Empty Head

           

Empty Head

I sat in class, head in hands, avoiding eye contact. I hoped the priest wouldn’t point me out, call on me, nominate me with a finger, but to no avail. He called my name.

“You have sixty seconds to speak about,” he paused, then produced the rabbit from the hat. “Matches. Come along, stand up, sixty seconds, starting,” he watched the second hand go round on the classroom clock, then counted down: “5, 4, 3, 2, 1 …” waved his hand, and shouted: “Start now!”

            Images flashed through my head: matches: cricket matches, boxing matches, rugby matches, soccer matches, chess matches, matches to light the burners on the gas stove, the oven, to light the fire in the fireplace … matches, matchsticks, Match Box toys, Dinky toys, toys for little boys, toys for big boys …

            “Fifteen seconds have gone … you have forty-five remaining.”

            “When I think about matches, I think about …”

            … the first spring day in the bungalow, our summer home. The rooms are cold and damp after the winter and nobody has been here since last year. We lay a fire in the grate, but the wood is damp, as is the old newspaper we gather from our last visit. We search for sugar to aid the blaze that we hope to start, but the sugar bowl is empty. We go to the stove. Cold, winter ashes crowd the fire bowl. We scrape them together in a desperate search for charcoal remains …  but we find nothing. We move to the oil-fired lamps and oil stoves. Matches dragged across soggy sandpaper fail to spark …

            “Come along, boy. We haven’t got all day. You’ve got thirty seconds left.”

            Silence fills the room. It is broken by the childhood sniggers and chuckles of long-forgotten classmates who never became friends My cheeks grow red. I start, stammer, and stop.

            … we leave the bungalow. Go next door to where our neighbours winter over. We knock on the door. “Can you lend us a match?” we ask, holding out our hands. Mrs. Williams beams at us. “A match,” she says. “First time in after the winter?” We nod. “I thought so. Saw you arriving. Wondered why you hadn’t come earlier. The weather’s been nice. Here: I can do much better than a match.”  She moves over to the fireplace, picks up the little coal shovel, scoops up a generous portion of her fire, heaps on another lump, then two, of fresh coal, and “Here you are,” she says. “Just put it in the fireplace and add some wood and coal. This can be your first fire. Here, you’d better have some matches too.” “Thank you, Mrs. Williams,” we say. “No problem,” she replies. “It’s good to see you back. It’s been lonely here this winter without you.”

            “Time’s up,” the priest says. “That’s sixty seconds of silence and you can hardly find a word to say on a simple subject. Are you stupid or what?

            My face turns red and I suffer the hot, burning cheeks of childhood shame.

Comment:

This is a theme to which I have returned on many occasions. Click on the link to see the original post. https://rogermoorepoet.com/2016/05/page/2/

Wet Welsh Rain

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Wet Welsh Rain

              Day after day, rain, drives in over Singleton Park and Swansea Bay. It claws its clouded way, shroud clad in grey cloud, up Rhyddings Park Road, through Brynmill, and up to the Uplands and Sketty, as it was then, now Sgetti. In those days, the rain got everywhere. It swirled around ankles and knees wetting everything below the hem of the raincoat. Umbrellas kept the shoulders dry. But when the wind blew, and gamp and brolly turned inside out, and people looked as though they were duelling with the wind, and threatening to poke each other’s eyes out, then a good soaking was sometimes better and safer and, in the worst of the rain and the wind, the gamps and brollies came down.  As for the puddles: they were everywhere. You walked in them, whether you wanted to or not, and your leather shoes turned into a pulp that let in water. Socks slopped around your feet, wetter than soggy blotting paper aka blotch [hands up if you remember blotch!]. Heads down, we faced the wind, draped around bus stops, waiting for buses that never came singly, but only in threes after much long suffering. Wind like a whiplash drove the rain before it and everywhere, woolen scarves turned into wet wash cloths and woolen gloves became underwater rain-sodden mittens.

