The Strandperle Notebook

James Sheard

But a voice that scorns chorales is yelling ‘Wanker!’

Tony Harrison, ‘V’

1.
There’s oil and backwash from these boats
departing Hamburg’s morning wharves.
There’s stalking cranes. Men pull and tote.
One street back the sleepy whores
lean out from clubs. They clutch their towels.
They call for milk and fresh-bagged rolls,
their wigs in sun like lacquered cowls
as Hamburg’s one-note church bells toll.

2.
Fat Helmie at his fresh fish stall
slaps flat ice with a varnished plank.
He lays out cod in muscled rows,
then sweeps a wash of crushed ice back.
It crisps the scales. It makes the eyestones
catch the light. His own are dull
with thirty years of beer and schnapps.
He sniffs and grunts. He curses gulls
which Stuka-bomb his grubby cap.

3.
I’ll drink this cup then wander out
on lazy feet to seek Strandperle –
that slice of sand on which you’d lounge
and watch the ferries pass the markers
draining boats onto this land.
I never could afford a cabin.
I’d come in big-boned, raw and dumb
from two nights pacing decks.
The thing is, darling, what you took
for some mute hunger –
English shy-bloke ways –
was really hope we’d somehow skip
your welcome rites.
I needed sleep.

4.
I’d like to spin this coffee out.
I’d like to work a longer line.
I’d like to pull my punch and let my mouth
sip a little longer at the scene, take time
to summon shapes from Hamburg’s autumn air
and taste the coalbrick smoke from tiled stoves
which squat fat-legged in Hamburg’s flats.
From here,
the view past Helmie’s stall moves on,
above the ferry-landing’s
greying concrete domes
to where the Elbridge lifts, dips, lifts –
it spans poor homes and dry docks
with its spinal curvature.

5.
You claimed I learnt to write in Hamburg.
All our fracture tore love’s borders ragged,
tore my even surface loose and cold.
I came to think that poems were stages
stripped of sets. Their rotten floors
should give out at unwary pressure
to oubliettes of metaphor.
But, perhaps, a poem’s a well-worked tract
nailed up on greyed oak doors,
and what we think of is less the scrap of paper –
more the scutcheoned locks,
the brasswork,
the grim gargoyled arch,
the buttressed stonework,
spaces, speech.
That sense of crypts
beneath our feet.

6.
He Luchts wear oilwaxed Heinrich caps
to lie straight-faced. They’re paid to make
these Hamburg matrons’ shoulders shake
on harbour tours. Fantastic maps of Hamburg’s past:

Navvies dug the Elbe out inside a month.
That old-tyre-hung and battered tug
is Sheikh Yamani’s yacht. His son’s
fourth wife’s runabout’s that tanker.
Now to your left, the Michelskirche –
that weather vane weighs 16 tons.

I muse on how my jowls have thickened:
His weathered face remains the peak
of artwork by a team of craftsmen:
leather-workers, trained on teak.

7.
Other Hamburg occupations:
A barker strains a Russian suit
and growls that girls inside Show More.
You wonder what such More could mean,
when standing on the Reeperbahn –
these three square miles of anatomy
and cunts spread like dissectagrams.
Chimney-sweeps with costumed shoulders
scuffed where fingers press for luck;
Frumped-down Muttis hissing Süsse
out from doorways, warm in comfy
coats and hats – their punters
mainly shy and just-past-school boys
needing someone who won’t laugh.

8.
We’d meet at Hase’s Bike-Repair-Shop-
And-Marxist-Dialectic-Class,
Drink in Zum Gipfel – a secret knock
might get you in. You’d wash a glass
and try the pumps and hope
that mine-host Stephan Leer,
the ‘World’s First Deaf Anarcho-Landlord’,
had finally installed some beer.

9.
And while we may have toppled pylons,
scuppered goods trains, marched and thrown
neat Hamburg cobbles, occupied whole blocks
of houses, what I think of’s more the drone
of internecine mock-symposia,
of splinter groups and endless blame;
weekends lost to tossed-back Korn; rows of pills,
and coming down with flash-dried herbage,
grown on chipped-paint windowsills.

10.
Bruises formed by truncheon strikes
are strange. A bar of vivid white
marks out the impact. From the edges
streak out slender chains of bloodburst
scurrying beneath the skin.

Bruising formed by rape:
Blue fingermarks. Four punctured prints
along each inner thigh, and there,
offset by just that span
which marks us out from other beasts,
the glorious opposing thumb.
All rendered dark by how light breaks
through that bath you shouldn’t take.

Bruises made by bullets: leaking
haematoma, spreading outwards
like a wash of solid yellow-ochre mottling
painted on with broad-edged brush.
Malnutrition bruising: clotted welts,
the blood pushed upwards by the bone
to lump the skin in dark necrotics.
Seen in deserts, prisons, homes.

11.
I’ve made no move towards Strandperle,
but climbed this nearby mound to view
a weighty statue of Graf Bismarck.
Hitler used this image, too:
A planted sword with hilt at crotch-height,
meek bowed head – a Teuton knight,
but humble, conscious of the weight
of lethal duty.
And lately, politicians at Ground Zero:
Unsure men, all looking down
as if checking that their dicks have grown.

12.
That night, I found your bedroom rank
with sweaty hangers-on.
Some would-be lawyer taking photos.
The polaroid’s flat cloudy tongue
still toying with your spine and thighs,
that tender join between your breast and side.
Now lift her arm! Your eyes as wide
as coin blanks between the punch and die.

13.
I seem resolved to ditch Strandperle.
To get there now, I’d have to turn
my dogleg verses past this length
of Dock-Front Loft-Life New Conversions,
and think about the night I left.
Whilst I flew, the Wall came down:
Ossis peered through battered nets
of iron twistrods shorn of concrete,
to see some Yuppies clutching Sekt.
The Stasi files spilled outwards from
those close-packed metal shelves. Crumbled
cheap-weave papers loosed some spore
which drifted west and struck us dumb.

14.
And Selbstkritik’s a sourish sweet,
sucked in secret, lips curled in.
I pace, without much hope of footprint
along this grey and narrowed fringe
that thinks that irony’s a cop-out,
a self-serving way of giving in.
I want a meta-poem, stripped and dull:

‘Scene. Polemic. Memorial.’

15.
Fat Helmie clears his stall.
Late morning walkers dodge his spray.
It pushes up the blood-stained ice
to ruffs of tawny cod intestines.
The sound of cups of coffee
clacking down on glass.
And in my mouth
that taste of brass.