Category Archives: Poems

Why I will no longer recognize gender—mine or yours

The problem cannot be the solution. That’s never how these things work.

So from now on I would prefer to be referred to by the pronouns “it” and “its”. Of course you may use “him”, “his”, and “he” if you insist. Or any others you happen to like; if you’re talking about me in the third-person I probably won’t be around to hear you anyway. But rest assured I will also be referring to you as “it” and things belong or pertaining to you as “its”. You may be male or female or intersex. You may identify as any or all or none of these. I don’t care. To me you, me, we, are all its.

The idea that we deserve special differentiation from—or elevation above—abstract concepts, inanimate objects, or unsexable non-human animals, has never sat particularly well with me. Some rocks, for example, are amazing. Besides, in the vast majority of cases it seems unnecessary for you to be informed or reminded of what sex I am, or for me to know what sex you are, by passing reference. And on the rare occasions when it is actually important, you can usually work it out.

As for gender? Well, it doesn’t exist, does it. It’s not real. I’m coming out as gender-unwilling and gender-exempt. It doesn’t stop me being a male human; and nor does it stop me benefiting from what that entails. But I’m pretty keen on the idea anyway.

I’m not nowadays fond of consciously making real-life decisions or actions based on things that are not part of the same reality I’m deciding or acting upon. Nor do I want words for such unreal things to be applied to me. I’m not cis, nor trans, nor hetero, nor homo—unless you mean sapiens. If you’re interested enough to read this far you’re probably already aware of the linguistic distinction (in modern English parlance) between gender and sex. You’re probably comfortable with the notion that the latter refers to the biological and physiological reality of humankind, and that the former is a load of cultural baggage attached to the latter, usually directly or indirectly for the purpose of subjugating the typically physically weaker female sex.

So if you don’t identify with the gender you were assigned at birth, I’m not really surprised. Honestly, who does? If there really are people out there who are fully, 100% on-board with their society’s designated requirements for their maleness or femaleness, they’re probably either psychopaths or haven’t really thought about it hard enough. I think mostly people just assume that gender and sex are the same thing, or that nobody will even momentarily entertain them if they happen to have any issues with The Way Things Are. Any people in doubt might well be reinforced in the delusion that gender is conferred upon them by the act of birth alone because of the propensity of many people not to bother to honour the very important distinction between the terms “gender” and “sex”.

No definition will suit everyone (when has it ever?!) but an archived page from the WHO sums it up pretty neatly.

Some examples of sex characteristics:

Women menstruate while men do not.
Men have testicles while women do not.
Women have developed breasts that are usually capable of lactating, while men have not.
Men generally have more massive bones than women.

Some examples of gender characteristics:

In the United States (and most other countries), women earn significantly less money than men for similar work.
In Vietnam, many more men than women smoke, as female smoking has not traditionally been considered appropriate.
In Saudi Arabia men are allowed to drive cars while women are not.
In most of the world, women do more housework than men.

Of course those examples are neither comprehensive nor entirely perfect. I had a (male) friend who only had one testicle, following surgery. Some men have none. Women stop menstruating when their oestrogen levels decline; or never menstruate, if they’re born without a uterus. Nevertheless, the above lists are a pertinent reminder of what we’re generally talking about, either knowingly or unknowingly, when we use the words “sex” and “gender”. It is important to maintain a distinction between the two because one of these lists is real, whether or not we believe or want it to be, and the other is the result of our collective willingness to believe in something which is not real.

So if you don’t identify with the sex you were assigned at birth, as opposed to the gender, that’s trickier. What that says about you, I don’t know, and I’m unqualified even to hazard a guess.

I suppose I have a fatalist approach to these matters. Ah well, seem to be male—I probably thought; round about the age of four when I first became fully aware that (and how) girls and boys were different. Not necessarily what I’d have chosen, these testicles; but I might as well sit back and reap the privileges of my massive bones, my disproportionately high wages, and my disproportionately small share of the housework. Maybe one day I’ll go for a drive in Saudi Arabia. Maybe not.

But not everyone is like me. Most people have had much harder lives, for one thing, and might have had more reason to want to fight against the hand that fate dealt them. But also, many people are more enterprising of spirit than I am. Humankind incorporates a vast spectrum of personality types within (and between) its paltry two sexes. And for this reason alone our species is unlikely to rest until it has either:

A) facilitated the possibility for a complete reversal of the sex allocation dealt to us before birth by “natural” processes: in other words, Full Transition.

B) exterminated itself for some reason, or by some means, while in the process of trying.

Scenario A seems likeliest at the moment. But Scenario B could also feasibly unfold at any given moment, and—especially if you live somewhere with internet as bad as ours—with very little warning. Assuming for a moment that we’re heading for a Scenario-A future, let’s look on the bright side: many people who are unhappy with the sex they were born into (the body, the chemicals, and, yes, the societal baggage called “gender” which is by self-fulfilling prophecy conflated with the biological reality of female- or maleness) will be able to right the wrong that was accidentally done to them in the womb, or the lab, or wherever they grew from.

Great! Sort of. Kind of. But what then? Will we see more happiness? Hopefully. Maybe some. Certainly some relatively wealthy individuals will be able to enact their fantasies of turning their lives around, beginning again—not quite from scratch, perhaps, but with a new identity: one that feels to them, more like them. Men sick of the demands of society (the less housework, the more money, the ability to drive a car in Saudi Arabia, etc.) will pay handsomely to step into a woman’s shoes both literally and metaphorically for the first time. Perhaps foot-shortening surgery will accompany the Full Transition. Perhaps it won’t need to if the hormonal rebalancing has been begun young enough—depending, of course, on the legality accompanying the technology. Or perhaps our definitions of femaleness will simply expand to include biological females who were born male; and our definitions of maleness will change similarly.

