Lament

Lament
for three brothers
dead before him

“Eric, Phillip, Peter:
why did you leave me?
Why did you,
where did you go?

Eric, Phillip, Peter:
you went out
through the door,
so silent,
didn’t even slam it,
why did you go?

Eric, Phillip, Peter:
I hardly even knew you,
the house, my life,  
so empty without you,
shadows so scary,
why did you leave me,
where did you go?

Eric, Phillip, Peter:
vacant and silent,
lonely the house,
such a big world
without you,
so full of menace,
so full of woe,
why did you leave me,
why did you go?”

“¡Qué será, será!”

“¡Qué será, será!”

In one room in my head
my mother’s mother
sits with me on her knee
at the kitchen table
playing patience.

Elsewhere, I stand on a stool
beside my father’s mother
helping her to mix the cake
she will later bake
in the coal-fired oven
of the black, cast iron stove.

My mother’s father
sits before the television.
He leans back in the chair,
raises his foot so he can’t see
the adverts on the screen,
and puts his fingers in his ears.

My father’s father lies in bed,
downstairs, in the middle room.
His dog lies beside him,
licking his hand.
We all wait for the death
that has haunted him
since he was gassed
in World War One.

Clare sits at the computer,
following the figures
that track the pandemic.
I sit here watching her,
humming softly to myself:
“¡Qué será, será!”


Daffodils

Daffodils

These daffodils were not painted by an unknown painter, but by a painter whose paintings are unknown. There is a subtle difference. There is also something sweet abut covering a blank space with color and shape, even if the hand is unsteady and the eye unsure. This painting is also unframed and belongs in a photograph album or a long-forgotten painting book.

“Fair daffodils, we weep to see thee.” Indeed we do, for they are so transient lasting but a week, or less, cut and placed on the table in a vase of water. So sad to watch them as they stiffen, turn slowly brown, dry up, and then hang their heads in the shame of old age. We are not so dissimilar, those daffodils and me. This photo will capture me forever, or until it is erased, because a photo isn’t a photo anymore. That painting will capture those daffodils too, for little while, until my subscription to the blog runs out and I forget to renew it.

“Poor daffodils, we weep to see you.” But weep not for us, they tell me. Our day is done. Our life is fulfilled. We have brought beauty and scent, however brief, and we have given light to enlighten your days and joy to light up your heart. And that, I guess, is the message. “Gather you daffodils while you may, for Father Time is flying. And those sweet blooms you pluck today, tomorrow will be dying.”

Thus it is during the Corona Virus 19 pandemic, and thus it was during the Spanish Flu, the Black Death, and all the other plagues that have come to bring understanding and make us see reason. Our lives are as short as the lives of flowers. Seize your life, hold it in both hands, admire it, enjoy it, make the most of the mall things, for they are often, like the smiles of small children and the daffodil’s golden glow, the most important things of all.

After the Lecture

After the Lecture

After I delivered the lecture at London University, as it was back then, I caught the tube and descended at Paddington station. While waiting for the train back to Cardiff, I sat in the station bar and ordered a pint of beer and a Cornish pasty. An older man wearing a sweater and jeans asked if he could join me. I didn’t say ‘yes’ but he sat down anyway and straight away began to talk.
            I paid no attention to him until he rolled up his sleeve and showed me the collection of scars that ran crisscross, hard and welted, over his left wrist.
            “Failed attempts,” he said. “But I’ll get it right next time. “I wouldn’t want you to make the same mistakes I did. If you want to kill yourself, you must do it this way,” he reached across the table and picked up the knife I had used to cut my pasty. He pulled out a dirty hanky and wiped the knife in it. Then he laid the blade not cross-wise but parallel to the artery in his wrist. “And you must dig deep, first time, and at a slight angle.”
            “I’ve got to go,” I told him as a tinny voice came over the Tannoy. “That’s my train.” I stood up, leaving the remains of my pint and my pasty on the table.
            I got to the door of the station bar and looked back. Then I watched as my table companion finished my pasty and reached across the table to claim the remains of my beer.
            “Quite the lecture,” I thought. “Good job I didn’t spit in the glass.” Then I realized that both my day’s lectures had been effective, in one way or another.

