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Mark Russell: three poems

Vahni Capildeo

I am in the outer office of the Desert Island Discs studio waiting to record my episode. One of the young producers comes in and asks me if my name is Terence Rattigan. I say no, and that I think Mr Rattigan died in the late 1970s. "Oh, that's a shame", he says, scratching his head and writing something on the back of his hand. I say I wonder if I could have books instead of records. "It's just a bit of fun, silly", he says. I want to admonish him for his rudeness, but he's young and clearly out of his depth. "Why don't you go on in, anyway", he says, opening the door for me. I smile at the presenter and put on my headphones. "My guest this morning is the playwright and bon viveur, Terence Rattigan", she says by way of introduction. I try to mouth the words,"I'm not Terence Rattigan", but she waves her hand at me and asks for my first record. "Well Lynzey, I can't have books, can I?" Lynzey shakes her head. "So I've had the complete works of Vahni Capildeo recorded by Vahni Capildeo. I went to a studio and had a limited edition vinyl pressing made. It was very costly, but I may never be rescued from the island. I have to prepare for my very own New Jerusalem, you know what I mean?" Lynzey is silent, her eyes wide. It isn't good radio. "You know, like the Plain of the Blessed? The Great Hall of the Slain?" Lynzey's face is turning red. "The Garden of Eden? The Resting Place of Arthur? Celtic Park?" Lynzey makes a circular motion above her head with her index finger, slides up some faders on her console, and the studio is filled with the crazed synth-disco pizzazz of "The Number One Song In Heaven" by Sparks. "Dear God!" Lynzey says, throwing her chair against the wall. "A bit of chit-chat, some pop songs. What the hell's wrong with you?" I try to keep my composure. "Vahni Capildeo is the foremost poet writing in the English language", I say. Lynzey freezes. "What the fuck are you talking about? It's just a bit of fun!" It isn't going well. I quickly begin to think of eight songs to replace my self-funded vinyl pressings of Vahni, Anne Carson, and all the others. If it continues to go badly, it's a relief to realise that everybody will blame the long-dead Terence Rattigan.

Personal Best

My new trainers are very comfortable. They have a flash of pink through the ankle bone area and I swear it makes me run faster. On Monday they took me way past the bus stop. I usually rest there and pretend to be waiting for the 105. As I passed, Mrs Armitage waved and tried to say something, but I was racing at such a lick she just held onto her scarf and new hairdo and smiled. I was soon out of the village and onto the dark carriageway. A fleet of nondescript saloons belted past me. All the drivers and their passengers leant out of their windows and honked their horns. "Yes! Well done!" they yelled at me. It began to rain and I had no hat, but my feet drove me onward. Before long I was approaching the bridge. Beyond it, the lights of the city danced and winked and beckoned me forward. A skein of geese flew over on their way to Norway. One of them dropped a wide-brimmed fedora which landed snug on my head. "It's a perfect fit!", I shouted, and they honked too. As I reached the city centre, marshals lined the streets with tables and advertising. They handed me water and sugary drinks, bananas, maps, anything I wanted. "How far is it to the end?" I called to one marshal, who seemed to be trying to sketch me in charcoal as I rounded the corner near the hospital. "Fuck knows!" he said, and threw confetti over me. When I hit the motorway, the sign said there were twenty-six miles to the next town. I tried to text my friends and family to say that it's OK, the next town is filled with lovely people, that tomorrow can be better but that we have to run at it to make it so, and that I might be late home. But my hands were unsteady. Goodness only knows what message I sent them.

Feast Day

We are allowed to spend an hour outside, doing almost anything we want. Axel is told he can't kill anybody, and, though disappointed, he understands. Most of the guys amble off to the lake, slow and heavy, lifting their feet clear then planting them firmly. After a couple of cigarettes and some horseplay, the others go back inside. I want to stay for a while, take in the mountains, the birdsong. A child, no more than five or six, runs out of the woods toward me. Birds rise wearily to nearby branches. The boy's family scramble out of the thicket, unconcerned by his behaviour. He takes a carrot from his pocket and stuffs it in my mouth. I spit it out and throw off my snow-covered balaclava. "What are you doing?" I say. His eyes are wide and his speech hoarse. "Mum", he says, pointing at me. "A talking snowman." The boy's mother screams and runs to him. The father pulls a shotgun from the sleeve of his big, black coat. "Listen", I say to him. "If you pull that trigger, my friend Axel will be here in eight seconds. He'll butcher your family and make you watch." The man begins to shake. I can see his eyes well up. "But it's Christmas", he says. "Shoot him, Jay", his wife says. "Mummy, you can't shoot a snowman", the boy says. She picks up the boy and holds him out toward her husband. "And then shoot this one", she says.

Mark Russell has published two full collections and five pamphlets, the latest being o (the book of gatherings) with Red Ceilings. He won the 2020 Magma Poetry Judge’s Prize, and his poems have appeared in Stand, Shearsman, The Manchester Review, Tears in the Fence, Poetry Birmingham Literary Journal, One Hand Clapping, Blackbox Manifold, and elsewhere.

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