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Monday, 7 September 2015

Rebecca Watts on Ben Rogers' "Mackerel Salad"

Mackerel Salad by Ben Rogers

Turned left out of the room, and returned for the security pass. 
Conversation about pass, do you need it to get out.
Should it be possible for a building to require you to need a pass to 

     get out. 
Pressed button to get into stairwell and then because the light was 
     flashing alternate green and orange you didn’t need the pass to 
     get out. 
Turned right out of the building, many going the opposite way, and
     while doing so planned to get mackerel salad.
Crossed the road to a traffic island, thought about the odds of getting 

     hit by a truck.
Odds increase of getting hit if you’re thinking about something else 
     while crossing, including thinking about the odds of getting hit.
Crossed the road from traffic island to other pavement, saw an
     advertisement for mortgages.
Pros for mortgages: the image of yellow flowers on a wooden 

     countertop. Cons for mortgages: the word mort means death and 
     gage means count.
Momentary contemplation about the countdown to death while passing
     a man with dice on his tie.
Entered the usual café and bought the mackerel salad, served by a 

     woman with glasses who didn’t quite make eye contact while 
     smiling so was actually smiling at some air space.
Took the mackerel salad to a square in front of a church, thought about
     wavering prayer and murmuring candles. 
Consideration of the paving arranged in circular patterns.
Started to pace round the square following the circular patterns, 
     stepping on the individual paving slabs and not touching cracks.
Are they assembled to cater for some sort of ritual.
Do they reflect some sort of astral cartography.
How did Pluto feel when it was told it was not a planet.
Pluto doesn’t feel things, because it’s elemental.
Thought that it’s hard to know that for absolutely sure.
Decided to ring a friend, and it went straight to answerphone, a 
     recorded woman’s voice neither of us know.
Didn’t leave a message because of having heard sound of own voice on
     previous occasion and it sounding like someone else.
On that basis you might not speak at all.
Decided on a bench, sat on the right hand side nearer the coffee stall 
     and ate first fork of mackerel salad.
Man at the coffee stall recommends the white chocolate and cherry
     flapjack to a woman in a dark red coat, but she doesn’t buy it. 
Thought about the different reds, thought about predators in fairy 
Read on phone an old post from days ago about someone giving up 
     using their phone for the day the next day, although they will still 
     use the internet.
Thought about being in a wilderness where phones won’t work.
The wilderness had parched olive trees and powdery dirt, as well as
     stagnant water and reeds nearby to the right and up a narrow path,
     if you can call it that, on the left.
The woman said earlier that this was the last day of the salad.
Thought that some last days go without you noticing, is it better if you
     notice. Recalled the air conditioning unit in gated car park of a 
     building south-west from the square towards the river, how when 
     passing it it used to have a ticking sound that created the sense 
     time was running out.
The last few times it has stopped ticking.
The sky isn’t a mackerel one because the clouds are too large. 
The wind can’t decide where it’s going. 

from New Poetries VI © Ben Rogers

Though I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry, I am with the speaker all the way to the penultimate line of ‘Mackerel Salad’. I’ve turned into the corridor and spun back into the office with him before I’ve even decided whether to read the poem, and now you mention it I’m not sure whether we can get out without the pass, which is a mildly disturbing thought, because if the technology, with its inscrutable flashy-light logic, is in charge, and the power fails, how would we… But stop. One must not let one’s anxious thoughts speed along to their pre-set destinations of doom. One must take regular lunchtime walks and practise allowing such thoughts simply to drift, like clouds, across the blue sky of one’s awareness.

The poem reflects on and experiments with states of control and letting go. The very act of narrating a lunch break seems defiant: Take that, office job – I am creative – see how I observe and render into sentences the curious details of daily life, even while sandwiched in your dominion! The speaker imposes narrative order onto this borrowed hour, documenting post hoc his actions and thought-topics: ‘Crossed the road to a traffic island, thought about the odds of getting hit by a truck’; ‘Took the mackerel salad to a square in front of a church, thought about wavering prayer and murmuring candles’.  Yet he also gives us some thoughts unmediated, allowing them to evade narration, to hang there in the poem’s consciousness, without pursuing them: ‘Are they assembled to cater for some sort of ritual. / Do they reflect some sort of astral cartography. / How did Pluto feel when it was told it was not a planet.’ No question marks, because no searching for answers. Such equanimity, however, is hard to maintain; the slip into extrapolation leads too easily to conclusions, which can be fearful: ‘On that basis you might not speak at all.’

The speaker is a creature of habit (the imposition of control again) who’s nevertheless experimenting with spontaneity (freedom from pre-conceits). It’s ‘the usual café’ and ‘the mackerel salad’, but ‘a square in front of a church’, suggesting this particular lunch spot is unfamiliar. His pacing is ritualistic – neurotic even – but creative thoughts are liberated by it.

Competing with these instances of liberation are life’s pervasive provocations to eliminate potentiality through decision: whether to ring a friend, whether to leave a message, which bench to sit on, which side of the bench, flapjack or no and if so which flavour… It’s no wonder the mind throws up a vision of a wilderness – some sparse place where we might avoid the onslaught. But fresh anxiety follows fast on this image of loneliness – the fear of time running out, provoked by the sudden recognition, in the memory, of a change in a familiar sight and sound, which then takes on a darker significance.

How far we’ve travelled, in only a few steps. The poem mirrors how the mind works: the syntax of thought compressed in the race to keep up with itself; notions that are vivid though not fully articulated, juxtaposed with sentences that arise fully formed from we know not where.

I love it. Which is why the last line feels wrong. Should it be possible for a poem representing the flow of consciousness to have a last line. No! The poem should go on as long as we have mind to read it, for the cessation of the flow of consciousness is the one event we definitely can’t apprehend consciously. Here only is the artifice exposed: the poem is not consciousness, and must end somewhere.

That it abandons its project with the wind’s disorientation is apt. In this image, indecision is a feature of liberty rather than constraint: the wind ‘can’t decide’ because it isn’t capable of decision, and in its mindless swirling lies its power. Or is the emphasis otherwise – is this rather a triumphant realisation – that while ‘the wind can’t decide where it’s going’, can only blow about insensibly, he is infinite in faculty?

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