Episode 37

My Beautiful Comrade from the North by Matthew Caley

 

Matthew Caley reads ‘My Beautiful Comrade from the North’ and discusses the poem with Mark McGuinness.

This poem is from:

Trawlerman’s Turquoise by Matthew Caley

Trawlerman's Turquoise book cover

Available from:

Trawlermans’s Turquoise is available from:

The publisher: Bloodaxe Books

Amazon: UK | US

Bookshop.org: UK | US

 

 

My Beautiful Comrade from the North

by Matthew Caley

     supposedly still
arrives      wrapped in thrift store fur
an amber necklace
setting off the oval face
     her voice low as a cello

     a cello that plays
Dvorak’s cello concerto
opening up Allegro
B minor then      B major
     nary a nod nor hello

     back by the Elvet
below that grey shrugging bridge
and greyer river
defined by its own stale glow
     goes over a pond weed weir

     sheet music you scan
left / right      and down then      left / right
in the Western tradition
some yawning a.m. when she
     dons her silk shift to prepare

     two coffees      blows through
the
Xpelair      or tilts a
cherry Actimel      steps out of her bra
or bleaches her brown hair with

     lime like the Menaelicians


     the long-flanked Goddess
– Persephone, Demeter –
the other one here
synonym and antonym
     of Muses here earplugs in

     forgive      forgive me
I over elaborate      [that is my mandate]
two lost trainers hang
from lank festival hoardings
     the river      just a river

     just      the dour Elvet
chrome-brown eyes      brown half-top hat
lovely crooked teeth
so quiet inside      such sky
     the suitor is forced to say –

     ‘can I touch your hair?’
‘No.’ ‘Can I touch your shoe?’ ‘No.’
‘Can I touch your small
hard left breast?’      ‘No’ and then      ‘No.’
     ‘Can I touch your furbelow?’

     ‘No.’ ‘Can I touch base?’
‘No.’ ‘Is an outright, flat re-
     fusal your only tactic?’

     ‘No.’


 

Interview transcript

Mark: Matthew, where did this poem come from?

Matthew: Okay, Mark. This is a strange one, and possibly atypical of my poems in that it’s partially based on real-life events. And most of the time my poems come out of language. They don’t come out of actual things that have happened to me. I lie and I make things up and I, collage things. This one is based on a real-life event. And secondly, it’s different in that it probably… there’s probably 18 years in between first drafts for it and actually writing it.

So, there’s a bit of a pre-empting to this. A little bit of a ramble. I know it’s 1999 because my first book had come out and I was touring all over the country to do readings to promote the book as you do. And also, previous to that, I’d been living in Brixton squats since about 1986 and, leading, shall we say, somewhat precarious existence. And a very good friend of mine said, ‘Matthew, this is all gonna end, and you better, you know, buy yourself a flat or something.’ So, I managed to find a place up in Crystal Palace, and this just gave me a little bit of distance from Brixton and perhaps enjoying myself in life a little too much. And I had to disentangle myself in quite a few strange, lovely but, ultimately doomed relationships. And so, I give myself a little bit of distance and it was the last reading I was going to do for my debut book Thirst. And I was due to go up to, Durham, the Durham literary festival to do a gig there.

It was the night before and a feeling came over me. I was in this flat, which had, no furniture, a mattress, and dansette for playing LPs. That’s all I had. And this feeling came over me that when I went to Durham I was going to meet a significant other. I’m not a mystical person or a visionary poet or any of those things. This feeling was very strong. Then I went to bed because I had to get up very early. It’s a long train journey.

I went to Durham on the train, I started writing this poem. Anyway, I couldn’t finish it and I didn’t finish. I got off the train. A beautiful long journey from London up to, Durham. You come into the roots of Durham. I got off the train, I started walking down the high street. It was about two o’clock. The reading wasn’t till the evening. And there was this, beautiful-looking woman walking along the high street. And I started following her, and after about 200 yards, I then stopped and I just said, ‘Matthew, this is… ’ I don’t think the word stalking had been invented in 1999, but I said ‘Matthew, this is ridiculous. What on earth are you doing? You become possessed.’ And I just forgot about it then. I then met a novelist called Kevin Samson just in the street, who was going to be reading at the same reading. And we went off to the pub.

