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'Hymn to Life' is a single long poem which records a period of about two weeks during the Pandemic in 2020. During those two weeks I kept a diary, and the poem is composed of extracts from that diary, which have remained largely unchanged from the original text. This poem is a continuation of James Schuyler's poem of the same name (read and listen to Schuyler's 'Hymn to Life' here). I thought of the Hymn to Life as one continuous song, which can be picked up by anyone at any time, changing and remaining the same. My Hymn has themes of descent, waiting, stalling, love, death, continuation and decline, along with a profusion of life and nature. My 'Hymn to Life' was published on The Babel Tower Notice Board, which has since closed. Read the whole poem below.

Hymn to Life

I make a mess of repotting plants in the apartment, listening 

to the diary of Derek Jarman about the tough, wild garden 

he kept on the shores of Dungeness, after being diagnosed 

with HIV in the 80s. The way he wrote about sex made it all sound 

so easy. Was it really like that in the 80s? Tender art boys falling 

onto each other’s faces. I recall my pointless time spent online 

dating. When not dodging manipulative nutjobs, I was calcified 

by a noxious apathy, which seems unique to the software, and 

not something I’d known about myself. Everyone is supposed 

to want sex but none of us act like it. Imagine you go on a date 

with a medical student who doesn’t offer to pay for anything 

and subjects you to a series of icebreaker exercises. You feel like 

you’re meeting the intern. ‘For god’s sake,’ my body yelling, 

‘seduce me!’ A playlist of 80s dance music is very seductive, 

it’s also very gay. Finding sex as a bumbling and sterile experience, 

disappointing and ferociously desperate, everyone’s heart is 

in the process of dying, dead already or never alive to begin with. 

Which one was I? ‘No timewasters, please.’ I wonder if it is a 

millennial thing, or a heterosexual thing. Victor cross-legged 

on the chintzy, dough-soft couch in his apartment, the night of 

our first date; me, the date, still trying to sit straight and prim, 

ablaze. ‘I can never ask for what I want’ I say ‘So what do you do 

when you want to kiss someone?’ he says ‘I don’t’ I say, sadly. 

‘Do you mind if I do?’ and kisses me before I can deny it. A new 

possibility: it’s an English thing. Call Adam, talk about cornflowers 

growing in a patch of waste ground by the river. A chain-link fence, 

crumpled, with large, rusted posts, some bent, maybe hit by a car. 

One gate is padlocked shut with fat, orange links, the other open. 

A red poppy sears the metallic air and earth. On entering, I see 

the cornflowers too, sizzling blue, powdery pink, deep sexy 

purple, a lavender-mauve that makes me think of grandmothers 

when they were young. I stay some time, touching all the blooms. 

July, nothing but rain and wind and grey for weeks. Not light rain, 

big rain, baubles. Today the air outside my window turns white, 

it is so thick with pummelling water. The Lune boils and a rainbow, 

one of the clearest and brightest I’ve seen, comes right down into 

the street. Brightness briefly, then the dark closing in again. Right 

for this year of false starts, recanting, takings away and death. 

‘It’s all always dying’ ‘So what? You’re alive, aren’t you?’ Brother 

calls to say, ‘I’ll come for a visit’ ‘It’s windy,’ I say ‘come Friday’. 

Sunny, yes, but the wind slips through the ribs something sinister. 

Wearing my red coat and the colourful scarf Flo gave me. I am a 

meticulous architect of my experiences. A change in the weather, 

a cautious easing of quarantine, makes us all rabid for company. 

Me horking down a man’s voice like a dry pig with water, sloppy. 

First revelation of lock down: I really had been lonely. No, I hadn’t 

just imagined it. By day 2 people are already cracking, and there’s 

me thinking: ‘but this is my normal life’. Wake up alone, spend the day 

alone. No friends. Childhood friendless, adulthood spent hunched 

over a laptop, job applications mostly, study, briefly poetry. 

Lock down is business as usual. It seems that everyone born 

after 1989 is sealed in an iron tube, a crushing, soul-wrecking 

loneliness so ordinary, so inconvenient, unseen, like dust and junk mail. 

Isolation is ever an old man in flannel, staring out of the window, 

loneliness does not have a young face. ‘Mummy, daddy, I’m dying 

of loneliness’. The scent of buddleia: honey and fresh water. White 

water lilies with yellow middles, like cracked eggs. The flat, green 

circles of lily pads could be plates. Meadow Sweet is champagne 

bursting from the canal’s edge. Campion eternal and endless. Ragwort 

everywhere. Saw wrens today, stubby, creaturely things, at least five 

sheltering in an old pile of brush while the rain came down, strangely, 

comfortably. A honeybee rummages in Himalayan Honeysuckle. 

