Tell all the Truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

[Read in Everyman’s Selected Poems. Ripped from]


Tea Death, by Jo Shapcott

15 December 2012

When he passed out into his tea
he expected to wake up with his nose
warm and wet, lungs topped up
with Earl Grey, snorting

tea leaves which would gather
in the distant networks
of his blood. It might be a relief
to drown that way and not

in the fine wine he’d ploughed
an expert front crawl through
all these years. At tea time.
Splashing through Lapsang

towards scones even angels
fought over, where the Earl himself
would face him at table,
and they’d grin at each other

so hard that golden liquid
would strain through their teeth,
leak out under their nails,
from their ears, tear ducts, nipples

and then – if they laughed –
spout from their wobbling
belly buttons like the outward
breaths of whales.


Tea is very important – something one realises as a Briton abroad, where cafes seem to think that Lipton Yellow Label is an acceptable thing to serve. It’s not.* And so one starts to border on the obsessional, and understand the thrust of Professor Elemental’s Cup of Brown Joy all too well. Shapcott does something rather different here – but consider the poem a while, and in a warped way, it still suggests tea as something of solace.

[Read in Of Mutability, published by Faber & Faber. Ripped from]

* Please don’t read this as being the lament of a typically moany expat. There are many, many good reasons to be gone.

No map traces the street
Where those two sleepers are.
We have lost track of it.
They lie as if under water
In a blue, unchanging light,
The French window ajar

Curtained with yellow lace.
Through the narrow crack
Odors of wet earth rise.
The snail leaves a silver track;
Dark thickets hedge the house.
We take a backward look.

Among petals pale as death
And leaves steadfast in shape
They sleep on, mouth to mouth.
A white mist is going up.
The small green nostrils breathe,
And they turn in their sleep.

Ousted from that warm bed
We are a dream they dream.
Their eyelids keep up the shade.
No harm can come to them.
We cast our skins and slide
Into another time.

[Read in Collected Poems, published by Faber & Faber. Ripped from]

Rust and dry rot and the small-jawed moth
are our best friends and they wish us well,
undoing the fabric of our heaven.

They correspond to something inside us
that doesn’t love the works our hands have made
– wire cutters, pick-locks, saboteurs.

‘Are you building a good memory to have of me?’
you once asked as though I’d just begun
a papier-mâché Taj Mahal.

I keep a cardboard box of newspapers
in the cupboard so everything that’s happened
is safe from pulp mills and the record-shredders

but all the while in the dark the silverfish
and woodlice are at work on the word,
its dot matrix. Living on what seems to us

dust, they profit directly from our negligence
and attention in general only provokes
their swerving, averting or curling up manoeuvres.

Meaning? They roll it away and break it down
into unrecognisable fragments
like fatigue in our metal or cancer in concrete.

[Read in Sky Nails: Poems 1979-1997, published by Faber & Faber.]