Winning not Whining!

Winning not Whining:
For Al

To be taken with a large pinch of salt.

Judgement by Committee:

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The committee gathers and sorts through the evidence: whatever will they find? Piece by piece, they sift the data. Some take it to great heights and drop it on the rocks to see how fragile it is. Will it break like a clam or a mussel released at the sea-side? Others use the Christmas Cracker technique. For this you need two judges: each holds an end, and both tug as hard as they can. When the evidence rips apart, then the opinion of the one with the larger segment of the manuscript holds good. They take care to avoid the cracker-jack bang in case the item is explosive, but more often than not it is good, solid fodder for thought, endless thought, and the longer they think, the more the liquids flow and more good food goes down, and the more their camaraderie strengthens. Finally, when all the energy is spent and the manuscripts are reduced to tiny shreds, a winner appears. If the last fragment of evidence is still large enough to be read, this is then showcased and the winner is announced. That is why those precious manuscripts are never returned and that’s why competitors should always send a copy, because the original, especially when dropped from a great height or caught by the explosion of cracker-jack, might be lost in the tidal wave of anguish that sweeps the sea-shore clean.

“What is the definition of a camel?”
“It’s a horse designed by a committee.”

Anonymous, or Aristotle, I don’t know who said it first; but it’s very true. And manuscript selection by committee can bring about some interesting selections. On several occasions I have received the damning note: “We really liked this: but one person on the committee said they didn’t like how you used this word …    (insert word in blank space after dots).”
Judgement by committee is judgement by consensus … and, as the TV game-show host so often repeats: “… And the survey says …”

There is only one way to deal with committee decisions in a writing competition: lots of laughter, a large pinch of salt, and water off a duck’s back.

Judgement by a single judge

This is probably much better than judgement by a married judge who will always pick his partner’s work, if it has been submitted. With only one judge circumstances change and the chances of winning operate under different rules. Imagine that one judge as a Great Blue Heron standing in tidal water, beak poised, incoming tide, and the manuscripts swimming past. Some swim too fast, some too slow; some are too heavy and sink to the bottom; some are too light and float to the top. But look, the judge is tense, the perfect manuscript at the perfect depth glistens silver beneath the surface then … swift jab of the judge’s beak and we have a winner … and the judge holds it aloft to glisten in the sunlight while the losers swim happily away to survive as honorable mentions or silent witnesses that can be entered in another competition on another, perhaps happier day, when they can be judged by a committee of Great Blue Herons.

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It’s not always easy to be a good loser. However, as you swim freely away from the Great Blue Heron (GBH) remember you have avoided Grievous Bodily Harm (GBH) and that may be better than you think for: “It’s often good to not be a winner: you might end up as the judge’s dinner.”

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And if you win? Well, the judge (or the judges if you survived the survey), was very good, very intelligent, very hard-working, and just perfect; in fact, the very model of a wise old bird who knew just what it was looking for, and found it.

And as for the winner: “The winner, he was a wise old bird. The more he spoke, the less he heard. The less he spoke, the more he heard. There never was such a wise old bird.” (Anonymous or Aristotle)

Obsidian’s Edge 2

6:30 am
Early morning mass:
San Pedro

1

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A single sunbeam descends.
Sharp blade of a heliocentric sword,
it shatters the chapel’s dark:
fragments of light
stained with glazed colors.

A pallid lily truncated
by the dawn’s pearly light,
the young widow
kneels in prayer.

Her head wears a halo.
Her pilgrim palm
presses into the granite
forcing cold stone
into warm fingers.

Flesh clutches
the statue’s marble hand:
a maze of human veins
— petrus / piedra —
this church now a rock.

2

Outside the church,
a boy pierces his lips
with a cruel spine of cactus.

The witch doctor
catches the warm blood
in a shining bowl
and blesses the  girl
who kneels before him.

On her head she carries
a basket filled with flowers
and heavy stones.
He sprinkles it
with blood.

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She will carry
this basket on her head
until the evening shadows
finally weigh
and she lays her burden
down.

3

Cobbles clatter beneath walking feet:

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when the stones grow tongues,
will they speak the languages
in which we dream?

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Daffodils

Daffodils
Two poems for Wild Daffodil

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Daffodils 1
(for my mother)

Light in dark
bright yellow stridence
shrill golden dog’s bark
to warn off death’s wolves
that freeze her blood

she dreaded night’s unease
the devil’s wintry anti-spring
life’s darkest sparks

 but loved the daffodils’
sunny March cadence
of brief piercing dance

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Daffodils 2

For ten long days the daffodils
endured, bringing to vase and breakfast-
table stored up sunshine and the silky
softness of their golden gift.

