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tearing the rag off the bush again
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The Joke

You may speak until the first obscenity. Then you will have to stop.
That night was my first in company since my depression and I was anxious to appear “the life of the party” so I told my joke. My estranged friends were all howling, tugging their clothes as though they were in flames, and applauding their limbs into splinters as I genuflected, indicating how I held our punchline yet in reserve. Then I finished and their struggles subsided, I found it very silent, the crowded pub (“The Belching Monk”) was replaced by cloistered gardens, under a monastic covenant of hush. With a jeweller’s micro-lathe an acolyte performed routine maintenance on a honey-bee’s silencer. Another cowled gentleman unearthed our supper, carrot by carrot, with an archaeologist’s sly little broom. Any monk needing to cough was required to suppress it for six months. If after six months he still grated, monastic law permitted him to make a pilgrimage up a local holy mountain – this is how badly it went. Near the very top of the mountain was an abandoned sett known as the Coughing Sett. Down that sanctified darkness the monk could clear his throat. Other pilgrimages and other hallowed burrows, wells, hollows and dens existed for other tickles (or had once existed. Such pilgrimages were infrequent and the monks’ land had been heavily developed, but the fastidious monks always burped, sneezed, chattered, yawned, growled, clicked, farted or hiccoughed on just the right spot, high street bridal outfitters or no high street bridal outfitters. “The Belching Monk” itself had flattened holy woods, and filled and overlain a holy warren, and takes both name and notoriety from its occasional monastic visitors: perplexed, determined men who ignore the atmosphere of boozy zeal and cultish, aggressive, semi-ironic homage, walking when possible, waiting when not. Silence usually falls, for the burp itself, then when celebration detonates, the pub is as far from silence as any thing in this world, but this superlative does not bother the mollified monk, who wears the profound self-assurance of a regular, indeed a more profound self-assurance, being in these parts a more Profound kind of Regular. Now I leave my friends, who might have sewn themselves across a gap made in grief, and wander down to a little spot of mine called the Sobbing Mousehole. The sky along the way is empty. The tree, a larch – which was only a sapling when the mouse bit it – shakes to my spasms – lurches, shakes – it’s like screaming into my lover’s cunt).

Butchery on the Ping-Pong Court

Chapter i

“I’ve discovered the universe is full of holes,” said Mary one

I drooped my book, but kept the place with my index finger.

“Look,” she said, indicating towards Yatsen and Chad, who
played at table tennis – or so I thought. “For example. Table
tennis comprises that tennis which is played upon a table.

“Mm,” I commented. I was pretty interested in that book. It
was one long allegorical poem. A succession of knights tried
to murder a monster who had taken the shape of a tender
princess. So great was the feeling of her heart, and so pure
and copious her blood, that the slightest wound brought
forth a beam of blood with enough force to knock you back a
mile, by which time you’d probably be no more than your
own drenched kidneys served on a husk of platemail. The
protagonist, Sir Cottle, had just managed to directly pierce
her heart, and was now struggling valiantly to sail on the
tempestuous ocean of her blood (this is what the allegory

“But table tennis can’t be played on just any table. It has to
be the right size and height. You need a net and markings.
Table tennis has to be played on a table tennis table. So
actually, table tennis is tennis which is played on a table
tennis table, and should be called table tennis table tennis.
In which case it would have to be played on a table tennis
table tennis table. And be called table tennis table tennis
table tennis. You’ll notice that the table has extended into an
infinitely long surface . . . ?”

Chapter ii

Luckily, at this moment, gargoyles from one of the universes
which the infinite table had punctured came scampering
from the shadows and fell upon Mary and devoured her.
They moved with a jerky swiftness, like primitive stop-motion
animation, difficult to focus on as they tore and gobbled.
Chad, squealing, bolted for the door – his squeal came to an
abrupt end. Their gnarled grey skins looked like they
belonged in a separate scale: the surface of an egg, magnified
thousands of times, or maybe the ancient craters of a frozen
moon. They were messy eaters. The only colour on their
bodies came from hunks of Mary’s and Chad’s.

Mary and Chad crumbed from their skeletons like scabs.
Crimson gravy sprayed my face and chest.

