Jack Underwood

King Cnut and the Tide


Part 1. Cnut
The office should always demean the officer.
We should always feel ourselves wasted
on the task in hand.

Regional manager should sound like an insult
directed at anyone, especially a regional manager.

People say behave nicely, play in the sand without
screaming, and there’s a good chance love will find you.
Might even wet your cloak to the knee.
But it’s not true. There’s no justice to our station.

Only prizes. Volunteering for more sand.
To be pitted. To be put before. Arbitration.
Somebody love me. Nervous sweat like dew
upon the hairs of your back.

My mother was awarded a husband, for example.
And he awarded her a pregnancy and a dark room
to lie down and moan in. She pushed. Some tearing,
and I slid out onto the podium.

Some are born great. Some are born really great.
I do what I want most of the time.
Rudimentary croquet game with bread rolls and a sword.
Rudimentary government game with a government.
More bread rolls. Sex with an ambidextrous stranger.
There are good children everywhere,
and birds cough blood and shit down upon them
without looking. Not not my fault. I could award
the children umbrellas. I could award the birds
some poison. I could award my kingdom a holiday
from its own violent machinery.

Souvenirs and quackery. Prizes and sand.
You look at all the Great Architecture, baroque cathedral,
sleek cantilevered gallery, and it’s invariably possible
to say Slavery built that. Somewhere down the line, no one
gets what they deserve. Someone has to have nothing,
otherwise what would be the worth in something?

I like the sound of my voice, like the weight
of an axehead. It echoes out across the lawn
and children start to cry in a brightly a coloured
sorting room, and parents ugly-cry on a minibus
at the airport very elsewhere now, my voice across
the lawn like piano, as if by accident. I give commands.
The correct verb is give. I’m a stickler about that.
I give you a career volunteering for sand. Or a prize.

Whatever your hand grabs at in the air above your sleep,
whatever it is you have missing, a love too long
deferred, papa forgetting your recital, mama taking
her nipples all away forever, or high school grinding
your childliness into a stub, into a problem about yourself,
yourself a problem about yourself, oozing from your body;
whatever snivelling victory you want, whatever it was
that you had stolen, I can give you back its figurine,
with little moving arms and legs. Your toy. Your prize.
The sickly sweet annihilation of your rivals. Anything.
That’s what I am. King. My mind is unanimous.
My watermark pressed into each brute transaction.
Power is not an abstract concept: it’s me.

Do you know what your problem is?
Your problem is not being King.
I don’t have that problem.
I look in the mirror,
on days that I’ve been crying and say
Ugh! The absolute state of me!

That was a joke. Keep up. Mush! Mush!

OK OK. You can put me down now, and have a little rest.
I imagine it must be hard work all that lifting
and walking. But you will be rewarded.

The water is very close, I know. But watch.
I’m going to show you something.


Part 2. The Tide

[sighs three times]

Mirror further/ lifting water
Alpha mama/ Halle-lujah
Slow returner/ all-time weather
the sea                       the sea

What if life should/ call you over
to the darkness/ in the harbour
tell you in that/ shell of shelter
brother-sister/ life is winter
pressed against a/ child’s shoulder
wifely is the/ sea                        the sea

wave and wave and/ waving hardly
breathing here and/ salt and salt
mirror further/ Vs wanting
pulls the chain that/ thought the boulder
down the beach to/ summon something
older deeper/ walker stopped now
standing stood the/ sea                        the sea
a book                        its mood.

I can’t stop myself.

I grab all the arrows
and throw my fists
at the concrete wall.

I can’t stop myself.

How did the song even start?
Was it me singing in the beginning or
a teenager fresh with cut marks?
I am fresh with cut marks.
I am over this baloney.

I am lonely on this beach arriving
only leaving always and again.
Longly I have turned my errand
into a life. My madness repeating,
a cliché even before the human birthday
which came of late, like an overhearing,
or gesture that the grass made.

My tongue, grey-brown, finds this epoch
like an ulcer, part-time change
of patterns in the sand,
that was once just stones
in my back pocket.

I remember a king. Sat in a chair.
He had an idea, up to his waste.

The sea                        the sea.
Older than land, the commerce
of lichen on rocks.

How did the song start?

Did I ask that already?
There was a loud noise.
Other loud noises.
I reared my body up.
That’s how the song started.
I relaxed myself.

Recent visual disturbances.
The human tune. H-bombs blowing
bubbles like mamma-mia
here I alpha papa I’m a million
air in your lungs, cracked teeth
a swishy skirt and still
singin’ bout puckered peaches
shame to waste this fizzy drink,
and drown out all the men,
their ordinance and libraries.
The human tune, a dance craze
sweeping the ocean.

I don’t like to drown it’s merely
chocolate to me, driving air out
the pink little holes, so full
and thorough even death has to ask
to come in, polite as she is, in any case.

My belly is bulging. I feel sick.
My babies are melting, their way home.

No more kings. Doesn’t it make sense
to submit these daft erections to my fair
and final scrutiny?

Even when you kill me I’ll keep coming.
Plastic bags, I’m coming.
Baby wipes, I’m tired.
I want a lie down.

I want to sleep of a world
in which I am half of everything.
The sky and only me,
the sea                        the sea.


Jack Underwood’s collection Happiness was published by Faber in 2015 and was winner of the 2016 Somerset Maugham prize. A recipient of the Eric Gregory Award in 2007, his debut pamphlet was published in 2009 as part of the Faber New Poets series. Two pamphlets, Solo for Mascha Voice and Tenuous Rooms were published by Test Centre in 2018. He is senior lecturer in creative writing at Goldsmiths College.