Winged Thoughts in the Age of Air

Month: February, 2013

Ode to a Postbox

This apparently lighthearted but bittersweet poem was originally published in The Guardian.


Of you, humble postbox, positioned between people, halfway house
in the affairs of human beings, the poet sings, his business also the
transmission of letters.

Like you he is a go-between who doesn’t move about, who sends his
thought to faraway places, stamped and postmarked with the deep
furrows of his brow.

Like you, the poet stays in one place a long time, keeping guard, as it
were, over his meditations. Letterbox, do you meditate? Are you a

It’s a revolutionary act to remain in one place in the metropolis.
Letterbox, you project the colours of an activist and a militant.

Yet your dissidence is Gandhian, nonviolent. In the modern anthill of
hyperactivity you’re a smallish postbox with steel rimmed spectacles
and a loincloth.

The world’s motion sick. Who stands still in the city, a receptacle for
messages? Out in the rain, a lonely man and a letterbox could be
mistaken for one another.

Mailbox, geometrically, you have neither front nor back. But distinct
aspects of your existence fascinate the contemporary passerby, make
him ponder.

Take the act of posting. A metaphysical exchange which mysteriously
resembles the transaction of a priest as he or she offers a white host to
the communicant.

Holy medicine is placed between red lips. The world becomes
warmer, lighter, less substantial. A journey begins outside three

Postbox, offering, as you do, a short cut between people, you could be
said to represent a time machine invented several hundred years ago.


Let’s take stock of perspectives of you in a roughly bicentenary
existence. Now you’re an impressionistic smudge. Here, in cubism, a
pillar of the abstract sky.

Suddenly overflowing under turquoise winter heavens you wear a
superb white mantle, carrier of warmest salutations at the sun’s

But you’re not all blessed. There’s more to you than stageprop for
Father Christmas making his beneficent peregrinations through the
general public.

You’ve a dark side in spite of avuncular rotundity, high colour,
somewhat exaggerated corpulence. (You evoke a country gentleman
in gumboots on odd occasions.)

In shadows of the towerblocks at night, near the park, a sinister bulky
silhouette is a jumper-in-waiting. But relax, citizen, it’s only our
familiar friend.

Whose nevertheless potent combination of wide black base in striking
contrast with the colour scheme of the whole upper structure gives a

Postbox, you resemble the overheated barrel of a shotgun pointed at
the poor. Those who can’t pay see punishment as stated in writing.

Sometimes we discover the phenomenon of a double letterbox,
corresponding without doubt to a double-barrelled shotgun.

Heroic mailbox, in some secret future life you might act as bunker in
the great siege of class war. Extremely small riflemen could use you as
barbican or redoubt.

Through a loophole, where envelopes fly and slide, through a military
embrasure, hails of lead! One more revolution not looked for. And no

But such activism would go against your Pasternakian non-
involvement. You’d be deeply compromised as the purest observer.


Yes, red organ of the true life, the human heart shall be transformed.
Love will inspire the uprising which will teach this cold world a much
needed lesson.

It shall never be said, O cache of happy postcards, you were
indifferent. Pillarbox, you have a social conscience. You stand out in a
crowd. A dramatic individual.

Is it going too far to describe you as a free spirit? Is it over-optimistic
to imagine a beacon on dark nights issuing from you as from a sort of

If this were the case it would be a comfort! No hyperventilating lover
need ever say again: ‘O hell! I’ve missed it. The last post has gone.’

Future postmen and watchers of the skies would make their rounds
under the all-seeing zodiac. Not a letter would fall into the mails
without their knowing.

True placement of letterboxes is a science. They don’t just plonk
down at random. It’s more a question of exact location on the double
ordinance survey map of Middlesex.

O pylon of codex and papyrus. You stand as waysign, reminder,
example. But of what? We struggle to encompass your all-embracing

Perhaps you’re an omen of global warming. Perhaps other street
furniture, large objects of daily life, will also turn red in due course,
additional prognostications.

