A Poem for the Millennium
In 1997 Tees Valley Arts – then Cleveland Arts – commissioned a poem to celebrate the Millennium. The story of why, what and how, is below, followed by the poem itself (or the first twenty-eight stanzas, which was all that was completed).
This is how we described the project back in the day:
BUZZWORDS, Cleveland Arts literature project, in association with the WRITEAROUND Festival, is co-ordinating a chain poem for the millennium. This was started off by Simon Armitage at the Writearound festival in October 1997.
The idea is that the poem will circulate for a little less than two years – each week a new poet will add a ten line stanza, then pass it on to the poet of their choice. After two years we will have a long, composite, collective poem by some of the best poets in the world – 100 stanzas for 100 years, 1,000 lines for 1,000 years.
The poem will give a fascinating insight into poets’ views of the end of the century. Far from being one person’s view it will be a polyvocal palimpsest of visions produced by an international community of poets, reflecting the cultural, political and aesthetic differences/connections between poets inhabiting the same era.
The Poem for the Millennium will be a truly historic work, both a chain and a mosaic, exploring important ideas and providing a unique picture of poetry at the end of the century.
Unfortunately this was not to be and the poem stalled after the twenty-eighth stanza, you can read more about why this might of happened here, and you can read the final poem below:
Eve of the dawn of the year two-thousand,
thousands stand on a far east island,
first to be lit by millennium’s morning
loving the starlight that passes for meaning.
Time, the human kind. ‘Although below the date-line,
fathoms deep, the sea-bed separates and weeps:
new rocks record the earth’s magnetic field contentedly,
and mollycoddled in the heat, old life-forms
well beyond the register of sun, swayed by the moon,
hang fire, go on regardless, blind, and unbeknown.
You bet I’m knackered, the scarred century whispered
in Intensive Care, why wouldn’t I be, with the failed
experiment of the world kneecapping my head
and the pick of my gifted offspring in jail?
But here comes year-old Hanna with her backside up,
her head down examining the joking floor,
united fingers guided her wobbly legs
and her cocked bum saying time is the open door
of Berkeley Library, scholarly seagulls crying
into Hanna’s freeborn spirit, intent on flying.
The century’s lost its head. It hits a ton,
the metal bursting flesh. The blinding flash
makes victor victim; damns with public flowers
panicked fingers clutch at in the crash,
seat-belt forgone for fear of bomb and gun.
The smoke-glassed limousine’s a shattered hearse
for blighted lives, their hundred years cut short
as Sarajevo’s bullet smacked its curse
through bone and brain, from trench and grassy knoll
to killing fields, the century’s severed skull.
Past midnight the angels come, one tall, one short,
In black, in bowlers, smiling. ‘Friend,’ said Tall,
‘The Lord wants you.’ Things burned out last week looked
Pretty in frost, the fires had moved elsewhere.
‘Where is the silver limo?’ Christian asked.
Short giggled. Tall said: ‘We did not want her trashed.
We parked outside the jail.’ How bright, how near
The stars and harmonies had come. Christian unhooked
His thirteen chains. ‘All will be well.’ said Tall.
‘You have the necessary?’ Christian touched his heart.
A thousand years used to seem nothing,
the blink of a pterodactyl’s eye.
I could cast my mind back a millennium
or two without even having to try.
Now I find it hard to imagine
more than a decade into the future.
Is it the end of the century, the world,
or my own life that blocks the view?
Apocalyptic dreams and fears confuse the issue,
while a steaming dragon-tongue of ocean laps Peru.
They teach you the lie that time is a line.
At one end of the tunnel of your eyes
is a whippersnapper with scabby knees
climbing a tree she doesn’t know is ash;
doesn’t know it sheds its seeds like winged keys.
Here you are the other end of the lie.
Tell me just how much you still don’t know, how
much you’ve forgotten: the way a slow-worm
slithers, shedding the memory of its own skin.
Tick off another of time’s dirty tricks.
Lets spend the day our damaged epoch ends
At Jim Magowan’s house in Champaign. Ill
Let’s honour it in Budvar on the lawn.
Disorientated in the Amish wheat
We’ll see a Cardinal look commonplace.
It speaks the note to which creation tends.
It’s beautiful, but tells us: best unborn-
A crimson thought to make this world sit still.
First raise your glass, be upright in your seat.
Ladies and gents, a toast. Now watch this space.
