A Sacrifice to Mithras

F1040022

A Sacrifice to Mithras

“What is this sound?”
“It is your own death sighing,
groaning, growing
while you wait for it
to devour you.”

“What is this feeling”
“It is the itch of your own skin
wrinkling and shrinking,
preparing to wrap you
in the last clothes you’ll wear.”

“What is this taste?”
“It is the taste of your life,
bottled like summer wine
once sweet tasting,
now turning to vinegar.”

“What is this smell?”
“It is waste and decay,
the loss of all you knew
and of all that knew you.

“That carriage outside?”
It is the dark hearse
come to carry you
to your everlasting home.”

“Look on us in our darkness,
help us to seek and see the light.
Keep us strong, keep us brave.
Mithras, always a soldier,
help us to die aright.”

F1010019

Comment: I am re-reading Puck of Pook’s Hill (Rudyard Kipling). It was given to me for a Christmas present (1955) by my father’s younger brother, my Uncle Frank. His signature is there, on the fly leaf, and his hand writing is as I always remember it. As I write these words, I can still hear his voice. The Song to Mithras, on which this poem is based, can be found on page 191, my edition (MacMillan, 1955), as a prelude to The Winged Hats. Without these clues, the poem operates in another space, more personal and more morbid, perhaps. The rites to Mithras were associated with the sacrifice, at midnight, of the black bull. The upper photograph shows one of the Bulls of Guisando (Los Toros de Guisando), which have stood in the province of Avila, in Spain, since time immemorial. So old are they, that the Roman legions left their mark on them in Latin, as you can see from the photo, when they conquered Spain after the Carthaginian wars.  The lower photo shows fighting bulls on a bull farm in Salamanca, Spain. Born from generations of fighting stock, these animals have been bred for thousands of years to die in the bull ring, as the bulls dedicated to Mithras were bred to die in the Roman temples. This is not a defense of the cruelty of bullfighting or the sacrifice of animals. It is rather a statement regarding the longevity of cruelty, of sacrifice, of the natural flow that leads men and women from birth, through childhood, to maturity, and on to old age, and death. My father is long gone now, as is his younger brother. Who will have access to these memories of mine when I go? Who will remember my family when I am gone?

Downsizing

image1 (53) - Copy

Downsizing
Francisco de Quevedo

I chose each book, held it in my hands for
one last time, then placed it peacefully in
its cardboard coffin. Old friends, they were
but I broke that friendship and set them
free to fulfill their promised after-me-life
on another person’s shelves. I used to love
to listen to their lilting speech, to hear sage
thoughts with open eyes and mind. I replied
to their wisdom: words penned on each page.

Mind to mind, though they had lived five
hundred years ago, I strove to engage them
in a lively conversation, Bakhtinian dialogues
within our shared time and space, and
that space my basement library with its books.

One day, a man from the university drove up
in a hearse and bore them all away. Released
to a wider world beyond my walls, they will
nourish younger minds than mine. I hope their
new owners will bless them, welcome them,
cherish them, as I have done throughout my life.
Blind now, with tears, my eyes that devoured
their words. Deaf now, these ears of mine that
heard dead men’s words, for I can listen no more.

Comment: “Escucho con mis ojos a los Muertos / I listen with my eyes to the words of the dead.” Francisco de Quevedo (1580-1645). It was a hard thing to do, that disemboweling of my library, but it had to be done. I am grateful to the Harriet Irving Library at the University of New Brunswick for taking pity on my plight and redeeming my books. Hopefully they will have all gone on to a better life. It was sad to walk past them, to watch them slowly gathering dust, like a book on a shelf, as Elvis used to sing. It was even sadder to know that I would ever be able to peruse them all again, let alone read them from from cover to cover, certainly not in this life time.

And is that my own fate, to be reduced to words on a page, to become a dusty book lying forgotten on a shelf? Pobre poetas de hoy,  wrote my friend and fellow academic poet, José María Valverde, destinados a ser polvo seco de tesis doctoral / Poor poets of today, destined to become the dry dust of doctoral theses. So: my thought for today … rise up and resist. Take an old friend off the shelf. Dust him or her off. Open the pages. Settle down for a moment or two. Breathe deep. Begin your conversation with your long lost friend. We may not be close in the flesh, distanced as we are by lock downs and separation, but we can become closer in our minds. Pick up one of my books. Dust me down. Read me. Begin that conversation. Now. Before we too are gone, swept down stream by time’s river and lost in the mists that curtain the sea.

