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Cheeses of Nazareth

by Simon Armitage

I fear for the long-term commercial viability
of the new Christian cheese shop in our neighbourhood.
Poor old Nathan, he’s sunk every penny of his payout
from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board into that place,
but to me the enterprise seems doomed.
Last Friday he had to make a trip across town to the optician’s.
“Will you mind the shop for me—I’ll pay you of course?” he said.
“Nathan, it will be an honour to wear the smart blue smock
of the cheesemonger and to spend time
amongst such noble foodstuffs,” I replied. But in eight hours
only three people crossed the threshold of his emporium:
some knackered old dosser asking for a glass of water,
a young villain in bare feet looking for the needle exchange,
and a pregnant woman suddenly overwhelmed by a craving
for Kraft Cheese Slices, a product Nathan refuses to stock.
“Nathan, Nathan, Nathan, wouldn’t this business
have been better suited to one of the more fashionable districts?
Is it too late to relocate?” I asked him.
He blinked at me through his new specs. “No, my work is here,”
he said. “Hope must put down its anchor even in troubled waters.
Today a cheese shop, tomorrow a wine bar or delicatessen,
next week a community centre or a playground for the little ones,
until ye church be builded.”
Then he went outside with a bucket of soapy water
to attack the graffiti scrawled across his front door.

I almost love Nathan for his dedication to the cause,
but the hour of my betrayal draws ever nearer.
How did it come to this, unemployed and lactose intolerant,
surrounded by expensive and rude-smelling dairy products
in a fleapit of a council flat during the hottest summer on record.
Pretty soon I’ll have to turn my back on Nathan,
slip away like the last visitor in the lamp-lit oncology ward
withdrawing his hand from the weightless grip
of his mumbling mother-in-law. From up here on the third floor
I can see Nathan right now in his ironed apron and starched hat.
Nathan, oh Nathan, silent and alone,
presiding over the faceless faces of Camembert and Brie,
the millstones of Butterkäse and Zanetti Grana Padano,
the dried teardrop of San Simon, the uninhabited planets
of Gouda and Chaumes, and the cowpat of Cornish Yarg,
mummified in its drab, nettle-leaf skin.


Simon Armitage was born in West Yorkshire in 1963. His first two collections, Zoom! and Kid, which won the Forward Prize for best collection, established him as the leading poet of his generation in the U.K. His most recent collection is Tyrannosaurus Rex Versus the Corduroy Kid. He has published two novels, a version of the Odyssey, and a translation of the Middle English classic Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. He also writes for TV and radio. (10/2009)

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AGNI Magazine :: published at Boston University ©2008 AGNI