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‘Free Verse Cento’

There’s a lot at stake on a first line. For novels, the work’s mood is irrevocably set – you know when you read “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new” in Beckett’s Murphy what kind of book you’ve bought.

Poetry collections are slightly different. There are multiple points of entry – I tend to hop around a book, we’re almost conditioned to do this from reading anthologies or the selected/collected poems of author’s work. Still, I do have a soft spot for Larkin’s ‘Rich industrial shadows’ of The Whitsun Weddings. So, the significance of the first line of a collection is spurious, which means writers can (and do) have fun with it.

The following piece is a cento – a poem constructed from other writer’s lines – consisting of the first lines from some of the books bought at the recent Free Verse: Poetry Book Fair, and commissioned by The Poetry School. I asked people what they bought, asked publishers what they sold and wrote down what I found. This is not the sum of all the books purchased – that would be a massive piece – but it is a flavour of people’s interests (I was pleased to see contemporaries like Rachael Allen, Colin Herd and Caleb Klaces rub shoulders with Cesar Vallejo, Carol Ann Duffy and John Kinsella).

Writing the poem was an insight in to different poets’ sensibilities – how serious they took their writing, whether or not they wanted to ‘grab’ you at the first line or ease you in, what kind of poem they want you to read first. Constructing the piece, I was conscious of both searching for harmony and wanting to create dissonance. The nine blocks ended up following a theme: a type of internal monologue but, like the reader, each block enters that monologue with a different voice or place in mind. It ended up an exercise in creating a single voice out of a polyphony of thoughts – reminds me of writing a poem.


F R E E   V E R S E   C E N T O

Tyra told me I did not own
my tallness, there’s a country
at my shoulder. Sometimes
it feels so good. I watched love
leave, turn, wave, want not to go,
there’s a place I know in the world,
no less, that we will never reach –
In a bright kitchen the colour of custard.


Imagine her different, a fairy-tale granny
stop me, she is standing
against the tennis court fence, and I, I escaped
from Vienna to London –
the War – you, darling, will be a white patch.
Hello, my name is Kathryn
and I’ve come.


It’s strange to see your bones,
smoke-white, in the end you’re tired
of this old world. Angela – somebody
told me there was a fire.
The hill will always be there, of course.
If I speak for the dead, I must have…
I am a jolly foster, I am a jolly foster.


The papers said I was thinner, the wheat
is ready for cropping, a full congregation.
Things that mean other things: tattoos,
cat badges, fleeting sparkle of midwinter day.
Back for one month’s recreational, has it been
four days now?


The high tension spires spike
the sky, since there’s no blind,
the tree outside’s say: there is
n_____ to say but this. A lot of
painting here is painting over, you
hide the emblem of your heart, no
shuck it off, you are there.


I was born between Creggan and the bogside
at the sign of the black flip flop. When the old
man found the coconut, I drown in the drumming
plough land, I drag up Captain Love.
Ant can’t brood – she hasn’t the wiring – but must.


At first I was afraid, howling
my weird losses in a cot. Midnight,
my mind’s full of ink tonight.
The papers say I was thinner, we were singing
and our song was yellow. Upward with tapers,
death has comer to meet me
on the stairs. Did you find him at the edge
of the clearing?


Small ants in the red home
know nothing of their being watched.
My master’s study holds
the Universe, you’ve heard monkeys
crying, listen to this child abandoned
in the autumn wind. Dinner-jacketed,
these birds stroll like the mafia as snow falls,
as the first snow of this year falls and falls
one wants only to wear her
long plaits in a bun.


I myself like the climate of New York,
through numerous lies the city unpeels,
language of state secrets. I’m such a fan
of Madame Tussauds, miniature world tree
in our front room, a realisation that
she is signing her name with letters
that are not her own.


Agnes Lehoczky, Alison Croggon, Anna Auzina, Anna Piwhowsha, Anonymous x2, Apollinaire, Brian Henry, Caleb Klaces, Carol Ann Duffy, Cesar Vallejo, Chris Emery, Chrissy Williams, Colin Herd, Collette Bryce, Edwin Denby, Emily Critchley, Helen Mort, Holly Hopkins, Imitaz Dharker, Isabel Palmer, J.O. Morgan, Jamie McGarry, Jo Brandon, Joan Poulson, John Clegg, John Hartley Williams, John Kinsella, Julia Bird, Kathryn Maris, Katy Evans Bush, Laurie Lee, Lorraine Mariner, Malika Booker, Meghan Purvis, Miriam Scott, Moniza Alvi, Norbert Hirschorn, Rachael Allen, Rebecca Wigmore, Robert Adamson, Robert Gray, Roddy Lumsden X 2, Salena Godden, SJ Fowler, Susan Howe, Ted Hughes, Thomas Lux, Toby Martinez de las Rivas, Tom Jenks, Vidyan Ravinthiran


Alex MacDonald lives and works in London. He has had his poetry published in The QuietusClinic II and English PEN and was shortlisted for the Poetry School / Pighog Poetry Pamphlet Competition. He hosted a series of readings at the V&A Museum on independent poetry publishers. He was the 2nd Digital Poet in Residence at the Poetry School.



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