It would be awful though, really awful, if the man becoming a woman, or the woman becoming a man, were to find that the grass is not, in fact, any greener on the other side of the fence, and that they have merely exchanged one prison for another. Awful, and expensive, materially and psychologically. I see no moral or logical downside to the seemingly inevitable progress toward Scenario A. Transhumanism is our destiny; probably already our reality. Transhumanism or extinction. Maybe, probably—almost certainly, eventually—both. But I worry that our technological capacity might soon overreach our social and societal readiness. Notwithstanding the perpetual global inequality necessary to drive technological progress (that’s not what this blog-post is about) our society’s absolute adherence to the laws of gender—a thing that, let us remind ourselves, does not exist; and that is what this blog-post is mostly about—surely means that any potential progress toward a greater good offered by scientific and technological advances in the field of transsexual transhumanism will be utterly scuppered by the unreadiness collectively conferred upon us due to our frankly backward adherence to the mythology of the two dominant gender roles which have defined human society for as long as history allows us to see back. I say two dominant gender roles. Obviously one of them has been a bit more dominant than the other.

The problem cannot be the solution.

Gender can be happily ignored by many. But for those of us who see it, we can’t unsee it. Men are unhappy being men. Women are unhappy being women. Girls wish they were boys. Boys wish they were girls. Intersex people might wish they were one or the other; then again, they might wish there was a place in society for them as they are, since they, like men and women, boys and girls, but unlike masculinity and femininity, are also an inevitable part of reality as we know it.

Now, before I go on, and at some point, hopefully, stop, I thought I’d best mention that I do know that the actual effects of gender are real. That the effects of gender are as real as the destruction wrought by hurricane season in hurricane countries across the hurricane-prone bits of the globe—albeit less seasonal in nature.

But this doesn’t mean that gender is as natural as the wind. To argue that everything which exists is natural by definition, is not the same as arguing that everything which exists is inevitable. The climate we have now is an inevitable result of the delicate balance of natural physical forces on, in, and around our planet; which balance includes but is not limited to us. Thus, the wind blows, and we see trees bend; or we hear windows rattle, or our train gets delayed. Most scientists would agree that we’ve collectively “made an impact” on the planet. One day our species might become so powerful that, like the gods in our books, we can claim that the wind blows when we exhale. This is not currently the case; but gender is an invention entirely born of the human imagination. Gods do not decide how we dress. We do. We took our sexual cues, and collectively ran with them. Men, having more massive bones, are—on average—better at running. No matter that women are better at menstruating or lactating; or that quite literally anything a man can do (short of producing spermatozoa to fertilize an ovum) a woman can also do… Because gender dictates that women should wear clothing that inhibits their movement. Gender dictates that men should have the upper hand in their relationships with women. Gender dictates that a man should be paid more money for doing the exact same thing a woman does.

A Brave New Gender outlook might soon dictate that biological men can compete with women in sports events globally. This might seem questionable, given that global professional competitive sports are one of a very few contexts in which the biological reality of maleness and femaleness are unashamedly acknowledged in all their primitive brutish glory; rather than hinted at in euphemistic or deceptive ways. But let’s not forget that gender already plays a massive role here too. Male sports stars are paid much more than female sports stars; even, objectively, disproportionately more in terms of the actual difference in their physical performance. So what if a man decides he wants to be a woman, and then she, with her new pronoun, runs faster than a load of women who happen to have been born women? So what if she, and not one of them, wins the gold medal? In the grand scheme of things, at least this serves as a clear and colourful metaphor for our collective attitudes toward gender and sex. After all, a woman is very welcome to become a man; and then he, having dropped the S from his pronoun, can run against other men and enjoy an immediate physical disadvantage; albeit one mitigated by the possibility of maybe one day cruising down to Medina in a Pontiac Firebird while his husband or more probably his wife is at home doing the ironing.

Yes, gender dictates a lot of awful crap for men to adhere to as well. It favours men, overall, because men were presumably largely responsible for shaping it; or at least because the physical reality of men’s tendency to be able to overpower women convinced them either consciously or unconsciously that nature intended them to be the everlasting beneficiaries of its inbuilt disparities. But it seems unlikely to me, given how far we have deliberately stretched notions of nature already, that gender is ultimately able to be beneficial for our species at all. It sows discord and misery. It arms our enemies (even our potential friends) with ammunition to use against us. It makes people act awfully to one another. It makes people angry with people who want to go against its rules. It is a freeloader, a poser, and a fraud. It seems to be an intrinsically important aspect of society; something which affords us freedoms and happiness. It isn’t, of course, but it seems to be; and that seeming seems to make us believe it is. And us believing it is, demonstrably makes us enforce its rules as though it really were.

No wonder some people are unhappy about it. No wonder some people feel that their gender-role is a prison from which they want to escape. And since gender is more commonly (though incorrectly) associated with physical reality, why change your mind when you can change your body? Clothes, make-up, hairstyles, etc. People have been doing it for centuries. Millennia. If you can afford it now, or if your society can afford it, there’s hormones, surgery, medication. Perhaps it’s not that you don’t want to change your mind. Maybe you can’t change your mind. Maybe you shouldn’t have to. Humans have been adorning and modifying their bodies since humans existed. For social and ceremonial purposes, or just because they want to. Clothes, tattoos, make-up, prosthetic limbs, jewellery, circumcision, foot-binding…

Why must society’s requirements for the rules for male and female appearance and behaviour inhibit personal freedoms? There is only ever one answer: control. Men control society. No, not me as far as I know—at least, not consciously. Not necessarily you, if you’re a man, either. And not some shady group of men who meet weekly by candlelight in a cellar to exchange secret handshakes, drink expensive liquor, and cackle about the awful things they’ve done to women since they last met. Not just them, at any rate. But that vast transhistorical network of relatively powerful individuals down the millennia who have really succeeded in shaping the world we inhabit today. Those who made a mark. The chiefs, the warlords, the clerics, the kings, the emperors, the kaisers, the czars, the presidents, the prime ministers and the CEOs. They’re #notallmen. But most of them were. And most of them still are.

There’s a line in a song by a band I like (“Rain, Steam and Speed” by The Men They Couldn’t Hang): “Some men build a monument / Some men build a tomb / Some men move the world around / To give them breathing room.” It’s a great song. A very masculine song, I suppose; a physical song, and a workers’ song, about the Industrial Revolution. Anyway, I was thinking about that last bit especially: “Some men move the world around / To give them breathing room”. That sort of sums it up. It’s true. And I like it. I don’t like it because I like it. I like it because it’s true. Imagine how much harder it must be to move the world around if you’re a woman—if you’re a woman you might not have to imagine very hard at this point—and what if “moving the world around to give you breathing room” is not considered within the remit of your “gender role”, but, say, wearing a corset is?