The bulk of the meat gone, the intruders advanced on Yatsen.
I remained very still. Yatsen kept his composure, leaning
forward into gnashing teeth, and smacking the largest,
ugliest, knobbliest forehead with his racquet. There was a
high-pitched squeak that honoured Chad’s memory.

Incredibly, the horde began to back off, snarling, then
suddenly leapt through a window into the London night.

Chapter iii

The table was free, so I began a game of ping-pong with
Yatsen. Usually we were evenly-matched, but that night I
white-washed him – both in shock, but who the more?


Poetry, ping-pong, push-pin. The holes had spread to the
poem. I began from the beginning again, fascinated by the
abridgement, the lacunae. Here is what I read.


I dreamt that as I lay in bed, unable to move, men dressed all in white came into my room,
and came to either side of me and opened my chest, and took my heart to the sink in the
corner where they washed it with their hands. It didn’t look dirty but the water went black.
When they brought it back to me, I woke up.


there was a tummy bug touring the college courts
and I was caught short trying to keep down a curry.
I came, as quick as cum, up my own corridor,
my knees buckling before my bog and my knuckles
nailing themselves to the rim, pressing pale as the porcelain.

[10-32: In his fever, the poet hallucinates that the toilet bowl is the mouth of a famished God,
who beats the food from the poet’s stomach with a great war-hammer].

it all slid out, pukka pailfulls of puke, malignant milkshout,
the wailroad opened through me. I tasted it in my nose,
and I would vow that sometimes one can weep vomit.
and when I felt I was finished I flushed, but the warhammer
whacked me one final wallop, and my body, wrapped on the rim,
a bit above the roaring, like a rag waving above a waterfall
beaten arid by a thirsty wind, billowed out with that last blow,
burst like a water balloon, so in the wave was lifted one lingering
choice chunk of my chest, and in with the rest, went whirling my heart,
and water and hurl and heart rocked around and around and away.

down down brown and deep
deserted soon by my spewsurge
I struggled down myself.

[46-1037: While he is alternately swept through rivers of sewage [46-333; 356-519; 708-1037],
and forced painfully to squeeze his body through narrow pipes [334-355; 520-707], the poet’s
thoughts turn to the medical peculiarity of his heartless life. A theory is quickly formed: ‘down,
down, huddled around a bubble of breath / I climbed down my crinkle-crankle-coffin, / and
felt darkling demonfingers dressing me for death’ (66-68). The poet believes that these tiny
demons (‘witches’ [73] ‘loo-lifes’ [115] ‘sinwraiths’ [121; 1039] ‘shit-stirrers’ [124; 160; 240;
611] ‘bureaucrats’ [130]) busily catalogue his body, to prepare it for packaging and transport
to different realms of Hell, each specialised to torture a different sort of tissue. Their tiny
splashing feet keep his blood moving at just the necessary pace for life. Rhodes [1994]
believes that an allusion to A Midsummer Night’s Dream (‘my body embalmed, in black,
baneful, bottombruise’ [1000]) prompts us to treat the sewer episode as a satiric microcosm of
the poem’s grand themes of faith and redemption. Oliver [1996] argues that certain passages
are intentionally constituted from ‘crap’ puns (‘embalmed/embarrassed’ [540], ‘still/stillstruggling
blood’ [601], ‘unheard/unheard of’ [612], ‘chunderly/tenderly’ [613],
‘lipshitted/lipstuck’ [617], ‘knickerless parsons / Nicholas Parsons’ [618], ‘scarfed/scarfed’
[623], ‘it/shit’ [1047], ‘face/faeces’ [1050-1051] ‘fragrantly/flagrantly’ [1051] and of course
‘butt-well rags’ [1043]).]

now I am screwed so tightly into this section
these sinwraiths are certain my ribs will be stripped.
they brag in the reconfigured blood of my vines.
but impatient they wrench open a space to swim,
enough water to permit a pale light, and a flailing.