White Park Cattle, stood end to end in a line, stare without blinking 

at the blank face of a hill. Blackberries arriving. How many times 

have I begun a sentence with the words ‘when this is all over’? 

Restlessness. Can’t bear to stay in, nothing I want to do. No one to see. 

To be alone an awful thing. Errol has sent a letter, for me she uses paper 

with cartoon cats she’s had since she was 9. Victor in Spain, swimming 

in the family pool, fighting with his parents, reading the complete works 

of Shakespeare I got him for his birthday last month. I think I am 

quietly, uninsistently in love. Call to tell him the two names I have 

for Autumn: The Season of Secrets and The Season of Thieves. ‘I get 

‘Thieves, but why Secrets?’ The fat, mottled spiders who appear 

in September. You go to sleep and when you wake up there are the webs, 

strung across the door, between gate posts, gaps in a fence and when 

the sun shines just so they flash pink and rainbow. Or, you don’t see 

them at all until a fine mist or frost betrays them and there you have it, 

an exact ladder of diamonds that vanish before noon. And then there’s 

the mushrooms. Go to bed: no mushrooms. In the morning: a whole colony. 

Season of secret business. Thievery is more straightforward, time to raid 

pear trees, apples. Existence now as furtive and mysterious, like a rabbit 

in the lettuce patch or a weasel in the henhouse, what can be taken 

with deft, speedy paws. Rain again. Spend the morning planning a lesson 

on Jay G Ying’s Katabasis, a version of the ancient Sumerian Descent 

of Inanna, the oldest known piece of literature in the world. It’s about 

the descent of God into hell. Reading it is like listening to two pieces 

of music at the same time, it is an astonishment. Imagine all literature 

has been one long sentence, still being spoken, eternally descending. 

Still so hard to read, it’s the loneliness. I read best in company. Learning 

to read again is my strategy for coming back from the dead. Read a very 

long, bad poem today: slightly sneering, same old, like after every neat, 

pretentiously numeralled stanza he leaned back in his chair and said 

‘Ha! That’ll get ‘em!’ Then I read a disordered abecedarian about a 

friend’s suicide. I read it over and over, amazed and afraid, the poem 

was touching in the sense that the great terror brushed me briefly 

as it passed by again. Now a flat inspection, the last was only in March. 

Even with a global threat of infection it’s still necessary to send 

a strange man into my home to check that I haven’t done anything 

naughty with the landlord’s things. ‘The inspection will be between 

9am and 5pm’. When will it be safe to undress and take a shower? 

He has his own keys. Last time I forgot. Me in pyjamas with unwashed 

hair, him taking pictures of my dirty dishes, my drying underwear, 

my black mold on the bathroom ceiling. It’s like stripping for the boss. 

‘You need to sort out that mold’. 11 Riverside Lofts – Lock: sticks. Door: 

sticks. Fire Extinguishers: missing. Roof Beams: rusted. Roof: broken 

open and banging loudly in the wind. Heaters: 2 out of 4 non-functional. 

Storage: non-existent. Floor: laminate, creaky, cold, dust-breeding and 

everywhere. Furniture: cheap, flimsy, broken, damaged, impractical. 

Bathroom tiles: cracked, grout crumbling. Skirting: falling off. Drains: 

stink. Blinds: stuck and unusable. ‘Balcony’ door: poorly installed, 

broken, draughty, difficult. Sills: swollen and cracked, painted with the 

wrong kind of paint. Walls: hastily and badly painted. Plug sockets: 

at skewed angles or coming away from the wall. Kitchen Cupboards: 

veneer peeling away considerably, held on with tape. Aspect: North- 

facing and dungeon-like. Garden: none. Neighbours: noisy above and 

unfathomable, banging, shifting, scraping, singing at 4 in the morning. 

Rent: more than a third of my monthly wage, excluding bills and tax. 

Tell Victor I feel not like a person but a profit margin, it waves over 

my head like a flag. I don’t even get to own this place at the end, all 

that money pours into a hole, goes nowhere. ‘We must pay our 

tithe to the feudal Lords,’ he says ‘and they don’t even protect us 

from the French.’ The Lune is full and high and like glass. I think now 

that I must be in love. Bought a shoe rack, which arrived today. 

