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To Natalie, at the Checkout

by James Graham 

Posted: 30 March 2004
Word Count: 127

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I say thank you every time.
And if you make eye-contact, I say
'Thank you very much'.

Thank you, whose graceful hands
pick up, pick up, pick up,
and let the red eye know.

Thank you for coming here
to do the masquerade, the 'Hi',
as if you knew us all.

To be a moving part, to make
the thing go beep, and with your foot
to make the goods roll on.

'That's lovely', you say, of my
ten-pound notes, and 'Thanks again,
bye-bye'. Yes, au revoir, I'll

see you soon, we'll talk some more,
about my card and am I saving tokens,
and you'll spread another

poly-bag for me, and I shall lay
my lovely money in your palm,
and thank you, thank you very much.

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Comments by other Members

joanie at 10:10 on 30 March 2004  Report this post
James, I just love this. I love the pace of it and the 'right-ness' of it and the fact that I know Natalie, and the situation, so well. It is so perfectly ordinary, yet special. I shall think of it every time I'm at the checkout..... (And, no doubt, smile)

James Graham at 10:19 on 30 March 2004  Report this post
Joanie, thank you. I don't know what to say - such a quick response! Yes, Natalie and all the others should be celebrated.



tinyclanger at 10:28 on 30 March 2004  Report this post
Very poignant, James, had the picture in my head perfectly. Words like yearning and tender and ...er...unrequited pop into my head....
I like the way you see past the routines, the mechanical nature of the encounter, and try to read more into the 'relationship', make it more personal, more intimate - and yet I also feel that you are always (sadly) aware of the 'mechanical' nature of the scene and that you are just another person in the queue, and she is going through the same old routines for just another time. (Sorry if I've popped your bubble, there!)
What I mean is summed up in:

"we'll talk some more,
about my card and am I saving tokens
and you'll spread another

poly-bag for me"

Perfect. How we can kid ourselves, eh?!

I also like the repetition and the breaks for the stanzas. Seemed to suggest to me the stuff rolling along the belt, sometimes smoothly, then jerkily, and the repeated action of her scanning the items..?

Really enjoyed it . Cheered me up in a wistful kind of way..thanks!

joanie at 10:31 on 30 March 2004  Report this post
Thanks, tc! I knew somebody would soon come along to explain exactly why I liked it so much.

roovacrag at 10:49 on 30 March 2004  Report this post
James this is very good and a tribute to all checkout assistants.
Not many appreciate them and they are always polite.
Well done.
xx Alice

igbit33 at 15:00 on 30 March 2004  Report this post
A lovely poem Mr Site Expert sir (exaggerated doth of cap) It's not difficult to see why you're a published poet - though I have to say, there are other members here who really ought to be able to make the same claim, in my opinion (about themselves of course!).

This is a very warm, thoughtful and friendly piece, so simply worded. You've managed to take an ordinary event and celebrate it, as opposed to those that seem to think moments like this are not worthy of noticing in their busy lives, or are their right and not something they 'should' feel gratitude for. This seems a far happier state of mind to me.

It has such a strong rhythm, particularly in lines like 'pick up, pick up, pick up,' - almost sings the thought.

A meaningful poem on a worthy subject - I bet Natalie is pleased that now and then some do bother to say thank you! So, well done you.

Iggy. xx

Anna Reynolds at 15:01 on 30 March 2004  Report this post
james, gorgeous- there's no point in even trying to form a critical response as I adored this unconditionally. And it reminds me in flavour of Girl In The Baker's Shop- are you writing a series in homage to the underappreciated? The rhythym of repetition is lovely.

tinyclanger at 15:44 on 30 March 2004  Report this post
Oh, thanks Anna, I KNEW I'd read something that made me think of this and I was sure it was from James, but couldn't place it.
Yeah, come on Mr G. what gives with the shop assistants? ;-)


roger at 11:51 on 01 April 2004  Report this post
'and let the red eye know'....what a lovely line. And the daft thing is that the red eye has let her know that we've spent another 96 quid this week in the shop where they employ every trick in the book to extract as much unnecessary money from us as possible. Should'nt it be them thanking us? Yet we do thank them, constantly, don't we, or grovel if we're a bit slow packing our bags, or apologise if we fumble with our wallet. And Natalie's been on a 'make em feel good, they'll spend more' course, and we love her for it LOL!

Whoops, I'm rambling. Lovely poem James...a slice of life, beautifully put.It made me smile - thank you.

Skeetr at 07:48 on 02 April 2004  Report this post
James -- so many new members, so much new material posted, I'd only noticed your Natalie this morning. So much I agree with has already been said, so ditto to all kudos above. It's a convincing picture, bristly perceptive of how we the daily grind can degrade human interaction into masquerade.



I want to take this to my own 'Natalie' at the local Waitrose -- reading it aloud to her as she scans my stuffs -- to see if I can get her to smile for real. I wouldn't take bets on it though :)

James Graham at 17:56 on 02 April 2004  Report this post
Grateful thanks to all for saying such nice things about this poem. Anna - homage to the underappreciated. Igbit - it takes an ordinary event and celebrates it. tc - it sees past the routines, makes it more 'personal'. Yes, I think I meant all that. Now I'm going to stir it up a bit. Is it something else besides an ode to Natalie? Something with more of an edge? Clue: Roger may have spotted it.

