An Interesting day in Belgium
I've been intending to post my Ostend poems in full . . . When performing, I often begin my set with 'A Seduction is Attempted' - it's a good opening piece because audiences tend to listen once I've told them that it's probably the only poem in the English language about chatting up a transvestite in an Ostend nightclub . . but it's really just one part of a longer sequence which I wrote in that very strange Belgian town.
I've had a few trips to Ostend, always in the winter, to enjoy the nightlife - being a port, it can get quite exotic at times . . . And whenever I visited, there always seemed to be large numbers of elderly ladies spending their days sitting together in the cafes around the main square, all with elaborate hair-dos and strong make-up, wearing big fur coats, accompanied by little fluffy white dogs on leads. It gave the the impression that the town was a favourite retirement-place for superannuated Ladies of Pleasure . . . Of course, I may just have been mis-reading Belgian dress-codes . . .
Ostend was also the home-town of the fabulously bizarre symbolist painter James Ensor (1860-1946). His family kept a shop selling carnival masks, puppets, novelties and random weirdness, which is now a museum. My favourite exhibit was in the shop window (I don't know if it's still there) - a case of stuffed mermaids! These weren't the glamorous beings of fairytale - they were small, shrivelled, vicious-looking creatures created by an enterprising nineteenth-century taxidermist. They do turn up in the poems, though . . .
So now, it's time to spend twenty-four hours in Ostend . . .
1. Early Morning
The birds were singing dawn as we walked home
past the friendly bars and shuttered shops
back to the dank hotel.
Ostend out of season -
the aquarium is closed
and breakfasts are served late
in the warm cafes.
2. Passing Trade
passing trade -
the few tourists left in the dead hotels
pretend to remember chandeliers and carnivals,
imagining the Art Nouveau glamour
of old railway posters.
A crucified dogfish
hangs in the window
of a closed shop
and retired ladies of pleasure
with big fur coats and tiny dogs on leads
wait for nothing all day,
sitting and chatting and watching the world
through the steamy cafe windows.
Sitting at her favourite table by the window
her white dog under the table
breathing warmly on her smooth nylon ankles,
Maxine watches the old men
as they stroll across the square
to take their morning exercise.
Memory strips away their civic wrinkles,
years go like clothes
as she reconstructs their faces
from so many years ago.
Her discreet memories
are not of untidy rooms and excuses,
but of counting up the days and the banknotes
until she achieved her first fur coat.
She has forgotten the names of most of the men
but still remembers that wonderful coat
and the personalities of all her little lapdogs.
4. By the Sea
When the clouds are heavy
and drizzle stitches the sea and sky together
it is hard to remember
what went on in the summer
on the long pale beaches
or what shrivelled the shop-window mermaids
on the promenade where herring gulls flap and scream
darting forward to peck at the hairy tail of a timid poodle.
Daytime diversions -
sitting, looking, eating,
walking past the harbour,
a winter plantation of cold masts,
past the closed museum with its guidebook out of date.
We look in shops
at cow-coloured curtains
in socks and coats,
in sex and seafood
until evening opens the Calypso Bar.
We begin with beer and champagne
and then another night
calls out the hours to us
from a narrow street.
6. The Tourist in the Sex Shop
Young English male, first time on holiday with his mates,
schoolboy-excited, and embarrassed (which he would never admit)
to see displayed on public shelves
the things that home-life laws forbid,
the things he'd seen on internet site.
But here his fantasies were real
and stacked up in front of him.
He giggled at the leather and the lingerie
and the strap-on rubber stimulators
and things with a purpose he couldn't determine.
He went back just to look
again and again.
Every night he stroked
the magazine covers' intertwined bodies
with his groping eyes
but he never dared to take one off the shelf
until his very last evening
when a week's beery desperation
overcame his nervousness.
He didn't think of it as theft, just impulse.
He grabbed, and ran as far as he could
before his risen courage fell
at the thought of Dover customs
(or far worse, his mother)
opening his bag and asking questions
that could only have one answer.
He left the magazine in a shadowed doorway
and crept back early to his cold narrow bed.
The noise from the street makes the little dog whine -
late night people crossing from bar to bar
from club to club, shouting out to one another as they pass.
Someone laughs as the welcoming pavement
comes up to meet his face.
He tastes damp cobblestones and writhes like a starfish.
Someone else complains of a failure to capture
that night's desired creature
the elusive image of human perfection.
The drink and poppers together
tear hot cheese-wires through the brain
making new connections, new discoveries.
Or so it seems.
Maxine in her high apartment
looks down on the street.
She knows it all too well,
the same ritual repeated every night.
She listens for a while, and smiles,
whispers reassurance to the dog
then calls a friend,
arranges to meet tomorrow in the cafe
for lobster salad and reminiscence.
There are straight men in the gay club
dancing with deliberate ineptitude
to prove their sexuality
(as if we needed proof).
We watch them for a while
from our side of the dance-floor
and they don't notice the smirks
but they know they are out of place.
It smells of sweat and cigarettes in here.
We keep dancing,
the atmosphere is hot and cloying.
But don't open the window -
midnight has gone and the morning might get in.
I need to breathe smoke.
I need night-time lungs
to chain the music
(life after love, again)
to the heavy floor.
9. Strobe Lights
I saw a face that was almost a house
thrown into shadows on the wall
light flash flickering
strobes on the broken mirror.
How did it break, I wonder,
in drifting dance-floor thoughts.
Caught in a magic lantern -
of twitching animations
brief freezing of face and form
parading through the music
with an entourage of puppets
multiplied fragmented shapes
in all the mirror's shattered faces.
What do you see?
They all look the same by strobe light.
Speak to me with the voice of a gull.
Speak to me with the voice of a small dog.
Speak to me again in leather
or spread a red fan
shabby with old feathers
to show me where you might have been.
10. A Seduction is Attempted
Come back with me now,
you with your weirdly thrilling face and your bright blue eyes.
I will sneak you back to my sad hotel.
We will avoid the hidden camera by the door
and that sullen old woman,
the reception desk's dour monument,
and we'll ignore those ill-translated warnings about visitors in rooms.
Come back with me now . . .
I want to see your bright blue eyes
shining through deep-sea lenses
to make my shabby room an underwater cavern
where seahorses swim with the small wild mermaids
and scarlet fish with golden fins hide in the coral.
I have dreamed of you so often of late!
Sometimes in tight red latex
(you look so thin you almost seem religious!)
Or in sleek silver satin like dusk on a calm ocean
with fresh sea-pearls entwined in your hair,
or with shiny black boots laced up tight
to the tops of your long, long legs.
Sometimes I dream of you in leather
enjoying the image you see in my dreams.
Come back with me now to my sad hotel . . .
My wine is finished and it will soon be daylight -
I want to gaze at your weird and thrilling face
knowing that my shape and myself
are held in reflection
in your bright blue eyes.
Why won't you answer me?
Why are you walking away?
I've drunk too much and I'm feeling stupid
but wait for a moment more . . .
Wait . . .
Please . . .
11 Another Early Morning
Mistakes and misidentities
catching quick imaginary leopards in the street
that dissolve into litterbins and parking-signs
as we walk back to the hotel.
Music pipes from singing kiosks,
the soundtrack is following us.
We are in a cheap film
acting our parts in front of cardboard buildings.
I said I am not a flying horse
which made sense at the time
but now I can't remember what I meant.
I wonder if it was significant
or if it was just the drink muttering.
The birds are singing dawn again.
seems simply too much bother.
My legs are heavy
and the pavement looks clean.
I think I might sit down here for a while
and wait for the daylight
when it all begins again.