“The Double,” by Glyn Maxwell

“The Double” appeared in Little Star #1.  Read his new long poem, “This Whiteness,” in Little Star #2, and hear him read both poems here.


I made a dance and called it after you.

It was called The Double [that’s where your surname went].

Our arms go out as if about to be lifting

heavy bags, we stoop as if to do that,

then lift and smile and approach the facing partner

who’s doing what we’re doing, bearing nothing,

forearms dangling downward like a scarecrow,

and then we just link up and go round and round

as if there never were bags and it all dissolves

in laughter… I didn’t know you all that well.

Which is why it was odd you showed up at my folks’

when I’d left for university. They smiled

politely unclear who you were and then and there

you performed the original Double [surname here]

and stayed for a week. I’d been a month at Oxford

when you tracked me down one day. I would dine out

and dance the Double [you] for years after,

on the basis of one afternoon you sat there

in my little digs and steadily described

how the city streets were dense with ‘the evil people’

monitoring you. Many of them were airborne.

I was not equipped for anything but laughing,

though solemnly pretending to believe you

was fun too, now I think. When you next came –

it not having crossed my mind to call a doctor –

you said you had ‘good’ inside you, you had power now,

you could defeat them, you held a little match flame

twenty seconds and out it went, and not

because flames do, but because you compelled it to.

That was your power. I smiled the smile of someone

already wondering who shall I tell this stuff to.

For the story had some balance now, I remember

scribbling it all in a book when you’d wandered off,

all evil vanquished one November lunchtime

and me the first to know. I got down to writing.

And I heard you got married one year, and I even saw you

act in a play back home with your new name

set bright between your old names like a shield.

I even laughed at that, like your enemy.

You were not the first or the last to remind the folks

responsible for housing psychotic patients

on the ninth floor of the hospital why they shouldn’t.

You were the year below me. Needless to say

I never danced the dance again or enjoyed

telling the tales again. There were evil people.

Some of them really could fly. You had good inside you.

You did make the match go out. You made me make

a dance of my supreme indifference,

then a poem of my useless sorrow.


A poem on the page from Glyn Maxwell these days is something of a gift, as much of his verse goes into forms requiring one’s corporal presence. His libretto for the opera The Lion’s Face, by composer Elena Langer, staged last spring and summer by the Opera Group with the Institute of Psychiatry and the Wellcome Foundation, won praise for its formal and musical embrace of its theme: dementia.  It was his second collaboration with Langer. Maxwell is the author of countless plays, plus libretti, screenplays, and, surprise, two novels (Blue Burneau and The Girl Who Was Going to Die)!  And yet we cherish his nine books of poetry, most recently Hide Now, soon to be culled for a selected edition from Farrar, Straus & Giroux.  Maxwell’s work breaths the formal latencies of our language like bright air off a meadow.