Source: Public Domain

Summer Winter

                                       Here
                                       there are no seasons
                                       life is precious and cheap

                                       the shrub has no sap
                                       most of the dry year
                                       the twigs of a million crucifixes
                                       against the blue and brown and sun

                                       a drop revivifies

                                       death waiting
                                       patient
                                       for occasional life

                                       life a sliver of a thing

                                       the juazeiro's
                                       green fleece
                                       prevailing
                                       like a local god
                                       over this dearth of life.

                                       Everything is not water.



Back Catalogue #10 The Balloon (1997)

Photo by Robertgombos, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

[This poem, written partly in Brazil, partly in the UK, was one of my first to attempts to use lined free verse]

The Balloon

Did

rubber planters conspire

to extract the child’s smile

by this blue fruit-shaped

sac inflated with human breath?

Or

does its smileless good humour

respond merely to a general instinct

for rotund pliant breath-filled things?

But

if you try to clasp it

it doesn’t yield itself

with the same responsive ease as

other air pockets;

But

needs balancing on the fingertips

And

reacts if touched too roughly

as if scalded

or

scratched

with a squeal

and

we respond in kind

a sympathetic wince

And

if you puncture it

it deflates in an instant

to a limp

and

valueless rag

like something with its spring

snapped

the pinprick exaggerated

to a gash by the eagerness

of the air to rush out of it.

Yet 

if you try to keep it

– a memento 

of a birthday party –

safe

in a corner of the room

surely but quietly

it expires

through the knotted nipple at its root

shrivels wrinkles depreciates

to a more richly rubbery smelling

but 

altogether inferior article

less inviting to touch

but

less sensitive also

*

A balloon

is something

whose cheerfulness

is always

tense and over-inflated

fated to explode or sag

like a star

And

a happy face painted on it

appears at first human

but

ridiculous

then human

but

morbid

for the wasted

and

stagnating effort

invested in it.

Back Catalogue #9 How to Describe a River (1996)

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

            [This was one of the last of my early prose poems, written shortly after I arrived in Brazil]

How to Describe a River

            It takes time, normally, for water to inscribe a relatively permanent mark on the earth’s surface. Hence, the antiquity of the words used to describe it: rivers, lakes, mires.

            A river: something it is impossible to embrace. Hence the neurotic debonair quest for origins; the melancholy of seeing one pour itself out into the sea; the sadness of abused estuaries.

            A river describes a line no geometry can formulate, showing up with merciless accuracy, every strength and imperfection, every weakness and resistance of the underlying land it slowly scours.

            … And there are rivers, it is told, in the heart or horn of Africa, that discharge their mighty bodies of water not into an ocean, but into searing desert sands in one last epic gasp of evaporation, translated by a distant but omnipotent sunlight into vapor and air.

            No need to describe a river: its banks, the boulders, pebbles pushed patiently, wearingly along its bed, the willows washing their hair mournfully in its still green bends, the white exhilarating rush down mountainsides; lilies, trout, swans, waterfalls. No need to describe a river. A river is its own autograph.

Back Catalogue #7 Coconuts (c. 1995) and #8 Flints (c. 1990)

[Coconuts is one of the first poems I wrote in Brazil. It can be viewed as a companion piece to Flints, written five years earlier, and reflects my continuing interest in the tradition of prose poetry]

 Alexandra Tran on Unsplash

Coconuts

Each one is a miniature Argo. Absurdly over-fortified. A living fortress. A galleon, obsessed by security. Shut tight as a rock. A puritanical seed. And yet, their modesty holds no surprises; no pearls or gold. Not much more liquid than a spit. A coconut is a cup closed at birth. A breast we have access to only by the hatchet.

They contain water when young but as they grow old and hirsute bear a sweet white milk. The opposite of us. They mature into lactation; in a clutch of testicle-like breasts, like a graven idol, promise limitless manna. An aged wet-nurse, long past child-bearing; offering, like a housemaid, her obstinate labor to express this barren milk. A uterus within a stone.