Their scent grew stronger as they
gathered strength from the sugar
we placed in their water, but now
they have withered and their day’s done.

Dry and shriveled they stand paper-
thin and brown, crisp to the touch.
They hang their heads:
oncoming death weighs them down.

 

Obisidian’s Edge 1

At the Edge of Obsidian

“everything burns, the universe flames,
nothingness burns itself into nothing
but a thought in flames: nothing but smoke”

Piedra de sol
Octavio Paz

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“todo se quema, el universo es llama,
arde la misma nada que no es nada
sino un pensar en llamas, al fin humo:”

At the Edge of Obsidian is the second book in The Oaxacan Trilogy. It was published in 2005 and outlines the events of a single day in the City of Oaxaca (Mexico). I have always loved the Medieval Books of Hours and wondered if they would transfer themselves into a book of hours based on a day in a place with which I was familiar. This is my effort to do just that. I will publish regularly from this book, beginning at the beginning with the church bells and the early morning light that waken the sleeper from his dreams.

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6:00 am
church bells

1

The alarm clock shuffles
its pack of sleeping hours:

a clicking of claws,
needles knitting outwards
towards dawn’s guillotine;

a knife edge
sharpened on this keening wind
sets my blood tingling in my toes.

Bright jungle parrot,
its querulous caged voice glimpsed
darkly through dawn’s looking glass.

2

Tochtli was caught by the ears
then thrown against the second sun
sizzling in the sky.
His sharp teeth burrowed,
burying themselves deep in the fire’s red light.
The second sun turned into the moon;
now we can see Tochtli’s face,
simmering in its dwindling pool.

Old myths, like languages,
grow legs and wander away.
They gather in quiet corners,
in village squares
where the night wind weaves
dry leaves in endless figures of eight.

 An old man now,
I dream of white rabbits,
running down tunnels,
escaping the hunter’s hands.

 3

When my dreams break up,
they back themselves into a cul-de-sac:
a wilderness of harsh black scars.

Dream words:
scalpels carving
red slashes on white-washed walls,
trenchant shadows, twisted dancers,
old warrior kings
bent into pipe wire shapes.

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 Suddenly, beneath my balcony,
the handy man
tumble-dries a tv ad
in the washing machine
of his song sparrow throat.

Chance Encounter

Chance Encounter
(Overheard last night at the bar)

“Meeting her, unexpected,
with another man,
and me, with another woman,
all four of us looking
bemused by what the other
had chosen in each
others absence
— suspense —
and the halted, faltering
politeness of a nod,
a handshake, ships
passing in the night,
signals no longer recognized.”

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“You only find
what you leave behind.”

Earthing Earthling

Earthing Earthling
(for ProofofLife)

“Get out and about,” she told me.
Take off your socks and shoes.
Walk barefoot on the earth and grass:
twin pleasures, you can choose.”

I took two canes, one in each hand,
and left the house to walk the land.

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In the garden I took off my shoes
to walk barefoot on the lawn;
when grass sprang up between my toes
I was instantly reborn.

I stood in the shade of the crab apple tree
and let leaf and flower spill over me.

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Sunlight took away my frown
and freckled a smile on my face.
I was blessed again with hope and light;
earth and grass filled me with grace

When white blossoms filtered down
they gifted me a flowery crown.

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I stooped to reach my shoes
and carried them home in my hand,
maintaining as long as I could
my contact with this magic land.

 

 

Striations in the Heart

(for my friend John S.
who breeds salamanders
in his garden pond)

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There are striations in my heart, so deep, a lizard could lie there, unseen, and wait for tomorrow’s sun. Timeless, the worm at the apple’s core waiting for its world to end. Seculae seculorum: the centuries rushing headlong. Matins: wide-eyed this owl hooting in the face of day. Somewhere, I remember a table spread for two. Breakfast. An open door. “Where are you going, dear?” Something bright has fled the world. The sun unfurls shadows. The blood whirls stars around the body. “It has gone.” she said. “The magic. I no longer tremble at your touch.” The silver birch wades at dawn’s bright edge. Somewhere, tight lips, a blaze of anger, a challenge spat in the wind’s taut face. High-pitched the rabbit’s grief in its silver snare. The midnight moon deep in a trance. If only I could kick away this death’s head, this sow’s bladder, this full moon drifting high in a cloudless sky.

