The cross-eyed boy was such a darling
That everyone coaxed him to smile –
And smile he did, the innocent toddler with the funny eye.
The Luftwaffe bombed the hospital he was born in,
Though not the ward;
His father found reasons to bail out,
But occasionally popped back for bed and board;
His elder sister did a stretch in a care institution,
But only three months,
While their mother belched at milkmen
And put on an act for social services.
He survived: he had to.
His mother scared the neighbours’ children,
But she loved him.
At school the teachers saw the holes in his shoes and attacked.
He resisted – in his mind, mind you: he was no extremist.
Belittled, repeatedly punished for uniform code violation,
Treated as if he had no right,
He felt the cane but once or twice.
At home he played Monopoly
Using houses, hotels, cards and banknotes he’d marked with his initials.
He taught his sister chess and he always won.
He didn’t burgle or pick fights.
Fluttering through hoops into articled clerkdom,
Studying by correspondence course and on day release,
He emerged into chartered accountancy
While his muttering mother continued to need him.
At work he audited ledgers and was courteous to salesgirls.
He balanced profits and losses and was egalitarian with doormen.
For where was the problem?
He kept away from corporate fiddles; he spoke against dismissals;
He wore nylon ties; he shaved with cheap razors.
He never joined the club.
Sack him they couldn’t, for those were the days.
Three times he took redundancy with payoffs,
Clutching negotiated letters of praise.
But inevitably a time came and an ex-professional he became.
Supported by a mandatory grant –
Under Thatcher, but before Shock and Awe –
He enrolled in sociology at a polytechnic
Where the parking was good
And the seminar schedule was convenient.
Next came a master’s at the LSE.
In his sister’s council flat he was Aristotle now.
Facile she called him,
But she cared too much for his equilibrium to say it to his face.
His mother had advanced to seeing television people:
Ronald Reagan at the railway station,
Bjorn Borg up a ladder.
When stressed she watched television cats in the garden.
No person she knew ever divorced,
Because you mustn’t say things like that.
No-one had seen her 1960s son-in-law for 20 years,
But she knew he still shared a bed with her daughter:
If you said he didn’t you were wicked.
When social security forced her daughter to sue for maintenance
On pain of deprivation of income and removal of roof,
Mother would point to the TV set and ask, “What? On there?”
Don’t upset your brother, you little mare.
Sane surrounded by deranged consumerism,
She bought whatever was cheapest
And ritually read till slips at the pull-down kitchen table
With her number one son.
Fifty thousand pounds she carried in her broken-strapped handbag:
After a life like hers
You were better safe than sorry.
Her son, pursued by strings of postnominals,
Still enjoyed his bread and dripping –
Or he gave the impression.
Sister? Well, for a while she’d been married:
Warned by mother and brother, she had insisted on not listening.
She had known it all –
Aspirer, potential escaper.
Divorced, she was back to dependency,
Needing lifts to hospital in her brother’s Mini,
Headed notepaper, use of a phone,
A person to talk to, even if he scoffed.
When she asked to borrow a typewriter for her son
It was his pleasure to say yes
Because it was her station to be beholden.
But when it was your child and he was studying,
You did what you must.
He who would unlock needed the keys:
He too had a mother who loved him.
For her brother she was no trouble, not any more.
Her lad, though, he had ideas; and ideas, they could trigger.
He graphed his grandmother’s behaviour against the Moon –
His results were inconclusive,
But no matter.
“I’m not having you mock your grandmother.
If only you’d been through what she has!”
Soon the brat would learn, his uncle was certain.
But nephew didn’t learn.
He left home; he lived in various countries;
He married a Dane who carried the name
Of her banker-politician grandaddy of statue and square;
Who had little money but who came from it;
And who thought her uncollected student debt was a hoot.
He reared a daughter.
The world owed him a living.
This accidental product of a counselled-against and written-off bond,
He brazenly dared to dare and he kept on daring.
He thought he was God Almighty.
Nephew installed a conservatory, flew frequently to Vienna;
Studied bees, herbs, and Avicenna;
Covered his walls with bookcases, catalogued his library;
Read about sigils and psychology, myths and mycology,
Travelled on hobby trips to dales, forests, and postindustrial wastelands,
Snapped giant puffballs, gathered shaggy ink caps –
Not for profit but for kicks.
For his uncle the kicks hurt much worse than the cane.
How much are your foibles costing you? Haven’t you got any sense?
