By Oz Hardwick
I tell myself the same tale over and over again, though when I try to speak it aloud, it’s like that anecdote about blindfolded people trying to describe an elephant by touch, except that instead of an elephant, it’s something bigger, that keeps changing shape, and that bites, and as well as being blindfolded, there are nails through my hands, and my lips are stitched together with wire, so that even if I could find the words to begin to try to describe it, which I can’t, all that would come out would be some sort of grunt, and even though I’m not trying to describe it, because I know it’s impossible, there’s a voice yelling in my ear that it’s a stupid description, and what the hell am I trying to describe anyway because there’s nothing there, and of course it’s my own voice, because the tale I tell myself over and over again is the most banal of clichés, so instead of trying to describe that thing which is neither an elephant nor even a thing, I settle on a familiar analogy, and say it’s like having a broken leg, except that after six weeks cased in plaster the leg will be healed, whereas after six weeks cased in plaster the tale that isn’t an elephant will have doubled, trebled, quadrupled in its repetition and constricted absence of light, speech and listening. Once upon a time there was a broken elephant …
I’ve got so used to hardly going out that I’ve brought the outdoors in. It started, like it does for everyone, with the mud on my shoes, maybe grass on my knees if I’d knelt in the park to photograph the frogs, and sometimes a feather that fell onto my shoulder, though when I looked up there were no birds and their songs were seeping into the cracks between the clouds. Even these slight hints changed the air, seeming to attract more light through the front window, so I bought a couple of pots, brought home a few flowering plants, cleaned out the old fish tank from the attic and filled it with pond water, adding lilies and tadpoles, a few reeds, and a coot’s nest to complete the picture. Small adjustments, but I found I could breathe easier, and even if I still couldn’t sleep, my insomnia became more peaceful, settling into the rhythm of the Moon’s reflection on the moist stone slabs with which I replaced all soft furnishings. Propping open the cat flap made way for curious foxes, but half measures are no measures at all, and I soon lifted the doors off their hinges, reusing them as makeshift bridges across the streams I dug in living room and kitchen. Moss gathered on the walls, and I saw that it was good. A black swan glides through an open window, deer stoop to drink, and a frog hops through the eye of a dropped poem. When I hang the waterfall above the stairs, the house sighs and opens itself to the sky.
Circumstances being what they are, we ordered a microwave festival online, which arrived next day, stamped Avalon & Atlantis, wrapped in king-size Rizlas and hand-woven bracelets. As we’re working from home, we decided to just go for it, pierced the lid with a candle-stained knife, and set it for thirty minutes as we changed into brightly coloured trousers and floral boots, painting our faces with rainbow teardrops. When we got back to the kitchen, it smelled of wet mud, falafel and low-grade dope, with a hint of incense, hand sanitiser and chemical toilets; and even before the bright ping, we could hear a drumming circle in the next field and a generator coughing itself awake.
And then. And then.
One-man tents full of police dogs, and at tornado of helicopters; batons and barbed wire, and a blanket-draped child screaming; smashed glass and tape delay delay delay; a burnt-out bus, and the ghost of William Blake, ACAB inscribed on his forehead in a DIY tyger-sharp tattoo, howling the apocalypse into lost faces in search of the lost chord. We’ve not washed or eaten for three days, the TV’s awash with Coldplay and Adele, and even the brown acid’s looking like a good bet as the bones of Margaret Thatcher burn eternal, like a wicker man sacrificing that final chorus.
There’s always advice and instructions: the best way to photograph insects, how to hold a frog, the best light for opening windows, the optimum colour for babies’ eyes, when to retune the TV, when to recalibrate seismographs, how much to feed despair, how far to stand from farm animals, when to pull your tongue out by the roots, and how to tell the truth. Then there are the questions. Can you smell fish? How did the cooker move three inches to the left without anyone touching it? What is the point of the next forty minutes? Is the cat inside or outside the box? None of it’s new, but since everything else, from the 50s jazz soundtrack to the matching macs and galoshes in the tiled hallway, was sold for coppers months ago, the edges have become sharper, the shadows deeper. I have cut the cable to the TV, though it’s made no difference, and it’s maybe a decade since I last felt an earthquake. In the end it comes down to how to wear a mask, but I’ve been wearing one all my life, and what I’d really like to know is how to take it off.
Oz Hardwick: The poems here come out of negotiating the mutable nature of the “new normal” on a daily basis while spending way too much time with no company other than my wayward and capricious brain. I wrote them, not to make sense of the chaos, but to track my position within it.
Oz Hardwick’s chapbook Learning to Have Lost (Canberra: IPSI, 2018) won the 2019 Rubery International Book Award for poetry, and his latest collection is Wolf Planet (Clevedon: Hedgehog, 2020). www.ozhardwick.co.uk