The staircase hasn’t changed much through the centuries

I’d notice it, my own two eyes now breaking down the larger

vertical distance into many smaller distances I’ll conquer

almost absently: the riser, the tread, the measure of it long


hammered into the body the way it’s always been, even back

in the day when the builders of the tower Nimrod wanted

rising up into the heavens laid the first of the sun-baked bricks

down and rose. Here we are again I say but where exactly
nobody knows, that nowhere in particular humming between

one phoneme and a next, pulse jagged as airless Manhattan-

bound expresses on which I’ve worried years that my cohort

of passengers’ fat inner monologues might manage to lurch
up into audibility at once, a general rupture from the keeping

of thoughts to oneself – statistically improbable I know but

why quarrel with the dread of it. I never counted my own voice

among the chaos, admittedly. I just figured it would happen


not with but against me. A custom punishment for thinking

myself apart from all the others. But not apart from in the sense

above but away from. Although to stand in either way will

imply nobility, power, distinction. As for example if you step
back to consider a sixteenth-century depiction of the tower

under construction, you rapidly identify the isolated figure as

that of the king, his convulsive garment the red of an insect

smitten on a calf, the hint of laughter on his face, or humming
just under the plane of his face, indicative of what you have

come to recognize in others as the kind of pleasure, no more

or less so than in yourself, that can only persist through forcing

the world into its service as it dismantles whatever happens
to oppose it, including its own short-lived impulse to adapt

by absorbing what opposes into its fabric. It will refuse to do that.

It will exhaust its fuel or logic or even combust before it lets

itself evolve into some variation on what it used to be instead
of remaining forever what it is until it dies, even when its death

comes painfully and brings humiliation down upon its house.

In the abstract, on and off – as when hurrying past the wrought-

iron fence some pink flowering branches cantilever through
or if pushed too relentlessly into oneself in public – it’s hard

not to admire the resolve in that. But there are pictures in which

there is no king. The tower staggers into the cloudcover as if

inevitably, or naturally, as if the medium of earth were merely
manifesting its promise. Often the manner in which it does so

reflects the principles of advanced mathematics, but it’s unclear

whether the relationship between the two might be more

appropriately thought of as one of assistance or of guidance.
This distinction is a matter of no small concern to me, actually,

because much as I don’t want anyone’s help, I don’t want anyone

telling me what to do about ten times more, and if what it all

comes down to is that, there’s a far better than average chance
I’ll just end up devising some potentially disastrous third option

on the fly as I wait in line. Elsewhere we find teams of builders

at work among the tower’s open spaces with no one figure leaping

forward as king or even foreman, a phenomenon whose effects
include not only the gratification of our fondness for images

of proto-democracy but also the stimulation of our need to fill

whatever we perceive to be an emptiness, which in this instance

means electing ourselves into the very position of authority
we had been happy to find vacant. I myself would be happy

leaving every position vacant as an antique prairie across which

bison once roamed democratically, each denizen of the herd

voting for what direction it wanted to take off in with a nudge
of its quarter-ton head, but someone around here has to start

taking responsibility, and I don’t see any hands going up. So here goes.

Sorry. It was me. I built the Tower of Babel. What can I say?

It seemed like a good idea at the time. And a fairly obvious take-
off on what we were already doing, architecture-wise. All I did

was change the scale. I maintained the workers’ enthusiasm

with rustic beer and talk of history. Plus the specter of the great

flood still freaked the people out every heavy rainfall, so it felt
like good civic planning, too – but apparently the whole project

violated the so-called natural order of things. I’m still a little shaky

with the language in the aftermath, but my gut says that’s just

some dressed up way of admitting I was really onto something.

Donate to Poetry London

Be a part of the next 100 issues

To donate, please click on the button below, or send a cheque payable to ‘Poetry London’ to Poetry London, Goldsmiths, University of London, New Cross, London, SE14 6NW, UK.

Donate to Poetry London today

Subscribe to Poetry London

Subscribe today!