JAMES BAXTER: The Doctrine

It was hope taught us to tell these lies on paper.
Scratch a poet and you will find
A small boy looking at his own face in water
Or an adolescent gripping imaginary lovers.
And the hope became real. not in action but in words,
Since words are more than nine-tenths of life.
We did not believe ourselves. Others believed us
Because they could not bear to live without some looking-glass.

‘Are they real?’ you ask – ‘Did these things happen?’
My friend, I think of the soul as an amputee,
Sitting in a wheel-chair, perhaps in a sun-room
Reading letters, or in front of an open coal-range
Remembering a shearing gang – the bouts, the fights –
What we remember is never the truth;
And as for the body, what did it ever give us
But pain and limit? Freedom belongs to the mind.

That boy who went out and gazed at his face in the river
Was changed, they say, into a marvellous flower
Perpetually renewed in each Greek summer
Long after his tough companions had become old bones.
To act is to die. We ward off our death
With a murmuring of words.

JOHN BURNSIDE: Lady in the Snow

A prostitute, in fact.
We know this
by the rush mat under her arm and by the way
her sash is tied.

The snow has been falling all day
in thick
slow waves
filling the gaps between the young bamboos
blurring the lantern light behind her with a scuffed
white fur.

She must be cold:
she is shielding her face from the wind
and her feet are naked in the high
wood sandals
which leave a trail
of blue-black chevrons on the narrow path
like crows’ feet
or the worn calligraphy
that hides the artist’s name and printer’s mark
amongst the grey-green spikes of winter leaves.

À propos

I wonder whether perhaps there might be some small measure of truth in this apparently absurd caption (and widespread belief). Out one night in the snow, my companion who, unlike me, was fully dressed in thick clothes, turned blue and would have died if I hadn’t managed somehow to get him to the nearest transport café (he weighed nearly twice what I did) and out of the cold.

Me, of course, I hated transport caffs and the drivers who frequented them, and only ever entered one when the situation was desperate – as, to be quite honest, it often was when I was with Corin, though not life-and-death desperate like on that particular night.

 * * *

Here’s another I found that is very much to the point. I love this woman, but is she just posing for the pic? Or has she been standing there a while smiling at the drivers of all the cars that pass, and this was taken en passant by some wanker who very likely didn’t stop, didn’t even bother to throw her some money? 




(from the French of Jacques Prévert)

Adrian don’t be difficult!
Come back!

The snowball
you threw at me
last winter
at Chamonix
I have kept
It is on the mantelpiece
by the bridal wreath
of fire my poor mother
who died murdered
by my late father
who died guillotined
one sad winter’s morning
or was it spring …

Adrian don’t be difficult!
Come back!

I have made mistakes I admit
I remained ages
without returning
to the house
But I always hid from you
that I was in prison!
I have made mistakes I admit
I often beat the dog
but I loved you!

Adrian don’t be difficult!
Come back!

And Brin d’osier
your little fox-terrier
who died
last week
I kept him!
He is in the fridge
and when from time to time I open the door
to get a beer
I see the poor dead creature
it disheartens me
And yet it was I who did it
one evening to pass the time
while waiting for you …

Adrian don’t be difficult!
Come back!

I threw myself off
the Saint Jacques Tower
the day before yesterday
I killed myself
because of you
Yesterday they buried me
in a pretty little cemetary
and I thought of you
And this evening I came back
to the apartment
where you wandered round naked
when I was alive
and I am waiting for you …

Adrian don’t be difficult!
Come back!

I have made mistakes I admit
I remained ages
without returning to the house
But I always hid from you
that I was in prison!
I have made mistakes I admit
I often beat the dog
but I loved you!

Adrian don’t be difficult!
Come back!


In English, this poem could be read as a woman addressing a man, a man addressing a woman, or a man addressing a man. Only the title gives us a clue: the name Adrian is masculine. You simply have to guess whether it is a man or a woman begging Adrian to return.
In French, the title is Adrien (masculine) and we only have to read a few lines to realise that the person addressing Adrien is a woman:
je suis restée de longues années
sans rentrer
à la maison
De la tour Saint-Jacques
je me suis jetée
je me suis tuée
à cause de toi
The words restée, jetée, tuée, are all feminine; if the speaker were a man they would be resté, jeté, and tué. This is the text I translated from (a woman adressing a man) but as I say it would make no difference in the English version if the forms were masculine, the speaker a man, and the poem “gay”.
Another possibility in the French that I have come across is a complete role-reversal, a man adressing a woman. Here, you have the masculine resté, jeté etc and the person wandering around naked made feminine nue instead of nu.
Et ce soir je suis revenue
dans l’appartement
où tu te promenais nue
du temps que j’étais vivant
et je t’attends
And vivante in this version of course becomes vivant (masc). You can view this version here – ADRIENNE .
Knowing Jacques, I am pretty certain the original, scribbled down on a paper table-cloth, would have been the “gay” version (a man addressing a man), but the woman addressing a man is the one that was published. Fortunately, this affects the translation not at all.


