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Michael Schmidt: a poem

A Bright Jewel in an Aethiope's Ear

for John McAuliffe

That was Stockport. No one got off at Stockport.

It's after midnight. Very nearly home.

Are you awake still? I was saying,

Tone is part of content: for instance,

He's a person of integrity is one thing,

He's a person of "integrity" quite another.

A grimace is not a smile

Though it draws with the same twenty-six muscles.

Integrity, "integrity", suspend

Those earrings on each side of the word,

its face is altered.

Beauty means beauty, but "beauty"?

Every fissure in the makeup surfaces,

Parched map, parchment, it doesn't matter

If the earrings are dangly with seed pearls

Or hammered tin and sharp-edged glass.

It's dark out there:

Longsight, still as doom, or is that Heaton Chapel...

The train slows, stalls. It coughs and goes to sleep.

Are you awake?

Imagine being home already with

Your shrill Chihuahua, calmed after Harrington's

Turkey and Veg and her Dental Daily. You're prone

On the giant canvas bean-bag watching telly,

She's sound asleep above your stomach,

Curled up warm (so small)

With trust and custom on your sternum.

Imagine being at the office. It's tomorrow,

You've got your Danish and skinny latte from Prêt,

You chew crisp cinnamon and sip, stand at the floor

To ceiling window gazing at the crane-littered city,

Its erratic ups and downs, a crazy dazzle and

Some huge black and white clouds piled

Steep behind it with their rather more

Short-term, stormy version of the future.

(The boss is off in Dublin, no one's watching.)

What's the littlest thing

You can spin a poem out of,

What half-memory, blip or echo, mote?

The stillness of the train wedged in darkness,

A night-stifled suburb whose streets

Only vermin circulate, tired corpuscles

Carrying, carrying on, rats and mice, marking

B-roads for return to holes and burrows;

Foxes, jaded and ravenous, overturn bins,

Burst bags and scrabble, brushes tucked away;

Gaping, agog, citizens wheeze and snore,

Chugging darkness after making

Or thinking they've made careful love,

Dreaming of worlds they're saving up for, or will buy

When the postcode lottery knocks at the door.

And the homeless

Wait patient for us at Piccadilly Station

With paper cups and bulldogs, we're the last providers

Before they too turn in under the bridges.

My Fitbit's almost out of battery.

My phone is dead already and besides

It's too late to ring anyone but Stanley

And I have absolutely nothing to say to him.

The train sighs and considers

Is it time to move? It's time to move.

It does not move.

Are you awake still? I was saying

Tone is part of content. At this hour

And in this place, stuck on the rails like rust,

Tone is part of content, part of content.

Michael Schmidt was born in Mexico in 1947. He studied at Harvard and Oxford and has taught at Manchester University, University of Glasgow and elsewhere. As a literary historian his best-known books are Lives of the Poets (Knopf), The First Poets (Knopf), The Novel: a biography (Harvard University Press) and Gilgamesh: the Life of a Poem (Princeton University Press). He has edited several canonical and introductory anthologies. He is the Publisher at Carcanet Press and editor of PN Review. This poem is from his forthcoming collection, Talking to Stanley on the Telephone, which will be published by The Poetry Business on 1st March.


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