The reading was delayed. It went on for ages and ages and ages because there was a band and they had problem with their sound equipment. Anyway, right at the very end, I’d been reading with my good friends, Brendan Cleary and Paul Summers, that I’d done a tour of Ireland with, and the reading for some reason went exceptionally well. Even though we’re all a bit three sheets to the wind, probably because we were, it just went incredibly well.

And the organizers had put on a coach for a lot of the audience to go back to Newcastle. And Paul and Brendan were going back to Newcastle as well, and this is probably about one o’clock in the morning, and I was… had a motel that was going… They were going to put me up in, down the river. And Paul Summers being a lovely man. I was waving goodbye to them. Paul through the window was going, ‘Matthew won’t be able to remember where his motel is,’ because I have no sense of direction, no sense of memory. Paul, what a lovely man, was thinking of me even in… while he was seven sheets to the wind and facing a long journey home. And behind me, a voice said, ‘I know where the something, something motel is.’

And there was, who turned out to be Pavla, turned out to be my wife. So, this is an extraordinary idea that what I’d been attempting to write, I found out many years later, was a summoning spell. And so, way back in the history when poems were ballads and riddles, primitive countries, people would write various spells to do various things. You might want to hex your neighbour or you might want to do all kinds of nefarious things. But also, to summon somebody up. And what I realized, being a non-mystical person, I’d actually written half a poem and it appeared to summon someone up.

Then, there was a long period where Pavla and I were kind of courting, and then we got together, we’ve been together for 23 years. We have two grown-up daughters. I was back in Durham around about 2016, maybe 2017. I’d been in between times many times and always had a great time reading. This particular time it was a good reading. It was afterwards, I was strolling through the centre of Durham. It was a very, very grey day. One of those days when the greyness is almost like a filter you’ve put on a mat.

There was nothing, there’s hardly anybody in the centre of Durham. And I was walking by the bridge, which is called The Elvet by the river. And there was just nothing. And I think I was tired because I’d done the reading and some recording, and I was just very, very flat. And I was kind of thinking, ‘Whatever happened to those days when I used to write a summoning spell and could conjure my wife out of nothing by writing up home, even though I didn’t believe in summoning spells?’ It’s just what was special about, you know, and then I remembered that poem.

So, then I started writing a poem from the position of the terrible grey flat day and thinking back. So, there’s 18 years in between. So, time is very necessary to that poem, and it’s both looking back. And then from that weird, probably about an hour of feeling kind of, very flat about it and thinking, ‘How on earth could I have been so cloud-headed to be writing a summoning spell and actually conjure someone, apparently, out of the ether?’ From this flatness, suddenly, then there’s a small recovery of the initial moment, I think. I think that’s the curve of the poem.

Mark: Wow. And that was actually the first time you met your wife-to-be?!

Matthew: That was the very first time I met Pavla. Yes.

Mark: So, maybe poems do make something happen.

Matthew: Well, it’s dangerous, you see, It’s dangerous. I tried it as an experiment a few years later. And there’s a poem also in this book that the poem is from. The book is called, Trawlerman’s Turquoise. There’s another poem called, ‘Summoning Spell’, where I just tried to conjure up somebody that I’d known, not an amorous person, but just somebody I’d known for a long time ago that I’d really like to see. And it was a dismal failure. So, there’s another poem in the book called, ‘Summoning Spell’. which I think ends so much for the summoning spell. So, they’re kind of like twin poems, in the book.

Mark: Right. And that one comes earlier in the collection, right?

Matthew: It does, it does.

Mark: So, that’s kind of almost like a misdirection saying summoning spells don’t work, folks. And then you hit us with the one that does work.

Matthew: Yeah. Apparently seemed to work, I would say, appeared to work. I would always gloss.

Mark: So, I mean, I would never have guessed all of this hinterland to this poem, but very often reading your poems, they almost seem to advertise the hinterland. I mean, you say yourself, ‘I over-elaborate’. There’s a lot of sidebars. There’s a lot of trains of thought sparked off by one another. And also, the poems, if you read the whole collection, folks, a lot of them are kind of talking to each other. There’s a lot of references, and characters will appear between poems. So, I guess in that sense, is it true to your normal method?

Matthew: Yes, you’re right. It’s absolutely true to the… if it’s normal or abnormal method. I’m…

Mark: It’s not common!