finally free of pipewalls, but, well, rags of solid sewage
replace them, rolling around in the stinking glimmering
water with me, smack, smacking me in the kisser,

a wait now, while currents collide,
shaking sundry small strings of it,
winding worms to a whip, colossal

shuddering coil, casually, woah woah woah, w-wait, limbs windmilling, CHRIST – whirlpool-
wield it with a CRACK! conflating face

and faeces, unforgivably and fragrantly and forever.

there is a beast buried through Hell.
her bones are hollow.
break from Behemoth’s femur far below
the brimstone and flame.
I glide through gemstone grottoes swilled
with excrement juices,
one set of city sewers adjoined to the next.
sewers jumbled with streets,
breasts of biblical giants
forgotten somewhere above me.
even this far down, forms drift
dimly through the dark.
beams of lava-licks, or the faint
flare of some creature’s skin
(a glaring straightlaced succubi, sulking,
a fugitive phoenix, feathers gleaming from under
her far-fetched disguise, a phosphorous sea-beast,
bound by holy spells), or the glow of hot gravel,
fragments of the floor stuck flickering in heavy folds,
in fat angels who fell through Hell,
or some other shining deposit, some moss or slime,
or, dim in the distance, a torch,
held above a tumbling torrent by a skeletal hand,
shape, faintly, from the chaos,
minor nations of meaning,
shadowy, deep-kept caches of ontology,
spaces churning, vaguely, with gray outlines, bits,
places nominally ignored by the sunlit domain
and vast dream of the devil,
but endearingly imitating their laws and edicts,
mimicking with local misunderstandings
the physics of the first,
and the agonies of the other,
missing points or just

not quite got it,
tiny islands proclaiming empire
touchingly, independent and all but
bankrupt in notice and in names;
even these impoverished bubbles
are scarce now, for a mile
I pass a foggy surface,
more damp lower haunches of a dying leviathan-father
so big it had to be half-hid, or displace the deep,
and soon,
golems made to dig, many ages ago,
their master dead but his mine deepening,
their torch-light, and echoing tools,
and then nothing, the deathdream,
night, until
at last I pass an ancient army,
marching down in missshapen helmets,
undead made by magic,
when men were half-monkey anyway,
it is the light of their eyes I pass into,
their doomed eyes that turn, glint dully,
glowing symbiotes, once gorged on rot,
but adapted in recent generations,
gobbling eldritch radiation,
so the skeletal host steps are as slow as bonegrowth now,
their energy eaten, and still eaten, by their wormsight,
evolved moons, almost starved in their heads,
and so I pass them quickly, they are so slow, and still slow, so I pass them quickly,
and their haunted hollow skulls, and so my only society, the bureaucrats
boiling below my skin, and black insane
minds, constituted in incompatible mediums,
souls of nightingales
serendipitous in their songs,
who’d clumsily quacked
a soul-cancelling contract,
twits transported from a cosy tree-nook
to the vital night,
and quite unable to cope with it,
and men that’d murmured similar in their sleep,
or sneezed it in a long-lost language, sonic snot-Satan,
these smuggled out by a well-meaning minion,
who knew a needle-eye hole out of Hell,
and all spent centuries searching for that crack again,
and Gaardveinagaard, Mumakgamugeird, and Stehngrimmessgir,

and Stregaardmesspher, Vurkhirntirgeird, and Mumarmusahrgaard,
and little Balzalgaard, and the sobbing soul of a lady of a story long-lost,
ha ha, undreamt depths of dirt,
all along shadowed in shit,
and I saw the darkness part.


I lay on the sand under the sea.
it was calm: as a soft century’s coma.
there is some life on the floor there,
and some diffuse light. a strange luminious frame,
to show me that my heart beat the clean paralysed sea alive.

