Tuesday 5 May 2020

Dross by Julian Stannard

At A Leap in the Dark last Saturday night The Pale Usher handed the reigns of A Leap in the Dark to The Absent Therapist, which is an unnecessarily tortuous way of saying that the poet and novelist and publisher Charles Boyle (One Man, Three Governors?) organised and presented a programme of poetry and prose and music featuring the writers he has published over the past decade under his imprint CB editions.

It was a marvellous evening with, in order of appearance: Dan O’Brien In Los Angeles (reading from his own work and that of Paul Bailey), Paulette Jonguitud (a Leap in the Dark regular, live from Mexico City), Will Eaves (with a beguiling piece about the great silent-era actor Lon Chaney), Natalia Zagorska-Thomas (on a collaborative project curated with Simon Zagorski-Thomas, launched yesterday); Nina Bogin (reading from her translation of Agota Kristof’s The Illiterate); Beverley Bie Brahic (reading from her translations of Francis Ponge); Alba Arikha (playing an intensely moving Lockdown Piano piece, a recent composition); Todd McEwen (reading from Who Sleeps with Katz, about to be reissued by CB editions) and Philip Hancock (stealing the show with three poems from his very fine debut collection City Works Dept.)

J O Morgan provided two recorded readings (he has a wonderful voice, clear, precise, warmly cool and insinuating). Charles himself read, movingly, from Dai Vaughan's Parallel Lines. 

All of which is by way of preamble to THIS: Julian Stannard's epic poem 'Dross', delivered on the night from his gaffe in Shirley High Street, Southampton. In a night of back-to-back highlights, this was a highlight. It appears in the current issue of Ambit magazine. My thanks to him for letting me share it here:


I have some difficulty admitting this,
I’m not even sure how or why it happened but it did, 

I’ll have to come clean. Ah!
I watched 
Valhalla Rising.

Be kind –
I can’t un-watch it now I’ve watched it.

Let me say how very late it was
and though I had no great desire to see it to the end 

I had no great desire to go to bed.
In any case I wouldn’t have slept
and would have had to lie there
in the dark listening to my heart,
and switching on the light to read some Rimbaud!


In case you haven’t seen it
(this is my suggestion, keep it that way), 
there’s a lot of mud and heart surgery 
without the slightest hint of anaesthetic 
not even an axe to the head –
that comes later.

And it’s the tenth century, talk about the sublime! 
the weather is wretched most of the time

not a hint of summer till 1579.

You can be a Christian if you want –
(my god is better) or you can be a recalcitrant pagan: 

my gods are many, I can eviscerate you.

There’s a tree, a boring tree.

We could cut it down and make a fire
just to show we’re post-Neanderthal     then what? 

Huddle round moon frog, no eye contact
and think to yourself, Holy shit , I’m still alive! 

Small talk, unless you’re an Abbott,
hasn’t been invented.

Dialogue: actually there is some.
It’s not exactly catchy
and the one-eyed Viking says absolutely nothing, 

maybe he can’t speak English
maybe the cat nabbed his tongue.

Viking tongue. Would you like some?

What do I know but I would say 
all in all a low budget film:
bits of Scotland no one really likes 

a river or two – mud,
things around people’s necks,
a man with one eye
the Make Up Department going for it.

I’m not really into this kind of stuff
but it was fairly obvious
you don’t try and kill the one-eyed man,
don’t even think about it,
especially when he’s sleeping on a boat
which is supposed to be heading for the Holy Land 

as if they’ll just fetch up in Tel Aviv –
hey sunshine, oranges, what the hell are these?

It’s like a bad horror film
when the young woman who’s conveniently a virgin
says, I am just going to walk down that corridor
with a flickering candle even though
I have heard strange moaning sounds which
suggest something really horrible is going to happen to me 

because I need to see the shutter is properly
fastened in the west wing, what with this wind.

Forget it, it’s just a shutter,
go to your bedroom
and lock the door and if you need some distraction 

read Northanger Abbey.
Then you’re bound to nod off.

