Issue 23: Robert Sheppard

Hammer Glow

This declaration of intent takes us in.

Deep in the cavern, the roof is mirrored

by the water that spreads

across its floor, glacial, balance

balanced on vertigo, that a tumble

into its chill could not dispel. The pointless

rediffusion of points and lines:

the speckled double-glazing prickles with excitation

brushed by the fans of the real. He looks like a

Medici medallion with its face rubbed off,

a split mouthing the air

with round teeth rolling in a pulp

of generation, the diamond-cut prize. At the

centre of the slow whirlwind, like a crowd

at a rock festival, uniform but individual, not a song,

the choral image almost spirals into itself:

you find deep dark away from it in

the last days of the Revolution before the

restoration, selling its ideal in one quick deal,

angling into its pitch interior. This is

yesterday’s dream of tomorrow

that by-passes today in its certainty:

bison in flesh-and-rock. The shine on black

is the purest skin of light, silver powdering

these rough plains, grain between the teeth,

like a silo where it funnels between constricting

metal and gurgling compression, thankless

and eternal as an angel, code with no enigma.

Pressed bricks pace themselves like long dashes,

a call sign to keep the channel open, unique

in their melodies, snagging the light on their edges,

pooling shadow in their pitted grout craters.

Glassy ranges in the palm of nobody’s hand

refract your inspection into introspection,

a trace of transport, dimples in snow. Count the toes

that drop with this misformed foot from the gown

crushed and rucked upon its thistlehead embroidery.

The goddess, limp but majestic, has clipped each

nail straight across like a good Girl Guide. Silver

beeches reach into the air and across the water.

I bring my face closer to this miracle. I could stain

it with inky ego from the ribbon of selfhood onto

the picture until it is the picture, not pixels and names

arranged like splinters along the coasts, trading vessels

heavy in the heavy water. A human hand thrusts

into the billowing wave-curve; a head lifts to the bushy sky,

adrift from its driftwood raft; gulls torn by gales

into shreds. Heat rises: mirage sinking. Spinach

on a bed of purple cabbage drizzled with membrane,

yolks in a swirl gestating pure space, sicky

melange, the surface turns, burns energy,

as bright as the smear of London, the dab of Paris.

We’re leaving the lights on so the birds may suicide

against plate glass; the aliens may navigate straight

to the Liver Birds, the cormorant mouth of the Mersey.

The shadow thrown by your body from the open fire

stretches its legs across the floor, climbs as body up

the wall opposite, back across the ceiling to the darkness

above your head, which is your head. In the ring of glass,

with its circle of text, nothing diffracts you, hammer glow.

Sheaves of corn bend to your breathing; a band

of lead haloing you like a pantomime snake, blesses

stained glass with wormy thumbs and a flowery sneeze. A

diurnal nudge. Water flowers above its surface: skin-thin

it hints. The poppy field is fielded as unity. Only the sky,

a strip above high horizon, a well that dips into wisps of cloud,

winching buckets from the azure, shoes on the rim, lets

you down and dries you out for all eternity for the hell of it.

The reflection looks out and falls in love

with the real boy for once, flicking his leonine hair,

shifting his sleek limbs, to keep split-second pace;

he wants to hold him under until he’s gone:

allegory won’t keep faith with this faithless

water boy. Beetles roll in red dust as though the surface

were this one shade, eruptions of red stone, ravines

and moraines, under blue disremembered skies.

Trunks finger dead leaves, a desperate mossy clutch

to hold themselves to earth, having twisted through

every shade of leaf. Striplings erect and pole-thin stretch

from mould. A man controls his body,

crushing power. What if he were to brush

his eyeballs across the schematic bluebells

which toss their heads here, would we still recoil

from him as from monstrous desire, a vision

of things only as they are, a rodent’s view? A blur

on a ledge prepares to plunge, a miniature looking

at itself in the mirror. He’s no larger, patting

his snub-nose. His arms and legs swing from a defaced

torso; toes twitch as arrows fly. One flicks

through his leg, entry and exit, a trickle-tickle

of blood, a drip on his toes; mesh to mask,

he fades. He carries his divinity like a curse,

amid a ring of angels with haloes and halitosis, 

sermonising complexes and castration.

He’s intent upon capturing every minute of you,

on a throne of wine for this monarch of light. If

you look at this long enough, it’ll move

again, still drying, not dying, never fixed like

his vision: a blurred frame holds your clear head

but you’re not of it, marched around the garden by a ghost.

Angels flutter amid refugees, point the way to

freedom. An eye, resting, hazel, dry lashes

catching the light, a brush of brow and expanse

of cheek, mercilessly records. Eyeful of solidity

blanks your view of the depths, it’s plasma 

awaiting image: mountains cut like sugar

or salt, staples that you would only mention

if you weren’t really looking: the great Jupiter

red-spot of the Titan’s single eye, mobile

across mobile features, as he melts into

his own flesh and bone, bubbling soup.

The mind predicts activity but the eye doesn’t

follow. You’re locked into this tunnel as a piece

of the tunnel, flexures of snake, mottled

with veiny scribbles, as the serpent

coils its script, a glaze on the gaze. Dunes

support the arc of the bay. Look out

to the horizon’s cream smudge, settle all thought

upon its uncertain rim, rustling your

5p plastic bag of bread and tinned sardines.

Your mirror, your virtual mirrors, make

this world: silver shoes balance on tiptoes,

irregular stares down a sinking nautilus stairwell.

You grip the flexing handrail hoping not

to be sucked into the heart of heartless illusion.

The stellar latticed circle gapes in the air. Limbs defy

the backdrop which is a floor, gravity’s big flat fence.

