Grandpa

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Grandpa

Going back in time,
to a better time,
an innocent time,
when we believed
in frost and rime,
and Santa Claus
and Christmas.

Stockings hung
with hope and joy
and filled with
tiny things and toys,
an apple, an orange,
a chocolate bar,
small things
brought in
from afar.

My grandpa, who
had not been good,
with a carrot,
an onion, coal,
and wood,
but a smile
on his face
and his red
underwear.

I often see him
standing there,
beside the fire,
beneath the tree.
He still means
oh so much to me.

Time Folds

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Time Folds

Time folds … itself in two or three. A rubber omelet clock, it vanishes over the white water adventure rocks, bending and sliding, folding and unfolding. Riding the waves is ungainly, unseemly. We hang on to ropes, clock edges, reach for outstretched hands, count seconds, minutes, hours, search for meaning …

Further downstream, men and women dance on the bridge at Avignon. Now there are two popes and each one castigates the other, hurling verbal darts, well sharpened, that pierce the thickest of skins. The bridge across the river stands unfinished. It stretches stone hands out towards the other side, but the further shore is distant and the bridge’s fretwork abandons its quest.

Where do we find meaning when seconds, minutes, hours slip down the stream paddled along beside all those hours lost from the clock? Omnia vulnerant, ultima necat: they all wound, but the last one kills. At what time will that final hour suddenly loom and sling its ultimate stone, shoot its outrageous final arrow? Jove’s thunderbolt, sudden, from a cloudless sky? Life’s lead-tipped slingshot and all that we love turned suddenly to hatred? A tremble of the ground beneath our feet? Kangaroos and Koalas burn, setting even more bush ablaze and the smoke from those fires reaches out, out, out, across the bush, across the cities, across the Tasman, across the Atlantic. New Zealand has become the land of the long pink cloud.  Now South America is gifted its grey, smoky monsters of grasping hands, those insubstantial nightmares of our childhood dreams, reaching in from the dark to pluck us from our sleep.

On the unfinished bridge at Avignon, the people still dance. In their papal palaces, the partisan popes still hurl the insults of their hit and missiles. Somewhere, close, was it in the future or will it be in the past, the Black Death lurks, waiting its moment. The Great Fires of London sizzle and stench from 1666 to 1941 while religious partisans burn each others’ homes. The Spanish flu invades the trenches and kills more men than the war will ever manage.

Turn your face to the wall, my darlings, as the gentlemen go by. But what do they bear in their hands, those gentlemen, in their minds, those unsubtle warriors of a crazy game that leads us onward, merrily, merrily, not so gently, down what stream, over what waterfall, and into which of the many perils that lie in wait?

Reyes

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Reyes

The Spanish Christmas comes on the Twelfth Day after our traditional Christmas: January 6, today. 32 years ago, we spent Reyes in Madrid. We arrived in time to see the Christmas Parade and what a sight that was, with the three Wise Men, los reyes magos, riding on their camels at the end of the parade. It had just snowed and the city, streets and squares, shone white.

It’s funny what we remember and how we remember it. “Mira, mira, mira!” “Look, look, look!” Then, in the distance, descending from the Puerta de Alacalá, the Three Wise Men. Behind us, a little boy screamed at his mother. “Don’t you want to see los tres reyes magos?” she asked him. “No,” he yelled. “I don’t believe in the three wise men. I want to go home and watch soccer on the telly!”

I wore a white sweater that evening. When I got back to the hotel, I discovered that every inch of sweater that had emerged from beneath my coat was now grey. Even the air was filthy and pollution lay in ambush everywhere. “Every time I cough, I get a mining souvenir,” Max Boyce used to sing. Well, after a couple of days in Madrid, I too was coughing up souvenirs, but they didn’t come from coal dust underground. They came from the very air I was breathing out in the city streets.

Later that week, we took the train out to the Casa del Campo to see those same three camels in the zoo. In the distance, the Guadarrama stood out clearly against the sky. The zoo welcomed us and we enjoyed breathing in the fresh air and seeing the animals in the wide open spaces behind the invisible bars that allowed us to view them in a more natural habitat.

Christmas / Reyes: a magic time for remembering things that seem to have vanished, yet that sneak up on you and shake you awake when you least expect it.

 

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Black and White

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Black and White

There is a moment in winter photography when the world of color turns to black and white. Color is still there, but today it travels incognito, anonymous. The world is formed by shapes, trees draping their branches, snow weighing them down, dressing them in wedding gowns for their marriage with the new year spirits that haunt sunlit, moonlit snowbanks and dance across the snow. Even the clouds exist to give a soft, quiet dramatic touch to the winter beauty that visits the garden. And yes, it will always be there, even if we are not here to see it because it will carry on without us. As for us, we are secondary, mere witnesses to winter’s beauty and the nature that surrounds us.

