On Trust: A Book of Lies

Womack, On Trust, front cover

It’s difficult to know just how much you should blow your own trumpet when trying to make people read your books. I suppose there’s no right answer, and the apparently modest assertion that the work will if good enough find its own readers is arrogant as well; arrogant in a different way from the idea that you should shout from the rooftops and expect people to listen, but arrogant nonetheless.

Anyway, the last thing I want this post to do is come across as arrogant. But, I do need to show thanks to a number of people who have been kind enough to say things about my new book, On Trust: A Book of Lies, and whose testimonials haven’t, for whatever reason, been used on the book itself or in much of the supporting material sent out to booksellers. So, I will post them here, mainly as a way of saying thank you to the people who have spent time and energy saying pleasant things about me, and whose time and energy would otherwise have gone to waste.

‘What Promethean splendour! This fictional self is decked out in dick jokes, tenderness and all the latent eroticism of a Ferrero Rocher advert. Settle down in the back, there. Womack is talking.’

This from Chrissy Williams, whose first book, Bear, came out earlier this year from Bloodaxe.

‘Whether writing about love, fatherhood, alienation or watching beheading videos on Youtube, Womack writes uniquely and playfully like the lovechild of Lorca and P. G. Wodehouse might – ‘always cakewalking on the edge of the abyss’.
‘On Trust’ directly questions the nature of confession and how perhaps all of us are editing our lives away; ‘my mouth was closed up/ my lips were sewn with strange thread’. Here is a writer who is skilfully anti-biographical and potent – ‘An invisible man sleeping in your bed’ – always creeping closer and closer towards our anxieties. He is both confidant and manipulator; ‘pour me a beer’, he writes, ‘and I’ll remember my geography’.
Womack’s slippery and charming collection – ‘I repeat, any writing has no single author’ – constantly challenges our very human need to hunt for the honest and the confessional in poetry. Whilst strip-mining this search for his own poetry, Womack, reveals himself to be a thoroughly talented troublemaker.’

This from Richard Scott, who won the Michael Marks Poetry Award for his pamphlet Wound in 2016. His as-yet-untitled first collection will be coming out from Faber&Faber in 2018.

‘In James Womack’s excellent new collection On Trust the poet is not the speaker but a weaver of stories and selves: “This is a book of lies; these notes are true.” The dynamic between memory and fiction makes for bright, observant and richly wry poems; but also for poems of melancholy, damage and separation. This is an intense, spirited and brilliantly-structured book.’

This from David Morley, whose new book, The Magic of What’s There, will be out next month from Carcanet.

So, to the three of them, thank you. I am always touched by the extent to which people are willing to go out of their way to help and support one another. (Of course, if any of what they say makes you feel like buying my book, then that is an added bonus.)

One thing I should add is that my friendships with Richard and Chrissy derive from our having participated in the Aldeburgh Eight Seminar, way back in 2013. This has been to date the most significant and confidence-boosting event connected to my writing, and it is a real shame that it no longer exists.

 

Translation as Transhumance

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This is a photo of the transhumancia, which is the custom of driving flocks from summer grazing to winter pastures. It has recently been reestablished in the area surrounding Madrid, and the flocks are symbolically driven through the centre of the city at some point in the middle of October.

Cécile Menon, the brain behind the publishing house Les Fugitives (apparently delivery drivers ring the office bell and ask if Les is at home), sent me their latest book, Translation as Transhumance, a translation, by Ros Schwartz, of Mireille Gansel‘s Traduire comme transhumer.

It is rare that I get to write about things that I uncomplicatedly love. Maybe this is because love is always complicated; maybe it’s also because there’s not that much out there worth loving. But this was a book which I loved. It is a series of short chapters, half-reminiscence, half-philosophy, about translation, and about the care which all true translation requires. I love it because it appeals to the Romantic idea of the translator, the single figure swimming down into other worlds and coming back with her hands full of pearls, and I love it because it is unafraid to show that translation is a very personal act, connected to how we learn to speak, how we learn to fall into language, how our childhood and our families organise our responses and our lives in ways far beyond our awareness.

Ah, maybe one reason why I don’t write about things I love is because it is hard to talk about them. Well, it’s a wonderful book, and I recommend it to anyone who is interested in translation, or words, or other people.

Human Rights in Turkmenistan

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The most famous thing that W.H. Auden said was probably ‘Poetry makes nothing happen’. It’s a line that’s often produced as a justification for inaction, or else an attack on the idea of poetry. Why are you wasting your time with this, when poetry makes nothing happen? The problem is that it’s a cut-off quote: it comes from Auden’s ‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats‘, and the relevant section of the poem runs as follows:

You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

So, poetry is not a force for change. Writing about mad Ireland will not make Ireland less mad; writing about the rain will not stop the rain from falling. This is obvious. What happens next is less obvious and more hopeful. Poetry survives. It is immune to political interference. It travels from the basic springs of human experience, the ‘Raw towns that we believe and die in’ (hey, nice zeugma!) and makes its presence felt subtly: it is ‘A way of happening, a mouth’. Poetry does not die, and its effect is not immediately and bluntly transformative; rather it is inscribed in the way in which we exist and interact with the world. Not for nothing did Yuri Olesha say that writers are the ‘инженеры человеческих душ‘ (engineers of human souls): a writer is not focussed on achieving particular goals, but instead works to change the ways in which people approach the world. Ways of happening.

All of which takes me to the question of what I did on my holidays. A few months ago, my friend Ivar, who works for the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, wrote to me with an odd request. He was on an organising group, working with the human rights non-profit Crude Accountability to support the Prove They Are Alive! campaign, which lobbies the Turkmen government on behalf of the political prisoners currently incarcerated there. According to the campaign organisers, there are currently 112 individuals who have been disappeared into the Turkmen prison system and who are held there without any access to lawyers, their families, or any external institutions at all. For many of these prisoners, it is not known if they are alive or dead; the natural, sad conclusion for many of them is that they are dead.

In 2004, a number of poems by the former Turkmen Foreign Minister, Batyr Berdyev, were smuggled out of prison and out of the country. He had been arrested in December 2002 and accused of taking part in a coup attempt against the then president, Saparmurat Niyazov. There had been occasional rumours that he was still alive, but nothing since 2007, when the new president of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, said in response to a question about Berdyev’s whereabouts that he was sure he had not died. However, these poems are the only concrete indications that Berdyev was alive, and they date back more than a decade.

The Prove They Are Alive! campaign decided to use these poems as a tool to increase public knowledge of the situation in Turkmenistan. They prepared a translation, which Ivar arranged for me to have a look at and work on, and they launched it at the OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting 2017, which is still taking place in Warsaw as I write this. It’s a human rights conference; I was told that some parties did not like the phrase ‘human rights’, hence the unwieldy official title. Whatever brings people together.

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So, I went to Warsaw. The book was launched in the early-evening slot at the conference, in a room high up the Polish national stadium, which my friend Jon told me used to be a large Russian bazaar. Appropriate-ish. There were four of us to launch the book: Arkady Dubnov, a journalist and expert on Central Asia, who wrote the introduction and who spoke about the current situation in Turkmenistan; me, who spoke a little about how ‘poems from prison’ is an unfortunately prevalent genre in Russian-language writing (I also got to quote Mandelshtam’s delicate statement to his wife: ‘Чего ты жалуешься, поэзию уважают только у нас — за неё убивают’); Janice Helwig, who had known Batyr in Vienna, and who was able to speak about him in warm and personal terms, and Yuri Dzhibladze, who was able to speak about how the Prove They Are Alive! campaign was progressing and what its next steps would be. The meeting was bookended and interspersed with readings of Batyr’s poems in their original Russian and in translation: they are all poems addressed to his wife and son, all trying to create a possible escapist world in words which counter the situation in which he has been placed. Afterwards there were contributions from the floor: it turned out that a large proportion of the audience had direct experience of what it meant to be in a Turkmen prison.

I don’t have much direct experience of human rights activism, but the impression I have is of water gradually eroding a stone. Or else of ants eating a gecko. If it’s done right. Hundreds of tiny actions, or actions which appear tiny at the moment of their performance, but which add up to greater achievements. The gecko is eventually broken down and removed. This book is a small step in the right direction: it has already been sent to various people and their reactions have been largely positive. It is an odd feeling to be told that work you have looked at, had a hand in translating, has made ambassadors feel uncomfortable, has inspired people to think in new ways, and may at some point in the future form some small part in catalysing change. I am not silly enough to think that this book in itself is going to change the world: poetry makes nothing happen, after all. But it might be helpful in performing a kind of small stealthy reassessment of ideas and approaches to this part of the world.

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I think this is my favourite of Batyr’s poems. The translation I worked on, slightly altered, is below.

Who said that hope dies last,
When all the bustle, and waiting, and living is over?
If souls are immortal, then the mediator
Between us and heaven is immortal,
And all that has happened might as well not be true.
What has happened to us, even the most trifling thing,
Will be entered somewhere in fate’s registry book,
And elsewhere, probably, our unfulfilled dreams
Will be recalled, woven into someone’s life.
And when we leave our house, where everything is so familiar
The vase of flowers, the worn-out carpet
The shadow of our quiet hope will stay at home,
Reflected in the eyes of those who remember us.
And life will continue, just as our own life did once,
And other songs will of course be sung;
Though human hearts, the soldiers of hope,
Will always again and again both suffer and dream.
And when our son looks up with radiant anticipation,
Sure that today his dreams will suddenly come true,
The hopes of every single age gone by
Are harboured in the depths of that sly glance.

The whole of the book can be read here.

 

Albanian Literature, Man

A few weeks ago, I bought a book, Albanian Literature, by S.E. Mann. I partly bought it because I know nothing about Albanian literature, and partly because the text on the spine looked to me like the name of a particularly unlikely superhero.

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Anyhow, it’s a marvellous book. First published in 1955, it is a detailed and witty summary, from the soup of c.1400 to the nuts of 1950, of the whole literature of Albania and the Albanian diaspora, all the Tosk and Geg a man might ever need.

Highlights:

[On Gjul Variboba’s Gjella e Shën Mëris, 1762.] Picturesque details from the poet’s Calabrian homeland are woven into the Bible narrative, and the imagery is at all times homely and vivid, if occasionally naïve and irrelevant. This the Immaculate Conception is likened to a ray of sunshine entering a room and falling on to a mirror. Mary is portrayed spending a whole night embroidering a swaddling-cloth before her long journey to Jerusalem, and putting three home-made cakes among the baby-clothes. The journey is made through snow, rain and wind. On arrival at the Bethlehem stable Joseph makes a fire, but the fire smokes and refuses to burn. Mary, ignorant of laundry-work, nevertheless settles down to a day’s washing. A local motive is introduced when, after the birth, adoring shepherds perform the traditional Calabrian springtime dances to a flute, and depart wassailing through the village and singing hymns in the local folksong rhythm. The gifts which are brought to the Christchild are those appropriate to an Albanian child of noble birth: a black-lipped kid, a horse, a wild pigeon, a cockerel, a capon, a peacock, finches, blackbirds, and gifts of food and clothing.

[On Konstantin Kristoforidhi (1827-1895).] The pattern of his life had already been set by a slight work entitled Catechism for Little Boys (Istanbul, 1867), an illustrated primer written in Lepsius’s phonetics. This was followed in 1872 by a primer in Tosk dialect based on an English original, and designed to teach reading and inculcate morals at the same time. Here appears Kristoforidhi’s only poem Star High in the Sky (Ylli nalt në Qiell), a piece without literary merit.

[On Pashko Vasa Shkodrani (1827-1892).] Pashko Vasa’s literary work is slight, and includes an appendix to Sami Frashëri’s Primer bearing the title Albania and the Albanians, an Albanian Grammar in French (London, 1887), and some patriotic verse. One long poem, Oh Albania, Poor Albania, was written for Jarník’s Albanian Language Study. It is trite, lacks originality, and does not scan.

And finally, a poem by Jeronim de Rada (1813-1903).

Where Did The Orange Tree Grow?

Oh, the orange tree! Where was she born?
She was born down by the sea.
Did she grow strong or did she wilt?
Nobody cared but the master’s daughter.

The master’s daughter came every morning;
Came to tend the tree, bring her water,
And before long, to sing to her too:

Grow, orange tree, grow for me;
Grow leaves and strong branches;
Make a deep shade with your branches,
Shade where a prince and princess might sit.

The tree was unimportant,
But the shade she gave was fine and thick.
And it was at her feet that the master
Set the table for his only daughter’s wedding.

At the marriage, lords and ladies
Gathered round, sat on silk carpets.
Servants stood waiting
With their caps in their hands.
Musicians played their zithers
While everyone ate and drank.
The lords had knives in their belts;
The ladies sat with their daughters:
A daughter, young and fresh, for each lady,
And a handsome man for each daughter.
Every girl held a ring,
And every boy held an orange…
And the breeze blew from the sea.  

Edges

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I’m reading V.S Naipaul’s A Turn in the South (1989). He’s someone I like when I read him, but whenever I finish reading a book by him, I’m quite happy to wait three or four years before the next one. But this is good (or good so far, I’m only about eighty pages into it): a travel book about the American South. I came across this passage which I liked a lot.
The party was ‘Southern’ in its motifs. A Confederate flag fluttered in the sunlight on the rough field between the woods. a skinned pig, fixed in the posture of a hurdler, had been roasting all day, held on poles a little to one side of slow-burning hardwood logs. (On a table were more contemporary fast foods and dips and things in waxed paper.) And a band played bluegrass music from the wooden hut. Flag, pig, music: things from the past. The musical instruments were big, the music simple and repetitive. I was told it was the words of the songs that mattered. The accents were not easy for me to follow; but the effect, especially from a little distance, of the unamplified music and singing in that enclosed green space was pleasant.
Our hostess said, ‘Indians might have lived here.’
With that idea of being in the American wilderness, I felt a chill, thinking of them in this green land with its protective slopes, its shade, and rivers. Later I learned the ground was full of flint arrowheads.
It was in this setting, with the bluegrass music coming from the wooden hut, that I heard about the religious faith and identity of the people who had come after the Indians. And I had a sense of the history here resting layer upon layer. The Indians, disappearing after centuries; the poor whites; the blacks; the war and all that had come after; and now the need everyone felt, black and white, poor and not so poor, everyone in his own way, to save his soul.
The musicians were young and friendly; there was a girl among them. When they finished they put their big instruments in their truck and went away. When the sun went down there was no wind; the flag drooped. It became cold very quickly; it was still only spring.
I read these five paragraphs once and again (it was late, and I was a little sleepy, and was regularly distracted by Oli and his dinosaurs), and started to turn them into a poem in my mind. They work very well as a poem: they set up a scene and bring us into it and take us out of it without staying long enough to make us bored; they gesture at a history and a world beyond the immediate confines of the text; they create ambiguities out of significant yet simple details. I kept on thinking of it as one of those foursquare poems that Randall Jarrell might have written: a woozy garden scene with death nipping at the edges.
And then I thought, and am still thinking, that poetry needs to be more than this. This passage works as a poem, but it is quite clearly not a poem. If nothing else, I have taken it out of its surrounding context in order to put it into its own internal web of connections and references. It’s a cheat to give it to you like this and say ‘This is Naipaul’s poem’. Death nipping at the edges: Naipaul’s original has different edges, or no edges at all. I once heard a professional critic say that he had spent a lifetime trying to define poetry and had come to the conclusion that it was unjustified margins that made a poem a poem. He had tenure, so could afford to be radical, but this passage is a good example. Poetry is about positioning. Sleepy thought for the morning.

All Summers…

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I promised / threatened in my last that I would write a little bit more about one poem I read at a few events over the past couple of months. The poem in question:

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Poems never finished, always abandoned, &c. So, this is a snapshot of what this particular poem looks like today (and looked like, more or less, on 17 June, the last time I read it in public).

‘I remember saying once, I can’t understand these chaps who go round American universities explaining how they write poems; it’s like going round explaining how you sleep with your wife.’ Philip Larkin’s interview in The Paris Review, 1982. I agree with this; I don’t want to write about the process of writing, partly because I don’t think there’s a great deal that I can say about it (aside from the fact that it probably looks more or less the same, degrees of fluency and speed aside, no matter who is writing), and partly because it is precisely this, the process of writing, which is the most convoluted and incoherent part (mystical, if you want to put it like that; unconscious, if you want to put it like that; instinctive, if you want to put it like that) of the whole thing.

So, what I will put here, without trying to explain why I used them, or why I have put them in the order I have, are some of the references, ideas etcetera that make up this poem.

Title: ‘All Summers…’ This is a reference to the comedy series Goodness Gracious Me, the character of the father who claims that everything in the world is Indian. So, an oblique call-out to the phrase ‘Indian summer’.

Line 1. ‘From here, the sun is broad as a human foot’. Heraclitus of Ephesus, as recorded in Aëtius, Opinions of the Philosophers. (But actually found in the invaluable collection The first Philosophers: The Presocratics and the Sophists (trans. Robin Waterfield, Oxford, OUP 2000). The same Heraclitus who told T.S. Eliot that the road up and the road down were one and the same at the beginning of the Four Quartets.)

Line 2. ‘Red wine in your fridge’. It was hot when I wrote this poem and we had to keep the red wine in the fridge. Who says explanation never elucidates?

Line 4. ‘the man who was fucking his sister’. This is a nastier version of this sketch, which I like a great deal. I liked finding a way to be nastier than it, as well.

Line 6. ‘A provincial anecdote’. There is a play by the great Soviet Russian author Aleksandr Vampilov (1937-72), one of my favourite writers, called Провинциальные анекдоты (Provincial Anecdotes, 1968). The phrase must have come from there.

Line 7. ‘normal people need draft after draft’. This was another reference to Russian literature when I first started writing the poem. The original line read ‘Isaak Babel needed draft after draft’, but I thought that the reference to Babel made an already unclear poem even more unclear. The change is absolute: Babel was the least normal of people.

Line 10. ‘Summer of St Michael, quince summer, archangel summer’. All names for what we also call an ‘Indian summer’: a period of mild or even hot weather after the official end of summer, usually in October. I was particularly pleased with the phrase ‘quince summer’, which comes from Spanish (‘veranillo del membrillo’, the little summer of the quince), as it reminded me, and established in my mind at least, a connection between this poem and one of my favourite films, Víctor Erice‘s El sol del membrillo (1992, from which the picture at the head of this post comes).

Line 12. ‘Beep beep beep, this year is reversing’. Some delivery trucks have a little prerecorded message that they play when they go into reverse gear in order to warn people not to stray too close to them. From personal experience, part of one of my A-levels (I want to say Maths, but I can’t quite remember) was disrupted for what felt like about half an hour by one of these trucks reversing outside the exam hall. When I read this poem out loud, I’m tempted to put on my truck voice to read the line, but I probably shouldn’t.

Line 13. ‘Fire on its approach will judge and condemn us all’. Heraclitus of Ephesus, as recorded in Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies. (But actually found in the invaluable collection The first Philosophers: The Presocratics and the Sophists (trans. Robin Waterfield, Oxford, OUP 2000). Which is, pretty much, where we came in.)

A Couple of Readings

There has been a bit of a hiatus in this blog: life has been complicated over the past month or so. We have moved house, moved country, reorganised our lives. Now we are living in Cambridge, UK, and trying to find out how we fit here. I used to live in Cambridge; my parents still live in Cambridge; my two brothers live in Cambridge as well: the challenge is to find a way of living that doesn’t involve switching back to adolescent patterns of behaviour simply because they are what I know of life here.

But, those are challenges for the future, or the immediate present. Meanwhile, some more self-promotion, or at least a record of things I have done over the past couple of months.

April. I was lucky enough to be invited to give a poetry reading at the beginning of April, a couple of weeks before we started the process of moving house. It was one of a regular series run by my friend Hasier: second Thursday of every month in Dolores y Lola, a pleasant restaurant in Malasaña. They open a little early, sell beers, a poet does a reading and it’s all wrapped up before the crowds start to come in to eat.

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I read in English and Spanish, and therefore needed to get someone to translate some of my poems. Two poet friends, Jordi Doce and Ignacio Vleming, offered to help: they are both skilled poets and intelligent translators. Here is one of Jordi’s translations:

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Then, after the whole kerfuffle of moving and shifting the contents of a house, and ten years of our lives, across the Channel, I came back to Madrid at the end of May for the last large-scale commitment of our time in Spain, to work for a fortnight at the Madrid Book Fair. The day before the Book Fair started I read at Desperate Literature (a place I already miss a great deal) with Richard Scott, whom I have known for about four or five years. His pamphlet, Wound, is beautiful; his translations of Verlaine are beautiful, even ze orchestra is beautiful…

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Afterwards we went out for tapas and beer and I ordered deep-fried sea anemones without telling anyone what they were.

I read the English version of the poem above:

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And then, after the Book Fair was over and I was back in the UK, I was invited to participate in Poets Poets, a day-long seminar on poetry and technique at UCL, where nine poets read their work and then talked about it. It was extremely enjoyable, and most of the audience stuck it out for the whole eight hours. I read the same poem again, because I quite like it. If I get the time, maybe the next post (because this blog is essentially a form of autoerotic ego-massage) will be a larger-scale discussion in detail of some of the things I wanted to say at the time but didn’t have the time to say. But for the time being, this is a fair summary of what I did in my holidays. Back to work now.

 

Mildly Experimental Poetry Corner!

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(I’m sure hundreds of people have done this before, but it’s a way to fill the sleepless nights while your wife’s away and your firstborn son has decided that the only way he’s going to sleep is to lie diagonally in the marital bed and kick out all interlopers.)
The Twitter account @pentametron scours the internet to find tweets which are, usually inadvertently, written in iambic pentameter. This provides a large corpus of material which you (for ‘you’, read ‘I’) can rework into larger forms. And so, a sequence of four pentametron sonnets.

 

I.

New day tomorrow. Mission still the same.
(Why does cilantro ruin everything?)
You really wanna play the petty game?
I really wanna watch The Lion King…

I got an egg and didn’t even know.
I asked the devil for a second dance:
she was a vision of perfection, yo.
Not everyone deserves a second chance.

I love the challenge of a broken heart:
there’s nothing good about a Sunday night.
So who determines when the battles start?
Eh wait, the wedding starts already, right?

I have a fun idea for the day.
Okay okay okay okay OKAY.

 

II.

Okay! Okay! Okay! Okay! Okay!
White people weddings aren’t even fun:
I’ll be consuming alcohol today,
fuck everything and everybody, son.

Impending birthday looming overhead.
I really wanna try a smoky wing!
My diet is salami, cheese, and bread:
save me a sweet empowered chicken thing.

I want to be in love without the pain:
pinning/being pinned against a wall.
I snorted baking soda as cocaine.
My people have amazing cheekbones y’all.

And burning is the only proper way…
I hope tomorrow is a better day.

 

III.

Soo over everyone and everything,
I haven’t even started packing yet.
I’ve never really seen The Lion King.
Why does the Devil run the internet?

Faith changes hope into reality:
I would respect the truth before a lie.
I’m praying to become a better me:
don’t underestimate a Gemini.

Another day, another lonely night.
I am the captain of the submarine:
I’ve never even had an appetite.
I am already planning Halloween.

Imagine me and you and you and me:
perceptions of a false reality.

 

IV.

Wealth may contribute to a calmer mind.
The new investments will revamp the squad.
Thus bad begins, and worse remains behind:
I serve a living God, a loving God.

Deep conversations go into the void.
Love Island is depressing me tonight—
annoyed, annoyed, annoyed, annoyed, annoyed—
can’t even do the fucking basics right.

Death that in rougher Figure I despise
okay okay okay okay OKAY
revise revise revise revise revise…
I’m gonna masturbate the pain away.

In other news the laughter never stops—
Freeze, motherfucker! We’re the wizard cops!