Jeffrey Wainwright Poet Poetry The Reasoner Academic
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Here are two YouTube clips of Jeffrey Wainwright reading from his work

A reading of 'Is Our Language Complete?', a five poem sequence, at Poets and Players, Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, 23 January 2010

The text of 'Is Our Language Complete?':


Is our language complete? Not on your life!

Not like H2SO4. Not like the law of sines

with its allowance for the ambiguous case.

But there is the hope

the one who hopes

for simple agreements,

perfect understanding

for nothing not ever irregular

In Stoke-on-Trent post-war we were keen on Esperanto.

Here, where breathing could be difficult,

was an inspiration to get out the door,

to world peace, nation same-speaking peace unto nation,

so charas could criss-cross from Dresden to Dresden,

Burslem to Bialystok,

happy wanderers, buying pots of tea effortlessly,

and explaining the laws of cricket faultlessly

to Russians Germans Poles and Jews,

without an itch and nary a crux word.


Is our language complete? No way José

exclamation point. For all the rolling off the tongue

words remain such dullards, their relations obscure.

I – wish – that – she – would – call.

Just tell me, if you can, how what I mean is there.

Or even in: I – do – wish – that – she - would – call.

Just tell me, if you can, how what I feel is there.

How do such, or any, sentences give forth,

bring into presence, stand in for, resemble … ?

No way. But justwatch them do it.


Is our language complete? Are you kidding?

Very often. Whichis part of the lack.

I can’t claim though that I am lied to often.

Even house-agents’ clerks don’t say the thing-which-is-not

deliberately, they are just optimists

by training, and the ones I know, the press they get,

it’s hard not to sympathise. Would he really

leave a girl like that in her bed-sit in her nothings?

Could her executive comportment turn peevish,

lead to murder in the master-bedroom even?

I don’t know.


Is our language complete? You bet it is!

Name one thing it can’t do.

It can dawdle meaning-less-ly like this,

or be doing the same thing soul-ful-ly, if it says so,

drifting along the ramparts in a floaty dress,

the chalky hills [enter here] in the moonlight,

could be given anything to do,

as they were once said to skip.

The only question it has to ask itself is

how much is a sufficiency, elegant or otherwise?


Is our language complete? Well, you read the lines /

lies in the last poem, decide for yourself.

In truth I stumble and cast about even when

I’m talking to myself. There are the best of tools

in the tidiest of racks under the stairs

and these words are not among them, nor – I ‘hazard’ –

are there any such places words may be found.

But do not despair – and that’s an order –

there are no angels, thus no perfect prattling,

and the painstaking repair of spiders’ webs

best left to what’s best adapted.

As the nightingale with her sweet self she wrangles

we must just strive with our creature tongue.

A reading of 'Beyond Enigma' at the celebration of PN Review 200, International Anthony Burgess Foundation, Manchester, 8 September 2011

The text of 'Beyond Enigma':

I hear of other modes of high indifference.

Can I imagine this?

I walk up to my enemy; I slice off my nose.

It lies at his feet. I slice off my left hand.

It drops to the ground. Is there blood in the dust?

Is there pain? Ifso it is felt.

Who feels it?

This question can’t be understood.

Now, how did I intend to do that?

Did I say that I would do it?

By whom would I be understood?

‘It was intended’ is all that could be said.

But it must be understood.

The understanding is yet more important

than the sharpness of the blade.

There are those who have lived – and died – beyond enigma:

St Laurence tucking his own grid-iron under his arm;

St Agata, coifed like Freya, imperturbable,

allowing a peek at her bleeding chest,

sometimes her paps held out in a dish;

Karl Liebknecht ‘on leave from death’.

These are not more cases of the grand indifference

but some who just knew that this is only the first world,

fretted and sick, and another is, or will be – no matterwhich –

the good, better, best and real one.

Now, try all that again without

the ambush, be less arch.

It must be possible to tell a story.

A good man cannot be harmed.