– the grime rinses away
tides tug my blood tenderly, enough,
little legions disperse and I am filled
with a moon-lifted life, but –
look how the word tears when you tell it.
heart, oh this heart, heart, heart heart –

[1147-1169: we follow Ramsay (2006) in treating these lines as a psychotic scribal error.]

had I absconded the daynight? been an age armoured
in those alleyways?

this heart, oh this heart, this heart:
they say, they say there once was an oyster, in the Orient
ocean, who ate a crimson point of shoulder, who lashed
with her lipself this cancer-kissed speck of skin,
and layered it into a clitoris. here my heart lay,
and here a limb of coral had come to her,
and at that touch that my heart had entwined it,
and after travelled tenderly along it, transforming
inch by inch this tendril and its intricate net,
until, by the time I found it, the hedges for ten feet around
were clothed in the flesh of my heart.


from ten paces the pinkish artefact,
wash-weary, disentegrates at the edge,
again and again. she is a space of fog,
grimly fragile. observe a carved mist.
does not disperse; come close:

the small world, gentleness itself
engraved, reliable cords, certain and soft,
gloriously tangling, cascades and knots,
curtains, lattice-work. fish-sighed skein of jewels
interwrought finely of a delicate very deep flesh;
tremulant sea-shine, up-arisen, sitting anfractuous,
counts her spasms, bare discernable, spread out over
the white sand. her intercurved grace is steady, save
a common pulse of blood lifts her little and everywhere,
lending her a shimmer, she is kept still, save that,
and a change of shades, an outer bleeding on her inner bleeding,
the rushing skeleton blent in mysterious sequence on any spot,
innumerably shadowed reshadowed redshadowed, pale, mother
of pearl pink, panther pink, swanky proud pink, sunlight pink glint,

[1201-1252: etc.]

rash, rose, reds reddened to black and back, remembering that blindness,
lipsticks, gums and sunsets, needles of fierce red drawn with suck from twilight,
lickering heats, and surgery scarlets: insides turned out, stinking rubies, the woundgamut
glowed, rose, rash, pink ink, tickled pink, creature crimson, chunk of
cheek meat, gauze glow, cat in the hat snow, all running back and forth
into each other under a pattern of fringed shadows, helix reflecting in dim
on corkscrew turned in and in assembling sometimes dead-scarlet latticework dells,
a fringe, a thimbleworth of labyrinth in rotating reds uncalled by crayons, violent, tiny,
all careful colours and motions comprehended in a frightening shape and surface gently
breathing around an intricate bone.
and like lifting gills, all along it, every inch,
letters are engraved, telling twirling
tales. my heart bones are cut with poems.

I wanted to weave paper from some strings of coral,
but the coral wasn’t soft, and it cut into my palms.
I tried to catch a squid to train to be my pen,
but she couldn’t read my heart, and her hard beak bit me.

I thought that with my bleeding hands
I could simply hang my words in the water,
but there are waves even beneath the sea,
and the saltwater stirred away
the words it washed from my wounds.

but then, not far away, I found a calm place,
a patch where some floor, ringed round with rocks,
was unswept by the sea, and there the sandy bank
could be my book, kept safe from streaking currents.


I had just written ‘MID WOUND . . .’ with my finger,
when a foreign gentleman, floating along with some fish, lingered
to watch me work. as his own flock flew off, he fished me as follows:
what in the world, fine fellow, have you wound up working on?

I said politely, proud, but not seeming smug,
it is my intention to copy into this little bank
the words I have found written on my heart.
he said, smiling, you can’t seem to spell.
between my feet I peered at my wuonded pride.
let me, he laughed, and leapt, too swiftly
and too soon to be stopped . . .

[The poet describes intense feeling for the damaged writing [1299-1430], then tells in great
detail [1430-2105] which sections of the lettering have been changed: ‘fingers flurried on the
first letter, its left leg smoothed / to the sand’, etc. The poet’s loathing for the intruder
interpenetrates this description, especially as he notices that on the intruder’s hands ‘faded in
the blur – but – discernable – was some fast scar, / some blemish. marks of blood maybe, or
black disease.’ Oliver (1997) notes how the sincerity of the lament may be subverted by the
brisk casualty report that follows. Lawson (2000) concurs, finding that the reader is first
encouraged to empathise with the words written in the sand, and then forced into a
dispassionate perspective high above the battlefield. Lawson argues specifically that we
know eg. ‘which left’ pertains to ‘ left leg’ by finding a signifying “obelus” rising from the
fragments of the old, re-othering extant feminine spaces. Harriot (2000) sarcastically queries
whether the poet could have been familiar with the embracing your true sexuality central to
Lawson’s argument.]