Comment: As Tropical Storm Arthur gathers in the North Atlantic, we would do well to remember the good old days of summer holidays in Wales when it rained every day, bob dydd, during the whole two-week vacation. But did it really rain back then? Who remembers now? I seem to remember it was sunny every day, especially when the cricket was suspended with the words Rain Stopped Play displayed across the television screen. Ant the lunch time cricket scores: what joy to listen to them and to discover one day, as I listened on my illicit radio hidden in my school dormitory,  that play had been stopped because of “piddles on the putch, sorry, I mean puddles on the pitch” [hands up if you remember that announcement!]. I am sorry to say that particular radio announcer did not stay in his job for long. A great pity: I found him rather amusing.

We would do well, too, to recall the twelve days without electric power that followed Hurricane Arthur, back in 2014 [hands up if you remember Hurricane Arthur!]. Alas and alack: how accurate are our memories? And did all of those things really happen? As the street vendors and newspaper vendors [hands up if you remember paper boys!] used to cry out on street corners “Echo, Echo, South Wales Echo: Read all about it” or “Post, Evening Post, South Wales Evening Post, read all about it!” The South Wales Echo and the South Wales Evening Post hands up if you remember them … Oh those were the days … or were they? … click here and read all about it!

 

 

 

 

Doing Time

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Doing Time

Time bends like a boomerang,
flies away,
comes flying back to
the thrower’s hand.

Endless this shuffle.
Unmarked days
drop off the calendar.

Hands stop on the clock.
The pendulum
swings back and forth
but nothing else moves.

‘As idle as a painted ship
upon a painted ocean.’

Yet the seas seem to move,
the winds seem to blow,
the sails seem to swell,
while our garden
fills with birds
and squirrels,
light and dark.

Morning ablutions.
Each day is a twin
of the day before.
Like wise each week.

The TV screen fills up
its washbasin of tired
looking faces bore us
with their endless wisdom.

Time hands heavy:
an albatross around the neck,
or an emu, an ostrich,
a flightless dodo,
an overweight bumble bee,
too heavy to fly.

Comment: An interesting article that I read today suggests that the lock down is bending time out of shape and that we need to adapt our minds and our body clocks to a new temporal reality. Seconds hang heavy. Days present the same routine. The routine makes the divisions between each day seem irrelevant. This is what my Spanish friend and teacher, the poet José Hierro, meant when he wrote about his time in jail as a political prisoner after the Spanish Civil War: “El tiempo aquí no tiene sentido” / time in here has no meaning.

A similar effect is noticed by those of us who were imprisoned in boarding schools from an early age. The first day back, we draw a railway train at the beginning of a long track and we number each day from the beginning of term. Then we cross off the days, one by one. Often, before the first week is even over, we forget about counting the days: they are all the same, lookalikes with a rhythmic similarity that sends us to sleep as routine takes over and we sleepwalk through life.

How important is time? How important is it to distinguish Monday from Wednesday, Friday from Thursday, this Saturday from a week on Sunday? It becomes less and less important. The TV chatters on and on. The shows we follow illuminate our days. I turn on the radio at five on Friday for Cross Country Check Up, which airs on Sunday. I go without breakfast and don’t even notice that I haven’t eaten. I make a cup of coffee and it sits there on the table with the cup of tea that I forgot to drink this morning. Each time I take my tablets, I write that fact down so that later in the day, I can check that I have actually taken them. The notes mount up and the bottles of tablets run down. Each mandarin orange has a tiny key and I wind those oranges up so they will go tick-tock as I eat them. My Teddy Bear has an alarm clock between his legs and a flashlight in his ear so that I can tell the time on cloudy nights when I can no longer see the Platonic dance of the rotating stars.

Why I Write

 

Time-Spirits

Why I Write

In the online creative writing course that I took last year, we were invited to read two articles on why I write, one written by George Orwell and the other by Joan Didion.  Both articles set me thinking: why do I write? My response to these articles, borrowed from my course notes and suitably doctored for my blog, follows.

George Orwell … where do I begin?

