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Mearcstapan - Jeff Gallagher

boundary striders who cheerfully toss back the ball

then resume their wanderings, wishing they could

be part of the game and not spectators, treading

a fine line, sometimes overstepping the mark

laid down by those who exist well inside it, or

skating on thin ice, watching the cold world cracking

then stepping back just this side of disaster, ones

whose sad fingers touch old photos of other selves

who thought like humans but chose rather this balancing

delicately, feeling the razor’s edge that separates

the artifice of being part of a family, a tribe,

from the headlong tumbling into alone, riding

the narrow shoreline between the empty desert of

memory and the happy possibilities of oceans

waiting to be explored, now alive like a flaring

rocket, now spent like a burnt match still expected

to illuminate the world with small wisdoms,

creatures who emerge from dark into light, flirting

with the grey area measured by the dusk, like birds

confused by floodlights, still singing their intentions

in the dead trees beneath the shroud of night, crying

like weeping monsters who long to be loved, even as

they devour your children, not seeing those white lines

marked out by those who make the rules, wishing

that the goalposts should not be moved, that decisions

referred to a higher authority should be consistent,

that bad light should never again stop play, knowing

they are not welcome at the post-match celebrations

after the swearing and punching were seen as a step

too far, not the beginning of a journey, attempting

redemption, no longer hooligans tumbling out of touch,

with a foot in both camps, desiring only to be spectators,

not part of the game, with their unpredictable chanting

from the sidelines, celebrating, manically energised,

that sense of belonging, however temporary or false,

the circuit completed and the signals still not understood


"The poem came about initially due to the usual pressures of work and the inevitable 'short fuse' some of us have when everything seems too much. Mood swings can also result from stress of this sort and some people deal with it better than others.

The 'Mearcstapan' is a creature from Anglo-Saxon literature, a 'boundary rider' who longs to be included but is also excluded by how he is perceived by others. The character of Grendel in 'Beowulf' is an extreme example of this. Although he and his mother are cannibalistic, the love of his mother and the extreme grief she suffers when he is killed are emotions that are all too human.

Finally, there are a number of images from the world of sport and the playing of games, as my former colleague is an 'outdoor' type who battles with his condition by setting himself extreme physical challenges. His overall pattern of behaviour and my own struggles to maintain an even temperament are reflected in the events in the poem. There is no obvious beginning to all of this and no clear ending - only the sense of coping as well as possible with the journey."

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