P.S. - Smith, when I wrote my ode to the Girl in the Baker's Shop, I gave her a copy of the anthology it appeared in, and she said she was really chuffed and gave me a free loaf. Doubt if anything like this would happen at the Waitrose checkout, but it might amuse the 'Natalie' there, at least!


roger at 19:46 on 02 April 2004  Report this post
Maybe the slightest hint of cynicism?

miffle at 20:31 on 02 April 2004  Report this post
Yes, now I've read your thought and Roger's Natalie does sound rather robotic - (lines 2 and 3 especially - sounds as if she's following a formula). 'and let the red eye know' 'to do the masquerade' both, then take on more sinister associations. Clever poem. Miffle

James Graham at 20:01 on 06 April 2004  Report this post
I read this poem yesterday at a local poetry group ('Poets and Pints') and the first reaction was 'Very good! That just brings out how folk have to turn themselves into machines to make a living'. Then people went on a bit about how the supermarket is one big machine to make the commodities roll out and the money roll in, a microcosm of the big consumer/capitalist machine that rules the world. Then somebody said, 'What's this, a meeting of the Scottish Socialist Party?' Poor Natalie was never mentioned in all this. True, one or two of the Poets had had at least two Pints. But I had to partly agree - sure, it's about Natalie, but that big machine was in the back of my mind too, when I wrote it. And other heavy political stuff, like nobody should be expected to spend years of their life at a checkout without really big rewards, like part-ownership of the place and long holidays. Anyway, that was the general direction of the comments last night. Were they going off at a tangent?


Skeetr at 21:54 on 06 April 2004  Report this post
Were they going off at a tangent?

Well, my tuppence: it would only be off at a tangent if we accept the definition of poetry as solely an internal, lyrical exercise. Since the (lovely, lovely) Romantics, political and social poetry, which used to be the norm, has taken a bashing. Almost as if it ain't the real thing if it politicizes people, instead of romanticizing them.

When I was in my 20s I read June Jordan's "Poetry for the People," which totally opened my mind and eyes to the vast array of poetry and myriad perspective of poets... pints or no pints, sure, it's about Natalie, but she's as much a unique individual as she is a part of the big machine trying to grind her into an automoton.

Okay... down gal, down (I've really been imbibing too much Night Nurse, makes me radical).

Off to bed.


Anna Reynolds at 19:04 on 07 April 2004  Report this post
James, for me that's what makes this particular poem so resonant- that it can be both the personal- Natalie- and the political- the machine, and both co-exist beautifully in one piece of subtle writing. And maybe in a subliminal way, so that people whose bent is instinctively to be interested in the human, the character, take in the bigger picture without knowing. Surely that's why it's so effective?

James Graham at 19:33 on 08 April 2004  Report this post
Anna, and Smith, I'm sure that's right - that the poem invites readers to focus on the person of Natalie and the curious 'relationship' the customer has with her, and that the stuff about the commodity machine is under the surface. Which is probably the right balance. Socially/politically-oriented poetry has tended to be out of the mainstream...though, when you look at the Romantics, you find Shelley for instance, whose political poems such as 'The Mask of Anarchy' (written after the Peterloo massacre) were recited by Chartists and trade unionists for generations. Some of his work became true popular poetry. But I suppose the Romantics did foster that idea of poetry as 'an internal, lyrical exercise'.

Seahorse at 14:25 on 20 April 2004  Report this post
Funny, one of the first poems I ever wrote was about a checkout girl.

Some people are inspired by sun-kissed lambs or wispy dandelions or a comet tearing through the night sky, and I was driven to verse by a Sunday morning down Kwik Save.

I remember my last verse was something like:

I buy more and more bread
Because you're in my head
But whenever we meet
You say, "here's your receipt"

Just as well I deleted it years ago really. Wonder what became of her...

James Graham at 10:30 on 27 April 2004  Report this post
Yes, these daily meetings with check-out girls could seem very strange - if we brood on them, which is what poets tend to do - a strange mixture of sometimes real niceness, warmth, with the artificiality they're all trained in. I begin to think the subject isn't closed, and that more could be written about the ways we casually encounter other people and have little mock-relationships with them.


Ticonderoga at 15:48 on 07 May 2004  Report this post

Very late comer - as ever these days, I regret to say; but, I would like to add to the plaudits. This is an exquisite piece, reflecting very common moments in all our lives and revealing the nasty grinding of the Machine in the background; it made me think of Charlie Chaplin being fed through the cogs in Modern Times. James, a sequence based on such encounters would be wonderful- busdrivers, cleaners, the people you seem to pass in the strteet very day........please do it!


James Graham at 15:08 on 10 May 2004  Report this post
Thanks, Mike. Another poem, or more than one, on this kind of theme. There would have to be something different for a new poem to say. But this idea has taken the shape of a bee buzzing around in my head, and I may come up with something.


Esther Frances at 15:46 on 25 March 2006  Report this post
Hi there - I'm new to the site. I loved the poem in all its simplicity and undercurrents. This is politeness at its most artistic - I think it brings to my mind the questionable authenticity of automatic and polite response. The words have lost their meaning. Like the American "Have a nice day!" - does anyone really mean it or does it matter if it makes us feel good? It's all about intent and I'm afraid intent seems in short supply these days. Lovely. Esther Frances.

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