Letterbox, thanks to hyperbole, you are sometimes a blood-covered
whale expiring on the pavement. Your slitlike venthole spurts
lungfroth on unwary pedestrians.

The message of such life-affirming street-theatre is simple. All acts and
intentions are visited backward in the apocalypse.


To return to a more interior symbology. (No adroit philosopher likes
to be dragged into the fascinating turmoil of exterior illusion.)

Letterbox. For a sad man you mark the last outpost of a friendship
transcending finite conditionality. He passes you and murmurs the old
valediction always.

Yet at the other end of the spectrum you are merely a small red
mausoleum which commemorates the predecessor of email. How
reductionist and unromantic!

Yes, there is something romantic about a letterbox. Admit it,
diamond-hard alpha males who have never moistened a postage stamp
with your tears.

Wasn’t there a trivial Beatles song which went: ‘Wait a minute, wait a
minute, please, please, Mr Postman.’? (A cover of the Marvelettes on
Motown.) More evidence.

The letterbox is the glowing lantern of those mariners who sail the
wreck-strewn oceans of romance. Never forget this: One more letter
might help.

Yet as one man’s sunset is another man’s dawn the world is a duality
where contradiction raises its ugly head to spoil everything.

How charming. In some cliched green lane of middle class
imagination, a lovesick English gentleman reaches out to a postbox.
Decisive gesture!

No going back once that declaration’s through the red aperture.
No return to level-headedness of stockbrokerdom possible.

O joys of commitment. Marriage! Mailbox as rubicund finger with
extra large diamond ring. But what is that fragrance, musky and pagan,


Feline stink assaults the nostril, miasma of the cat who rubs her
hindquarters on the circumference. Round and round the black base
on tiptoes. How suggestive!

Look at the animal! Far from any dream of shy maidens,
unapproachable sylphs, what about the presence of the scarlet woman
in the cosmos?

O letterbox. Why do you paint yourself so luridly and stand on the
corner of Keat’s Grove where certainly the sick poet often
encountered you in twilight?

‘I should have lived had I not seen her again.’ Last words of an
immortal. Singer of the fever hospitals. Shipwrecked genius,
you are your own mythology.

Heartbroken, oppressed pure one. May a mad dog bite the postman
with the postbag containing Lord Byron’s barb, blot on literature.

(What happens to hopelessly lost love letters, by the way? Does
anyone burn them? They can’t be returned. The sender has usually

‘I should have had her while I was well’. Words from the deathbed of
a poet. What fires of spontaneous combustion flare in each mortal
temple! Rest easy, John.

She was faithful in black many years, unmarried a decade after your
terrible departure. God bless, Fanny Brawne. All flesh knows the
valley of suffering.

A smile on the side of an red obelisk which stands in wind and rain at
the corner of a leafy London street means forgiveness.

The lover tastes death in disappointment. But an after-sensation of
sweetness is left on the tongue. Things go from bad to worse to


If any see smoke spiralling from the open mouth of a postbox and
wonder, here’s the answer. Something ignites in us, in the deepest heart.

The letterbox is the unassuming emblem of a transformation taking
place every day. You can read about it in any local newspaper.

‘Twice we have seen smoke issuing from a letterbox and are writing to
complain that such things are not possible. Disenchanted.

Letterbox, finally! Would it be true to say you are both erotic and
mystical simultaneously? Are you double like Mercury? Alchemically equal?

Mercury was the postman of the ancient world. Today the messenger
god wears airsoles, presents himself as expert breakdancer on the

Winged sandals are making a comeback among the planet’s
sunchildren. Eventually, the same spirit will lift all who tread the earth.

If the postman is the bee, then you, pillarbox, are a red hibsicus flower
full of the nectar of communication. One day we will stick our stamps
with honey.

The world shall write a love letter to itself and entrust it to the poet
who will place it in the postal system at the earliest visitation of his
first class muse.