I tell mum ‘This shoe rack will greatly improve my quality of life, 

I will always know where my shoes are.’ So far, I’m being proved right. 

Errol’s letter has arrived, with its smiling orange cat on the front. 

I will read it tomorrow. I eek out these little social pleasures, ration 

them to make them last. Very lonely today. Terrible nightmare: 

a crowded and incomprehensible gazebo churning with markets 

and official photography for formal occasions. Ex-boyfriend trying 

to find me, like a man with a rope after a lost dog. Then it turned into 

some South-East Asian parable, costumes, set and all. Treated like 

furniture by two men on me at once. Then, the ex-boyfriend, a prince, 

receives a series of three signs from God which he thinks he knows 

how to interpret and fails. I can interpret them. The last sign is a 

half of rotting fruit filled with maggots. I carry it cupped in my hands 

and with great ceremony to a rock pool. In the water, the maggots 

transform into magnificent spirit whales and swim away to re-join 

God in heaven. He accosts me in a jealous rage, ‘What,’ I say 

‘are you going to kill me?’ and I let him put the knife in as casually, 

patiently as Sunday DIY. I am dead and the royal court descends 

into anguished wailing, like animals. He has stabbed me in the heart, 

of course. Errol’s letter contains a photograph of a mushroom she 

took and an ad for a Lolita fashion shop, I put them on my wall. 

Today my brother picks me up to take me home for the weekend. 

Expanding slowly into the family garden, things I can see: my feet on a 

fold-out camping table in pink slippers (everything I am wearing is pink) 

the struggling tomato plants, their roots peeking from the shallow 

planting bags, their starchy green fruit, the faithful aluminium frame  

of the greenhouse and beyond the glass the strawberry patch, rank  

with runners and strawberry babies, rotten strawberries, slug-bitten 

and ruined by all the rain, the herb garden, mum’s sage plant, the most 

beautiful sage plant I’ve ever known, with great round slivery leaves 

like dog’s ears, the two enormous bay bushes at parallel as if guarding 

a palace, the oregano which we all thought had failed and died but 

hadn’t, the fennel stalks, tall and Jurassic, their heavy heads full of 

dull yellow flowers and inclining towards the earth, the lemon tree 

sans lemons, its waxy leaves like green plastic, froth of yellow and 

pink begonias, the fiery rudbeckia and the weird daisy-like flowers 

whose name I never remember, with their strange glowy colour, all 

purple and orange, the waving spindly points of English lavender, odd 

neighbour to the trachycarpus palm which my dad loves, the small 

close-clipped lawn, slightly sparkling, the rhododendron, the mock 

orange, the apple tree I adore most of all and under him the hostas, 

and little pink flowers without names, the closed parasol flapping, 

the patio table, the dense contorted hazel tree, like a bent old woman 

with her loose long hair falling, and behind her the telegraph pole 

and its many black wires dissecting the sky, which is full of deeply 

layered clouds of differing greys. My cat has been beaten up by the 

neighbour cat again. Poor Chub, he’s slow and sad and purrs only  

faintly, unable to move from the spot. Once he walked a patina of  

little blood prints into the kitchen at 3am, me following behind with 

paper towels. It comes in waves, days of him moping around, tender 

and sighing like a teenage girl, between the beatings. Our other cat, 

Henry, has a terrible case of the old, a moth-eaten sack of sticks, 

toothless and always drooling, he goes blind at night and walks into 

things, his front legs are bowed at a wincing angle. I fantasize that 

when Henry dies, he will go up suddenly in a gout of flame and in 

the ashes we’ll find a kitten who we’ll recognise, and then we’ll 

get to love him a second round. I almost cried from wanting it to 

be true; there is not really any such thing as cycles, just an endless 

descent from which each of the things we love drop away like leaves.  

Who would who dare to talk in generalities, as if anything happens  

twice? This year is the last year; I scratch his chin and wait with him. 

Cloud again after the straggly, wind-blown sunshine of yesterday. 

Dad gives a tour of all that is failing in the greenhouse. Time as a 

fused finger, an always advancing nadir. Hard to believe that God 

isn’t punishing us. A bird shits on someone’s head, chilly wind, 

short-order sun, a breakup is discussed, coming on tense, like 

the potential for death, like a foot poised over a beloved neck. 