(from the French of Jacques Prévert)

This love
So violent
So fragile
So tender
So desperate
This love
Beautiful as day
And bad as the weather
When the weather is bad
This love so true
This love so beautiful
So happy
So joyous
And so pathetic
Shaking with fear like a child in the dark
And so sure of itself
Like a man at peace in the middle of the night
This love that scares the others
Which makes them talk
Which makes them pale
This love watched out for
Because we watched out for it
Hunted wounded trampled finished off denied forgotten
Because we hunted wounded trampled finished it off denied and forgot it
This whole love
Still so alive
And all sunlit
It is yours
It is mine
That which has been
This thing always new
And which hasn’t changed
As real as a plant
As trembling as a bird
As hot as vibrant as summer
We can both of us
Leave and come back
We can forget
And then go back to sleep
We wake suffer grow old
We sleep again
We dream of death
We rise smile and laugh
And feel young again
Our love remains
Stubborn as a donkey
Vibrant as desire
Cruel as a reminder
Stupid as regrets
Tender as a memory
Cold as marble
Beautiful as day
Fragile as a baby
It watches us with a smile
And it speaks to us without saying anything
And me I listen to it and tremble
And I cry
I cry for you
I cry for me
I beg you
For you for me and for all those who love
And have made love
Yes I cry to it
For you for me and for all the others
That I don’t know
Stay there
There where you are
There where you were the other time
Stay there
Don’t move
Don’t go away
We who are loved
We forgot you
Don’t you forget us
We’ve had only you on this earth
Don’t let us become cold
Always more distant
And no matter where
Give us a sign of life
Much later in a corner of the wood
In the forest of memory
Appear suddenly
Give us your hand
And save us.

Any Boy Who Ends Up In A Frock

Did you choose to dress like this?
At first I thought not. I imagined
that if you had you would have let your hair
grow long, worn it loose or in a pony-tail.
Not looked so sad.

I imagined you had a sister,
maybe two, one at least older than you,
who teased and taunted you,
treated you as if you were not a boy at all,
not a real boy, but a sissy, a foolish
half-creature; dressed you up in their cast-offs,
stuff that was no longer cool or that they’d outgrown,
a starter-bra, a tweenage makeup set,
took pictures of you on their iPhones,
posted them on FB, YT, everywhere,
showed everyone.

When I was a child I too was dressed as a girl,
not by my sisters, by a friend called Denny –
she did it properly, kindly, and I loved that –
but also – not kindly and not properly –
by a girl called Stef who bullied and mocked me. She
was my age, only bigger, heavier, stronger.
She used to twist my arm up behind my back,
smear bright red lipstick on my lips,
lead me around like that, make me give her
my sweets, my pocket-money,
reported me when I nicked a songthrush’s egg
from the cabinet in the classroom, said
‘You’ll get the cane from Mr Jones for that.’
(I did) and made me do her homework for her,
or copied mine, and when a teacher noticed said
I’d copied hers; got me a reputation
in the neighbourhood, at school and even
at home for being a sissy, being lazy,
disobedient, a thief, a reputation that has
dogged me all my life.

She told all the older girls at the co-ed
boarding school she’d been sent to and so
by some ill chance was I that back at home
I dressed as a girl and all these older girls all
coo-ed and said I was a pretty boy,
much too pretty to be a boy – one
wished she had eyes like mine, another eyelashes
like mine, another lips like mine, another
legs like mine, and at weekends
they took me into their common-room
and played with me as if I was a doll,
then took me out with them to be
the cute little ball-boy for their tennis matches.
And they all came to watch me swim
in the indoor pool, dancing in the water, doing
synchronised swimming all by myself, for there was
no one there, boy or girl, who could swim
as I swam, dancing in the water. Showing off.
Being beautiful.

At home there was the beach, the open sea.
There I could get away. But not from Stef.
Sometimes she followed me, stole my clothes,
and when the sun went down and I came out
I found only a little frock.
I looked around. No one was there. Oh,
I could walk home dressed in it,
but she might be waiting for me, her and
some of the boys, Kevin and Cliff, and Ray.
So I ran back into the sea and swam
in the moonlight among the mermaids till
the moon went down, then put it on –
it was pretty – but where did she get it,
she never wore pretty things like that –
and darted home in the shadows through empty
lamp-lit streets to my mum and her big
wooden spoon, which hurt like hell
but not so much as a punch on the head from Cliff
or Kevin picking me up and chucking me into
a rubbish skip or – the worst – Stefie
bringing her knee up hard between my legs
and leaving me curled up, whimpering, on the ground,
wishing I was dead.

