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by nickb 

Posted: 29 October 2018
Word Count: 265
Summary: Sorry it's been a while. This one was inspired by a radio programme.

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In front of me rows erupt.
Seats fold up on themselves
and bounce on the backs
with a desultory thud.
Applause blows through the hall,
hail on corrugated iron,
the flutter of hands
like a throng of moths
with unhinged wings.
All the colours of mud,
these ragbags of skin and sinew
let fall their histories
like mottled leaves in Autumn.
Ranks of paleness spotted with russet,
dense nutmeg, the sallowness of
marrow bones left for the dog;
all marked with their age, stained by
the boarded up windows of things past.
Little miracles of pigment,
I wonder what they touched last
leaving home. A child’s cheek perhaps,
soft wallet leather, a raw nerve,
the cool glass of a bottle, a tear.
It is by no means clear, their stories blur
like the ropes and veils of ink in water.
Some, no doubt, have been cruel,
handing out injuries easy as gutting a fish.
Their skin is pulled tight, husk like,
cloaked with smiles and a firm handshake,
extracts of tyrant in their tyrosine.
Despite their colours they are cormorant and crow
and two toned starlings drumming the air.
Others exhale a trickle of kindness,
they bear a faith in benevolent Gods
who, though tarnished, dart iridescence
of a million blues, a glimpse of Kingfisher
on a clear river.
And what colour are my own hands
as the space between them closes to a clap?
They are my share of pale fruit,
lined by all they’ve touched in shade and light.
I clasp them tight to end the sinister gap
of what cannot be undone.

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Comments by other Members

James Graham at 21:24 on 29 October 2018  Report this post
Always good to read a new poem of yours, Nick. I'll comment very soon.


James Graham at 22:06 on 30 October 2018  Report this post
Hi Nick – I can’t give you a comprehensive ‘review’ of this poem just yet, as I’m still getting to know it. It’s not that it’s especially difficult; the meaning stanza by stanza is clear enough. But the significance (not the same as meaning), the heart of the poem, isn’t clear yet. One thing I’m sure of – it does have a heart. There’s many a published contemporary poem I’ve given up on because even if the poet was a wizard wordsmith, there was just that sense that there was nothing much at the heart of it. Your poem isn’t one of these.
Please don’t explain anything meantime. I’ll do the work, and get back to you. Meanwhile I must quote a few lines (there are many more) which seem to me very original. They spring to life as you read.
                                    their stories blur
like the ropes and veils of ink in water.
This is a very striking image. It’s not only the pictorial clarity of the motion of ink in water and the forms it seems to take, but also the connotations of ‘ropes’ (restrictions, limitations) and ‘veils’ (secrecy, lack of openness). These words take us back to the other half of the simile, ‘their stories’,  and we imagine the ‘ropes’ that bind these people, restricting their freedoms in one way or another, and the possible discrepancies between the face they present to the world and the reality of their private lives. Similes/ metaphors needn’t always be as precision-engineered as this, but this is rather special.
Just a couple more quotes. No comment except to say they’re striking and memorable.
the boarded up windows of things past
Despite their colours they are cormorant and crow
They are my share of pale fruit,
lined by all they’ve touched in shade and light
For immediacy and depth, and thought-provokingness (to coin a word) the last two lines are outstanding too.
More to follow in due course. Comments by other members always welcome.

V`yonne at 13:41 on 31 October 2018  Report this post
I'm getting impressions. Life as a theatre. Death as a drama. Rounds of applause. Phantoms. The end of moral choices. The reckonning. Decay. Inevitability.

I think the final stanza is a triumph!

And what colour are my own hands
as the space between them closes to a clap?
They are my share of pale fruit,
lined by all they’ve touched in shade and light.
I clasp them tight to end the sinister gap
of what cannot be undone.

deeds done that cannot be undone and the 'bite at the apple' l 3, I think I could read this forever and never tire of it and find new things all the time.  I'll be back. Change nothing without very good cause!!!

V`yonne at 18:21 on 31 October 2018  Report this post
But things are not skin deep in this poem -- tyrosine is an enzyme. We have no control over those. Then You speak of innocence and cruelty and deceit over which we can exercise control. 

We are all the same underneath as in

Despite their colours they are cormorant and crow
and two toned starlings drumming the air.

I am unsure what

the sinister gap
of what cannot be undone.

is in this context.

V`yonne at 18:25 on 31 October 2018  Report this post
Also are you referencing Hopkins with Kingfisher? as in Christ the reconciler of all things?