Matthew: In life, I’m hyperassociative. Anyway, so, we’re talking about my wife Pavla. It drives Pavla mad because, she’s Czech, and she’s an artist but she’s quite logical in her way of thinking. So, she’ll be talking about something and my reply to her talk about this particular subject will be something six – at least six stages removed from it, yet I’ve made the connection to it. And she’ll be going, ‘But we are talking about this.’

So, I’m naturally hyperassociative and I think I’ve relaxed enough in my poetry to allow that to come through. A lot of people, if they read that, it can be off-putting, I’m well aware, to a lot of people. And a lot of early reviews in my work would say things like, ‘Oh, clever,’ and ‘Show off quoting’, and be very perturbed about kind of, ‘you have to track down the reference’. My poems are very much to be read, and they’re sonic forms, I would say, before anything else. And when the poem is being written in the white heat of composition, I sometimes really don’t know the references. So, when I’ve got them down, I then have to look them up on Wikipedia or better forms, he says in his academic hat, and finds out what they are myself! So, I think I do a lot of reading and I don’t have a great retentive memory. So, I do a lot of reading and it, it goes in somewhere, but it kind of regurgitates out strange moments.

Mark: You evidently have a good regurgitative memory. And I think, you know, this is, to me, one of the things I really like about your poetry is it’s fun to read. It’s playful, it’s surprising, and I think it advertises right from the first line, ‘supposedly’. So, this kind of advertises this, you know, this is all happening in the realm of the subjunctive. And you do this quite a bit, don’t you? I mean, you’d like words like ‘apparently’, or ‘allegedly’, at the beginning of poems.

Matthew: Yes. Yeah. That started a long time ago with John Stammers, the mighty Mr. John Stammers, poet, published by Picador, three great books from Picador. And we were just having a workshop-type conversation, but just natural, we’re just drinking on the South Bank or something. It wasn’t a formal thing. And we’re talking about how poems begin. And John likes a very extravagant opening line that is almost taking the mickey out of the romanticism of an extravagant opening line. And a lot of my poetry is about that. It’s about registers of language.

So, I don’t really believe in an ‘about’, you know? And when I’m writing, there’s no ‘about’ in my head. This poem, as I’ve said, because I’ve mentioned my wife, now, everyone will go, ‘This poem is about Matthew Caley’s wife.’ It isn’t totally. It’s more, I think about registers of language and then the feelings behind that, that animate that language.

I always see poems as little attempts, work of art, that’s, you know, I believe poetry is an art form. It’s a little attempt at a work of art. You can never name one that it is one, but that’s what I’m attempting to do. And there’s no ‘about’, I’m not trying to give a message. There’s no, ‘This phrase equals’, like an equation, and then there’s a prose version of it. My poems are constructed out of language and the language totally dictates where the poem goes.

Mark: And, you know, everything is kind of mixed up with everything else, isn’t it? Which I guess is what it’s like to be human and have a mind full of thoughts as you are walking through the world.

Matthew: Well, exactly. A few research has been done. I remember reading research, it was done in the nineties. But if you walked diagonally across one of the major cities of Europe, you would be exposed to something like nearly 2,000 individual signs. That’s not semiotic signs, that’s actual information. Advertising messages, or images, or text, or image and text. So, that was back in the nineties.

So, now if you think in the digital area where you’re walking along with your phone and there’s the backs of trucks and digital billboards and things on people’s t-shirts. We are absolutely bombarded. And there’s some evidence, more recent research that our brains are actually, learning to tune out information because otherwise we might collapse or die or fall down in the road because our brains can’t take all this peripheral information that’s coming in. So, we are in an age of information overload, and I think people do this actually.

They might hear me at a reading and go, ‘He’s ridiculously fast and making all these silly, hyper-associative references’. But people are on the phone, they’re watching television, they’ve got earphones on, someone’s talking to them, and they’ve got a book. And particularly young people, they’re doing all of these things. My daughters are doing all those things, and I come in and go, ‘Dinner’s ready.’ And their head, the back of their head doesn’t even turn. So I go, ‘I said, Dinner’s ready!’ And they go, ‘I heard you dad!’ Because they’re well used to six channels coming in and we all are.

But if you put that in a poem, because people have certain expectations of what a poem is, people are nervous about hearing a poem. They want to get the meaning, They rush to the meaning rather than just enjoy the poem, the sounds of it, and the movement of it, and the cadence of it. So, that’s where that misunderstanding comes, but it’s actually… it’s pretty close to just walking through the city. If you’re not looking at your phone, or possibly you are as well. And that’s an additional layer of information.