The world we live in is the Men’s Room. Call it “Earth” if you will, but this represents it falsely. It is not all rich soil; but it is all masculine controlled space; legal fictions passed off as nature. The desert, the steppes, the tundra; the rice-paddies, the wheat-fields, the factory-farms; from the American flag planted on the moon (by men) right down to the heaps of plastic collecting in the Mariana Trench: this is our world now. We have remade it in our image. Every inch of it is mapped, and catalogued, and valued—at least in the financial sense of the word. We have made the Men’s Room, like we latterly made god, a stern unpredictable patriarch.

It might seem, to the scientists tasked with the undertaking, that achieving a Full Transition between man and woman, woman and man, or man and superman, is the Great Task facing humankind. (That or recreating woolly mammoths while simultaneously driving black rhinoceroses to extinction.) But, for me, transhumanism must begin—can only truly begin—with the obliteration of the great vast plastic fraud of gender, and (as a stretch-goal) all other associated imagined entities that are bound together, siphonophorelike, encircling us with barbs bared as we dive deep for something greater: some perfect pearl.

Perhaps the plundering of oyster-beds isn’t the best metaphor I could deploy here. But we could probably, theoretically, individually and collectively, enjoy ourselves more—hopefully at the expense of fewer other (human and non-human) organisms—before we die. Spend less time worrying, hating, hurting, feeling guilty or put-upon; watching our backs.

I understand that this post has been a bit of a boggy ramble. It’s a bit of a dump, I admit; and probably doesn’t even constitute information, for the most part. Much of this has been swimming around my brain over the past few years, but hasn’t managed to make it out into any kind of literary shape.

The relationship between nature and destiny is, after all, what I’ve been trying to keep on my mind while writing my third poetry book, In the Men’s Room; which task seems to have taken an inordinate amount of time, and is still not fully complete. It’s not all about sex and gender, the book. It’s also about ecology, and class—among other things. I’m fascinated by the inherent and enduring inequality in human society, and how big a role gender plays in that, and what it all means for our relationship with the reality we inhabit. There are no poems in it about whether or not women-only shortlists for British political parties should include trans-women. And there are no poems about gender-neutral toilets. Although there is one poem in it about defecating, in case you’re interested in that sort of thing. And another in which I speculate about why men’s toilets specifically often have faeces spattered across the walls, floor, and—if you’re a woman you might not believe this, but it’s true—the ceiling.

I don’t aim through my art to tell people what should be (as if I had a clue); but rather to ask why things are how they are, and whether the way things are is the way they have to be. Of course, I am just a man, albeit a self-important and recently self-declared gender-exempt man; so it’s entirely possible that a combination of my genes and my conditioning might persuade me to end up doing the exact opposite of the thing I’m meaning to do, and to not quite realize it. For which, if for nothing else here, I offer the following draft poem that will probably open the collection when, or if, it finally materializes:

 

An apology

For all the unpicked blackberries,
All blistered, blue and furry;
For all the hard, green, knotted burs
Brushed from the brambles early;
For every drop of purple ink
That’s stained my index finger
While interrupting news reports
Whose morbid verbs would linger
Among the sunlit dustmotes as
I overstuff my freezer;
For every infant filament
Lost to the Tangle Teezer;
For every drop of diesel
That drips on the forecourt concrete;
For every broadsheet crossword
I have ever failed to complete;
For each particle of water
I diverted by mistake
From becoming what it ought to,
Be that river, sea, or lake;
For all that I have ever missed
By being in a hurry,
And all that I have ever brought
To you by way of worry,
I am sorry.

Trouble in the drains

Trouble in the drains

for Ursula Moray Williams

The river rises with the rains
And I feel thunder in my veins
And I feel thunder in my bowels
And I fear trouble in the drains.

The windows rattle, the wind howls;
The branches shiver, the sky scowls;
And I rush out to stow my tools
And one dog whines; the other growls.

The weather makes and breaks the rules;
The roads are soon closed, then the schools.
The electricity soon goes
And we are taken, thus, for fools.

The bough will break when the wind blows:
The final reckoning, the throes.
The fatberg forming in the pipes:
The bogwoppit both sees and knows,

And audits nappies, condoms, wipes;
And tigers never change their stripes
And burgers never better brains
And entities revert to types:

The river rises with the rains
And I feel thunder in my veins
And I feel thunder in my bowels
And I fear trouble in the drains.

Appears in:
In the Men’s Room [2018]

Notes:
The title “Trouble in the drains” is taken from Chapter 6 of the children’s book Bogwoppit, written by Ursula Moray Williams and illustrated by Shirley Hughes. The Bogwoppit is a fictional, critically endangered, marsh-dwelling, semi-flightless bird. In the book the animal is believed extinct. Yet it is also simultaneously responsible for tempting the heroine Samantha’s parents overseas (to study it) and for kidnapping her cantankerous aunt-turned-foster-mother, Daisy, after taking up residence in the sewerage system of her Victorian mansion. In this poem, it should be noted, the Bogwoppit serves primarily as a metaphor.

Video:

Welcome to the Men’s Room

Welcome to the Men’s Room

One day, I know, you will begin
To see this world anew.
And on that day I trust you’ll know
Exactly what to do.

Now welcome to the Men’s Room, girls.
Enjoy it: here you can
Be anything you want to be –
Except, of course, a man.

Believe me, though, you don’t want that,
Cos there are just two kinds:
The ones who wilt with shame and guilt,
And the willful, blissful blind.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s hard on your kind
And gets harder yet:
Everything’s made with men in mind,
And men tend to forget

To listen to their mothers
And their daughters, but would rather
Focus most on echoing
The missteps of their fathers.

You’ll sense the truth about your sex
Before you’re even told
That women were deemed property,
That women were called scolds;

That women’s contributions
To their own society
Are always far less likely
To end up in history.

You won’t need me to tell you
On what axis this world tilts –
Ask not for whom the bell tolls,
But for whom the bell was built.

Now come on in to the Men’s Room.
Best leave those trainers on;
Once you’ve seen the state of the place
You won’t fancy staying long.

I’ll try to bottle the atmosphere
I’m writing from inside,
In case the room has changed at all;
In case the stench has died.

