The Last Dance
A whiff of smoke and we’re dancing, elbowed out of our daytime disguises by a beat that’s stripped to the waist and lifting the doors off their hinges. I can’t sing, but I do anyway, my ecstatic voice smothered in love and noise. We are waves, we are flames, we are prayer flags on a mountain, blown pure above clouds that hide a world wrapped in barbed wire and endless static. There are no signals but our hands and eyes; no connections but bodies; no distractions but thin gravity and the dizzying spin of stars. The music is a haze of petals, mismatched memories pitched up like tents at the end of the world, a wisp of smoke from a temple or a student bedsit. We’re dancing like magnets, like falling objects, like a mirror cracking side to side. We’re dancing in the ruins and in the new growth. We’re dancing like surprise, like awe. we are rhythm. We are smoke.
Show and Tell
The beat between phrases is bruised with red flowers. We learn by doing, but all we have is speech, curling and dropping like wood shavings as we plane away the edges of our daily routine. Phrases lose their familiar forms, losing definition until we wouldn’t recognise them with the lights out. We learn by repetition, but each iteration is subtly distinct in ways neither of us is able to describe: you talk about microscopes spectrometers, and I suggest charades and tai chi. Phrases are mongrels running wild in the alley: many a true word is lost between cup and lip; stay where the heart is; now watch your hands. We learn to expect the expected, but received wisdom is out of date and cues are lost to social distance. Phrases beat like a slow drum in a masked parade, and all the buses are right on time, though empty.
Treading the Boards
With the theatres closed, I’ve moved into adverts and documentaries, slipping between roles with the turn of a typed page. Yesterday, I was Confused But Delighted Father, twelve years married to a perfect wife, with three beautiful children and a kitchen that would have made Mother Teresa turn her back on the Missionaries of Charity and devote her life instead to the perfect lemon drizzle cake. Today, I am a diver on a sunken wreck, a silent time capsule from March 2020. I point at flyers for political rallies and gigs that never happened, and at unread books now inhabited by hermit crabs. I lean in to peer at an octopus that sits on a barnacled office chair, a souvenir biro from the Willis Tower in one pink tentacle. Lastly, I enter the ballroom with my bankable confused-but-delighted face and sweep my torch across an orchestra still playing “In the Mood” in various stages of bloat and decay. Someone else – David Tennant or David Attenborough, or maybe the ghost of David Bowie – will add voice-over later, but for now the director calls Cut!, and we all relax as Mother Teresa doggie-paddles in, a snorkel clamped in her toothless smile, with a lemon drizzle cake she made from a branded packet.
The Upside of Apocalypse
When skeletons rise from lakes, rivers and sea, they are glad to be home. They are glad to be without flesh or water, able at last to reconceptualise horizons of expectation. Suddenly, everything’s an opportunity again, everything’s an economic opportunity, a golden ticket, a windfall on Premium Bonds or shares in airbag technology. Weather matters again, so they stock up on boots and brollies. Having no flesh, families and old friends – even husbands, wives and children – are impossible to recognise, so there is a boom in small ads and speed dating, reinvigorating print media and community spaces. Waiting times for physiotherapy have increased, but MRI and X-ray units have closed. Obesity is no longer an issue. There’s an upside to apocalypse in terms of equality and diversity, but now there are skeletons rising in churchyards and forest clearings, shaking mud from jaws and joints, stunned in the sun. Tomorrow or the day after, they’ll remember why they’re dead and who was to blame, but for now everything’s peachy, no one doesn’t belong, and everyone’s size zero.
Amber lights hold everything in temporary abeyance, from the truck at the interchange to the writer poised with his old-fashioned pen at the intersection between fact and fiction. Imagine this: the driver climbs from the cab that has been hid home for forty days and forty nights, his head still spinning with unwinding roads and sad songs from the country music station. He has a checked shirt and a road-burned thirst, a sheaf of old envelopes and a pen his father gave him when he started at the big school. It hasn’t rained for weeks, but his truck is stowed with storms, their zig-zag lightning crackling under stretched tarps. Across the asphalt, the diner lights are amber, and the waitress in her gingham smock – stuck like a damselfly for millions of years – feels resin tears prick the corners of her waiting eyes. The truck rusts and unwrites itself, leaving nothing but its shadow, and the driver cradles his pen like a hedgehog snatched from traffic. Now picture this: an empty parking lot in amber light. From the diner window, a waitress stares at a truck-shaped space, remembering lightning. You may or may not be the writer, the pen pricking your awkward fingers, the road settling into stillness after the long, long drive.
Oz Hardwick is a European poet, photographer, occasional musician, and accidental academic, whose work has been published and performed internationally in and on diverse media. His prose poetry chapbook Learning to Have Lost (Canberra: IPSI, 2018) won the 2019 Rubery International Book Award for poetry, and his most recent publication is the prose poetry sequence Wolf Planet (Clevedon: Hedgehog, 2020). He has also edited or co-edited several anthologies, including The Valley Press Anthology of Yorkshire Poetry (Scarborough: Valley Press, 2017) with Miles Salter, which was a UK National Poetry Day recommendation, and The Valley Press Anthology of Prose Poetry (Scarborough: Valley Press, 2019) with Anne Caldwell. Oz is Professor of English at Leeds Trinity University, where he leads the postgraduate Creative Writing programmes.