The Twain

“And never the twain shall meet.” This was the chorus that my grandparents often chanted at me when family members started rowing with each other over one trivial incident or another.
“But what happens when the twain do meet,” I used to ask.
“Don’t be silly,” they said. “The twain never meet. Ever.”
But I know very well that they do.
I know.
I’ve seen them together.

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Funny things, they are, the twain, and opposites in so many ways. But so nice, in spite of what some people, especially my grandparents, used to say about them.

Not only do they meet, but they can be happy together and very, very friendly.
“Long time, no see,” the twain say, and embrace quite warmly with a bunch of flowers held between them.

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Mind you, the twain can also be quite awkward and occasionally very abusive towards each other. I remember my mother and father fighting “like cats and dogs” as my grandparents used to say.

Now, my grandparents had a cat. It was black and white and striped like a zebra. They called it Spot. My parents had a dog. It was an English Cocker Spaniel, gold in color, and off-spring to a famous sire. They called it  Wimpy but it was by no means a wimp and fought with everything in sight, especially the cat.

So when my father and mother fought and the family cat and dog fought, I thought, quite reasonably in my opinion, that dogs (with their short hair) were male and cats (with their long hair) were female, and that was the reason why they fought like cats and dogs. And “never the twain shall meet” as my grandparents used to say about my mother and father and the cat and the dog.

I guess it was too early to learn about the birds and the bees when, young and all too innocent, I was learning about the cats and the dogs.

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And of course it’s only natural that the twain should meet. My mother and my father, the cat and the dog, had to meet somewhere, didn’t they? How else would I be here? We weren’t the sort of family that practiced contraception by throwing stones at the storks to keep the babies away. But I could never work out why the cat always had female kittens while the dog had all-male off-spring. That was a bit too much for me, and nobody ever explained anything in those days.

And look, in spite of the differences between them, even cats and dogs can sometimes live together in peace. And opposites can and do attract, don’t they? Look at these two, coming together like a pair of magnets.

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Or, as the King of Rock and Roll might have phrased it:

“I’m so square.”
“Baby, I don’t care.”

 

 

Water

Water: such a precious commodity, and more than a commodity, the very substance of life. Without it, we shrivel and die. Vegetation struggles to survive, the desert shifts its boundaries outwards, and a high tide of sand rises to engulf the cultivated land.

In Oaxaca, Mexico, the Atoyac, the Green River, often runs dry. When it does, women kneel on the sand and pebbles and dig little holes into which the water seeps. They wait for the holes to fill and use little cups to pour that water into their buckets. These water holes are also used to wash their clothes and they hang them out on the riverbank bushes to dry beneath a burning sun.

Twice I have been in Oaxaca when the rains have not arrived. I have seen the reservoirs sink lower and lower as the sun laps up the precious liquid and no rain falls. Oaxaca, with or without rain, is a land of dry toilets, chemical toilets, chemicals to put in the tap water when you wash and peel fruit and vegetables. You drink only bottled water. It is sold to the households in forty litre bottles and hawked round the street by boys on tricycles who cry out their wares.

In Oaxaca, almost every house has its own supply of water. The flat roof, azotea, catches the rain when it falls and channels it into large internal cisternas that trap the water and keep it cool.  Water to waste is a luxury that few can afford and most water is recycled when possible in one way or another.

The rules are strict: drink nothing direct from the tap; do not clean your teeth in tap water;  beware of ice cream and ice cubes; drink only water delivered from trusted hands. In addition: eat food only from establishments with running water and a reputation for safety. Avoid street vendors, especially the little ladies in the street who cook over open fires and and change their babies’ nappies only to return to their cooking with unwashed hands … There are so many things you learn if you want to be safe and streetwise. Above all, close your nose to the delights of those wonderful street side cooking smells.

Peragua

Water seeks its final solution as it slips from cupped hands.
Does it remember when the earth was without form
and darkness was upon the face of the deep?