Mark: Well, I mean, that’s lovely that little bit in italics, ‘forgive me / I over-elaborate’, but then in square brackets, ‘[that is my mandate]’.

Matthew: Yeah. Yeah. I guess. Yeah, I guess. What we’re doing now, Mark, is something which has the poet themselves talking about the poem. I can’t think of any other thing which lays you open to saying more ridiculous things and being seen to be more ridiculous and up your own backside than poets talking earnestly about their process, you know. I’m very much for the – you’re a very good interlocutor, whatever the word is. So, that’s great. And we can have a lovely time. I think if that becomes the kind of the norm, that we’re trying to translate the poem into a readable piece of prose, that becomes a worry. And so, I do believe in the irreducible if the work’s any good and any work of art is good in the first place, there’s an irreducible something about it, that hopefully can’t be explained away.

Mark: Well, exactly. I mean, that’s why I’m on this mini-crusade on this show to really just… Okay, it’s natural to think, ‘Oh, what is it about, What does it mean?’ But I was saying last time about ‘The Kraken’, it could mean anything. It could mean all kinds of things and probably will mean more things the more people read it into the future. But I’m kind of really interested in how is the poem made and what is it doing?

And clearly you are a very conscious craftsman. And this is probably the record for the podcast, the longest gestation of a poem. So, could you maybe say something about the initial draft and the form that was in, and how you arrived at the final form?

Matthew: I can’t actually remember what the initial drafts were like, and I’ve lost them. So, when I recreated the beginning of the poem, I was kind of doing it from the memory of… which I had a pretty good memory. I have a bad memory. But of that day, I have a very good memory. So, I kind of remembered where the poem was, and I remembered songs and things which were informing it. So, I kind of could reconstruct that beginning.

Form: it’s written in a very close-to-tanka form. And a tanka is like a… you’ve heard of the Japanese poem form, I’m sure most of the listeners will have heard of haiku. Yeah. And that’s originally a Japanese poem form, which the Japanese don’t actually use syllables, but in the English version of it, we count syllables to get a close approximation of the Japanese Haiku, or Hokku as it was originally called. A tanka, I would call, is a morbidly obese haiku. The haiku has two lines, you know, very few lines and five and seven syllables. And, it has three lines sorry. The haiku has three lines and it has five, seven, five syllables and then your haiku is done. The tanka adds two more lines to that. So, you get five lines and two more lines of seven syllables. Now, why I got into the terrible world of counting syllables again, is a bit of a long run-up. I’ll keep it brief.

Ken Smith, the mighty Ken Smith, one of the greatest poets, I think British poets for the last 70 or 80 years, I was very lucky to know him a bit. And he had written a blurb for the back of my first book. And he said, in what he said, he said, ‘Matthew Caley’s long loping line’. Because I’m… if people know me, I’m six foot three and a half, and I’m unusually thin and tall, very skinny legs. So, since there, after he did that, everyone kept going on about Matthew Caley’s long loping line. Indeed the lines in a lot of my early poems are very, very long, and they have to be indented back into that page. Yeah. And I think up to recently, I was one of three or four poets that my publisher publishes who have to have a slightly wider book, size because of that.

And I just got a little, nothing against Ken, not anyone who’d said that, I just, ‘How do I shorten my breadth?’ I want to shorten my breadth. And at the same time I was reading things from Basil Bunting, I think he said, ‘People who deal with syllabics must be insane’. So, brilliant poet, Basil Bunting. And loads of other people, quotes, and lots of people. Martin Stannard, always a very forthright commentator, said, ‘Anyone who resorts to syllabics has lost the plot’. And that is like a red rag to a bull to me. I’m very contrary.

So, I was getting a lot of syllabics. So, I started moving into syllabics and trying to… I just started for 18 months I tried to write tanka, and I’d walk around the city and try and just sketch things and write tanka. And they were awful. For 18 months. They were really bad. But what that does is internalize form. So, when you said you’re a conscious craftsperson, it’s conscious to begin with and not very good, and then you have to forget it. And then it maybe gets something.