Then it brings the words, long lost for that terrible thing one thick 

Summer entirely unlike this one. A horrid twilight of passion, wet 

as a sea witch and as hot with the fires of hell, stumbling and 

weepy though still unable to cry. Imagine, at the train station, 

finding a handsome man to stand 6 feet away from, not speaking 

or even looking, just to be somewhat near him, like crawling  

out of the shade and into the sun, a sad relief when the beauty 

of men became a clemency to the wretched, so grateful to them 

for existing and going about their business. Then after it all 

the usual stuff: ‘I’m still in love with my ex’, ‘I have to do this 

on my own’, a string of patronising wellness crap – try harder 

to be happy. The awful twilight vanishing in an instant, entirely 

like waking from a dream, feeling nothing, recalling reality. It  

was all so stupid. This time it’s ‘I’m sorry, something’s missing’. 

I tell the affected party how stupid it all is. ‘And what do you 

want?’ ‘Not to be abandoned.’ Chub lies on my chest and his 

purring journeys through my ribcage, today the clouds look 

unreal in the sky, as if applied with a palette knife. Some of the 

blackberries are already here, I’ve seen the seedheads of poppies 

too, blue green and waxy before expiring. It feels like a guest 

has arrived too soon and I want to say ‘What the hell are you 

doing here?’ as if it’s my house. Last night dad complaining 

that dinner had ruined while it waited for us, then later two  

owls shock me awake with their shrieking. I miss Victor. 

Whenever I write, someone makes sure to interrupt me, no 

questions or conversation is made just statements like they’re 

talking to a wall; the need to be listened to, to be in presence, 

inexperienced at being alone. I reply, don’t object, though I mind. 

To do the same would be like disarticulating a joint, unthinkable. 

Sun this morning (though a week of rain is creeping up, unseen 

from the coast) Ritual, unofficial time, the air so keen with 

chlorophyll it becomes biteable, birds’ shy singing and the hum 

of insects being alive. The sun oozes in like a sticky liquid, gluing 

itself upon everything. This time, I sense no striving in it. But 

there’s something sub-summer, the air uncharacteristically 

refreshable, the sunlight so slightly yolk-like, a few too many 

strands of web floating like glossy banners in the honeysuckle 

by the rose. Autumn is suspected, it’s an itch, an irrational tension, 

like a heist may be in progress. Where’s the track I’m supposed to 

jump back onto? Cycling to grandma’s house, clouds like lambswool, 

sky: Virgin Mary blue. North Road a wind tunnel, speeding traffic, 

potholes. Every time I go, I think I’m going to die. A fleshless chunk 

of sheep’s spine in the paddock, not far from blue lilac chicory 

flowers, which can be found even in the old sty. I notice a 

shipping container, or a back of a truck belonging to my uncle. 

He has converted the inside to stacks of shit-caked cages and 

in them canaries thrumming from one side to the other, peeping, 

yellow and pink. Round the back, past my cousin’s peacocks, 

two tiny chicken pens, crammed full of almost fledged chicks, 

many of them with broken feet, all their toes bent at extreme 

angles, hobbling about where they can move at all. Occasional 

barks from dogs locked up in stinking kennels behind. He keeps 

them as show animals, or just keeps them, no one understands 

his motivations. I consider flipping the pen and flinging open 

all the cages, letting loose the dogs, as if it could do them any 

good in a crop world of foxes, farmers’ guns and my searching 

uncle. ‘He shouldn’t be doing this’ I say ‘He shouldn’t be doing this’ 

we all say, and then don’t do anything. Why not? It would feel 

like wrecking someone’s car with a crowbar. And why not do that? 

And why despise my own cowardice most of all? We talk of the 

breakup again and again, we had thought the suffering was over, 

foolishly. Gooseberries: translucent, spooky beachballs ranging 

from pale princess green to claret. This morning I wake to heavy 

drapes of rain, squeezing darkness at 7am in July. I go to get 

my first haircut since March, standing out in the wet like a stray. 

Inside, an empty store, the barber in full plastic visor, me in a 

mask, neither seeing the other fully. I fear that we’ve been so 

long out of joint that everyone stuck, everywhere. ‘Your birthday’s 

cancelled’, ‘wedding’s off’, ‘you didn’t get the job’, ‘I just don’t 

feel that way about you’ the futureless year stumbles to a knee, 

like an old horse with its back dipped and breaking, it wants to 

get on with it already. Too much taken from already nearly 

nothing. No one forgives you for finding your life intolerable. 

Savage misery that pain should be no one’s fault but your own. 

