Vanessa Kisuule’s final commission as Bristol City Poet is inspired by the life of Thomas Chatterton as part of the Poetic City programme marking the 250th anniversary of his death.

Tommy sits.
Chews a pen.
Tongue stained
black, mouth a
private abyss.
He wonders what
rhymes with
loneliness.

Tommy watches.
His mum is
folding flyers.
Four-fifty an hour
to slide them
through each
letterbox within
a mile radius.

Tommy squints.
When the leccy’s
paid, she plays
the radio: 80s hits.
But not tonight.
Cash-strapped,
the house is dark,
robbed of song.

Tommy writes.
Not on his phone
that’s never
topped up.
He favours
ink and paper.
Biro sturdy,
thumb snug.

Tommy wanders.
Kills time in
the local library.
It’s warm and safe,
costs him nothing.
In shards of
shy light he
reads old poems.

Tommy finds
Chatterton.
Ginger, poor
and pissed off,
just like him.
A mother broke
and struggling,
just like his.

Tommy reads.
Chatterton
hated school,
called a dullard,
chucked out.
He knows the
feeling, teachers
say he’s thick so
he believes it.

Tommy cried
when writing
club got cut.
The only place
he felt safe,
could trace the
rhythm of his
racing thoughts.

Tommy’s lost.
No good at sports
or video games.
A recipe for
friendlessness.
All he’s got
is books and their
patient margins.

Tommy zones out.
Let’s the future
leave him behind,
his whole spine
a sigh, dreams
he’s alive in a
different time
and thriving.

Tommy thinks:
he’ll run away
like Chatterton.
Make money for
his mum, enough for
her to sit in sturdy
light, soft-eyed
and humming.

Tommy hopes
people read his
poems one day
look past his youth,
and skinny frame.
An old soul in
cheap trainers,
his words as
ancient and true
as wind through
grass.

Tommy knows kids
choke on their own
silence every day.
Chatterton’s due
finally came
through the grave,
only safe and sacred
as romantic tragedy. 

Tommy is more
than a sad story.
A biro propels him,
his mum humming
to Annie Lennox,
The librarian’s nod
as he shuffles in
from the cold.

One word is not much,
but in a chain they’re a
sentence,
sentiment,
declaration
of presence.
Tommy writes.

Tommy lives,
Tommy lives,
Tommy lives.

 (featured photo: Jon Craig)

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