A thing once it has happened
DURING To begin somewhere other
than at the beginning, to begin
in that last summer of the ’80s, with the tutor –
his wire-wool beard, his sotto voce slights
and compliments, the meekness he affects
to say them in – and with the student, who is beautiful,
but not too beautiful – ‘a little
on the thin side’, each time I reach them
the tutor is quoting a line from the poet
Propertius. It is a passage from the Elegies
where our lovesick hero pictures Cynthia
with another man and spits the words – rumpat
ut assiduis membra libidinibus. ‘May his cock
be broken by insatiable lust,’ Wire-wool
translates, the sounds in his mouth awakening
the many passions he has never spoken
for other young women, thereby conferring
on this one the quality of crucial fungibility.
The 1912 translation by H.E. Butler
is more circumspect: ‘Let his insatiate lusts
break all his strength.’ But ‘cock’
is what the tutor says. Cock is what she hears.
She turns her head to the window
in a series of tiny jump cuts, stills
joined by infinitesimal dissolves. Beyond
the evening’s rainhiss nothing
but the pulse of her ears’ cicadas.
In the Greek pantheon, the messenger Hermes,
god of trade, of weights and measures,
is patron also of boundaries. Also, the transgression
of boundaries, in which capacity his aim
is to blur their definition: he knows
where the borders are and crosses them.
Martha Nussbaum calls such blurring
violability – where an object
(a person, say) is treated as lacking
in boundary-integrity and viewed accordingly
as something it is permissible to
break up, smash, break into.
BEFORE The damp space of the foyer. At waist height,
a panelled dado runs as far as the open well
of the staircase, where the quiet thickens,
as is the way with wells. Ahead
walks the tutor. The me that was then
follows, watching from the dark
theatre of my skull. The me that is now
does likewise. The darker the space, the more
luminous the screen (the darkness saying it).
Ahead, the barley twist balusters, the room
with its lockable two-panelled door.
Ahead, the tutor’s hands depend – one on
either side, like lowered pails.
BEFORE Out in the cobbled —
Wait – so now they’re out?
That’s right. Like this . . . Out in the cobbled streets
But what is ‘out’?
Out in the cold . . . Out like a light . . .
Out of the frame, of her hands, of her depth.
Out is vast. Is limitless. It is before.
Also provisional. Anything could.
Out in the cobbled streets a north east wind
is blowing the June rain slantways.
Night shadows moving —
Shadows in the dark?
Yes, from the wall lamps; soot-stained terracotta overlaced
with deeper dark — so . . . moving over the bricks
of seventeenth century facades in a terraced row
positioned by the river. (The river, however,
from this vantage point cannot be seen.)
Is it not generally best to consider
that events, at any time, are poised
to take an unexpected turn?
The shining cobbles.
The gutters running with rain.
I want to go back, out of the bad stories.
And then they arrive?
They arrive now at the department building.
A thing once it has happened
will always have happened.
It’s hard to separate one time from the others.
Three storeys, three windows, three
blocked windows to the left
of the red, gloss-painted door.
By which means the inside gets
out, the outside in.
A rainful, black, uncertain night from the start.
He hooks a key-fob from somewhere deep in his pocket.
We’d like to find a way —
Is there a way?
— of extending this scene.
Puts a key to the keyhole.
The faintest stirring of strings
swells then yields abruptly to a single voice.
Affettuoso: ‘The Sibyl opened her mouth
and the hundred mouths of her cave.’
Acts of Anger
I knew a girl. Her Gaffer was out of the house for the morning, a Saturday.
When her friend called round to play they had the idea
of making a cake. It was the Gaffer’s birthday.
The girl did not much like the Gaffer – naturally: she was afraid of him.
But a cake would be fun. Better, it would be insurance
against the charge that she lacked respect.
So here they are, standing at a kitchen counter, facing front:
two twelve-year-old girls. On the worktop
is an opened packet
of Betty Crocker’s Stir n’ Frost chocolate cake mix and
a large stoneware mixing bowl. Fluorescent light
bathes the counter and adjacent area.