Sacred and profane. Sayonara. Farewell. We take leave of you,
mailbox of contradictory manifestation, not to say schizophrenic

Little round wayside shrine of communion, realistically we know our
giving and receiving sometimes shake a house of assignation in the
small hours of the morning.

But the definingly human encounter with the world is the balanced
reaction to the content of our experience, not the experience itself.


O pillarbox of pronouncedly phallic appearance, though you blush
for your visibility on the main street of existence, never feel low.

You are the red lingam of the chaste dancer Shiva, erect but controlled
and cooled by superconsciousness. Jai Shiva Shankar.

In a midland city of this island someone was arrested for worshipping a
letterbox, for scattering over it fresh milk and sunflower petals.

The latter extraordinary fragment of information was invented as a
tribute to the power of imagination locked up in the unimportant

It’s all under lock and key in the Royal Mails so that what is intended
to be shared may be delivered at the appropriate time and to the right

Her Majesty the Faerie Queen and no one else transmitted these
truths in a letter addressed to an obscure poet known as Voice of Kings

It was postmarked from the highest point in the galaxy and arrived just
after midnight in a marvellous explosion of sunrays, recorded delivery.


Odeon Walkout

I ponder often the ‘mystical’ fact that things are only relatively real down here. This place isn’t 100% real, though incredibly convincing to the unpractised eye. Analogically, sometimes watching a good movie or a play we become deeply involved, then, in a moment of detachment, we remember.


Popcorn stinks of rancid butter,
in row behind someone sneezes;
onscreen some psychotic nutter
does with heroine as he pleases.
Nerves are grated down to synapse,
heart’s the drum a demon raps;
palms are slick with anxious sweat,
how much darker can it get?
There! One vivid bright-green word
illuminates this situation:
‘Exit’ means non-habituation,
sign which makes everything absurd.
Leaving auditorium:
illusion’s moratorium.


Son of Erin


Dedicated to Gerry Conlon and the Guildford Four. Gerry C was banged up in a high-security British jail for fifteen years till finally released cleared of all charges of involvement in an IRA bombing of a Guildford pub in October 1974. I also dedicate this to all the Palestinian freedom-fighters currently held wrongfully in Israeli jails.


He’s a West Belfast boy, he’s an Ulster lad,
through the Tyrone branch he’s a Conlon man (sad
that forced conversion in Sasana, so sad).
In the rivermouth city raised, it’s too bad
the Troubles took away the childhood he never had.
Here’s the Harland and Wolff shipyard.
Now he dreams he’s a sailor like Sinbad,
another street-kid in cold wintertime half-clad;
climbing through the sky with some comrade
he flies the blue pigeon, pisses off his Dad,
rides Liverpool-bound with a newspaper ad.

Innocent sailing to the Promised Land,
the downfall of the Gaelic Order of legend
is seen again in your fate, well-intentioned
man with no real hatred for England,
with your long black hair and your hippy headband.
Don’t go insane as you look ahead, damned
sailor destined to be cast up on the sand
where skulls of madmen, slowly whitened,
burn under suns imperial, grand.
Fifteen years is a lot to stand
in a prison beneath the Gardens of Fand.

Sleepless mysteries, looking back at night,
as the contraries lock together tight:
a bed under mirrors and a house full of light,
a prostitutes lair and the squat out-of-sight
where the goddesses made you feel alright
but the jealous freaks still wanted a fight.
And then the whole world was set alight
with nitroglycerine’s ‘might is right’;
and that was when the dove took flight,
and disappeared into the azure height.
And they locked a scapegoat up in spite;
and, Gerry, God forgot about you quite.

Until your father came to your side
though you cursed him in your bitter pride.
He came because you had been denied
your freedom, and he alongside
you suffered, like Christ (for He was tried)
and he too, your father, with nothing to hide,
was sent down to do many years inside.
Through the pain of those years you both survived
as they pissed and shat in your food, applied
lashes with coshes, in your mindstate pried,
tried to make you, Gerry, commit suicide.
And when, after your father had died
(and when for your father’s death you’d cried)
and when at last the prison door stood wide,
the judge could only say ‘The officers lied.’

