Posted by: John Looker | 26 February, 2012

WORK (a noun)

The first in an open-ended, occasional series of poems on a rather broad subject:



She turns away from the glare of the screen
to the window, to a well-loved luxuriant scene.

For a moment, columns of figures give way
to rows of cabbages some fifty yards long
and a man slowing down near the end of his working day.

Her head is reeling. Why isn’t K2
consistent with B23?
She’s put in the prices and orders herself,
checking the figures, weeding out errors
but something has got at them,
something has nibbled and bitten them through.

– easier up here job’s nearly done
soil’s a treat but strange how you find
half an hour should do it then in for my tea
if the wife has begun

So now what’s the problem? Why has he dropped that hoe?
She might have to scrap this and make a fresh start.
No stamina these days she thinks,
and perhaps he’s regretting he let the boy go.

– this one’s unusual look at the shape
snug in the hand and the edge still cuts
funny the flints that surface up here
crawling out, as it were, from the depths of the earth
site of a camp or a fort I suppose
water though what did they do for that
could kill for a cuppa
half human half ape 

He’ll be in, in a minute, wanting his tea.
She’ll microwave something. Meanwhile, there remains
that intractable B23. 

– knapping they call it wonderful skill
got to admire how smooth the bevelling
this could be used for cutting up meat
skinning a hare clothes maybe too
how did they do it though maybe I’ll try it myself
harder stone from the foot of the hill 

Distracted, she looks up again and gazes outside.
On the edge of the field he is kneeling and fidgetting
absorbed, as in thought or in prayer, and through the glass,
through the clean dry air, comes a quick brittle sound
heard faintly as if from infinite distance: a tap,
an insistent tap. Then he stands and swinging his arm
flings something wide. 

The male is sure of his welcome at the close of the day.
The door flies open with a crash;
he kicks off his boots with relief and he’s hungry.
“Go and get washed while I heat these up –
and throw that away!” 

– knapping they call it just look how it’s made
wonder if they worked round the fire at night
straining their eyes cursing when a flint
went wrong must have been wastage
but think of the pride did every man make them
or was it a rarified skill like a specialist trade

Beyond the window, beyond the field and the trees,
the light is fading, the air is cooling,
and numberless starlings swirl in the evening breeze.

© John Looker 2012

I have revised the title of this poem. Previously it was Work (A Noun) but that has now become the title of a very different poem, the first in my book The Human Hive (about to be published by Bennison Books).    January 2015


  1. Why do I think of a story by Thomas Hardy? Perhaps the joy in the traditional “thing,” made with timeless cunning, shown both in subject matter and the activating form of the verse (such activating form would be beauty in my book and perhaps St Thomas’s as well). The dialogue, too, man and woman, domestics framing the deep romance of history, framing but not absorbing and not containing. The “inner form” movements between what is believed to be going on and what is “really” going on and how the latter transforms, nearly, the former, but clearly, for the reader, providing a profound sympathy with the historical “other” (so the poem is structured on a triangle, as all romances are I suppose). There’s a little disappointment perhaps in the final lines, perhaps intentionally so. A wonderful poem full of insights and fresh provocations for the brain tired of Poetry Magazine (which I tried to read last night, for my sins).


  2. Wonderful John,

    I have sat here for ages alternatively reading your poem and watching the blue tits in the tree outside my window.

    I come away with a feeling of satisfaction and contentment.



    • That’s hilarious David! I’m very glad that I was not aware, when writing this poem, that I would be in competition with blue tits for your attention! I’m relieved that you even pulled yourself away long enough to comment!
      I hope you enjoyed your weekend.


  3. Thank you so much for the close reading and thoughtful comment which I really appreciate.
    I hadn’t consciously thought of Hardy, but of course subconsciously I must have been following (panting to keep up) in his footsteps. You’ve also set me thinking with your remarks about Thomas Aquinas, form and substance; certainly, in a confused way, I was trying to play with notions of things made (not excluding the poem), the action of making them, the importance of that activity in our lives; and the timelessness of it all – or at any rate the 250,000 years-ness of it since our species began.
    I recommend you go back to Poetry Magazine after slumming it on this website, though.


