B.S. Johnson — Poems Two
(Trigram Press, London, 1972)

7 11 1969 | ►11 11 1969 | ►Ar: Blaney's Last Directions | ►A Suggested End to the Celebrated Long Run | ►Bad news for her mother | ►Basic Landsape | ►Beech: Englyn Milwr | ►Broom: Englyn Cyrch | ►Change is the only constant | ►Chart me | Distance Piece | ►Evening: Barents Sea | Exorcising | ►Fern: Englyn Penfyr | ►Food for Cancerous Thought | ►Good News for her Mother! | ►Image in Provence | ►Legal Fiction | ►Little Old Lady | ►Living by | ►Love-all | Loving | ►No, I've Not | ►Nothing more | Observing | ►Occupation: Father | Rotting | ►The Bonepit Testes Series | ►The Dishonesty of Metaphor | ►The Marriage Upstairs | ►The Poet Holds His Future in His Hand | ►The Short Fear | ►The son of Jesus Christ has doubts about the blessing of his parentage | ►The Succession of Life through Geological Time | ►The Thames at Mortlake | ►Three Gregynog Englynion | ►Three Irrelevant Thoughts | ►Two Poems after Mies | Unthinking | ►Where Is the Sprinkler Stop Valve?


Bad news for her mother

Yes, I shall write it all down, you old cow,
all: the first time, the last time, all the times
in between, and then all the times I should
have liked there to have been. I shall go on
writing it down even out of habit,
till there is nothing left to exorcise.

You may judge from that the emotional
debt I feel your lovely daughter owes me.



Image in Provence

Her face suddenly, on this mountain road:
(cypresses guttering like black candleflames
there in the valley, still hawk over high
eroded limestone left, right lavender
clumps close-shorn to purple-stubbled naevi):
that face suddenly, the shape exactly,
the lost eyes spanning a cleft in the cloud
smiling in the first way I remember:
the known against this visited landscape.

I had ceased to think of her as having
this face, any face: she was an idea,
an area of pain, a wound, a death.

The hawk of the past stooped, ripped at my mind,
left me with an equivocal freedom.



Living by

Walking, snow falling, it is possible
to focus at various distances
in turn on separate flakes, sharply engage
the attention at several spatial points:
the nearer cold and more uncomfortable,
the farther distanced and almost pleasing.

Living, time passing, it is preferable
to focus the memory in turn upon
the more distant retrospects in order
that the present mind may retain its peace.

Yet knowing that seeing and remembering
are both of course personal illusions.



Nothing more

fill out her character more
they said
so I worked hard remembering

and the sad thing perhaps was
all had
been said
there was really nothing more



Good News for Her Mother!
Probably The Last Poem I Shall Write about Her Daughter

In the last year ending with eight (cunningly
making it timeless) ten years ago, that is,
I was in this pub with this girl, or that girl,
whichever, the one girl, anyway, one one:
and it was very clear, then, at that time, here,
that she didn't reckon I'd ever make it
(not sexually, you misunderstand me, yes,
that was soon settled, and fair it was, too. Ah.)

Where was I? In this pub, where I am now, yes,
with this girl I was with (in most senses) then,
and she was convinced I would never get there,
wherever it was she wanted me to get.

I sat swollen, drowned in her cruel certainty.

It was all tied up with supremacy, power,
for she could never beat me at anything
(except being a woman, at which I have
never, even in the prenatal stages
of bisexuality, been very good);
and so she used the only weapon she had,
which was unexpectedly to betray me
at Xmas, which has always been a bad time
for me ever since they first told me that there
was not, and never had been, a Santa Claus.

But here I am then, still, fatter and having
got more or less where I said I was going,
in the theatre pub where then even to have
spoken to one of the actors would have been
as hard as writing a play is now. I stand
arguing with the artistic director
(who I now think an untalented cretin)
full of contempt for the lack of serious
intent in what he conceives to be drama.

And what strikes me now is not that she was wrong
(which Heaven forfend! as they say) but that it
would not matter even if she had been right.





The decorously informative church
Guide to Sex suggested that any urge
could well be controlled by playing tennis:
and the game provided also "many
harmless opportunities for healthy
social intercourse between the sexes."

