by Tom Pow
How do people live?
He was standing two in front of me
in W. H. Smith’s and what
he wanted to know was,
How do people live? He asked
the question as if someone
had given it to him as a gift -
his eyes shone with the wonder of it.
How do people live? He looked around
at us all, knowing the question to be
unanswerable, knowing that no one
had an option but to shake their heads
or to look down at their hands,
holding Heat magazine
or the day’s trivia or greeting cards
which laid claim to the most minor
matters concerning how people live.
Yet he must keep on asking the question -
though a couple of girls giggle,
a boy exhales testily
and a child begins to cry -
for it was never the same question
twice. Each time there was
a subtle difference to it.
How do people live? implied
something substantially different
to How do people live? It was
a question of weighting: one
suggested method, the other
a question of will. Clearly,
to him, it was all a mystery
and a miracle. And who was not
in the queue that morning
who did not feel something stir,
as that man, with the worn trench-coat
and the unkempt grey hair, asked
and asked again, How do people live?
How do people live nowadays?
This new inflection brought the question
close. How could it not, when each day
we saw the world burn, flags on fire,
hatred woven through the air? This question
had a smell. It was acrid -
gunpowder, dying seas, a last
sour gasp. The sound
was of languages falling silent;
children crying, a mother’s despair.
Then, like a ringmaster, he cracked
the whip of that first question again,
as if he had cleared the decks
of the clogging world and we heard
with a new clarity: How do people live?
The question deepened now.
He was rowing us out to the centre
of a loch, where the waters were so dark
as to be impenetrable. But it was the only question
worth asking, though asking it made life
seem chancy. How do people live?
Where was the next breath
coming from? We were climbers
on a cliff of blue ice. We’d slip.
Nothing surer. The space was terrifying.
We watched a lottery ticket float into it,
as worthless as everything, now
that all we wanted was to hold an answer
to us – it was all that could save us.
How do people live? There was no
David Attenborough to tell us
how to make huts, to invent fire,
to carve a hole in the ice. We were far out.
Unreachable. How do people live? What more
could he have done but ask the question -
though asking it gave no relief?
He nodded slightly in his shabby coat, then left us,
to invent fire, to carve a hole for himself in the ice.
From The Poem Goes To Prison – Poems chosen by readers at HMP Barlinnie, edited by Kate Hendry (Scottish Poetry Library 2010).