sweet Jesus!, I screamed, stop!, and he did,
startled, and went well why? what do I win? whatever,
I sighed, as he stretched a wan smile, you’re excused
from saving me from my single mistake.
but by adjusting my dees, by making your own marks,
adding on as though my book were your bloody beach –
pardon me, but – your annoyance becomes abuse –
please, sir – your hands – stand back – back, please –

placid pentree, he had paused, unperturbed, his hands
hovering branches, his head, hooked back from the book
he had blasphemed, as a bushtail peering from a break in the bark,
blinking, breathing, poised, pregnant to twirl and turn back
into the brain in the blackness, to teach root and twig to proceed
in their ruinious ragepaths of wriggling approximated alone
by his pernicious plume, perhaps all the audience arsehole will permit,
I’ll grasp that rear and grab his rodent grin from the gloom
his fronded hair unfloated in a hunk in my hand and his furry features
in fear and his terrified squeal, if he turns, if he turns, if he twitches . . .

he leaned into luck and life. I looked at him carefully.
you haven’t lately had a hardback copy of Crashaw’s
complete poems out of the college library have you?
Crabbe! the cad corrected; okay, moments
of comic madness complying, my memory
bent for meddlesome margins in The Burrough
while crustacean bastard comes close enough
to claw a fat furrow in my foot, ha ha,
found it funny, and think on it fondly.

[As the poet struggles to dislodge the crab, the figure recites an unrhymed couplet [2195-2196]
which Dickson-Wright (2000) identifies as a corruption of Crashaw’s epigram ‘To our Lord,
upon the Water made Wine.’ The warring parties separate, and the poet lies down within his
‘boundary of boulders / where sandskin was battlebit to a simple insensible scar’ [22312232].
The figure challenges the exhausted poet to name him. The poet guesses that he is
speaking with the spirit of Dante, a response which causes the figure to stamp on his head.
While the poet expresses extreme repugnance, the figure drags the poet’s heart into the ring of
rocks. He claims intellectual property rights over the words written there, and counters the
poet’s demand for demonstrative proof by asking the poet to recite to him ‘a poem off my heart’
(2285). The poet responds with a grotesque translation of Dante’s sonnet ‘A ciascun'alma
presa e gentil core’ [2289-2293], in which the speaker watches his lady eat his heart (‘she
eats the burning heart, /obed’nt and trembling, out of his [Love’s] palms, / and I find that he
weeps, and they depart’ [2292-2293]). The verses keep a degree of rhyme but convolute the
sense. Rhodes (1981), commenting on the lack of coincident nuance with the Italian, and the
imagery of movement, graciousness and injury in the first line – ‘mid wounds your hearts
move, which kind rivers make’ [2289] – suggests that the fragment has been checked against
Rosetti’s 1861 translation, beginning, ‘To every heart which the sweet pain doth move.’ The
figure responds to the sonnet with a lengthy legal document (‘chanted like a child, six pages of
skip it / or skim it’ [2308-2309]).]

I felt my spirit firm. ah fisherman after my own
heart. high over your ‘justice’ shall I pass as an angel,
without injury, or dishonour. the grass of the city
and the seashore flows richly with vipers, all vile
of envy and moneys divers, yet I can communicate
clear-eyed and broken-hearted, unpolluted by this barbarian
madness – by stumbling block-capitals, half-human
middle-men and the tiny graven crimes of professional
filthy lurkers – I can step forward with footnotes scrubbed
finely. beautiful simplicity. fight the good fight. avaunt. fuck off.

pascite qui est in vobis gregem, sang the gentleman,
Dei providentes non coacto sed spontanee secundum
Deum neque turpis lucri gratia sed voluntarie

[1 Peter 5:2 “Be shepherds of God's flock that is among you, watching over it, not because you
must but because you want to, and not greedily but eagerly, as God desires.” The debate
continues [2310-2323], with the figure quoting and paraphrasing from ten different versions of
the bible in six languages, from apocrypha, pseudepigrapha and other religious writings, and
from unidentified or imaginary sources [2311-2312; 2313; 2317-2319(?); 2322-2323].]

