Issue 29: Alan Halsey

Noughts & Quandaries


The day the night

fell out with me

I asked it how

not what to write.  [20.6.21]


Once upon a time

in the scorching Arctic

crocodiles snoozed

while lemurs squatted

with hands outstretched

in cheerful welcome

of anyone except

those fierce hyenas

& in hope that

wannabe hippos would

go on nonchalantly

strolling underwater

yep some critters

will rejoice when the


so loses itself in

Zarathustran reveries

that time will not

return but reverse.


‘Just a few patches of duckweed

on the pond’ Yen Shu wrote

whereas Su Shih reported ‘a drifting mass’.

Soon the pond will run dry and

lo! you’ll forget you ever fretted about duckweed.


Geraldine, would you

I or anyone dare call a will o’ the wisp

a hinkypunk? If so & if he or she objected

it might be wise to say Sorry I mixed

up my vowels

                    I meant to say you’re

a hunkypunk

                    I mean I mistook you for

a gargoyle without gainful employment

such as a drainpipe spouting out your

mouth or as often unkindly happens

your arse

             but whether you’re a

hinky- or a hunkypunk it seems no one’s

so far dared to say you’re the ety-

mological root of hankypanky.


A slughorn according to Chatterton

was a cross between a trumpet

& an oboe. Perhaps that’s what

Browning imagined rather than

the guess of recent lexicographers

that a slogan was what a slughorn

became when Childe Roland arrived

at the Dark Tower at last.


Remember Nietzsche up to his knees

in Dionysian mud long before the Delta blues

knocked Wagner off his perch. Where’s

Apollo when you need him? Maybe over there

in a trench without a wi-fi connection.

This Dionysian mud wasn’t a patch on

the Great War pits – we’re talking here

about the Franco-Prussian affair.

But don’t say Dionysian mud drove Nietzsche mad.


To enter the blood test clinic

you must swipe the digital disc

for your ticket and number.

When I’d found the disc I swiped

it the wrong way. What comfort:

a slight delay before my number comes up

at least in the world I still

apparently inhabit. World as will

and apparition. World as apéritif

in hope the main meal might be served.

Idiot, the word’s not when but if.

Conflate being with becoming and you’ll starve.


I was only ill in ordinary life.

I was well enough in my dream

to read to a festival crowd.

It was a sunless afternoon,

the reading in a dusty back room

with for getaway a handy bus stop.

Don’t blame me that no

festival crowd came to listen.

I was only ill in ordinary life.


It wasn’t as if

I needed reminding

the only reason to write

was to be reminded.


Did you hear about

the man with the wooden face

who kipped in his hammock

next to my bed every night in

the cancer ward? I’d see him

as I shuffled post-piss back

between the sheets. Flat face

veiled with string netting and

with comforting stick gripped

in comfortable hands. By dawn

he’d be gone, a tidy fellow

who left nothing behind

not even a note to say

thanks for the hospitality.

Whether tramp or scarecrow or

resident revenant I didn’t ask

him or anyone except myself.


One day! exclaimed Mr Beckett.

You bet. With or without

punctuation mark. One day or

more to the point another.


The last books Nietzsche read

before he lost his mind

were the ones he’d dared

publish. From beginning to end.

Some days he was impressed

although on others rather less

and he worried he couldn’t recall

very much he’d said. But nor can all

us writers. What else can we do

but leave it behind

like a glad or sorry widow

in case we too lose our minds.


Top’n’tail the detail – nail it wi’ self-denial –

pot it, shelve it – later, later.

Devour as you ought or repeat after me

Mirage mirage on the wall

may an ample margin mark my fall.



[Alan Halsey was born in London. He ran The Poetry Bookshop in Hay-on-Wye from 1979-96 and moved to Sheffield in 1997, continuing to work as a specialist bookseller and as editor of West House Books. His major publications include Five Years Out (1989), The Text of Shelley’s Death (1995), A Robin Hood Book (1996) and Wittgenstein’s Devil (2000). He has written several short studies of Thomas Lovell Beddoes and re-edited his Death’s Jest-Book in 2003. Alan died in October 2022.]

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