Homage to Catalonia is, in my opinion, one of the great personal memoirs written about the Spanish Civil War. Orwell fought on the side of the Republic, the legally-elected government, but fell foul of the Russian-backed Communists as they tried to unify the left under a banner of total Communism. The other side in the Spanish Civil War was, of course, the solidified right of the Spanish Falange and the Fascist Party. Orwell was targeted by the Communists and, wounded at the front, escaped across the French border with falsified papers. As he himself says in Why I Write, the political realization of the nature of totalitarianism led him to his stance as a writer. Animal Farm borrowed heavily from his Spanish experience, as did 1984.

Orwell sets out four reasons for writing. (1) Sheer egoism; (2) aesthetic enthusiasm; (3) historical impulse; and (4) political purpose. I personally identify most strongly with #2. Above all, in my case, I write my poetry in praise of nature and in sorrow for how I see us failing the natural world around us. However, I must admit that I also write out of sheer egoism (#1) and yes, I enjoy thumbing my nose at all those who have in one way or another slighted me and upon whom I want literary revenge, even if it be posthumous. Several of my older friends also write this way, though many of the younger ones seem to be more interested in writing for money than in art for art’s sake. I guess retirement and a small but relatively reliable pension added to the gradual onset of a blighting old age make me realize that there is not much time left in which to amass a fortune. This in turn also makes my professed credo of art for art and not for money more acceptable.

Having come to the conclusion that I never have, and never will, make any money through my writing, although publish or perish has walked side by side with me throughout my academic career, I now embrace the fact that I do not write for money. In fact, I usually give my independently published books away to my friends. Nor do I want the sort of fame that causes the paparazzi, with their microphones and videos, and camerasto flock to my doorstep, like starving sparrows or winter’s chickadees, in search of the breadcrumbs that fail to sufficiently nourish. To be appreciated, in my own small corner, like a well-loved local cheese or a craft beer, welcomed on a warm summer night for its fragrance and body … that is enough for me, although I must admit, that for one of my metaphors or images to be sniffed at, as if it were a glass of rare liqueur or a suitably aged port or a welcome Castillo de Monserans, also has its attractions.

This doesn’t mean that I am satisfied with who I am and how I write … I am not. I hope I never will be. I do want to be the very best that I can be. That’s why I keep writing and why I keep taking courses and workshops on writing. It’s also why I read and re-read, and why I keep reaching out to you and my other friends, and why I am so over-joyed when you, in your turn, reach out to me with the occasional word of praise for one of my stories or one of my poems.

However, warm as is the friendship of the beginning, failed and faltering writers’ support groups to which I belong,  most, if not all, writing is done in isolation: me and my memories, me and my invention, me and my keyboard, me and my blank page, me and my pen, me and a-penny-for-my thoughts as I refill that pen with Royal Blue ink in the hopes that something regal will actually fall from the nib and grace one of my pages, even though I am really wondering yet again whether, like the budding author in Camus’s La Peste,  I should start that first paragraph all over, yet again, just once more.

Alas, me and the cat and the keyboard do not share a healthy working relationship, especially when she walks across the keys, sticks her kitty-littered rear end in my face, scratches her itchy chin against the computer’s sharp edge, and purrs wildly for kibble while adding oft-repeated letters and deleting so many of the wonderful words that I have so carefully accumulated. Last month, incidentally, she also unfriended a dozen of my Facebook friends. Unfortunately, I do not know which ones and none of them have got back to me. Oh dear.

One of the students in my current course asked me when I started to write. The answer is that I do not know. I have always written. I guess I have written from a deep inner urge to understand myself and the world in which I live. Going to a series of boarding schools was also a key part in the relationship between me and my writing. I was six or seven when I first went to boarding school and every Sunday I was plonked down on a wooden bench and ordered to write a Sunday letter home to my parents. Oh the wails and the take-me-aways that issued from my pen only to be deleted by the school censors. As a result, from early on, I shaped letters for the censoring audience. I also wrote other letters and they became a part of my writing style and my need for self-expression.

Mikhail Bakhtin, in his theory of Chronotopos, speaks of ‘man’s dialog with his time and place’ and that is exactly what I do. I hold a dialog with the things happening around me in the particular place I find myself.  Why do I write? To better understand my time, my place, and my own interactions with the world around me. Writing then is a means to an end and that end, for me, is self-understanding, self-betterment, and the better understanding of the world in which we all live.

