Self Portrait at 27

by: , June 14, 2021

© Because You Are Colours


On 7 March 2020, I conceived the title neutral milky halo in the context of wanting to say something about nourishment, emotional stasis and everything seeming impossible. I had just written a journal article, ‘Hypercritique: A Sequence of Dreams for the Anthropocene’, for Coils of the Serpent’s special issue on ‘Im/Possibility’. I was thinking about how through poetics, dreams and theory we might encounter ‘a possibility (even necessity) of an outside of capitalist realism, a glimpse at a true breaking point for the naturalised illusion of a reality that ostensibly is without alternatives’. (Büscher-Ulbrich, Casper, Kugland & Lieber 2021) The pamphlet began in mid-February and took shape over the early months of lockdown. The halo refers to a kind of aura or ambience enmeshed with but simultaneously extra to the text. This idea and my epigraph in the pamphlet are taken from Clarice Lispector’s Água Viva, where she writes, ‘a halo arises that transcends the phrase, do you feel it?’—‘The halo is the it’. I wanted to circle around that declaration, weaving myth-scapes out of domestic confinement: processing memory, loss and desire beyond capitalist normality; the sense of ‘becoming a body’ in lyric acts of continuity, impulse and address. 

In 2018, I wrote nature sounds without nature sounds: a pamphlet whose title encompasses an infinite, circling tautology which tries to get at what ambience is. Can we have ‘nature sounds’ without actual ‘nature sounds’? What is the supplementary relation of a skylark’s song to a recorded skylark’s song, and how does poetry ethically and aesthetically respond to either? How can the page be a score for the sonic prosodies of ecological loss? I wanted the book to be a medial space where the reader is caught between ecological presence and the alienation of ‘without’, to somehow write all the way around the expression, its acoustic reproductions. neutral milky halo is also about sound: vibration, ornamentation, duration and its affective, relational, somatic potential—the ‘sparkling quantity’ of birdsong, ‘silvery fluid coming out of the clouds’, ‘tessellation of meadows’. The poem ‘Irretrievable Sylvan Midi’ gestures towards a lost midi file whose forest music promises vernal replenishment, however imagined. I was thinking about the science fiction radio drama, Forest 404, where the protagonist Pan discovers rainforest sounds in the 24th century and learns about the nature that cataclysmic history has erased from daily life. Spring 2020 was something I experienced in equal parts outside, equal parts internet. This highly mediated reality can create a joyous, simultaneous experience of presence—the rush of scrolling through everyone’s Instagram sunsets at once—but I realise we are also in the accelerated process of archiving various erasures. There’s a melancholic, ‘lossy’ quality in our urge to reach out, filter, document share and post what catches our eye. What gets discarded or ignored in the process? And of course, all online content bears a real-world burden in the form of carbon expenditure, the metabolic upkeep of data-servers.

Several months after neutral milky halo’s release (Guillemot Press, 2020), I’ve gotten used to reading the pamphlet aloud to people. Each poem seems to result in a kind of suspension: ‘a way to orient in an atmospheric problem-space’. (Choy & Zee 2015) If Covid isn’t an ‘atmospheric problem-space’, I don’t know what is. Suspension means staying with a ‘stuck’ feeling and working through that; not necessarily towards resolution but into ‘art[s] of noticing, of living and thinking with’. (Choy & Zee 2015) Many of neutral milky halo’s poems are short because they are iterations of this lockdown suspension: performances of writing in a time where writing felt nearly impossible. As Denise Riley puts it, ‘You can’t, it seems, take the slightest interest in the activity of writing unless you possess some feeling of futurity’. (2012) It’s telling that ‘Flotsam’, the longest poem in the book, was written before I’d really got my head around the incoming pandemic. Language here performs ongoingness: held fugitive in ‘loops of oil’ and ‘the poem’ which is itself the wreckage of personal and political loss, the trash detritus of what declarations feel possible in the moment, and for that to be a mutual hold and escape.

In poetry, Marie Buck writes, ‘For a single moment your voice is something to someone somewhere—but that’s why it’s just a single moment’. (2020) Do you feel it? David Berman wrote ‘Self Portrait at 28’, a poem where the speaker practices directness and clarity: ‘I am trying to get at something / and I want to talk very plainly to you / so that we are both comforted by the honesty’. At the highly symbolic age of 27, I’ve been thinking about what it means to live and write through this year, to constantly ask, as Bernadette Mayer does at the start of ‘Failures in Infinitives’: ‘why am i doing this?’ ‘Self Portrait at 27’ doesn’t look in the mirror so much as trace the mirror’s fractures to ‘get at something’: I wanted to work through memory and dream, gender, childhood and futurity, to ‘speak plainly’ to moments of realisation that live on in the nerves, that carry as echo, notches of mutation, touch, divination and failure. The poem offers shimmers of intersecting events and intimacies, felt in sensuous narrative potential which nevertheless dissolves into lyrical simultaneity—a haloing language which spins again, runs and coils, which wants to live on.


