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  • Olivia McCannon: Difficult Laughter

    Taking A Turn




    One stood up to tell the old gag

    Of the dog with three legs that

    Young girls never laugh at

    Women raise brows at

    A lad gives a snort at


    Then an old fella sang in a fraying tone

    Of telegraph wires twisting all the way back

    Across time to his village  the quarry  the moors

    A song that he said was as old as his legs

    As old as the stone that stares out the hills


    Then it fell to a boy with his fists in his pockets

    Flushing and fierce  to give them the tale

    Of the battle was fought all on the High Sea

    Where the ships were all holes but the men

    Were all brave and laughed as they plunged


    Then the tongue of a woman licked out of the dark

    Feeling for low notes a song in a whisper

    Into the ear of the baby not born not held

    Not tickled and where is your father

    Gone to the wars we must wait for a letter


    Then came a pause where the fire had a say

    On the log that spat and crackled and hissed

    Too young too young then slumped into ash

    And the coal that sulked and glowered until

    What was hard was soft what moved was still


    Then one stepped up whom no one had seen

    Who offered no words  whose eyes were a glass

    That showed them scabs and bruises and souls

    Their troubles their bowels their black bare feet

    Who raised a hand and summoned a hush –


    Some time later they showed up again

    Finding each other in different rooms

    With different hearts but the stories

    They told were all the same or they

    Knew the words and didn’t know why.




    To The Sky



    We’ve needed your blessings in our garden


    A wind came  a bursting vessel  over the hill

    Miles high and across  running the moon ragged

    Hurling clouds  lurching rooks  smothering grass


    The poplar stands quiver-rustling

    The sap in her trunk has clogged

    Her leaves are lumpy with a bronze canker

    White mould has weakened her roots


    The wind rams the drying sternum not quite done weeping

    Rips through the riddles of branches  all

    The intricate winding of growing and feeling

    Air comes rushing to catch the gasp –


    The light tip at the top dives  the trunk keels

    Knows it’s out of anyone’s grasp and thuds

    Upending the root as it claws after moisture

    There’s dignity and indignity  static swarms over


    Now the ancillary evidence of life drains away

    Larvae coil and white-dash back into the dark

    Finches flap and fluster from impossible spaces

    Wasps knocked from bark feel cold flashing anger


    Light flows away from leaves whose language was light

    That sang unashamed of happiness always

    Whenever the sun threw down some innocence


    The last word is given to the rain




    Difficult Laughter



    Is what there is between a funeral and The Awful Truth

    The bit where the dog….? Where Cary Grant….?


    They dredge up out of your guts, those bits

    Something like a body hauled from the river in nets


    One that retches and sicks up mud, miraculously

    Not drowned, though perch-coloured compared


    To peach-eaters, one that feels gratitude as pain

    As it warms again to ways unpractised in that place


    A body that came back mouthing small bubbles but

    Now extravagantly orders up so much air it sticks


    Then must kick the voice-box to get a track  –

    A barked cross between a climax and a hard cough


    A body clinging to cold-wrapping river weeds

    A family of limbs and organs that aren’t speaking


    A body shaken by laughter, that defibrillator

    Shocking them, for a second, back together.





    Olivia McCannon is based in Harlesden, London and Belleville, Paris. Her poetry collection Exactly My Own Length (Carcanet/Oxford Poets) and her translation of Balzac’s Old Man Goriot (Penguin Classics) were published in 2011.

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