ABOUT THE POEMS What is the difference between a lyric poem and a narrative poem? Not always a lot, as these poems by the British poet Tom Warner reveal. The tension generated by Warner’s poems is not just that of a precisely weighted colloquial language working within and against the poetic line, but also that of the speaker gradually dissenting from his very own story. The poems enact pitched battles that gradually seem to “blow away in streams”, like the tobacco of the first poem, and open out into sublime visions of human beings foreseeing and therefore staving off a fall (“Goodbye, Tobacco”) or reaching a difficult, even defiant peace, as when the protagonist of “Day Thirty-Two” finally reveals the gulf that lies between his own needs and those of his stressed and hysterical companions. The vulnerability and determination of Warner’s speakers as they test their own values against those of the world project an irresistible charm, and we realise that point of view in literature is at heart a celebration of idiosyncrasy, of the reason of human unreason. The workings of the poet’s own sly wit (the joke about the seventh line of a poem in the seventh line of a poem, the image of a shipwrecked man returned to his simian origins as he lies on an island “like a gorilla in a zoo”) are deployed in shrewd counterpoint to the speakers’ voices. These are poems that every smoker and office-goer will want to cut out and paste above their desks.
The half an ounce I bought today will be my last;
a classic blend of bright Virginia and rich Kentucky.
I can’t imagine the tonnes I’ve smoked (minus papers),
but, ladies of lotto and tobacco counters, this is farewell.
I give too much to you, Tobacco and ladies of Camelot,
but most to you, Tobacco. You break my concentration,
call time on poems after just a title or seventh line;
I’d like to stretch them out, perhaps beyond a page
or at least to write until I need to pause and think,
a biro loosely pinched between my first two fingers.
I’ll miss the way you punctuate long waits in public places
and how you sneak me out of awkward conversations,
but it’s time I understood the weight of what you take
and what I blow away in streams through puckered lips.
There are people I stand and talk with outside the pub
with whom the only thing I have in common is you,
drawing in my cheeks, and this half-love, half-hate.
A part of me thinks I should just let you stay
when I imagine myself, some months from now,
keeping up acquaintance with our mutual friends
on the off-chance I’ll catch a whiff of you, like a man,
recently divorced, outside his ex-wife’s place of work.
More wrecked fuselage washed up this morning.
Biggest section yet, like a whale carcass in the breakers.
There’s a corpse still belted in a seat, the face bloated
in its oxygen mask. He has a beard. None of us recognises him.
Jane’s still not talking. Mainly she cries and hugs her knees.
When she really gives it some, her shoulders shake slightly.
She’s sunburnt raw and her lips are scabby and dry.
I’ve moved my shelter further down the beach.
Marcus spells out HELP in rocks on the white sand.
Filippo says it should be SOS. The universal sign for distress
is actually a large triangle; I know this but don’t say.
I read it once on MSN; How to survive a desert island.
Rev. Biddle is losing weight, but remains a true believer.
His sermons are beginning to chew at people’s nerves.
I don’t fancy his chances, not long term.
Since Bryony ran off into the trees, nobody’s seen her.
Marcus came over today to ask how I was getting on
with that radio set. It’s going to take some time, I said.
Salt has eaten at the circuit board. I must have looked the part,
wearing the big headphones like I was trawling interference
for a voice, a signal, anything (are you there, survivors?).
Truth is, I’ve got the Test Match on. It’s the second day
and we’re batting well, but I keep it to myself, obviously.
When rain stops play, I listen to commentators filling air
and whittle at the bails I’m carving from a piece of driftwood.
Sometimes I lie back with one hand under my head,
like a gorilla in a zoo, and think of my red-faced boss
clearing my desk and struggling to cover the hours I’ve left.
Tom Warner was born in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, but now lives in Norwich. He won an Eric Gregory Award in 2001, a Faber New Poets Award in 2010, the ink-sweat-and-tears Norfolk Prize in 2009 and 2010, the Escalator Prize in 2011 and the Plough Prize in 2011. A pamphlet of Tom’s poetry was published by Faber & Faber in 2010.