So, I wrote a lot of tanka that weren’t any good, and then I wrote about six or seven, which I thought were much better. And they went in, one of the books, I think it probably is this last book. But then my long loping line reasserted itself. So, the poems would come in tanka form five, seven, five, seven, seven syllables. But that would become the stanza form. But the poem would flow on through that stanza form. Unfortunately my long loping line I was trying to get rid of, it just looks shorter because it’s syllabically made concise but it actually runs through many stanzas.

Mark: It’s deceptive. You’ve got it back in through the back door. Yes.

Matthew: But that kind of just happened. I guess those are forces within you. Maybe to do with, maybe Ken had something, Maybe it’s to do with long and thin, I write long thin poems, you know. And, if you try go against that, something else happens and then you reassert yourself. So, that ebb and flow.

And I think as well to connect Mark, what we were saying earlier, because there are lots of hyperassociative references and strange connections and time gaps. The form for me just helps anchor and shape these strange… It gives it some. I think if I was using a more kind of innovative linguistic scattering of the words across the page, I love those sorts of poems. But I think with what I’m actually doing as well, it would almost be too much. So, I think this is a some kind of slight restraint on the hyperassociative moving forward. The river of hyperassociation. It’s a little dam on that occasionally.

Mark: So, there is a nice tension between those two.

Matthew: Yes, I think so. And I think poems are, for me anyway, poems are tension and risk. And if there’s no risk in the poem, the only risk that you feel for yourself, maybe nobody else knows the risk that you are taking, but there’s got to be a sense of jeopardy and risk. And there’s got to be a tension. So, often my poems have two or three things in them, which you can’t see a relation, and they’re trying to nose each other to find a relation or block of two things which are trying to come together but don’t have any obvious connections. So, some kind of tension, and some kind of element of risk.

Mark: Well, this is fascinating and I must confess, I’m feeling a bit silly here because I’ve just come back from Japan and I was talking to tanka poets in Japan. And I read this poem and I just didn’t think of tanka at all. I can see it now that you say it, but it’s like the magic eye illusion is just popped out of the page.

Matthew: If people start counting on their fingers – when you mention this, people start counting on their fingers. I started counting on my fingers when I was writing all these. I’ve kind of stopped that now. So, probably in the next book. I’m sure in this book that, although we went through it with a fine tooth cone, I’m sure there are probably even in this pattern, there’s probably a line which is six or there’s a line which is seven, and I’m now just more naturally putting maybe a line that’s two lots of fives to become a ten or seven and a five. And I’m not worrying. I don’t count on my fingers anymore. I’ve done it enough now over several years for it to be a way of the line coming. And if it’s slightly out, it doesn’t bother me at all.

And it’s not for the reader. You said, ‘Oh, I just realized.’ It’s not for the reader to know. It’s not something I announce necessarily at readings. It’s for me to give it some shape and to give it that resistance and a bit of tension and a slight brake on the pouring forth.

Mark: Yeah. I’d like to come back to this idea of tension and risk because it feels like there is quite a lot of both in the ending of this poem. And again, without drawing the equals sign, is there anything you can say or you would like to say about the ending of the poem?

Matthew: Yes. If we wanted to give a socio-political reading of the poem… I think Roddy Lumsden the poet and anthologist. The late great Roddy Lumsden. In his anthology, Identity Parade, he called the time we were in, and I think we’re still in it, the ‘Pluralist now.’ And I think that’s true of poetry, he meant very simply, there’s more types of poetry being written. All the past types, all the present types, and all the future types of poetry along a spectrum from the most mainstream, the most experimental are all available and written. So, whatever type of poetry you like, you can find it.

And secondly, poetry is being written and read, and listened to by a wider proportion of persons and types of person than ever has been before in all the… every category you can possibly think of. There’s still further to go in that I’m sure. But at the moment, that’s the moment we’re in. In terms of the generalized critique of art and culture, I think I would like a pluralist critique of art and culture. And fortunately, it can appear as if the only critique in town is socio-political. And I’ve got nothing against socio-political, it’s another critique.

But sometimes you miss out on the critique that you are talking about, for instance, critiques from within the art itself, like the form of poetry or, you know, the objective correlative, or the lyric ‘I’. There’s all of these discourses and forms, which are particular to the art as well. They tend to get sidelined by the socio-political. And of course, these things they’re not, mutually exclusive.