And, just in case you thought that last line was very good and very unique and original, here’s the conversation it came from: Nuestras vidas son los ríos / que van a dar en la mar, /  que es el morir / our lives are the rivers that will flow down to the sea, which is death (Jorge Manrique, 1440-1479). I had that conversation with Jorge Manrique in Santander in the summer of 1963. His Coplas was on the pre-university reading list at Bristol University, placed there, I believe by Salvador Bacarisse who was related to a long line of Spanish musicians and poets. If memory serves me well, our first essay, in our first week, in our first year of Spanish, entailed writing a commentary on the Coplas and how to read and understand them.

Si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait / If youth knew how, if old age was able to (Voltaire). I wish I knew then what I know now. And I wish I could do now, some of the things I could do back then. Meanwhile, do not despair: pick up one of my books or browse my blog for a poem, and have a short and hopefully profitable conversation with me as you listen to my failing voice with your younger eyes.

Scorched Earth

IMG_1783 (2)

Scorched Earth

A scorch mark
still scars this woodland
where deer grazed
until spring grass
fed the flames
sown by an unknown hand.

RCMP
cars blocked
the lower road,
uniformed officers
directed us to detour
up and away.

Below us we could see
smoke, no flames,
two firetrucks.
The acridity of ash,
breeze-borne,
filtered through the car
making us cough.

No more will the deer
roam this particular place
until wounds are healed
and all trace of the fire,
like them, has fled.

Comment: Driving to the head pond at Mactaquac, a week or so ago, we met an RCMP roadblock and were diverted by the officers. We ascended Mactaquac heights, and came down the other side, rejoining the lower road which was blocked by another set of RCMP cars. It was the week after the shootings in Nova Scotia. All we could think of was the respect we have for the RCMP. The knowledge that, if someone drove a police cruiser, stolen or faked, and wore an RCMP uniform, stolen, faked, or genuine, and flagged us down, well, we would have had no doubts and we would have obeyed that person implicitly. This was apparently what happened in Nova Scotia when the gunman, dressed like an RCMP Officer, flagged some of his victims down, then shot them as they sat in their cars. I guess the wounds of forest and deer will heal more quickly than those of the victims’ families. Pax amorque / peace and love. 

Empty Nest

IMG_1258 (2)

Empty Nest

The wind at the window
scratches tiny notes.
I can no longer hear the tune
nor read the words.

Who walks beside me
as I pace my lonely path,
abandoned in this empty house.

My self-portrait
stares back at me:
a splintered selfie,
framed in a sliver
of silvery glass.

Above me,
a monkey moon,
that itinerant tinker,
walks a fractured way
over broken glass.

The knapsack on his back
is cobbled together
from cobwebs and clumsy
veils of drifting clouds.

Comment: Another Golden Oldie from that same throw-away manuscript that I discovered a couple of days ago. I wrote this one the year after my mother’s death. My father was in hospital and I had flown back to Wales to visit him. When I was not with him, I wandered alone in a large house, empty of people, but filled with memories. The whole experience was rather surreal, just like the imagery I conjured up to describe it. Early spring, but a cold one. After hospital visiting hours, I wandered an untidy house and an unkempt garden. My mother had departed. My father was on the way out. I was alone with a life-time of memories. “No hay pájaros en los nidos de antaño” wrote Cervantes in the Quixote. “There are no birds in last year’s nests.” With no brothers, no sisters, no close family, and no friends left in Wales, I found that out the hard way. Those days of wandering, ‘upstairs, downstairs, in my lady’s chamber,’ taught me that most difficult of lessons in the hardest of ways.