  4. I really like the punctuation-free stream of consciousness thoughts of the man in the field, and all the while he’s unaware that he’s watched and being ‘accused’ of losing his stamina. The woman behind the glass who can only faintly hear the tapping (and by implication the ancient past?) seems more representative of most people today than the man in the field who is contemplating our ancient ancestors and seems so much closer to them. Still, even though she may not be so aware, she’s still irrevocably linked to them as she ‘weeds out errors’ in the office. I love the mystery of the final line, too.


    • Many thanks for reading this and taking the trouble to comment on it. I’m glad that the closing line seemed satisfactory to you – it might not to everyone I suppose.


  5. Ethel says this is a cool, cool poem, and she knows.
    Tom is not doing so well, so he’s hoping he makes sense. I am always waiting for John Stevens poems and go to his site as soon as I know one exists, but the first time I read this I had trouble making it out. It was just before rushing to the hospital, so maybe that was the reason.
    But now that I’m just back from the hospital I am singing and in a twirl even though I haven’t had a pain pill for awhile.
    I hear several voices in this poem. I have a bit of Hardy (his poetry, not his prose) and even a bit of Frost.
    But mostly I meet a woman and her farmer husband and everyday life echoing back to a time where knapping was a skill needed for the survival of groups of people.
    In the end, as I read this, it is a love poem. The woman, doing her sums on her computer, which has that blasted error that doesn’t make sense, sees the world she loves with its rows of cabbages and her husband at work in the fields. Then, like all of us, she fusses over what she sees.
    The husband, in the meantime, is fussing over his own world, pretending to be David Agnew, I suspect–though a bit removed, and looking forward to his evening cup of tea. The expected is that the tea will be ready when he is done with his day. That is a special love of expectation and custom that only comes from those long together.
    In the way of wives the woman worries that he’s losing his stamina and probably regrets letting the boy go. He, being male, has no such thoughts, of course. I can almost hear the symphony of humanity rising. He’s found a flint in the field and is thinking about a time long past when his field was the field of ancient peoples, maybe even a fort.
    She knows he’ll be in for his tea shortly, but, in the way of women, knows she can microwave something up even as he is contemplating the distant past. He thinks about knapping, and then
    … a quick brittle sound
    heard faintly as if from infinite distance: a tap,
    an insistent tap. Then he stands and swinging his arm
    flings something wide.
    as the past is brought into the present and leads to glorious physical reaction.
    When he comes him he gives him the orders she always gives him, and surrounding this true picture of long-term love comes the poet’s realization that his story is being told as
    light is fading, the air is cooling,
    and numberless starlings swirl in the evening breeze.
    Unlike Tom d, this is a perfect ending to a masterpiece that is one of the best poems I’ve ever read.


    • You are extremely generous both of you, and you have seen things in this poem of which I was unaware – although now I see them too! I’m pleased about that because, as the thing came together, I rather felt that there were some hidden nooks and crannies in it in addition to the doors I wanted to open.
      But you have been unwell, Tom – I very much hope that you are feeling much better now and that it lasts.


  6. Something I’ve learned about a John Steven’s poem is that you have to pay attention to what it does not say. This one starts out by not saying quite a lot. We have what seems like a definition for ‘Work (a noun)’ which doesn’t quite define work. ‘Work distinguishes the human from other primates.’ Okay, but you might say that of stargazing and farming and using computers (did Alan Turning think that his universal machine was doing work? And the Turing test? What about that?) and looking out the window.
    Wait. Looking out the window? That can’t be work. That’s exactly how I got through school, that ‘s avoiding work.
    Of course, at one time we thought distinguishing the human from other animals was easy. We don’t anymore.
    She turns away from the glare of the screen
    to the window, to a well-loved luxuriant scene.

