Questions is a collaboration by Lucy Kempton and Joe Hyam. Poems are based on questions drawn from an agreed starting question and formed by answers, which contain and inspire the next questions. In response to Lucy's first question, Joe kicks off. This follows our earlier work in Compasses, archived here, where Lucy's photographs illustrate Joe's series of 50 sonnets under the title Handbook for Explorers.

Wednesday 11 November 2009

Cool in the bright air?

You, there in the bright air, are you cool?

I would be, right up there
among the glass-sharp crystals
of ice and octane fuel, dust and minerals,
jet trails, comet tails and blue-white angels
of the upper air,

with earth and all its mess
far off below, its mucky pigments,
bones and hides and dung and sweat,
and self-preserving urgent flesh, invisible
to my frozen, naked eyes.

But no.
I'm still here, on the ground,
just blood-heat, thank you, midway,
contained within an ambient landscape
(grassland and some scattered trees...)
my dampened, stubby-fingered hands
filled with red ochre, and charcoal from the fire,


'What on earth shall I draw today?'

Tuesday 13 October 2009

Just what have you been doing with yourself?

Sheltering by day from the sun I sit
In the cave, in the cool cave, watching the walls
For cracks and crevices to stretch and fit

The shapes of leaping animals that live outside,
Where nothing stands still for a moment
And the mouth of the sky is open wide.

The dust with which my mouth is full,
I spit on the wall, and shape with my thumb
A creature, half man half animal.

It's cool in the shadows in the cave.
The gods who live here are asleep.
I'll wake them with the din they crave.

I'll beat with a bone this tight stretched skin
Till it trembles. I'm not primitive; I know
It's the 21st century I'm in.

And I won't be here for long
To spit pigment on the crumbling wall,
Hoping the picture won't go wrong.

Most of us are waiting for a bus
If not an angel with a blinding light,
Until the screwers come to unscrew us.

The words with which my mouth is full,
I spit on the wall and paint in my head,
A creature half man half animal.
You there, in the bright air, are you cool?

Saturday 22 August 2009

All the lonely people, where do they all come from?

They're sewn from motley, so it seems, threadbare, thin
patches, tattered clothes from shabby, faded scraps
which sag, or don't meet at the seams, show leering gaps
embarrass us with sight of unaccustomed, light-starved skin.

Or else they're sown from serpent's teeth, pulled from the grin
of the reptile's skull, and scattered in the dust,
fleshless and clattering bones who only know they must
hurt, fight and kill, burn rankly from the emptiness within.

Mis-shapen, sad or savage then they seem,
and alien. But who's that kidding? I'll not deny the fact,
the face kept in the jar is also on my shelf.

Love (tra-la-la-la!) proposes that we're not alone, and may redeem,
we hope - if losing it won't kill us first - the act
of living. So tell me now, just what have you been doing with yourself?

Sunday 26 July 2009

Who is it who can tell me who I am?

Why is it that I need to ask the question? Why
Should anyone who cares, be there to know,
On stage or in the wings, which actors throw
Their costumes off, tired of pretence and try,

From shame, to bring themselves to say, " I'm true"?
For actors may stop acting, and not just pretend to fall.
More likely then, that this doolally king can call
No longer for the respect and recognition due

To one who knew so many tricks and scams,
(As you have to, who struggle in the driving seat),
Who now must see the truth, its heart and hands and feet,
And discover routes worn through endless rooms,

The tables, chairs and beds inside his head,
Their range and content and arrangement,
The sadness of the tools eroded worn and bent,
Discarded in corners where the dust has fed.

From the lake of mud that steams and bubbles in the sun,
Rises this old boy, with one foot in the future.
He gazes desperate and bewildered at the questioner
And in a mirror catches sight of a person unknown

Leering back at him with a dark and ancient guile:
Someone else, elsewhere, in a hurricane lost?
Or the shreds of another, carved out of mist,
Who nurses in his skull an angel or a crocodile?

For many selves crowd through the enfilade
Of rooms with doors that open wide for them and close behind,
Where they search through time for others of their kind,
And with a tra-la-la, find joy sometimes before they fade.

All the lonely people, where do they all come from?

Thursday 9 July 2009

Who do you think you are?

Who? is hard. What? less so:
A bundle, a ganglion of fears
and hopes; a reptile brain
binary switching, snip-snap, between
life and the other; an eye, an ear,
a mouth, a nose... who knows?

A memory, mimic, mirror, though
speckled, smeared, unclear,
it gives back little; then again
perhaps you think you've seen
a shape something like yours here,
or heard familiar echoes, you suppose...

There is, they say, nobody in the driving seat
at all; no me, no you, no discrete
self to be, for self itself's a sham,
forms, fluid and dissolving, are our complete
story. Yet, still, we hear ourselves repeat,

'Who is it who can tell me who I am?'

Saturday 20 June 2009

What do you fear? What do you hope for?

Hope and fear in one immense flash gone,
The switch tripped, the end lost in the beginning,
The question on the road, knocked down, unanswered.
Worst of all, I fear not to know what's going to happen
Next, or ever after in the story, when it won't matter
If Jack and Jill are drowned and love is lost for good,
And the dragon and St George fall down together in a heap,
And a straight white line and a single note declare
Every hope and speculation out of court.
Lips, I fear, closed tight to greet the question,
The blank page, the cold eye, the hollow fruit.
I fear the click as the clock springs tighten,
And hands, with nowhere else to go, go round and round,
Empty railways stations and the shudder of rock and roll.
I fear that no room may be left in the heart for fear.
Yet I can still hope in place of fear, on waking up, to hear
The cold song of blackbirds who know the sun will rise, and when.

