Most Read... Rebecca WattsThe Cult of the Noble Amateur
(PN Review 239)
John McAuliffeBill Manhire in Conversation with John McAuliffe
(PN Review 259)
Eavan BolandA Lyric Voice at Bay
(PN Review 121)
Vahni CapildeoOn Judging Prizes, & Reading More than Six Really Good Books
(PN Review 237)
Patricia CraigVal Warner: A Reminiscence
(PN Review 259)
Tim Parksin conversation with Natalia Ginzburg
(PN Review 49)
Next Issue James K. Baxter, Uncollected Poems Rod Mengham, Last Exit for the Revolution Stav Poleg, The Citadel of the Mind Jena Schmitt, Resting Places: The Writing-Life F Friederike Mayrocker Wayne Hill, Poems
Poems Articles Interviews Reports Reviews Contributors
PN Review 275
PN Review Substack

This poem is taken from PN Review 275, Volume 50 Number 3, January - February 2024.

The City, an Argument James Womack
I.
Beloved, the city curves as a sickle. Politicians have written rhapsodies to its impermanence, its occasional gross expansions. Month on month the city drags the sea close into its formal harbours and casual inlets. An odd kind of embrace followed soon after by predictable rejection. The walls do not yield.
Beloved, the city does not stay still. Where was wasteland a month ago now a suburb: uninhabited, pristine, bright. The arterial roads mirage from the sun. The direction of travel is not yet determined. Running to or running away. A liquid, it fills all available space. Alleyways writhe and cross.
Beloved, the city knows its worth. No traveller comes here but is informed of this fact. Chauvinism shades into a kind of weeping arrogance. Microcosm, every barrio believes itself better than the others. After the match each weekend there is always violence. This is not unusual. A boy is stabbed.
Beloved, the city is still a child. Incontinent, satisfied with a breast and a swaddled bed. Useless from labour. Useless for work. The city does nothing: it takes and grows. The city has your eyes. We look at the city with the love we cannot spare for our own children.
Beloved, the city is sexless. The ripe displays of our childhood have disappeared. A new louder kind of innocence. Mystics and stylites have a vocabulary we cannot coincide. Vows are asked of them. To flee in a desert the approach of mankind. The city asks no new vows of us.
Beloved, in a mirror the city confuses us. We never invited mirror trust. It seems a test of some kind. To have your own face given back to you upside-down. Your teeth where your windows should be. Roads instead of the tight squirms and curls of a more legitimate brain.
Beloved, the city wakes up after the weekend. The city is in the corner of your eye. You hope that some fragment of the dead days will survive. An abandoned high-heel shoe. An abandoned pint glass of shocking orange urine. Full of commuters an abandoned train passes over a bridge.

II.
Beloved, the city is nothing if not just. A single glance, the wrong word at the wrong time means honour must be satisfied. Duels, rapier or pistol, take place on the dusty backlots. When the city is called to join our larger wars, then all personal affronts are temporarily abandoned.
Beloved, the city splits and runs like a silver ball. Touched it does nothing other than yield, for all that we wish it to resist. In the harshest winters it moves sluggishly. In high summer it hurtles around like a mad thing, separating and resolving into grand bridges and towers.
Beloved, the city makes great claims for its intellect. Coupled with a certain moral flexibility, this has led to its current line of work. The machine works slowly but is always effective. Shipping movements are relayed to its superiors. Blood bubbles out and drips from the side of its head.
Beloved, the city feeds itself. It can nourish itself on perfumes – road tar and frying fish, the sweat and Chanel of summer – as well as the more recognisable steaks and garbage. Roles forced upon us. We are à la carte anatomists. This is not just food. It is unjust food.
Beloved, there are times when the city is generous. The tables spread to groaning. The mother runs unchallenged from the corner shop, her child both shield and excuse of the tins stashed under the pushchair. Pavements split with dandelions, purslane. Feast at the corner where dogs piss. Burdock and bedstraw.
Beloved, the city can never say it is sated. Ephemera we think we lose are never fully vanished. The scroll of a price tag picked off and rolled away. The playing cards spilled from a window. Flirtatious auto-destruct online messages. The city gathers it all, the city always wants more.
Beloved, the city shows its morning face. That noise the grim of adolescent complaint, the background hum of everything not being perfect. Shells and slime! Move it, move it! A step slower than our slowest participant. Industrial concrete suddenly an object of deep interest. The end of it an education.