    Does she turn to the window—or the scene outside the window? There’s a famous passage in The Dehumanization of Art where Ortega y Gasset compares the contemplation of art to looking, not out the window, but at the window.
    What we have is a very simple optical problem. To see an object we must adjust our visual apparatus in a certain way. If the adjustment is inadequate we won’t see the object or we’ll see it badly. Let the reader imagine that we are seeing a garden through a glass window. Our eyes will adjust in such a way that the ray of vision penetrates through the pane without being held up by it, going to rest on the shrubs and flowers. Since our goal is to see the garden, our ray of vision is thrust toward it, we do not see the glass but look clear through it—remaining the glass unperceived. The purer the glass, the less we see it. With some effort we can also disregard the garden and, withdrawing the ray of vision, detain it on the glass. We then lose sight of the garden; what we behold of it is a confused mass of color which appears pasted to the pane. Hence to see the garden and to see the windowpane are two incompatible operations which exclude one another because they require different ocular adjustments.
    That window seems kind of important to me. The poem balances around it.
    I don’t know about Thomas Hardy. It’s been too long since I read him, but no one does absence better than Robert Frost, and no one lets this absence define the human better than Frost. The sliding of this poem back and forth through that window with its mysteries is perfect. (He’s kneeling? Exactly what is his reason for that ‘flinging’. ) Windows let you see outside. Windows can keep you inside.
    Is this a love poem? I don’t quite get that feeling, except in the sense that all poems are love poems.
    Did I mention the window?—
    Beyond the window, beyond the field and the trees,
    the light is fading, the air is cooling,
    and numberless starlings swirl in the evening breeze.

    Surely Wallace Stevens was looking through that same window when he wrote:
    And, in the isolation of the sky,
    At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
    Ambiguous undulations as they sink,
    Downward to darkness, on extended wings.

    Humanity, take to the sky. John Stevens has his window trained on you.
    This is a really nice poem.


    • I’ve been told that this poem is rather long and slightly baffling, which is fair comment, so I’m relieved that a number of people have had the patience to read it and the kindness to say they have liked it. I’m particularly honoured to have sparked off your bright blaze of thoughts, and as usual you’ve given me plenty to think about (and read: I followed up your link – to a passage that was new to me and most intriguing). I’m going to have to go away and ponder while the next poem in this series takes shape. Very many thanks Jim. By the way, I’m chuckling over your remark that “this [poem] starts out by not saying quite a lot” – it’s very civil of you to avoid saying that it finishes by not saying quite a lot! 🙂


  7. Marvelous meditation on the endless labor of our species, ranging from the symbolic worker’s tedium from top to bottom of the screen, looking out on the husband working row of cabbages, who’s just unearthed a flint bearing witness of the labor of the tribe back in the Paleolithic. Technologies have changed so much but the root cause and purpose of them never does — to bring something sustaining forth. And what’s a labored poem but exactly that, bringing a world into being through the words, knapping the lines until there’s a tempered bravura to them, an entirety? Loved it, John. – Brendan


    • I like your observation that technologies change but the cause and purpose remain the same – I was reaching for that – and then your comparison with production of a poem. Quite a bit a knapping went into this one, in fact! Thank you for commenting, Brendan.


  8. Hi John
    I suppose reading poems is not really working, still you got me reading intensly, and I like it more every time I do 🙂


    • Thanks Ina – I’m relieved that it is not hard work to read this one!


  9. “He’ll be in, in a minute, wanting his tea.
    She’ll microwave something. Meanwhile, there remains
    that intractable B23.”
    This is very interesting…the flow, the work.
    you can see the care you put into each of your pieces…


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  12. I am once again convinced of the beauty and aptness of you work on work, John…the kinds, which so fascinate me, as well as the conventions that dictate male and female roles. I agree with what Thomas Davis says.


  13. I’m not sure how to respond, Cynthia, except to thank you and Thomas Davis again for your kindness. I don’t know how to go about producing a chapbook, and I’m really not sure that there would be much demand for it. On the other hand, there’s a certain excitement at the thought. Perhaps we’ll see how things go when I offer the free pamphlet I’m preparing (for The Silk Road); it’s nearly ready.


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