Self Portrait at 27

After David Berman 




I want to exist in shorthand for something unseen

and consent to be used

in general contribution to product development

distributed across seance

the trauma rhizome of family

Do I have to consent to everything

in being born early?


I know this title is stolen and dumb like

spending all your money on sugar and beer 

just to be with someone, plagiarising 

their most vulnerable cache of fantasy

holed up after the walk

on this particular day in what was once called ‘the country’

I don’t have a dog anymore

I imagine going forward

only as a VHS sensation

of landscaped psychedelia: gelatinous grasslands

and time swamps, soft-boy forests, clearing refusals

of the rippling and needle


Got narrative stuck in the whorl of my smallest finger

which is called Pinkie

like the man who did the murder

in the novel Brighton Rock

with a heroine called Rose

whose good-natured waitressing 

and boundless love I aspired to… 


Stop if this is boring

you can put everything down and return 

to the happy errata of that Saturday, lying

on sundown hillside south of the city

put this book aside, delete him

how did you know 

it would truly get worse

in the whisper network of like 

who out of all of us might be the first to die

but you watch while I piss in the evergreen

trees we don’t know the name of


I wouldn’t mind being alive with you 

at least a little while longer, can we try out

to know it is nothing

like going on a new medication

there is no river here to follow, only

a trapped nerve in the side of this monstera 

I have been nursing 

with tap water

the only child I’ll ever have


Will never send messages, even if scientists

are training spinach to do so, there are certain things

even a plant can’t say.




But is this plain talk? 

At some age or other 

I forgot the word nature altogether

then it came back last night: climbing 

the rowan tree with Simon, collecting 

shells, mushing dream red berries

at the inflamed end of summer

before the English kids went back to school

we’d already gone

with wasps beneath our fingernails

watching the extended trailer

of jaded teenage years to come

Scottish, come high water


Like that time we brought whisky

to the corridors in solace, learned the art

of peeling labels to signify open sexual interest 

leaving curls of fluorescent, capital rind and glue

where you might one day decide to find me independent

sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium

chloride, sulfate, hydrogen 

carbonate, darling 


In a convex altitude at the angle of my birth 

not breathing

because I am so close to you in math class, my insides smeared

like a painting by Cecily Brown, you know the kind

where you don’t know where to look

it’s all strokes after all

like the dream I had where C. was stroking my hair

in Platonic cave, we were all gathered

to celebrate 

listening to his girlfriend’s album

I was turned inside out


And every electrical stroke another moment 

where I might live for all that, in commentary 

become flesh

what palette you say was the same

in lavender blood wash of rose water

how much time am I supposed to stay in front of the painting 

in the poem

in the dream of all this

in the album?


Green kindness 

I wish I had some kind of animal to witness 

bounding the hillside in the film 

about the housing conditions of Glasgow in the 1970s

however many years old allows you to out-run

the rats, the trash

could we imagine 

democratising the colour gold as beautifully?




All that is seen in the glass is meadow

and places to roll around the outside-time

of dreaming tiredness

after tiredness

still operating machinery

or lyrical moodboard

misremembering allergies 

only to be again here


Where I am asked what exactly is meant by this

going on not naming the mountains to be nineteen

in tenderness till I won’t die, speak plainly 


The way a swan unfurls to seem sexy

reminds me of the napkins in this cafe

I frequented as a child, in memory I was alone

ejected too soon from school

the women fed us neat white 

psychodynamic sandwiches 

filled with chocolate spread

and never asked, “are you okay?”


A mortal line runs down the feminine 

among my kin, bright charity pink

I am always told to check my breasts

which seem not to belong to this body

this poem

looking for lumps and clots

until in the dark 


become another pop vector

wondering will I bleed today?




Listening to Judee Sill’s Heart Food

in the second I wake up in Ayrshire

ferry terminals

singing this island song 

to the island sabotage

of no-time


Is spiralling out of all the I’s 

left speaking in the meadow-ware

we plug in when there is nothing left 

soft or hard 

but the slow rush without sundialling

back from the dead — all is well

to instead draw salt

or the pressurised, vascular abstraction

of how I am feeling


is uncanny

in your arms

to go through the door 


Flippantly therapised

I want to save my heart and its ache 

for other situations, L. says 

Your writings are always such little gems

in the email from Spain 

I stud myself with D.’s policy on managing emotions

which is to say 

everything else can be done but this

to delete and 

every song in the world 

has something tangent to say about love 

but never the full aporia glow

of the nothing-not-nothing

put Marlboro out on your touchpad feeling


We need a word for everyone posting pictures 

of sunset on the internet all at once 

ashen pixels

between the months of January and October

155 mentions of ‘heart’

in the algorithmic consequence of being born 

too early, I developed a blue

anatomical fondness for pain cliché.