* * *

We exist in an oasis,
Relative to this world
And human history, which have not quite
Been kind to girls:

A woman can vote in my country,
And purchase property,
And wear what she wants, in theory,
And own her own body.

And if it seems odd to mention
Such basic human rights,
I do so only for the reason that
This is still not quite

The norm worldwide: there are places
Where women can’t legally drive,
And where being born a girl makes you
Less likely to survive

To adulthood – or even birth.
Our laws aren’t perfect, true:
But we are relatively free;
So if they talk to you

Of sex-selective abortions,
Female infanticide,
Female genital mutilation,
Prepubescent child brides,

Soothe yourself with the knowledge that these
Afflict only the poor;
Girls in third-world countries:
Cries from behind closed doors.

Here all you need worry about
Is how much you’ll be paid
For doing the same job as a man;
Your labour will be weighed

Against the risk posed by your sex:
The time-bomb in your womb.
Make no mistake, in each workplace,
Communal means Men’s Room.

You’ll find you’re that bit more likely
To be interrupted or ignored;
To be talked down to or over,
Not to win the awards;

Not to get the promotion
You were certain you deserved;
Not to get a reaction
When you’re pretty sure he heard.

But at least there’s the illusion
In those air-conditioned cubes
That civilization sees you
For more than your hips and boobs;

Out there on the street you’ll soon
Suspect that something’s rotten
In how your sex is represented
As somehow misbegotten:

Sensationalist tabloid language,
Titillating, gory;
The sins of Eve and Lilith lie
Right there behind each story.

Walking home at that time of night?
She was asking for it.
That dress was shorthand for consent.
See the way she wore it?

You’re much less likely than a man
To commit a violent act.
But no less likely to suffer one;
That’s just how the odds are stacked.

To be raped, beaten or murdered
By a stranger, or a friend,
Or a family member – usually male –
These are natural ends

To the means of societal order
Our kind uses;
Where power is a pyramid,
Kindness loses.

You’re just a guest in the Men’s Room:
You’ve got to follow their rules.
So don’t think you can take this structure down
Using their tools.

And don’t let anyone tell you
You already won this fight.
You are not the fortunate ones.
Fury is your right.

* * *

Jo Cox was shot and stabbed to death
In daylight by some man.
They found him pretty soon after,
Even though he ran.

He’s never been a violent guy
The killer’s kin opined.
As if there’s ever been another
Rare recorded kind.

Don’t politicize tragedy,
The right-wing voices said.
It was mental health that did it:
He’s not right in the head.

They say he shouted Britain First –
Some of them who was there.
A gentle man, loved gardening;
His name was Thomas Mair.

But when they asked him to confirm
In court what they’d got written,
He answered only Death to traitors,
And freedom for Britain.

Some said he blamed his MP
For government funding cuts;
That some community project
He was involved with had got shut.

Some said he’s a well-known racist;
Been in the National Front,
And latterly BNP and the like:
Just some daft cunt

Didn’t like what she was doing –
Helping them foreign lot.
Took matters into his own hands then:
Took aim, stabbed, and shot.

We’re still waiting to learn the truth,
Like it even matters.
If he’d a masterplan for after this,
That’s in tatters.

And she’s another dead woman now:
A mother, daughter, wife.
And he’s just another man who chose
To take a woman’s life.

They don’t just target women though,
These blokes who can’t quite cope:
But presidents and more besides
With broad and scattered scope;

They’ll kill themselves to make a point,
And take you down with them:
For gods or new philosophies
They’ll leave these rooms of men.

Four years ago a girl was shot,
Sat on a bus to school
In Pakistan by the Taliban –
And if that sounds cruel,

That’s nothing to what we’ve seen since
Out in Islamic State,
Where men mass to the calling of
That brave new caliphate;

Boys butcher captive journalists
For social media likes
Where Saddam Hussein once sat
Naked prisoners on spikes.

Operation Liberation
Never quite trickled down
To captive shacks in Mosul
And markets in Raqqa town

Where jihadists salute and smile,
Raising their right index,
And enslave Yazidih women
In Allah’s name for sex.

The same Yazidi women
Who’ve been stoned as apostates
By kith when they’ve dared marry
Outside the Yazidi faith.

There’s enough male violence being wrought
At any given time
To cast the kind illusion
That inhumanity’s in its prime;

But the worst of these dark deeds
Are only centuries past
In any civilized country
From which stones might be cast;

And they linger on in the shadows,
Out of sight and mind,
Till you’re walking down the wrong street
With an echoing behind;

And shut away in your bibles,
History books, folk songs,
Malleus Maleficarums:
All speak of Men’s Room wrongs.

When I was young, old men
On our school bus would buy the Sun,
Hold up page three at the window,
Chuckle at what they’d done.

Most men don’t shoot girls on buses;
Most ain’t even got guns.
Most men don’t gang-rape and murder,
Kill daughters with their sons.

But enough do to make you wonder
How many’s capable
Of killing what’s unwilling,
And raping what’s rapable.

So welcome to the Men’s Room, girls.
This is the way it goes:
These signs of life in rude health,
Don’t mistake for deathly throes.

And be careful what you bring here;
You don’t know what you might spur.
Jo Cox came offering kindness:
Look what happened to her.

* * *

Meanwhile back in the USA
The presidential debates
Provide the world with new headlines
At quite an alarming rate.

The woman in the Blue corner –
And yes, you read that right –
Stands accused of being a former
President’s loyal wife.

And any dirt that’s dug on Red,
Or spouted by the same,
Is turned over to her husband’s crimes
For which she’s to be blamed.

Now Mr Red’s a classic case
Of the blind leading the blind;
And he’d gladly leave the sighted half
Of his homeland behind.

He’s not sure why he’s standing now,
But in his jacket pocket
There’s a beer-matt scrawled with
POTUS > a question mark > then PROFIT.

There’s all sorts of allegations
Coming out about him,
But none of them are half as bad
As what he has been shouting

All this year, and all his life,
To anyone who’ll listen.
Like a dog, he’ll hump your leg.
Like a mouse, he’s always pissing.

He says that when you’re famous
You can grab women’s vaginas.
PR never ran that line
By out-of-work coal-miners,

But you can bet that the sentiment
Has aspiration-clout
With down-trod men in the Men’s Room
Who would trade their debts for gout.