III.
Beloved, a city for lovers. Lovers congregate at sites of least offensive photographic interest. Bridges collapse under the weight of padlocks. A single man cannot move from the hospital to the churchyard unless he elbow himself past crowds of the infatuated. Buses arrive daily on swift turnarounds. Open for business.
Beloved, the city is an undelivered city of messengers. News is borne from the northern hills to the curve of the central river, in the movement of an eye and the turn of a hand. All is information, messages transmitted and eternally received. A letter always arrives at its destination.
Beloved, your city is an angry city. Peevish even before the morning fog has been burned away, we notice the first signs in earbud executives, their wasp-sharp faces. One spark could set the Whole. Thing. Off. A man jostled at the wrong moment, a car changing lanes. Don’t touch me!
Beloved, the city is a clamshell on the waves. There was land, and then there was hell, and then there was the eternal city. Born naked. It drives you mad, the city, that itch at the edge of your waking mind. No way but this. When desire fades, you weep.
Beloved, the city can restrain itself. Gourmet and not gourmand, we are invited to know the city as a set of experiences, of visits to the planetarium, the pumping station, the light on the sandy college walls, wondering if here, here will be a first kiss, a first brief declaration.
Beloved, this week’s monster is the city. Baleen-mouthed, it battens on the excreta of its parasites, our abandoned residue, gorging itself on grease and turds, wet-wipes and condoms, slow water and the unbearable rush of the tunnel bore. You know this sick greed, the squabble to consume, vomit, consume again.
Beloved, the city eats and shits its citizens. One glorious morning! Our impedimenta tied in a handkerchief, stick slung over our shoulder, we arrive and see the skyline awaken before us in its watercolour gold. No illusion can hold this back: each tower is hard enamel, mouth whole, tongue river.

IV.
Beloved, the city is always upwards. Complaints no longer reach the tops of the tallest buildings. The skyline that so impressed our ancestors is seen now as prelude. The future tall, a ladder to the moon. Glass and steel hacked from the Welsh mines, dragged overland at immense human cost.
Beloved, the city blows a trumpet. Boots and saddles. Drop everything and prepare for war. There on the coast the enemy hordes, weapons concealed in torn canvas bags, their uniform ragged, their pockets empty, most of them dead. The survivors disguised as women and children. As expected, we shall resist.
Beloved, the city this morning looks cruel. Her lip a harsh slash of Rouge Diabolique, her eyes defined into oblivion. Sometimes one dresses to impress, sometimes one must dress to intimidate. Makeup is an environment. Even the clouds seem to catch themselves and redress. Even the clouds, even the rain.
Beloved, the city is a noted carouser. Drink so deep from the ramshorn that the seas sink and drowned villages rise above the waves. Eat so greedily that the plates themselves are consumed. Relax with one final sherry in the Senior Common Room, the World Serpent purring at your feet.
Beloved, the city is an ant-nest miracle. From the gritted outyards to the nucleus, that black hole which drags everything – mostly money – into its orbit, each eusocial part seems to work for the good of the whole. What a fine place to sink into, one might think, sinking irreparably in.
Beloved, there are no other cities. None at least that compare with this one. The hamlets and hovels which surround us can only dream of their submission or incorporation. The height of yearning, to be one day suburbia. Parkway. Golf course. What we are owed is only what we deserve.
Beloved, there is no way to look directly at the city. Spend too long with your eyes open, and you will no longer see colours. All will fade to a forgetful grey, and the soft faces of those who walk towards you will seem indeterminate, the faces of the dead.

V.
Beloved, the city just wants to be touched, or believes it wants to be touched. Although, if it is touched, the slightest contact will snail it back into its home. It is easy to offend the city. Imagined slights become vast bubbles. I thought you were such a good friend.
Beloved, the city has been caught in flagrante, its dick in the pie. You can understand the temptation, but such invitations should be resisted. The chiselled boulevards, the air and delicacy of the parks, all swaying together in a single inescapable net. The rest of the pantheon invited to mock.
Beloved, is the city implacable? Are we no more than some great Bedlam, where our crimes are on display alongside our foibles, and the gross public uses us as a Sunday afternoon excursion? Is the Casa Mila a source of innocent merriment? Is there balance, or justice? Is there sickness?
Beloved, the city invites us to pursue her, right to the doors of her many bedchambers. A question, in this brave world of questions: when is the right moment to abandon the chase? Our deserts, the gratification of these desires – the city turns to us and never seems so beautiful.
Beloved, the city knows empathy can be fatal. Is there anything worse than the way certain stories end? I know what you’re going through. Come, sit next to me. Poor child. There is manipulation in the city’s kindness, just as there can be a degree of innocence in her anger.
Beloved, the city reaches into the ricebowl with almost delicate fingers. Sorts the grain from the maggots, divides what will be left from what is to be consumed. A handful of that writhing protein, that gives you soul in your mouth. Void heart. King soul. Our customs are not yours.
Beloved, the end of the city is upon us. The sharp shadow decadence that overcomes her every seven days. ‘This is a kind of marriage,’ we once thought, equating partnership with surrender. A two days’ wonder. The blurred head of the morning after; the life of the world to come.

