“The shadows in the corners have been shifting.
It is now too late to … yell at them to stop what they are doing.”
– Joseph Brodsky
My grandmother filled the wall
with bread sauce. We were always thirsty.
With my cousin who was not my cousin, we picked
gooseberries in the garden of my father’s house
by the hooked light of the old iron water pump.
Turning to speak in my dreams his syllables
were a who? who? who? of wood pigeon calls.
At school the ghost of a Luftwaffe airman
lived with the dogwalkers in the woods.
We used a Ouija board. For four nights
he would not talk to us. Nobody spoke
any German. The priest laughed, drew
his name in candle smoke on the ceiling.
We asked if he had seen a miracle,
if God owned any silverware.
The mechanical arm was from the car
assembly line along Cowley Road. My
memory and I cannot lie flat in the X-ray.
I worried it would weld me to the bench, to
childhood forever. Eventually I was posed
with my mother’s skeleton, her apron of lead
a sail that bore my body into the nuclear light,
the Y of the water diviner, the staircase-learned
split in my skull. That Spring I survived
the change in my shadow. My eardrums burst
into exhausted daffodils in the hall. When
they healed, the London rain in September
played in the road and made a painfully beautiful speech
about survival. I traced over the yellow mermaid’s
hair of different letters in my exercise book
and they sprouted, took to the nitrogen, singing
out of my mouth. My grandmother said
God did not vote Labour. To help
with the war effort, she drove tall lorries
for the army. They paid her in cigarettes.
By the wasp nest at her house, I stayed
up until the amber rings from the torch
enlengthened the lifeline on my palm.
Several times I tried to switch off the dark.
We tuned into Capital FM in the suburbs.
That October 15 million trees
came down. In Crystal Palace,
on the school run we cut through new-blown
bridges that had been centuries in the making.
My French teacher told me in the queue
at the bakery that his wife had found
someone else. He filled my hands
with two warm rolls while reaching for change.
My father lived in a concrete cemetery for trees.
I stayed in school until the library notices
had dust in their curls. When I saw my cousin
once more he broke a pillow across my face.
My brother pushed me in a red box
of Columbia Records cassettes around
the living room and through the low-
voiced door to the phone phreakers.
My great grandfather won medals for saving
others from drowning at an undisclosed location
in the Adriatic. The school bully was a sweetheart
at the parents evening. Everyone commented on
how much he had grown. The doctor made
mushrooms with his fountain pen, cells
in my blood were couples standing apart
under the same umbrella. The condition was
not leukaemia. I got to pick my sticker.
I told him it was Skeletor after my nickname.
He said it looked like Death but
with big strong muscles. The doctor said
I need to get big and strong so
one day I could be like our friend, yes
just like Death. At nightfall over gin,
at a party, my parents introduced me
as their angel, I hovered on whether
to pronounce a final goodnight when
everyone was so busy killing themselves.
On Surrealism and Poetry
The disjointed logic of a dream reasserts the old cliché that truth is stranger than fiction. I travel from the South Korean hostel by the beach by tram. On the way, in the carriage, a poem arrives all of a piece from my imagination and snaps together like needletip-sized brass cogs of a pocketwatch that then turn together. The mechanism is one thing, but the effect is that time skips like a stone across a reservoir all the way—No?—to the other side. Feverish with the need to print the thing off, so I can read it in plain light, I arrive in Shanghai in under an hour. I push my keycard into a lock and enter a hotel room and discover my wife surrounded by a pile of cream towels a revolver in her hand that, as we kiss, becomes a melting lilac in a photo frame. I wake up and realise that from 5:40am to 6:30am I have been dreaming all of these events. The events were fiction, but is truth now stranger? Checking the distance on Google Maps I see how my subconscious has pinched nearly a quarter of the Earth’s surface together like a stress ball for the convenience of plot. And why the French New Wave / Chabrol-reminscent end? The residual combination of sea-sick fever and wonder at the poem that arrived out of thin air onto the page stays with me for the rest of the week. I feel like putting up MISSING posters all around the hinterlands impossible-figure buildings of my mind, maybe in another dream, a few nights from now, I will hold a press conference and mumble the raw facts of what I remember of the poem into a throng of microphones, before it becomes too much. “Please,” the accompanying Chief Inspector will say into crowd, “whatever it is that you need to say, Harry will listen, just come back to him. Thank you. No further questions.”
The Magic Circle wasn’t formed to protect how a magic trick is performed, but the endlessly surprising gallery of potential solutions we visit in our imagination. I feel as though surrealism speaks to this notion in my own writing, of bringing two ideas that are so far apart as to repel one another’s polarity into close proximity. In this moment of fusion, it gives rise to this gallery of speculation and identification. When Hamlet said art holds “the mirror up to nature” Oscar Wilde believed this was even further evidence of Hamlet pretending to be mad. The transcription of the world in front of us is mediated incontrovertibly by the subconscious and the neurocircuitry of the human. To negate interpretation is to negate the human (not to mention vitality and entropy). Surrealism re-inserts the human, foregrounding the subconscious. This was Wilde’s idea (and Yeats and Ruskin and Tsvetaeva among others) – that making connections between subconscious ideas, seeing shapes in the clouds that are either a pair of hammers or the ears of a hare, reassures us of our unifying humanness. To me this feels like an antidote to the glossy, individuating and curated narrative of the online persona. Surrealism makes the reader aware that they are being taken for a ride, but it does so while revealing the author’s perception and their mind in all its luscious messiness and opening these surprising galleries of dreams of our own. As readers, when we reflect on the journey, this is when we realise that the journey belongs to us, the poem on the tram on the Yellow Sea, the many solutions to the one trick or the ears in the clouds, this is the gift of surrealism. Even after all this time, after symbolism and psychoanalysis, Dalification and satire, surrealism feels like it’s using uncanny ingredients to make something cathartic and familiar, communal and perhaps even therapeutic.