Grievance Poetry

This is the old Chinese poem 'The Jewel Stairs' Grievance' by Rihaku, translated and explained by Ezra Pound:

The jewelled steps are already quite white with dew,
It is so late that the dew soaks my gauze stockings,
And I let down the crystal curtain
And watch the moon through the clear autumn.

NOTE. - Jewel stairs, therefore a palace. Grievance, therefore there is something to complain of. Gauze stockings, therefore a court lady, not a servant who complains. Clear autumn, therefore he has no excuse on account of weather. Also she has come early, for the dew has not merely whitened the stairs, but has soaked her stockings. The poem is especially prized because she utters no direct reproach.

It is indeed a thing to be prized. Not only no direct reproach, but a world of bitterness reduced to four concise lines. Hitherto my own expressions of grievance have been far too prolix. Besides, it would be quite annoying for the recipient of such a poem to have to sit there frowning for five minutes and work out that they are being reproached.

In short the whole concept excites me deeply. Rihaku's icily controlled lady is an example to be followed. Here are my own tentative efforts towards similarly indirect grievance poetry. Some are annotated to make my position crystal clear.

To My Cat

I saw the glistening brown lumps upon the carpet
I saw the clean grey of the litter tray
I saw through an open door the sunlit expanse of the garden
There did not appear to be any land-mines in the garden
I saw you licking your four legs, none of which
       appeared to be broken
Do you see where I am going with this,
       you lazy little brute?

This is fairly straightforward; I had not quite hit my stride with regard to compression and obliqueness yet.

To My Boss

Your thick grubby hairy fingers pass my pay-packet
It almost flutters away in the breeze
My slender delicate exquisitely-formed hand places it next to my bus ticket
As you cram your fat loathsome belly behind the wheel of a Mercedes.
You know?

This one is fairly self-explanatory too. Obviously the pay-packet flutters because it is so damn light, so much so that, unlike the luxury-limousine-owning employer, the poet can't afford a car of his own and must rely on public transport. He contrasts the state of their hands to make clear that the employer is a vulgar appetitive baboon and the poet a man of exquisite refinement who is doing his troglodyte boss a favour in working there by raising the aesthetic tone of the workplace, no matter what piffling quibbles there may be about his levels of competence, punctuality and effort.

To A Small Child Who Purloined My Last Chocolate Bar

Short-arse, the sticky evidence is around your pudgy mouth 1
The fridge door flaps wide, revealing my sad groceries inside 2
I pick the poignant wrapper from the floor and read: 'Made in Slough' 3
Heedless, you fly off to your next pleasure
You have forgotten already: but I will not forget 4

1. The child is pudgy, therefore it is not suffering from malnutrition and has stolen the chocolate bar not from need but from sheer evil. The poet draws attention to its lack of height in order to point out that if it had tried to take the chocolate from him by main force rather than pilfery he could have prevented it. The poet could easily have the child in a fight and only social convention and the fact that he disdains combat with such an obviously inferior opponent prevents him kicking the living daylights out of it. He is just pointing this out.

2. The chocolate was in the fridge, ergo the poet cherished it so much he was going to some trouble to stop it melting. As a matter of fact he was saving it for a special treat and was going to eat it while watching Nigella Lawson later. My sad groceries inside - all that remains in the fridge is frankly inedible: a limp, slimy lettuce and some things which may once have been mushrooms, although the poet would prefer not to take an oath on that. If the child wasn't such a terminal solipsist it would have been quite apparent from these other contents that it had not stumbled upon some magic Willy-Wonka fairy-kingdom parallel universe of free-chocolate-for-everyone fridge, but that this was the fridge of a real person with hopes, aspirations, dreams, needs; a person capable of feeling pain and disappointment and violent rage.

3. Made in Slough - i.e., they are in Britain rather than sodding North Korea or somewhere, i.e., as far as the poet knows they are still living in a country whose economic prosperity and political freedom was built on a respect for individual property rights and not a communist state, and the sooner the child is made to realise this the better. To add insult to injury, the porky little thief has littered the floor.

4. You have forgotten already. Whereas the child is at the dawn of life and has many pleasures, the poet does not have much to live for apart from chocolate. And biscuits, which the child is also far too free with. Furthermore he has been concerned for some time that the child may be a moron but has been too polite to point it out. I will not forget. He won't, either. Unlike the possibly retarded child the poet has a very long memory. He will be revenged on the child when it is least expecting it. He is related to the child by blood and if, by some hideous concatenation of circumstances wiping out every more responsible person, he ever becomes the child's legal guardian, it will be raised in the fridge.

To a Repairman

I put away the hoover and watch cobwebs shiver in the breeze
Your mendacious card is embedded in the mat like a shuriken
I cradle the phone on my stained collar and jab blindly
And curse Vivaldi and the black mass where you were conceived

Stained collar, ergo it is the washing machine that needs repairing and has done for quite some time. The poet has been hanging around waiting for the repairman so long he has become bored enough to do the hoovering, after having sat idle for so long he has started to notice the cobwebs he should have done something about a long time ago. There is a breeze because he has left the door open, therefore the accursed repairman knew full well the card saying 'We called but you were not home' was a stinking lie. 'Shuriken' hints at the ninja-like stealth required in the repairman to stake out the house from the bushes all day and then creep to the door unnoticed during the exact minute the poet was distracted by the hoover. He jabs blindly at the phone because this rigmarole of hide-and-seek has gone on so long he knows the sodding number of the repairman's company in his very fingers, and curses Vivaldi because the call centre will put him on hold. 'Black mass where you were conceived' because the repairman's mother was a shameless rutting whore and his father a warty-backed malebranche from the eighth circle of hell.

To the TV Schedulers

A tomcat yowls as I count my unused roll-ups
On a dusty screen a man might be stabbed behind an envelope
And Juliette Binoche has half a face
I crank the sound up and mutter 'Only kidding' to the ceiling

Juliette Binoche, ergo it is a good film on the telly. The screen is dusty because it is the only thing the poet has found worth watching in a long long time. The yowling tomcat indicates he has stayed up into the middle of the night to watch it. He has been looking forward to it so eagerly and excitedly that he has made all the cigarettes he will need beforehand, so he won't have to look away at a vital juncture. They are unused because he is now too tense and irritable to smoke them. An envelope hides a possible stabbing, and Binoche's face is bisected, because it turned out the film was being shown with someone performing sign-language in the corner of the screen. Rather than admit defeat or put his foot through the screen the poet resorted to the expedient of balancing an envelope in front of half of it to hide the little man gesticulating at him. He can still occasionally glimpse a bit of the interpreter's shoulder or elbow however. He increases the television volume, and nervously says 'Only kidding' to the ceiling, because he has become convinced God has impaired his own hearing to punish him for the five minutes he spent heaping execrations on the heads of all deaf bastards everywhere.

To A Bookshop That Doesn't Stock My Books

Countless books by celebrities 1
Untold numbers of political memoirs 2
Nothing, save the paper they are written on
That could generate heat and light:
Sad if someone were to firebomb you in the night 3

1. So they haven't run out of shelf-space.
2. So they can't have any objection to immoral content.
3. Just saying.

Uttering no direct reproach was hard for this one. However I got around it.


27th July 2010