He called it locker-room talking,
And plenty had his back;
For words are not the same as
Violent sexual attacks,

So some thought it good and natural,
Said women talk so too,
Said something about Blue’s husband,
Said something about Blue.

And it ain’t that Blue is perfect
Or anything close by,
But that they’d never even so much
As entertain this guy

If he’d been born with ovaries,
Or if he’d been born poor.
If he was black, his party
Wouldn’t have let him through the door.

And it’s no better over here,
We’ve got our share of clowns.
Parliament’s still a pantomime
Of cumbersome mass nouns

Exchanged in echoing chambers:
Leather, mahogany;
It’s one part legislation talk,
Nine parts ceremony.

And the PM might be female,
Indeed she is just now,
But it’s still run like a boys’ club –
From stern to buoyant bow.

It’s tribal and archaic,
Nepotistic and oblique;
You can see it in the gestures,
Hear it in how they speak.

And this fresh generation –
Tomorrow’s politicos –
Tweet knuckle pics for evidence
Each time they come to blows.

The liberal lot, with a little L,
Are hardly any better;
A woman challenged their leader,
And they set out to get her:

Chucked bricks through her office windows.
Sent homophobic abuse:
Death threats, the lot. Seems each party’s got
These attack dogs ready to loose.

And among the emerging voices
Of the alt-right crowd,
Consensuses come ready-made,
And regurgitated loud:

Feminist is pejorative.
Equality is bunk.
Racism is impossible.
Conservative is punk.

And when I feel we’re going backwards,
And that something’s got to give;
I must remind myself once more
That this is how it feels to live

In the Men’s Room once you notice
How few folk even cares
That we live in a caste system
Of helix spiral stairs:

Glass ceilings on each floor through which
Just certain folks may pass
To power enough to keep the gates
Of sex and race and class.

And if you’re born with two X chromosomes
You’re shit out of luck;
Men see merit in their mirrors,
And couldn’t give a fuck.

* * *

An incident occurred, said Ched
On chedevans.com,
In a post-acquittal statement
Deployed there with aplomb

By the dad-in-law who funded
Both his trial and appeal
For raping a teenager
In a Premier Inn in Rhyl.

It was rape, then it wasn’t rape,
And now it never will be.
His girlfriend offered 50 grand
For any testimony

From anyone who’d swear on the Bible
That she was a slag –
To get her back for all those hours
Ched spent painting as a lag.

She’d ruined his life, they said,
Before he’d even appealed.
The Blades gave him the boot,
He had to go play for Chesterfield.

A promising young striker
With a cap for the national team;
Ears like the FA cup’s handles,
He was living the Men’s Room dream

Till this paralytic waitress
Rose from a kebab shop floor,
And came from behind to shaft him
Like some Babylonian whore.

Got a bird, said his team-mate
In a text message. Cryptic.
So Ched headed to the hotel
To make it a tryptych,

Blagged his way in there
To a room he’d already paid for,
Off the sub’s bench, open goal, shot –
Escaped through the fire door.

He never asked her name,
Perhaps he knew it already?
Said nowt the whole time,
They call him Enigmatic Cheddy.

And despite what the fanboys
All made up in their minds,
She didn’t cry rape
As soon as the sun shone through the blinds;

She woke up with no notion
Of how she’d got where she was.
It was at the police station
While reporting the loss

Of a handbag that night out
That someone else said the word.
And I don’t know how it went;
Maybe she thought she’d misheard?

Regardless, even the patchiest
Recounting of events
That night did not paint a picture
Of a conscious consent.

But language can be tricky –
Open to interpretation.
You’d be forgiven for thinking
It was for communication,

But in law its purpose is power:
Unsimple, unplain.
And power, by its very nature,
Is no friend of pain:

Power loves the powerful
And the powerful love it.
Try to take it from them
And they’ll show you where to shove it.

Ched could have hung his head
And let go of all the worry,
Held his hand up like he’d scored a goal
And said I am sorry.

But he had a career to think about;
A girlfriend too.
It’s easy to shake your head at him,
But what do you think you would do?

Maybe you can’t imagine
Being in the situation.
Plastered across the tabloids:
Called the scum of the nation.

He maintained he was innocent
From day one of the trial.
Held his head high when the feminists
Said that he was vile.

Now, officially not guilty
Beyond reasonable doubt
Of raping a drunk teenager
After she had blacked out,

His club issues a statement
Saying they are delighted!
We’re still waiting on a quote to come
From Sheffield United…

Maybe Jessica Ennis-Hill
Will take everything back?
Maybe all those Guardian journalists
Are going to get the sack?

Of course, the rate of conviction
For crimes of this nature
Doesn’t look much like justice
In real life or on paper;

And the girl for whom they brought the charge,
Who never asked for it,
Is repeatedly threatened with rape
And unmasked for it;

She’s already changed her name once
And will have to again.
She’s moving to Australia,
Maybe moving to Spain:

Witness protection don’t mean much
With a press like we’ve got.
And the Twitter mobs will not forgive
What they’ve not forgot.

They dragged out her sexual history
And grilled her in the court.
It’s almost like the legal process
Is some kind of bloodsport,

Slightly less boring than football,
But just as depressing;
Just think about the jury’s faces
Next time you’re dressing

For a Saturday night’s drinking.
Going out on the piss?
If you look slutty to enough of them
Don’t expect a kiss

Or a cuddle, much less a conviction,
If some drunk lad
Sees you drunker, lonely, vulnerable,
In need of getting had.

And don’t expect sympathy
From the millions of female
Sexual violence victims;
Vetting doesn’t miss a detail.

Your dozen peers are far more likely
To comprise some guys
Who’ve done some damn similar things
For which they’ve never been tried.

The polarized perspectives
Represented on the shelf,
Are endemic of a culture
Uncomfortable with itself:

The narrowsheets are split between
Proclaiming rape is rape
And saying keep your daughters home,
Tied down with gaffer tape.

Now Ched’s off on tour
To talk to all the young dudes
About how to walk the line
Between being rapists and prudes:

How to get what they want from women
Without a conviction;
How to satisfy their urges
With minimum friction.

