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This article is taken from PN Review 260, Volume 47 Number 6, July - August 2021.

After Tony Harrison
Caitlin Stobie
Last May I cycled to the cemetery
to see old graffiti, the Vs, your task.
All I found was dog shit and dried lilies,
then drifting litter: a surgical mask.

Who am I to write this reply?
Thin slices of an accent, southerner
by way of Africa: best believe I,
too, hate grave advice from foreigners.

But someone has to start with the questions.
Again I try, fail, trying to go on.
Each year brings more floods and man-made seasons;
what if we united, but did it wrong?

Walking long ago, counting cracks, I asked
Why’s the street wet? to a boy from a band.
He pointed his free hand. A drunk’s turned back.
If you were a man, love, you’d understand.

On Saturdays all men came out alleys
to grope the slippery centre of Leeds.
The city’s never been so lively
we chanted, dodging vomit every week.

Tony, you know what’s meant when I say ‘all’
and ‘men’. For in the Brude and Chunk you’d see
– even in Wharf’s safest toilet stall –
them slits slashed clean between two widened Vs.

In ’85 it was swear words lads sprayed
round town. Now ‘cunt’ is on discount, reduced.
‘The versuses of life’, ‘man and wife’: splayed
like legs in the cubicle W.

They say in Shakespeare’s day, ‘cunt’ was ‘nothing’.
Lately, the male organ’s tune is the same.
Why else, when we protest, would some men sing
Not all? Their chorus is not to complain.

Worse still are the racists, the EDL
with their own slogans of ‘nothing’ and ‘not’.
All lives matter, they say, but they fear hell
is other people talking, taking their lot.

In the year of the rat, trafficked pangolins and bats,
lines between species were ever troubling
and as humans destroyed their habitats
the Vs and our visions were doubling.

It should not have taken a pandemic
to see that we need to set this right.
Yet between the blurring Vs came an epic
chorus chiming Not all! and Mine! Mine! Mine!

When you can’t walk at night without keys between your fists,
what do you rhyme that with?
Where can you wander without watchmen if you’re Black?
(The chorus warbles: Not all! Mine! Mine! Mine!)

We bicker and consumerist excess continues, the Vs are
Ws, too many to write –
when that man said You wouldn’t understand,
why did I not drop his hand?

Last May, I traced letters on graves. Cee, u, en, tee.
Much ado about the bard, in your poem, Tony,
but Shakespeare leads to one more query:
if ‘nothing’ is sacred, then what does that make me?

Laughter bloomed. You – you stupid animals,
cats-ears nodded as if to say,
you’re nowt special. Blood, meat, bones, minerals:
all beasts turn to feed when they decay.

Then it hit me: the double-u in nowt.
Same as millennials’ scrawl in toilets,
but the slashed command signified now

Like headstones leaning together, four lines
in a consonant, a cuss, or a poem
may remind us of the beasts inside –
or so I liked to hum as I headed home.

So home I ride – for some of us never
felt safe outside, for I am no bride, no double you
see (in my head the man says, ’n
anyway, love, how’s about you make tea).

No. Home to a room and view of my own,
to the place where I grandmother myself.
I doze in a rented room, alone,
old words of new worlds lining my bookshelf.

Reader, how will Leeds look next year?
When do death-tolls become a wake-up call?
When we rebuild, will we remember nowt?
Will nothing have changed at all? 

This article is taken from PN Review 260, Volume 47 Number 6, July - August 2021.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this article to
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