On the theme of 'back to school,' this poem tells the intermittent story of a turbulent time at boarding school as the speaker discusses his life on three consecutive birthdays, detailing the fraught relationship he has with his parents, his sexuality, the pressures of schoolwork, exams, and maintaining friendships.
We celebrate birthdays and cut ribbons, we moisturise and socialise and feud and fight and graze, and yet we are still capable of 'going astray,' leading a life merely going through the motions and keeping up appearances, trapped, almost, behind fences beyond which we no longer care to venture. We can part ways with our parents, our friends, our ambition, but when we part ways with hope, we are, in turn, doomed to lose what makes us human.
I wrote this poem in late 2017 and edited specifically for The Rattlecap. More poetry at georgetomsett.com.
I am formed today, smiling at nothing
in the hallway, treading the waters
of indecision. They want us to choose
our subjects for next year, they’re laid out
before me like playing cards
in a magic trick. Pick four, they implore,
pick four. But I am uninformed.
I am uninformed.
Mum called earlier, Dad sent a letter,
the bleating of well-timed affection
whines on and the well of empty
congratulations is brimming full. I stroke
the lambs of fair weather friendships
and feed them their cheap milk,
I sheer their wool when I’m in need
of warmth, slaughter them high and dry
when I feel at all slighted.
The judicial systems of my mind
are ill-prepared to extend such practices
to the caller, the writer of the letter,
the payers of the fees. Days like these
are numbered, I’m counting sheep
to fall asleep. From the classroom
window I see all the trees to be severed
to stumps next year when big builders
arrive. And what of me?
Where will I be? What subjects
will I have chosen? Who will the subjects
of my yearly writing be?
They knocked down the room with
the posters of Virginia Woolf
and J.K. Rowling, in its place stands
a fountain where we sometimes smoke
before bed. The trees are taped off,
ready to be stifled by a redbrick,
royal blue centre for careers
or something and, yes, what I alluded to
has become at once more vivid and
true, Mum and Dad aren’t best pleased
with the version of myself at once
old and at once new.
You were influenced, they told me,
but by who? By who? I wonder.
Was it the TV? Video games? Was it
the ads of golden men with perfect,
shining abs that had me skewed
and springing? So comical
was my realisation, it’s hardly worth
detailing. But today the calls were fewer.
Still, Dad sent a text and Mum
sent silence tied up with a little ribbon.
And I received it well.
On my way to English I’m met by this
barrage of well-wishers who smear
cement over the fissures and fustiness,
mute the slow burning soliloquy
of whys and when are they going to
come arounds. For a second, I iterate,
for it drones on and on unimpeded
for the rest of the day,
until a quiet evening unravels
and the unworn actor takes centre stage
to fill his lungs with a red rage that
spews and spews till the cows
I revisit the plot to see what
has become of it since I left, and since
I lost the plot it seemed a good thing
to do. A ceremony to open
a bronze statue of a man who did
a thing. Teaspoons and gazebos and
things. To think twelve subjects
became four and four became three
and three became one.
I read Nordic texts and Woolf among
other things, I guess that’s what
it all came down to. So much of life
becomes smaller but this school
is the flaring exception.
The felted mothers make their way from
reception, all moisturised and wealthy,
clad in scarves to see the ribbon cut,
the fathers herd beside them in Barbour
coats and Hunter boots.
What a glorious day, they all say.
My birthday, I tell a kind and familiar
face. Your birthday! He cries.
Where are your parents? I ought to
catch up with them. The ribbon
is cut. My birthday.
Sheep mill around in the surrounding
fields, waiting idly for the rain,
some pregnant, some tagged, some
muddied from years and years
weathering the wind and all kinds
of strange hardships. Some so together
and some so irrevocably
*Illustration by Claire Sandford*