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What is the Language Using Us for?

W. S. Graham

First Poem


What is the language using us for?

Said Malcolm Mooney moving away

Slowly over the white language.

Where am I going said Malcolm Mooney.


Certain experiences seem to not

Want to go into language maybe

Because of shame or the reader’s shame.

Let us observe Malcolm Mooney.


Let us get through the suburbs and drive

Out further just for fun to see

What he will do. Reader, it does

Not matter. He is only going to be


Myself and for you slightly you

Wanting to be another. He fell.

He falls (Tenses are everywhere.)

Deep down into a glass jail.


I am in a telephoneless, blue

Green crevasse and I can’t get out.

I pay well for my messages

Being hoisted up when you are about.


I suppose you open them under the light

Of midnight of The Dancing Men.

The point is would you ever want

To be here down on the freezing line


Reading the words that steam out

Against the ice? Anyhow draw

This folded message up between

The leaning prisms from me below.


Slowly over the white language

Comes Malcolm Mooney the saviour.

My left leg has no feeling.

What is the language using us for?



Second Poem



What is the language using us for?

It uses us all and in its dark

Of dark actions selections differ.


I am not making a fool of myself

For you. What I am making is

A place for language in my life


Which I want to be a real place

Seeing I have to put up with it

Anyhow. What are Communication’s


Mistakes in the magic medium doing

To us? It matters only in

So far as we want to be telling


Each other alive about each other

Alive. I want to be able to speak

And sing and make my soul occur


In front of the best and be respected

For that and even be understood

By the ones I like who are dead.


I would like to speak in front

Of myself with all my ears alive

And find out what it is I want.



What is the language using us for?

What shape of words shall put its arms

Round us for more than pleasure?


I met a man in Cartsburn Street

Thrown out of The Cartsburn Vaults.

He shouted Willie and I crossed the street


And met him at the mouth of the close.

And this was double-breasted Sam,

A far relation on my mother’s


West-Irish side. Hello Sam how

Was it you knew me and says he

I heard your voice on The Sweet Brown Knowe.


O was I now I said and Sam said

Maggie would have liked to see you.

I’ll see you again I said and said


Sam I’ll not keep you and turned

Away over the short cut across

The midnight railway sidings.


What is the language using us for?

From the prevailing weather or words

Each object hides in a metaphor.


This is the morning. I am out

On a kind of Vlaminck blue-rutted

Road. Willie Wagtail is about.


In from the West a fine smirr

Of rain drifts across the hedge.

I am only out here to walk or


Make this poem up. The hill is

A shining blue macadam top.

I lean my back to the telegraph pole


And the messages hum through my spine.

The beaded wires with their birds

Above me are contacting London.


What is the language using us for?

It uses us all and in its dark

Of dark actions selections differ.



Third Poem



What is the language using us for?

The King of Whales dearly wanted

To have a word with me about how

I had behaved trying to crash

The Great Barrier. I could not speak

Or answer him easily in the white

Crystal of Art he set me in.


Who is the King of Whales? What is

He like? Well you may ask. He is

A kind of old uncle of mine

And yours mushing across the blind

Ice-cap between us in his furs

Shouting at his delinquent dogs.

What is his purpose? I try to find


Whatever it is is wanted by going

Out of my habits which is my name

To ask him how I can do better.

Tipped from a cake of ice I slid

Into the walrus-barking water

To find. I did not find another

At the end of my cold cry.


What is the language using us for?

The sailing men had sailing terms

Which rigged their inner-sailing thoughts

In forecastle and at home among

The kitchen of their kind. Tarry

Old Jack is taken aback at a blow

On the lubber of his domestic sea.


Sam, I had thought of going again

But it’s no life. I signed on years

Ago and it wasn’t the ship for me.

O leave her Johnny leave her.

Sam, what readers do we have aboard?

Only the one, Sir. Who is that?

Only myself, Sir, from Cartsburn Street.



What is the language using us for?

I don’t know. Have the words ever

Made anything of you, near a kind

Of truth you thought you were? Me

Neither. The words like albatrosses

Are only a doubtful touch towards

My going and you lifting your hand

To speak to illustrate an observed

Catastrophe. What is the weather

Using us for where we are ready

With all our language lines aboard?

The beginning wind slaps the canvas.

Are you ready? Are you ready?


From Poetry Nation No 4 (1975)

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