We could have had any bird in the town
Of Rhyl that night;
We’re footballers, said Ched.
As though that gave them both the right.

It just so happened that the girl
They both wanted that night
Was drunk and alone, and never
Going to put up a fight.

That’s the prerogative
Of the Men’s Room’s natural predator:
Because woman is debtor,
And man is her creditor.

And she’s destined to end up reduced to
I’ve got a bird.
Ched did nothing illegal:
An incident occurred.

* * *

I could go on forever
But there’s only so much ink.
These are just a couple of recent stories:
What do you think?

Do you fancy hanging round here
For the rest of your life?
Maybe one day you’ll be some man’s woman
Or some man’s wife?

Those aren’t the limits, mind:
Sexuality’s a spectrum.
Humanity is the steel strings;
You can be the plectrum

And play a tune that suits you
To a beat you can keep with.
Choice is all that matters
In choosing who you want to sleep with –

If they want to sleep with you
And they’re conscious of what choice is:
Everyone should sing sometimes
No matter how good their voice is.

But I guess I shouldn’t try to pretend
Everything goes.
Because I’d love you whatever –
Whatever path you chose –

But the Men’s Rooms social structures
Might not choose to agree;
So you should know what price your freedom
Before running free.

If you choose to love women,
Or just discover you do,
You can guarantee the Men’s Room
Will make things harder for you.

If you don’t want to give birth
But get kicks from your career
Some men and women will treat you
With pity or with fear.

And if you feel like maybe
You would rather be a man –
Then hey, I can understand that, kid;
No, I really can.

I used to wish I was a girl,
Back when I was a lad.
So blind I was to the world around,
I thought I had it bad!

And the grass is always greener…
And the rest of that shit;
Follow your heart not your head…
But here’s the difficult bit:

You can change your name and wardrobe,
And even change your mind;
But you can’t change the Men’s Room’s rules
Working the Men’s Rooms grind.

I’m halfway dead and I’ve done nothing yet
Toward breaking it.
You can’t rely on men to help
We’ve got too much stake in it.

In every ally lurks a sleeping
Saboteur statist.
Suspect everyone
Because all men are potential rapists.

For every virtue sign
Condemning obvious broken shit,
The Men’s Room stands safe
Knowing no one yet has broken it.

But here’s the punchline to this joke:
Men are obsolescing.
The values we’ve instilled in everything
Seem so depressing

Because they’re at odds with progress:
Opposed to what’s coming.
Every man knows this in some way,
That’s why we’re born running;

And everything but everything is built
With sex in mind.
We’re terrified of equality;
Of what we might find

If women were treated equally.
A simple notion
Which to avoid we’d nuke the planet
And drain the ocean;

Start an intergalactic war;
Launch ourselves into the sun.
We’d sooner burn down the Men’s Room
And cry about what we’d done

Than acknowledge that the only
Real differences between us
Are nothing to do with being from Mars
Or being from Venus,

But, rather, biological –
Organic, in a sense:
The chemicals that influence our moods
At our expense.

So what use testosterone
In this cowardly old place?
The missionary position
Might have brought us face-to-face

But there’s more to unpack there
Than the civilizing process.
The contraceptive pill
Remains a poor excuse for progress.

Liberation is a loaded word,
Lock, stock, and barrel:
Tell it to a model from
American Apparel;

Tell it to a Raqqa sex-slave;
Tell it to Jo Cox;
Tell it to that woman Ched didn’t rape,
As she changes her locks;

Tell it to your mother, maybe;
Tell it to yourself.
And if you still think that this planet
Is a picture of health,

Enjoy it. It is beautiful.
It is worthy of you.
But if you think you smell a lie
In what you’re told to be true:

Do not swallow.
Spit it back in the face of the teller.
If what you’re sold turns to ashes
Go after the seller –

Take your sister,
Take your friends. Take something sharp for cutting.
Cut,
And maybe we’ll no longer be stuck in this rutting.

Maybe what the Men’s Room needs
Is not to be run by men.
Maybe women could demolish it
And build it again.

Maybe with the help of eunuchs,
Or maybe with machines.
Why put up with men’s defects
When you can harvest our genes?

But maybe that’s just the Men’s Room talking:
Some canny double-bluff.
I wouldn’t know; it’s all beyond me,
That conspiracy stuff.

What I know is what I’ve picked up
With my senses, with my hands.
And what I’ve tried with my body
When my brain made demands.

I love you
And I’d hope that was obvious by this point.
But a mother’s role is to nurture;
It’s mine to disappoint.

So I’ll leave it at that.
I’ve no revelation waiting.
A question worth asking’s worth
A thousand facts worth stating.

One day, I know, you will begin
To see this world anew.
And on that day I trust you’ll know
Exactly what to do.

 

Video:

Attitude: rampant

Attitude: rampant

We fell asleep beneath red leaves
And left the goats to ramble.
I dreamt of apple blossom,
You dreamt of apple crumble;
I type all this into my phone
And fruit becomes computer.
I filter my photography
To make my dog look cuter,
And all my friends are far away
Now they fit in my pocket;
And every thought’s a cliché now
So every second’s “fuck it”.

We fell asleep beneath bare branches,
Left the goats to ramble.
I touched my palm upon your chest
And felt your ribcage tremble.
I endeavour to express this
Like milk into a pail
But the sentiments turn sour
As in a fairytale.
The boys are crying wolf again
And everyone’s afraid;
The stars have fallen from the sky
But all is safe inside.

We fell asleep beneath the blossom,
Left the goats to wander.
I dreamt about a boat at sea,
You dreamt the squalls and thunder;
Washed up on dark desert sand,
We wake up in the future.
Emoting through emojis now,
We’ve kama for some sutra;
But the best of all our tools
Are blaming us for badness,
And all our fading danger signs
Are wearing thin of redness.

We fell asleep beneath ripe fruits
To caprine rumination.
I woke to find a note that said
You’d left for the train station.
You’re working in the city now;
You’re working for survival.
I’m living for the love of it,
Awaiting your arrival.
I’ll pluck the apples from this bough
When they are good and ready,
And we’ll have apple crumble then
If we’re still going steady.

