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This poem is taken from PN Review 222, Volume 41 Number 4, March - April 2015.

‘Knife’ and Other Prose Poems Rod Mengham

It has a broad axe shape, but is sliver-thin. Even at the blunt end, the ochre-coloured flint, smoothed and polished, is a slim-line product. It looks like a small spatula, and would be something of a puzzle to archaeology, but speculation is pointless, rendered futile at a touch. The obliging object tells the hand exactly where it wants to go.

As soon as I picked it up, the long haft made itself at home, slung between first finger and thumb on the elastic webbing of skin. The first fingerpad went straight to the back of the blade. After three thousand years of dumb neglect, the instrument was attuned, responsive, prompt to its ancient cue.

The leading edge is minutely pecked. Broken small craters, overlapping scoops, were quickly opened up in the glassy stone by the same degree of force aimed repeatedly, dozens of times, at the same hard margin of a few fingers’ breadth.

The life-knowledge of the flint-knapper dwells in the sparing of exertion at the very point of landing a blow. The effects of this knowledge, the depth and shape of indentations in the stone, are accordingly generic if not uniform. An even more precise and unthinking calculation is needed for end-on strokes that split the individual flint.

At some point the maker, under the spell of making, no longer sees the use to which the blade is put, seeing instead the bloom of a new shape begin to emerge from the flint’s uncertain depths. Sometimes this shape is only poorly divined, or glimpsed and avoided; sometimes it is nursed into life, by craftsmen who watch for the ideal form of knife-being, especially if this is a votive blade, intended for ritual deposit. Best of all is when the artist, setting his sights on perfect function, sees it rise above the horizon at the same point as beauty of form.

This tool for cutting was neither deposited nor lost. I think it was left beneath the roots of a broad oak with a clutter of flints, worked but unfinished, until the maker should return, and return soon. There it lay until the sea covered all the oaks whose stumps are now below the tides at Holme-next-the-Sea.

Lying there through storms that uncovered the massive inverted bole of roots at the centre of Seahenge, close by, it found another hand to belabour, to switch on, to gear up, when just enough sand had been swished aside for its pale surface to draw the eye.

It may never have been used, but was made for a hand that used others like it, and it would always transmit the same feeling for action, the same possible uses for butchery: severing, slicing, scraping. It was the lever between inner and outer worlds, it showed that the airs and waters, rocks and earth, moving and combining and resisting one another, obeying the spirits that ruled them, had their equivalent workings, their times of calm and upheaval, under the skin; in the wallowing lungs, the weeping flesh, the flowing heart, and in all the symmetries of bones and muscles, the asymmetries of lower organs, the random belt of the guts. It brought the cross-sections of life within grasp. Behind it, the physician’s trial and error, the surgeon’s initiative; the whole breathing, faltering body of science.

The Cloak

The most affecting stories of urban poverty – workers dying of cold, starving in basements – were penned by a neat bourgeois from a small town whose louvred windows were never opened wide on impulse; its aesthetic awareness was tailored by having to choose the right kind of paving slab, riven or smooth. The repair, maintenance, adornment, beautification of the urban fabric was discussed during evening passeggiate. The walking and talking was conducted through the main shopping thoroughfare, which itself became the focus for rival schemes of showy benefaction. In this way, the town acquired its world-famous drain covers. Their extravagant designs were meant to publicise the wealth of donors, but only put the lid on their stench.

Over time a faction emerged whose tastes drove them from the city when the hour came to share dreams or voice ambitions. They drifted towards the city walls and walked back and forth on the parapet, pointing out the beauties of the setting sun in its crossing of the mountains. They shunned the stagnant ditches, the culverts and sluggish canals that ran past their own homes, straining to catch a glimpse of far-flung rivers as they dropped to the sea. Before the writer of this story understood he was a writer, he kept company with these river-spotters and mountain-fanciers, praising the great variety of clouds that mantled distant crags as well as the constant mists rising from ancient lakes, until he had become thoroughly acquainted with the Sublime.

He tried the limits of this acquaintanceship through music, which came easily to him. His facility increased with tuition at the state conservatoire, and this took him to the provincial capital. Here all the temptations of the Sublime slowly and surely trickled away. Music swayed him with its harmonies, which brought every yearning for the unbounded within the measure of the human ear. Now the unknown spanned all the wavelengths of human and divine accomplishment. And striking the right note conveniently did not tie him down to specifics.

Nonetheless, the time came very soon for a dramatic change of key. It was during one of his periodic journeys home from the conservatoire that the composer-soon-to-be-a-writer spotted in the distance a man sitting by the dusty road that stretched out of view; as he drew closer, he realised the man was bent double heaving with sorrow. When he asked the matter, the man could not reply but pulled aside his cloak revealing a dead child. In horror, the writer found that he too was unable to speak.

When he understood that he was hearing nothing: nothing falling from the poor man’s lips; nothing from his own lips; nothing even from his own mind; the writer began to wonder about the quality of this nothing. The harmonies that had formed in the air around his every pulse of feeling – like clouds spinning themselves from the collision of warm and cool breezes – simply vanished. Music had been sucked into a void, with nothing to take its place.

Into this deadened world came the smallest flicker of life, like the flare of a match inside a blackened dome. It was the poor man’s voice, feeling its way in the dark towards the gossamer-like trance of words leading him almost against his will towards failing light. He began to tell his story – for the first and last time, since in the act of listening the writer could not help changing words, adding several details while leaving many out; and in general making the story his own; and the poor man perfectly realised this before laying his burden down.

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