Thin Ice

Thin ice, light snow, and the crows’ feet of age marking the earth face with graven beauty, scars like those made by time’s tick-tock arrows.

Thin Ice
Vulnerant omnia, ultima necat

I walk on thin ice
at the frayed edge
of my life.

I search for the key
that will rewind me,
but I fail to find it.

Who will winch up
the pendulums on
my grandfather clock,
resetting it
in spring and fall?

Who will watch
time’s sharp black arrows
as they point the path
of moon change
and the fleeting hours?

Each hour wounds me.
Who will tend me
when that last one kills?

Collateral Damage

And that’s not all they checked: a regular Spanish Inquisition. Post Covid-19 it has all fallen silent. Those doctors don’t call anymore.

Collateral Damage

Once a month, they used to stick
a needle in my arm and check my PSA,
cholesterol, and testosterone:
blood pressure rising, cholesterol high.

The doctors kept telling me
it was a level playing field
but every week they changed the rules
and twice a year they moved the goal-posts.

Monday Night Football:
a man in a black-and-white zebra shirt
held a whistle to his lips while another
threw a penalty flag. It came out of the tv
and fell flapping at my feet.
Someone on the field called a time out.

I haven’t seen my doctor for three years.
My urologist has been silent
for more than eighteen months.
It’s been two years since I last spoke
with my oncologist.

I have become collateral damage.
My body clock is ticking down.
I know I’m running out of time.

Comment: I know I am not the only one to have fallen between the cracks in the medical service. Nor will I be the last. I don’t want to cry ‘wolf!’ and yet I feel as though I have been completely rejected. A year after I recovered from my cancer, I received a survey asking me to assess my post-cancer treatment and services. I read it and cried. I did not even know that the services I was being asked to assess were even being offered. I had certainly received none of the follow-up services. “A law for the rich and a law for the poor” indeed. And so many cracks between so many floorboards with so many people falling through. This is not a rant: it is a warning that all of us must look out for ourselves. I can assure you that if you don’t care for yourself, nobody, but nobody, except for your nearest and dearest, will give a damn for you either.

Why?

Different bird, same question: why? This one is from one of the beaches on the road to North Cape, PEI. Why, indeed?

Why?

In the mud nest jammed tight against the garage roof,
tiny yellow beaks flap ceaselessly open.

The parents sit on a vantage point of electric cable,
mouths moving in silent encouragement.

A sudden rush, a clamour of wing and claw,
a small body thudding down a ladder of air
to crash beak first on the concrete.
  “Why?”

 “Wye is a river.
      It flows through Ross-on-Wye
      and marks the boundary
      between England and Wales.”

And the swallows perch on the rafters
watching their fledgling
as it struggles on the floor:
the weakening wings,
the last slow kicks of the twitching legs.
“Why?”

“Y is a crooked letter
     invented by the Green Man of Wye.”

Comment: This is the original poem, written back in the eighties, wow, that’s forty years ago. I included it in my first poetry chapbook, Idlewood (published, 1991). It was a slim volume, dark green color, typed and photocopied, very humble, but MINE! A couple of years ago I wrote a prose poem, sort of flash fiction, in one of my Welsh sequences and included the story as part of the text. It came to me as a memory yesterday morning, and I posted it on Facebook. Here now is the story. Hopefully, you have just read the poem: I hope you liked it but, as I know all too well, de gustibus non est disputandum. I would like to know if you prefer the poetry to the prose. Please let me know, pretty please?

Why?

“Where are you going?” I ask. “To see a man about a dog,” my father replies. “Why?” I ask. “Hair of the dog,” his voice ghosts through the rapidly closing crack as the front door shuts behind him. “Why?” I cry out. I recall the mud nest jammed tight against our garage roof. Tiny yellow beaks flap ceaselessly open. Parent birds sit on a vantage point of electric cable, their beaks moving in silent encouragement. A sudden rush, a clamour of wing and claw, a small body thudding down a ladder of air to crash beak first on the concrete. “Why?” I ask. The age-old answer comes back to me. “Wye is a river. It flows through Ross-on-Wye and marks the boundary between England and Wales.” The swallows perch on the rafters watching their fledgling as it struggles on the floor, the weakening wing flaps, the last slow kicks of the twitching legs. “Y is a crooked letter invented by the Green Man of Wye,” my grandfather says. “Why?” I repeat. “I want to know why.” Silence hangs a question mark over the unsatisfied spaces of my questioning mind.

Death by Devilry

Silence in the garden. A hawk perched nearby. There are so many ways to die.

Death by Devilry

Silence in the garden.
A hawk perched nearby.
There are so many ways to die.

A cerebral bleed, minor,
but enough to send him to hospital
and keep him there.

Cured, ready for release,
he would need extra care
and added attention.

The devil lived in the small print.
Too much attention needed now:
his care home wouldn’t care for him.

