Here is the fourth poem in my 52-poem sequence (one a week) for 2013, followed by some illumination and reflection:
In the city of sleepwalkers
men and women move blindly
performing futile tasks with fidgeting fingers
talking gibberish at each other
never hearing their nonsensical replies
to unasked questions.
Were you to scream out loud in your sleep
would you wake up all the others?
and waking would they weep
with laughter or shame
to see their pinstripe pyjama nakedness?
whose imaginary goals and motivations
were only dreams becoming nightmares.
Not in the dead of night
but by a bright day’s sunlight
will you see them stumbling and stuttering
headlong into eternity.
Only when they lie down in beds
and close their sightless eyes
at close of day at night at last
will they meet the truth
and wait there
listening watching learning
When they get up again
they will have forgotten
I think I wrote this about six months into my first paid job, probably in winter, struck by the spectacle of all the moonlit office workers on their way to and from trains and buses in Glasgow. In my early twenties, and fresh from three years of university, I guess I was struck by the collision of all that idealism I had built up at Glasgow School of Art with the hard reality of all the desperately dull things that a hell of a lot of people have to fill their day with in order to make money. But it’s also about the triviality and inconsequentiality of most human conversation and interaction, and how no one makes us do that, we just do it to ourselves. We live as if life is a dress-rehearsal, as if there will be time to come by this way again, to say and do things better second-time around and apologise to those you hurt, or profess your love to those from whom you kept it hidden. But of course, this is the killer blow: there is no second-chance. We live every moment in pure opportunity, pure potential, pure terror. When I was young and lacking in self-confidence, I think the fear predominated. Now that I am older, I think I have learned to relish each moment and the chance it carries to reach out to other people and to touch them, wake them up to the world around them. We are all sleepwalkers, longing to be woken up by those around us.
My pinstripe metaphor in the second stanza refers to the pinstripe suits of office workers, but also to pinstripe pyjamas and thence, subliminally, to the uniforms of Auschwitz and Belsen, for anyone who lived through the twentieth century. So the poem connects the personal to the universal, to themes of death and political repression. I see that Paul Delvaux’s painting “The Worried City” (above) was painted in 1941, in the midst of World War Two. Everyone seems unknowingly naked in this picture apart from a few incongruously black-suited figures who make me think of Jung and Freud. I only found this painting two days ago, and yet it seems to fit my poem very well. I wonder if we have sometimes overlooked and misjudged Paul Delvaux a little, distracted by his realistic style and the frequent spectacle of nakedness, and whether it isn’t time to give his work a second look. J G Ballard was a big fan apparently. His real recurring subject upon closer examination, is not sex, but death and dreams.
I also attach to this post some paintings by George Grosz and Georgio De Chirico, which I had certainly seen before I wrote the poem and which have influenced me all my life. These haunting pictures were reactions to the increasing anonymity and dehumanization of society in the early twentieth century, and powerful warnings in a way of the horrors that were to come. But to say only that would be to badly underrate them of course. They also ask timeless questions about human identity and the peculiar relationship that we have to inanimate objects, how we invest everything around us with our own melancholy and longing, which is the essence of poetry.