No, can’t have the shutter banging 
on a night like this.
I’ll be alright, I have a candle.

Well, Fanny, don’t say you haven’t been warned – 

silly bitch.

There, as we speak, werewolves, ogres, half-people
are walking across the heath because for reasons
known only to themselves they want to scoff some virgin 

having first de-flowered her unceremoniously.

Good luck, Fanny!

That flickering candle
and that clove of garlic down your pants aint going to help that much.

Good luck, Fanny!

You weren’t very good at acting anyway.

Let’s get back to Valhalla Rising.
I haven’t mentioned it for a while.

There are some captured female slaves
all grouped together for a moment
and they’re certainly not beauties
and they look bloody cold, why wouldn’t they?

It’s a film full of men –
standing there, fighting, looking, walking. 

We’ve been in this bit of Scotland
for a while, let’s go to another bit
even if it looks exactly the same:
we might see a sign, Jesus in a tree,
or someone’s head on a long pole. Careful.

Men, men, men, without any structure to their lives:
just walking around looking bewildered or wise.

What do they do, all those men walking, 
trekking off somewhere because someone 
has pointed at a hill or a strange-looking bird flying east? Look!

They can kill someone, that’s allowed 
especially in the tenth century, 
actually any century will do.

Nork spills his seed in the wood.
Nork turns to Nanook
who’s younger and has a pleasingly symmetrical face:

Bend over and show me your buttocks, 
I know it’s cold but it won’t take long
and, you never know, you might like it. 
I have a hunch (says Nork)
your buttocks are kinder than a tree.

When the one-eyed Viking is sleeping
on the boat, just sleeping it would seem,
and a soupy mist clings to the water
let’s call it the whale road
the Christians think – We’ve got him,
let’s slit his throat and pour his heathen blood 

into the sea and Jesus will be happy and the mist 
will lift and we’ll reach Tel Aviv in an instant.

Who’ll do it? I’ll do it says this one.
No, I will, says another, getting up and un-sheathing 

his weapon. MISTAKE!

Even I know the one-eyed Viking isn’t
really sleeping, he sees with his inner eye 

and just as the man stoops the Viking has him.

There’s a boy who looks with awe.
The boy is safe because he’s just a boy
and he once gave the Viking something to eat. 

The boy knows what the man is thinking.
He’s an intelligent boy and no doubt will go far 

not that you can go that far in the tenth century 
although I suppose you could try Byzantium.

The one-eyed man fills the screen – 
we are looking at his face
there is in fact nothing else to look at 

not bad looking really
especially if you’re into one-eyed men. 
Oh sweet Viking!
There aren’t any flies on him.

But, look again, there are! Some Viking flies!

What thou lovest well remains/the rest is dross 
What thou lovest well is thy true heritage
What thou lovest well shall not be reft from thee.

I do in fact have the odd fly – 
not sure why, even in winter 
some fly flies in.

I don’t mind really.

It’s summer time, the flies come in 
doing nothing much.

You can’t boss flies:
listen up, do as I tell you, wing├Ęd thing.

It doesn’t work that way.

I live on Shirley High Street.
It’s terrible, the mutant mile.
Everyone limps, I limp too
to fit in, everyone limps on the mutant mile.

It’s very late:

Valhalla Rising has been going on for hours. 
This poem, too, is rather long.

The flies in my room are buzzing on the screen. 
The flies are saluting the one-eyed Viking. Careful: 
he might have you, snap, snap – nourishment.

I want to fly, should I take more Zoloft? 
My personal cut-price airline.

There are flies on both sides of the screen!

There are Viking flies circling the one-eyed Viking 
and there are flies at this end saluting their kinsfolk.
Humble Shirley flies, warrior Valhalla flies.

Everything has already happened, 
everything has been written.

Not this. Valhalla flies, the flies of Shirley.
A tryst of flies, the four horsemen, the four flies. 

I think the world is about to end, oh please let it.

I would like to go to bed. Where’s Nork?

Julian Stannard’s most recent collection is Heat Wave (Salt, 2020).

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