Black Death

Black Death
1438

Outside my window
horizontal hail
rain blown sideways
surgical the wind
dismembering trees
uprooting the weakest
flattening the strong
rages the storm

Who am I
the one who abhorred thee
who now adores thee
and kneels before thee
in grief and pain

Death’s Dance before me
each street filled
with skeletal horrors
bare bones dancing
naked beneath a star-
spangled sky

‘No thought is born in me
which has not “Death”
engraved upon it.’

Michelangelo

Don’t Look Out

Don’t Look Out the Window

Don’t look out the window, you don’t want to
know what’s lying out there. Don’t look out.

Play ostrich. Place your head in the sand,
pretend there’s nothing there to worry you.
Pretend you can see the missing PPE,
the vanished masks, the surgical gloves,
the sanitized hand-wash that everybody needs.
Just don’t look out the window. Don’t look out.

Pretend there’s nothing out there. Deny that
nearly two million people are ill.
Deny that a hundred thousand have died,
not in vain, but from ignorance and vanity
 and a total denial of scientific truth.
Just don’t look out the window. Don’t look out.

Just look at these walls that surround you.
Smile back at the smiling faces, the nodding heads,
the puppet-string politicians who agree with
every piece of nonsense that issues, meaningless,
from empty mouths. Surround yourself with people
who believe what you believe, who think and do like you,
fellow narcissists and bullies, cheats and liars,
who have deceived and stolen, lied like you, to build
enormous fortunes while they have cheated on
their wives, gone bankrupt, and borrowed shady money
in questionable deals with shabby, foreign banks.
Don’t look out the window. Don’t look out.

All those employees know a bum deal
when they are on the sharp end of one.

But nobody speaks out and nobody,
but nobody, dares open those curtains
for fear of seeing that reborn beast,
its hour come at last,
slouching down the streets.
Close your eyes. Don’t look out the window.
Don’t look out.

Comment: I rarely comment on political events, let alone write poems about them. That said, I do not consider this poem to be a political statement. For me, the key to the poem can be found in the final five lines beginning with ‘for fear of seeing …’. I have explored inter-textuality before in these pages. I hope the reference to W. B. Yeats’ poem The Second Coming, is clear.

Rats

Rats

Black clouds build over the Bristol Channel, threatening to cross the Severn from Ilfracombe to Brandy Cove and climb inland to rattle our windows and bounce rain off our corrugated roof.
            We run out to the lane, looking for the dog, calling his name. Hoping to get him in before he gets soaked. The rubbish dump outside the gate sits on a concrete stand and dominates the lane. Tall and stinky, the red-brick structure rustles with scavenging, skirmishing rats. Pinned to the dump, a hand-written notice: “Please do not light this dump.” We smile as we read it. Our neighbours will put a match to this dump, one dry night, on the way back from the pub.
            Kim, Nana’s Wire-haired Fox Terrier, spends his days at the dump in an effort to achieve his life’s desire: the elimination of every worrying, scurrying rat that ever inhabited the planet. When he tires of killing rats, he will bring their bodies home to the bungalow. Sometimes he lays them in rows outside the backdoor: rats, mice, field mice, voles. Sometimes he brings them inside and places them on the concrete base beneath the old cast-iron stove. Every day Kim sacrifices to my grandmother, his Gower Goddess, and lays the victims out on her altar.
            The rain is close. We run back down the lane to avoid the storm that is now upon us. Violent and short-lived, like so many summer storms in Wales, raindrops will thump against windows and roof. Lightning will flash, thunder roll its celestial drums, and the wind will whip its lash round the chimney. We sit at the table and sip hot cocoa. No sign of the dog.
            Later, when the storm has passed, we wander up to the lane, avoiding the deeper runnels of muddy water, and stepping from high point to stony high point. We scurry hurriedly past the dump and listen to the rats. They will survive for another night. Nobody will be able to light the dump after rain like that. Back in the field, we fill up the water can, take a handle each, and carry the precious liquid back to Gran.
            We walk to the back door. Our neighbor is standing there, crying.
            “I didn’t see him,” she stammers. “He ran out from the dump as I drove round the corner,” she points to Kim, laid out on the back step, his broken body wet and bloody, the last rat he would ever catch still clasped tightly in his jaws.

