By Peter Hughes

Part One


first you're sat
on your dad's lap
then your face
is grey as the grave

you've used up
the years
you waited for
in a cold wind

cold as the winter
of your birth

you look around seeing nothing
but second nature

mountains to south & east
more geomorphology
to north & west

the long deluge of silt
precipitating through the body


my eldest sister & I
took first communion
at the convent

we left at six in the sacred
spring morning trembling
with family irritation
in poplar leaves & fingers
anticipation a speechless host

young women in white

the crass priest
called me first
as I was male

but a deeper music
had swung in
around & through me

all lacewinged

mystical &



our father
now a compôt
of All-Bran & opium

his stomach
eating itself for years

a long sandbank accumulating
along the west bank

strapped me to my schooling

I clenched my eyes
& sailed through the lids
to Palestine
then southern seas

every baguette
bought from a souk

I skimmed the Arabian Sea
was hymned by the Mouths of the Ganges
glided through the islands & straits
of Borneo & Java

Sumatra affected my breathing


he perspired blood
to teach me Latin

I sailed the South China Seas
in my chair
oblivious to learning objectives

or was paralysed
by licks of magic:

she searched
for heaven's light
& groaned when
then it found her

overwhelmed me
capsizing in A minor

yet when I was
with emotion
it was he who pretended
to be too tired to go on

such grace

such embarrassed grace
our father


I mainlined on music

& I mainlined on love

I tripped on genetically modified lines
in the white house among the vines

they tell me there are holidays each year

Estelle & her little pink boots
still wring me out

she was eighteen & I was twelve
but part of my heart is still on her shelf

o she knew
& once she asked me to dance with her
in front of the world

I managed to spin
right through the surface of France

one day I'll tell you
about the cave paintings I made


my father
fed up with
din on the whistle
taught me to play it
then bought me a flute

& then all the bourgeois shenanigans -
reading music
theory                   song                    

                         guitar in the harmony & pain
                         guitar in the dark

writing songs to her elbows & vines

her hair & high air

her feet:

what good is a world
of guitars & flutes
if I can't have you
in your little pink boots?


you will be a doctor                 he said

I will be a Gluck     a Haydn

my hair said     standing up to be counted

I have seen my first full score

now I know what it is
to spit a mouthful of Fitou
against my hand on the cavern wall
& feel the shape of my soul
cohere out of sight
as my body gently turns
into the dust


in the revolution

I went for a walk in England
where many poets bicker
between hedges & libraries

but now I'm back & fiercely indignant
music lessons have been disrupted
in the most intolerable manner

what is one to do
except talk about oneself ?


& so to Paris to study medicine

Alphonse took me to the cutting
rooms in the Hospice de la Pitié

the floor a spongy bed of human off-cuts

small birds scrapping
for beakfuls of lung
rats sampling fragments
of damp backbone

hacked-open heads invited me
to a private view of my future

I was out through the open window
& off up that road
before you could say
Jacques Robinson

Part Two


but I had to go back 
to the cutting room floor
I rasped        sawed          inhaled decay
                  slipped on innards

donated the root of an angel's wing
to a famished rat with 
a critic's evacuated eyes 

but then                                   the Opéra!

it was like moving 
from rowing boats in the park

to the decks of majestic three-masters 
riding  all the distant inner oceans

suddenly it was music to 
the power of itself

it was cosmic
imagining & writing 

unimaginable numbers


forcing the hacksaw
through a stranger's cranium
the next day
I hummed a tune
conducting with my eyebrows

the kindly gifts of destiny

I practically ran back to the opera
& was chromatically damaged
by a cor anglais       crying 
the hymn that floated 
          that very first communion

then I found
the Conservatoire library
was open to the public

the manuscripts of
Gluck treasure
like Shakespeare's notes

once my eyes & ears had played Gluck
all pretence of medicine
was rinsed down the sink

& I held up the triumphant hand
of an artist

alone like Lear
in the quiet & failing light


when convinced
I wouldn't give
up writing
in the name of
all that's holy
my Catholic
mother cursed me

back in Paris
I survived
on private lessons
prune & raison sandwiches
& an inexhaustable
wealth of tone & light
flowing into
poetry & water

I lost weight
& composed myself
with luxurious
desperate pulses
rippling in & out
spreading upstream
& downriver

don't confuse art
with camouflaging yourself
in landscape

that happens later
up the crem
down the pit


below a certain temperature
there can be no reaction

one night as I
conducted clouds

the sky kicked & split
earthing through me

making me brilliant &
dumb with shock

Harriet Smithson
was Ophelia then Juliet

was Shakespeare writing
much of my future

she singed & sang my surfaces
stewed my innerness

every molecule touched by
irreversible change

sleep escaped from
strange nocturnal presence

tracking me across the
room & world

another chorus of feelings


I trod the Paris streets
like time

& through all that madness
I can count the bouts of sleep

on the fingers
of her left hand

  • collapsed in a dark field of corn
    on the edge of the city

  • worn out in any meadow
    under autumn sun

  • burrowed in snow banked up
    on the banks of the Seine

  • with my head on the table
    between my own knife & fork
    in the Café du Cardinal

not reassuring the waiters


& that sudden
of dark matter
within transformed
for ever the gravities
& orbits of my
life I wrote back
to Shakespeare
& I wrote back to her
the configuration
of my inner river
& the devastated
landscape of my
floating heart
after the flood

leave it out on Tuesdays


the whole world

the empty bed

your absent river


I practically dragged
Lesueur to
Beethoven's 5th

he was so scared
of giving an opinion

Christ he was
so moved &
that at the end
he went to put
                  his hat on
& couldn't find
his head


worshipping Harriet
from afar
I didn't notice
Camille breathing
next to me
teaching piano
piano as I
taught guitar
to shadows

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