I wanted to be the ashtray in your office, the ash,
the slim cigarette you bit between your teeth, the flash
of smoke thrown from your mouth in laughter, the students
you smoked with in secret, talking books the way my parents
talked money or Eastenders or MOTs; I wanted
to wear green and dye my hair your bloody shade of red
and sit in the courtyard with coffee and that bright regal look,
to have a glamorous name, a desk, so many books,
to be pushed the way you pushed me, “for god’s sake think,”
to have a brain and use it, to be paid to think.
Years later, in a checkout queue, the woman waiting
was the ghost of you – your face reeled in, hands scattering
coins across the floor. When I helped you from your knees,
it was love, I wanted the words on my lips. Karina. Please.
Sonnet for Noah
My father died that winter. And each man after
was a patch I stitched onto my heart.
Across the lecture theatre – goofy-smart,
ripped jeans, a fisherman’s jumper, much older
than me, of course – this one worked with refugees.
In class, we studied asylum, displacement, borders
though I was only looking for my father
in those books I crammed like remedies
for loss. He had a flat in Finsbury.
I couldn’t find it now, though many times
I’ve wanted to. The sea-blue bathroom, tiny
as a womb. The rusted tub where I reclined
between his sudsy knees and kept afloat –
Noah behind me, solid as a lifeboat.
My parents taught me smoking. The midnight nip
to the Esso garage for twenty Players,
the kitchen table vigil, lighting one tip
from another, then another. No matches or lighter?
They bent to the cooker’s flame. No cash, no credit?
My dad would search the bin to twist tobacco
from dog-ends, squeeze it, suck it in. Or flush?
They’d pile nine, ten black boxes on the bureau –
small coffins in a stack. Stained walls, grey fug,
the constant tweezering of fags, that plug
between the lips. It took me years to stop.
Though still some lonely nights I spark one up
and that red light in the darkness leads me back
to where they’re waiting, holding out the pack.
On the news that night they called us violent youth
but what I remember is the green cord jacket I was wearing
pulled from a bargain bin that morning
and a busload of us singing our way down South,
the yellow placards like a bobbing sea of lollipops,
a beautiful man with dreadlocks, studs in his chin
and us on the frontline, marching and chanting
until the chanting suddenly stopped
then one voice shouted Police protect the Nazis!
the police like a wall of giant flies, their graceful white horses,
then silence – no moment in my life do I remember quieter –
before the charges, the bricks, the screams,
two boys with gashed heads running together,
that animal smell, red smoke, blood on my sleeves –