Hey, don’t write 

something too beautiful for this early 

in the morning

warm wishes 


Remember we stood on the docks and sung

‘The Kiss’ so loud the tourists stopped from their maps

to look at millennial sincerity in its fullest derangement

so much to say 

sweet communion and all that mist




I developed omen, a thirst

in writing this, while the Stansted 15 are released 

from insane charges of terror-related offence

and my nan in her eighties is still not vaccinated

somewhere north of London

and we can’t go outside

not really

it’s all sugar and mud

and the infinite cold 


Had I chained myself custodial to the poem 

I would have finished it 


Under the weighted blanket of someone else’s earnestness

a cloud does not pass go

or phone you back

drink lager

before coming water

without fund

the hospital where I would have been born

is under lockdown following one or more kinds of incident


Don’t try to write about this—you just called me

out of blue with serenity

said it will never snow

so long as you both will live

in the very full sky

sucked out of sun

fucking whiteness

so we decide lightly to kill 

our tiny lungs

like crushing leaves

it’s just sex I suppose


The gentle motion of a wave is not

the same as a runway 




And remember me by cookies:

skinny, sincerity, milk chocolate, caramel, jasmine

acts of self-harm I forgot 

how to complete the form 

when it asked for plans ahead, genders, I could take 

this sort of design for my thighs


Like the swan thighs you want to read in the poem


Require a certain maintenance of touch

squat, lift and curve

you know the score, space bar, soft chorus

in hard-up loch for the taking 

of theatrical sips 

inside me

lambing season 

on memory foam mattresses 

the depths of industrial depot 

how you hold us

gives way to sensual pulp 

and meat




Stop thistling melodic the autumn 

woundedness, stress-eating oranges

all morning legitimate 

everyone says take it easy 

do star jumps for only

every year of my life.


On the eve of Brexit I was in the Flying Duck 

at some kind of drag show, after a garage band

did the whole thing

lipstick karaoke 

your cheek broken drumkit

before the pandemic 

flashing life before eyes, no setlist, punk butterfly

shred in the basement sweat

of fallen watching, between us squashed

everyone takes off their tops

I mean everyone, I drank endless pints of water

and knew this to be absolutely right and wrong.


The squall, new singles, captivating debuts

and stars that freckle the sea

will sign us

longitudinal rainfall

you have to think like a thin person

delete your cookies

elaborate contours 

of the obsessively ordinary, to be everything

to be hilarious, consent

to be an indie front who speaks 

instead of singing, twisting cigarette

to be stubbing the sentence out on your wrist

to just do this, at the bottom

of everything, to not think twice

to have party without bodies, to dance

lovely alone in your room to be blue

percolation of crisis to be this

violent loss to be sweetly returned 

to sender, exhausted

to be sent up

date your browser

or techno disorder to have been so born

in your mother’s cry-laughter emoji

the trendy resurrection of smoking

arranging your legs around mine

is precarious, dressing for weather on Mars

Donald Trump’s visit cost Police Scotland £3.2m

to wait in the room with the flowering

window to fall 

of snow is the issue, minor harmonising

assigned at birth the alien sense of 

having been here before 

not to be boy

or simply girl

I’m sorry

the moment pulled a strange bug from your hair

to be literal, to be no more yellow

turning the chord from blue, to forget

every flag, I love you 

is a song in that smile you are giving 

me or anyone for aphasia

sweeping this back

clear and sunny blonde

completely converted 

to waste five years of my life 

or the beautiful thing we made from it

climate slogans all over Sauchiehall Street

chalked up to be fucked

by apocalypse

thrash style, save all the animals 

we killed, refreshing

another 404 of the future

won’t erase

incident, not to exist

in glitching

the same as before

every flower 

with a tiny camera inside it

bends towards sunlight

once upon temperature

recorded sometime 

in 1993, 1995

despite the rain

very careless

never driving below ninety

for any length of stanza

I could go for empty

miles in the car 

and everyone kissing 


at the end of the night

not to go flat 

in every extravagant 

hustle for air

that’s us


Buck, Marie (2020), Unsolved Mysteries, New York: Roof Books. 

Büscher-Ulbrich, Dennis, Cord-Christian Casper, Emmanuel Tristan Kugland & Marlon Lieber (2021), ‘Im/Possibility: On the Production, Distribution, and Articulation of the Possible and the Impossible’, Coils of the Serpent, Vol. 8, pp. 1-13.

Choy, Timothy & Jerry Zee (2015), ‘Condition—Suspension’, Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 30, No. 2, pp. 210-223.

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