Astrid Alben/Great Britain
Astrid Alben read English Literature and Philosophy at Edinburgh University. Her poetry collection Ai! Ai! Pianissimo is published by Arc Publications. Alben has been described as “a new and original voice in English poetry, serious and uncompromising.” Her poetry, essays, English translations of Dutch contemporary poetry and reviews are widely published, including in the Times Literary Supplement, Poetry Review, Drunken Boat, Stand and Poetry Ireland, Poetry Salzburg, Poem, and her poems have been translated into Romanian and Chinese. Alben is known for her strong performance on stage and has read at among others the Writers’ Union of Romania’s International Poetry Festival, Cheltenham Poetry Festival, the Troubadour, PEN London and the Aldeburgh Festival. She is currently working on her second collection. As co-founder of the art and science initiative Pars, Alben is the editor of two art and science anthologies, Findings on Ice (2007) and Findings on Elasticity (2010), and curates site-specific events that are a mixture of theatre, scientific experiment and performance. Alben is a Royal Society of Arts Fellow and a Wellcome Trust Fellow 2014.
It was becoming intolerable to be apart. Flaubert
And when he tells her blowing on his tea
steam rolling off like mountains like flies
like money to burn
that she is really Madam Bovary
not French perhaps but really her milieu – well.
That she gnaws on their passion
as if it were an icicle
and he the last drop.
So middle middle class – just so –
That he has poured her arsenic instead of tea
really this bully doesn’t want to marry this bitch.
Yeah fuck you fuck you
this bully isn’t going to marry that bitch.
I am on my way home.
The street is filled with snow.
It levitates above the paving stones.
The city has cars. They bind the street.
A battery of moonlight swoops like owls.
The spasm of the night. Its pecking order.
Snowballs in a line-up on the boot.
A boy is lashing out.
Who would have thought my feet this small.
This boy is cursing. Cursing it all.
Tears stream down his face. His fists are tight.
The night is breaking on the road.
His sister is standing to one side. Her nose red with cold.
The dog-leash empty in her clutching hand.
She is discovering stillness through the eyes.
Who would have thought.
Like Napoleon she savours liquorice.
They always carry some of it in their pocket.
Including when they walk through snow.
Difference being Napoleon travels on horseback.
By morning his spectre will have reached Moscow.
Once more once more.
Take one take one. Have some.
The half-light half-dark
half convincing half everything.
Yes she says one of the few times
yes she says yes. So that’s how.
They circumnavigate each other in sidestrokes.
Or much like a dog chasing its tail in the park.
Or how shadows fall in front on any given bike-ride.
Fingers flutter then blend with the surface of getting to know.
it’s only one moon-shaped cake.
It’s raining outside.
The stubborn forever kind
like a door just slammed.
After all you can’t tell the rain
to slow down or speed up any
more than you can command
someone to inhale the space
between the streaming drops
or the no wind to ebb it along.
Meanwhile you boil two eggs
for three and a half minutes.
Some things go beyond
what the human definition gives.
She has never been this happy.
Happy as an apple core.
He has never been this apple core.
They have followed the early wind
to the ends of the water.
Reeds bend over the lake to listen to the ripples.
Standing now at the edge of the water
smoothing out a skimming stone between finger and palm
he is struck by how easily she has been deceived
believing her back to be straight when really
really she is leaning up against the wind
on the lookout for a shoe.
When I throw a stone into the lake I see no movement
in the water. Why can’t I see my love reflected
by the water even when I drop a stone into this lake?
Maybe you are too far away to see she says
in more of a whisper than ochre – she
believes fingers are quick-silvery bambooshoots
wild and mellifluous and brushed with bewilderment
and that this is why they fumble and clasp
clutch and stroke. Open and close.
The stone skims across the surface
is between forms
leaves an afterglow in ever tightening circles
petsch petsch petsch petsch
as if looking into
is equivalent to stepping into.
In the event of my death
you have a set of keys to the apartment. Go in,
read my books but do not keep them.
I never understood what’s mine is yours.
In the event – please
remember I visited the Arctic Circle
and coasted in a helicopter above a glacier coming
over the mountain like a bruised tongue
and that I got some really, really good sex
(although not necessarily from you).
That on public transport invariably I hated
the person seated next to me, however good looking.
In the event of my death do not worry, please remember
we love the dead much better than we love the living.
This is a gift.
Dead, I will not escape from your stories
as if someone forgot to close
the overhead locker; I will not tumble out.
At last, I will have ceased to desire
to grieve, to moan, to hurt, to hope:
I will have relinquished all my anger.
But remember, in the event of my death,
that in language everyone cheats.
In the event – please remember that in the event
everyone loses everyone else.
