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FORWARD PRIZE 'An Empty Street'

An Empty Street JeffreyWainwright

after Ottone Rosai, via San Leonardo

What is there to an empty street?

And one so commonplace,

narrow, with two high walls,

bending out of view.

No one in sight

and no one expected.

No Dame Trot for sure,

with her basket over her arm,

the check cloth covering dainties,

her hat perched so,

her pince-nez expectant.

Even she has hurried away.


What is there to an empty street?

The photo (bottom right,

curated later}

shows the doorway

to have been your studio

(there’s a plaque).

Still no one to see.

Have they tip-toed round

another way, anxious

to preserve its vacancy for you

and leave your lines,

so carefully set forth, intact?


What is there to an empty street?

Let’s get impatient,

let’s add a sound track

somewhere beyond

but coming on this way.

We’ll have a marching band,

cornets, clarinet

and big bass drum,

at least the air is moving!

Until we lose control –

the band has wheeled away.

You, or the street, has won again.


What is there to an empty street?

Have you seized it

for your melancholy,

shushed and deterred

all would-be passers-by,

your neighbours,

even understanding friends,

emptied them out

like plums from a paper bag

and then folded

and re-creased it

as you have it now?


What is there to an empty street

that you will not let it go?

There is no blood,

robbery or impiety

open to the view,

no spectacles required

to see what can be seen,

not even, for certain,

what I’ve called your melancholy.

So you leave me here,

just as you meant to do,

watching the street.


What is there to an empty street?

Is it one of those secret worlds

with metaphysics skulking in the walls,

that door so enigmatic?

Maybe there is something

we might wish to see

face to face, to be

chased from the shadows,

or shaken from the trees

but we never –

These workaday walls are still

the only splendour to be seen.


What is there to an empty street?

This time there is a tree,

like a fright wig,

looming above the wall.

The street is embarrassed,

the wall hides itself in shadow,

the corner beetles off

to its secret lodging.

The tree allows two points

of light, like puppets’ eyes,

to hold and behold

the blue-ish scene.


What is there to an empty street?

Almost nothing now:

The red wall

the grey wall

the yellow road,

green trees, the blue

of the sky, all simplified,

all still obdurate,

still resisting,

still insisting

they not be named

wall, road, trees, sky.


What is there to an empty street?

It seems all that remains.

The corner turns

into the unglimpsed

and none has passed by,

it seems, in ages.

But thus far the walls

and even the trees,

for all their skittering,

appear dependable.

They will not fly off,by Jove,

and leave us darkling.


What is there to an empty street?

To be candid now

the terror that it not be there.

Already so much particular

is gone, chased away

by the rage we find

for order: the simply sunlit,

the clearly pure,

the assent to less.

You must have seen it going

before your very eyes,

but you painted on.


What is there to an empty street

and yet how easily

I find myself enticed

along your unfathomed carriageway.

And isn’t this

what you made it for?

You paint no footfall

but I can hear my steps

and the rustle of my clothes

as I proceed along,

sidling sometimes to pass through

the viewless crowd.


What is there to an empty street?

With this one there is the future

possibly, which is always

curving out of sight,

naturally. Out of sight.

But no one wants to see it,

which is why you are alone

and invisible, save for what you see,

what you can’t help but see:

the thickening light,

and whoever has gone before

and had to leave you here.


What is there to an empty street?

The bruise of the dark corner

as it fades,

the antiquity

of your painstaking lines,

verticals and horizontals,

such composure –

Nice, but how I’d love to drive

a barrel hoop

down your street,

ruddy and exulting,

a boy of nine again.


What is there to an empty street?

Well, look hard enough,

tap tap at it,

wait by the gate,

peer at the tree,

meditate upon the bend,

walk the footpath

back and forth

and patience

will recognise your diligence.

And as the street dissolves

you shall be beckoned.


What is there to an empty street?

Do not break your nails

striving to climb the wall,

do not beat upon the gate

and you will flounder

if you try to pass the bend.

Pinch yourself:

this is where you are,

plump and slow.

There is no casement,

enchanted cleft or chasm.

Nowhere to pass or tumble to.


What is there to an empty street?

Might it as well be

dead nature,

like a glass of juice,

a cherry and its shadow,

sometimes a cruet?

Dead nature

with its auspices,

even the tree is

motionless and dumb.

Look how stock still

you will come to be.


What is there to an empty street?

But I am drawn to it,

indeed I fall upon it,

it saves me

from looking elsewhere,

saves me from knowledge.

Yes, it will do,

it is as much as I can deal with.

No pundits here,

no hucksters


the difficult future.


What is there to an empty street,

as empty as an afternoon,

paused in summer?

Only you are awake

to look at it,

always vigilant,

like the master

standing above his pupil.

Is this it?

Just as you want it?

But that cooking smell,

how long can you bear it?


What is there to an empty street?

The relief from indoors,

from what is behind the white gate,

inside the dull windows:

three men in hats

cheating each other at cards;

another solemn concertino;

a man on his haunches

with his face in his hands,

others whispering.

It is not free out here,

or genial, only quiet.


What is there to an empty street?

Suddenly I notice a lilac tree

spilling over the wall

just in sight, before the bend.

Or it could be plums

so prolific they colour out

the leaves.

How did I not register

so much activity,

the purpling underneath the window,

the purpling sunset

of the waiting storm?


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