Strip It Back

It’s a scorcher of a day in Dublin, searing in the late-twenties outside with not the slightest vein of a cloud in the sky. The library is heaving with students and the hand drier sounds out its constant hum from the nearby toilets. Overlooking the lake, students are working towards the last of their exams, only three days remain between them and the summer. Six desks and two decades separate me from a ginger boy at the far end of this desk bank.

He looks concentrated – the way you’d expect a student to be at the business end of the year. He’s the only red fella in the library, but I’d expect that’d go unnoticed by most – people having more important things on their minds I guess. The thing that can’t be overlooked though, is the fact he’s naked. Apart from a set of iPhone buds tucked inside his ear, the chap is buck starkers. Wearing nothing but his flame coloured mop and a handful of orange hairs on his chest, he’s tracing lines of highlighter across his book, in what seems to be a targeted attack on the entire page. Nothing has escaped the highlighter, not even the tabs.

But nobody bats an eyelid, neither to the nudity nor the neon artwork leaking itself across his page. He continues highlighting, everything. The hand drier keeps on whizzing. Pages turn and pens click. A blue lid from someone’s water bottle rolls past my feet and over towards the window. It’s as normal as any other day in the James Joyce Library. Then he looks up, looks right at me, maybe sees right into my head. Shit, I knew I shouldn’t have given him a second glance – now he thinks I’m a complete perv. But just as quickly he resumes his colouring, leaving me to return to my David Lodge novel and the poetry edits I’ve been avoiding since I arrived.

It’s not that I don’t want to do them, believe me I do. I want to meet my finished poem. I want to hear what it sounds like, see what it looks like. It’s just that the step between getting across the end line and hanging out in purgatory, is the woeful predicament of decision making. Follow line A or B or cut a new route for it? And if I follow one route, what am I turning my back on by shelving the others? I read on. The edit dilemma continues looping in the background. Then a voice whispers in my ear, “strip it back”.

I look-up to see if the clothesless chap was trying to spread his gospel, but no, his head was down, intent on doing further damage with a blue highlighter. His yellow one appeared to have died of exhaustion. Strip it is exactly the measure I need to take. And so I crack out the poem and shed layer upon layer of excess wordage. I peel back line from line and am merciless about what I’ll allow remain. After a few minutes, I’m left with a bare shell of a poem, hardly resembling the fat little thing I’d started out with. It’s just about skeletal and every word is earning its keep. It’s so stark naked I can now see it’s meaning.  I can feel it. I get it.

And there it is, the end is in sight. Laid bare, it’s found its shape. I look up, to see Carrot Top wrestle a Monaghan jersey over his head. He stands into a faded pair of O’Neill’s tracksuit bottoms and tucks his highlighters into his pockets. Nobody else is looking in his direction. It’s as if he isn’t there. And just as I type the last word of the poem up, a damp page floats onto my desk. It lands on my keyboard, wavy with the weight of neon ink soaked into it. I look up but he’s gone. I look at the page, and there repeated again and again across fifty lines “strip it back”.

young man
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