Poems on Topiary, Unrecollected Icebergs & the Submersed Globe
POEM AS TOPIARY
Al fresco gardener pulls a bread-knife
from the rosebush [_] Al Gore appears
on an island off the coast of Second Life
(a crew from Al Jazeera trails behind)
I geotag myself in five configurations:
awake; asleep; astride the leafy block
with secateurs, et cetera [_] soft crash
of the monitor [_] latency of carbons
[_] there is no taser in this cupboard:
mark Fallujah with an almanac of snaps
a dusky avatar hovering in the jasmine fields:
black as tar, running thin [_] and so
to cut and frame the privet as an obelisk
or maze of dusted streets: this is an act
of cruelty [_] of which I read
speeding through Babel with soft cap
Anglians I contemplate the tower,
hanging gardens, empire, how so much
history could fit in just one place
the lag is soft [_] like the first
second of sleep
A 16th century lock mechanism from a large metal box, Citadel of Dinant, Belgium. Photo by Ben Heine.
How can I begin to speak of change, my love,
who lives in the smallest of time.
We cannot see beyond the next financial year.
I have no recollection of an iceberg,
though I do recall the plastic bag discarded on the lawn
seen through a window as we tried to speak of change
or how we might begin. Its shape was not unlike an iceberg’s.
For frosty things I say a prayer like a lock.
ISLAND OF CORAL
From the house, from the spring-line, from the sugar cane factory
we watched the breaking of colour on a false horizon.
As if that fizzling ring might hold back ocean.
Life distils into petrified matter: cabbage, ginger roots,
skeletal fungi shuffled by the currents like a card trick.
Dry bones are washed in their millions:
job lots of diamonds adrift on the tide-line
at dusk. A horned anemone perched on a rock,
junked mine I would hold in my palm like a fruit,
or a can or something stripped of its label
that is lodged in a thicket and turned into stone.
Between the land and the reef there is all that we need.
Edwin’s sparrow-hawk, a luminous globe submersible.
O how small and happy are we in the rising tide how
breathless and tumbling repelled and drawn by the reef.
I could keep here forever suspended with my heart
in my mouth and a lungful of sea.
And you are death, the howling of dogs, the noise in the forest,
my shadow, an island enclosed in a cloak.
An island of slaves who stepped off the rock into wide, open air.
The book is available for purchase here.
THE WILD CULTURE SCRIBBLER'S QUESTIONNAIRE
1. What is your first memory and what does it tell you about your life at that time and your life at this time?
My memories of early childhood are very indistinct. If anything sticks out it would be attending various family weddings in Scotland (my mother was born in Dundee). One was held in a small castle and I remember being shown the 'haunted' tower and glimpsing what I thought was the shadowy aura of 'the Green Lady'. I remain susceptible to such fantasies.
2. Can you name a handful of artists in your field, or other fields, who have influenced you — who come to mind immediately?
Iain Sinclair is perhaps the most obvious of my influences (and sometime collaborator); not so much in aesthetic terms but because of the expansiveness of his artistic revisioning of the city.
I listen to music all the time. It's my greatest pleasure. In moments of pomposity, I like to think of my poems accompanied by John Taverner or perhaps Godspeed You! Black Emperor.
3. Where did you grow up, and did that place and your experience of it help form your sense about place and the environment in general?
I grew up in south London, in a little in between place called Herne Hill. Caught as it is between the inner city atmospherics of Brixton and Camberwell, on the one hand, and on the other, bucolic Dulwich with its parks, playing fields and hidden woodlands, Herne Hill gave me a real, lived sense of the dynamic between the wild and the urban. This is something I continue to be fascinated by and to write about. I'm currently working on a non-fiction book called London Clay, which opens with a consideration of the social and geological fault lines of south London.
4. If you were going away on a very long journey and you could only take four books — one poetry, one fiction, one non-fiction, one literary criticism — what would they be?
Piers Plowman by William Langland, Bleak House by Charles Dickens, the Bible, and I would replace the literary criticism with some uplifting music: Monteverdi's Vespers, perhaps.
5. What was your most keen interest between the ages of 10 and 12?
Those were quite bleak years for me, and my memory is hazy, but I was a precocious reader. And I played a lot of sport as a kid (always to a middling standard).
6. Was there one point when you discovered your ability with poetry?
I guess it was about 15 or 16. From the start I wrote with great intensity. I probably take my work much less seriously nowadays!
7. Do you have an ‘engine’ that drives your artistic practice, and if so, can you comment on it?
Let's call it the Ambiguity Engine. I aim for sincere confusion! Jokes in all the wrong places. Syntax on the cusp between narrative and nonsense.
8. If you were to meet a person who seriously wants to do work in your field — someone who admires and resonates with the type of work you do, and they clearly have real talent — and they asked you for some general advice, what would that be?
Follow your interests. Have ideas and obsessions. It's not about writing the perfect poem, or following the rules and forms you think have been made for you. Always experiment, even when it leads to failure. Especially when it leads to failure. Don't judge success by prizes or publication alone. Poetry has its own currency.
9. Do you have a current question or preoccupation?
This new collection [Dark Islands] weaves together a network of ideas around place, the body, protest, money, magic and the occult. I am especially interested in questioning authenticity, whether that's political or religious 'truth', and playing with the idea that poetic language has privileged access to 'real life'. I wear a lot of masks and speak through a lot of voices in these poems: but at my core is a naive desire for radical honesty, 'to smuggle my breath inside yours.'
10. What does the term ‘wild culture’ mean to you?
It is the most wonderful loaded phrase; it sets up all sorts of tensions between what we know and can control and what we cannot. It's a provocation, and something of a paradox. It chimes with how I experience the world. There is a little of the wild in all of us.
11. If you would like to ask yourself a final question, what would it be?
I would ask myself what I am currently working on. And I would answer: a sequence called Reliquary. The poems are very short and are about why we put rotting things in elaborately decorated boxes.
TOM CHIVERS is a poet, publisher and editor whose poetry publications include How to Build a City (Salt, 2009), The Terrors (Nine Arches, 2009), Flood Drain (Annexe, 2014) and, as editor, the anthology Adventures in Form (Penned in the Margins, 2012). Tom makes perambulatory, site-specific and audio work for organisations such as LIFT Festival, Cape Farewell, Humber Mouth, Bishopsgate Institute and Southbank Centre. He was born in South London and lives in Rotherhithe in southeast London.