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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