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For the University of Real Social Relations by Alex Houen and Geoff Gilbert

Just look at those two men

with their dogs on leashes, having

their youth, their years

of indolence, their day at the park,

at one another in the grass and the dust,

at play by the quarry filled

with concrete folly. There is still

time to look, the vantage point

is stable, the waters are held

by the shores, the barrier for the gays

won’t go up for an age.

We even have a speaker – blasting out

Cheikh Mamidou on a trolley

pushed by an old man brandishing

a cap. And there is a little time

to listen, as he mostly wants to sway

in the space and lay his shadow

down. The issue of actual cash

is not now urgent for us, though it is.

The shocking thing is that when

people abandon mercy, the dogs

must be merciful – look again with all eyes

and all the leisure you can manage

at those two men with their dogs

on leashes, bringing grace down, one

upon the other. When I think of everything

that grows, and when I think of everything

we shred, tear, and break to pieces,

and even bury to get rid of that meagre

seepage, of its perfume, and the slaver

from its lolling tongue …

And when

you break that down, does it speak

to the breakings-down that are going

by the name of politics?


don’t feed the clinging tendrils,

those don’t calm the hand breaking out,

blanketing the knuckles, don’t sway

out to the sway. And if he is trying

to sway out his swollen hands in time

for the speaker to offer us

a kind of external monologue it is

because the resemblance of the dogs

and external monologue is in

the way they are too much.

We said we cannot tell

from the structure of the barrier

the passion we will feel;

in this we assumed it was easy

to tell what constitutes a barrier,

how it is different from a goal.

But think of the individual who

cannot see the difference between walking straight

to the open arms of the beloved,

and an elaborate campaign to occupy

the love object. Break it down:

compelled to move like this, he will

speak regardless from his trolley,

with open arms handing in his hands

like a cortical homunculus, bearing nothing,

laying it down before us. Ask

the members of any group to turn

towards him and look direct and deep

into all eyes and his speaking – unbearable,

it is unbearable, that look of his loving it

where there is nothing, all eyes,

where there is nothing, and all the while

his breaking out into a grin.

Even the dogs

aren’t looking looking when they nip the neck

to force the face back into line.

He carries on

regardless, with a freedom not from prison

but of being anyone in his hands. I say

that they are swelling out of line, stretching

away from him, the sensitive surface –

I say the pain – speaking beside him.

Just as his shirt looks not his so much

as skin his lover gave him

for infrastructure to bring him back

to his bones; just as it is great for once

to be free to ash on the floor

but really too late anymore to enjoy it;

just as that time he lay by his lover

and couldn’t take his eyes off

that part of the face swallowed

by a shadow, the air throbbing

like a fat artery. That air speaks and dances

now across the whole territory

to the cost of the shadow. Just look

at the speaker pumping up from the thin

grey crust between the living and the dead –

the further it extends, the more it crackles,

and the bite gets weaker and less tender,

both at once. The scene he has been

making has been building: are there masses

of hands at his hands? masses of eyes

at his eyes? masses of speech at his speech,

even a whole species? Are the concrete trees

in his hands? the deposit on the endless

plastic glasses, the ways of wearing shorts?

are each of the haircuts with their product,

all of the Lillet drinks, every tasteful

flowery dress preparing to leave

as the gays mass, in his eyes? Is the song’s

refrain on a phone, ‘Habibi, habibi’, a boy’s

laughter at the pumping dog, a woman’s

‘ugh’ of disgust, the growling play at the neck,

in his speech? And later, the public transport,

the long walk downhill towards Apollinaire’s

culminating tower, even the train to Milan

overnight, even the hand emerging once

again through its blanket, against the force

of touch – are these in his sway?


there is no cash in his cap; nothing

but some shadow from the lover’s face

covering the best part of his life in obscurity.

The barriers are hefting into place now,

and we depend for our we on a series of cutouts,

layered over each other: complaints about

the fucking dogs, a finite set of stools

around each barrel, group selfies, screen

grab of the whole park.

When I hear this we say itself

without a mouth inside my head,

I am scared of what my mouth will say.

The playful jaw closing on my nape

hurts a little too, the concrete remains

are open to ridicule, and all the time

our monologue is moving past me,

out into the afternoon.

I feel like I might completely

lose it in him; it is unbearable. But

break it down, this is an Empire. It

founders by its limit. Founders in me

too, devastated to have missed this moment,

the barrier secured, the queue reaches

up the hill, the old man cranks it up

and moves on as he has to.

Alex Houen's full collection Ring Cycle was published in 2018. He has published poems in various magazines, including Cambridge Literary Review, PN Review, Poetry London, and Adjacent Pineapple, and is co-editor of Blackbox Manifold. He teaches in the Faculty of English in Cambridge University.

Geoff Gilbert is co-author, with Alex Houen, of the poetry chapbook Hold! West (2016). He has published poems in various journals, including Lana Turner and Blackbox Manifold. He teaches in the Department of Comparative Literature and English at the American University of Paris.

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