For weeks the drawings in the Guide misled
me as to what went where, but nonetheless
I booked the public courts and learnt the game
with other curious youths of my age:
and later joined a club, to lose six one,
six love, in the first round of the Open.

But the only girl I ever met had
her "energies channelled" far too bloody
"healthily", and very quickly let me
know that love was merely another means
of saying nil. It was not as though I
became any good at tennis; either.



Basic Landscape

Teaching elements, I quickly washed earth
and sky on to the pinned sugarpaper
(soft as talc) and ran an unlikely range
of smooth black mountains right across my rough
horizon : I placed a full moon low left
and told them they might, reaching this stage, add
such objects as they chose: trees, woods, houses,
animals, cars, roads : or even people.

Silently today I stare through rainpocked
glass as sulphur drifts through brown broadcloth woods
silverthreaded with gaunt leaning birches,
as damp outlines the random crack-patterns
of a grey limestone syncline, stare at the
complexity of this northern landscape;
then turn for relief to station roofs and
names: Ambexgate, Whatstandwell, Matlock Bath.

All teaching must be simplification,
and to simplify is to falsify:
how teach the landscape of the complex heart
to those who have no wish to learn: and why?



The Marriage Upstairs

The marriage upstairs fattens on conflict:
they were hardly married, a week before
we were woken by the casement thrashed hard
against its frame and cries of Don't come near!

We held each other, more than disquieted,
imagining that we suffered with them:
later we grew used to voices and thumps
above and saw they showed no signs of harm;

were amused when he once came down offering
apologies for having disturbed us
by one particularly strident row
for which we were in fact out of the house.

This is the way they have chosen to live:
their choice, even if it is not our way.
They are still together: and of any
marriage, put like that, what more can one say?



Change Is The Only Constant

Unpleasurably I remark the coming
of the winter of my last childless year:
pawnbroker seeds, skeletal bankrupt leaves
still adhere, it does not seem desperately,
certainly it does not seem j oyfully,
into December of this barren year.
One leaf for the third day flaps like a bird,
a pigeon held in a high wind feathers
for an instant like a fat urban hawk,
and client gulls pose coldly on the long
dormer opposite: I shall not feed them
this or any other brackish morning,
I who have welcomed winter (as any
season) must see the child is welcome now.



Occupation: Father

My son finds occupation
in almost nothing, in everything:
my soapy penitential toothpaste,
his mother's loosened hair
orts, containers, useless things;
watches as I pee
as at Victoria Falls,
once pushed his head between my knees
to risk some sort of baptism.

Before his birth I thought
I had room for no more love:
now when he (say) hurts himself
love, consideration, care
(copies from the originals)
as if burst inside me.

Undoggedly I interest myself
in his uninteresting concerns,
grow backward to him,
more than hoping to find
a forward interest for myself.



Chart me
to his wife

Chart me as I grow

middleaging hands
which are mine

you are five
years younger

Chart me as I go



No, I've Not

Those breasts you
loved to weigh
by handsful,
dint, pucker,
have fallen
now: I think
—with something
like the old
as far as
they will fall.

Those nipples
which once stood
pleasured to
the lightest
running of
your fingers
are gross, brown
brindled now,

Those other
your wet tongue
at first so
found, researched,
are dry now,
admit to
a disused
worked-out mine.

Their answer:
No, I've not




Three Gregynog Englynion

Fern: Englyn Penfyr

Hookheaded hairy young fern, springy, curled,
coy greeny thruster set on
its own spread revelation



Broom: Englyn Cyrch

Common broom confused with whin,
gorse, furse, finds its own-ness in
ternate leaves, coiled styles and jet
black seedpods: yet it is kin.



Beech: Englyn Milwr

Beech, from which book: like learning,
pellucid leaves' late turning
slows ending, adds adjourning.




A Suggested End To The Celebrated Long Run

In the long run everything is by some
held to even out, perhaps indeed to
come down on the side of the survivors:

others assert with they imagine more
relevance that at the end of our own
particular run we tend to be dead.

