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god’s zoo

It was, in other respects, a thrilling time. Coming to London had engineered a crisis in me that forced me to rethink everything I had ever done. I had to learn how to walk anew, as it were, inside a gravitational fi eld where things dropped did not necessarily go downwards. A compliment could be taken as an off ence, an insult as a joke. Th e familiar, although things there might look the same, was a ‘no go’ zone. All the poetry I wrote in Canada was now destined for the proverbial fl ames. I have a recurring dream of stepping into a book shop in Ottawa and pulling from a high shelf a slim volume, which, curiously, is issued in plain black cloth with no lettering on the spine. It contains not just the poems I really did write but also poems I never wrote. Could this be some writer’s archetypal dream of exile? Maybe what it really says is that there is no escaping the bad one does. Th is is not to suggest that I immediately began to write better: on the contrary, for the fi rst couple of years in London I wrote very badly indeed. I am not a little proud to have added to the store of poetry’s worst ever lines: ‘Equipped with dentistry of words, we strive / To disentangle truths from the grave.’ Still the very fact of my being here served to rob me of the smug certainties with which I could indulge a parochial scene – Jig Street could no longer do it for me – but where was the voice that would accommodate this new, cosmopolitan one? Such was my struggle, and in many ways it continues. Also, despite my having an English mother, I could not claim birthright to a species of Englishness that’ll forever elude me. I have always felt like some kind of foreigner marooned in the English language. Th e pity of it is that it’s the only one I speak. And yet, and yet … As of late, unbidden, come wisps of the language my father so desperately tried to teach me. Th e words fall like feathers in the brain. I am mentally agile enough, just, to be able to catch them. A poor teacher, as was his father before him, and, perhaps, as I am to my own children, he tried to force me to learn Polish and the greater the eff ort he made the stronger my resistance. What child will not speak his father’s tongue? I turned lowly intransigence into a high principle. Our sessions would often end in tears, the tears mine, fury his. I spat out that language. All things Polish were what kept me segregated from any fi elds I might have wished mine, such that

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