My reading of this poem is about tenses, other mechanics of writing, and what they do to us. ‘One day he was walking behind her’, the poem opens, and the final stanza starts, ‘The Embassy was dustier after that’. So it begins with, and then reasserts, the past perfect tense. It’s an awkward tense to write a whole poem in – too many unnecessary verbs, and poetry hates any extra words – but just by asserting it in these places the entire poem is enveloped in it. The perfect tense holds us at a remove, inserting more distance between the action and the reader than would be the case with the simple past tense, just as it inserts another verb between the pronoun and the action. ‘He was walking’ rather than ‘he walked’: it’s… dustier. It makes the action sound continuous, timeless.
In this way, the past perfect is the tense that evokes nostalgia, a remembrance. It’s more performative than the simple past; it draws attention to itself. ‘It was Stockholm, and high winter’ is the second sentence, which continues to create the feeling that the poem is looking back on an incident from long, long ago. There’s only one verb here, but it’s still the verb that creates the past perfect, ‘was’. It’s a brief sentence, after a long one, and it’s elegant and beautiful. It’s all that we need to know about where the incident took place. Even the comma before the ‘and’ is effective. After such a long opening sentence, the weight on each of these clauses is heavy, slow. Both ‘Stockholm’ and the phrase ‘high winter’ contain almost-repeated vowels. They sound good together. We really consider what each word means before we move on. This is what I mean by feeling.
At the heart of the poem is the image of the hairgrip falling ‘out of her hair’. We find out that it was ‘bronze, decorated with three parrots’. There’s her realisation that it’s gone, later, and his reading of her reading in him a betrayal – he must have seen it fall, and he didn’t tell her. We understand this because she ‘caught his eye’, and she looked ‘hurt’. He offers her an ‘apologetic grimace’. We read a lot into a small image – of the hairgrip, of its fall, and of her looking for it. We see a tiny sliver of what could be somebody’s life, of a relationship between two people. And to begin with, it centres on the hairgrip. The precision and detail here, and the lack of explanation, makes it feel symbolic, gives it mysterious depth. What did this incident mean in the larger context of their relationship?
This is also heightened by the way the poem loops around the image. I mean it when I say it sits at the heart of the poem: the dropped hairgrip, the looks that pass between them… We later see him reminded of this moment when, two years later, he finds ‘the hairgrip in a pawn shop in Östersund’. We see Grabes’s commentary on this moment of recollection, and then the poem’s narrator tells us that Grabes ‘was one of the men walking with him that winter evening in 1956’. This serves to tell us more about when the original event happened, but it also forms a loop. Grabes is both a sarcastic, ‘spiteful’ academic voice commenting on the action, and part of the action: one of the ‘lesser men’ with whom the poem’s he had conspired with against her, unthinkingly. These stanzas frame and comment on the earlier stanzas; they take one small moment and turn it into something that resonates much later, across time, through different people. But they also turn back to the start of the poem as an origin point, a knot.
The hairgrip itself – the image at the heart of the event that offers the key to the rest of the poem – is small, but heavy. The way it’s described in brackets, and the way it ‘clatters’ to the ground, has precise weight, in a poem with little physical description. It’s precious enough to turn up in a pawn shop – it’s small but irreducible, unignorable. He saw it fall; he heard it fall. It was a turning point, and he picked the wrong turn. It’s one of the ‘hundred subtle chasms’ that the narrator talks about later in the poem. He hurt her by simply not speaking about something small, which in turn hurt himself.
It can also be read as a symbol of her femininity; his ‘colleagues chuckled and continued to admire her legs’, disregarding its place, affording her no respect for the things that she owns. It’s small, with birds on it. It’s also worth thinking about how the narrator refers to ‘my omniscience’, but it’s only the men’s interior lives that we see discussed. ‘She looked hurt’, the poem says, ‘as if something in his face…’ What we see here are his inferences. She hurries away, and doesn’t appear in the poem again. She is the one who has lost something, and yet she leaves. Its effect on him would be less obvious – it’s at a remove. It’s not his thing to lose. He didn’t act when it fell. But we focus on him. It’s him that we see the object affect with its psychic weight. It’s telling that the crisis that the spiteful quotation from Grabes talks about is a spiritual one, forcing him ‘into organised religion’. It ‘snaps’ his rationality. Because it’s not rational! It’s about relationships, and chance, and the capriciousness of life.