The waters under heaven were gathered into one place
and the firmament appeared.
Light was divided from darkness
and with the beginning of light came The Word,
and words, and the world …

… the world of water in which I was carried
until the waters broke
and the life sustaining substance drained away
throwing me from dark to light.

The valley’s parched throat longs for water,
born free, yet everywhere imprisoned:
in chains, in bottles, in tins, in jars, in frozen cubes,
its captive essence staring out with grief filled eyes.

A young boy on a tricycle bears a dozen prison cells,
each with forty captives: forty fresh clean litres of water.
“¡Peragua!” he calls. “¡Super Agua!”

He holds out his hand for money
and invites me to pay a ransom,
to set these prisoners free.

Real water yearns to be released,
to be set free from its captivity,
to trickle out of the corner of your mouth,
to drip from your chin,
to seek sanctuary in the ground.

Real water slips through your hair
and leaves you squeaky clean.
It is a mirage of palm trees upon burning sand.

It is the hot sun dragging its blood red tongue across the sky
and panting for water like a great big thirsty dog.

Every afternoon, in the rainy season, as regular as clockwork, the clouds build up and by five o’clock, the rain comes tumbling down. Nothing can describe the welcome smell of cool rain on dry dust and hot sand, the sound of raindrops pittering through the trees to splash on dry leaves, or the hiss of water on hot cobbles.

When the rain doesn’t come, then the Oaxacans who believe in the ancient traditions resort to sympathetic magic. They ask the brujos for help and the witch doctors bring out their rain sticks. Sympathetic magic: the sound of the sun-dried  cactus thorns falling through the hollow rain stick imitates the sound of the rain falling on the rain forest leaves. The clouds gather in sympathy and, sooner or later, the skies fill up with clouds, and down comes the rain.

Rain Stick

The bruja turns her rain stick upside down.
Rain drops patter one by one,
then fall , then faster and faster
until her bamboo sky fills
with the welcome sound of rushing water.

An autumnal whirl of sun-dried cactus
beats against its wooden prison walls.

As we look heavenwards, clouds gather,
rain falls in a wisdom of pearls,
cast from dark skies.

The scales fall from my eyes
and land on the marimbas,
dry beneath the arches
where wild music sounds,
half-tame rhythms,
sympathetic music
like this rainstorm
released
by the bruja‘s magic hand.

(bruja: witch, witch doctor)

Alebrijes

Alebrijes

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     Alebrijes step out from dried wood and stand in the shower of paint that falls from the brush’s tip. Yellow flash of lightning, pointillistic rain, garish colors that mirror those of the códices. The carvings take the form of fantasy figures, anthropomorphic animals,
 and mythological creatures.
Sometimes one individual selects the wood, carves it, then covers it in paint. Occasionally an entire family takes part in the work of making the alebrije. One person collects the wood and prepares it for carving. Another carves and sands it. A third works on the undercoat, and a fourth applies the final patterns of paint.
The great debate: does the form in the wood 
reveal itself to the carver
 or do the carvers impose their own visions on the wood? In the case of the team, do the family members debate and come to a joint conclusion?
These thoughts, exchanged with wood-carvers in Oaxaca, have led to a series of interesting conversations. What exactly is creativity? Where does it come from? Do we, as artists, impose it upon our creations? Or do we merely observe and watch as new ideas float to the surface of our minds? How does the creative mind really function? And, by extension, how much of the sub-conscious creative sequence can be placed into words?

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 Are they half-grasped dreams
that wake, wide eyed, to a new day’s sun?

Or are they alive and thriving
when they fall from the tree?

Does the carver fish their color and shape
from his own interior sea,
or does he watch and wait for the spirit
to emerge from its wooden cocoon
to be reborn in a fiery block of color?

Daybreak:
in a secluded corner of my waking mind,
my neighbor’s dog greets the dawn with sparks
of bright colors born from his bark.

