Today I’m looking at a poem by Phil Brown which announces its own affiliation to a long tradition of pre-emptively posthumous writing. In ‘Sir Gawain on the Northern Line’, Brown avails himself of an almost ritualistic code stretching back to the poetic ‘Testaments’ of Francois Villon and Isabella Whitney (only one of which I have read), monologues in which the speaker rehearses and prepares for his own demise. Like the medieval alliterative poem which provides its title and epigraph, Brown’s work sends its subject to meet his maker with a blend of linguistic vigour and quiet dignity – and skilfully tranposes its anonymous author’s themes of inside and out, individuality and community, to a modern urban context.
Sir Gawain on the Northern Line
“In god fayth”, quoth the goode knight, “Gawan I hatte,
That bede the this buffet, quat-so bifalles after,
And at this tyme twelmonyth take at the another
Wyth what weppen so thou wilt, and with no wyy elles
and if fate should fling me onto
the electric rail of a tube’s tracks
to be sliced open with steel wheels
let me stay so mangled as to remain
unidentifiable and let the driver lose
Or if my end should be the slow sort
made more moral
with each cigarette I suck to the tip
allow me the time to close my accounts
and make good on old
Let death deal me the bravery to apologise
for piquant truths and pretty lies
and let my last words yield
more answers than questions
and the humility to acquiesce to
Let my obituary eat up no more column
inches than those not born into old money
and should I be murdered at alighting
in Burnt Oak amid the fourth concentric
Zone let the artist of my death
The terms, though not of my choice, were agreed :
and as I course viral underneath this metropolis
I leave my regrets at Embankment, Euston, Camden Town
like a skin shed, baring my raw jelly.
No more words sir, my naked neck is
The night deliquesces us all
under the looming street lamp necks
to be human altricial
in the city’s warp and weft.
We begin in medias res: with a lower-case conjunctive word which throws us instantly into the path of a savage hypothetical. A single sentence (as are all of the first four stanzas) communicates propulsive force, but also self-containment. No one likes to think about their own death, but having done so Brown’s moves immediately onward to the logistics of its aftermath, parcelling up each of these four post-mortem thoughts like the articles of a will. The grammar is somewhere between imperative and apostrophe: ‘let me’ and ‘allow me’, like the terms of many prayers, are both a plea and a command. My favourite 20th century take on this type of writing, Jake Thackray’s ‘Last Will And Testament’, revels in this oddly magnanimous, distributive register: ‘Let best beef be eaten/Fill every empty glass/Let no breast be beaten/Let no tooth be gnashed.’
There’s a nod to Brown’s own name-checked forebear in the structure of almost every line, with at least two alliterating beats – ‘fate/fling’, ‘tube’s tracks’, ‘sliced/steel’ – which is at its height in the opening stanza, calling to mind the original’s detailed tableaux of hunting and butchery. And just as Gawain’s puritanical selflessness is a kind of self-absorption, here the speaker reveals his own at the apparent moment of obliterating his self. Wishing to become ‘unidentifiable’ seems like a gracious surrender to the city, the collective violence of its onward movement – but the identification of an accident victim is part of their loved ones’ grieving process, and the sublation of the individual denies any community which surrounds him the possibility of closure. But this is to humanise the poem too much – with the nameless ‘driver’, anonymous as ‘fate’, we are at least partially in the realm of archetypes; mythology on wheels.
Certainly, ‘the slow sort’ of death invoked in the second stanza shrouds the speaker in a category, a familiar story with a ‘moral’ aspect that transcends, if only through repetition, the gruesomeness of those slicing wheels. Here again, smoking seems to stand for a kind of abstracted narcissism – ‘each cigarette’ brings the speaker closer, in narrative logic, to becoming a stock figure in a modern fable. Three isolated m-words hammer home its instructive quality, the line as short as the burnt-out butt-end it prefixes. Closing accounts, making good – in the vocabulary of finance we might find an undue importance ascribed to temporal things, but in the bob-and-wheel section, where we might anticipate ‘debts’, Brown mentions ‘promises’.
The humility of that choice leads us into the third stanza, which continues (in the best possible sense) to generalise. Big, abstract nouns – ‘bravery’, ‘truths’, ‘lies’, ‘answers’, ‘questions’ – apply equally to all lives, and expand the particular circumstances of the speaker’s projected death to a wider metaphysical statement. ‘Deal’ and ‘yield’ both call to mind the highly-codified cut-and-thrust of chivalric combat, but the final two stanzas ground the very Gawainian process of acquiring humility in the fabric of 21st-century London. No wodwos here – just a Tube network which is dignified, like the killers operating within it, by comparison to a Dantean space.
And as Brown’s speaker disperses himself throughout the city, punctuation comes to his aid for the first time in the text; naming the Underground’s constituent parts allows him to break up among them, to be at once the most exposed – a ‘raw’, ‘naked’ first-person pronoun shedding skin – he has ever been, and the most mingled with the world around him. After an autodestructive final submission, where Brown’s ‘no more words’ segue into those of his predecessor, the poem returns to a fluid plurality; not ‘I’, but ‘us’, and the alliteration which had largely disappeared ties the coda together. But where ‘human and helpless’ might have further enhanced that feeling, Brown uses the synonym ‘altricial’ – a word as alien as many of the Gawain-poet’s own choices, and perhaps a brief glimpse of the poet’s own personality before he lets go of himself completely, absorbed into the urban whole.
This is a second selection from The Salt Anthology of Younger Poets. If you enjoyed Brown’s take on the poetic testament, I recommend Thackray’s song in the strongest possible terms, as well as this French masterpiece of the genre by his own great mentor, Georges Brassens.