Home » Issues & Poems » Issue 29 » MUM & DAD


Tom Jenks

I started writing, or found myself writing, these poems after my father died in 2021. I was thinking a lot about the past and how it persists in places, objects and, of course, memory. The poems emerged as a hauntological jumble of all of these things, much looser and more fluid than I usually write, peopled by characters that were partly my own parents, partly me and the people around me and partly something else entirely. Those characters began to speak, to me but also to one another and it’s those conversations that, for me, are at the heart of ‘Mum & Dad’. As the poems unfolded, I began to think about them differently, less as discrete pieces, more as a single entity. This was another departure for me. I’d written sequences before, but never anything I’d consider to be a long poem. Now, however, the long form seemed to make perfect sense, a way of writing about the same thing in different ways, woven through with references, reprises and reverberations. I’d describe ‘Mum & Dad’ as suburban magical realism, a space where ghosts and goblins coexist with breadsticks and crisps, where animals can talk, but don’t really have anything important to say. Some of the details are absolutely true, others are perhaps not rigorously fact-checked, but feel true to me. My mother really was, for a while, obsessed with the twin dangers of radiation and asbestos but I’ve never seen Art Garfunkel, not even in dreams.


Mum is in the attic writing her memoirs.


Dad is in the living room,

working on his experimental electronic symphony 

‘All day continental breakfast’.


There is dry ice around the coffee table.


Mum dreamt she had one foot larger than the other,

a premonition, like finding a dagger in the salmon mousse,

an episode explored at length in chapter XI, ‘Treachery’.


Tell it to the goblins, Mum,

horrid little faces at the Velux window.


‘Is that a ball gown you are wearing’, Dad asks Mum,

via the in-house communication system;

‘or just an elaborate house coat?’


Dad’s band is called either Mild Green Liquid

or The Ikea Ensemble, depending how the spoon is bending.


‘You are like a squirrel that has taken human form’,

Mum tells Dad; ‘but with the face and the body of a squirrel.’


Flat roof, downpipe, cheese and crackers,

a sadness deep and structural.


‘When they lost their dog, they thought he was irreplaceable’,

sings Dad into a vase, from Morecambe.




‘There are two sons’, Mum reminds Dad;

‘One is older than the other,

but neither is older than you.’


Logic was never Dad’s strong suit.


Better leave him to his own devices,

making a model of the moon base from breadsticks,

or polishing the pendulum of the metronome.




Dad walks to the all-night garage

and wonders about alien abduction,

what the aliens do up there, with their cool touch hobs,

their 1600w microwaves, their bathrooms

like the bathrooms of sad rich people.


Moon above the sports ground, gulls on the hockey pitch.


Dad would like to be abducted and be sad in space,

to sit at the granite kitchen island

and think about the past and icebergs.


Stars, round window, pears in the fruit bowl.


‘None of it is real’, say the aliens through a silver tube;

‘but all of it matters.’


Flares rise from the orange lakes of Jupiter.

A rabbit sniffs the air at the edge of the playpark.




The day has started badly.

Dad has cut himself on a packet of quinoa.

One of the sons come in from the thicket

and places an apple on the table.


‘Things have only the meaning we give them’,

says Dad; ‘and this has no meaning at all.’


‘There is a galleon at the bottom of the ditch’,

says one of the sons, polishing the apple on his smock;

‘near the mini-market, where the horse is.’


‘I will rescue the princess trapped there inside a bubble.

We will marry and live in a palace or a bungalow.’


One of the sons, two of the sons…

who can tell them apart? And does it even matter

(apart from during the snooker tournament)?


Mum is in the laboratory, distilling a compound

that will melt stubborn fat and slow down time.


Someone has to put a stop to all this nonsense.




Mum is worried about radiation.

We drink powdered milk made with mineral water.

There is a special rock in a cornflake box lined with lead.


Mum is worried about asbestos in the Artex,

the terrible cost of a popcorn ceiling.


‘There is a cloud of white dust above

the ancestral spoons’, says Mum.


Dad is struggling with a jar of potted shrimp.


‘Do not blame me when you cannot catch fire’, says Mum.


Dad imagined he would marry the ballerina from the music box

or become the captain of a ship in a bottle.


But Dad is actually not in the least bit miniature,

not even when pepper falls like snow on the model railway,

on Sundays, when the special rock is glowing.




‘You are beautiful when you’re angry’, Dad tells Mum;

‘but still more beautiful when erecting the gazebo.’


Dad will never understand how to erect the gazebo.

It makes no sense, like the little blue sachet

that is in some bags of crisps but not others.


‘Do not touch anything within this cupboard,’ advises Mum;

‘for many items lack context:

a working model of a turbine, for instance,

or a gravy boat that cracked and was repaired.’


All is contingent.


One day, there are eggs on the drive

and no pan is small enough to make an omelette.




Dad unwraps a truffle and puts on his robe.


Dad is thinking of changing the name of his band

to Mixed Nuts or Partially Deflated Foil Balloon.

It depends upon the results of the engagement survey.


Mum appears at the mouth of the cave.


‘I would like to attend the séance at the gastropub’,

says Mum; ‘but am unsure which side

of the salad bar to sit on.’


Ghosts in the mist, in the starter homes.


Art Garfunkel leans against the bus shelter,

ringing a very small silver bell.


Dad is having bad dreams

that there are mechanical moths in the mobile library.


‘Art Garfunkel’s bus will never come’, whispers Mum,

dabbing mint oil onto Dad’s temples;

‘and his very small silver bell does not exist.’




Dad envies the badgers with their powerful jaws,

their soulful eyes, their bespoke velour tracksuits.


‘The badgers know nothing of love’, says Mum;

shelling pistachios; ‘only companionship.’


Dad watches the badgers from the kitchen,

pushing each other on the swing,

conversing solemnly under the oak.


It’s tough being an indoor survivalist, Dad,

especially in conditions so unforgiving.


A badger taps on the window with his sovereign ring,

embossed with a crest of buttercups entwined.


‘I never wanted to be a badger’,

mouths the badger, silently;

‘but I couldn’t afford a milk float.’




Mum had options:

Brian, the bowls club secretary,

or the man who kept glass animals.


‘I could be serene amongst transparent swans’,

sighs Mum; ‘or at least not paying for photocopying.’


Dad is largely hopeless, crunching croutons,

forever butter side down.


He does look good in this light though,

in his lemon yellow tracksuit, playing his latest composition

‘My love is like a breaded cod’ on his ukulele.


Mars and Jupiter above the gasometer.


A bus sways on its way to the depot.

You can see the top deck and there’s nobody on it.

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