IMG_0456 (2)

With my angel

IMG_0258

… with my angel …

            … with my angel … face to face … the one I have carried within me since the day I was born … the black-one … winged like a crow … the one that hovers over me as I lie asleep … the one who wraps me in his feathered wings when I am alone and chilled by the world around me … the one who flaps with me on his back when I can walk no further … the one who creates the single set of footprints that plod their path through the badlands when I can walk no more …

img_0122

… ‘the truth’ my black angel says to me … I say ‘he’ but he is a powerful spirit, not sexed in anyway I know it … and yet I think of him as ‘he’ …awesome in the tiny reflection he sometimes allows me to glimpse of his power and glory … for, like Rilke, I could not bear meeting his whole angelic being face to face … as I cannot bear the sun, not by day, and not in eclipse … not even with smoked glass … when earthly values turn upside down and earth takes on a new reality … wild birds and bank swallows roosting at three in the afternoon … and that fierce heat draining from the summer sky … I remember it well … and the dog whimpering as a portion of the angel’s wing erased the sun until an umber midnight ruled … a simple phenomenon, the papers said … the moon coming between the earth and the sun …but magic … pure magic … to we who stood on the shore at Skinner’s Pond and sensed the majesty of the universe … more powerful than anything we could imagine … and the dog … taking no comfort from its human gods … whimpering at our feet …
… I saw a single feather floating down and knew my angel had placed himself between me and all that glory … to protect me … to save me from myself … and I saw that snowflake of an angel feather bleached from black to white by some small trick of the sunlight … and knowledge filled me … and for a moment I felt the glory … the magnificence … and there are no words for that slow filling up with want and desire as light filters from the sky and the body fills with darkness … and I was so afraid … afraid of myself … of where I had been … of where I was … of what I might return to … of my lost shadow … snipped from my heels …
… I don’t know how I heard my angel’s words … ‘the time of truth is upon you’ … ‘all you have ever been is behind you now’ … ‘naked you stand here on this shore … like the grains of sand on this beach … your days are numbered by the only one who counts’ … I heard the sound of roosting wings … but I heard and saw nothing more … I felt only midnight’s cold when the chill enters the body and the soul is sore afraid …
… ‘it is the law’ my angel said … I saw a second feather fall … ‘and the law says man must fail … his spirit must leave its mortal shell and fly back to the light’ … ‘blood will cease to flow … the heart will no longer beat … the spirit must accept and go’ … ‘do not assume… nobody knows what lies in wait’ … ‘blind acceptance … the only way … now …  in this twilight hour …  now when you are blind … only the blind shall receive the gift of sight’ … ‘all you have … your wife … your house … your car … your child … everything you think of as yours … I own … and on that day … I will claim it from you and take it for my own … now I can say no more’ …
… the sea-wind rose with a sigh and one by one night’s shadows fled … the moon’s brief circle sped from the sun … light returned, a drop at a time, sunshine flowing from a heavenly clepsydra filled with light …
… birds ceased to circle … a stray dog saw a sea-gull and chased it back to sea … and the sun … source of all goodness … was once again a golden coin floating in the sky …
… on my shoulder a feather perched … a whisper of warmth wrapped its protective cloak around my shoulders … for a moment, just a moment, I knew I was the apple of my angel’s eye … and I hoped and still hope that one day I might meet him again and understand …

Comment: An article on Marcus Aurelius in this morning’s paper made me think of this piece that I wrote, way back when, in the days when I was studying Francisco de Quevedo and the Neo-Stoic movement, courtesy of my good friend and colleague Henry Ettinghausen. “The day we were born we took our first steps on the road to death,” Quevedo wrote in one of his poems. With my angel is my own Neo-Neo-Stoic attempt to come face to face with that very personal reality, one which we all face, and to stare it down, eyeball to eyeball. Alas, in these troubled times, we must confront the knowledge that troubled times have been here before, that other generations have suffered them, and luckily, other generations have survived. We wouldn’t be here if they hadn’t. As another good friend, of mine Victor Hendricken, wrote on this blog just yesterday: “We continue to live on between inhale and exhale; we continue to live on between intake and exhaust, food and faeces. And in this time of self-isolation, we still abide by many of the same personal rules, including morning ablutions, setting and shutting off the alarm. Chin up, old boy. This too shall pass.” I found these words from Victor very comforting. With friendship, solid advice, and the ability to learn from those who have gone before us how to confront difficult times, this too shall pass.

