'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?’