Back tae thi ring whaur aabdy’s starin in
at you but you and why thi millennium not?
You are thi Scot, Hogmanically guid
And whit’s that ring but aa thi blootert stars
gangin whirly in thir nithert pits?
Venus vomits oan meat-reid Mars
then picks oot thi ambrosial carroty bits.
Sae dial roond, get dialectin up
at thi universe’s membrane: “Let pass this cusp.”
As millennial absolution kicks into gear
the wheels of industry up the ante:
deeply blue skies and a fragrant atmosphere,
lush forests and holographic tigers
fill the television screens and dailies.
About the wound’s crimson cusp the windhover
settles, as if it is part of this bacchic celebration:
whether or not Nero fiddled while Rome burnt
we’re investing in a second take on Creation
and need to think he did, now more than ever.
Miss Melancholia murmurs, ghost of dark rhythm.
In such obscurity I would labour to dwell, though you
lie and delude, Muse, and spread the spider’s radii,
leak blokey fibs into journalism, doctor gossip and spin
endless unravellings. How can we go through all that again,
now the fabulously modern deteriorates into what we –
noses rubbed in the hack papers – are up to. Better that than fall
into old horrors – clever men, gunpowder, steel.
Under radioactive planets, God and Mammon concur. So I
mean what I can, going gladly into that bright gloom.
When the couch became a sofa
we sat down in front of Pay-TV
& replaced our ‘hmmm’ with ‘wow’ –
It’s all just clothes, makeup and hair.
And as we were the tootlers,
we tootled right along to the popular
anytime anyplace big brown & orange
inflatable bouncy castle to contest
the awards for untrammelled enthusiasm
and, only now, we know we’ll miss ’em.
To be weighed and found lacking is one,
probed and deemed too fragile another,
but the final test-building a monument
from the claws of cats-causes the most fear.
We failed to register the proper forms,
now “Cranium vs. Cranium” is last
on the list that trails onto the marble floor
and into the chiliastic hallway. The next entry:
“The State vs. the Zygote.” The proctor takes his time,
we’re stacked in the corridor.
Nobody owns the language and it’s a good thing, too
There goes my baby whistling Dixie in the unionized true
north we remain the unconverted apes of a theory
that got our grandparents all worked-up about but we,
We were too clever to rely on a primitive power-surge
protector for the spike we feel in our arms we espy a creature
with the shape of a monster and the brain of a human, a feature
of every landscape, rain or shine. Nor need there be dirge
in America or lament in the land of the rising sun so fast
to live with less fear of the next less love of the last.
The mind fails to get full round. Watching
the blowsy curtains billowing aft and fore,
the columbine creeping towards the door –
or listening to the siren mark the dark,
its fat beat keening through the streets –
the mind knows the local not. In the TV light,
the mind’s not – the fireflies out doors – cling
to light in form. Salut. A century clicks to.
Who clocks it? Perhaps we have already
slipped through and nothing struck on the stroke of.
The new fatigue is chronic. Every rock feverous
and global these years. The sky a spout,
then drought. And we, in the face of all those zeros
plus two (saying, Old angst), sigh in our crystallized time.
Captious sunlight remarkably resuming
in the sugary air. Webby is this day’s redundancy
hankering after, though all has already tocked. Tick
it off. Is it not time that dissolves, then be forgot?
Or is it only the arc of August swimming to halt?
O stop, ribbon streaking a parboiled sky,
a handbilled heaven for havenward eyes. In the end
of things, we look for a trace. And find it. (Qui sait?)
The story. The story. The story. It might have been
an ocular migraine, but that someone else saw it as well.
In the end of things, in the brasher begin,
there resides-pure regurgitation,
bird to bird. Decease and desist, someone said.
But we heeded it not. O borderlines.
Mary Jo Bang
Porter, carry please my two trunks to the barrier.
The seven days of the week pass quickly.
I have two hands and each hand has five fingers.
How many hands and fingers have you? Wrap up these books
and give me some string. Give me a massage and set my hair into curls.
Not all sons of great men are great.
After that there is music on records. Also ice cream and lemonade
for children who must not have wine.
I am bringing these flowers to the beautiful Scottish girl.
The flowers bloom beautifully today, but tomorrow
they will have ceased to bloom. Understand me rightly
and please do not misunderstand my words.
She has herself to answer for the deed.
I have only my personal effects and a few small presents.
Nothing much, except in a few places it’s raining.