Back to the old folks ward he went.
There he lay, waiting for a vacancy
in a home that would really care.

One day, Covid came a-visiting,
stalked the ward that night, choosing
its victims: you, you, and her, and him.

What killed him?
A cerebral bleed, a minor stroke?
Or a major stroke from the devil’s pen?

Bold words, bare words,
a barren ward, another vacant place
around a Christmas table.

Comment: Sitting at the breakfast table, with an empty space before me, I penned these words. So tragic, so avoidable. Yet how many families have gone through something similar in the past twelve months? How many empty spaces are there, vacancies that will never again be filled? I look at today’s figures from the USA: 18,466,231 infected and 326,232 already perished, an increase of 227,998 and 3,338 since yesterday. I am reminded of the words of Pink Floyd: “Is there anybody out there?” Blas de Otero also echoes through my mind: “levanto las manos: tu me las cercenas” / I hold up my hands: you cut them off. And yet it is Christmas Eve and there is still the Christmas promise of joy, and hope, and a new year entering. Let us raise our hands in prayer: and let us pray they are not hacked off.

R.I.P.

Forget-me-not!

R.I.P.

He was a good man,
and a better friend.
He came over to mow the lawn
and stayed for a beer.
“This is gonna sizzle!”

Some called him uneducated,
no BA, no MA, no LLB,
but he had a golden heart
and a PhD in the school
of life and hard knocks.

I met men like him in Wales,
coal miners in bars,
steel workers on rugby teams,
sheep farmers from the hills
in the big city for the game.

Humble, they were, honest,
hard men, hard working,
intolerant of pretension and fools.
When I went to university,
nineteen and full of ideals,
they pulled me on one side.

“You’re one of us,” they said.
“However high you rise,
don’t lose the common touch.”

I met men like him in Spain,
foot-soldiers from the Civil War,
riflemen, dynamite throwers
with their skills learned
at coal face and quarry.

Machado wrote poems about them:
“Donde hay vino, beben vino;
donde no hay vino,
beben agua de las fuentes.”

Where there is wine,
they drink wine.
Where there is no wine,
they drink water from the fountains.

A good man, an honest man,
an uneducated man, some say,
who taught me more about life
and how to live it
than any university professor.

Comment: I read the obituary of one of my best friends in the newspaper today. He moved away from the neighborhood and we lost touch. But I never forgot him. As I have never forgotten those who shaped me in Wales and Spain. I have forgotten many of their names. But I have never forgotten their faces, nor their words of wisdom. At first, his passing brought a shadow to my life. Then I realized that no, he would not have wanted that. I think now of the good times, the laughter, the joy and, instead of mourning for him, I rejoice in all the goodness he gave me. Rest in peace, my friend. I will forget-you-not.

Building Bigger Boxes

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Building Bigger Boxes

Some of the worst educators I have been unfortunate enough to work with over my undergraduate and graduate years have come up with cliché after cliché in an effort to the sway students into believing that they really are getting an excellent education. One such phrase is the infamous: “We are teaching you to think outside the box.” So, what is their definition of ‘the box‘? Alas, I do not know. They deal in clichés and, by definition, a cliché is a  phrase that both parties (teachers and taught) accept as being meaningful, even though it is often without meaning. It is also a conversation closer, as in ‘it is what it is’. It’s hard to argue with that or to reason your way around it. ‘But it doesn’t have to be!’ rarely cuts the mustard aka mouse-turd.

So, if these teachers are teaching their students how to think outside the box, how are they managing to do so? Why by building bigger boxes inside which each student can be safely taught to think, without asking questions, and without looking for independent answers.

Today’s cartoon has two titles: (1) Brave hearts  escaping, finding meaning outside the bigger boxes and (2) can the true heart escape its coffin in a bigger box? I love the boxes within boxes and the drawers within each boxed segment into which the young, developing mind can be stuffed and crammed. How do we release those hearts? How do we develop those minds? Certainly not by confining them in bigger boxes. In the battle for hearts and minds, how do we set our students free?

It must be done on the student’s terms, each student, one by one, in co-operation with intelligent, meaningful teachers who step away from cliché and commonplace to enter the learner’s world and to themselves learn how to contact each learner at a mental, spiritual, and intellectual level. Only then will teacher and taught be able to speak of true intellectual freedom. Until that happens, be very careful when your child comes home and announces that today, of all days, that child has been taught to think outside the box. “Verily, I say unto you, open the cage door. Let in the sunshine and the light. Set those children free.” But remember, it must be on a  case by case basis, with each individual weighed, assessed, understood, and released to find their own individual way of earning the things they specifically need to know. In true education, one size really doesn’t fit all.

