A new poem by Oamaru-born poet Nick Ascroft.
Halfway up the ascent zigzagging
from Royal Terrace
to upper Stuart Street carrying four too-heavy
grocery bags I begin to understand
that I will not make it.
My huffing personage –
from the fingers, white
with the strain, to a face
the colour of rhubarb – will ooze
into the pavement
slowly down the hill
on what once was my back.
I am lugging
groceries so as to cook for you.
It’s a pivotal meeting, cooking for you
for the first time, you a gastronome,
but me now a gastropod, glossy
like a slug
and unable to lift four ridiculous bags
with slug fingers
any further up this mountain.
I own no food processor
so have prearranged to meet you at a friend’s.
Why did I not consider the logistics of the operation
from gravity’s belvedere:
ask to borrow the food processor,
and schlep that instead
but downhill, perhaps sitting on it
and riding it like a luge?
Because my head is fat.
I take another step.
I don’t have a cellphone.
I cannot ring a taxi.
You will arrive in minutes and I have to be
cooking. I take another step. Also
my flat is a pigpen
with no table.
Another. This is how marathon runners feel
when they give up.
This is how I should have felt when I gave up
on my master’s thesis after two years
but felt only freedom.
If I just opened my hands
and let the bags drop.
If I just let my face crumple into a sneer
and walk away, the flour,
the feta, the whole block of butter
when a quarter of it would’ve sufficed
spilling into the dark unnoticed,
I could feel the same sweet dereliction
and liberty. Instead
I trudge another chicken-step upwards.
No one will thank me.
No one will appreciate this when I recount it.
But I will know.
For years this story will sting
like lemon juice on a papercut
in the memory.
I will try to chisel it into prose
and find it unsatisfactory, lacking
in the requisite suffering.
I’ll distil that to a sonnet, which will seem too
clipped and grandiose.
In the meantime the steps have stopped.
I am only at Moana Pool. Why
do my eyeballs ache?
I try running. The running lasts less time
than can be considered definitional of the term.
Centuries of half-seconds pass.
I have no feeling in my hands but
here I am now on Stuart Street.
The plastic has not cut through to the bone.
Why did I bring Grapetise as well as wine?
Choose one and be glad of it.
No more memories form.
All energy is diverted to the legs.
The mouth can hold no other expression
but a stroke-victim grimace.
I shuffle around the back to the door.
I try not to make a big thing
out of the horror of the ascent,
but later I marry you, and I know
it’s because I made this climb,
that I pushed out the strides, that
I fought when my blood hissed
that there was no fight left to fight with.
Everyone may say, So you carried some bags up a hill?
But they are all the scum children of the sewers
and I am the husband who
made vol-au-vent, who
staggered up a sheerness of the will
and surmounted it.
Friday 23 August is Phantom Billstickers National Poetry Day. You can view the calendar of events here.
Poetry editor Ashleigh Young welcomes submissions at firstname.lastname@example.org