Delusions of grandeur are delusional:
It stands to reason, you stupid boy.
The ex-accountant’s sister followed his mother to the grave
And his nephew became single again:
Not genius enough to hold down a marriage,
The presumptuous sod.
Bachelor Uncle and bookish Nephew were now two –
And a half, for Great-niece’s existence had to be conceded.
She was arrogant: she got that from her father.
One day she would learn that beggars can’t be choosers.
Give her time.
What the nephew got from his mother was money –
Not much, but there’s a principle:
Traitors shouldn’t inherit.
This was exclusion, pooh-poohing,
An intellectual beating with shoes to the pate.
How could the now grey-growing uncle not grow to hate?
His sister had appreciated that girls were inferior.
Her son, though, was way beyond the yoke.
Born of a girl child without permission from her blood kin!
Wasn’t that the most unnatural sin?
Her son’s daughter was in a yet worse state:
Everything got handed to her on a plate!
Great-uncle had been through it all before.
Don’t give her time; time gives you pain.
Nephew, for his part he theorised
A humiliation that stretched to the event horizon and beyond –
To a landscape of ships’ biscuits,
Of falling on hard times,
Of tuberculosis, desertion, and shame.
Who knew what horrors had conditioned his grandmother,
Answering back to what spore-spraying stalkers of yore?
You couldn’t know but you knew they were there,
For they hurt like a brand and they burned like a flare.
Bequeathed a heritage that had self-replicated
Finding forms that were adequate for each era –
Families made their own history,
But not in conditions of their choosing –
He decided not to curate it, brocade it, or prove it,
But to reject it, eject it, evade it, remove it.
He got his retaliation in early;
He got it in the autumn;
He got it in first.
He jokes to himself now with sophistication,
If you can call it a joke when he doesn’t smile,
When he strongly doubts he ever will,
When he won’t even look himself in the eye:
Amanita phalloides – inheritance fungus.
How I came to write “Inheritance Fungus”
I wanted to write a poem about the transgenerational reproduction of family patterns that went beyond Leo Tolstoy’s observation in Anna Karenina that “all happy families are alike but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion”. The parental encouragement of sibling dominance; a blood family’s belief that a woman’s marriage choice is less than fully valid; an uncle’s self-serving feeling that his sibling shouldn’t allow his nephew to inherit – aren’t these elements as widespread today as ever?
Eschewing the notion of dysfunction, I aimed to show how a maudit, if that is what it is, can reproduce itself nolens volens in forms that are “adequate for each era”. Might Karl Marx have been on to something when he wrote – in a passage I refer to in the final stanza – that “the tradition of dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the minds of the living”? The wounded voice I have given to the narration may be antinomic to, but it is also locked to, because it is triangulated from, both the smartarse and the repressive. This weakness of what may well be an emotionally profound understanding serves as a hole that an unwanted pattern can climb through to plant itself on the other side.
The biological kingdom I decided to reference was not plants but fungi. Fungi reproduce using spores, which in many species are put out by an organism’s only visible part, its reproductive organ called a mushroom. Mushrooms can pop up overnight with as much structure as they will ever be seen to have, and they are widely thought of as weird and even devilish. Here was a suitable metaphor, I felt, for the reproduction of psychological damage in families. As well as denoting such reproduction in general, the word “inheritance” in the title also refers to the specific literal inheritance that the nephew in the poem acquires from his uncle after he murderously feeds him the deathcap mushroom. The resulting phrase “inheritance fungus” is intended to recall “inheritance powder”, a traditional name for arsenic.
Sensing that the poem’s theme of the order-disorder of cyclicity-irreversibility was crying out to be expressed in its structural form, I chose numbers for the number of sections, and for the numbers of stanzas and lines within each section, that evoke periodic time: 7, 4, and 24 (counting each section’s header as a line). I also decided to write the same number of words in every section, not merely as a hat tip to Oulipo, but also to echo the thing-ordering precision that characterises the uncle’s childhood enjoyment of playing Monopoly, appears later in his professional work as an accountant, and subsequently manifests in his nephew’s recording of his grandmother’s behaviour and his enthuasiasm for cataloguing books and engaging in certain hobbies. I used 171 because the poem deals with issues of masculinity, which in several cultures is considered to be a property of odd numbers. In Korea the products of odd numbers are considered to be especially masculine, and 171 = 9*19 = 3*3*19 = 3*57.