Issue 18: Alan Baker

from 'Letters from the Underworld'


I have a morbid fascination with movement, and an inability to sit still. When darkness falls, this makes me twitchy. I thought last night, for example, that people were calling to me from the past. It was brutal then. They were searching for their relatives. But today I can see that, even as I write, there are people searching for their relatives all over the southern shores. Forgive me, then, if under the circumstances, I want to swim in the River of Forgetfulness. I might remember nothing but morning sun on crags, an earthworm loud in its underground chambers, the creaking of the dry grass, a cell's expansion, splitting and replication. The sea glimpsed between narrow houses is a stranger. Where is the gannet's crash, the dolphin's guile? This, I conclude, could be the end, or an endless series of endings. Anyway, how are you? Things are quiet here. Maybe next time I reach you will be at summer solstice, and its endless varieties of promise will lighten our tone.


In former times we wandered wide in search of pasture, setting out each morning into the green hills. Such freedom! Do you remember the old footpaths and drover's tracks, when wandering was a pleasure? But the strangers who arrive by night tell a different story; they take detours through underground caverns, follow their GPS through deprived areas of provincial cities, are denied access to places of safety, sleep in bus stations where the stars are erased. I sometimes think that each human life is like a molecular collision, unimaginably small, but affecting everything. The star-clusters climb, Cassiopeia at the zenith, the vast galaxy of Andromeda a smudge on the black expanse. Oh presences, crystalline and cold, lend clarity and care to our sunlit dealings; be counterpoint to and escape from the acts of Day; be the comforting dark in which we sleep. "To see the stars again" said Dante; I know what he means. Bonne soirée. Arrivederci. Good night in every language that you know.


From your last letter, I take it that you're preoccupied with beachwear and cocktails. All I've got are memories, sidling up and making suggestions out of turn; each one dwelling in a separate zone, kitted out with a biography, a personality and a whole cast of dramatis personae. We dine on melancholy; it's impervious to words, spreading like a sports field on a housing estate on a Sunday afternoon in February; a scene not unlike the view from the lookout posts we are assigned to, watching for forest fires and appreciating the changing colours of the sea and the sun reflecting on the complex channels of the delta. The ultimate is the everyday here. Television is our daily bread. But though melancholy, we have our rages; our leaders encouraged us to throw stones at scarecrows to ease the tension. An epidemic of crows resulted; those lovers of carrion and symbols of the night (though they are, in fact, more intelligent than we give them credit for).


You know me by now, after all this correspondence. I cannot rest from travel. I would drink life to the lees, but instead, I'm stuck here, watching unequal laws being meted and doled unto a savage race (that hoard and sleep and feed, and know not me). This evening, all is calm, here, on this tideless coast. The deep moans round with many voices. The late sun slants into my open window and the lights begin to twinkle from the rocks. The aforementioned voices name cities of men and manners, climates, governments (myself not least... but that's delusion). My government has withdrawn funding from the rescue service and other member states argue amongst themselves while the hungry sea doesn't rust unburnished, but shines in use. This is idle talk, I know. Titanic wasn't built in a day, and the same applies to my plans to get out of here, make a lot of money and quit this crazy scene. The vessel puffs her sail. Any survival tips? But I know I shouldn't ask; you work your work, I mine, and, though much is taken, much abides. But still, I do wonder, if only to myself (made weak by time and fate), what the future holds. It's not too late to seek a newer world, is it?

Alan Baker was born and raised in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and now lives in Nottingham, where, for the last sixteen years, he has run the poetry publisher Leafe Press. His collected poems were published by Skysill Press as Variations on Painting a Room in 2011, and his most recent collections are all this air and matter (Oystercatcher) and Whether (KFS). He has translated the poetry of Yves Bonnefoy and Abdellatif Laâbi.