Apr 062015

George Szirtes



That night I spent my last nickel to call Steve.
The box was empty bar the usual cards
advertising the usual services of night.
One lives for such small favours, such rewards.
One lives for what night keeps up its loose sleeve.

Steve, I said, come down. It’s quite all right,
there’s no one here to speak of, just a queue
waiting to get into a show and they’ll be gone
once the doors open. It’s just me and you.
We will be reasoned, affectionate, polite.

The stars collide and break up one by one.
The street is empty now. I’ve seen the show
already and it’s fine.  There’s a decent bar
in the next block. I’ve seen the headlights glow
then vanish. There is nothing to be done.

So Steve came down, it wasn’t very far,
and then it started raining as it does.
I felt the usual tightening in my throat.
It was the same then as it ever was.
It’s what we were before. It’s what we are.

Let’s talk then, you and I, as if by rote.
Let us repeat the words and walk past doors
as if they weren’t there and neither was the rain.
These streets and bars are our familiar shores.
But let’s head out now Steve. Go get your coat.


Photograph of a face

Should someone ask me what life is, I’d say
this is, knowing it is only you, but reading
your face, the light enveloping it, into all faces
for what a face might mean when it is loved
and stares into the dark room of the world
as though that too were life, the light as kind.



They were writing Valentines to each other when the words began to splinter. They are more beautiful like that, they thought. Tiny and clear.

He drew a word from his pocket. It was old and yellowed. Give it to me, she said. I’ll wear it when it occurs to me to do so. Maybe tomorrow

So he bought her a dress of words and she put them on. Now try dancing, he said. You spell them out first, she said.

See this word ‘love’ he said. You can have it. I have more back home, but none as nice as this. Try it. It was hotter than she had expected.

She held the word at arm’s length. She had the most beautiful arms. The word was not important. It was the arms. The hands. The fingers.

The word ‘sex’ was never mentioned. It stood outside the door looking at its shoes so she came out and polished them.

I am sure it was in my handbag, she said. Then he drew it out from behind her ear. It sounded like the word but it was only a close rhyme.

What is the right word for your body, she asked. I couldn’t possibly pronounce it, he replied. But I have written it down.

There is a word in my mouth, she said. Open, he said. Yes, I think I can see it. Breathe gently. It’s one of mine. Now blow.

She put the word down by his hand. He picked it up and examined it. It was breathing. It had a scent. He popped it into his mouth.



My mouth was empty
when the words flew out, light, free,
loud, unencumbered.

I watched them swooping
over rooftops, their flight path
dazzling and certain.

They were beautiful!
How marvellous to master
the air and let go!

They made shapes in voice
and light. They were the language
of grace in movement.

Being so dazzled
I forgot everything else.
I was blank, weightless.

I became language,
a hot mouth, a form of flight
powered by rapture.

I could be written
out of the world, be nothing
but the cry of birds.

My mouth was empty,
there was nothing left in there
except a hot tongue.

Fly home dear words. Nest
in my mouth. My tongue is hot
with yearning for you.

Let me believe you.
Speak me into being. Sing
the heart of the house.


A Low Flying Plane

Somewhere in a sky
purring with cloud and light, planes
talk to each other.

What is the language
at the bottom of the throat,
that deep-lying growl?

When does it enter
the hangar of the stomach,
how does it park there?

From nowhere at all
the planes appear. The sky cracks
under them and bursts.

I’m trying to hear
the subtext of this, the blown
language of such noise,

the sense of low flight,
the way it presses dense air
into liquid shape.

Then the plane is gone
but things have changed. The tongue,
the ear, the dead sound.

—George Szirtes


George Szirtes was born in Budapest in 1948. He is the author of some fifteen books of poetry and a roughly equal number of translations from the Hungarian. His New and Collected Poems (2008) was poetry book of the year in The Independent. The Burning of the Books (2009) and Bad Machine (2013) were both short-listed for the T S Eliot Prize which he had won earlier with Reel (2004).


  One Response to “The night I spent my last nickel to call Steve: Poems — George Szirtes”

  1. Beautiful work. So glad to see it appear in Numero Cinq.

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