Brighton Pilgrimage is a longish poem about someone I used to know, whom I admired very much and whose early life fascinated me. And that's all I have to say about that.
The most interesting thing about this particular poem for me is that I am the pilgrim of the title, I am the one driving the car at the opening of the poem, and yet the narratorial voice gradually shifts into hers, or an imaginary amalgam of hers and mine, although at the end I do seem to come back to myself somewhat. I suppose much of that is about smoke and mirrors, especially where some of the many puns, double-entendres and significant images are concerned.
There is much I like about my earlier self as a poet, and much that I wish I could recapture: freshness, confidence, lyrical and imaginative strength, plus a startling lack of inhibition, probably due to an amusing misunderstanding of how poems are read. But there's also a naivety and an awkwardness of phrasing and line-breaking that I wouldn't want to return to.
And the last stanza needs to be rewritten.
Brighton Pilgrimage was among my earliest longer poems - having cut my teeth on the standard sub-40, moving beyond a page in length was a bit of an exciting departure for me - and was first published in The Brief History of a Disreputable Woman (Bloodaxe, 1997).
She drives down through the dawn:
Brighton streets, traffic-lights, railings,
the Indian summer of the Pavilion,
white-washed terraced houses,
green lawns dotted with sprinklers,
surrounded by wallflowers, roses.
A long police patrol car on its beat.
Coming out onto the promenade,
sea becomes a flicker in the mirror,
a long incessant flash of silver
at her shoulder, indicating left
and casting off along the coast.
Not stopping to read the signs,
the place-names, green arrows,
but following the drift of the wind,
due west. She adjusts the mirror;
fumbles, eyes straight ahead, for
her sunglasses on the dashboard.
It was like a dream she once had,
a landscape of the mind, useless
as a now unbeaten track, stopped
like a clock, tickless, unchiming,
not even the second hand moving.
She has driven all night. It is
morning, late spring or summer,
birds drifting out over driftwood
on the long line of the beach,
a man in shirt-sleeves, staring.
The end of the promenade is
a safety-marker, warning-buoy.
Then a cafe, open for business -
a woman out on the step, sweeping.
The sign says: 'All Day Breakfast'.
Two black dogs lie at the roadside
like strange bookends, motionless.
This is the place it started from:
an oak tree root, it winds out
from its origins like a snake,
moving in all directions at once.
She cannot resist, cannot stop.
She is the figure on the beach,
too distant to contact, a dot
halfway between the tidewall
and the tide. The water turns.
It does not have indolence
of stars, the sophistication
of a satellite in sling-shot orbit,
but in the shallows, the slow
brackish water of the rockpool,
it is the enemy of time, still
unchanged, forever turning.
This mirrored millpond sea,
this copper-coloured coast,
the strangle-hold of estuary,
have stood stock still for years
in ebb and flow monotony.
The villages have grown to towns
of course, with schools, shops,
penny arcades, the sprawl
of make-shift modern bungalows.
But not this view, the estuary
pulled into rhythm by the sea -
nothing here has changed.
Deserted factories, each window
broken by a different stone
along the jagged water's edge.
House-boats moored uneasily,
up to their shoulders in silt,
their painted timbers peeling
from the frame, water-logged.
No other sign of life,
no welcome for a woman
who takes that winding road
along the waterside, looks
out to sea and sees herself
beside an ancient traffic-light
still turning green to red,
stopping an invisible flow
of traffic from the right.
She waits, conditioned to
instruction without cause.
This peace, this timeless blue,
evaded her for thirty years
like sleep; its dark circles
are bruising her eyes.
She wants to stop the car
beside the blanket of the sea,
walk into its white folds
like a child, but the lights
ahead are turning green;
she keeps on driving.
This is the picket fence,
the gate, the garden wall,
a small green square of lawn
where she bent her head
back in the lap of the daisies,
first looked up at the sun
and was made fierce by it.
Like a tall ship in a bottle,
she had to learn to fold herself
into the rigid glass of home,
although the sea had always
beckoned, running beside her
like a shadow on water,
Here in this narrow street,
she first perfected cuckoo-
calls, dubbed the briar patch
the wild dog-rose and called
herself by different names -
but none would ever fit
until she found her own.
With the engine running,
she sits, watches the curtain
twitch, lets the sun bounce
back off the dark windows.
She wakes, shakes herself
like a dog out of water,
and fumbles for first gear.
She turns and takes the inland
road. Where does the line
begin, drawn through the time
of the journey, the stopping-in,
the moving-out, the destination?
In the slant of her rear-view mirror,
the sea always a blur, beginning.
Now playing: "As I lay me down to sleep" from Sophie B. Hawkins