Selections from Playing the Changes


1: Not Enough Hours in the Day


What a feeling, when one escapes the musty

tomb-like bookshop atmosphere carrying a collection

of poetry under your arm, & barely stumbles three feet 

before colliding with the gorgeous garish daylight:   

a crisp clean sky like a newly minted fiver,

no clouds, & blossoms exploding on every tree.

This filthy city’s evanescent in its beauty.

I hate to admit it, but even the Sally Army band

look ritzy today, dolled up to the nines, but they pay

much less attention to style than the man in black

(& the black’s cranked up to eleven: the kind of overcoat 

you’d clock on a villainous gunslinger in High Noon,

& a wonderful jet ensemble of boots, shades & gloves)

striding up the street while tooting a saxophone,

his soul-breath reeling into the air, blossom

cascading wildly from the aforementioned trees,

in a sudden puff I’ve made the assumption

was exhaled from his instrument’s gaping maw.

I mean, it’s even conceivable he’s the sole creator

of the city itself: the weighty memorials, the fountains,

the shoppers & seagulls & bus-stops benignly arrayed.

There’s not anything wasn’t born of his music:

there’ll even be a silence at the end of his song

quite as dark & desolate as the year’s midnight.



3: No vow’l no. 2, a la G.P.


What a joyful thought, to hop away from this musty

twilight bookshop air with a chapbook

of ballads snug in your armpit & run smack

into a ballsy Scandinavian roar of a day: 

a sky fair & cobalt as a tarpaulin folio, 

no clouds, & blossom dotting what boughs you can spy. 

This dirty old city’s not shown such razzmatazz on any prior day. 

Our local Sally Army band looks mighty glitzy, too,

in crisp mandatory uniforms, & hugging shiny horns, 

but not as glitzy as that man in black

(& I say black with conviction: a long black coat 

running down to a joint just north of his shins,

black boots, black Raybans, & hitman’s mitts)

striding through this outdoor shopping mall with a sax to his lips,

blowing his soul out into our atoms, blossom

cascading off hawthorn limbs in crazy fistfuls

in a rapid wind which (it’s my assumption, this) sprung

from his musical contraption’s gaping maw.

I purport that it’s as if this man’s an artist-divinity 

for this city’s spirit: its circling gulls, its crowds,

its fountains & pagodas & monoliths & bus-stops,

all of it nothing but his music’s fabrication,

that hush waiting at his song’s conclusion

broad & totalising as a vinyl album’s run-off rut.





5: Opposite Day


There’s no reason to return to that fresh-smelling

overlit nightclub, Earth, without a haphazard sheaf

of money in your back pocket, then walk gently

away from a raven-haired & timid whisper of an evening:

opaque black soil quite easily distinguished from a slab of marble,

dozens of fires, & gun emplacements on all the invisible multi-storey car-parks.

That spotless countryside’s felt disgusting before now.

Even the Satanist demolition crew seem underdressed

in their birthday suits, belabouring their muddy jackhammers,

exactly as underdressed as the woman in white

(though she makes a nonsense of white: a white negligee

ambling towards but stopping just short of the ankle, 

white lace gloves, a white balaclava, & Messianic sandals),

tiptoeing gingerly over the stream with a microphone stuffed up her arse,

sucking her body into the earth, the gun emplacements 

secured to the multi-storey car-parks in sensible & evenly-spaced arrangements

around a slowly-forming ornamental pond which is unlikely to have been poured

into the clenched anus of her recording equipment.

I can’t honestly claim she’s either the servant or destroyer

of the countryside: the stalled tractors, the isolation, 

the burning pyres, the ditches, the cheese-rolling competitions, 

none of them anything but the realisation of her noises,

the sounds running away from the beginning of her symphony

narrow & tentative as an erased videotape’s first faltering frames.


Note: Playing the Changes is an ongoing project in which one poem (‘Birmingham Jazz Incarnation’, originally published in Lung Jazz: Young British Poets for Oxfam in 2012) is subjected to a series of linguistic transformations, mistranslations and procedural constraints.