For you, I’ve decided now, there is no Stefie,
no nasty bullying sisters or cousins.
Things have changed. Now no one minds
a boy being dressed like that, no one will beat you
for it – not grown-ups, formally, at any rate.
Bullies might, of course – and have, I think:
I’ve seen the look in your eyes before,
but that was in a mirror. Now
no one minds that someone – your mother? –
chose this path for you; they admire them for it,
study anew their own more docile,
biddable sons or brothers, note
the way they walk, the slender arms and legs,
the length of their eyelashes, the full lips,
wonder which one would look pretty in pink,
and cute in a frilly apron as he helped
with the housework while his far from biddable sisters
train for their chosen (erstwhile masculine) sports …

I could give you advice like “Don’t do as I did
and let the bullies have their way with you
in the changing-room at school, young cocks
erect, smooth and hard as wood” or
“Don’t let anyone push you into being either
a pretty girly-boy or a macho football-player
against your will; you be whatever you want to be,”
but I am a man of the twentieth century,
a stranger in this gender-fluid world
where no opinions may be aired or even held
but those of the liberal and gender-fluid,
and I would be accused of hate-speech.
(Hating the LBGTQIAs?
Me? What nonsense! I was lost somewhere in
the middle of that unfortunate acronym
before it was ever invented, before most of these people
were born.) And I would be pointed out as a pervert,
a dinosaur, a man you should never speak to,
a man you should avoid at all costs:
to him, they would say, you are simply a boy in a frock.

Any boy who ends up in a frock
is not simply a boy in a frock.


Fancy Dress Party

Fancy-dress party    I went in blinkers
Not sure what they were like    Put on from behind
I suppose    I could only see the ceiling
And if I crouched on the floor    the bottom
of people’s chins    up their nostrils
Unless they glanced down at me    They sometimes did
and smiled    Some laughed    Then something strange
something was happening    down below
I was being drained    Where’s Aisha? I called
Where’s Aisha?    What’s she doing?
(Aisha’s a witch)    Tim looked down
into my eyes    He’s very tall    Selling
drugs I expect he murmured    and laughed
You better keep your hands up    that’s it
then you won’t get hurt    Right up
Is it Aisha?    Is it?    Don’t know
Don’t think so    it’s someone in white with a hood
(Do witches wear white?    They might here)
Something draining me    something in
my mouth now    mud    bits and lumps
Aisha I gasp    I got something in my mouth
something horrible    Just swallow it
you can’t spit here    especially now I
hear her giggle    And keep your hands up
as you were told    it doesn’t hurt    Aisha
Aisha! I gurgle    there’sh more i’ my mou’ now
Aisha!!    There’shtring coming up
All right you baby come with me    Her hand
on the small of my back    I choke
and it all comes pouring out

Animan Inc.

“Man is so unspecialised
that he quite easily adapts
to niches ecological
that he has emptied or created:
sometimes minor surgical
adjustments are necessitated,
sometimes not … ”
                 (From Sweeney Jim)

Mermen, Mermaids:
Seamales working under water
flippered feet, webbed fingers, gills,
seagirls sequined from the hips down
dancing in tanks in the walls of nightclubs
or private homes.

panther black, tiger stripe,
cute pink-and-blue –
designed to please, of course,
but they can scratch.

on all fours – four paws, that is,
no thumbs or great toes
tails an option,
either docile household pets
(good with children, will pull prams)
or vicious (easily controlled)
for use as guards or as a butt
for the frustrated.

(known of course vulgarly as Wankies)
baby legs, long simian arms
developed in childhood to amuse
in circuses and zoos
and too as pets.

Feeders and bleeders:
Feeders passive, bovine, hooved,
enormous hormoned udders milked
thrice a day
(much better for babies);
males bled to keep the blood-banks full.

used for manual work
and kept in sheds.

Out Late One Night in Allahabad

Out late one night in Allahabad,
where the Ganga and the Yamuna become one
with the Saraswati, the invisible, the heavenly,

and souls are cleansed, and soul and river
flow on into the east together:
out late one night in search of cigarettes –

Mister, have you got the time?
She separates herself from a group of youths,
comes to me, pointing at my watch.

Uh? I smile. Kya?
The time – taking hold of my wrist,
What’s the time? – holding and peering –

holding too tight. I laugh.
The youths approach.
I try to shake her off. Shake harder.

What are you doing to that girl?
Show us your papers.

No! Your passport!
No! Why? I just –
Take his jacket. Look in his pockets.

There are too many of them. (One would be too many.)
I let them take it, take my papers,
everything –  my shirt, my shoes –

His trousers too – they debate
whether to leave me my glasses –
I plead – my underpants –

even they are worth money,
but the glasses, frames like that,
cost more than such kids see in a month.

Keep the dhotiyou no fakir
then suddenly bored
they drive me off with kicks and taunts

and a hail of stones to get me running –
running, running out of the city –
no fakir, no gymnosoph, nothing,

not even a proper dhoti, just
a naked English pansy,
crying and clutching his bottom,

a kothi, O Lord of the Night.