My waking dream: dark angels with butterfly bodies,
their inverted wings spread over my head to keep me warm.
In the town square, the local artist plucks dreams
from my head and paints them on carved wood.

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Poema de Amor

Poema de Amor / Love Poem


Mitla is a sacred burial place in the Oaxaca Valley.
 The caves in the hills above the town
 are said to lead directly to an underworld from which demons and devils emerge at night and by means of which humans can communicate with the souls of the dead. Mitla, in fact, is often called the city of the dead.
 Legend has it that if you embrace  a certain magic column in the Palace at Mitla, 
the time left for you to live can be measured by the distance 
between your fingers as they reach round the pillar and almost touch.
 The pillar, they say, grows and shrinks according to the length of the seeker’s life. Petrus,  a rock, in Latin, evolves into piedra, 
a rock or stone in Spanish: upon this rock will I build my church.

1
We walk on tiptoe round the garden
peeling free the sunlight cloud by cloud

sometimes the heart is a sacrifice of feathers
bound with blood to an ornate altar

petrus
this rock cold against my chest
piedra
centuries of glyphs alive in your face

if our arms meet round these all too human columns
what will become of us?

2
beneath your skin the woad lies as blue as this evening sky
yellow light bends low in the fields below us
each darkened pool a warrior fallen beneath the scythe

the moon paints a delicate circle
its great round open eye stands out
above the rooftops
tonight it bears an eye lid carved from  cloud

our teeth are diadems of whiteness
we tie shadows to our heels
and dance in triumph through street and square

3
daylight bends itself round rock and turns into shadow
we flourish in blocks of fire

dreaming new selves from roots and branches
we clasp each resurrection with greedy fingers
will the moon rise again tonight and will we watch?

dark angel bodies with butterfly wings
our shadows have eloped together

we can see them sitting side by side
bumping knees at a table in the zócalo

4
church bells gild the barrio‘s rooftops
our fingers reach to the skies and hold back light
we draw shadow blinds to shut out the day
night fills us with stars and silhouettes

we dream ourselves together in a silent movie
closed flesh woven from cobwebs
lies open to a tongue-slash of madness

the neighbor’s dog wakes up on the azotea
he barks bright colors as dawn declares day
and windows and balconies welcome the sun

can anyone see the dew-fresh flowers
growing from our tangled limbs?

your fingers sew a padlock on my lips
“Listen to the crackle of the rising sun!”

Sometimes

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Sometimes the road seems uphill all the way. Lungs burn. Breath comes hot and hard and chunky in the throat. Legs hang heavy, muscles will not obey the owner’s instructions.

Consult the operating manual: “Take a break,” it says. “Rest now. Don’t push too hard.” But to rest is to give in, to come to an abrupt halt, or to drift backwards down the hill.

What stubborn streak is painted so deep in us that it shouts ‘never surrender’ when our most urgent need seems to be to throw in the towel? Is it the urge to get to the top, to see the lower lands stretched out below us? Or is it the mantra of fight the good fight?

Many things can drive us on: a need, a desire, a whim, an urge, or merely a refusal to stop fighting. Some of us will never give up. We will never lie down and curl up in a corner, a dead leaf to be blown hither and thither by the cold night wind.

Look carefully: there are no drugs, no needles, in the biker’s uniform. There is no small accessory motor hidden in the back wheel to help when times get hard.

The mouth is open, the eyes are set on the target, the legs still move, the sun still shines, and three smiling heart-shaped faces cheer the cyclist on.

Who can they be, these three angels at the road side, who can they be? Yet they are there and we are here and the bike is there and the hill is there and sometimes … yes, sometimes, the road IS uphill all the way.

But we keep the pedals turning and we don’t get off our bikes … and that’s life.

 

 

Spring Birds

Each day sees another spark of brightness in the grass, in the trees, or at the feeder. Where, I wonder, have they been? In whose back yard did they winter?  Some, stray thoughts perched for a moment on a branch in the mind, fluttered last fall in the falling snow and melted away. Others, I know, stayed here with us and we fed them throughout the short cold days.

