With a distant glance and nod to Alfred, Lord Noyes’s poem, ‘The Highwayman’, Paul Scully in ‘Laneway Tom’ creates a very modern tale, one that could be playing out in the lanes and backstreets of any contemporary city. The imagery in the very first line evokes the down-and-out circumstances of the main character, Tom: ‘The lane was a vein long exhausted by needle-prick, with pissed over paspalum’. Tom lives in a rented backyard shed with his dog, Bess. Scully creates much dramatic irony here by giving the dog the same name as the woman in Noyes’s poem, the lover of the highwayman who, by killing herself, alerts her lover to the fact that the King’s men are waiting to arrest him when he comes for her. Tom has nobody looking out for him. There are no gallant heroes or heroines in this poem, only Tom’s addiction to rum and the sad loyalty of his old, underfed dog.
The poem lays out Tom’s impoverished appearance and lifestyle in language that is gritty and arresting. His chin is “tufted rock-salt”. Drunk, he does a ‘cymbal and snare search for his key’ and he must suffer the contempt and disdain from a ‘manglewheel cat at fence-height vantage [snipping] at its paws’. In all this degradation, the dog I think gets the bulk of our sympathy, having to wait until Tom recovers from his drunken state before she can be fed, and then she only gets a share of a tin of sardines. This poem, by referencing the Noyes’s poem, makes a poignant comment on making narratives out of bravado and self-sacrifice, that perhaps in our times, the real stories come out of the sorrows of the underprivileged, the damaged and the poor. While the poem’s subject matter is down-beat, the muscular and sinewy texture of the language make it a great pleasure to read, and there is humour in it too. The long lines and formal structure deliver narrative and dramatic intensity. It was an excellent decision of the poet to abandon the rollicking rhythm of Noyes’s original and to keep the poem quieter, more befitting of an anti-hero. – JB
Laneway Tom With thanks and apologies to Alfred, Lord Noyes Part One The lane was a vein long exhausted by needle-prick, with pissed-over paspalum splayed against a rheumy wind and moon spat into the sky. Tom hobbled toward the backyard shed he rented by the week. Where dreads should have billowed the wind-sock beanie, his was a sucked-out dug, his chin tufted rock-salt and clothes ragged as the night. He jangled the few coins pocketed on his right side. By the skewly hung paling gate scruffy Old Bess itched for the company of more than fleas but sensed there was no use scratching: the clammy pat would come with the same rhythm as the hi-hat, ride cymbal and snare search for his key. Tom tripped over her as if on cue. “Ah, Bess, truer than me rum, thy kingdom come, ne’er the twain shall meet.” A manglewheel cat at fence-height vantage snipped at its paws as if to dislodge something, then sprayed a mist of disdain in a four-legged leap to richer pickings.
Part Two Morning woke in Tom’s head like a tribal conch. His eyes narrowed from Saturn to Earth, then to a pin-hole camera: the light was as unwelcome as the gulch in his throat. Still, nothing that rolling over wouldn’t fix. Throughout the roiling intervening hours while Tom snored Bess kept a lumpy vigil but, as the day began to fray, she forced out a whine and a yelp to prevent hunger melting a rib in her scrawny hide, her eyes flitting between the man and the cupboard where he stored the sardines. With a heave, a grunt and a groan, crack of knee and scuff of slipper, a trailing, sieving sound, Tom opened the can, shared out the fish and ladled the brine with an economy lost to his laneway stumbling. Waving his fork as he ate, pausing to wipe his chops with an incongruent serviette and frame a lascivious wink, “The night is as yet a mongrel pup, no offence, old Bess, our duty is to give it some pedigree.”