V`yonne at 18:26 on 31 October 2018  Report this post
I'm off on me hols this weekend so I will look forward to seeing how this discussion goes :)

James Graham at 22:16 on 31 October 2018  Report this post
Oonah has understood some aspects of this poem better than I have, but anyway here’s what I make of it. It’s a series of quite profound reflections on people observed in an audience. It’s likely they have been listening to a speech rather than watching a theatre performance, because of the way they spontaneously rise to a standing ovation. They are mainly older people ‘marked with their age, stained by/ the boarded up windows of things past’ – a very resonant metaphor, suggestive of abandoned homes and having moved (out of necessity) from place to place. They may be refugees. They are dark-skinned; their melanin levels are quite high. They seem to be mainly poor people – ‘ragbags of skin and sinew’ and there’s a strong sense that they have had, and still have, troubled lives. Some may be prone to violence and a need to dominate; there are ‘extracts of tyrant in their tyrosine’ – they possess significant quantities of this ‘extract’, which the likes of Muammar Gaddafi or Robert Mugabe had in spades. (This line isn’t so much a visual image as an aphorism, with its play on words. Very effective.) Others seem kinder, a quality associated with their religious faith.
You convey these characteristics of the audience in highly inventive, mainly visual, imagery – some of which I’ve already quoted. I mustn’t leave this out:
let fall their histories
like mottled leaves in Autumn.
Ranks of paleness spotted with russet
gleaming chocolate, the sallowness of
marrow bones left for the dog
The variety of these images suggests differences in the narrator’s reaction to various people he observes. To compare someone’s skin with ‘the sallowness of/ marrow bones left for the dog’ suggests that he recoils a little, even feels revulsion; ‘chocolate’ is much more empathetic, and Autumn leaves convey mainly sadness. There’s so much of this sort of thing, I could write a book!
The poem’s narrator is clearly immersed in his speculations about these people. He is intensely interested in them, even though (or because) he feels they are different and rather alien. For me this is the great strength of the poem: along with the narrator we discover the insights that can emerge from observing a crowd of people – ‘people-watching’ I suppose – and bringing imagination to bear on it in full measure.
Now, my first question. In my previous comment I referred to the ‘thought-provokingness’ of the closing lines:
I clasp them tight to end the sinister gap
of what cannot be undone
but my thoughts are leading in different directions and I’d like to know your own take on this. What does the ‘sinister gap’ represent?
The other question is just about the occasion described. It would be interesting (though not essential) to know what the audience had been listening to. Even as I write this, I’m more and more convinced they are refugees, or at least members of ethnic minorities living in this country. They may have been listening to an activist leader who is demanding that their rights be recognised, above all their right to stay in Britain. Am I close? I say it’s not essential to know these details because this is a poem not a short story, and poetry can legitimately leave certain details to the reader’s imagination.
As soon as I feel I know this poem as thoroughly as possible, I can think about ideas for revision. Nothing major, I would imagine. Meantime it would be interesting to have your response to the above. Like Oonah I’m over the moon and beyond about this poem; I want to discover more in it and certainly won’t put it aside any time soon.

nickb at 23:54 on 31 October 2018  Report this post
Hi James and Oonah, many thanks for your reaction and thoughts on this one.  Perhaps if I outline where it all started it may shed some light on what I was trying to get at.  I was listening to The Listening Project" on Radio 4 a while back.  Two older West Indian guys were discussing their experiences coming to the UK.  You can imagine the sort of experience that was.  The programme closed with one of them saying something along the lines of "after all, we all share the same skin, just that some have more melanin than others".

So in essence it is the old argument about us all being the same in essence, but of course we choose (or our culture and upbringing chooses for us) to head down different paths.  It's iinteresting James that you saw the audience as mainly refugees or ethnic minorities, and I can see why you thought that.  But in my head it was a mainly (but not entirely) older white middle class audience, those you'd see at a classical concert for example.  These are people who, in many instances, have had many opportunities, yet still have the need and the arrogance to do ill to others.  I am of course being quite simplistic in this approach, but it does fascinate me how people who share many of the same physical and cultural characteristics can develop so differently. 

Taking the image of a clapping audience, with all the different skin colours around the room, seemed like a good starting point.  The final stanza is of course introspective.  I've spent the rest of the poem making assumptions about others so there is aneed to take stock of my own actions in light of this.

Hope that all makes sense.


nickb at 23:56 on 31 October 2018  Report this post
Sorry, meant to say Oonah, I wasn't referencing Hopkins but I will take a look as I love the language he uses.


V`yonne at 12:07 on 01 November 2018  Report this post
well for me maybe you have unintentionall given the poem layers of depth you never intended because that Kingfisher and talk of Gods and the final 2 lines made me think that you were refering not only to colour of hands but to dirty hands/ dirty deeds/ culpability and judgement. 