It’s the centre of the centre and anything you say is off-

centre; the pure black pupil is like nothing

that existed before you. Blood vessels burst

like the refugee child’s balloon I saw today

bouncing its way through my migratory scoping.

Light is at its ancient game, fading spectrally

as it travels; the metallic-fleshy timbre of its music

tinges our ascent. We’re acrobats with vertigo.

We nod a beam across the glitter.

The Listening Table

He can’t kick aside the threat of music.

He parts the parts of the seas of silence.

The audience is the musicians. The mixing

desk set between two computer screens shines

but nothing mixes. Internet connection is

down or controlled by the listening police.

Square-eyed shades transform a face into

its withdrawn cousin, and the tube in its mouth

pushes it farther out of human shape. Transform

the whole man into a cyborg of song. Listen!

He makes the love call of the National Beast,

silver-booted on the glistening shopping parade.

The mirror of this retail-therapy world

soaks in his noise. Once nothing

is said and done. These are silver-crinkly

visages of access. Denied. Don’t look too hard:

a guitarist mid chord-thrash, or bowing a high note,

even polished brass against speckled walls, its

harmonic deep in the conundrums of plumbing. Probe

its length, menacing. Palms articulating bare arms

pummel the drum-heads. Enigmatic to the core, she’s

divorced from her signature year, everything scaled,

tonalities tightened to higher pitches. The

soprano saxophone, under its player’s crouch,

peeps between his legs, making for the open.

If your shirt is a boxy fold of sheeting,

it’s not anti-capitalist erotics, so the arms depend,

eyes lower, transition to catalepsy in slo-mo.

The music that lifted her above tiles carries. On.

A requiem for humankind, the piano untenanted,

frozen steps quickened by silent music. One

squeezes air across a piccolo. Turning on a tuning,

the guitarist is turned away from us, and

we cannot see the fretboard clawed by his

left hand. His right clutches his forehead, as though

he’s not of it, the sound out there, somewhere.

Reconfigure this pattern into finger-picking: the

harmony of the universe restores; tape-spools

eye you unblinking. She’s framed at the piano now,

grey-faced, obvious, says: You’re fiercely present

in your shirt, wiping most of your lower face away.

Everything is observant in this readiness: laptronica

across scarlet ground where it holds the crowds off

with their insect-rustle beats. Techno

without glitches, twiddling and twitching,

high-fiving capers, naked unhooding, mouth

open mid-song, his voice fades into drone.

We wait for something to change. Backs to us,

they commune with the map of the wall,

their outlines like police-chalk on death tarmac.

An erect snake scrapes the floor, stands

as thick and rich as its sound. He’s slowly

drawn into the length of this tube; it’s his breath,

his voice, his thinking, his shakuhachi attack,

well above the instrument’s dictated

range. This is concentration concentrated,

sound’s origin lost in pure sonority, tubes of air

held together by tense sinews. Tricky

timings splayed on the keyboard think

for themselves, trained out of training,

phantomised by silence into brushing the floor clean.

Sound art’s shapeless assault, mixing citizens’

crowing, is crowded out by the worst poet’s

civic platitudes, as sand sweeps over sound,

snare rattles, shakes. A saw moans its way

through a piano, flaking into splinters. Men shuffle

through shavings, shrieking pronouncements against

‘art’. A spectre at the humming drum kit overrides

the sheer non-expressive nature of this sonic

stretch where it disappears into human hair. 

What can you do to substitute our unknowing, non-

hearing, except strain the smoothness of a viola,

retain the tasteful stained-glass emblems, and let in

the swirling shapes and whirling electronics? We’re

disappointed: we wanted nothing less than an idiot

with a squeezebox piled on his knees, howling

because he can’t pay his way in this shapely refusal

of flow! We leave that to your hair, a shower

of performance. Barrels roll in dust or smoke.

Out of the miasma I dance in migratory dérive,

balanced like sound, body-stockings and flesh-paint.

There’s no sound until I cease moving. Then

there’s simply the anticipation of sound which

is sound itself. Tablas like sonorous fruit wait

for ripeness: polyrhythmic pattering with

fingers, patterning with palm-beats. The man

with the claviercentric hands is exhausted by this

counter-information, these counter-intuitions, head

twisted to watch what he cannot hear, preferring dis-

comfort in the service of comforting sound. Out of

extremity squeezes mediocrity! She leaps and steps,

bangled legs stamping apart. While he whispers bamboo,

she keyboards involuntary tinkles against the groove.

Everything in this world is a drum;

his mottled baseball cap contains him.

No chance he’ll spill into the environment or

spin out of control unless he vibrates his lips,

touches the cyborg piano, each key wired up

for some transformation he fears he might

not be able to handle. He tips the mic

as though spilling sand into his open throat.

The woman whose hands see these things

looks across the room, half her face

in harsh studio lights, the other half listening

to the table singing into her elbow, along her arm, through

clamped hand over an ear, a comforting woody tone

that persists like background noise, except it is now

the anthem of her consciousness, as we listen with

everything in addition to our ears. The intent

is clear, though his gesture is unresolved, his song

ceases mid-phrase, while the shadowed faces

make this a canticle just by looking, yet looking out.

Robert Sheppard's most recent publication is the pamphlet Hap: Understudies of Sir Thomas Wyatt’s Petrarch, from KFS, part of a longer project ‘The English Strain’. The Robert Sheppard Companion, edited by James Byrne and Christopher Madden, has recently appeared from Shearsman. His collaboration with the photographer Trev Eales, Charms and Glitter, will appear from KFS in 2020. He lives (but no longer works) in Liverpool.

Copyright © 2019 by Robert Sheppard, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of Copyright law. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.