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Moon Walk

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Moon Walk
Friday Flash Fiction

Full moon over the Bay.  For the second time this month I walk along the wharf and watch the moon’s perfect disc as it creates over the bayside mountain its miracle of geometry: a golden circle balanced on a high triangle of rock.  Moonlight carves its golden pathway across the waves. I want to walk that walkway and end my earthly existence.

At night, in my boarding school, that grey stone prison where I spend interminable days and fearful nights, lying awake, I watch the moonlight as it moves across the dormitory walls.  I lie awake so I will not be caught napping by those stealthy footsteps followed by the rough, punishing hands that still haunt my dreams.

Is that a face I see in the moon?  Is that the grinning visage I see in the beer glass on the Guinness advertisements that adorn the railway tracks behind my parents’ house where I am sometimes permitted to eke out my existence? In boarding school, the masters observe me. The prefects and monitors observe me. The school bullies observe me.  But in geography class, they have never taught me that the lunar body observes me with its unwinking eye.

I watch the moon as it swims in the water.  I sense the movement of the night fish as they shimmer beneath the waves and a shiver moves a chill finger up and down my spine. The moon is the other, the other that faces me, speaks to me, reasons with me, the unfathomable other. But what am I other than one of these cold fish swimming silent beneath the waves?

It’s very quiet tonight down here by the docks. I have been in this city for six weeks now and I still have no friends. There’s always a glass barrier into which I bump at various intervals. I do not leave for another six weeks, that’s what my tickets say anyway, but I am thinking of changing that.

Here, on the wharf I stand in the shadow cast by the Customs House. I taste the bitter salt of homelessness and I know that I will never belong in this world.

I look across the water. How beautiful is the bay beneath the moon.  I look up at the hills from whence cometh my salvation.

My grandfather walks towards me over the waves. He helps me choose stones and pebbles, helps me to fill my pockets with them. He takes me by the hand and gives me courage. He and I walk down the slip way, hand in hand, and then we walk out across the moon path and into the sea.

Method & Madness

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Method and Madness
(1729 & 1955-1962 AD)

his dawn chorus voice
woke the wilderness
shook bread down from heaven
to be cast on wild waters

Frocester’s old barn
scything and tithing
Gloucester a stomping ground
walking and biking
wherever he can

a dearly beloved
moved into sundry places
a town mice wandering open fields
harvesting blackberries and apples
gleaning summer seeds
storing them now a country mouse
ready for winter’s dead dreams

he collected dusty parchments
stitched old leaves together
a many-colored coat he made
amid autumn’s sheaves

words fell like rain
formed lines on each page
turned into tunes
that bolstered his heart
marched him steadily onward
mad from stage to raging age

Comment: This is the revision of my previous poem. Any comments on either version gratefully accepted.

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Madness & Method

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Madness & Method
(1729 & 1955-1962 AD)

his voice woke the wilderness
shook bread from heaven
he cast it on wild waters

scything and tithing
Frocester’s old barn
Gloucester a stomping ground
walking and biking
whenever he can

dry dusty parchments
old faded leaves
talking together
among the wheat sheaves
Hebrew Greek Latin
vernacular spaces
falling like rain
between words on a page

dearly beloved
moved into sundry places
a town mice stirred into open fields
harvesting blackberries and apples
gleaning like a country mouse
house tumbling wind-blown down

marooned now and listless
an old hermit crab
basking on a sun-dried beach
quilts and crisp  sheets
mermaid-hair pillowed
claws click and comb
fresh footprints laundered
warm summer sands

Orphanage

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Orphanage
(circa 1948 AD)

black crucifix
ivory figurine
white walls
cowled heads
downcast eyes

holy water
damp fingertips
genuflection
sign of the cross
in nomine …

salt tang of tears
wax-scented floors
flip flop of leather
sandals without socks

brown robes
black skirts
hair covered
white wimples
rattling of rosaries
telling of beads

musty confessionals
shaped and shamed
by shadowy sins

time without end
dustless and clean
cleaner than consciences

 

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MT 2-5 Monkey Meets Pontius Parrot

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Monkey
Meets
Pontius Parrot
(With glorious  memories of Macarronic Latin)

 Pontius Parrot is very clever
and very pontifical.
He pontificates from his pulpit.
“Pretty Polly!”

