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 …
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.