You look at the lyric ‘I’, it was mainly men, Troubadours, projecting on women to begin with. But then that has changed, thankfully, quite a lot. So, the risk in this poem is that it starts like there is a male troubadour who is projecting upon a silent, objectified, feminine other, and projecting onto them their romantic ideals. Once we’ve been through the little italic, ‘forgive me / forgive me’, we then reconjure the person slightly, I think. I’m as much an interpreter of this poem as everybody is slightly more realistically.

And then at the end the male protagonist – not necessarily me – is making a crude attempt to try and show their need to be close. And the woman, the feminine other, is in complete control. She’s just saying ‘no’ – and you know, the person is respecting that, it’s totally, consensual, there’s nothing terrible happening – going, ‘No, you can’t do that. You can’t do that. You can’t do that.’

And then right at the end, we end on the word ‘No.’ And later on, not at the time writing the poem, I was conscious of James Joyce wanting to end Ulysses, the great modernist novel, on the most positive word in the English language: ‘no.’ Er, ‘yes’. The opposite of no. And there’s a litany of ‘yes’s in Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, at the end of that book. So, this is a litany of ‘no’s. I only realized this subsequently, and I’m not comparing myself to James Joyce. I’m much taller!

But I realized this was a ‘no’. But the ‘no’ is kind of, it’s a totally definite ‘no’, there’s no other. But there’s a kind of idea that perhaps if the poem goes on, there’s not a complete wash out for a… potential for some kind of friendship or something between these two people. So, you have to, just as Ulysses holds out the vague possibility that Leopold Bloom and his wife Molly Bloom may get over their marital problems and the grief over their child who died. And that Stephen Dedalus indeed is the other character might be some kind of fugitive in-between son, substitute son, that helps him do that. But no way we don’t get beyond that, ‘Yes’. So, unless we read Chris McCabe’s amazing follow-on novel. We don’t get beyond that point.

So, you’re left with something that is, like a film that ends on a bad point, but the viewers can think, ‘Possibly there’s possibilities.’ Now, I happen to know, and so do your listeners know, that we became married and we had two daughters and we’re still together. Yeah. That’s not necessary for the reader to know. So the whole poem is really a reflection, possibly, on language, not on actual social or sexual politics of people in the real world. It’s to do with language and should a poet write exactly what is honestly totally inside them? Should they try and mitigate with the current socio-political ideas or any political ideas, or any social ideas that are going around and be centred by that? Is there a halfway house? How do those two sets of language comes together?

And for me, it’s more about those two sets of language and approaches just crackling together. I’m not trying to mediate that. Real life is very complicated. It’s more complicated than the aspirational politics that we have – I’m all for the aspirations. I’m totally behind them – than that aspirational politics can sometimes cope with. Real life is a lot more complex.

I love talking about the politics of the day, social or otherwise. but it’s different from the poem. And I think often the poem is kind of… it’s in that mark of ambiguity that the poem exists. I don’t start a poem thinking, ‘I’m going to write a risky poem that will get up the noses of all these people.’ I think that’s a terrible… I think shock is a very lame starting point for a work of art. I think if the work of art does shock, it’s usually the natural progression of somebody’s been working for 11 years, probably on technical aspects of something. And then what they do then, then shocks people. Because it seems a little ahead of its time.

Mark: And interestingly, it’s that word no, that opens up the possibility of more dialogue. I mean, I was thinking if she’d said ‘yes, refusal is my only tactic’, that ‘yes’ would’ve closed everything off.

Matthew: Yes. Yes. Exactly. Exactly.

Mark: So, you’re kind of left in a bit of a, a hall of mirrors at the end.

Matthew: Pavla, herself would probably correct me on this. She corrects me all the time because I’m kind of so delighted with the idea. Facts and dates and things tend to fall off me. But there’s something within the Czech people when they’re speaking English, and Pavla speaks English very well. But when they speak English, they use the word no a lot. And when they say no, they use it in a… it has a very broad sweep, and it’s as much a kind of as we would say, ‘No,’ you know, or ‘No,’ there’s lots of intonation. So, I’m still caught out of it with Pavla now. Where I say something to Pavla just very casual about what we’re gonna have for dinner or something. And she’ll say, ‘No.’ And I’m thinking, ‘Oh, so you don’t want fish, breaded fish?’ And she’s not meaning no. So, I think there’s something naturally in that when people are speaking brilliantly in a second language, there’s still these kinds of strange misunderstandings.

