W After Tony Harrison caitlin stobie
P o e m s /
S t o b i e
Last May I cycled to the cemetery to see old graffiti, the Vs, your task. All I found was dog shit and dried lilies, then drifting litter: a surgical mask.
Who am I to write this reply? Thin slices of an accent, southerner by way of Africa: best believe I, too, hate grave advice from foreigners.
But someone has to start with the questions. Again I try, fail, trying to go on. Each year brings more floods and man-made seasons; what if we united, but did it wrong?
Walking long ago, counting cracks, I asked Why’s the street wet? to a boy from a band. He pointed his free hand. A drunk’s turned back. If you were a man, love, you’d understand.
On Saturdays all men came out alleys to grope the slippery centre of Leeds. The city’s never been so lively we chanted, dodging vomit every week.
Tony, you know what’s meant when I say ‘all’ and ‘men’. For in the Brude and Chunk you’d see – even in Wharf’s safest toilet stall –
them slits slashed clean between two widened Vs.
In ’85 it was swear words lads sprayed round town. Now ‘cunt’ is on discount, reduced. ‘The versuses of life’, ‘man and wife’: splayed like legs in the cubicle W.
They say in Shakespeare’s day, ‘cunt’ was ‘nothing’. Lately, the male organ’s tune is the same. Why else, when we protest, would some men sing Not all? Their chorus is not to complain.
Worse still are the racists, the EDL with their own slogans of ‘nothing’ and ‘not’. All lives matter, they say, but they fear hell is other people talking, taking their lot.
In the year of the rat, trafficked pangolins and bats, lines between species were ever troubling and as humans destroyed their habitats the Vs and our visions were doubling.
It should not have taken a pandemic to see that we need to set this right. Yet between the blurring Vs came an epic chorus chiming Not all! and Mine! Mine! Mine!
When you can’t walk at night without keys between your fists, what do you rhyme that with? Where can you wander without watchmen if you’re
Black? (The chorus warbles: Not all! Mine! Mine! Mine!)
We bicker and consumerist excess continues, the Vs are Ws, too many to write – when that man said You wouldn’t understand, why did I not drop his hand?
Last May, I traced letters on graves. Cee, u, en, tee. Much ado about the bard, in your poem, Tony, but Shakespeare leads to one more query: if ‘nothing’ is sacred, then what does that make me?
Laughter bloomed. You – you stupid animals, cats-ears nodded as if to say, you’re nowt special. Blood, meat, bones, minerals: all beasts turn to feed when they decay.
Then it hit me: the double-u in nowt. Same as millennials’ scrawl in toilets, but the slashed command signified now both\holy/everything\and/jack-shit.
Like headstones leaning together, four lines in a consonant, a cuss, or a poem may remind us of the beasts inside – or so I liked to hum as I headed home.
So home I ride – for some of us never felt safe outside, for I am no bride, no double you see (in my head the man says, ’n anyway, love, how’s about you make tea).
No. Home to a room and view of my own, to the place where I grandmother myself. I doze in a rented room, alone, old words of new worlds lining my bookshelf.
Reader, how will Leeds look next year? When do death-tolls become a wake-up call? When we rebuild, will we remember nowt? Will nothing have changed at all?