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Cliff

I’d first seen Tom’s painting at Medicine Unboxed 2013 and felt it’s atmosphere strongly, immediately, in the way that some things just speak. Over the course of a few months I kept looking at the photo of the painting on my phone, and would feel again that I believed it, although no words came.

When I finally cleared my desk, with a useful sense of guilt at testing Tom’s patience, I began to look more closely at what was actually going on in the image. I have a hefty need for nature and that confined, internal space in ‘the blue of the TV-screen li-ight’ Joni Mitchell complains about, was a kind of prison. The measly pot plant Tom has included only emphasised contemporary preoccupations with environmental apocalypse.

Though now, on yet another look, I see the door is open, in the faces of the two figures it is not. They are completely disconnected from one another, lost in inner worlds that must surely be as unrewarding as the walls. They are also one figure experiencing themselves repeatedly in the same space at different times. Caught forever in this image, the two times become one time – a gloomy eternity where no amount of change (to your physical position) will shift the listlessness.

And then there is that lampshade. Which is where I began – a mechanical sun throwing shadows on its passive world. After which the poem really did write itself.

Only… Poems don’t like to be so easy.

My first ending, which stayed around for a few months, read: ‘I step / across your lap like an eclipse / and all you ask / is nothing.’ The poem got thrown to a Masters workshop and people complained about that ‘nothing’ – ‘it’s too easy’, ‘over used’, ‘what is nothing?’ And so on…

I knew they were right but didn’t have the answer yet. The poem sank to the bottom of the pile. I’m becoming more and more fascinated by the sense that there’s a right time for everything (more hippy songs – who wrote Turn! Turn! Turn!?). Particularly with poems: sometimes you can’t finish a poem because you haven’t yet had the experience it needs. Similarly, I might find a line I wrote in a notebook ten years ago and discover that it belongs with a line written five years ago and another from yesterday. Like Tom’s two figures, the creative act lets different time frames form a new present together.

The deadline for solving this poem’s riddle arrived amid a stint of busyness when I was feeling especially cut off from my writerly intuition. Treasured friend and brilliant poet Samir Guglani must have read about five different versions before he told me to leave it a while longer. In the end, he asked the question that needed asking – ‘what is this poem really about?’ Sheepishly, and because the time was at last right, I admitted that it was about trying to cut from love. He gave me: ‘I step across your lap like an eclipse, then face you until you are space, gone.’ For openness and rhythm this became ‘then face you into space.’

All those earlier thoughts about the stagnant world Tom created in this painting somehow inform the poem, but none are explicit. Likewise, the painting’s atmosphere must have resonated with something I hadn’t been able to make conscious. So I’ll conclude with thanks to Tom for the painting and for instigating this ekphrasis. And with thanks also to the creative act, which always insists upon honesty, and rewards with healing.