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2 poems by Richard O'Brien


I’m the 135th plate along from the emperor’s.

We – he and his guests – are having coquilles St. Jacques

with a white wine sauce. Protocol dictates

he enters last, and his food is served the hottest.

I am a minor functionary in a department

you wouldn’t know existed, but logically has to:

once you think about it, somebody has to do that.

I can no longer remember which songs

were played at my wedding. The dish

is placed in front of me on a porcelain

of medium fineness. Wine towers over it.

I am not quite yet in the sunset of my years.

I’ve never owned forks this clean. It steams

and I wait. The bread looks exquisite, the butter,

and is not yet permitted.

While waiting for the emperor

I think: how corals are fussy, happy only to live

at the temperature and depth of their liking;

how some afternoons I want to yawn so hard my lips

snap back over my gums like a monkey’s; how I might die

before my time, as I heard growing up about a classmate’s uncle.

Every clock in the room has been precisely aligned. Fastidious

napkins. The cream clogging up in the cold, the white fish

shrinking like pucks, and if they aren’t fish, would the emperor

know what to call them? My daughter has started listening

to artists playing a fusion of two genres I hadn’t heard

of either of to begin with. Almost nobody whose photo

I saw on a mantelpiece while I was in Infants

is still alive.

My handwriting has started to resemble

my mother’s. I understand now that she wasn’t

cleaning for fun. A man wearing gold buttons and a sash

plays a trumpet fanfare, and I have friends

in their late thirties still renting basement apartments.

Here comes the man the food is hottest for,

and some of the 134 whose will be hotter than mine is.

Many of them aren’t even going to touch the butter.

This is, at least occasionally, my life. The time I’m spending.

Would I need to raise my hand to go to the bathroom?

The emperor sits, and his eyes don’t gleam like the cutlery.

He has the eyes of a tired sofa salesman. Even with this –

the coquilles perfectly warm in their foam of yellow,

all possibility cresting into his mouth.


Desolation of the sinking airbed

Desolation of the packing peanuts

Desolation of the archived folder

Desolation of the green online light

Desolation of the bachelor cutlery

Desolation of the admin email

Desolation of the bathroom selfie

Desolation of the Timpsons counter

Desolation of the standing order

Desolation of the Netflix access

Desolation of the haunted playlist

Desolation of the sons of Adam

Desolation of the handmade T-shirt

Desolation of the altered flight plans

Desolation of the squandered in-joke

Desolation of the empty schedule

Desolation of the displaced cushions

Desolation of the rehung poster

Desolation of the student carpet

Desolation of the needless kidswear

Saint Jude, Saint Anthony, pray for us all


Richard O’Brien's publications include A Bloody Mess (Valley Press, 2015) and The Dolphin House (Forthcoming from Broken Sleep, 2021), as well as work in a range of magazines and anthologies. He won an Eric Gregory Award from the Society of Authors in 2017, and is a Lecturer in Creative Writing at Northumbria University. He was the Birmingham Poet Laureate 2018-2020


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