I think this is partly why I come back to this poem over and over again; why I find the opening two stanzas so arresting. Because the poem trusts that the hairgrip can bear this weight. It doesn’t feel the need to explain.
We don’t need to see into E.’s head to know that she has been betrayed by his not picking up the hairgrip; he has betrayed her, and he knows it. We see this in his reading of her – in reaction to her, not of his own volition. He is inserted between E. and the reader, much as the auxiliary verb (‘was’) is inserted between the pronoun and verb. He keeps her further away from us, more distant. She, however, is the figure we see the most clearly. There’s not a lot of description, but through the gaze of the lesser colleagues we see ‘her legs’, and when she pats her head for her clip we see ‘her hair around her shoulders’. The men in the poem, almost entirely unnamed, are spectral. The closest we come to any of their physical selves are when we see the things that the poem’s protagonist holds, possesses. We never see his body. But she exists, is real, has physical form. Just like the hairclip.
The poem is written as if it’s an excerpt from a longer text; the man who is the focus has no name, and the woman he walks behind doesn’t either, until we find out belatedly that she goes by the initial ‘E’. And of course, ‘ibid’ means ‘same as the previous endnote’, friend of tired students and academics everywhere. It’s funny – there’s an irony here that’s key to the text – but the humour, the irony, doesn’t flatten the rest of the poem. The poem feels sad, elegiac, too. The past perfect helps. It’s the saddest tense. Except, maybe…
In the penultimate stanza, the narrator tells us that he – the narrator – died in a crash on the autobahn. The crash was between two of the protagonist’s ‘would-be future biographers’, both of whom died. They’re not distinguished from each other; we’re not told anything else about them, just that one of them has come to us as the omniscient narrator of the poem. It’s the tense here that’s interesting – the double whammy of ‘future’ and ‘would-be’. A looking forward that is immediately curtailed. And the line ‘One of them was me, hence my omniscience’ is wry, turning it into a joke. The joke is about the tense, the tone of the poem. The poem is written in a scholarly, overseeing voice. It tells us about an event, quotes another writer’s account of the event, and then tells us about the other writer’s biases that may have affected his account. It plays at pastiche, but then takes it further, and the narrator becomes something like a trick. Like Lancelot, in 2004’s film of King Arthur, he’s able to narrate because he’s dead. The poem changes from third person to first person, just for a sentence. This breaks down something, revealing the assumptions and received ideas that help to hold a scholarly, historical text together. It reveals a crucial crack in the poem.
The crash – which is a joke, but is also real in the world the poem creates – happens as soon he says, ‘You should be banned from describing anyone’. Directly before this, the poem had described him with ‘an unopened letter from his daughter in his inside pocket’, ‘throwing pine-cones at the rusty ice-cream van’. Who’s he talking to? Well, the narrator and the narrator’s double crash ‘into each other’ in the sentence after he says this, being ‘killed instantly’. The description of him earlier in the stanza is dispassionate and his actions are strange; because we are given a couple of vivid images we have to tie them together. The narrator doesn’t tell us to read it like this, but if he’s omniscient, then why pull out these particular details if they don’t relate to each other. Why is the letter unopened? He must be throwing the pine-cones to let out a pent-up emotion, right? The further we look into the poem, the more tangled we get. It plays games with us. This poem, which starts out by establishing such distance between the reader and its subjects, crackles with strangeness. It looks straight at us. It’s suddenly fantastical. We’re no longer being spoken to by the faceless voice of history, but a ghost. And did he cause their deaths just by speaking in anger?
