Sonneteering: Mark Haddon’s “A Rough Guide”

Mark Haddon

Mark Haddon

The Town Crier has officially relaunched with a renewed focus on regular content, and I’ve sneaked in the door with a biweekly (or thereabouts) series on sonnets. I may never amble around to writing on why Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan” is the best sonnet in English, but I’ve started with sweeping claims anyway: popular criticism on poetry, especially in Canada, has an acute case of ‘kitchensinkism.’

Read my slightly more specific thoughts on Mark Haddon’s “A Rough Guide” (from his exceptional collection The Talking Horse and the Sad Girl and the Village Under the Sea) over at The Town Crier. But first, catch up on the plot:

A Rough Guide
Be polite at the reception desk.
Not all the knives are in the museum.
The waitresses know that a nice boy
is formed in the same way as a deckchair.
Pay for the beer and send flowers.
Introduce yourself as Richard.
Do not refer to what somebody did
at a particular time in the past.
Remember, every Friday we used to go
for a walk. I walked. You walked.
Everything in the past is irregular.
This steak is very good. Sit down.
There is no wine, but there is ice-cream.
Eat slowly. I have many matches.


“Olbers’s Paradox”

after PK Page, Leonard Cohen, John Keats, Thomas Bruce, Earl of Elgin

“Here is the problem with eternity!
Guerrilla ranks of starlight taunt us
a lonely ragged column on a forced march
our umbilical slashed.
We clink and tumble onward, bones
shaken from a burlap sack. We weep
that this will never end. We weep that it will.”
The doctor takes my pulse in shirtsleeves,
his eyes bruised like there was a vigil to keep.
During the day I laugh and during the night I sleep,
I have no quarrel with eternity.
But he receives me in his attic,
fingers the melon readiness of my gut,
and says, friend, there is something wrong.
Like a batty priest through a parthenon,
he patrols his stacks of paper, tweaks wheels
on a telescope. On a bank of the Weser,
on a bench, lunch in lap, I vomit blood.
The reddest waterclock peals.
My favourite cooks prepare my meals
but my stomach has declared its sovereignty.
The Weser courses on unconcerned
for the whole day, for its last ten long miles.
Peeking at my blood-flecked shoes,
I think, did it not run into the sea,
it wouldn’t run at all, just sit, an icy shelf.
In the mornings, I leap from my bed
a Lazarite. Life pinches like new boots,
as if I come at night—I come, an elf—
my body cleans and repairs itself.
The doctor takes my pulse in shirtsleeves.
He is an old doe, shuffling through white trees.
He salaams at an eyeglass and is a moth
drinking nighttime slow through his proboscis.
My body, he says, is a broken planet.
I grin oceanic. I heave and swell
ambergris as the fields of the North Sea.
“Once things stop happening…once all verbs become
be. Then are we indissoluble
and all my work goes well.”

A glosa unapologetically,
“Olbers’s Paradox” takes as its cabeza
a quatrain already borrowed for the purpose
by P.K. Page from Leonard Cohen’s
“I Have Not Lingered in European Monasteries”:

During the day I laugh and during the night I sleep.
My favourite cooks prepare my meals,
my body cleans and repairs itself,
and all my work goes well.

As the winner of Echolocation Magazine’s 2012 Poetry Contest, this poem was published as a broadsheet by Echolocation Magazine and printed by Massey College’s Brian Maloney. It is available for purchase here, with all proceeds going to Echolocation Magazine.