Appears in:
Live Canon poetry prize anthology [2016]
In the Men’s Room [2017]

Notes:
Concerning the title: in heraldry, “attitude” refers to the position of an animal; “rampant” in this respect indicates the animal is on its hind legs – a position commonly found in supporters (or attendants): figures placed on either side of the escutcheon (or shield), usually depicted as holding it up.

A rhyme for all time

A rhyme for all time

Iblis, full of hubris.
Mary, full of grace.
Sodom, full of sodomy,
Was such a sinful place.

Judas, full of treachery.
Thomas, full of doubt.
Samuel Johnson, lived with Tourette’s,
Scrofula and gout.

Pandu, full of pallor.
Pingu, full of pike.
Buddha, full of compassion.
Tiggy-Winkle, full of spike.

Libraries, full of artful lies.
Graveyards, full of truth.
Forests, full of sageless age.
Cities, full of youth.

Atlas, full of burden.
Anansi, full of tricks.
Jim Corr, full of theories,
Thick as Egyptian bricks.

History, full of wonder.
Victoria, full of grief;
Phone boxes painted glossy black,
Beggars still belief.

Empire, full of spices.
Dungeon, full of mould.
Mazes, full of Minotaurs.
Mountains, full of gold.

Schoolhouse, full-of-rule-house:
Testing testaments.
Rockeries, full of mockeries
Of your faith’s investments.

Culture, full of landfill.
Landfill, full of it.
Mass graves, full of plastic.
Media, full of shit.

Psychopaths and saints are all
Cavorting, hand-in-glove.
All of it’s amazing; it is,
I am, full of love.

 

Appears in:
Rhymes for all times [2015]

Video:

Balance

Balance

Only my second dentist’s appointment
This decade. Last time I could tell she was
In a hurry; I’d barely swallowed twice
The taste of rubber gloves on gums, and tuned
In to mesmeric bingo-caller code
Punctuated with sharp metallic clicks.
This guy was Greek, I think. Meticulous,
Worse luck. Two daughters and a wife in tow
This time; it must have been a good few years.

The day ran away down the A40:
Scouting out schools; a parent-and-toddler
Singing group; a doctor’s appointment too –
Could be asthma but it’s too soon to tell.
Wet winter. Does it run in the family?
Back to M&S car park for 3G.
The storms have hit hard: an exchange is down
And no one knows how to fix the phone-line.
Home through rain. 100 Broken Windows

And there they are: 3.3 kilos of
A4, rubber-banded, wrapped in plastic
Twice, addressed to me, in plain sight, balanced
On the mailbox. Money Saving Expert
Said to stipulate 40 days or less
And so it came to be. Since I threw out
My cassettes and diaries, this is my
Completest history: 12 years’ worth of
Bank statements, tracing my days from student

To graduate; from émigré to me;
Through train stations, chain pubs and record shops
Via hardship funds and overdraft fees.
It’s all here. Inside winds have abated
And our Rayburn’s ready to be relit.
It’s a solid-fuel-to-oil conversion,
Undoubtedly older than me and V;
The technician who came to service it
Last summer said its electric pump is

Illegal; if we have a power-cut
And happen to be out it will explode.
Warm-enough chips and buildings insurance
Are comfort enough for now. And that stack
Of bank statements rests on the work surface
Like a bible, or Joyce’s Ulysses.
Maybe the room will kindle in the night –
Yes, and all the lights across the globe will
Go out, and decades of debt will be wiped.

This epic volume of biography
Will be lost to sirens, static and smoke;
Rendered meaningless by a stroke of fate.
And maybe I’ll emerge a wiser man,
Less a coat; or else just forget the date
Of my next dental appointment. Three fillings.
I have always had perfect teeth. At least
They’ll be able to identify me,
Should the need arise, for annuity.

 

Appears in:
Rhymes for all times [2015]

Stains

Stains

History, herstory;
Which of these would you be first to heed?
And which story would you prefer to read?
If I’m thirsty and cold, will you furnish me
With a purse with which to feed me furs and tea?
If I’m first to leave, will you hire a hearse for me?
And a furnace to fire and burnish me?
If it’s a mystery that murders me,
Will you put my name to a bursary,
So that that name –
Which I’ve taken pains to explain –
With which I’ve lost as much as I’ve gained
Might echo like the ripples on the surface of a lake
From the touch of a single drop of rain?

Might remain?

I search desperately –
I’m obsessed, you see –
For a medium through which to make the best of me.
No mean or median or mode for me
Because I know that’s not what was meant for me;
I was sent to be something of density.
Hard-hearted people use the word “destiny”;
But I’m talking of a sense in my intestines, see:
Not sense and sensibility,
But the worth that this earth
Might make from the dearth
Of the matter it hasn’t yet rent from me.

These concepts, I know, are only lent to me;
Neither my story nor your story
Will suffice to entice
Any more glory
From a path
That is math;
That is poor, hoary,
Hurried and worried and wild;
That’s the sighs of a sage and the tears of a child.

We’re just stains:
Breath on the wind
And piss in the drains;
Electrical impulses
Pulsing through brains:
Fragmented memories
In shades of grey –
Ash in the ocean,
Bones in the clay,

Just stains:
Blood on the flagstaves,
Rust on the chains;
The tide takes the sand,
The moon waxes and wanes:
Silhouettes of fleshy shapes
On fanciful thrones –
Recipes for worm food
Chiselled in stones.

 

Appears in:
Rhymes for all times [2015]

Advertising space

Advertising space

I: Collectable biscuit tins

They make it our business.
They’ve made it our business.
They’re making it our business
All the time.
They’ll make it our business
Till the past dies
In a crime.

A family row boiled down
Isn’t much to shout about.
But lists of names
Of snuffed-out flames
In every village and every town,
Declaim – in chiselled chains
Trapping rivulets of rain,
Or engravings on brass plaques
That catch each flash of light –
The height of the stakes for us all
And the right of the tallest to fall.

Will “Blood Swept Lands And Seas Of Red”
Help us guess the price of a pint of milk
Or the weight of a bloody loaf of bread?

Will a shot at the cenotaph
Help one man convince the pessimist few
He’s much more than just a spike on a graph?

Will turning death into flowers
And legalized mass murder into art
Help us historicize a tragedy
Or tragedize a history?
Or at least learn our lines,
Anticipate our cues
And play our part?

