:: Article

Sissy (extract)

By Ben Borek.

This is an extract from Sissy by Ben Borek, published in April by Boiler House Press. We’re publishing it in collaboration with the Republic of Consciousness, and will publish an extract from their Book of the Month, every month, as well as an essay/review on the book.

I write this from my floating second home,
My calm retreat when Vauxhall’s sunny climes
Grow too hot-headed for my tender dome
(A vast cathedral full of golden chimes,
Which needs the river air to circulate
Throughout its sparkling naves, the placid weight

Of tidal-pull massaging from below
To let my fizzing cerebellum lull
Into a state where it is keen, but slow
And ready to compose). The gold-leaf hull
Now gently cuts the brown film of the Thames
And sprays a modest spindrift laced with gems

Of froth, which flicker, spectrum-like, to give
A billowing and nacreous effect
Encoded with the acronym ROYGBIV.
My second home, I wrote. You now suspect
I designate it thus to circumvent
A bill or two? But no. Our parliament

Has never seen my buttocks on its benches
(And if it ever did, the scarlet leather
Is where I’d sit, not in the squalid trenches
Of spin where any change in tabloid weather
Demands a shift in policy and speeches
As cloying as a plate of sugared leeches,

As tart as a carafe of puréed rind.)
So, no, my status is affirmed – your guide
Throughout this story, which shall soon unwind
For both of us – this is a real-time ride
Through disparate lives: a provident donation
From Calliope, I just take dictation.

I glide beneath the beams of Albert Bridge.
Adorned with blinking blubs, they rise in two
Loose cones to form an undulating ridge
Of fairy light which fights the spreading blue –
A battle that the thousand fading eyes
Are doomed to lose against the waking skies

With Sisyphean, quotidian recurrence,
This crepuscule is sacrosanct to me,
When London’s only effervescent currents
Are liquid and beneath me, when I’m free
To let my narrative, unbothered, rove
Through increments of indigo and mauve.

Soon I’ll be dressed and up about the growling
Of rush-hour traffic (human and mechanical):
My duties as your scribe require some prowling
Around protagonists in scenes botanical
And urban, multicultural and plural,
Homogenous and more remotely rural.

But surreptitiously surveilling targets
Will only work once one has prey to prey on –
No use a choral work in many argots
If there’s no burnished podium to play on.
So I must thank the muse for this bequest
Of characters. She promises they’ll test

My wits and your credulity, but life
Is, as she says, more strange than any whimsy
A poet may dream up. His blunted knife
Cuts narrative from fabric which is flimsy
And has its sectile stitching fraying wild,
Forever being tweaked and reconciled

With what is his internal truth, that numinous
And frangible kaleidoscope of Ars
Poetica, his alternately luminous
And tenebrous conception of the stars.
My planetarium will be the world;
I’ll let the constellations be unfurled.

Now, day’s deep marbled eye has opened wide
And settles resolutely overhead
To fix a stare upon the riverside:
Ghanaian cleaners stumbling home to bed;
A walker with his melancholic dog;
Three matching tracksuits on a languid jog.

So I’ll moor up here, under Vauxhall Cross,
And take the stairs to where a bus is bending
Beneath the solar-panelled terminus
Whose leaning roof now glimmers bright, distending
At sixty sharp degrees – a giant gun
To threaten the admonitory sun.

In Canto One, when he began Don Juan
(Began, but sadly left the thing unfinished),
Lord Byron sought a hero. Not a new one –
He thought the very term had been diminished
By such a dim profusion of contenders –
The tabloids soon exposed them as pretenders.

Oh, “plus ça change,” you say, “how cheap is fame!”
The quarter of an hour, that great Warholian
Presentiment now seems a distant flame,
A relic best housed deep in the Ashmolean –
Now fifteen seconds is the current span
Of most celebrity, then all eyes pan

Rapaciously away with clicking mice
To see who next has fallen from a taxi,
Whose diet now is Goji juice and rice,
Whose new tattoo describes mount Cotopaxi
Erupting up their backs in plumes of ink
Or who can’t seem to drive without a drink.