The most alone you can be. Read Hymn to Life this morning, 

almost no one in that poem appears to work, even though the  

Hymn is supposed to be about daily life. There is work and 

every other kind of experience goes on illicitly, squashed into 

the slivers that sometimes open up between work, or snatched 

from work, immorally, guiltily. There is work and then there 

is improving oneself for more work, increased resilience ‘Buy 

me, I exhaust more slowly than the other guy’. Life seems so 

full of miraculous things when I’m not working, I cannot decide 

which to tell. Work is a dead time, a silence about which there 

is nothing to relate. Perhaps work squats in the spaces, a relegated 

beast in the Hymn because James Schuyler seems to do so much 

living, it’s luxurious to behold. For one thing, he had a yard. 

Impossible to concentrate today. Work. Give up at about 2. 

Eu is out of town, no takers for a bar tonight, not even Tristan 

is answering my messages. I buy more houseplants to make me 

feel better. I buy plants when I’m sad, I buy plants when I’m 

happy. I have a lot of plants. Everything seems to be saving its 

courage today: by the canal every duck is laid down perfectly 

still, head tucked smooth under wing, there is a thick storm  

coming, up high coming down low, beating the horizon to paste, 

big beeches and sycamores rattle their leaves with a mad fever 

though there’s hardly any wind. I am so tired I am barely here, 

a thin pencil outline. I don’t sleep. I have let the dishes pile up.  

Almost every person I see today is jogging. Why would they all 

do something so terrible? Evening. I call Adam again, I tell him 

about how I am nostalgic for the blunt problems of the past. 

‘Every era has its unique and horrifying problems’ we say, it’s 

wrong to be jealous about it. Good with the bad and all that. 

But our time has already had so many eras, tightly packed back 

to back and parading relentlessly over our small amount of 

life. I’d like just one prosperous year, please. Victor is writing 

a fantasy novel and advice beams from me like the rays of a 

cartoon sun. Tomorrow I join him in Spain. There is less light 

here, but significantly more sun. It is always afternoon, then 

it is night. This is Summer, hiding all along in one of Europe’s 

pockets. Or was it Lancaster that was put away? I mostly 

think about how not to be hot, all the blood rushes to my 

surfaces. People describe heat as crushing, as if it makes one 

dense as a star, but I feel like I’m going to dissipate like a 

smoke ring. So much empty time and deciding how to fill it 

with something other than heat. Strange to be at a loss for 

what to do, but not terrified of being so. I eat uncynical food 

with legs, tails, eyes, tentacles, bones, and hooves. I speak 

Spanish like a stupid child to patient and encouraging adults. 

The word for ‘song’ is ‘canzione’. Victor tells me that he loves 

me on the day I predicted he would, I had pre-programmed 

my answer, I intend to be cherished. I’m remembering how 

to relax, how to be an English woman wearing a floral dress 

on holiday, remembering how to be disinterested in the big 

boring well of myself. It seems possible to live again, but 

for how long? I leave Victor sleeping and drink my coffee 

in the courtyard. Over there, yellow Cannas, over there the 

Jasmine, Bougainvillea, and the Thorns of Christ. Plants cause 

there to be more world. The vicious Spanish sun is not yet 

over the mountains nor the white garden wall. The sky is 

a broad lap of pastel shades, nothing out here alive except 

the trilling swifts, the flowers and me. Granada is a romantic, 

gorgeous and philosophic hellfire, 44 degrees and no aircon 

because of the quarantine measures. I get heat stroke on the 

bus on the way back. The two of us roaming around for some 

conditioned air, pretending to want something so we can sit 

in a place of business. A terrible thing to be one of the intense, 

desperate beggars of Granada in Summer. Victor remembers 

why he left. I come back to hints of decay, the edges of leaves 

crispy and brown, proud clusters of scented blackberries, the 

fluff from a crowd of tall rose bay willow herb lifting, a loose 

drift of snow falling upward in the afternoon heat, dry fingers 

of dead dock. All the berries in the city orchard have dropped 

off and shrivelled away in my absence. I save what redcurrants 

I can, sparse tresses among the nettles. A whole tree of plums 

has rotted before it could ripen, but there’s one left, bending 

with fruit, yellow green and slightly glowing – Victorias. Soon 

the pears and the apples, all going well. I sit under a pear tree 

reading Geraldine Monk’s Interregnum, hearing the yellow 

shout of ‘SUMMER!’ from the fields and sky, a late, withered 

gasp but I take it. I feel that I have always been waiting for  

something to be over, me and everyone else. ‘What will be 

over?’ ‘Why would you need to ask?’ 

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