The wall-plaque reads:

Ha abitòqui, nel estate 1918,

il Beato Massimiliano Kolbe

che nel lager di Auschwitz

il 14 agosto 1941offrìla sua vita

per salvare un padre di famiglia

Or in another version:

Here in the summer of 1918

lived the Blessed Massimiliano Kolbe

who in the lager at Auschwitz

on the 14th of August 1941

offered his own life

to save the father of a family.

It must be possible to tell a story.

A Fr. Kolbe (41) a Franciscan

was sent to Auschwitz

by the Germans for shelteringJews

at his monastery in . . .

A Fr. Kolbe (41) an anti-semite,

as his writings show,

was sent to Auschwitz by the Nazis

for sheltering partisans …

A Fr. Kolbe (41) was in Auschwitz

when one man escaped

and ten were picked

to die in his stead ….

A Fr. Kolbe (41) was in the line

but not picked out

when one of the ten,

a father …

A Fr. Kolbe (41) heard

one of the men

cry out that he was

the father of a family …

A Fr. Kolbe (41), hearing

one man plead for his life

and his children,

stepped forward in his place …

A Fr. Kolbe (41) who had taken the place

of one Francisek

Gajowniczek (46), was locked

with nine others …

A Fr. Kolbe (41) who had taken the place

of a Jewish prisoner,

would die

of hunger and thirst …

Saint Max, who is the subject

of my hero project,

led the prayers and singing

and amazed the guards .…

Saint Max, who I am

writing about for my project,

lived without any food or water

for three weeks …

One Fr. Kolbe (41), still alive

ten days later when the cell

was needed, was killed

by lethal injection …

Kolbe the anti-semitic priest

is said to have taken the place of

Franz Gajowniczek

who was not a Jew …

Fr. Kolbe was loved by all

the prisoners, and they reviled

the Jew Gajwoniczek

who stood back and survived …

Fr. Kolbe, still alive

when the cell was opened,

offered his arm to the doctor

for the carbolic acid …

Fr Kolbe was killed

by the usual drug employed,

phenol, injected by the medical staff

straight into the heart …

It must be possible to tell a story.

Let no man say he is happy until he is dead.

When Kolbe stepped forward he defeated life,

and he knew he was a happy man.

Perhaps in his summer in Amelia in 1918

he stuck his nose into a dish of tomatoes

just from the stem and right into the stalks

and breathed and smiled and said

‘This is life and this is good.’

And then he turned and went through a door

and stopped, as though looking for someone,

and then turned and went out again

and somewhere in this small confusion

put down the fruit and asked himself

‘How may the heart be as good as this?

It also lives here’

No answer spoke. Butwhen he stepped forward

he knew he had learned to let life pass

and was a happy man.

But to be ‘the father of a family’,

this is life and this is good

and here life cannot pass

and this you clearly knew

as you stepped out to say ‘Take me’,

or words to that effect, or maybe

‘This life is a thing for others.’

You must be understood.

Saint Maximilien Kolbe,

martyr for Charity not the Faith,

and contender for my hero project,

was this your stepping-stone

to your better life

when at the last,

having no need of your spectacles,

you will climb naked

and perfectly toned

out of the manhole

the good doctor had

consigned you to,

or did you not see God at all,

only Franciszek Gajwoniczek

who was either a Jew

or not a Jew and who cried

‘What about my children?’

and who did or did not

do all right out of telling his story later,

and this was all you saw,

Franciszek or Franz, his flesh, his head,

the heads of his children,

and whether or not

you offered up your arm

or let the needle in

‘twixt rib and rib,

you are telling me

‘Be perfect as I am’,

or, as I make you say:

‘There is no thing cognizable

that says “Go do thou likewise”,

and “A good man cannot be harmed”,

there is only a human voice

to say it’, as though

I could listen hard enough

to catch it.


These works will appear in The Reasoner, to be published by Carcanet in September 2012.

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