Time is the difficulty, time with space
and causality being relative:
or, as Einstein is alleged to have said
at Oxford (or Cambridge) railway station,
What time does Bradford arrive at this train?

Each point at which to start is arbitrary,
unbroken chains of causality reach
back in time and space indefinitely.

Where start then?




Two Poems After Mies

Less is More


Almost Nothing




The Thames At Mortlake

if only for ten minutes

after the mass feeding of schoolchildren
after the careful inanity of the staff

at low tide
this was the place
for calm, for order of a kind

the relief of walking there

and the smell was acceptable
perhaps even preferable

the objects to be

principally (I have it still)
a short fat halfpound brass bolt and nut
virgin, unscrewed

other things less permanent

sodden grey bones
scratched glass, rubbed brick, rusted gatebutts
once a chaffinch eggshell

every conceivable other

but mainly dirty shingle
prairies of malachite slime

though was the important thing
that I met no one else there?



The Dishonesty of Metaphor

The sound rain
is like only
the sound of rain.

(rain seen against
the black threat of
copper beeches)

in truth can be
like nothing but
the sound of rain.



7 11 1969

On this seventh of November it is
a little curiously the fifty-
second proud anniversary of the
October Revolution, and in my
hired Moss Bros overcoat I walk the cold
splayed streets of Budapest (bright with neon
celebrating Shell and Coca-Cola)
noting too many similarities,
failing to feel farther abroad than France.

It is perhaps useless to speculate
on what Lenin would have thought of all this,
especially the ads, and in any
case I do not know his work well enough:
but it most certainly pisses me off.



Three Irrelevant Thoughts

one—----I'm fond of women
———---But I like my salad

two—--—He spoke of his longings and yearnings
———---Then lived off her immoral earnings.

three——Coleridge hated

————I have been to
————And I hate




Evening: Barents Sea

The trawl of unquiet mind drops astern

Great lucid streamers bar the sky ahead
(bifurcated banners at a tourney)
light alchemizes the brass on the bridge
into sallow gold
——————now the short northern
autumn day closes quickly

——————————the thin coast
(of grey Norway is it, or of Russia?)
distinguished only as a formal change
in the pattern of clouds on our port side

on the deck the strung lights illuminate no
movement but the sullen swill of water
in the washer, but the unnatural way
dead starfish and disregarded dabs swim
in the strict seas surging through the bilges
and out. A fishgut hangs like a hank of
hair from the iron grill in a pound board

brighter now that the sun, the fishfinder's
green bleep catches the skipper's intentness

and the trawl is down, is out, is catching!



The son of Jesus Christ has doubts about the blessing of his parentage

All the Marys were Mum to me, and I’ll
willingly grant him a sense of humour:
"Hail Mary, full of Grace!" he once chortled,
and sure enough within two weeks she’d had
a baby daughter, my sister Gracie.

But as if the crucifiction were not
dramatic enough, he goes and does the
resurrection bit as well: follow that!

Not me. I mean, what’s so dead impressive
in claiming to be the Grandson of God?

And then there’s all these scruffy mates of his—
some of them queer as old boots, I reckon—
asking me what I remember about
the old man and then going away and writing
accounts which leave out all the dirty birts
and always contradict one another.

I really wears me out, all this caring.
I don’t want to Leave a Mark, just get on
with my carpentry, the trade he taught me:
they won’t want me in history, anyway.

Mind you, I reckon Gracie’s worse off, though.




Legal Fiction

In the event of simultaneous
death or when it cannot be determined
which of the jointly insured parties died
first then it shall be deemed notwithstanding
anything to the contrary which might
be of financial benefit to the
insurance company or vice versa
that the elder policyholder pre-
deceased the younger policyholder

Thus the law recognises our rotting



Ar: Blaney's Last Directions

It is usual
for people in this country
(out of pretended respect
but rather from an impertinent curiosity)
to desire to see
after they are

It is my earnest request that no person
on any pretence whatever
may be permitted to see my
but those who
unavoidably must.

I desire to be buried
in the north side of the churchyard
of Tregynon
somewhere about the centre
my coffin to be made in the most
plain and simple manner
without the usual fantastical decorations
and the more
perishable the material
the better.