Comment: Another Golden Oldie that suddenly surfaced and, on emerging from the depths, reminded me of another of my callings: that of a teacher of philosophy and a teacher with a philosophy. Retired now, I can no longer help young minds to create and shape themselves. This is doubly true with Covid-19 haunting us, waving at us from the shop-windows, supermarket aisles, and street corners, flapping its wings and trying to fly into our bodies. And remember to distinguish between clichés and things that are not clichés, like ‘Wear a mask’, ‘wash your hands’ (twenty seconds, with soap), and ‘keep a safe social distance’. Do this all the time and hopefully you will avoid thinking inside the bigger box of a six foot pine Covid-19 coffin.

A Survivor Lights a Candle

A Survivor from the Empress of Ireland
Lights a Candle During the Old Latin Mass for the Dead
Before the Main Altar at the Sanctuaire Sainte-Anne
Pointe-au-Père

1

I am still afraid of fire:
in principio erat verbum
/ in the beginning was the word.

I am still afraid of the loud voice of the match
scratching its sudden flare,
narrowing my pupils,
enlarging the whites of my eyes:

et lux in tenebris lucet
/ and light shines in darkness.

Booming and blooming,
igniting the soul’s dark night.

Voice of fire:  
et Deus erat verbum
/ and the Word was God.

Flourishing to nourishment,
flames whispering on the flood:
omnia per ipsum facta sunt
/ all things were made by Him.

Wool and water,
this sodden safety blanket;
and what of the cold
plush of pliant teddy bear,
the staring eyes of the doll:

et tenebrae eam non comprehenderunt
/ and the darkness comprehended it not.

2

The lashes of their eyes bound
together with salt water,
they were doused in a silken mist:
hic venit in testimonium
/ this served as a witness.

Still the patterns pierce my sleep,
hauling me from my opaque dreams,
holding my wrists in this sailor’s double clasp:
non erat ille lux
/ he was not the light.

Oh! Curse these dumb waters rising!
“Not a hair on your head shall be harmed!”
he said,
hauling my sister up by her hair
only to find her staring eyes
belonging to the already dead:
et mundus eam non cognovit
/ and the world knew her not.

3

Night waters rising.
The moon raising
its pale thin lantern glow:
et vidimus gloriam ejus
/ and we saw His glory
shining forth
upon the waters’
mirrored face.

Comment: I searched everywhere, but I could not find a copy of my poetry book Empress of Ireland. Nor could I find a file containing the poems. Lost, I searched everywhere yet again and then, on an old USB, I found the text of the chapbook M Press of Ire. The above poem comes from that chapbook. Empress of Ireland is available on KDP / Amazon. I had forgotten how much I loved the sequence.

Some People

Some people leave indelible impressions
memorable moments impressed
on memory’s eye or clasped closely
to the butterfly heart caged in its chest
wings wildly beating as it strives for flight

some people cast shadows on snow
leave footprints light as flakes
as they walk across our waking dreams
or call on us in those midnight hours
when their image sears the drowsing mind

Some people set a fire in our hearts
allow us to see things out of sight
to write what we never thought to write
to reach out to the unreachable
to teach what we thought was unteachable

Stars in night’s silence they point the way
lead us on paths we never thought to tread
present us with a thread to lead us
through life’s labyrinths and out
from the darkness into bright light

Sometimes they cross the rainbow bridge
before we do and when they go we know
deep down in our hearts that they are there
just out of sight waiting for us ready
to welcome us when it’s our time to go

Survivor

Survivor

Every day, now he’s learning to speak Welsh,
he finds out something new about his childhood.
It’s not the need to talk so much as the necessity
of diving into himself and mining his memories.

Brynhyfryd / Mount Pleasant.
Pen-y-Bont / the End of the Bridge.
Ty Coch / the Red House.

This latter the house in which he was born,
way out of town, by Fairwood Common,
away from the strafing and bombing.
The war generation of his family all born
in the same in-the-country Gower bed.
No room in war-time hospitals
not even for the birth of war babies.

Three of his brothers did not survive
those rough, household births.
He still bears the forceps’ scars
from the moment the doctor
plucked him out, head first,
and hung him up by the heels,
shaking him, bringing him back to life.

He bears other scars as well
from the survivor’s burden of carrying
three dead brothers for seventy long years,
alive and kicking in the womb-warm
crevices of his still beating heart.

This Vessel in Which I Sail

This Vessel in which I Sail

Trapped in this fragile vessel with the pandemic
a passenger waiting to board, I drift from port to port,
looking for a haven, safe, to have and to hold me.

No harbour will let me dock. “No room at this inn,”
they say. “No haven here.” They wave me away.

Now I have no destination. Aimless, I float and every
where I go the message is: “No vacancy: no room at all.”

Unwanted, abandoned, I wander with wind and waves,
my only friends seals, porpoises, and whales.
I walk the whale road, leaving a frail, white wake behind.

This vessel has become a gulag now, a prison
camp where I exist just to survive. Each hour of each day
endless, boundless, like this shadowy, haunted sea.

Today there is no motion, no goal. What is there to achieve
but survival? Each day’s journey is sufficient unto itself.