Shakespeare told us in As You Like It that all the world is a stage, and men (and women) merely actors playing their parts through the seven acts of life, from infancy to death. This week’s collaborative work explores the experience of aging from five different perspectives. Designed as a performance piece, ‘Untitled Collaborative Work’ was performed by poets Alex Brinded, Karly Stilling, Jo Longley, Mohammad Al-Houti and Raif Mansell as part of the Enemies Project (Ovinir: Iceland) in London on 30th January. You can watch a recording of the performance here.
Karly Stilling explains that the group was interested in exploring the idea of translation. “We each wrote one original stanza on a particular stage of life and sent them around to each other, and then we each wrote our own translation of the original stanzas,” she says. “Together, the poem can be understood as one collaborative stream of thought echoing in five different voices and styles, reflecting the varied experience of growing up and getting old.”
Each stanza has a common theme of reminiscence and growing up, and the input of the additional voices give the piece a unique completeness and unity that helps alleviate the inevitable resistance to the passing stages of life.
Untitled Collaborative Work
We start with fleshy blubber and crayon features.
A rock strewn canyon, my brothers ahead
I must catch up, I must always keep up.
A first sighting of snow, we run up the mist,
wrinkled grins as we roll into cloudscape.
In the beginning, we are softly drawn—
my sister running ahead up the bank of the ravine
while I struggle to follow, as always.
Breaking out of the mist into snow,
we are laughing as we join the sky.
I must always keep up—
I was a mess of clay, dirt, and sunshine;
trying to keep up with the boys in a way
that made my thin legs tan.
Being pressed into place though I’d yet to grow,
we run up the mist—
As children we climb up makeshift mountains;
racing to the top of sandhills
we find our spirits roll about
along with the swirling clouds.
roll into cloudscape—
Now. A language hums you awake
voices that illuminate, shroud then illuminate,
like bones that later control
The moment when childhood ends
is counted in shame and stretch marks;
the secret currency of stolen cigarettes
passed among us like lip-glossed kisses.
and then with flash and soot. I was a flash bang powder—
innocence in yards of fabric stretching tighter.
I was all but spark and smoke,
and a whisper I didn’t have a secret for.
when childhood ends—
At the onset of puberty,
we count sprouting hair follicles
while our crushes blow smoke rings
towards us—soft tobacco kisses.
Lip-glossed kisses or stolen cigarettes;
preparing as acting, acting as preparing
for nothing. The future; you owned it,
when you didn’t need either.
counted in shame—
The end of innocence
is marked on our bodies and in our new consciousness;
as we nick fags to use as clandestine currency
and share like the wet sheen of lips.
It’s a pretty mouth smiling for me
knowing I cannot quit
handing her my thorns—seeing her
trotting about in my high heel shoes.
I force a smile
to uplift his spirits
and find he does the same
teetering in my shoes—a baby clown.
pretty mouth smiling—
When you rise, the sun crawls;
it only wants to come out for a cigarette,
face its wages with high heels;
don’t say blow your smoke the other way please.
I cannot quit—
A charming little grin looks up at me—
I try to only pass on what is good
but know she bears my spikes—my brown
work brogues dwarf her tiny feet.
in my high heel shoes—
She smiles Ravish-me-Red pretty:
a gift, a task—a life I must hold.
I cannot keep her from my faults
which she slips into like my too-big shoes.
Shaving my beard for the millionth time,
I recoil at the face in the mirror—I look different—
everything feels different. I’m acutely aware of the gloss
in the bathroom tiles, that seem to liquefy into ocean waves.
Systematic; the symmetry of beard hair,
the consistency of tiles, only the occasional
wave of dignity & grief disguised as water.
Systematic; the tap is turned away once more.
the millionth time—
I dragged the razor across my chin—
the reflected face double-takes
I don’t recognise those lines,
the patina of bathroom floor shimmers as the sea.
aware of the gloss—
Plucking my greys for the hundredth time,
my reflection becomes my mother’s—
my body worn to foreign familiarity
like the bathroom tiles I keep meaning to replace.
I look different—
I don’t shave my legs any more,
the hair’s soft, and I no longer bristle.
I no longer sparkle flash bang either.
The scissors from the medicine cabinet gleam.
You made love, misplaced it in the corner of a dream.
You find it when you wake; when brains turn the bulbs yellow.
You find your love in a room
that will change and will not change.
Love was there, lost on the edges of sleep
I open my eyes and see love with me;
the colour of light has yellowed here,
in a place that will always be different and the same.
you made love—
A lifetime of loving turns to leaving,
shifting into memories which burst like crocuses
from the snow. This room is familiar,
these faces full of yellow blooming love.
and will not change—
as I take my glory from my shoulders.
This body is my body but it’s not a home—
breathing out like a dandelion I do not
wish to leave home, but this goes.
you find your love in a room—
Fantasizing on misplaced lovers,
you wake to the yellow sun—a persistent light bulb—
determined to find your love,
a pursuit that never ends.
a pursuit that never ends.
The natural distance between poet and audience is almost eliminated completely in this piece, as the interpretive stanzas break each story down to find the essence of its meaning. Thanks for reading, join us next week!