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Image by Caroline Forbes

Poem introduction

This is 'A Minute's Silence', written in an elegiac metre. I wrote it after being struck by how awesome a well-observed silence can actually be. I think there's a history of silence in poetry, and as far as I can tell it began with the Romantics - so I'm thinking of things like Shelley's 'Mont Blanc' or Coleridge's 'Frost at Midnight'. I was told recently that there's a sound artist who specialises in recording and releasing minutes of silence at public events, such as the cenotaph or the funeral of Diana, though these things of course are never totally silent and have their own texture of bird song and traffic noise. I was interested too in what is probably the only joyous and comlete minute of silence I've ever heard, and seen in fact, which is in Jean-Luc Godard's Bande Apart.

A Minute's Silence

The singing stops. Each player finds his spot
around the ten-yard circle that until
tonight seemed redundant, there just for show.
The PA asks us to observe the hush.

We find we're standing in a groundsman's shoes,
the quiet he must be familiar with
while squeaking chalk-paste up the grassy touch,
or overseeing a private ritual

and scattering the last mortal remains
of a diehard fan beneath each home-end stanchion.
No one keeps a count or checks their watch
so space is opened up. It seems to last

a small eternity - the happy hour
that stretches to three, the toast, the final spin.
I observe the silence sneak through turnstiles
and catch on quick - a bar muffles its pumps;

in function rooms, a wedding reception
freezes still as its own photograph;
an awful bagwash winds down mid-cycle -
a Saturday gridlocked, unaccompanied

by hooters or sirens. Like early audiences
we have left the street to its own devices
to watch the flicking shadow of itself
onscreen, the purring spool somehow apart

from all of this. It leaves the one-way system
and finds less work to do outside of town:
a rookery, light aircraft, and the wind
banging gates or moaning through the lines.

(How still without birdsong. It still guts me
to think of all the havoc wreaked each spring
we combed the hedges outside our estate
and stole the still-warm clutches from each nest;

all that music, blown and set in file
on sawdust in a two-pound biscuit tin,
displayed to rivals in attack formation,
a 4-3-3 of fowls and passerines.)

Sooner or later silence reaches the coast
and stops just short of getting its feet wet.
There's something of the Ice Age to all this.
The only sound's the white noise of the sea

that is all song, all talk, all colour, mixed.
Before that whistle bursts a hole and brings
the air rushing back in with arc lighting,
calls for owners of the double parked,

the last verse of 'You'll Never Walk Alone'
(never ... the sweet silver song of a lark)
listen, to where the shore meets the salt water;
a million tiny licking, chopping sounds:

the dead, the never-born, the locked-out souls
are scratching on the thin shell we have grown
around ourselves. Listen. The afternoon
is dark already, and there is a moon.


from The Boy from the Chemist is Here to See You (Picador, 1998), copyright © Paul Farley 1998, used by permission of the author

Recordings

Paul Farley Reading from his poems

1From A Weekend First

2Treacle

3Termini

4Papal Visit

5Dead Fish

6Not Fade Away

7A Minute's Silence

8Diary Moon

9Cod

10Big Safe Themes

1111th February 1963

12Sunspots

13Monkfish

14Without Potatoes

15Aquarius

16Monopoly

17Stray

18Relic

19Phone Books

20A Thousand Hours

21The Sleep of Estates

22The Barber's Lull

23Fly

24A Tunnel

25Laws of Gravity