Roddy Williams – The Atheist Poet

Evolution of a poem – I

Sometimes poems seem to appear from nowhere, or rather a seed is often lodged unnoticed somewhere in that part of the brain reserved for random back office wondering. Whether it grows or not is usually out of my control. Now and again though it feeds on some other nutritious ideas and comes lumbering into the consciousness.
Some time ago I was chatting with a friend about music and Tom Waits was brought into the conversation. Not the man himself obviously. If we’d been chatting with Tom Waits about music I’d have felt too unworthy to voice an opinion. Anyhoo…
‘I’ve only got one Tom Waits album,’ I said.
‘Which one?’
‘I don’t know. I think it’s yellow and has a saxophone on the front.’
‘I think so.’
The conversation shot off on a tangent here and I recall we drifted on to methods of assassinating Celine Dion without causing undue mess or ending up in jail.
However something was nagging at me throughout the day.
My certainty of the ownership of the Tom Waits album was undiminished but I found the details worryingly vague. No tracks were unspooling in my head. Was it ‘Swordfishtrombone’?
So, I hied me to yonder CD cabinet and, lo and behold…. nothing between Velvet Underground and Rick Wakeman. There was no Tom Waits album. The realisation was so unsettling that I later sketched out the beginnings of the poem.
My usual procedure is to work the poem to a point where I think I can do no more and then put it away for a while in a state of incubation. (I shall deal with the process of development more fully at another time). This is very important. Looking at it again with a fresh eye always reveals the weak areas, repetitions and redundancies and a redraft will be called for. This can be an extended process. It was quite a while before I realised that I had – presumably unconsciously – included some religious references. To employ another religious reference I had an epiphany and saw that what I was working on could be seen as a wider metaphor for belief itself.
After more redrafts and rejections ‘Tom Waits is Missing’ was finally published by London Grip, Bless ’em!.
To be honest I was about to give up on it as it had been submitted to nearly every magazine on my regular submission list so please take this as a salutary lesson to persevere.
Anyway, this is it. Please feel free to leave feedback.

Tom Waits is Missing (2011)

we can’t recite our canon of cds
unless we have just three
or too much time on our hands.

but we know them when we see them
like the faces of celebrity saints
from the hello bible.

i believed
that tom waits was present,
safe as gospel
between the book of verve
and the books of whitesnake
but he’s not.

the title hovers at the edge of recall
like a maddening psalm. it tests my faith.
i pray for tracks
into empty silence, void.

then i reach that point of
shuddering revelation

the liberating moment when
i’m suddenly aware
of the loss of
something that was never there.


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