The final stanza pans out to take a more historical view. It brings the title into the body of the poem: ‘it came to be known as the Age of Dust, or the Dusty Era.’ This goes back to the way that the first stanza seems firmly nostalgic – it pulls us back from the world of the poem, draws the curtain firmly around it. It also adds a sense of underlining, summing up. Yes, this poem is about the dusty era. Yes, the era has ended. There’s the final line, about how the intercom would ‘pop’ as if a man was about to speak. Pop is onomatopoeic, self-enacting. Three forms of the word ‘dust’ are used in one sentence. And yet we are not told why the embassy became ‘dustier after that’, which also enacts the end of the poem – the feeling that someone is about to say something difficult, but doesn’t. The same words are repeating, but we never get to the meaning behind them. Eras are named after something. Dust has a cause; it doesn’t just come to be. Dust is decay, is a sign of time passing, of decline. By bringing the title back in, the poem closes another loop – we feel satisfaction, almost as we do when we read a poem with a clever rhyme – but we’re outside it. We’ve not been let in. It’s a poem written as a historical account that comments on other historical accounts; as discourse that’s part of a body of discourse, written for other people who are in the loop. This is what the funny use of ‘ibid’, of mock-scholarly quotation, is about. ‘One of those overdetermined little moments’, Grabes says to describe the moment in the pawn shop. This is playing another game with us, too. It winks. We can see that the poem is about such overdetermined little moments – they are all we see. But they don’t ‘snap’ our ‘reason like a chicken bone’; they are beautiful, and they also resist reason. Why didn’t he tell her about the clip falling? Why did he come across it then, in that pawn shop? They are moments in life, and they just happen.
And, of course, the poem rings with what’s unsaid. The biographers die before they write their biographies, instantly becoming ‘would-be’ instead of ‘future’. He doesn’t tell E. about the hairclip. The poem tells us that we can casually ‘murder’ or ‘betray’ someone by not responding in the correct way during conversation, by refusing even to smile, or say ‘Mm’. The poem ends on the image of a man at an intercom, making a noise before speaking, but never speaking. The man isn’t even there. He’s a ghost.
Because the poem is about people who act, always, even when they’re not acting: they speak in anger, even if it kills someone. They act by not responding correctly in conversation, by refusing to play the correct game.
And so ultimately – although it’s a poem about closed loops and things left unexplained – there are many fault lines and deliberate cracks. The poem deconstructs its own language, the form it’s taken. It opens fissures through which we can see the workings that are often hidden. We can see the way that relations and common forms are made, and reinforced, and the way that there is nothing really objective or dispassionate about them, however they appear.
One day he was walking behind her with several colleagues
from the Embassy when the hairgrip fell out of her hair
(bronze, decorated with three parrots) and clattered to the
pavement. It was Stockholm, and high winter. She was deep
in conversation with a girlfriend and didn’t hear. His col-
leagues chuckled and continued to admire her legs.
They walked five blocks before she noticed her hair around her
shoulders, patted the back of her head and stopped walking.
She turned and looked first at the pavement and then up,
where she caught his eye. She looked hurt, as if something in
his face had apologised for conspiring against her with lesser
men (he responded with an apologetic grimace) then she
took her girlfriend’s arm and walked on, hurriedly.
Two summers later, looking for cufflinks for the reception, he
found the hairgrip in a pawn shop in Östersund. An event
Grabes describes as, ‘One of those overdetermined little
moments that gradually conspired to snap his reason like a
chicken bone and force him into organised religion, more
credulous than even the altar boy.’ (ibid, p. 136) It should be
noted that Grabes was one of the men walking with him that
winter evening in 1956, and that he was, in all probability,
quite attracted to E. himself – a fact that throws Grabes’s
more spiteful observations into relief.
He stood with a hip-flask, complaining in the port, a parcel of
Christmas presents under one arm. Each day contains a hun-
dred subtle chasms. You can betray someone by not smiling,
murder them by not saying ‘Mm,’ at the appropriate points
in the conversation.
Years later he sat on the swingset in the playpark, an unopened
letter from his daughter in his inside pocket. He was throw-
ing pine-cones at the rusty ice-cream van. ‘You should be
banned from describing anyone,’ he said out loud in the con-
densation. Two of his would-be future biographers crashed
into each other on the autobahn and were killed instantly.
One of them was me, hence my omniscience.
The Embassy was dustier after that – it came to be known as
The Age of Dust or the Dusty Era. A fault on the line made the
intercom pop sporadically like a man about to say something
From The Migraine Hotel (Salt, 2009). Reproduced with permission of the author.