FLIGHT RISK by Robert Sheppard


Robert Sheppard reading ‘Flight Risk’




You roll on your back like a sore heel

to await the kick-off. The wallpaper’s

monumentality seems appropriate

to kick start our new alphabet. Two scratches


on a screen, the little hut of words in which

huddles the envoy of intention: the fulsome way

to say nothing is to build a house of deletions

and present it on a sketchy hillcrest.


We may see the characters dotted

on the ridged arc of this sky-map and read

what they tell us. They dance together until

they are folded upon one another and


anything may happen as they touch and rub,

transfer and exchange their implications. A

leaf speckled with messages torn from nature

drops through culture’s unrelenting drip-feed.


It will never coil over its inscriptions, crisp,

brown, and die the death. Squadrons of

intentionality swarm over the blank face

of spatial consciousness (or so somebody


is trying to tell us). Below the line

the words are translated

into the language we all claim to speak

with native skill and colloquial force


in deafening definition. Bring the wall down

with a long transforming moan that will

shatter the bricks to clattering rubble. Vowels

fall over each other for clarity; within


each is an explosive big Other that

could wreck a continent of signals spilling out

from the radio transmitter, even to our curved

coast. On its shoreline the sandpipers stroll,


pecking with their tapered beaks

the fecund sand. The guerrilla leader slouches

at the microphone, the sky blistering

to a blood-red backdrop, as he speaks,


pauses for effect, sips ice-cold water, proof

of something not demanded. The oceans

swirl in the satellite image as the hoarse

voice-over of a half-drowned meteorologist


whispers and then moves on, like

the president attending a wildfire, dry as

his necessary cannon. There are ranks of us,

chanting muffled slogans between excellent teeth.


The badge on my shirt depicts an arrow

pointing upwards. I tap its tin face,

clear my throat, and announce: ‘The

world is upended and programmed to spill


backwards; the frog leaping out of the pond

pulls its muscle-flip splash through the fresh

air.’ In the glass skyscraper night of our

sign-reading, only one window blazes


with the calligraphy of honest light and,

in its square, we read nothing more exotic

than the fictional laws of this circumscribed

world: sounds squeezed through an hourglass


dropping into soft sand. The possible

dimensions of this are not merely a result of

logic: the swirling words twirl in a sonic dance

that traverses the block of outward reason.


Flurries over the blizzard landscape blind us

to the sky falling as the word ‘sky’, brushing

the reading face you carry to sort this moment,

its sinking indication. Your black lips,


their edges holding the mouth down to

sobriety, steadying it for utterance, pliant along

their rims, stretch for solid crimson plaint,

blast their message like an ensign.


Say the word but shade it anew. See what a

little smudge might do, now you’re open on the floor

like a plastic bottle. A wave of yellow hair

brushes against the blue night, sparks


of expendable static. She is simply reversed,

like her red/green dress; her astonishment

is limitless, though one blow and she’s a tide

of terror. Jet warriors and ginger girls


caper before her copper earrings

that collect the soundtrack of this muted war.

Every dystopia must embroil its trash

in the purest poem: a hanging melody


lifts an alighting sparrow on its floating palm.

This city was designed with its favellas

of waste readymade, custom-built

to receive the discards of the irrigated centre


in their turgid canals of disease and rot. We stay

in our allotted square, amid the green band. The

blue areas feel like water when we imagine them

or stencil the word on our white plastic walls.


From the sky, the entire city spells its name. If

only she would scintillate her non-organic charms

upon us, we might divert our wasting senses.

An intimate dance, tense in circular mirroring,


magnetic cohesion, might pull us into orbit. We

might attempt to repeat these moves, recalling

its call, building a new space to live in. Antiquity

imagined it knew what posterity might treasure.


Whereas Romans hoped we would worship

here, we want to pick among the bone-shards

of their refuse dumps to comprehend their diet, or

to interpret this naked slave who, having


hoisted an ampoule on her shoulders, topples

amid the discarded words of a language

she could never have understood, carpeting

her fall like a voice commanding a mirror.


I’m tired of providing captions for each

new phenomenon, laureate of the dung-heap,

stuffing them speckled with local rain through

your clacking letter boxes. You’re so invested


with belief predicated upon non-identification

that you’d agree with, and to, almost anything. We

nestle on cold scales either side of the metronome,

which is either somebody’s joke or their biography.


We stretch enclosures on the map

of feeling: there’s something to hide here,

ring-fenced and regimented and regal.

Triangulate through the circle past


the row of stars, auspiciously neat

constellations joining up the dots of an

atomised mythology to enact stale tales,

nebulous performers on a rocky stage.


The disk begins to churn the air as it turns,

spilling its effluvial thoughts on the

pink-tinged branches, trembling blossom.

Its words spell trouble over and over.


Robert Sheppard’s two forthcoming books are from his ‘English Strain’ project, The English Strain from Shearsman Books, and Bad Idea from Knives Forks and Spoons. Shearsman also publishes his selected poems, History or Sleep, and The Robert Sheppard Companion, a series of essays on his work. KFS also publishes his ‘autrebiography’, Words Out of Time. Also a critic (The Meaning of Form) he lives in Liverpool. He blogs at www.robertsheppard.blogspot.com.

17 February 2021