The City Explains Itself

Craig Smith


I was, was I not, adored from afar.

I was the meme that moved you,

the lover on the swaying bridge

you chose to woo.

I flirted just enough to draw you to my side,

became the backdrop to your endeavours

to impress me, the land

beneath the steps you danced.

Now, like the beachcombers

who tread my shore at low tide,

you dream of dredging up

the collateral that defines me.

You scavenge through the junk shops

and vintage parlours of my former lives,

intent on tracking down the long-deleted,

out of print, swiftly-recalled tell-all

that lays me bare, which spells out

in clear instructions how to win me.

I see you haggling a price with the wild-eyed proprietor,

in the kiosk with the pictures of his gurning kids,

for an object you will never locate.

I am a task, not a place,

the end game with the highest stakes,

with the most-stacked deck,

with the infinitely loaded dice.


Forgive me, but I laugh at your earnestness,

at your insane belief in the fairness of tomorrow.

Of course, I am moved by your flattery,

the trouble you go to to touch my heart.

As I throw your bouquet on the pile,

I will arrange small rewards

to acknowledge your attentions.

I will make introductions that enhance your dance card,

entertain you in underground dens

which were safe from the gawping world

till you shared them on social media.

You will be free to walk among me,

astounded by how good I look.

You will not leave unchanged.

You will not change me.


I shall be here long after you've gone.

My memory is an eternity of stone,

a millennia of re-enforced concrete,

of brick ad infinitum, of glass in perpetuity,

of Tarmac looping forever,

of sound that never decays.

I am secret rivers and underground lakes,

abandoned gantries and follies of brick.

Do not be taken in by the Portland stone facade

that implies I am bored by my own glory.

I am the servants' wing imbued with the blood

of grafting Irishmen, the sewers of artisanal brick

setting your waste free.

I am the vast, vaulted concert halls

of preposterous entertainment,

the influx of concrete

that stomps upon the trails of mortals,

the mosque, the chapel, the synagogue

and the public house that thrive in my shadows.

I am the water table siphoned for your cocktail,

the airspace and the airwaves

requisitioned by the powers-that-be,

the latest architectural marvel

and its majestic plaza,

on which my beggars cannot stand.


My dreams are grander than a trident

in a triumphant hand, redder than the reddest carpet,

more conclusive than a tumble from my rooftops.

I am the self-referential anecdote

that explores my own origin myth

and explains my bewildering growth.

I bring you in to scale me, to start me at nothing

and, like plaster, layer me, cocoon me in myself,

thread me through with utilities,

strip my peeling paint and refurbish me,

re-purpose my warehouses for galleries

and my galleries for apartment blocks.

Like blood, I will seep through the fabric

of everything you add until each layer becomes me.

I will not be kept hidden but I am not unkind.

I will make room for footballs lost beside my railway tracks

and a million unharvested brambles.


I know why you’re here. And why you stay.

And why you cannot leave.

Where else would you go?

You will straighten your teeth, extend your hair,

apply astonishing varnish to your fingernails, just to fit in.

I will slip inside your bank account and eat it

from the inside out, take your cash and waste it,

point to my beauty and say, 'Look, there, you spent it,

and be glad that the miracle of my creative tension

can be yours to bask in and to analyse'.

Then, having frightened you with all you have not,

I will bring attention to each passing second

with the movements of a clock on the outer limits

of your hearing to disturb your sleep with lamentations

for the tasks you didn't complete.


I can, can I not, function without you.

I will list you as a seat, a dotted line,

an overhead to be frozen till the next fiscal,

a workload dumped upon a former colleague

on the return from her maternity.

I will take you aside with the news

that the best jobs are offered quietly,

furnish you with references

in which you will barely be recognisable,

organise drinks I will cancel last minute

when something comes up at work.

I will not to be commodified, sorted, quantified.

My appointments cannot be re-scheduled.

You are a fool if this surprises you.


Naturally, I distrust you. I cannot help myself.

I will not let you near me. Nowhere close to me.

You will never find my heart.

I will have no recollection of your face

but will carry over a hard-wired wariness of your like,

of your kind, and, knowing what I have learned of you,

I will be ready to get the better of you.

I will change my locks and arrange the neighbourhood

to keep watch on you, post your picture on the pin-boards

of police stations and flag your likeness on TV.

Yet I will allow you tiny shoals of recognition

where you hug in relief with friends of four weeks' standing

in the path of tutting strangers.


I can drown you if I choose. I will draw your bath

and hold you under, take you on the street for your wallet

or sit behind you in the cinema, chortling,

and take your head off in one slice,

and move you on from corner to corner,

from shelter to shelter, take your last penny

and gamble it on dogs or horses, on red,

on my favourite number, and, sometimes,

I will let you win.


I did, did I not, leave space for you to grow,

the alleys and side streets of humanity, of humility.

I will turn a blind eye as you take your nourishment.

I will let mice nibble crisps between my toes.

Starlings will not starve within me.

In the parks, I provide soil for my worms

and worms for my crows.

Yet watch how the squirrels fart in your face

laughing escaping across washing lines

and peanut bird feeders

while you are left to your own devices,

to scratch for the fleas of pigeons

and scraps the foxes could not face.


I may assemble at your gathering in my new alluring dress,

bring with me the most bounteous gifts,

with my arms open wide, with eyes of love and magnanimity,

and, at that moment, when all my light shines upon you,

I shall ask that you repay a favour,

that I might dance with you

on bridges that span the river

so we can smile at the drowning people.