*

Their palms lean out over the sea like refugees. Like castaways, imploring it to conjure up a passage home. Though they know not where home is. They cast their seed upon the waters in absent-minded hope; but thereby only multiply the generations of waifs. They cannot dance capoeira to remember, nor drink rum to forget; cannot sing unless the wind aid them; they know no beat; they cannot fight back against their imposed exile; as they age they just lean out more and more urgently into the sea. Their saudade eventually destroys them; their tough roots designed to make a home even of sand are outweighed by their nostalgia and they crash at night into the shallow waves. Their leaves and bark are gradually stripped off by the tides and their trunks charred by the salt as they lie prostrate in the wet sand. No god comes to them in their distress. But, like Orpheus, they are disintegrated and, limb by limb, washed out to sea. Finally they re-appear on the beach as driftwood, where their porous bleached limbs may still inspire some fleeting enthusiasm in children or artists.

Source: Picture by James St. John https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brecciated_flint_(Vanport_Flint,_Middle_Pennsylvanian;_Nethers_Flint_Quarries,_Flint_Ridge,_Ohio,_USA)_10_(40101461301).jpg

Flints

In places, where the sea’s transgression once laid milky mud over Southern England, a gel, subtracted from the decomposing armour of crustacean, has been concentrated by the corpses of sea-anenomes and other once lived-in pockets and concreted into brownish cryptocrystalline tubers, thereby causing to arrive on earth these most helpful stones known to man.

No stone was ever more eager to be held. A flint is a willing quarry; keen to lend a hand; a disposable external bone. It breaks open like a coconut and its conchoidal inner surfaces, unlike the scales of fish, slot ideally into finger-joints and palms. Its glazed, slightly greasy, mottled, white reflective coating a pleasure both to feel and to behold. Flint is brittle but it cannot be broken without thereby multiplying its virtues. Like other uncomplicated organisms, it reproduces by fission.

            Flints do not occur in a single mass, but in static shoals set fast in the chalk; they are discrete stones. Reserved; as if for us, to use. Flints, although they have never been ripped by an igneous uplift from the earth, can be taught, by a sort of accident, to ignite of their own accord. Through this latent talent they are mighty as blatant thunderclouds. But, because they do not flaunt their power, but exhibit it with modest reluctance, only on request, they are gifted with fabulous longevity.

            It is thus quite impossible for us to grasp the immensity of their translives, which cannot thus be said to exhibit epic scope.

            Once the bliss of jelly has ceded to the joy of substance and angles, flints are happy to lie dormant for ages in their hosts, where they occupy no more living space than the volume of their own growth. They do not need extra room to breathe. Their forbearance is from time to time rewarded by exotic travels. For such odysseys, these amphibious minerals need no ships; take no risks: they cannot be drowned. And, when washed up on distant beaches, they are never attended by princesses and tell no tales.

            At best they are admitted for a time as minions, and in battle will act with unswerving loyalty as their master’s right-hand man. In time, they are displayed in museums and admired by writers, geologists or artists, whose lives they will as long outlast as they have already outdone them in their work. Were it possible to imagine that there are souls, which survive the decomposition of the flesh, these could not be as air, but would have to be hard, discrete, like flints. Convenient, but resilient, figments of hope. Though there may be no souls, flints occasion some hard proof that there is much more to life after death, but that this after-life, although more durable and protracted an existence, bears but little impression of its transient, gelatinous precedent.

Back Catalogue #6 Electricity Pylons

[This prose poem was one of the last I wrote before leaving England for Brazil]

Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash

Electricity Pylons (c. 1993)

Nothing befits an English landscape more pleasingly than lines of electricity pylons. Leisurely they hold up 50,000 volts like clothes on a washing-line. Some, for instance on the edge of motorways, are so large they could comfortably accommodate a small herd of sheep or goats in the area described by their feet. The  perimeter rimmed with barbed wire. Others contort themselves into bizarre shapes, like the faithful at some charismatic worship. Various as the letters of an ancient alphabet. Or uniform, converge in lines of increasing frequency, like dockers looking for work, to unload their cargo at the power station. 