VI.
Beloved, the city only sometimes hurries to life. Crowds gather like sunspots at the naos. A hundred myriad people, men and boys, follow the swings and cycles. I lived close to this temple once, and could hear nothing from my lover’s shuttered window. This does not mean that nothing happened.
Beloved, the city low-key flicks v-signs at hearses. A family of ten children is common and supported by the state. Everyone will live forever is the general tenor of things. The Year 6 Parents WhatsApp group is the place to hunt for resources: flat-front grey cotton trousers; a solid-state orthicon.
Beloved, the city doesn’t want to hear this. Furious mothers calling their children home in the mid-afternoon, the siesta ruptured, the panic setting in to their voices. All the children hurried in from the streets, the parks left in the burning sun, an ice-cream van calling uselessly across the tarmac.
Beloved, in the hills around the city a storm has flourished for the past three and a half centuries. Travellers speak of dust clouds and an intense suffocating heat, something under the ground that groans and curses. A space of withered trees and abandoned settlements it is impolite to discuss.
Beloved, the city is a trapdoor spider. That tribe which Walckenaer has named vagrants. From a little cell formed of the rolled up leaf of a plant, it darts upon any insect which happens to pass. The city and its affinities conceal themselves in a long cylindrical straight silken tube.
Beloved, there is a knock at the city gate. Feet shuffle towards the barred wooden wicket. The peephole – it is late at night – swings open, with a faint yellow light behind it. The lockkeeper voice that asks your business is querulous, ancient. For an old man to have such power.
Beloved, the city is hungry, hungry beyond need. It eats what it wants, and whatever it does not want. Touch it: the city will have you in its mouth forever. You are not entrapped to your return: instead – all the better to eat you with – it’s love that calls you.

VII.
Beloved, the city will do nothing. I passed one of its gardens, and saw the wild roses grow, the thorn and the unkempt thistle spread and stretch. It tells you its dreams, and talks of food and drink: an animal life. Laziness by what authority? The city has no scripture.
Beloved, the city opens and breathes. You can say to yourself ‘Well I give what I give’; the relationship is always uneven. Saints and ascetics are donors above us, but net recipients even they. Six o’clock in the afternoon approaches: what have we done to earn this calm, these bells?
Beloved, the city has been petulant, has soldiered, has set itself above us all. And what of it? Now she is small and new-unknowledged, curled asleep on a beanbag. Her face has relaxed into the speaking mask of all children; as a mind builds behind it, and all we owe.
Beloved, the city invites us to this square. Walk the length of one side: the sheltered one. Perfumeries and sweet shops. Quarter turn. Walk, pausadamente. Quarter turn. Walk, exhaling. High-end boutiques and hat stalls. Quarter turn. Pausadamente, again. You are both where you began, and five hundred yards further on.
Beloved, the city of all things is the smallest. A nothing in permanent harsh light. To look at, barely more than a grain, subdued and uncommunicative. The Tsar once offered a prize to anyone who could measure the city, a prize which remained unclaimed at the time of his death.
Beloved, there remains one barrier to victory over the city. Anti-climb paint and cacti spikes. Every day more people make the attempt. I saw wounds to hands and feet, the side, the head. I saw one arm, skin split like a torsioning weisswurst; its owner a mute and dazed fourteen-year-old.
Beloved, there is a softening in the city. Grey hair forms rings around her head, around his head (for what pronouns the city has!). This skin has survived intact, and is now soft as shammy-leather. Strange and expensive ointments, applied daily, over the course of several lustra. You may touch.

VIII.
Tenella! Tenella! Tenella!
...


Searching, please wait... animated waiting image