Settling Accounts

Empress 314

 

Settling Accounts

How did I earn my money? Let me count the ways.
Of madmen, priests and preachers, I sang the praise,
sinners all who tried to change my ways
by grooming me in all their awful styles
to share the sadistic rhythms of their wiles.

Then there were bosses, CEOs, and chief execs,
whose aim in life was troubling their employees,
the men for unpaid work, the women for sex,
and while we slaved, they lived a life of ease.

Senior teachers, department heads, and deans
reduced all genius to counting and recounting beans.
Those bean counters checking up on us, every hour,
flexing their muscles, overwhelming us with power.

Sometimes, at night, my nightmares fill with screams
as their abuse and privilege shake me from my dreams,
my dreams of freedom, sharing, caring, love, and joy,
all the small things I’d taken for granted when a boy.

In a twisted, corkscrew world we all must live
where the richest rob the poorest who work and give.
And even more shall be given to those who hold
while those who have-not labor and are sold.

A sad world this, but some things remain with me:
my power to dream, to create a legacy,
to mold still willing people with my voice,
to gift them beauty, thought, and power of choice.

Oh dreamers, join with me and sing, be it high or low,
but don’t forget your dreams, don’t ever let them go.

Comment: I went to pick up groceries today and sat in line, waiting in the car, rear hatch open, for 30 minutes. Unwilling to waste my time, I decided to write a poem. Oh dear: I had left my note book at home. I rummaged around the car and found a redemption slip from two years ago and a bank slip from last year. I wrote two poems, one on each of them, each poem thematically linked to the slip of paper it was written on. This is the bank slip poem. I’d say “Enjoy” except that this is what the waiter / waitress says each time s/he places a particularly unpalatable meal before me. Luckily this cannot happen anymore and I am eating delightfully well at home, thank you. I am not a Cordon Bleu Chef by any means, but I am a good one, having learned at my Welsh Grandmother’s knee when I was a tiny tot. Supper tonight: salmon and leek and potatoes! Cost: about $5. It would have cost fifty in a restaurant and it would have been half as good. So count your blessings: cooking and creativity are two of mine and yes, every time I look at what I have and see what so many others are missing … I break my heart.

 

img_0003

Lamplighter

 

img_0218

Lamplighter

When I was very young, many of our streets still had gas lamps.  The lamp-lighter would appear in winter around three or three-thirty to light those lamps. I remember him walking up the street with his long pole over his shoulder, moving from lamp to lamp. We had one outside our front door. He would turn on the gas, then light the lamp from the lighted wick at the end of his pole.  Sometimes he carried a ladder with him. Then, every so often, when the lamp needed tending, he would climb the ladder and adjust the wick. These gas lights were not very bright but they stood out like light houses between stretches of darkness and we would walk from pool to glowing pool, as if they were stepping stones leading us up the hill to home. We all knew the lamplighter and he would often wave to us as we sat in the front room window to watch him walk by. We rarely saw him in the mornings when he came back to turn off the lamps. We were all tucked safely into our beds. I remember that I wanted to be lamplighter. Later I realized that there are many ways to light a lamp and spread brightness through the world. When I qualified as an academic and a teacher, I became a lighter of a very different set of lamps.

IMG_0262

Comment: I discovered this prose poem in an old and dusty manuscript. I can’t even remember when I wrote it. Prose poems: I discovered Charles Baudelaire’s Petits Poèmes en Prose in a small bouquiniste along the banks of the Seine when I studied French in Paris during the school year I spent in France, 1962-63. I have always loved his prose poems and I have always wanted to write some of my own. That I did, and then promptly forgot about them, is one of the wonders of my creative life. How could I forget these creations? Funny: reading what I wrote back then takes me straight into the front room in my grandmother’s house in Brynmill. She would sit in the bay window playing eternal games of patience and together we would eat grapes, peep at the cards, wait, we didn’t know for what, and watch the light slowly fade. Nobody ever told me my grandmother had cancer. She died from it one day when I was away at school and when I came home for the holidays, she just wasn’t there. Her chair and her table were still there, but her warm presence, her loving kindness, had all gone. I never had a chance to properly say good-bye to her. Maybe these belated words will serve that purpose.