Ffynon Wen

McAdam Railway Station drawn by Geoff Slater

Ffynon Wen

Stuffy, you said. I can’t breathe. Early morning mist scratched pale finger nails down your bedroom window. Grey foggy faces glanced in, grimaced and scowled. Damp and slippery, the window frame, when I opened the sash. What time is it?  Before I could answer, you demanded more milk for your tea. I left you there, in bed, went downstairs to the kitchen and brought back milk. Then you wanted more sugar. Shut the window, you said. It’s cold. I’m shivering.
Puppet on a string, I raised my cord-bound feet and danced at your command. Then I went downstairs, fetched more sugar, came back, and left the morning paper on your bed. On the front page, a picture of the last passenger engine, green and rusty, from the GWR (Great Western Railway). It used to carry passengers from Swansea to Cardiff to Paddington in London. Now it pulls a line of filthy coal trucks. Covered in dirt, rain, steam and dust, I couldn’t make out the name or the number.
Passengers on trains speeding to different destinations, we never had time, time for talking, time for understanding, time to think, time to be heard. Laden with baggage, our minds followed different tracks. Platform lights blazed in the night, a Van Gogh blaze of starry fires. We flashed past towns, stations where we’d never stop. Windows glowed in deserted waiting rooms, shattering the darkness, their full moons reflected in the double glass of a locked carriage door.
We rattled over cross-tracks, never knowing why, yet I have never forgotten the rhythm of the wheels, slowing, accelerating, running at full speed, the telephone wires looping, cattle in fields grazing peacefully, wondering why …
We rarely talk. I guess we have little to say. We leave big questions to float in the wind. We don’t tell our nightmares, our stories or our dreams. Trivia is too trivial. Serious issues cut too deep, unspoken, unanswered to this day. We bury our noses in the daily paper. We gloss our lives away. We flash past so many signals with their pointed mechanical signs.
When your train finally stopped, I disposed of your body in Thornhill Crematorium, opposite the Ffynnon Wen, the White Well Restaurant and Bar where we celebrated our last supper together.

Comment: An old story, resurfacing from the Archives in which I found my old, dusty Cambrian Chronicles. It’s also a story I have reworked many times, as poem, flash fiction, philosophical statement, personal memoir … I guess such moments, such memories, are very hard to come to terms with. They lie just out of sight and gnaw at us at night, surfacing when least expected and packing a powerful punch of helpless hopelessness. And no, there is nothing we can do about such things except stare blank-faced into our moon-faced morning coffee and blink back the tears we were unable to shed at the time.

I guess, deep down, it’s all about grieving and how we grieve. In some cultures, it is all about manhood and stiff, upper lip. In others, it is letting the tears flow and the emotions run riot. It differs with each and all of us for we and our circumstances are all unique. I look at the current state of the world and I keep thinking that, no, it’s not a case of one size fits all. Not everybody is the same, and each one of is special, and needs something special, especially in these difficult times. Keep safe, keep well, and do not provide, if you can avoid doing so, any reason for your loved ones to mourn for you.

Brân

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Brân

Golden in the starlight, moon carved mountains and valleys, taut the skin, treacherous to the touch.  Heavy he is, glowing. He and his children. We carry them to the dark beneath the trees. Locate the secret, sacred place. Dig deep, bury him with the hoard.
We all know the place. Have measured it with footsteps. None will reveal it. Not under torture. Rather our lives than darkness eternal.
My mother limps beside me. Back-bent and broken. A crone in the moonlight. She’s been here before. Much too often. That’s how she bore me. Caught by the heathen. Captured and taken and twenty times taken.
Me, the blond son. Son of sea-raiders. Not black like my brothers. But never forsaken.
Head of the household, her man rejected her. Called for the Druids with mistletoe and magic, herbs and fragrance, scourging their medicine.
She would not drink them. Said she would keep me. Her biggest baby. Blond. To take vengeance.
Behind us, the villa in flames, there in the distance. Smoke rises heavenwards. Blots out the stars. “We should have fought,” my brothers say. “You would be dead,” my mother replies.
Brân, the white crow. King Arthur revenant. I fly the land, my brothers behind me. Black-haired, black-feathered. Strong as the crow flies. We travel at night. Fast now and furious.
My long bow penetrates. Shatters oak shields. Kills at a distance. None can withstand it. Daylight finds us grouped in the forest. Close to the place where the dragon lies buried. Close to my mother, the place where she sleeps.
Oh yes, they hunt us. But they don’t dare find us. Swift is their fate if they come close. Frightened they are, feared by the finding, wordless and dumb at the swift ending.