All the colours of mud,
these ragbags of skin and sinew
let fall their histories
like mottled leaves in Autumn.

and death! Because ragbags of skin and sinew we are...
And furthermore, Nick it worked for me totally on both levels! So if you did that by mistake -- cool mistake!!! -- I wouldn't let on devil I'd keep it.

V`yonne at 12:09 on 01 November 2018  Report this post
an audience does judge... See? I keep reading in....... I reread this and I want to write an essay about it.

nickb at 12:31 on 02 November 2018  Report this post
Thanks Oonah.  If I am totally honest the intention was only partially true, but now you've pointed it out I will, as you say, keep it!wink

Think I need to look over it again in light of this.


V`yonne at 12:39 on 02 November 2018  Report this post
Well I'm away for a week now, Nick but I'll be interested in your deliberations yes

James Graham at 21:49 on 03 November 2018  Report this post
Hi Nick – I’m getting back to you to say I’ve read this poem over and over, weighing up whether any revisions are needed – and I can’t find anything. I wouldn’t change a word. So if you want to submit it for publication, I’d say leave it as it is. Any editor who rejected this would be one who doesn’t know a good poem when he sees one. (There are some.)
Now, tell me what you think of this. As you may know, one of the modern ways of approaching the theory and criticism of poetry has been Reader Response Theory. This basically holds that the poet’s own understanding of his poem can be supplemented by readers who see in it meanings not intended by the poet. We assume that these readers have read the poem properly – thoughtfully, bringing their own imagination and experience to it. Such ‘supplementary’ readings become part of what the poem is, extending its range of meaning.
The first couple of times I read ‘Melanin’ I thought this is an audience consisting largely of people of ethnic minorities, possibly refugees,  who give a standing ovation to a powerful speaker defending their rights. That’s not what you were thinking. Now, suppose hypothetically that 25-30% of your (thoughtful) readers got roughly that impression of your audience, would that bother you or would you be quite happy about it?
There were experiments, back in the 70s I think, in which some American poets allowed their poems to be issued unseen to honours literature students, who were given no guidance but asked to write down their own interpretations of the given  poem. Surveying the results, the poet in each case said that some of the students’ understandings were very close to his own, some saw meanings that had never occurred to him but were quite acceptable and could be added to the sum of the poem’s meaning, and some (a very small minority) had simply got it wrong. So most of them either saw it his way (which is good) or saw it in a way that was different, but not unrelated (also good, because the poem’s full depth and range were beginning to emerge).
My own view is that your perspective on ‘Melanin’ can co-exist with other well considered (not superficial) interpretations. As soon as a poem goes ‘out there’ it begins to grow. Are you, by and large, quite happy with that?
I think Oonah also has seen meanings that perhaps you didn’t intend! ‘It worked for me totally on both levels! So if you did that by mistake -- cool mistake!!! -- I wouldn't let on, I'd keep it.’

nickb at 16:04 on 05 November 2018  Report this post
Hi James,
that is an aspect of poetry that has always fascinated and attracted me.  I have always found that there are numerous interpretations of a poem which I guess is not that surprising given that we are dealing with imaginative ways of painting a picture.  In fact visual art works in a similar way I find; two people look at a picture and can see something very different.  We are all informed by our experiences, likes, dislikes and prejudices after all.  I have a very democratic approach in relation to how people respond to my poetry and am always pleasantly surprised by the ways it is interpreted.  It adds a lot to my learning (and there is so much to learn!) and I'm sure it does inform my writing in all sorts of ways.

I actually really like your interpretation of the crowd being largely of ethnic minorities.  It adds a whole new dimension to the piece, and in some ways relates back to the orignal inspiration of it.  My objective, apart from my own pleasure in writing, is for the reader to get something at least out of it, hopefully something that has some meaning or beauty in it.  If I achieve that then the poem belongs as much to the reader as it does to me.

Thanks again,


James Graham at 20:06 on 06 November 2018  Report this post
Thanks, Nick. I agree with all you say. This attachment of mine to Reader Response Theory derives from my student days. Our professors and lecturers for the most part taught poetry on the assumption that the poet’s intended meaning was virtually sacrosanct, and the task of critics (and students) was to discover and elucidate that meaning, not impose our own subjective interpretations on it. It begs the question: how can critics, or professors, definitively know what the poet intended? What if the supposed true meaning was really their own subjective reading? It was a very top-down, kind of authoritarian way of teaching poetry, one which I’m fairly sure has now gone the way of the dinosaurs.
I hope that sooner rather than later this poem of yours will reach a wider readership, so that more readers can see that audience in their own way! And of course, enjoy the poem and share its insights.

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