Author’s note: The Alphabet Murders is a 27-poem sequence, each part of which begins with a different letter of the alphabet. It was started in 1973 after a spell in Singapore and a year-long holiday [respite, escape] from poetry, finished in 1974–75, and published as a poetry pamphlet in 1976. It follows Rimbaud’s dictum [correction, 2009: Verlaine’s dictum]: ‘Take rhetoric and wring its neck!’ and aims to attack and destroy rhetoric, its own apparent reason for existing.
After all we have left behind
this complex of thought begins
a new movement into musical form, much as
logic turns into mathematics and automatics
turn into moonlit driveways — ‘form at the edge
of hearing’, almost, like a locomotive whistle
late at night becomes a linguaphone and then
jumps into bright focus like a lunatic
suddenly aware that hunger kills vacancy
and means lunch straight away — we mean
poems right away and no fooling.
So I write to you ‘‘from a distant country’’
Before this complex thought begins attacking
what we have left behind — riddles, packaging —
itself must generate enough good luck for the whole voyage.
After trunks full of shit flung overboard
and the page aflame with noise and verb geometry
I'm ready and lunch jumps into sight and we are off
like a rocket, zooming through the lecture hall where
history becomes a kind of thick paralysis and breaks
down into spasms and morality and all we can remember
through the foggy explosion is how we thrilled
and brought back memories of Captain Marvel
wriggling on a pin, or in the lens' meniscus
held to the niggling eye. (He would have made her
had he shot the shot, or had another try.)
No more literature. The dream is done.
But take precautions: oil the gun, unsheath the pen
and grease the new appointment if you will
for we are not all as easy (as the one who hides
in the shadow of the sun and clicks the shutter)
at the briefest flick of eyelid or the wettest smile.
I have been keeping a stupid vigil in the tower
to show I'm not mad and making notes
as to the behaviour of the lesser sex. Take care,
I'm winding up the broken clock and being jovial
as though the word ‘maunder’ held a secret in its fist —
but those dreams are laughing
and a new horizon promises revenge.
Cool it, with all the friends of scholarship to hand
there should be little fright, so take it easy
riding through the night. So
the craftsman turns away from domesticity
with its pattern of submission, cliché and reproach
and retires to a house in the countryside.
It is English, autumn, smoky and reposed,
badgers wander across the great lawns in the evening
and the peaceful rhythms of another, better life
claim him piece by piece. He sits musing
in front of an open fire, sketchbook at hand,
as the tapestry weaves its message in the shadow chambers
at the rear of that condominium we call his brain.
Is it inspiration? Is it luck? Is it duty,
that sour globe of perspiration on the nerve?
He grows, the nimble fingers fly, the pattern
reels an arabesque across the paper. Five years later,
with a hearty laugh, he is gone from the country;
two years after that we find him dead.
And the tapestry? It is now a joke, a dirty parable
that kids laugh about in school, it is a lesson
that everybody hears and no one understands,
it now hangs in Texas in a renovated castle
and entertains the visitors immensely,
and like some long and boring poem by Matthew Arnold
in which the bloodstained burning battlements of Art
rise up in Hauteur from the sodden Turf
it puffs itself up and explodes all over the onlookers.
It is a bladder bloated with its own conceit, and yet,
rhymed or free, retarded or advanced,
as the poetry of life spirals upward in the smoke
from this great and almost mythical work of art
the skills of horticulture carry on, a million clerks
fill out a questionnaire, the grand pursuit of excellence
convicts itself of nothing, and is praised.
So he becomes the amateur and once again
begins that climb through craft to frightful insight
while all I can do (me! me!) is eat page after
page of this ‘plain speaking’ in a rhetoric
dazed with ambiguity. You might say that
no career is adequate to my melancholy, as it's
true that no whip is suitable
for my desire, but that's all bullshit
and a different kind of gangster movie makes it clear.
Drifting through the gritty, adolescent Western novel
we find an endless buried geography jutting up
just underneath the reader's attention-span
and it seems that voyages of this type have a purpose.
The annual outing of the Literature Society was held
on the foothills near the Epic Volcano, an area
noted for its inhospitable terrain and noxious gas.
Suddenly the mountain-side shudders, belches
and blows up with a lewd cracking noise,
showering the explorers with hard poetry turds
that drive them crazy. These little pieces of lyric
fall like tiny brains from the sky
fertilising the lakes and great rivers.
The heavy unpeopled fields that lie
sodden under the mass of tangled verbiage,
the banks of snow that scud back and forth, these
outward symbols of the mind's recalcitrance
plunge us into thinking again and again
and we drive deep into trouble with our queer friends
in the hope of meeting something vast and possible.
What's it like in there? Do we need confidence?
Is the plague edible? Do the leeches? And we fade away.
We could point to the poem and say ‘that map’,
the heart's geography, and words enact
the muscley parable of exploration: on your right
Maugham's club foot which tromps the clay of life into
a lovely chorus line of English prose; on your left
the dead Romantics, gone into that same earth
that took their tears and all their unforgivable
syntactical mistakes. The land is cruel
with existentialists, though lyric poets
wander through like crippled birds... but this map
is false and crazy — here the Doppler shifts
convert to analogue then back to pulse-code modulation
information full of news and noise, so the heart's
continent abandons form and drifts out into the night sky
full of parachutes, and we feel the mind's mountains
bonking against our head like knobs,
for the little ‘heart’ grows ‘dark’ at night
and lacking infra-red photometry and radar
we rave down along the flare path looking like
an anxious moth, don't we? In the flight plan?
But there you go again, plotted out of your simple wit
and this is the second-level problem: observers
without the keys to fit their own responses
so that a poem is merely rhyme and meaning, or a gift
of gaudy trash, and nothing else. So we slog on
to navigate the fading resonance of our capacities
and find the luminescent map of armies
burning on the plain.
Zero is the shape of the volcano's orifice
as seen from above, as it is of the human's as seen
from below, and this witless natural joke is a clue
to the purpose, function and economic value of art.
Something like a nothing is what we find
at the final port of call on this cruise when,
stained and weary, we get a flash like a light bulb
blowing up in our face and right there and then
we know everything about life and the creative process.
First there is an accumulated substratum of fact,
and secondly a kind of thermal pressure built up
over decades of suppressed fantasy. Thirdly,
when the whole thing explodes you have an eruption
and millions of gallons of stuff pour out
into colours of hot orange and vivid green,
material which may be revolting and even deadly
at the time, but which forms a useful ground
for supposition in later ages. And so
while the first burst is primitive and spontaneous
after the style of the Romantic gush of the early
nineteenth century, the later consolidations
take on an air of careful structuring
like a policeman blurting out a list of filthy books
in perfect alphabetical order. And that is all there is —
once the Romantic Emotion has ejaculated we find
a vast bed of cooling lava, bare and empty,
giving meagre nourishment to those who follow,
and baneful and pernicious in its influence. And yet
we are still laughing in the jungle, and this
dream of art is nothing but a loony fantasy.
After all, we had left poetry behind before this trip had even begun, and all the while we have been bereft of its silly promises of beauty, as the liner leaves the dock and one sees wavelets, sodden streamers in a million colours, and some damp flowers drifting downward through the clouded water to that harbour mud; it is as though the coast of South America were never to see us again, and as much poetry as we were able to hint at left as a blur on the horizon as a temporary sign, the more beautiful for being the more easily erased, and even this has strength as it is inevitable and what we have been promised and it is one promise that shall come through: that the slate of verse shall be washed clean, that the South American rivers will drift always to the sea, that the flowers in the mud live and breathe for a short time only and then return us to our dreams.