Comment: It’s an ill-wind, they say, blows nobody any good. So, ipso facto, some good must come from even the worst of things. Maybe, like Charles Dickens, I should write: ‘These were the worst of times, these were the best of times.’ The worst, because we have been under lock down, first voluntary, then involuntary, and now voluntary again, for 83 days. The worst, because we know that many people are dying and that many, many more are suffering. The worst, because we see some people, who think they are above the law, flouting the law and getting away with it while putting other innocent people at risk. The best, because we have seen extraordinary sacrifices made by the humblest people, many of whom, shop clerks, garbage collectors, street cleaners, bus drivers, taxi drivers, nurses, care-workers, house cleaners, were seen, if they were seen at all, as cheap labor to be exploited. However, thanks to CV, we now see them for what they are: the keys to making our lives and our economies function. The best, because where precautions have been taken the death toll has dropped and so have the infections. The best, because once again, we are free to move around so much more. However, many of us, after so long, no longer want to.

For me, safely distanced among the trees in my ivory tower, these have also been the best of times. I have made many new friends online. I have restructured the ordering of my acquaintances. I have gone into my computer files and found things that I cannot even remember having written. One such is Brân, the white crow, who is said to be King Arthur, still alive, and flying everywhere, ready to protect his from the evils that beset them. I do not know when I wrote this piece. Nor do I remember where the ideas came from. In what secret fold of the mind were they born? I do not know. But I do know that I have seventeen manuscripts, many of them rediscovered during this Dickensian ‘best of times / worst of times’, and all of them awaiting publication. This one is from a 67 page manuscript called A Cambrian Chronicle. 67 pages … and I don’t remember writing any of them.

Keeping Score

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The Score

It’s the old conundrum:
you place one grain of wheat
on the chessboard’s first square,
two on the second,
four on the third.

And so on and so forth,
eight on the fourth,
sixteen on the fifth.
Now close your eyes
and make a wish:
“Let all these pandemic victims go.”

Alas, no.
You must sit and watch them grow:
32, 64, 128,
and that’s the first rank done.
Seven more marching ranks to go.

256, 512, 1014,
Lord above: how many more?
2028, 4056, 8112,
what on earth can people do?
Wash your hands, stay inside,
and hope your best friends
haven’t died.

Doubled again
that’s even more:
16 thousand 224.
Upon this rank
just one more square
sees 32 thousand
lying there.

How many more,
how many more,
and each death ringed
by family and friends.
This week it seems
death’s dance will never end.

Comment: La Calle de la Cruz / Street of the Cross, shown in the above photo, runs past the cathedral of Avila. It is also known locally as La Calle de la Vida y de la Muerte / the Street of Life and Death as it seems duels were sometimes fought there. It seemed an appropriate photo to accompany this poem which speaks of the seeming lottery, with its winning and losing tickets, in which we are all currently involved. The lower photo, incidentally, captures a stone mason’s mark carved into the face of the cathedral in Avila.

When writing the poem, I repeated the numbers naming them with their single digits, thus: 256, 512, 1014 becomes two five six, five one two, one oh one four (line 14). This allowed me to manage rhythm and rhyme. In my mind I always associate  rhyme with reason, but in this current pandemic, I can see very little reason. I guess, as I wrote in one of my earlier poems, ‘there are so many ways to die’. I just hope Corona Virus isn’t one of them. No, I don’t want to live forever, but hell no, I don’t want to die just yet! Keep safe, keep well!

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