Poem of the week: Old Flat, Abandoned by Rory Waterman

Carol Rumens
·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

Old Flat, Abandoned

I force open the door:
its shadow shoots
down the wall
where webs tremble
in door-breath and light.
A thread bows. Breaches.
Ahead, the flight
of (bare wood) steps
(with carpet tacks)
runs up to gloom.

So, I’ve come (back)
to find (my) room;
each step misstepped
as I trod lightly
to where I reach
for those misspent nights
when shadows trembled
down that wall
until one (lost) boot
kicked shut the door.

The soundscape of this week’s poem by Rory Waterman is woven from numerous subtle echoes. There are half-rhymes (“door” and “wall” being the notable pairing in both stanzas) and gently falling, unobtrusive full rhymes, sometimes muted by distance and/or the fact that one of the words has an additional “s” (“tacks”/“back”, “breaches”/“reach”). Added to these end-of-line rhymes are the many internal echoes (“breath”/ “thread”, “Ahead” in stanza one, for example) and the actual repetitions of words (“shadow” and “tremble” play dual roles). As you reread the poem, the more echoes and echoes of echoes become audible. The narrow sparseness of the structure seems mimetic, and the reader finds themselves climbing the stairs of the empty flat, and hearing many distant footsteps.

The flat’s front door has to be forced and, as if in answering shock, “its shadow shoots / down the wall”: the cobwebs, revealed “in door-breath and light”, delicately register the intrusion. The thread of a web “bows” towards the visitor; others break. The single word at the end of line six, “Breaches”, is suggestive of further discontinuities. This abandoned flat is a history of breaches.

The use of parenthesis effects further breaches in the descriptive texture. There was once a carpet on the stairs, we know, but the details, importantly, are withheld. The “bare wood” and “carpet tacks” are registered in brackets and in passing. The sense of discontinuity between past and present is kept light and mobile. All the lines using parentheses make perfect, spare sense without them, but they are significant in minimising narrative disclosure, and making imaginative space. They are doors, not walls.

In the opening lines of the second stanza, “So, I’ve come (back) / to find (my) room”, a tug of different meanings is generated. The idea of coming to a place “to find room” opens up the possibilities, whereas “coming back” to find “my” room sets a limit. It’s partly an argument about poetics. The material could generate easy emotional connection, risk nostalgia. Ambiguity is far more interesting.

The present-tense narrative enfolds that of the past, so that the past itself seems in parenthesis. Its mystery is always sustained. We’re told of “each step misstepped” a phrase that might summon regret, whereas the echoing reference to “misspent nights” could imply a more positive emotional register. The term “misspent youth” conventionally encodes a certain amount of pleasure, after all. That much has been mistaken and missed seems clear. Still, a romantic hint prevails in the closing scene “when shadows trembled / down that wall / until one (lost) boot / kicked shut the door.”

There’s no dwelling on loss: the “one (lost) boot” and its action tell us clearly that time has passed irrecoverably. While the flat still stands, the boot has long since disappeared. And now the boot has surely come to stand in for the abandoned life at the core of the flat. Decidedly, though very quietly, it brings about a demolition.

  • Old Flat, Abandoned is from Rory Waterman’s excellent third collection Sweet Nothings, published in May 2020.