It is a good crossing of the English Channel.
The branches have grown together.
Trees do not grow to heaven. If I see him, I’ll ask him.
Of what are you pleased? Is a cup of tea
or black coffee better against thirst?
Stanzas Seventeen & Eighteen
Timothy Donnelly & Lynn Melnick
What closes and then luminous? What opens and then dark?
Kawarazaki Gonjuro steps from his make-up mirror
Into the violet extinction, taste of eggwhite
In his mouth. Crowds mill to watch the ocean’s Slant eye shutting and shutting on sand.
And those who parachute upward like seeds from the dandelion’s
Feathery pappus. . . . And the birdwatcher who lifts her glasses
To the peculiar light in an edge-on spiral galaxy. . . .
The rain, not in torrents but ceaselessly comes unchecked out of everywhere With nothing to slacken it on its way.
Media meisters spin their wheels
Into the “bright gloom,” insisting that the latest
Latitudes must prevail though they are known to be
Linked to the final lament of the fanale – the scrupulous
Erasure we have feared since the first
Night. Do not go gentle, nor
Nailed down, nor yanked from retirement
Into that light night where sex and sin
Unfurl nuances, innuendos, platitudes – incipient
Mockeries of why we came here to die.
I think of certain objects first-
glass burns if it’s just right, which means
and hear it split laterally,
I mean halved in its depth
your upper lip, or anyone’s upper lip,
something sheer-I fear the torn-
I was on my way home when the sea overturned
and underneath, shone the sea
They repeat this every evening
that a century ends, which is every one.
Stanza Twenty One
Two thousand of the best cells in my body are itching,
feeling jagged, turning raw in this winter’s wind.
It’s nineteen ninety-nine and I don’t know a soul
who doesn’t feel small among the numbers.
Look up these days to catch eclipses,
comets, angels out of the corner of your eye,
join them if you like, learn singing, astrophysics, fishing,
flying, sex without touching, much.
Don’t trouble, though, to head anywhere but the sky.
Stanza Twenty Two
On a small island in Boston harbour,
easily seen from the air,
are the circular, not-quite ruins
of a shut-down prison
where, unknown to the FBI,
a sect lies hidden away,
with a supply of an airborne toxin
lethal enough to take out Boston
with less droplets in the air
than a sprinkle of holy water.
Stanza Twenty Three
First nothing, then daylight’s rush
and a darkling thrush
with its puffed-out waist-coat
and pulsing throat:
the god of the lilac bush.
The god of the air.
Look at it there
in a column of sky
stretching a million miles high –
itself, and in the clear.
Stanza Twenty Four
It’s something like the end of a hard week
or a long day-shift down the potash mine.
A glistening roof slithers above the truck
then bucks and dips close to our brimstone hats;
lamp-beams are bounced or sucked in by the dark.
10,000 lbs/in². Thick seas churn
a thousand metres up. We glide the shaft
and spill out into sunset. Stars, then dawn.
Too many big ideas have mucked us up.
Get in the cage. Get down to life, get down.
Stanza Twenty Five
hub secret museums ov slice still bread garage to distant alarms lust stations ov video & desire
oh yu super super markets allsouls yu pinstripe martyrs for the fast industries snowed in
technoblizzard futurethieves ramraid the 8th day unto insecurity cameras blinkin off tearghastly
the jerkoff crime underwriters this handjobless rage ov claw&disorderly end yr epizoic exploits in
the godawful thud ov poliscopters heatseekin @ 32am yu may run run run but cannot evade the
inevitable cuffin their frustrate shoot to thrill beaumonde translates these postmodern times the
fistin epistomological divides ov cypherspace inchoate age all punchdrunk rage & bluster as
sleazenation dot conspiracy dot conduct their jubilee tightlipped acts ov apostasy rinse rise &
spit rinse rise again all is gleamin futures uncover our dodgy deals spammed to fuck headlies
screamin we fuckin gotcha oh this mornin this new new mornin go catch the last clock home
Stanza Twenty Seven
An ordinary day somewhere else
Other sands, prophets, gods, motives
Heat drying laundry, women’s voices
Rising into one atmosphere unnoticed
As air on water or limestone settling
Into marble or the hand that carved it
Lost as the first grain gleaned on purpose
As ours as the one cell’s original splitting
Patterned as rain drops cutting a canyon
As uncounted as a kiss among the planets
Stanza Twenty Eight
Catherine Temma Davidson