I desire that no undertaker
or professed performer of funerals
may be employed:
but that I may be conveyed
to the churchyard
in some country hearse
which may be hired for the occasion
and my corpse
to be carried
from hearse to the grave
without going into the church
by six of the chief Tregynon tenants
to whom I give two guineas each
for their trouble.

It is my earnest request and desire
to have no upper bearers
or any persons whatever
invited to my funeral
which I desire may be at so
early an hour as will best prevent
a concourse of people
from collecting together:
the better sort
I presume will not intrude
as there is no

I have been present at the funerals
of three of my uncles at Morville.
I was pleased with the privacy and decency
with which all things were conducted:
no strangers attended
all was done
by the servants of the family.
It is my earnest desire to follow these examples
however unpopular
and that
no coach
no escutcheon
and no pomp of any kind may appear.

I trust that my executor will be well justified
against the clamor and obloquy
of mercenary people
when he acts in performance of the last request
of a dying friend
who solemnly adjures him in the name of God
punctually to observe these directions.

I likewise give to all my servants
five guineas each
in lieu of all mourning
which it is my desire
no person may use on my account.



Little Old Lady

Turner the painter turned a Welsh corner
which revealed a view of the Vale of Clwyd
so fine that he stopped and yelled. . .

Buffalo-humped, bent, next to no muscle
substance on any limb, her face pale where
it is not grey-yellowed at the temples,
sunken where it is not puffy under
the eyes; her step hammertoed, hesitant:
even a trivial fall my snap off
the frail neck of a femur; no eyebrows,
hair sparse except on upper lip and chin;
her skin with unsuntanned sunspots,her pulse
slow and temperature low, the genital
tract become bloodless, unmoist, atrophic;
her eardrums are in retraction, a sluice
of cataracts lapses before her eyes;
she is querulous, forgetful, unclean,
distressing to others; and to her self.

——————————————. . . Well done God!

(p. 49)


The Succession Of Life Through Geological Time*

At some relatively recent point
on this bizarre continuum
the capacity of pity
was (in some way) generated:
pity for the object of the
pity from the object itself!

This is one of the better laughs
if you think about it long enough.

*HMSO 1961, 5s

(p. 50)


11 11 1969

Stopping at an intermediate floor
in the old lift at the Eφtvφs Lorαnd
University, Budapest, on the
eleventh (a Tuesday) of November
nineteen sixty-nine, I happened in the
long glass panel of the thrown-back half-door
to glimpse a really unpleasant-looking
male profile: it took me several seconds
to realise that this was in fact the same
but full face I chose to shave each morning.



Where Is the Sprinkler Stop Valve?

Urinating in a urinal
I try at first directly
to jet down a fruitfly
then see random sprinkling
is the proper method—

you cannot beat the random element

as in cancer, as my mother knew



Food for Cancerous Thought

The small betrayals
eat us all away

the work done for less
than the minimum

the lickerish glance
at another girl

the long snack taken
just before a meal

But we shall
be eaten away



The Bonepit Testes Series

On the third day we came to the bonepit
People it seemed had been there before us
It was distressing that they had not left
The bones as they would have wished to find them

We had first to clear a space for our match
Then we set up fibulae for wickets
The longer phalanges made ducky bails
While for bats and ball we used male femurs
And a whole green fossilized testicle

It is they say important to keep fit



The Poet Holds His Future in His Hand

Tonight I looked at it: I don't often

it performs its two functions well enough
in return I keep it reasonably clean

but quite by chance I looked at it tonight
and there were several dirty marks on it

I of course looked harder: and they were veins
underneath the skin, bloody great black veins!

they weren't there last time I happened to look
certainly the light was bad in that place

but there's no doubt that the pressure is on



The Short Fear

My awkward grossness grows: I go down, through

I maintain my self in the conviction
that I have as much to say as others
and more apposite ways of saying it

Certainly I feel it has all been said

The short fear is that even saying it
in my own way is equally pointless



Distance Piece

I may reach a point
—one reaches a point
where all I might have to say
—where all that one has to say
would be that life is bloody awful
—is that the human condition is intolerable
but that I would not end it
—but one resolves to go on
despite everything
—despite everything