Tony Williams grew up in Matlock in Derbyshire and now lives in Northumberland. His first collection The Corner of Arundel Lane and Charles Street was shortlisted for the Aldeburgh, Portico and Michael Murphy Prizes, and All the Rooms of Uncle’s Head was a Poetry Book Society Pamphlet Choice. He also writes prose fiction. The Midlands (Nine Arches Press, July 2014) is his second collection of poetry.
The Midlands are crying, crying for haslet and bacon,
crying for bridges where railways falter,
crying for sumpters no longer needed
on towpaths of moss and built-upon pasture
and troughs of time-stilling water
where rodents and litter are drowning
in mushy-pea visions of Methodist churches
and hedges and car keys and crisps.
They are crying for conkers and tennis balls lost in the woods,
for mortgage advisors, for money itself
to the price of one pint of their sulphuric bitter,
which also they cry for and cry for at length in the night.
They cry in the car parks of aerodromes, deep in the cellars
of buildings that used to be bookshops.
They cry over fences, at steam-engine rallies.
They cry over dogs and bags of granulated sugar.
They cry for the rugby posts lost in the mist,
for vandalised road signs and nullified Sundays,
for teenage perceptions of dreadful pan-Midlands despair
at the doom of solitude made real in bedrooms
invaded by older sisters themselves driven mad
by the tussocky desert of pop songs and taciturn lads
in the suburb-like towns and town-like suburbs
of Dirgeville, and Grieflington, and Sad-at-Heart.
Here is neither one thing nor the other.
There is no one waiting at the level crossing.
There is not the flash of headlights on the wall
to say that someone loved is coming home.
There is not even clarity and rage, but only
rain setting in on a plain between ridges,
the magistrates courts as busy as ever,
the chorus of starlings chattering trenchantly on
in the skies, an unfound grave of a Mercian king
under wurzels, new housing, and out-of-town Asdas
that mop up the rheum of the foothills
that lean-to the North.
Here are the cows and I love them.
They move from one field to another
and in every field they dance
to cow music I cannot hear
in steps I do not understand:
now grouping to graze in a corner,
one standing alone as a sentry,
now suddenly migrating, now
reaching the shape of an emblem
spaced out on the pasture
all facing the same way,
utterly still. Sometimes
they break through the fence to lay claim
to the lane and the grass of the roadside,
which placates them – cow freedom
ends here. I love them,
the cows and their constancy,
here every summer all summer
to munch and proceed at the pace
of the hoof on the sod in the sombre
grass-ceilidhs of their cow-religion.
O feast of movement; O flexing
knot of flesh like a fist or a heart;
O sacred hugging of herd;
O slow kaleidoscope
whose shifting field shows
all colours and atoms belong
in all constellations, and are cow.
DEAR RHINO, LOVE FROM HIPPO
With skin like ours, my friend, the usual
insults of a rivalry descend
harmlessly as confetti
or the blossom of trees
we rub our backs against.
Nor would expressions of sympathy survive
the foul tempers of our readership. Instead
I’m sending you this chatty letter, a crocodilian
sickle of courtesy in the poisoned soup,
which might worry you if crocodiles did.
Be assured of my continued indifference.
In the past month
I have eaten a rare fly, a wristwatch,
a silhouette, odd chunks of my rivals’ chins
and a vast tonnage of hay which you,
dense hoover of the midday sun, missed
when the eternal salad drawer of the night
clanked open as you slept. Or are you
nocturnal too? It’s hard to see in the dark.
You doomed swordsman, me cloven-hoofed
and cackling like a whale. You unicorn,
me Cadillac bumping up
against the blonde girl’s legs.
to your ambition to become a freelance illustrator?
Every time I pass the hospital
done out like the concourse of an old European station
with the pediments high up based, unattributed,
on your sketch of an elephant’s toenails
I think dommage! and of the royalties we’d claim
if ever I’d passed my law exams and you
weren’t such a raging and wretchedly cantankerous drunk.
At least we don’t owe money to the giraffes.
You, engraving from the days of the plague,
me poster paints printed by a dipped-in bum.
Listen, priapus-face, I’ve been
divining the future in the map of illness
disclosed in my own used nappy.
I think you’d enjoy a cheese and pickle sandwich
if you dared to enter a deli. I think the jackals would swoon
like spinach wilting if only you’d show them The Dance.
I’ve been listening to local radio over the internet.
I’ve bid on a doll’s house and
a signed photo of Lothar Matthäus.
I’ve heard a grown man singing falsetto
for the amusement of chumps.
Thanks very much for the library card. I’ve read of
isotopes, anarchists, artistic foibles of heretical sects.
I’ve read a few classics, and enjoyed your waspish annotations.
(I dreamed I saw your initials
carved into the brickwork of the Bradford Alhambra
but didn’t inform the police.)
You tin opener, me turtle without a shell,
you me, me you. How long
will we put up with being haunted
by the ghosts of all the antelopes
mistaking us for mobile crypts to hole up in?
Now that I’ve developed the transmogrifier
we could go anywhere, do anything –
spend a century as a standard lamp, become amoebas
in the eye-sockets of a monkey, seek election.
So don’t get pettish. Sling your keys in the bowl.
We’ll put our heads together, become a
get a scholarship to university, mend a motorbike,
step out one morning after a pot of tea,
carrying a cudgel, thinking
how the sky’s colour reminds us of approaching evening,
how the deaths of our loved ones will become
as fey a topic as essential oils and the history of the Anabaptist Church
which we might tease open with a little sullen laugh
just to see if it hurts
over a tall glass of Pernod.
Going down Clifton Road, I see the yellow bulbs
burning through fanlights in the glossy doors
and dream whole households back to frigid life.
Or see the silhouette of a stile in a cow’s eye,
myself a dim figure at the bottom of the shaft.
There is a village underneath the village.
The mine-roads even made a city,
if industry and darkness are what make a city,
and like an ancient city-state were flooded
by a river, and abandoned long ago.
Dark streets, lit by what quartz eyes
have held of passing candlelight,
cross unconjoined with the sunny lanes of home.
The ground of home contains more names
than murmur in my heart’s gazetteer.
And when I step towards the public bar
I pace Black Ox; lost in the woods I follow Moletrap Rake.
The dog-walk round the hill takes me across
Silt Rake, to Jacob’s Dream, and down
to Groaning Tor. But never home.
These passageways disopened by the light
insist on being there, on leading down
through lack of light, through earth and rock
towards a nameless pool. They crave the breath
with which I speak of them. My skull.
Walking the mine-town’s graves I wake them,
sending a shiver down each ditch
on the narrow-gauge rails. There’s no one there
to feel the permaslime on rope-grooved walls
or taste lead ore in the wet air; but a footstep
hears itself, echoing, in the dark.
THE MIDLANDS - Tony Williams
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The Midlands is the second collection of poems by Tony Williams, following his acclaimed debut The Corner of Arundel Lane and Charles Street. Beginning in the Midlands themselves, where Mercian kings sleep under wurzels near the local Asda, his poems open out into tragi-comic paeans on dog walks, photocopiers, shut shops and lunchtimes, and meditations on what it means to be a person living, wonkily, anywhere. But beneath the word-play and tomfoolery, something strange is brooding in the caverns underneath the hill. History is coming for you, and if you set out to meet it, you’ll never find your way home…
Praise for The Midlands by Tony Williams: