Urban Sprawl

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Introduction:

Last night I was watching a drama on BBC iPlayer about Allen Ginsberg’s poem ‘Howl’. Then I remembered this old poem I wrote and decided to re-read it. It so happens that I’m suffering from a severe case of Writer’s Block these days and looking back on my old writings from this sterile wilderness they seem better to me than they seemed at the time of writing. So, for want of anything better to blog I thought I’d post this poem. Basically it’s a rather bleak, dystopian vision of urban life in the vein of ‘Howl’ and influenced heavily by Dylan Thomas, T.S. Eliot and William Blake’s ‘London’. It’s not about any particular city but I was inspired to write it while looking out from my 17th floor apartment in Beijing, watching construction workers labouring day and night to build a flyover.

The poem:

From my window on the seventeenth floor I can see the skeletal foetus of a flyover stretching as far as my eyes can reach in two directions. Diggers are crawling around it, creaking along like old rocking chairs. The machines and their yellow-domed drones, tusking through wide ditches, straddling and cresting creases of dirt, together exhale the bluish fumes of burning diesel and tobacco into the air, heaving through the dry day and toiling under hook-lights by night.

Welding sparks trickle through ribs of scaffolding and the stoic welder sends his lightning shafts Thor-like through the fog and across the clotted cars honking like geese in their tight homeward formation, and they echo off the fishlike faces of the office blocks. And the tinted financial greenhouses shiver in the pale staccato horror-film light, their haunted windows stirring with grey-suited ghosts.

The bulldozers move on their tank-tracks like broken violins. The blood-shot road shrieks at the rush of oncoming squad cars, those sirened sentinels of justice, who part the traffic like Old Testament prophets, blazing through the cold bandit-masked night from felony to felony. And the cymbal-crashing crescendo of rising empire laps like restless waves against my window, washing me down to the sum of my molecules. And the skinny old tomcats pawing through yesterday’s vegetable peelings, they purr and mew and dream their feline dreams, and of the chirpy song of networking cell phones, and the hydraulic grunt of metal claws scraping the itchy ground, and the sizzle of welding, and the machine-gun rattle of warring jackhammers, and the crackle of radios, and drunken laughter, and endless futile talk and miscommunication, and some kind of safe watered-down happiness.

I flew without leaving the floor of Room 1702 and looked down from my eagle-eyed turret. I fell to my death, shuttled through a steel birth canal, mothered by pregnant concrete, while my counterweight rocketed and swung to the apex. I went walking through a neon heaven, keen as a knife in the toothcomb cold; I cruised in a shiny black Buick through the evening throngs of twisting angels, where the cars flow like lava down the roads, and where all the stars were smote from the sky by the crystal towers of capitalism and fell devilishly and settled on the ground like electric snow. I went out with only my stupidity as a compass. I went out as a dumb creature and came back full of dumb words.

My busy mind was a dance-floor, and I consulted the epileptic oracles of neon for answers to my questions. The buildings breathed through their ventilation shafts, and their breath was cottony against the cold, and their windows and signs were static firework bursts, and their promises were as intangible as light, their foyers as simultaneously bright and cold as an energy efficient bulb or a pinstriped saleswoman. And the gaunt trees were strangely beautiful in the baldness of their seasonal chemotherapy. And far away the pre-human mountains were all knobbly like the vertebrae of a starving giant. And the eternal sky was crowded out by thrusting skyscrapers, forged in the fiery womb of an earthly hell, some like hypodermic needles and some like vast monuments to fertility, and the primeval mystery of the universe was lost amid the crude phallic shapes of classroom graffiti and Neanderthal religion and scruffy schoolboy humour.  

And the uniformed signal operator standing outside his shack flicked his cigarette onto the railway tracks. And the little girl skipped smilingly around the heavy mud-caked wheels of the industrial trucks. And the tractor driver blasted his horn at me when I stood in the road to take his picture. And the bearded tramp shuffled along all alone through a population of millions. And the long-haired philosophers rolled a spliff, and we drank whiskey and sang ‘People Are Strange’ in the park. And Maria clung to a fence and beheld the fog-blurred moon and wept, and when I saw her silvered cheeks I wanted to say ‘don’t be afraid, woman’ but I didn’t have the guts. And the pavement-sleeper, wrapped like greasy food in newspaper, coughed like a rusty tap. And the police officer summoned me to his office, wielder of the ubiquitous rubber stamp, and he scrutinised my ID and interrogated me in a language I don’t understand. And I answered him with my flickering neon vocabulary.

And the kids hanging around bars were trying hard to suppress sub-surface explosions. They applied withering ash-tipped stems to their lips and pale smoke drifted out of their stove-pipe throats, up from the embers and simmering jagged madness of their internal fires. Their words were exhaust and their heads were screaming kettles, boiling dry, with no one to turn down the heat. And while the sound of revelry drifted down the street a man leant against a tree and purged himself of the poison which he voluntarily swallowed just moments before. And two teenagers on bad acid were freaking out and stripping off their clothes in the shadow of the subway station, among the bin-bags and syringes and razor blades.

And I closed my window because the coldness and bitterness had unfinished business with me. And the fingers of winter reached in to claim the cold ashtray of my heart. And the darkness came to collect what was left of my knotted barbed-wire soul. And the mad steaming rooftops and crooked stairwells and rusty balcony-railings invited me to divest myself of the icicles of metropolitan dizziness that seemed to have needled in to me. And I followed the wind-chased trash floating delicately above the world. And the jaundiced moon looked so sick and tragic. And the girl with eyes greener and calmer than Greenpeace shone brighter than the sky of my childhood, and the memory of her dawn-kissed face disturbed my sleep. And she reminded me of the deadly city night full of neon fishing hooks and the shop-window flames of desire. And my friend showed me all the bureaucratic and geographic shortcuts, and grinned and said “Local knowledge.” And we pushed some old car out of its parking spot to make room for ours. And some over-eager motorist lost control on the ice. And we dug cans of Sprite out of the snow. And finally I saw the absurdity of it all; finally I got the joke that everyone else was already laughing at. And I laughed with my whole neighbourhood, and was so overwhelmed by the hilarity of the world and the human race that tears began to blur the border between pain and amusement.

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