And then the tabloid monster of Satan,
from high-security jails of Britain,
disorientated and ashen,
he whose good name they tried to blacken,
whose neck the screws wanted broken,
ran down a one-way street, a free man
on News-at-Ten, like shot-from-a-cannon,
because now at last it was known for certain
he’d been treated worse than a common felon
for fifteen years, though he didn’t weaken,
ever become something less than human,
among his solid Celtic brethren,
the long-suffering Irishmen.

But freedom came like a dark demon
with the dirty money of compensation
for the time of his early manhood stolen.
And, Gerry, the cocaine wouldn’t loosen
as you sought to numb yourself and sweeten
the memory of those years so barren
behind the cell bars made of iron.

And all I can say, lips bitten,
not expecting words can hearten,
is that you, Gerry, were never beaten
forgiving even what they did to you in prison
all those years, my friend, Son of Erin.


Apollonian Workshop

At a beautiful pre-Raphaelite country-retreat I recently ran a workshop called Shelley’s Guitar… all about the overlap of literature and contemporary song-writing. We looked at rock-poets and wildmen from Rimbaud to Eminem, the Dionysian/Apollonian divide between raw experience and cool analysis, the poetic project of imposing order on chaotic fate; we looked at the old quarrel between the higher cortex and the limbic reptilian brain. And we ended up listening to a lot of good rap starting with my all-time-fave: Bahamadia’s ‘True Honeybuns’.

We went a long way from a cold start, as is sometimes the case. 15 or 20 teenagers recruited in most cases against their will to my workshop weren’t that easy to grab right away. (I reckon with teenagers you have about 30 seconds to engage, after that, if you’ve flopped it, you’re going nowhere fast.) The day after the workshop I climbed a hill in the sunshine, happily exhausted by the previous day, and found myself semicircled in a meadow by curiously slavering cows.

This poem resulted…


A semicircle of dumb herd-animals
drooling transparent stuff from chins,
perpetually-chewing, American-style:
reminiscent this morning of other beasts,
yesterday’s fiercer pack of hungover
sixteen-year-old wolves: teenagers,
sleepy, yawning, sceptical, ill-at-ease
under troubled skin, trapped behind
practiced expressions of indifference,
mirror-perfected masks of boredom,
impenetrable walls, generation-gaps,
all the old defences of the innocent.

Ranged also in a crescent like these –
probing vast pink nostrils with tongues –
grumpy, lazing on scattered cushions,
they waited, steaming with impatience,
probably frogmarched to the ordeal,
barked-at in some off-limits bedroom
usually barricaded with audio;
told by the authorities to attend,
ordered for their own good where
culture reaches out to new victims,
boring the tits off everyone.

One particular wolf in bovine clothing,
no poser, on Union Jack floor-cushion
sprawled in scruffy chic, bedhead
carefully pomaded to simulate
passing of a hurricane across the skull,
growled a greeting almost as guttural
as last-night’s phone-call to Australia
via the porcelain connection,
the cables of spaghetti bolognaise
drooling from the chin with lactic acid:
that regurgitation of the small hours.
Another eyed his potential torturer
as some kind of undercover pedagogue
smuggled into the Easter hols
in a last-ditch parental bid
to kick dyslexic offspring into line.

Then a zither began to sound
from the old days of the citharode;
and cloud-shadows began to slide
across an unfamiliar countryside.
Then rivers began to foam with black
milk from the breasts of a she-wolf
as forty singers sang the circle-ode.
Until the crescent closed suddenly
as shivering voltages changed the world.
And nostrils of the wild beasts flared
as into the distance sixteen eyes stared,
looking wildly out of time and space
into the mountain-ranges of the god Apollo.