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The robins, even though they are not my English robins, are my favorites, perhaps because they remind me of my childhood home. Less bold than those of my youth, they fly when we draw near and do not sit on the spade handle watching for worms as we turn the early earth and shake the garden back to life.

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Sentry duty: and they march up and down the lawn pacing their quicksteps, then standing to attention. They strut their stuff, turn their heads, listen, and look like guardsmen on parade outside our pastoral palace.

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With the guardsmen come the workmen, the busy birds, the ones who tap on the trees in search of insects or to set the juices running. Shy, they turn away and hide behind the trunk. But if we are quick, we can catch them, heads turned, when absorbed in their work, they forget to fear us.

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And the song-birds, shiest of all, often heard, their melodies, but their quicksilver spirits seldom seen except by chance and the artist’s luck and speed of finger. But listen: other songs throb their melodies on the wind and most days now we wake to music. A calling in the trees in the evening’s glow also tells us the world has turned once more and the birds, the glorious birds, the dwindling flocks of endangered birds, less this year than last year or the year before, are back. We must welcome them and cheer them while they are still with us.  Neither we nor they may  endure much more.

 

 

Black Angel

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I first saw the Black Angel in Aldebarán’s cultural store in Ávila (2006). She sat there, in the shop window, along with several other angels, and I worshiped her from the distance of the street. Her image was taken from an original painting from Rogier van der Weyden (1399/1400-1464). This was turned into a 3-D image and then converted into the statue I saw in the shop window.

I brought the statue back to Island View, placed it on the shelf above the fireplace, where it still rests, and wrote several poems on the theme of Angels. I gathered them together in a chapbook entitled All About Angels that I self-published in Fredericton in 2009. The chapbook was dedicated to Clare’s great-aunt, D. E. Witcombe who departed this world on October 15, 2008.

All About Angels was also based on a book of a similar title, Sobre los Ángeles, written by Rafael Albertí, one of the poets of Spain’s Generation of 1927. I avoided the ambiguity of the Spanish title — Sobre (in Spanish) can mean Above or Beyond as well as About — by limiting my own title to All About Angels.

For Carl Jung, angels are the messengers sent to inform people of the state of their world. For me, they are also the wild creatures that inhabit the world around me and often take the form of birds and other spiritual creatures. They can be best seen in those moments of solitude when we are most open to the natural world around us. Then, and sometimes only then, we can hear the urgent messages they bring.

 

Black Angel

You cannot hide
when the black angel comes
and knocks on your door.

“Wait a minute,” you say,
“While I change my clothes
and comb my hair.”

But she is there before you,
in the clothes closet,
pulling your arm.
You move to the bathroom
to brush your teeth.

“Now,” says the angel.
Your eyes mist over.

You know you are there,
but you can no longer see
your reflection in the mirror.

Angel Choir

(on seeing the Northern Lights at Ste. Luce-sur-mer)

listen to the choristers with their red and green voices
light’s counterpoint flowering across this unexpected son et lumière
we tremble with the sky fire’s crackle and roar

once upon another time twinned in our heavenly prisons
we surely flew to those great heights and hovered in wonderment
now our earthbound feet are rooted to the concrete
if only our hearts could sprout new wings and soar upwards together

the moon’s phosphorescent wake swims shimmering before us
the lighthouse’s fingers tingle up and down our spines
our bodies flow fire and blood till we crave light and yet more light
yet when the lights go out we are left in darkness

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 Croaking Angels

Their tunes are one note symphonies,
croaks of joy
moving their fellows to ecstasy,
exhorting them to share
the splendors of ditch life,
in a springtime bonding
that will loft them to the skies.

There’s an ancient magic in this calling:
love and laughter,
moonlight and water,
all the joyous things
one links with spring.

Moonlight swings its cheerful love lamp.
New leaves and buds are also known to sing.