And I think what you get at the end there, the most you can say is there’s a standoff between the feminine other and the masculine other. There’s a standoff. And usually, there is, you know? In any early encounter, in the amorous or proto-amorous field. But both people are kind of wary and they’re kind of, you know, we could explain it in Jungian terms by saying one person is trying to project on the other, the other’s trying to project on the other. And the two projections form a screen in the middle, which, actually, the two real people don’t get passed unless they meet up later and maybe in about… Or then they start living together six months later, and then those screens vanish pretty quickly! And you become the human being that you are, rather than the act that you are giving of yourself in the amorous… in those early stages.

So, I think it’s psychologically just about there for anybody. If it was two women meeting, two men meeting, a man meeting a woman, the fact that I’ve written it in this that it’s a man. As a woman is real because it’s tackling to some degree the troubadour tradition of that over-egged language and description. But I would say it’s universal. I think everyone has those butterflies in the stomach at the very first meeting and they’re trying to act all casual and give off their best look. And they’re probably doing some very strange things with their face and their gestures they wouldn’t normally, which are probably very off-putting to the other person, you know? Because they’re not being natural.

Mark: Well, maybe this would be a good point to listen to the poem again and imagine all of those things that may or may not be going on in their present or indeed their future. Because all those possibilities are still there for the characters in the poem.


 

My Beautiful Comrade from the North

by Matthew Caley

     supposedly still
arrives      wrapped in thrift store fur
an amber necklace
setting off the oval face
     her voice low as a cello

     a cello that plays
Dvorak’s cello concerto
opening up Allegro
B minor then      B major
     nary a nod nor hello

     back by the Elvet
below that grey shrugging bridge
and greyer river
defined by its own stale glow
     goes over a pond weed weir

     sheet music you scan
left / right      and down then      left / right
in the Western tradition
some yawning a.m. when she
     dons her silk shift to prepare

     two coffees      blows through
the
Xpelair      or tilts a
cherry Actimel      steps out of her bra
or bleaches her brown hair with

     lime like the Menaelicians


the long-flanked Goddess
– Persephone, Demeter –
the other one here
synonym and antonym
     of Muses here earplugs in

     forgive      forgive me
I over elaborate      [that is my mandate]
two lost trainers hang
from lank festival hoardings
     the river      just a river

     just      the dour Elvet
chrome-brown eyes      brown half-top hat
lovely crooked teeth
so quiet inside      such sky
     the suitor is forced to say –

     ‘can I touch your hair?’
‘No.’ ‘Can I touch your shoe?’ ‘No.’
‘Can I touch your small
hard left breast?’      ‘No’ and then      ‘No.’
     ‘Can I touch your furbelow?’

     ‘No.’ ‘Can I touch base?’
‘No.’ ‘Is an outright, flat re-
     fusal your only tactic?’

     ‘No.’


 

Trawlerman’s Turquoise

‘My Beautiful Comrade from the North’ by Matthew Caley is from his collection Trawlerman’s Turquoise published by Bloodaxe Books.

Trawlerman's Turquoise book cover

Trawlermans’s Turquoise is available from:

The publisher: Bloodaxe Books

Amazon: UK | US

Bookshop.org: UK | US

 

Matthew Caley

Matthew Caley portrait photo by Pavla Alchin

In November 2023 Bloodaxe will publish Matthew Caley’s seventh collection, To Abandon Wizardry. His first collection, Thirst (Slow Dancer, 1999), was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection, and his poetry has featured in many anthologies including Identity Parade: New British and Irish Poetry (Bloodaxe Books, 2010); Poems of The Decade (Forward Worldwide, 2011); the Picador Book of Love Poems (Picador, 2011) Pestilence (Belfast Lapwing 2020), and Divining Dante (Recent Work Press, 2021). Prophecy Is Easy, a pamphlet of very loose versions from French 20th Century poets, was published by Blueprint in 2021. Previously, he was on the fringes of the small press revival in the 1980s, designed record sleeves, lived in Brixton squats and taught in art schools. These days he is a mentor for The Poetry School, and has also recently taught poetry at the universities of St Andrews, Winchester and Royal Holloway, London. He lives in London with the Czech-born artist Pavla Alchin. They have two daughters, Iris and Mina. 

Photo by Pavla Alchin

A Mouthful of Air – the podcast

This is a transcript of an episode of A Mouthful of Air – a poetry podcast hosted by Mark McGuinness. New episodes are released every other Tuesday.

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