When I first saw James Fenton read onstage, I found myself, midway through this poem, staring at his head with my jaw set and my mouth moronically ajar. I didn’t have a mirror, but if I try to imagine my face, I think of footage I saw, once, of confused but amenable teenagers watching Hendrix for the first time from a studio audience. “Holy shit!” I thought. “That is a poet!” I turned to my wife, who was also staring with her mouth open. Other faces in the audience looked much the same. What got me, I think, was the unlikely collusion of sound and sense—doggedly self-assertive sound and just-graspable, just-ungraspable sense—an unsteady combination (postmodern ballad opera?) that somehow settles into mesmerizing balance, like a top. Last winter I memorized it. It was easy to memorize but hard to know by heart. Saying this poem on the way to work, I picture it as a sort of stream made up of all the little, discrete details of language that a poet tries to calibrate to a poem’s figurative meaning, with the literal sense slowly accumulating at the surface but constantly degrading like foam. Google will tell you about Glob and bogs, Glubb Pasha, tins of bullshot, etc., and rumination, which the poem calls for, will get you more. But you don’t really need to understand it to understand it.
James Fenton reads the poem here, at 43:02. (Bodleian Library.)
Here Come the Drum Majorettes!
There’s a girl with a fist full of fingers.
There’s a man with a fist full of fivers.
There’s a thrill in a step as it lingers.
There’s a chance for a pair of salivas –
Same giddy widow on a sunshine cruise
Same disappointment in a gin-and-lime
It’s the same chalk on the blackboard!
It’s the same cheese on the sideboard!
It’s the same cat on the boardwalk!
It’s the same broad on the catwalk!
There’s a Gleb on a steppe in a dacha
There’s a Glob on a dig on the slack side.
There’a a Glubb in the sand (he’s a pasha).
There’s a glib gammaglob in your backside
Gleb meet Glubb
Glubb meet Glob.
God that’s glum, that glib Glob dig.
‘Dig that bog!’
‘Frag that frog.’
‘Stap that chap, he snuck that cig.’
It’s the same ice on the race-track!
It’s the same track through the pack-ice!
It’s the same brick in the ice-pack!
It’s the same trick with an ice-pick!
There’s a thing you can pull with your eyeballs.
There’s a tin you can pour for a bullshot.
There’s a can you can shoot for a bullseye.
There’s a man you can score who’s an eyesore.
You’re the thing itself.
You’d be on the shelf.
I’m a loner
In a lonesome town –
It can get you down.
It’s the same scare with a crowbar!
It’s the same crow on the barstool!
It’s the same stool for the scarecrow!
It’s the same bar!
Like a spark from the stack of a liner
Like a twig in the hands of a dowser
With the force of the fist of a miner
(With the grace and the speed of a trouser)
In a blue lagoon
She’s got blue blue bloomers in a blue monsoon.
Wearing blue boots
And a blue zoot suit
He’s a cruising bruiser with a shooter and a cute little
It’s the same hand on the windpipe!
It’s the same sand in the windsock!
It’s the same brand on the handbag!
It’s the same gland in the handjob!
The room is black.
The knuckles crack.
The blind masseuse walks up your back.
Is on its own
Pouring out the Côtes du Rhône.
When you’re down to your last pair of piastres.
When you’re down on your luck down in Przemyśl,
When your life is a chain of disasters
And your death you believe would be sameish,
When the goat has gone off with the gander
Or the goose with the grebe or the grouper
Then – a drum majorette – you can stand her:
She’s a brick – she’s a gas – she’s a trouper
Jane meet John.
John meet Jane.
Take those jimjams off again
Just as well.
Join the jive with Jules and June.
Geoffrey, Jesus, Jason, Jim,
Jenny, Jilly, Golly Gee –
If it’s the same for you and him
It’s the same for you and me:
It’s the same grin on the loanshark!
It’s the same goon in the sharkskin!
It’s the same shark in the skin-game!
It’s the same game
It’s the same old rope for to skip with!
It’s the same Old Nick for to sup with
With a long spoon
To the wrong tune
And it’s hard for a heart to put up with!
James Fenton is a poet and critic. From 1994 to 1999 he was Professor of Poetry at Oxford. He writes about poetry, art history, and gardening for the New York Review of Books.
Joshua Mehigan’s first book, The Optimist, was a finalist for the 2004 Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Poetry. His poems have appeared in periodicals including The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The Village Voice, and Poetry, which awarded him its 2013 Levinson Prize. His writing has also been featured on Poetry Daily and The Writer’s Almanac, and in numerous anthologies. He is the recent recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (2011) and the Guggenheim Foundation (2015). Mehigan lives in New York City.