How come sea turtles travel alone? Like satellites they have faithfully
shouldered their own frequency for 100 million years. Today is Sunday.
Today is the boy I never got to be. He stands before the Kailashpati tree, ‘No!’
he booms and pushes out his ribs like a woofer, ‘Look!’ ‘No!’ Me!’
His face his hands his toes cling to the edge of morning, point south of the border,
west of the sun.
On the other side of the world a night watchman tunes into his radio to listen to the
WHHOOOOOO of the ocean and believes a sea turtle has just checked into the Galaxy Hotel.
Dreamt B spoke to me
telling me he sees
clouds drift in a carton of milk.
Evening light he says
is a flock of birds
skimming the rooftops westerly.
The sky disappeared that night
and in its stead a permanent cloudbank
squats on rooftops.
In this cloudbank small luminescent
baubles hover which I guess
B continues used to be streetlights.
The light sprains his shadow
dispersing me B says
running clear out from underneath me.
Across the border the river flows through the rain
yellow comes after mustard seed
every leaf is a slipper thlupping on summer.
Across the border telephone wires
are caught in the antlers of the open road. It is where
why did you leave means why did you come back.
Across the border one foot easily
forgets the other but that’s neither here nor there.
It isn’t one thing or the other.
the border is just a line.
But what he really wants to tell me
is that across the border
I want to speak to everybody
and most of all yes
most of all I want to speak to you.
picking up the carton of milk
and raising it to his lips
everywhere he went that night
I watched babies being born
their fists tightly balled
but in death B says
wiping the corners of his mouth
our hands are open.
I am on my way to post a letter.
I spot a pigeon on the pavement.
The pigeon is limping on one leg.
It doesn’t know it is missing the other one.
It just keeps swinging the phantom leg
in front of the real one. Keels over.
Pokes its still functioning leg
into the paving-stone.
It looks about ashamed. Shifts its leg
like shifting blame. I feel guilty.
I lose interest in the bird.
My hand is on the letter.
It looks like rain.
The city is never done. A square.
A folding cot collapsed on chicken scraps.
A journalist navigating her Blahniks
cracks open a thermos flask.
The bloke who runs the coffee shop
stands in the doorway tucking in his shirt.
He’s watching her.
Builders are putting up scaffolding.
Or taking it down.
It’s all in the letter.
Underneath the post box
the pigeon gives up. It begins to rain.
The sun breaks through.
There are words that twist the fingers raw
like only once, and yet again once more.
King Kong, when asked, is a film about immigration
and if you have ever examined an MRI scan you will know
that the spine does not resemble the great ape’s
but has everything to do with long telephone calls.
Paranoids are the only ones to make sense of anything,
connecting everything, and although that may not be
flowers, it will be something, just like a sigh
is another way of holding one’s breath.
There are burnt words in a battled silence
and if you have ever listened to goodbyes
you will know that they shout and gape
a mouth that slides down a mountain like snow.
The saddest tree at Kew cannot speak or hang up
and rain on its leaves longs for the spring.
The female species of the tree has apparently
not been preserved and in context hmmmmm is
a string of DNA for putting on hold and all things
broken and struggling to mansize and beingthere.
When you press your fingertips
together your hands are a tent
and in this sunlight glow orange.
You can almost not see the bricks
shifting the light like barges
chugging along the canal
or pigeons swooping through the air
into your hands now open
above the plum stains on
the plate remembering the fruit.
Again you press your fingertips
You have a cigarette tucked
behind your ear.
You burst out laughing.
When they tore down the bridge B had to travel back
to his country six times because the authorities kept
postponing its demolition. The order would come
and then be lost in the paperwork. B wanted to be
there because the bridge was from when he was afraid,
cold and happy.
B didn’t want the bridge destroyed yet an insatiable
hunger like chattering teeth possessed him to witness
its collapse. So he travelled, back and forth,
as the orders came and went until the paperwork
grew to become the bridge and he was
overseeing its destruction.
Night, although there is light.
But night seems to have a rhythm; it is midnight after all.
Quietness, waiting. It lies there, so restrained and
awaiting the new day. B waits.
With growing frequency B sees a Citroën DS overtaking him
with a man at the wheel and a woman beside him.
With growing frequency they are beginning to resemble
each other – she a pair of glasses with black shiny frame,
he a moustache – sharing a mandarin
while they head for the bridge.
As it transpires, B will leave his shoes on the bridge.
He will jump wearing only his socks. We won’t
be able to remember the colour of his socks.
What was the colour of his socks?
But for now, night, although there is light. Night
seems to have a rhythm. Quiet, restrained and what
we remember is what B excels at; how to oversee
the bridge, and all his weight in paper and wait.