Each one is a miniature Eiffel Tower that cannot be brought back from Paris as a souvenir. Nor are many honored by representation in picture postcards. Having legs and a sort of head and work to do, they are almost human. They are human, since they serve no purpose but to serve us. Have no place in nature. Which is why nature so gladly accepts their decoration. No uglier than tinsel on a Christmas tree. No more menacing than cartoon monsters stomping innocently over England’s green farmlands.

*

And perhaps, one day, these steel beasts of burden will become obsolete. Most will then be tugged down without a thought and used for scrap. But the odd one, will through chance or neglect, be left standing. Will rust; fall into disrepair. Shorn of its load and its vital bond with its co-workers, will become a monument. Will become an attraction for future tourists, who will come, like Winckelmann or Byron to admire and speculate upon the forgotten function of this rusting megalith.

Back Catalogue #5 Yeast (1992)

Photo by Geoffroy Delobel on Unsplash

Yeast

Yeast is the ghost of life. It drowns in the liquid fruits of its own labour to inspire men with wine. By its death, yeast says yes to life. Animates us. Kneaded easily into dough. It inspires unleavened loaves.

Yeast was the first domesticated animal. More ductile than goats or kine. A kind of animal ore.

Yeast unites both the three states of matter and the four more original elements. Gas and liquid flow utraquistically from its solid body. Born on the breeze, it smells like something just torn from the earth: dank yet sweet. By its death, it creates a quintessence of water that ignites the minds of men. Incarnadine as air in leavened bread, as fire in beer, it satisfies both our carnal and our intellectual needs. It equilibrates for a few hours the imbalance, by which we, unlike it, are cursed: our bellies always too empty, our brains always too full.

As for our spiritual needs. Yeast is the spirit itself. It drowns in its own sweet sweat. Doesn’t try to swim. It gives way to its own way of being. Of expiring. As spirit.

Back Catalogue # 4 The Word Mud (c.1990)

[This programmatic prose poem dates from a period before I started teaching English but already betrays my fascination with the lexis and phonetics of my mother tongue. The poem owes no small debt to Francis Ponge’s Ode Inachevée à la Boue.]

Photo by Dylan de Jonge on Unsplash

The Word Mud

The word MUD is remarkably well adapted to the function it performs. The word MUD thus sets a good example to other less efficient words. For a start it is short: one syllable, three letters; one for each phoneme. Further, each phoneme is entirely necessary for the articulation of the word, adding nothing of itself alone that is irrelevant to mud. These letters are professionals not dilettantes, and here they are superbly directed, their talents neither squandered nor vulgarly showcased. The M, having acquired a precocious talent for expressing that which is round and malleable, extends its repertoire here to include the signification of that which is sticky and amorphous. The word MUD draws full advantage from either sense, but so as not to overemphasize the semi-fluid state, counterpoises the M with the D, which brings to bear here its capacity for density, depth and perhaps a little of its inscrutability too. And yet at the same time brings things down to earth. The vowel, better (although this is not always the case) if pronounced with a Southern English accent, in which it has a more neutral quality, adds to the D a sense of humdrum uniformity and extendibility and smoothes out the potentially jarring juxtaposition of M and D. It is possible furthermore to examine the perfect location of MUD in relation to the neighboring lay of the linguistic field. It is noticeably isolated. Only the word BUD lies very close to hand, which itself is a very finely crafted word and could hardly be endowed with an array of connotations more different from those of mud. MOOD too lies somewhere nearby. BLOOD and FLOOD are not far off. All this seems exactly as things should be. It has taken many centuries of constant wear and use, for MUD to settle to its precise place in the English language. It brings to newer uglier words a hope that they too may one day find their own singular niche.