Polish your rifle, the wood is green.
The tanks are waiting; where have you been?

Stille nacht, heilige nacht.
I’m afraid of the present,
I’m afraid of the past.

Alles schläft; einsam wacht.
I’m afraid of the present,
I’m afraid of the past.

A glossy fan of peasant blood
From a hard heart of fossil-fuel buckshot.
What’s the upshot?

888,246 corpses
Would be tough to source.

Wax your moustaches, the frost is keen.
Death in June for Lady Mondegreen.

Stille nacht, heilige nacht.
Betrayed by the future,
Betrayed by the past.

Alles schläft; einsam wacht.
Betrayed by the future,
Betrayed by the past.

Every fallen conscript
Like Jesus
Like Jesus

To be worshipped without question
Like Jesus
Like Jesus

Schlaf in himmlischer ruh!
Schlaf in himmlischer ruh!
II: In the conference rooms

The agonized clinks
Of three glasses repeating
Rough deltoid contact.

Vodka or voda;
And from the undammed Volga,
Salty grey treasure.

A king not let in
To the house of his cousin,
Left out in the snow.

Our deaths embroidered
On tabby-woven linen
By pliant machines.

A willow baton
Gesticulating toward
Attentive shovels.

A deck reshuffled:
Pert, primed, for another crack
At the same old game.

Thank God there are those
Willing to watch and unwatch
Such common portents.
III: Love in the time of Spanish Flu

They’re chuffing us off to the fair, the fair.
I doubt what delights we’ll see there, see there.

I swear I’ve the cold to end colds, end colds.
The doubt trapped in my heart fair moulds, fair moulds.

There’s space for the adverts to fly, to fly.
There’s cause for the poets to die. To dye

Your white poppy all you need
Is some copper and some eggshell
And some existential dread,
Folded through a preparation
Of some human flesh made greed,
Seasoned with some ink and intel:
Soon you’ll see the cells turn red;
The true hue of reparation.

They’re curing the dumb and the lame, the lame.
They’re doing it all in our name, our name.

I curse the day I chose this path, this path.
I’d sooner have stewed in my bath, my bath.

There’s media channels for sale, for sale.
There’s genuine tyrants to bail. To bale

All this fodder you’ll need men,
Or, at the very least, machines –
Of loving grace, if willing;
Or else facilitating things:
Digits counting up to ten,
And not a thing to come between
Them and the righteous killing
Of which our each ancestor sings.
IV: Advertising space

When the wind has blown its owing
Over wounds too deep and foul for sewing,
What flowers then through battlefields
Will still be growing strong?

Fingers frozen clasped closed praying
Numb chewed tongue doesn’t know what it’s saying
To the God you share with a foe
Who is playing along.

There’s no dignity in dying
For a half-mast flag that will keep flying
Regardless of the song;
Even if the words are wrong.

Saint Peter posted at the gates
As Wilfred Owen meets his fate;
He has that look upon his face:
Advertising space.

No one learned from those mistakes;
We ploughed our profits back with haste.
And all that’s left, lest we forget,
Is advertising budget.

Pluck your eyes from their sore sockets;
Chop your hands off and zip up your pockets
With the stumps. Stuff your ears with straw;
You won’t hear the rockets roar.

They poisoned me with mustard gas;
A sweet and honourable way to pass:
A blistered throat and bloody lungs
For cysts to mass among.

And I was grateful to the state
For moving me to truly contemplate
What it really means to serve;
What we servile deserve.

Saint Peter gives his keys a shake,
Says “I don’t like being made to wait.
Siegfried Sassoon: leaving so late?”
Advertising space.

No one learns from past mistakes;
We fill our prophets full of nails.
And all that’s for the fallen
Is advertising sales.

You’ve seen my daughters?
Man, they’re cute.
If they want to work in advertising too,
Lord, I don’t know what I’ll do.
V: Collectable biscuit tins (reprise)

They make it our business.
They’ve made it our business.
They’re making it our business
All the time.
They’ll make it our business
Till the past dies
In a crime.

 

Appears in:
Rhymes for all times [2015]

The old house

The old house

The old house we left is still here,
Though it’s grown even greener.
I daren’t get too near
Lest its look gets any meaner.

I’ve no right now to be this close,
Peering over the high wall
Like a perv. But my nose,
When I’m on tip-toes, is that tall

So how could I hope to resist?
I don’t want to see their kids
Play where I did: their wrists
Skimming the same nettles mine did.

Do they dig up my broken toys?
I wonder. Wander away
With no answer. The noise
Of their woes, and their joys, delays

Me a while – that they coincide.
Brothers can be quite cruel things
To grow up with. Inside
Now, I wonder whose judgement brings

Their justice? I mean, his or hers?
“Ask your mum” or “Ask your dad.”
Ten years back we conversed:
These exact arguments were had

Between the same four limestone walls,
Stone sourced near. If they could talk,
They’d shout: “Heard it before!”
Crunching downhill, I hear my walk

Punctuate the droning of bees.
Fat ducks’ quacks bully bread from
Busfuls of OAPs.
To Flagstaff quarry: I succumb

To the soft thrumming of summer
And slumber where they quarried
My home. Here, high on the
Hill, over it all, I’m sorry

For a moment we ever left –
Waking warm, blinking bubbles,
Purse cursed. But here’s no theft.
And lying still will leave troubles.

 

Appears in:
Rhymes for all times [2015]

Escape to the country

Escape to the country

Just as a sheaf’s wheat to the sickle yields,
Just as a beef-bull for the butcher bleeds,
Now let us build a home among these fields.

Homo sapiens’ destiny was sealed
By gatherers in sowing those first seeds.
Just as a sheaf’s wheat to the sickle yields,

Landscars, lost memorials, are revealed.
As plants that plant themselves are wily weeds,
Now let us build a home among these fields.

We shall protect our plot with these sure shields
We render as unwritten rights and deeds:
Just as a sheaf’s wheat to the sickle yields;

Just as a scab’s a healing wound congealed;
Just as the dead haunt asphodelus meads;
Now let us build a home among these fields

Until the final chapel bells have pealed,
Until the old red giant wakes and feeds.
Just as a sheaf’s wheat to the sickle yields,
Now let us build a home among these fields.

 

Appears in:
Rhymes for all times [2015]