Sensing Spaces, Wandering Words


As one of a dozen poets commissioned by Ekphrasis, I wrote poems in response to the Sensing Spaces architectural exhibit at the Royal Academy. We all read these poems in situ at the RA on March 7th, 2014 as part of an evening of “Wandering Words”.

The Poems

Banshee Tubes
after the installation by Diébédo Francis Kéré

So here's where all those plastic straws
discarded from my boyhood sugar drinks
finally found a place they could retire.

Bent and pinched, looped and bundled up,
they decorate the honeycomb cave with
crowd-sourced, multi-coloured porcupinery.

Someone made a spider’s web in the corner.
Another built a pitch fork all in tubes.
The birth canal is spiked in rainbow hues.

An infant gums the straws on the other side,
her green eyes signal “go” to new experience
while tweenies wrap wrists in pink and blue.

At night, the straws convene secret communities,
swap places in small but hard-to-prove ways,
tell stories of the old days, sing folk tunes.

Sometimes they catch the breeze of an open vent,
and whistle like reed beds, these lithe discarded
choristers, bright wailing rubbish, banshee tubes.

<a href="" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Listen to "Banshee Tubes" read aloud.</a>

The Doorway from Portugal
after the installation by Eduardo Souto de Moura

The Brandenburg Gate in no-man's land,
a claim jumper's mark in the Wild West,
entry to an invisible garden, ruined city,
portal into the future or the past.

Space can be described by what it is not,
the no-thing taking place behind your eyes.
Who will you be when you pass through?
Ask your lover who they want on the other side.

A suspension bridge from floor to floor,
two buttresses flying into each other at speed--
make of this arch a body, the body an arch,
bring the tips of the fingers together to pray.

This is the neck of the womb, gap in the armour,
crack in the mirror that reveals the trick,
mark of welcome, and way through the rock,
start and end of the tunnel, all at once.

When you are ready, an arch will emerge,
one day, somewhere you least expect it.
Close your eyes and walk into the centre,
stand there, chanting quietly: I am the door.

<a href="" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Listen to "The Doorway from Portugal" read aloud.</a>

Exhibit: Childhood
after the installation by Pezo von Ellrichshausen

Come build a better tree house
for the children past their prime,

indoors, on stilts, inside the gilt-
trimmed tearooms of old Empire.

Lift us up from the marble floor,
into a pine-scented elsewhere,

eye-to-eye with entertained angels,
tweeze us from mid-life into mid-air.

Here we can see ourselves from afar,
look down on our own balding heads.

Come play with me, and be my friend,
stranded on a ship within a room.

No girls allowed. No boys allowed.
Saying the password is the only way in.

We sand the rails with our fingerprints.
We leave our younger self when we descend.

<a href="" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Listen to "Exhibit: Childhood" read aloud.</a>
The Dance
after the installation by Kengo Kuma

" seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves"
-Walt Whitman

What do you get when you remove flame-light
from its outline? What is the shape of fire
without fire? Bend your wire spectacles
into ellipses, mandorlas. Make a chain-
link fence from scented bamboo. These
are the questions, lit from beneath.
Here is a patchwork quilt made only
from stitching, the edges remember
their serpentine, almondine shape.
If wood could belly-dance, see
here the strings of the lute,
sheen of net on water,
steam from a grate,
ghosts from below
tangled in
<a href="" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Listen to "The Dance" read aloud.</a>

after the installation by Grafton Architects

Under the white blade of the guillotine,
under the meat hammer's flat insistence,
we amble, making mincemeat of the light.

Under the watchtower's square black eye,
pacing out laps in the rectangular yard,
we tread each other's shadows in a line.

Pour me a basilica, mould me a bunker,
chip right angles into rock-face defiance,
throw a square pot for shade to germinate.

Under the cathedral's brutal restructure,
we stand and spread our arms in crucifix,
divide four panes etched into the floor.

We are the lunar eclipse at well-bottom,
pebble dropped into the sewer's grate, we
turn our face, to see reflections congregate.

<a href="" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Listen to "Underworld" read aloud.</a>
Please Do Not Walk on the Stones
after the installation by Li Xiaodong

Lost in a woodland in London,
we put on commuter demeanour,
stand right, stride left, corner
the twiggy labyrinth quietly.

At the room's impossible end,
a reflecting garden of stones
flaunt their tangible crunch
underfoot, but are prohibited:

"Please, do not walk on the stones."
These are special stones, symbolic
stones, unlike you, they are not
to be disturbed, as they watch

themselves do stony things in the
floor-to-ceiling made-for-stones-
only mirror. Sometimes matter
matters more than mind, and this

time, stones win. Turn back into
the forest that is the middle
of your life, the flaking bark
and mossy smell you navigate,

turn back with a pebble's knowledge
in your shoe, shuffling your way
into tunnels and bus queues,
wearing your face like a stone.

<a href="" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Listen to "Please Do Not Walk on the Stones" read aloud.</a>