How does it feel? Thoughts on Tony Harrison’s poem ‘A Cold Coming’

Ian Gregson

He saw the photo on the Sunday,
started writing on the Monday

how the dead Iraqi spoke
like Palinurus or that bloke

in ‘Strange Meeting’: you’ll have read
before about the talking dead –

no problem then for this charred head,
except for how and what it said,

for when it leant into his mike
it sounded like a pissed-off tyke,

it sounded like his loiner dad,
someone a world away from Baghdad,

his windscreen wiper like a biro
he’s reaching for to sign a giro.

It seemed obsessed with sperm banking
and accused the yanks of wanking –

though spilling sperm’s a minor guilt,
compared to all the blood they spilt

and this was just a metaphor
of the poets you’ll have read before:

The Waste Land and D.H. Lawrence
express symbolic abhorrence –

linking fruitless sexual practices
with decadence and cactuses;

they say we can’t now ripen our oats
(this isn’t literal – see the ‘Notes’).

But notions so Weston sound all wrong
from that burned and foreign tongue,

whose last thoughts surely were a far cry
likewise from ‘epiphany’ –

that writer reaching for his pen,
the cold coming and the three wise men.

And if you interview a charred head
(‘How does it feel, then, being dead?’)

let him speak in his own voice,
not like a Yorkshireman or James Joyce.

That photograph and its violence
sit in an alien silence

where a fraught polyphony
might speak, but not epiphany –

transcendent insights that replace
missed moments of religious grace

are not just missing but unmissed
as a quill in a cindery fist

in that least meaningful of wars
made cosier by these metaphors.

Dead Eliot, Lawrence and James Joyce
could characterise a voice,

suggesting a sound reflective
of another’s distinct perspective –

this was what was needed to suggest
the gulf between that head and the West:

how sounds happened in him – speech and song,
the foreign landscape of his tongue.