The surrealist machine is more often than not a nonfunctional machine –
Sara Danius, ‘The Senses of Modernism’
Returning from the anniversary
event for Sterne at Bradford Library,
a theft of signal wire maroons his train
beside the Kirkstall Abbey points for Leeds,
a name which sounds a pun, but not to him.
He’s feeling hemmed-in by the open space,
a paradoxophobia mixed with…
he wonders what word would mean ‘fear of nature’ –
gaiaphobia? or start with ‘pan-’,
as in panic, as in panic attack?
He notes Cornell alarm chains under glass,
a hammer under glass for breaking glass.
This Bradford route’s a sideline to a sideline,
sidelined now, reflecting on itself,
he thinks, a black-silk-hatted parody,
a Soft Cell synth man who only plays
recessionals on his harmonium
as doors close on the coffin and the flames.
He checks the carriage doors. They’re locked, of course.
He notes the engine idles in iambics,
growing more insistent all the time.
Distraction from distraction’s what he needs;
he thinks of Henry ‘Box’ Brown, escaped slave,
who recreated on this line his flight
to Northern freedom from Virginia,
and then of Earnshaw, the unescaped artist,
boxmaker, anarchist, who rode here
on his famed Surrealist Expeditions,
now travelling just as fast, although he’s dead,
as this steel coffin with an Abbey view.
There’s no-one’s in his carriage. Or the next,
bar one slumped goth, a daywalker in shades.
He sees the guard is smoking down the track.
Reminded of that traveller’s tale from Twain
with mummies fuelling Egyptian trains,
he opens all the carriage windows wide
then gets a head of steam up for himself.
The flesh is grass that fuels his Proto Pipe,
distraction engine of the connoisseur;
a locomotive run on loco weed,
but pocket-sized, its firebox solid brass
with built-in poker, tar-trap, sliding smoke-cap –
Ceci n’est pas une pipe, but art to him
from stem to Sternesque incurled spinning smoke
that rhymes with wire abandoned by the thieves
to kink and bite its tail and arabesque
like drawings of Trim’s gestures with his stick.
He draws until his head begins to spin,
thinks Northern Lights a good name for this grass…
When straight, he’d kill time on another line
by taking phone cold callers for a ride;
A timeshare? Great! But let’s consider time!
He’d fugue on monastery prayer-routines
and Mumford’s view their strictness gave the West
its grounding in machine-age discipline,
or Mrs Shandy winding up her husband;
Marx on clockless works; Toussaint L’Ouverture,
his gold watch stolen, exiled in the Jura,
where, in good time, the local watchmakers
would teach Kropotkin real-life anarchism…
None laughed, their English often second-hand,
commission making up their sweatshop pay,
his bourgeois deviationism stale,
reduced as one of Bennett’s Talking Heads.
But now he listens with intensity
to sounds a swift makes harvesting the sky,
worms churning willowherb and meadowsweet,
the bull chained by its nose to a cartwheel,
a punky sun turning its wooden dial…
A tyre’s soft watch drips slowly on a tree;
inside, paranoia’s less critical
he’s sure he’s suffering Karmic punishment
for keeping hands from working in real life,
his Chinese watch, where copper scrap winds up,
the Golden Virginia in all those joints…
The robot heartbeat of the engine turns
to footsteps at his back, death in high heels,
while Kirkstall Abbey melts to Auden’s face:
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
it says to Alan Bennett, Poetry?
But that’s found far from outskirts such as these!
Remembering that Bennett lived near Troy,
by Horsforth Station, he thinks of Irwin,
Hector’s foe, who lives there in the screenplay
though Somewhere on the outskirts on the stage;
then Bennett quoting Eliot on walls;
the History Boys against the National wall
on the book cover Darren Wall designed…
Convinced he’s trapped now for eternity,
he thinks this page’s walls are closing in,
then closes his own eyes to find himself
in his personal page 73:
he dreams evolved new fish will one day find
his cage of bones in the train’s rusted cage
with Northern Lights’ seeds growing through his ribs
a post-historic forest coast to coast,
his Proto Pipe all protozoic slime…
He shudders, then forgets why, at what.
He wonders if the goth brought chocolate.