A Party of One

(Listen to the poem here)

(best seen if you stand back and squint a little and imagine it as a set of slightly cubist paintings with runny paint and everything a little crooked)

Tonight I dine alone but,
better said,
I am a party of one.
I have brought all my music
with me
in my head
and I have
poems read to me
by poets I have never met.
They flit between the waiters
and bend their verses round the oil,
the pepper and the vinegar.
Except for one, Li Po,
on his third jug of wine
but not quite ready yet.
And people who have been
my lucky strikes, my seams of gold,
send me pneumatic photographs.
I ought to toast them,
but they pop up between the rolls of bread
already toasted into the attitudes
and expressions I most like recalling.
I answer them with postcards
which I write onto the night
framed in the windows open to the air.
Thirty feet down, on the beach,
the cats look up at us, their noses
spiralling amazing patterns
all around the smells
which dangle tinkling
down from the teasing kitchen.
And then Li Po gets up at last,
stands on a table
with a smidgeon of unsteadiness
and faultlessly recites his famous poem
in which he dances with his shadow and
lit by the moon.
And when it’s done, I pay the bill,
leave tips on every table,
walk through the door into the syncopating sky
and quavering stars and down the
crotchety and wooden steps in triple time
out to the beach.

        And then the waiters crowd in two rows in a corner like
             an old-time much-mustachioed football team

to watch

        the poets, waving caps and scraps of paper and cravats,

leaning in tumbles out of all the windows

to watch

        the cats jump in a ragged line upon the wall and turn the
    wattage of their eyes to maximum

to watch

        the fish come silverishly swimming in a hurry into shore

to watch

        our party dance.

We’re good we are,
just me, the moon
and Li Po’s drunken shadow.

(This was the first thing posted at Sideways Station. This version is the one printed in my book as is slightly different from the one which I put up in February 2008. The sound quality of the reading is a little better as well, I hope. If you would like to know something more about the poem by Li Po – more commonly known as Li Bai in modern Chinese – here is a page with the poem in Chinese and 42 different attempts at translation into English. For an interesting discussion of the almost impossible task of translating a classical Chinese poem I would recommend Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei by Eliot Weinberger.)


(This poem is included in my book The Observation Car which is available from

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