When I first read Mark’s poems I felt secure in their confidence and excited by their emotional punch and vibrant imagery. I remember printing off his poem about jellyfish which was so vivid and poignant. It’s one of those poems I enjoyed rereading. This was around the time his pamphlet Spitting Distance was published in 2016. He has the ability to carry us to vignettes of human experience, often through the eyes of a child or as the observer and he tells a shocking or surprising story. He creates an edge-of-the-seat feel through his sharp narratives and I am thrilled or moved by them. We can relate to those moments where the innocence of youth is lost. I love his directness and visceral honesty. Delighted to say his full collection, Slide, is due in November.
… and in their glance was permanence
– John Berger
At sixteen, I did a day’s work
on an egg farm.
A tin shed the size of a hanger.
Inside its oven dark
two thousand stacked cages,
engines of clatter and squawk.
My job, to pass a torch
through the bars for the dead hens
and pack them tight into a bin bag.
All the time my mind chanting:
there’s only one hen. Just one
ruined hen repeated over and over.
In this way I soothed the sight
of all that caged battery,
their feathers stripped to stems,
their patches of scrotum skin,
their bodies held
in the dead hands of their wings.
But what kept me awake
that hot night in my box room,
as I listened to the brook outside
chew on its stones and the fox’s
human scream, was how
those thousand-thousand birds
had watched me. And really
it was me repeated over and over,
set in the amber of their eyes.
Me, the frightened boy in jeans
stiff with chicken shit, carrying
a bin bag full of small movement.
A foot that opened. An eyelid
that unshelled its blind nut.
A beak mouthing a word.
Cat on the Tracks
He wore the night in his fur, sat on a rung
between the rails, tail wisping like smoke
as a distant train split the air along its seam.
Its coming headlight laid down track
and placed an opal into each black seed
of the cat’s eyes, every blink slow as an eclipse.
Soon the white light pinned him, the only drop
of night left as vibration turned the rails to mercury.
But there was no give in the cat, no flex anywhere
but his tail. And for a moment their roles reversed,
as though it were the train facing the inevitable cat,
the end of the line. The world lit up like a page
and the train a sentence before the full-stop.
Inside this disused tool-shed in Hammer Wood
slatted walls morse daylight on an earth floor.
Here two local boys find a knife, its blade
freckled in rust. The older boy picks it up,
with its egg whiff of wet metal, and points
to his friend to back against the wall for a trick.
Then the younger boy’s t-shirt is hustled
over his head and rolled into a blindfold.
In its blackness, he imagines the moment held
like a knife above his friend’s head. His friend
who whispers. Don’t. Move. And then
there’s a kiss. Lips quickly snipping against his.
Silence. He’s aware of his chest, the negative
of his t-shirt. He pulls his blindfold. Looks
the older boy full in his up-close face. And sees
that he’s bleeding, everywhere, under his skin.
You dare me
to cross Bently road naked.
Its three a.m.
and we’re the only two awake
and its icy and streetlights
shy down their yellow.
On the tarmac my bare foot
is a cut of salmon
on a black hob,
paleness searing into it.
Cars lean on the curb
like empty men at a bar,
with nettle-hairs of frost.
My thighs flicker.
At the opposite hedge
I touch the sugar spoons
of privet leaves, unlock
a glittering sound of keys.
My fingers laced with blue.
My penis slunk
like a hand into its sleeve.
But as I turn back to you,
my stomach swills with heat
as if a red tap
had loosed its ribbon.
And as I cross the road again
my spine uncurls,
a fern in sunlight.
I reach you standing tall.
You with your arms full
of my clothes,
your bashful head bowed
but your side-on eye
unblinking as a fish.
The streetlight’s glow
has a whisky warmth. Your brow
sweats. The wet seal
of my mouth steams open.
And I dare you. I dare you.
Mark Pajak was born in Merseyside. His work appears in The Guardian, the London Review of Books, Poetry London, The North, The Rialto and Magma. He’s received a Northern Writers’ Award, an Eric Gregory Award, a UNESCO international writing residency and has been awarded first place in the Bridport Poetry Prize. His pamphlet, Spitting Distance (Smith|Doorstop) was selected by Carol Ann Duffy as a Laureate’s Choice. He has previously been commended in the National Poetry Competition in 2014 and 2019. His first collection Slide is due November 2022.
Thanks to the Poetry Society, Poetry London and Smith/Doorstop where these poems appear.