His name isn’t Polly
and he doesn’t have a pulpit
but he parrots words
in Macaronic Latin:

“Caesar adsum jam forte.”

Pontius Parrot is
perky at the podium.
He bounces up and down,
preens himself prettily,
rattles his chains,
shakes his bars:

“Brutus aderat.”

 Shame and scandal
wear him down.
A dysfunctional family
of feathered friends
henpecked him
until he was black and blue
and threw up copiously:

 “Caesar sic in omnibus.”

He dips his wings in holy water,
calls for some soft soap,
and washes
feathers and claws.

Poor Pontius Parrot,
He can only say
“Repent!”

“Brutus sic in at.”

Comment: Anyone who suffered through school Latin, especially if they went to boarding school or grammar school, will recognize famous Macarronic Latin quotes such as the verb bendo, whackere, ouchi, sorebum, and the one the author of Monkey Temple reproduces in the above poem. If you are unfamiliar with Macarroni Latin and have had the good fortune to have avoided both grammar and boarding schools, just read the Latin normally in English and you will establish its Macarronic meaning.

Lullaby

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Lullaby
Wednesday Workshop
11 July 2018

One of my close friends asked me if I would write her a lullaby. Without a moment’s hesitation, I said “Yes, of course”. Like a fool, I rushed in where no angel would ever care or dare to tread. I sat down and straightaway started to write.

The first thing I discovered was that a lullaby has to rhyme. I couldn’t write one unless it went bumpety-bumpety-bump + rhyme. I wrote several of those and they were all awful. Well, I thought so anyway, and I couldn’t imagine any young child willingly go to sleep while having an adult leaning over them and chanting at them.

The next thing I found out: it’s not easy to write poems, even a lullaby, for other people. Why not? It took me some time to understand that while I write poetry from within myself, heart, stomach, and gut, the lullaby I was writing was not written for me, but for a second person who was not me. What would this friend like to read? How would they like it to sound? By extension, there were not two people involved: I was also writing for an unknown child whom I had never seen. I didn’t know their likes and fancies, nor what would fill them with fear, nor what would successfully send them off to sleep. This three-way traffic was unnerving.

Third problem: a lullaby is a cliché and is filled with clichés. Close your eyes. Sleep, baby, sleep. I will rock you. More important, perhaps, the clichés are not just verbal, they live in the rhymes as well: sleep, deep, keep.

My telephone talks with other writers led me to the theory that rhythm was what mattered. Rhythm, comfort, rhyme, gifts, and the allaying of fears. So easy to write, so hard to fulfill, especially in an age of instant communication. As I wrote, so different formulae marched through my head. I recalled the lullabies my parents and grand-parents sang for me, apparently not very successfully, I was a terrible infant at bed-time. I have more memories of being set to bed, often without supper rather than being sang to in bed. Then there was boarding school (age 6) and the faceless matrons in comfortless dormitories where, more often than not we cried ourselves to sleep. Hush little baby don’t you cry.

So, rhythm, rhyme, nonsense words, dream worlds where everything is good. Along with traditional lullabies like All through the night / Ar hyd a nos, my head filled up with reminiscences of Dylan Thomas, and in the evening, when the sun goes down, / I ask a blessing on this town, and Federico García Lorca, La luna vino a la Fragua / The moon came to the forge.

So much happening. So much laundry passing through the washing-machine of my mind where the waters churned away and rhymes were soaped, rhythms were bleached, ideas were blended and rinsed. I wrote five. I am not sure of any of them. They certainly kept me awake most of last night, syllable counting on my white woolly sheep-fingers, that brought no sleep. I tried counting my blessings too, but that didn’t work either.

Question: does anyone actually want to read my lullabies to keep a child awake? If so let me know. You might persuade me to post one or two.