Who do you think you are?

Tuesday 2 June 2009

What are you waiting for?

I'm waiting for the fire to catch, and for the freeze;
for the embers to fade and for the thaw.

I'm waiting for the drifting log to turn,
to feel the crunch of teeth shearing
through flesh and bone, to flail, limbless
haemorrhaging, sinking, lost.

I'm waiting for lunch, for the show to start,
I'm waiting for it all to be over.
I'm waiting for all good things
to come to an end, I'm waiting for all things
to come to those who wait.

I'm waiting for the warm south wind to blow
the scent of lemon flowers over silver
fish-scaled seas, and incense smoke
of smouldering phoenix feathers.

You may as well ask
'What do you fear?'
or equally
'What do you long for'?

You can take your pick...

Sunday 17 May 2009

What have you heard?

What have I heard?
That people talk to keep the unknown out.
I've heard their voices,
Low and monotonous,
Nervous in the dark; heard a woman sing
Of love as cruel and old as tigers;
Heard the shingle shift beneath my feet
As each wave breaks;
Heard empty cans kicked down the street;
Heard the waters flowing past
The unblinking eye of the crocodile
Fast contained in silence.
Today, I heard the new year break
Out from the old with a cry;
Heard a door open and close.
What are you waiting for?

Monday 4 May 2009

Where's my lunch?

Where's my lunch? Well now, I fear the cupboard's bare!

Time to fall back on scavenging for scraps,
through rubbish heaps and dustbins to survive
or find a meal, and even those yield slender pickings.
Once you'd have found immaculate fish-heads,
-tails and -bones like ichthyosaurs, for cartoon cats
to steal, potato peel and chips gone cold
in papers old as yesterday, and ash and cinders,
the residue of forests, fossilised or live.
Now it's mostly plastic shards and shreds,
old cat food tins and wrappers from fish-fingers.

I've heard we'll burn or bury ourselves yet.
What have you heard?

Monday 27 April 2009

Whence comest thou?

Out of a cracker, me! A bouncing plastic toy
With a joke inside is my progenitor.
From the bottom of a bottle, it pops up -
A story as likely as any other.
Fish-like, I view the world through glass,
Could spend a lifetime on the answer,
While pulsing screens regurgitate
Equations, theories, prophecies.
Note, in the the margin of the script,
This man - the grandson of a trilobite,
Friend of every plant and animal that's fit to eat,
Of elephant herds and starling swarms, the shark,
The python and the goat -
Is puzzled by the noise he makes,
The ferment in his vat.
"Hey, you!" he shouts at the mirror
Which is shouting back at him:
"Hey, you! Where's my lunch?"

Thursday 16 April 2009

Who will police the policemen?

Grinning like a nutcracker, hell's bells
jangling on his cap, he knows
just how to deal with them
- takes more than a bungling cop
to keep him down!

Slapstick's the way to do it;
leaving mayhem and murder, infanticide,
stolen sausages and the crocodile, all
behind him, with the hangman's noose
still dangling up ahead, he goes
to and fro in the earth,
and up and down in it.
Pleased as Punch.

Whence comest thou?

Monday 13 April 2009

Are you smiling?

It comes and goes, the smile:
Involuntary, a sign of grace
But forced, becomes a scowl,
Or the fixed grin of a crocodile,
The sneer on a camel's lips.

It's what's inside the head that counts
Yet hard to know, of all that's there, what
To show; and when to check a quiver
At the corner of the mouth, or the light
That builds up in the eyes,
Alive with pleasure or surprise.
But when the gaoler turns his back,
Breaks for lunch, or for a nap,
With no one guarding it,
A memory rises, like the sun in mist.

Yes, I guess I'm smiling now... and yet...
Qui custodiet ipsos custodes?

Tuesday 7 April 2009

What do you know of crocodiles?

In sluggish, yeasty rivers, they glide like logs;
time laden. They sleep in mud, clogged
with a cruel sacredness. They lie and weep,
weep and lie, showing that grief's for fools,
and tears are trickery.

Dense and old, but moving fast to kill,
their only wisdom's stony memory. Still
cold and glassy eyes reproach
from long before we were us,
and other monsters were.

They swallow time, and, to keep them safe
their children too, so that their jaws
are cradles, and their mouths disgorge
the future. Their smile knows this.
And more, which you don't want to know.

Are you smiling?

Monday 6 April 2009

What do you know that I don't know?

"I know how, on the inside of my long, thin wrists,
The oils of lemon and verbena smell.
Where my bangles measure the days of exile,
And the English words you told me how to use
Turn in my mind like spokes in a wheel."

Her story came to me from your memory,
Drawn out through time, and from the order
Of words and places, shuffled like playing cards.
She says: " I have such clever hands.
And memories, that nudge and natter,
Of shopping precincts and motorways,
And swamps that steam in every heart."

What do you know of crocodiles?
Of the wisdom of crocodiles?
Of their hooded eyes, live and greedy,
But still as stones, and their sullen patience?