Plutarch compares the person who is quick to anger with a length of weakened iron. An excess of anger creates in the soul an evil state which he calls ὀργιλότης – ‘irascibility’ – evidenced by ‘sudden outbursts of rage, moroseness, and peevishness when the temper becomes ulcerated, easily offended, and liable to find fault for even trivial offences, like a weak, thin piece of iron which is always getting scratched.’
The girl pours the cake mix from the cut cellophane packet. Out it shuffles.
How is that going to make a chocolate cake? the friend asks, peering
into the bowl. It’s nearly as pale as you. (Giggles.)
In the presence of such a soul, the ability to escape becomes of paramount importance. Out the front door. Never mind the shoes.
The girl cracks eggs on the rim of the mixing bowl, tips them in
while the friend stirs. Then the oil. Then the water.
The mixture starts to resemble
the glossy mud with which she made mud-cakes in days before the Gaffer.
This is more like it, says the friend.
The girl takes her turn
with the wooden spoon, smoothing out lumps as she goes.
The tins are greased, the oven is
warm and waiting.
Many cultures see human anger as something outside us; a force of nature, as in A storm is brewing. It was a stormy encounter. There is something collusive about the widespread use of such phrases. They seem to me a flagrant abdication of responsibility.
In the quiet of the girl’s bedroom, the girl and her friend sit
side by side on the bed, their backs to the wall,
sharing cold baked beans from a can.
The chocolate cake has been placed, iced but undecorated,
on the white kidney-shaped dressing table.
Are you sure there’s time
to get to the shops? asks the friend. Of course.
What if he comes back while we’re out
and finds the cake?
He won’t come in here. The girl reaches for a stack
of yellow Post-it notes. Her blue felt-tip
writes greenish on the page –
SURPRISE! DO NOT ENTER!!! She adds a smiley face,
and puts the note aside; returns to the beans. (A pause.)
God, these beans are disgusting. (Giggles.)
Shakespeare’s Henry VIII is full of anger – ‘choler’ and ‘flow of gall’. In only the second scene, the Duke of Norfolk turns to Buckingham and tells him, ‘Anger is like / A full-hot horse; who being allowed his way, / Self-mettle tires him.’ Odd how pieces of horse tack creak and wink out from many of our anger idioms – leather bridles and reins, curb chains. He could not rein in his anger. She must learn to curb her temper. They bridled at the suggestion. In every case, the horse is the anger; the owner of the horse the angry person. Again, the analogy strikes me as evasive. It wasn’t me, your Honour: it was my horse.
Walking home from the shops, the girl is clutching two small paper bags:
in one there is a tube of Smarties, and a pair of small jelly hands;
in the other, birthday candles.
As they reach the house, the door gets sucked
back into it. Implodes. In the gap stands
the Gaffer, his red
hair blazing, eyes too. The impression is of nothing so much
as a rearing horse. IT’S MY BIRTHDAY
’RE UP THERE TREATING YOURSELF TO A LITTLE FEAST!
His voice is thunderous. ON. MY. BIRTHDAY.
The friend turns heel and runs.
The girl begins to protest. Too late: the air is already curdling
with the iron-tang of insults
The association of red with anger is ubiquitous, and it turns out there may be a psychological basis. In a study conducted at North Dakota State University, participants were shown faded pictures that were a mix of red and blue – neither fully one colour nor the other. People with aggressive tendencies were more inclined to describe the pictures as red. In a sister study, subjects were asked how they might behave in a series of threatening scenarios. Red-preferring people were more likely to report that they would harm another person than those who preferred blue.
At this point, a fissure appears in the story. The girl remembers only
that everyone was home by teatime – the mother
and the brothers,
that nothing was said, that her eyelids were hot and puffy from crying,
so that she was aware of looking out at the world
through narrowed slits.
The cake was brought to the table (by her mother?) fully decorated,
the two hands open in applause at the centre,
just as the girl had planned,
the candles lit – Happy Birthday, dear Gaffer –
the small flames tugging lightly
on their stems.
These poems are taken from Copus’s new collection Girlhood, published by Faber & Faber next month.
Photograph © Christine