So Byron pinned his hopes on Juan, listing
The many he’d rejected as too gauche.
(Two stanzas full of heroes, some existing
In ruddy flesh and some, like Desiax, Hoche
Or Clootz, he felt, despite their gallant stature
Had rather awkward foreign nomenclature.)

But I have no such choice. I have my orders
To start my tale, I may not state a preference.
I have precise coordinates – the borders
Of Lewisham and Southwark, the grid reference:
G6, p.105 (my A to Z
Lives photographically within my head).

The muse informs me she is well aware
Of all the current modern nonsense riding
The media’s congested thoroughfare.
She says she has no interest in providing
Sensation for the sake of the sensational.
And that her “freakish” tale is “progestational…”

“A poet mustn’t overlook this donnée
That you’ve been graciously bestowed by fate.
A vintner offers you a rich Chardonnay
Or Baune, perhaps a Volnay’98,
And you reject it? No, you sniff and swill it,
Then drink! Your one concern is not to spill it.”

(This is the note she left me. I’d dispute
The vintage – ’92 was slightly fuller
And more pronounced – but still, I found it cute
That she had made the effort.) “Your ampulla,”
(She goes on) “swells with an exotic range.
The fruit are novel, varied, rich and strange.”

And I am pleased to hear it! And intrigued,
As I approach my first heroic personage.
My spinning legs are tired, my calves fatigued,
I’d welcome now a friendly inn or parsonage –
I’m cycling, as I must, to skip the hell
Of ever patronising TFL,

But navigating through the concrete vines
Of Renaults, Nissans, off-white vans, wide trucks
And buses lurching forth in serried lines
(The grid compressed then, in a manic flux,
Expanding to allow a bike to squeeze
Between a chink, before it entropies)

Brings with it its own hazards of the flesh
And spirit, and (important too) the cloth.
My suit, clean on this morning, smelt as fresh
As spring dew. Now a cloying, pungent broth
Of perspiration permeates my trunk
And I can taste my own damp, sultry funk.

No matter. It’s the lesser of two Hades –
The 436, a mobile public manger,
A nematodal, crimson-clad Mercedes,
Contains far worse aromas, and more danger
Within its hot articulated husk,
So I endure my own secreted musk.

I overtake the bus and fill my lungs
With blissful schadenfreude and bilious vapours
And leave it’s populations many tongues
To chatter in their seats and read their papers
In Farsi, Hebrew, Mandarin and Slovak
Behind my pedalling feet and engine blowback.

I pass the six-pronged Doric portico
And yellowed copula on St Mark’s blunt
And looming hulk – the hue of dirty snow
Compared with Oval station’s burnished front –
And cycle down the New Road, Camberwell,
Towards the south, against the traffic’s swell.

I have to speed up. My benignant muse
Has given me a brief I must obey.
I shoot through lights, mount pavement, disabuse
Schoolkids and postmen of their right of way,
Down Rye Lane, Peckham, pasting the opening
Primark, ZA Afro-Foods and Burger King.

At Peckham Rye, I cut across and take
A verdant breath and think of seraphim
Revealing in angelic tones to Blake
An epiphanic light across the scrim
Of dew-jewelled Common from their lofty perches
In glowing sycamores and silver birches.

I cannot pause too long for an aubade
Upon this hallowed patch. The night’s ablution
Of moonlight drains away, the avant-garde
Of chirping birds pronounce the dissolution
Of mystic, lunar energy across
South London’s quickly fading milky gloss.

And I have reached my target, like a missile
Propelled with pure afflatus I have sought
The heat of my adventure’s source, its fissile
And fertile core of energy clenched taught
Within a weirdly latent ball, which I
Must now explode before my reader’s eye.

Ben Borek grew up in South London. His previous novel in verse, Donjong Heights, published by Egg Box, was a cult hit back in 2008 and his poetry has been published in City State (Penned in the Margins), London, A History in Verse (Harvard University Press), and Dear World and Everyone in it (Bloodaxe). He has read his work at festivals throughout the UK and Europe and audio of his work is available at the Archive of the Now. He lives in Warsaw with his partner and son and is employed variously as a copywriter, editor, translator and voiceover artist.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, February 24th, 2019.