This is the prose version, from Fundy Lines (2002). The prose version was based on an extract from a longer poem that first appeared in Though Lovers Be Lost (2000). I am always fascinated by the ways in which prose and poetry differ in their structure on the page. In particular, I am fascinated by how what seems to be the same, or a similar idea, changes according to format and context. Lagartija (below) is an extract from a longer poem. This became the prose version quoted above.

Lagartija

There are striations
in my heart, so deep,
a lizard could lie there,
unseen, and wait
for tomorrow’s sun.

A knot of
sorrow in daylight’s throat;
the heart a great stone
cast in placid water,
each ripple
knitted to its mate.

Timeless,
the worm at the apple’s core
waiting for its world to end.

Seculae seculorum:
the centuries
rushing headlong.

Matins:
wide-eyed
this owl hooting
in the face of day.

Somewhere,
I remember
a table spread for two.
Breakfast.
An open door.
“Where are you going, dear?”

Something bright has fled the world.
The sun unfurls shadows.
The blood whirls stars
around the body.

“It has gone.” she said. “The magic.
I no longer tremble at your touch.”

You can drown now
in this liquid
silence.

Or you can rage against this slow snow
whitening the dark space
where yesterday
you placed your friend.

The silver birch wades
at dawn’s bright edge.

Somewhere,
sunshine will break
a delphinium
into blossom.

Tight lips.
A blaze of anger.
A challenge spat
in the wind’s face.

High-pitched
the rabbit’s grief
in its silver snare.
The midnight moon
deep in a trance.

If only I could kick away
this death’s head,
this sow’s bladder.

Full moon
drifting
high in a cloudless sky.

 

Here is the original poem. It is the third in sequence from Though Lovers Be Lost. I find that each version has a life of its own and all are slightly different. Beauty does indeed lie in the eye of the beholder: poetry too.

Building on Sand

1
Everywhere the afternoon
gropes steadily to night.
Some people have lit fires;
others read by candlelight.

Geese litter the river bank,
drifts of snow their whiteness,
stained with freshet mud;
or is it the black
of midnight’s swift advance?

They walk on thin ice
at civilization’s edge.
Around them,
the universe’s clock
ticks slowly down.

2
Who forced that scream
through the needle’s eye?

Gathering night,
the moon on the sea bed
magnified by water.

Inverted,
the big dipper,
hanging its question
from the sky’s dark eye lid.

Ghosts of departed
constellations
walk the night.

Pale stars scythed
by moonlight
bob phosphorescent
flowers on the flood.

3
The flesh that bonds;
the bones that walk;
the shoulders and waist
on which I hang
my clothes.

Now they stand alone
beneath the moon
and listen at the water’s edge
to the whispering trees.

They have caught the words
of snowflakes
strung at midnight
between the stars.

Moonlight is a liquor
running raw within them.

4
There are striations
in my heart, so deep,
a lizard could lie there,
unseen, and wait
for tomorrow’s sun.

A knot of
sorrow in daylight’s throat;
the heart a great stone
cast in placid water,
each ripple
knitted to its mate.

Timeless,
the worm at the apple’s core
waiting for its world to end.

Seculae seculorum:
the centuries
rushing headlong.

5
Matins:
wide-eyed
this owl hooting
in the face of day.

Somewhere,
I remember
a table spread for two.
Breakfast.
An open door.
“Where are you going, dear?”

Something bright has fled the world.
The sun unfurls shadows.
The blood whirls stars
around the body.

“It has gone.” she said. “The magic.
I no longer tremble at your touch.”

6
You can drown now
in this liquid
silence.

Or you can rage against this slow snow
whitening the dark space
where yesterday
you placed your friend.

The silver birch wades
at dawn’s bright edge.

Somewhere,
sunshine will break
a delphinium
into blossom.

7
Tight lips.
A blaze of anger.
A challenge spat
in the wind’s face.

High-pitched
the rabbit’s grief
in its silver snare.
The midnight moon
deep in a trance.

If only I could kick away
this death’s head,
this sow’s bladder.

Full moon
drifting
high in a cloudless sky.

8
After heavy rain
the house shrinks.
Its mandibles close.

A crocodile peace
descends from the jaws of heaven.

I no longer fit my skin.
Iguana spots itch.
Walls encircle me,
hemming me in.

The I Ching sloughs my name:
each lottery ticket,
a bullet.

None with my number.

9
Late last night I thought
I had grasped the mystery:
but when I awoke
I clasped only shadows and sand.