The Broken Word
by Adam Foulds
The Broken Word - Adam Foulds
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I'm going to read 'The Broken Word', a narrative poem, the action of which begins in Kenya in the 1950s.
The Broken Word
The Broken Word
Chapter One: What Was Happening
Compact glare of a match flame in daylight
and the waiter’s dark hand still
as an ornament, the flame an upright leaf
tending to Jenkins as he sucked his cigarette alight,
because the train had slowed.
He wished it wouldn’t slow, not
among the lion-coloured slums
with their cattery stink.
He could see people posting themselves,
third class, into the train windows or dropping
carefully onto wide, unfeeling feet.
The waiter waved out the flame.
Can I get you a drink, sir?
Sun’s over the yard arm.
The waiter stood in the cylinder
of his white shift, understanding
or not. The train bucked,
gathering speed. He levelled himself
naturally as a glass of water.
Jenkins blew smoke towards him.
Also there is an Englishman, English boy,
sir, on the train with … other people.
I don’t know name, sir.
Well, tell him to come and see me,
and the answer is yes, bring me a drink.
The carriage dark with bodies.
Bright smells of opened fruit.
He asked questions and had
one old man talking because
he loved the plush impacts
of their consonants, the glimmer
of teeth, and had missed the sound
of thoughts fetched and weighed
and slowly spoken, ideas
that had formed slowly in the sun,
a million miles from the bark
and whine and snivel
and brag of school.
It soothed him. The noble cheekbones soothed him.
The old man looked like Joseph
from his own farm
who always had something
small and alive to show.
He spoke of his son in the city,
the difficult life, and ambition.
Then a cough, a touch on his shoulder.
Excuse me, sir. Mr Jenkins invites you
to go to him, please.
Tables. Empty Seats. Napery.
The proper way to sit.
This Jenkins, half-remembered, had a tweed moustache:
threads of ginger brown and white
I assume you don’t smoke yet
and hair so thin and waxed,
it looked like a lick of paint.
You haven’t been back long.
Jenkins observed the boy’s white skin
as though the observation were cunning.
I flew in this morning.
Is finished. I go up to university in autumn.
Jenkins, who had not been, did not ask which one.
Final summer. You might have stayed in England,
you know. It might have been better.
Tom said nothing, then: I wanted to come back.
Jenkins held his cigarette down
into the ashtray until it was out,
the last smoke crawling up his hand, into his sleeve.
I presume your father has written to you
about the situation.
Tom, trying to pull his eyes politely
back from the view to Jenkins:
He mentioned it.
It’s bad enough, Jenkins leaned forward
sending quiet words out one by one
like bees from the gap of their hive,
that you should not be in there
talking with them.
Tom blinked, fingertips on table edge.
But I’ve always …
Oh, we’ve all always but things are different.
The oathing has been going on
round your father?s estate.
The ceremonies, the pledges:
join or your throat cut.
Or worse. Not far from here
Cut to bits, buried, dug up,
and then others forced to eat bits,
keep them in line. Of course
one broke down and spilled it.
Jenkins regarded Tom, the boy’s
fingertips still on the table edge,
mouth slightly open, blushing
with fear, the fine and healthy fear
that might save him.
Jenkins was met by Fuller
who led him to the car under trees already black,
the first stars prickling in their branches,
the two men walking, not talking.
Then, in the car, Fuller:
We’ve picked up two more.
Yes. Chaps got a bit worked up,
actually, sort of let them
have it somewhat.
Jenkins decided as soon as he saw
what a hash they’d made
of their faces, heard
their soft noises, lying there.
the youngest there, smoking from
a flutter of fingertips, legs crossed,
take these gentlemen
outside and end their suffering, would you.
Prior looked up. No one else looked.
When he had them up on their feet
and out of there, briefly,
at each other, they looked.
He made them walk in front.
Seeing their hands tied
in the smalls of their backs
his brain was smitten with a thought,
over complicated, strictly meaningless,
like a fever thought:
the captive’s captive hands
and he the captor, three boxes: outermost he,
innermost, their hands, their bodies’
It made no sense.
Stepping with his dusty brogues
into the weak backs of their knees
he made them kneel
and to do it quicker than he could think
shot them one two
each opened head falling away
from his hand.
When Jenkins came out he looked up
and knew that there was more two do:
he’d have to clean
with bucket and sponge
each wet red gust
from the station wall.
from The Broken Word (Jonathan Cape, 2008), © Adam Foulds 2008, used by permission of the author.