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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness

Intimate Voices: Selected Work, 1965-1983

by Leonard, Tom

on 27/07/2007

Price: £35.00

Published: Feb 1995

Format: paperback

No Pages: 160 pages


ISBN-13: 9780904837681

Category: Poetry

Tom Leonard is one of Scotland’s leading poets. Early in his career, Leonard was influenced by R.D. Laing, particularly his book, The Divided Self. He was interested in Laing’s attempts to let the voice of the mentally ill be heard. In Laing’s opinion, official psychiatric discourse led to the patient being treated as an object, rather than a person with a particular viewpoint.  


Just as the mentally ill were denied a voice, so, Leonard contended, people who did not speak in a certain manner were ignored or considered as inferior. In his poetry he has concentrated on the people from his own background, that of working class Glasgow. He has deliberately written many of his poems in the Glaswegian vernacular to emphasise the neglect by official discourse of “non-standard” English modes of expression. Leonard has questioned underlying assumptions about the innate superiority of “standard" English.


However, in the poem entitled, “A Priest came on Merkland Street”, Leonard does not employ the Glasgow vernacular and here the focus is on using language to reflect the narrator’s inner turmoil. The poem is described as “being a canonical penance for sufferers of psychosomatic asthma”, and it gives a compelling account of the symptoms of anxiety, obsessional rumination and panic. The action takes place on the Glasgow Underground, which is known locally as “the clockwork orange”, because of the colour of the trains and because they run a comparatively short distance in a circle round the city. They resemble toy trains, which are wound up like clockwork.


The narrator is sitting in one of the train carriages when a priest gets on. This provokes a panic attack in the narrator, because it brings to the surface his ever-present fears about death. Religion, guilt and sex are all caught up in his anxieties. He tries desperately to manage his distress by attempting to distract himself from his disturbing thoughts. The claustrophobic nature of the Underground only adds to his disquiet.


The poem begins:


oh no

holy buttons

sad but dignified

and sitting straight across from me 


This immediately brings out avoidance tactics in the author:


a bit of Mahler’s Seventh might drown him

dah dum, dad um dah dee,

dah dah dah DAH dah ah

da DAH, dah DEE da da da

DUM DUM dah dee


But to no avail. The narrator’s fundamental fear comes to the fore:


when I’m dead

when I think I’m dead

and I’m in my box

and it’s all dark

and I’m wondering where the air’s coming from

I’ll see this curtain

and it will move to the side

and your great horrible leering face

how many times my son

and how long ago was this

bless me father for I am tinned  


The theme of the “box” or coffin returns throughout the poem as the narrator battles with his recurrent, intrusive thoughts of death. He refers to his use of alcohol - “I am tinned” - to combat his fears. He tries to ingratiate himself with the priest by smiling at him, in fact, giving him “the nicest smile in the world”. But he is careful to emphasise that there will be “absolutely no sex”. Then he imagines that he and the priest are five years old:


we will both be five years old

and we’ll go to school together

play at weekends together

and you’ll climb inside my box


lying together in the dark

innocent as hell

like after lights out in a school dormitory

cosy but exciting


However he is unable to sustain this childhood reverie. Thoughts of death intrude once again:


and maybe God will look round the curtain

hello there

softly as God would say it

and we’ll all go away together

away through the door

for ever


I always spoil it


The narrator then imagines that he and the priest are mechanical, and are wound up, like “the clockwork orange”. But this doesn’t help either, and he is back in the box. He thinks of Shelley’s famous poem, “Ozymandias”, which warns that even the powerful have to die and that their achievements will be reduced to ruins one day. Leonard relocates Ozmandias, who in Shelley’s original poem is to be found in the sands of an “antique land”, to a working class district of Glasgow:


my name is Ozymandias

king of Leithland Road


Glasgow SW3


The post code adds a prosaic and decidedly unheroic detail to the narrator’s circumstances. However, he thinks about obtaining help from the local psychiatric services, from “the Lansdowne Clinic for Functional Disorders”, “the Southern General Hospital Department of Psychological Medicine”, or “Leverndale formerly known as Hawkhead Asylum”.  He considers writing to a psychiatrist:


dear sir

my name is Ozymandias

king of Leithland Road

and then there’s the box

yours sincerely

maybe faithfully would be better


And he adds in a PS: “I don’t know what people are for”, a line which seems to capture the narrator’s existential bewilderment. He is so overwhelmed by thinking about the world, that he is unable to act. He tries to devise cognitive strategies to manage his obsession with death:


Maybe I think about the box too much

Maybe nobody else thinks about the box at all

At least not for long

Not more than five minutes a day

Or maybe ten minutes at the weekend

… maybe I should do the same

I could draw up a plan

I could up a list of things to think about

Everything but the box

And I’d think about them all day

I wouldn’t think about the box at all


But he suspects that this wouldn’t work either. From here onwards the narrator progressively loses control over his anxiety and this is reflected in the increasing disintegration of the structure of the poem. Themes of being a child, a clockwork mechanism and Ozymandias interrupt each other. There are snatches of Mahler and the narrator repeats his mantra, “I’m going to die”.  The poem ends with the lines, “tick tock tick”. Is this the relentless passing of time as it moves ever closer to death? Is it the clockwork train? Is it the narrator, reduced to mere mechanism? Is it all three, and more? Leonard has produced a striking poetical rendering of acute anxiety and managed to do so with great humour.   


Allan Beveridge




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