I wouldn’t do that if I were you I warned. if you were I?
he smiled. he filled his lower lip with tongue and sung,

hey guys!! what are you guys doing!!
are you making a kite!! can I help!!

Jesus, shut up!

look man!! do you know who
my dad is!! you don’t want
to cross me!! what!! why
are you guys laughing!!

I didn’t get it but
my fist was about as fast
as the tide but
I tried to hit him anyhow.

and the next blow nearly nailed him: he turned an eye
brow, bent a smile, and tilted his body back. fighting
the brunt of the flood, but I nearly nudged his neck.

how funny: he held my hands and stamped on my feet.
he head-butted me and my nearby heart began to beat.
like a furry chandelier shaking. I flailed and he held me.
bloody vines lingered like vomit from my nostrils.
like how kids kiss in glasgow, crazy violent s-and-m-kimoes.
I bashed him back, but he bashed me back bedder. it feld
like hith forehead brwoke my nose fladder. badder, badder,
bead, bead, duh furrowth on his fowrehead filled wid mah blud,
he laughd all along, making minthmead of my fathe
and mingling idt wid histh minthmeadt, making a madman’th laugh,
infinid unpredicdable panic and pain, madman’th minth pi!
brainth bouncing, like a wudpecker on a barkmirrur.
stredched oudt, like a body cruthified on a body! we whiddled away.
we seemed duh same. blud and bruitheth. bud I knew
whid one he wad becaud he bled and bashed bud laughed
and laughed, and blend our bodied and laughed, like
a thuicide in the thuds of his lathd bloodbath, unbrwidled wid bubbleth,
overflowing, bellowing laughth at dthtupid thdops who’ll
haf dto pull duh plug an mop up, and thing hith latht node
to his thurfifors on duh phone, thwitdth off all duh lightth and lock up,

gheld uh dizzy wrwecking ball conkerth mushy peath locked in a pod
bangerth and whipmash, ashed er thmashed crwash test, uh dummy brudders
brweadalyse eadudder wid m, um, m-man-ky m-maws
ruined by duh damp of due tears, thpewing thalt, thalt fallth
ghrom deir felt tongueth and tin teeth and browth, blud and thea
rotting fatheth like ghruidt thlowly thwaying on thlender thtalks ready do drop
from tdree, what a meth where once were headth um c-ease he said clarity he
turned our wrists inside his side, a thing, a rib,
pierced my palm, and as I cried he freed his arm,
with his unheld hand he hanged me, glaring with glee
and chest heaving hysterically, grinning he choked the night into me,
lie still I heard him lullalie, it’s all right my child,
wrung me like a chicken, an adder, a number, a ladder.

in black
I dream of a tree,

above, all their upturned arms meet
& beneath me their roots tangle together.

I had held hands with a skeleton in his torso.

the bright glade gone.

their trunks rise right around me. imprisonment
black arboreal and ambient. weeping men
bound in their bark, or is that bit just the dream?

‘. . . the kenning of life & death would call a warrior a battletree . . .’
a wind to press wood to wood, ill-sounding.
blows a death-rattle, like a bottle of aspen pills.
stars fill scars.

I woke up.
Jesus was stuffing me down a sewer pipe.
I was bound up by bright cords.
They were my heart.
He laughed and knocked me out again.
I woke up.
I was in the sewers.

The second journey through the sewers was swifter, & longer, & much worse than the first.
I emerged one day through a bright round hole, into a world of glaring white light. I was
wrapped up by snow pillars. I sensed a surplus of power all around me. I knew that I could
have been crushed without any effort, but I was handled gently. I was soaked in soap &
then rinsed. The massive ivory cage cradled me a long distance, & then I glimpsed my own
giant face. My great eyelids were closed, though apart from this, I was so enlarged that it
was difficult to make out any details: whether I was asleep or awake, in peace or in sorrow,
alive or dead. Still wrapped in my heart, which now covered all my body, & even covered my
eyes with rose-tinted contact lenses, I was lowered into the dark cave, & my chest was
swiftly sewn together high above me, & then I woke up.

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