The Waste of Unsaid Words

Your hair is tied in a ponytail
and falls onto the nape of your neck
like a sketch of a sad girl
your simple navy blue shirt
just rests on your body
refusing to give up your beauty
as do your jeans and boots

You lean forward into the silence
and move your fingers around the tea cup
as your other hand pulls at your top lip
you might rock
if I weren’t here
close your eyes and find comfort
in some eternal rhythm

should I try to speak
and let my heavy words crack this mute morning?
a fissure of half stuttered condolences
or sit back and accept the quiet
that grows in the room
with each unsaid word
filling it up with dead sentences

I could move to sit beside you
an awkward arm around your supplicant shoulder
and induce the tears that rank in the bottom of your eyes
like taxis of ideas
to drive the sadness away
but I don’t
terrified of not being able to stop what I begin

I blink back out of my thoughts
and look at you again
barely more than a silhouette of a girl
in an isolating wash of autumn sun
across the coffee table from me
holding on to death and regret
and the waste of unsaid words

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Forgotten Words: An Occasional Series of Underrated Authors #1 Paul Bowles

Paul Bowles 1910 - 1999

It’s interesting the ways Authors and their novels come back to you and impress themselves upon you once again.  I was watching a new version of Macbeth at the Globe Theatre (Southbank London) when the phrase “Let it come down” was uttered by Banquo’s murderer.  My mind jagged and Bowles’ novel inspired by this line popped into my head.  I lost a good part of the play thinking about the tense and sparse environments that Bowles manages to craft and resolved to re-read some at the nearest opportunity.

Back at home I was amused to see just how much space Paul Bowles occupied on a book shelf; not much.  For a man who lived ninety years Bowles output was, infuriatingly, as sparse as his prose.  Just four novels, one novella and maybe two dozen shorts.   In fairness, his early life was dedicated to composing, he studied under Aaron Copeland and wrote a number of respected pieces for plays.  His later life was taken up with translating Moroccan authors such as Mohammed Mrabet.  Still, a few more books of his own writing wouldn’t have gone amiss.

Some readers may be wondering why I’m claiming Bowles as an underrated author, when his most famous work ‘The Sheltering Sky’ was turned into a blockbuster film (1990 Bernardo Bertolucci).  Well that may be so but I just don’t hear him mentioned enough.  For me the handful of novels he managed to write in his 90 years are some of the most atmospheric and unsettling books I have ever read and his short stories are peerless.

So, the novels: The Sheltering Sky (1947) Let it Come Down (1952) The Spider’s House (1955) and Up Above the World (1957)

For me (perversely as ever) ‘The Spider’s House’ is the master-work here.  Dealing with all Bowles’ main themes; Cultural misunderstanding, remoteness and underlying menace.  This book deals with the Moroccan national uprising of 1954, which may sound like a dry subject but really the story is driven by exact, atmospheric (almost claustrophobic) prose and the cultural interplay between the main characters, a young Islamic boy and an American writer.  The skill in his writing comes from a precise empathy and understanding of both cultures and giving advantage to neither.

“What I mean is that in their (Moroccans) minds one thing doesn’t come along from another thing.  Nothing is the result of anything.  Everything merely is, and no questions asked.  Even the language they speak is constructed around that.  Each fact is separate, and one never depends on the other.  Everything is explained by the constant intervention of Allah.  And whatever happens had to happen, and was decreed at the beginning of time, and there’s no way of even imaging how anything could have been different from what it is.”      (The Spider’s House)

The American characters in Bowles’ stories are often cold, dissolute characters who show a fatality for events as they unfold.  In the same way the reader is drawn into the stories, allowing them to happen rather than actually reading them.  There is often a sense of unease, of dreadful things about to occur, which are as likely to happen as not.

The short stories are some of the finest ever crafted.  ‘A distant Episode is’ classic Bowles; where a hapless professor goes (believably in the space of 12 pages) from an after dinner stroll to having his tongue cut out and being enslaved as a raving madmen.   In ‘Pages from Cold Point’ a son seduces his father and in ‘The Eye’ an expatriate may, or may not, have been killed by his servants for unknowingly giving the cooks daughter the evil eye.  The overwhelming theme in all of these being the Muslim phrase “it is written.”

If you are new to Paul Bowles, or have only read ‘The Sheltering Sky’ I would urge you to investigate his writing further.  You could start by buying a book of the short stories and a novel.  Any of them will give you a thought-provoking and unsettling read that will stay with you and maybe have you rushing back to your book shelves the next time you see Macbeth.

UK links for books.

The Spider’s House (Penguin Modern Classics)

Collected Stories (Penguin Modern Classics)

Let It Come Down (Penguin Modern Classics)

Up Above the World (Penguin Modern Classics)

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Max Ernst Was My Dada

Max ernst was my Dada
he would ‘etraper les borgious’
Anais Nin was my Mother
dozens of men in her boudoir
Virginia woolf was my big Sister
She filled her pockets up with stones
Burroughs my sharp shooting Grampa
he didn’t shoot so sharp at Joan.

Franz Kafka was my Brother
he used to think he’d become a bug
Hunter Thompson was my mad uncle
he’d run a mile on any drug
Van Gough was my cousin
He liked to paint flowers
Lynda Carter  was my Niece
She thought she had super powers

Family parties were such fun

My cousin would cut off his ear
and my Brother was always in a state of fear
My Sister looked at her big nose
and Grampa was high regarding his toes

Dada would counter revolutionise
Whilst Uncle contemplated suicide
Mother tried to hit on all the girls
And my niece just twirled and twirled and twirled

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NO, not poetry, please.

Years ago I built a house out of brittle dreams
but now the roof leaks and lets the rain in
I catch it in pots and pans and roasting tins on the floor
There are candles in saucers arranged around the various receptacles
The whole room jumps in shadows as the drips hit

A roil of dark on the damp plaster
Hundreds of snails descend the walls
Their shadows are huge and flicker
Like Victorian amusements
Frogs jump from pan to pan
I like it when one misses

A flame is close to the base of the curtains
I suppose they’re too damp to set alight
I don’t know if there is any glass in the windows
But maybe the breeze will extinguish the flame

There is a radio on a table
The voices are ghosts in the static
Something is definitely alight
I can feel the heavy burden
Of the extra orange and heat

There is sick on the cuffs of my
Jumper and knees of my jeans
I don’t recall how it got there
Yesterday I wanted coffee

My guests are all dead
Men took them away
They shone professional torches
And wore thick oil skins
They took care not to disturb the pans

They got the bodies out
They didn’t say anything to me
I think one of them liked me though
He stroked my hair with a thick rubberized glove

Soon it will be Christmas
They’ll play carols at the foot of my broken fence

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