Knights of The Oblong Table

Read by Chris Barnes, Siobhán Nicholas, David Kelly, Rafael Peñas Cruz
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Positions around the table take account of who’s there and who isn’t in relation to absences as well as presences, and preferences, which shift. Over several weeks, the group appears through shifting patterns rather like time lapse photography. Note how the pattern of the group emerges here through the rhythms of the poem.

No Joke 

As members of the group came and went, consent had to be renegotiated several times. This is another instance of configuring and refiguring over time. It also raises important questions. In our research for ‘People Like You’, written consent was required to indicate participation in the project but, as the ‘Knights’ make clear, we had to negotiate consent in practice each time we met. We also negotiated the shape of articles, poems and reports that we produced from our conversations. To ask each time is to show respect and to recognise that things may have changed in the meantime. The sitter’s condition for sitting was that he remain anonymous; equally, he wanted to sit because he wanted his voice to be heard.


The elusive sitter cut short his sitting in order to help organise the Science Cafe that evening. ‘People Like You’ hosted a series of Science Cafes with Kelly Gleason 2018-2019 on the topic of Personalised Cancer Medicine (see The Art of Medicine).

Occasional Women

The bringing of home-made food to the kitchen table is a Maggie’s ritual in which particular people are celebrated (see the mention of Carol in In the Picturealso the note on mutualism in Everyday Heroines). The sharing is not restricted to food – Dave regularly brought flowers to the table and his – at times flamboyant – choices were also celebrated.

When I call them
Knights of The Round Table
it’s a spur to the collective wit.
The nomenclature derided,
others are proffered, dismissed,
until, all things considered,
someone comes up with
Knights of The Oblong Table.
There we have it.

The confederacy shifts
presence, absence
configure, reconfigure
in the uncertain wind.
The Table a stout ship,
the Crew vociferous –
riffing, roaring,
cursing, complaining,
joking, jibing,
expleting, explaining,
sparing, sparring,
fooling, finagling,
loquacious, voracious,
complicit, explicit,
hopeful, doubtful,

No captains

by invitation only.


The Man from Cavan

“I’m not boasting or anything,
but since I got diagnosed with cancer
I’ve become a better person.”
Is he joking?
He assures us he is not –
though he could be.

At the blood test,
he continues,
the nurse told him to stop drinking.
He hadn’t drunk for thirty years.
The gaze is sober
not without compassion.
Nobody laughs.

He cracks up like a schoolboy.
“You know I’m joking, don’t you?”

Now I have the measure of him
I ask where he’s from.
“Cavan,” he says.

The silence of brains racked
to no effect
till the owner of an ancient Nokia –
itself a cause for merriment –
asks the topographical question.

A man present by chance
his wife having an appointment
at The Hospital,
seizes the moment.
An Irishman himself
he locates the unknown county
passed over by tourists and literati
with firm tones
and foggy coordinates.

The Man from Cavan
parts the stubborn Irish mist.
“It’s an Ulster county
but in the Republic.”
A perfect riddle- me – ree
which the Table digests with effort.

The conversation lurches
over Irish history, global warming
and moon exploration
like a Beckettian bicycle.

“They’re taking the mystery out of the moon!”
laments the man from Cavan,
preserving his own air of mystery
till we get our marching orders,
concedes his name
when bags and jackets are got.

He’s miserable on his own
he says,
hates winter,
likes the bright summer evenings
when home can be put off
with a good walk.
More could be said
but a member of staff
all out of patience
indicates the door
with a hand like a flaming sword.

“This is a very joyous place to be,”
he reflects,
the blue eyes
under the bushwhacker hat
wide as the open sky.

No Joke

He could start
a whole new genre –
Medical Stand-Up.

Caveat auditor!

What begins as a twinkle
may end in cold fission
light years away
from the jocular.

Confronted with the Bag
and a clueless Catheter Nurse,
he suffers the indignity
of a clueless Patient.
His unlikely saviour –
the Night Nurse.

“It’s assumed
it’s common knowledge
what to do with them.
A user’s guide is needed.”

The Bag
slaps between his legs –
metaphorically speaking –
as he holds the Table captive
with a signature mix
of humour and outrage.

He turns his attention
to the matter
of his operation.

He does not meet the Surgeon before
does not expect to meet him after.
To this day
he has no way of knowing
how it went.

The Registrar addresses him –
“zonked out” –
in heavily accented English
hard to decipher at the best of times.
When he emerges from
the post op fog
the man is gone
and with him all hope
of a narrative of proceedings.

Professional ineptitude,
the casual lack of thought,
of respect,
is laid bare
exact and unsparing
as a Gillray cartoon.

A provocation
to laughter
that packs a very human


Because the cancer was caught
in time
there’s extra time.

for a glass of wine and a sandwich by the river,
to ignore the demon that hisses
Get off your arse,
for the farm in Norfolk.

Round the Table
his absences are noted.
The Knights are quick to speculate,
like wind that sings through
certain rocks in Africa
opinions gong.

The Table detectives
map fragments of conversation,
words dropped, hearsay,
onto possible coordinates,
tailing the professional sleuth
of pilfered artworks.

Like a figure from the pages of Dan Brown
or Derren Brown
he ghosts at the Table.


Occasional Women

From time to time
a woman
lands in their midst.

One sits,
tousled blonde hair
against grey sky,
damson sweater
flirty and fun as Jane Avril.

“When you walk up you’ve got
the world on your shoulders.
Then you forget. Sometimes
I just sit here and watch
and get lost in it.”

Nails of plum
tap a brisk kathakali
on the mobile,
chasing the digital world
she says she can’t keep up with.

To her side
in heron-like stillness
another woman.

“She’s a writer!”
the Knights chorus.
She contests it
with the folded smile
and watchful eye
of Jane Austen.

Another settles,
momentarily displacing
the thrum.
Knits of indigo, cobalt, lapiz,
crystals of blue chalcedony,
conjure the magic of Egypt,
Persia, the Tigris and Euphrates
of her homeland.
Beneath the liquid softness
of the eyes
a gravitational pull.

Her family story,
the narrative of her cancer,
is dark matter
in her smile
impossibly shines.

Often she brings food to share,
home cooked for optimum health,
seasoned with spices and flavours
of the Levant.
Some of the Knights partake
with gusto,
the rest continue snacking
on biscuits and cake.

Whatever the uptake
she smiles.
They are obdurate now
but she is a river
that carves stone.