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Amateur photographers can sometimes capture this effect in a moment of luck (or occasional inspiration). Great painters have always known this art of the minimal. El Greco drew light from darkness, his portraits often finding their own fire and lighting up from within.  Caravaggio, too, knew the values of chiaro-oscuro, light and dark, black and white. Velasquez was the master of the spotlight that highlighted the eggs frying in the pan, the hand of the water-carrier. Goya, in his etchings [The Disasters of War, The Caprichos] and dark paintings, drew mood and anguish from this contrast between light and dark, black and white.

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My friend Geoff Slater has caught such a moment in his sketches for Scarecrow. Above he catches the precise moment when the scarecrows, male and female, reach out to each other, and beneath a Van Gogh planetary sky, dare to dream of mobility and love. The dream world: so important to us all and especially to the creative artist who dwells in each of us. Deus est in nobis, the Latin poets used to say, it is god within us. The god of black and white who transforms the world into color and light.

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Black and white, light and dark, winter trees, Clare, two scarecrows, deer and crows: labors of love that reach out and catch us unawares, blowing our hearts wide open, letting in the sun and the wind and the ever present joy of seeing things, seizing them, sizing them up, in black and white.

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Aliens

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Aliens

They came in from nowhere. Appeared on the coaster. Smallish, slightly flaky, dried on the outside, they craved liquid. Climbed into the coffee. I fished them out on a spoon. They floated down my throat.

Now they are within me. They have taken possession of my system. Now nothing is the same and I see things in a different way. That plate on the table, diminished and slightly blurred.

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Those flowers, edible now. Those geese in the garden, my brothers and sisters.

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That cat, my friend.

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The Medallion

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The Medallion (Solace 7, 8, & 9)

7

St. James, Santiago, the patron saint of Spain and of the Conquistadores. Pale, egg shell blue walls, darkness ruling inside the church. It will do so until the sun peeps in the stained- glass windows and awakens all the sleeping colours. I bow my head, then my knee, and kneel at the back. Ahead of me, I recognize some of my neighbours who concentrate on the gestures of the priest as he mumbles to himself before the altar.

The early morning shadows creep across the walls until a single beam of sunshine descends and shatters the altar into a thousand tiny chips of fragmented light. My hands are pallid butterflies fluttering in the sun’s rays and a rainbow halo adorns my head. I shift away from the sunbeam and move to the side-chapel dedicated to the statue of St. James.

… St. James the Moor-Slayer … Santiago Matamoros … he stands on the severed heads of the Moors he has killed … behind him hands tied behind their backs dusky skinned warriors march away into slavery … my eyes are level with those severed heads and I stare eyeball to eyeball at a decapitated Moor … beside the statue stands a photo of the Gate of Glory, la Puerta de la Gloria, in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain … … generations of pilgrims have laid hands upon the Tree of Jesse, imprinting their fingers into the stone … human hands clasping rough granite in a search for comfort and warmth …

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When I leave St. James, I find the witchdoctor squatting, in a trance. His fire burns low and a strong scent of copal rises from the coals, hangs heavy on the air, then slowly dissipates. I stop for a second to study El Brujo and the witch doctor speaks without opening his eyes.

“I spoke to your mother yesterday.”

“That’s nonsense,” I replied. “My mother’s dead.”

“What ails you, my son?”

“I’m not your son.”

“It’s a wise man knows his own father,” El Brujo opens his eyes. “One night, many years ago, Jaguar crept between your ribs and took your heart into his mouth. When he closed his jaws, your heart was as heavy as stone and Jaguar broke his tooth upon it. He cursed you and your heart remained a rock within your chest. At night, when you sleep, you dream of dust and ashes.”

“You speak in riddles,” I try to remain calm yet the words fan a sorrow within me that I thought had died a long time ago.

“Perhaps, but my words speak true.”

            … curses, stone, dust, ashes, broken heart, rock, heart in mouth … a marigold path, zopilote, high in the morning air, fire-red his wing-tips, and then an old stone bridge, a river below it with the snow floating down to be carried away by the current, three crones dancing on the steps of an orphanage, three beautiful ladies dancing on the temple steps, an old man, dead, then alive and walking in his burial clothes … hummingbirds dancing round the sun … red slashes of blood … tulips against a white-washed wall … an old man vanishing into a tomb … death’s face simmering in the moon’s dwindling pool …

“You must make a sacrifice, my friend.”

“I don’t do sacrifice, not like that boy this morning.”

“No, not like that,” El Brujo shakes his head. “You must sacrifice your beliefs and allow me to bless you.”

“I have no beliefs.”

“Even that is a belief.”

“Then I am sacrificing nothing.”

“If that is what you believe, it is so. Here: take this. It’s yours by right,” El Brujo offers me a medallion on a braided leather thong. “This is your mother’s gift to you.”

“You’re crazy. I told you: my mother’s dead. She didn’t leave me this.”

“I tell you that she did.”

“Did you know her?”

“I did.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“You may believe what you want. But tell me, does the medallion call you?”

“I like it, yes. I can’t say it calls. How much?” I put my hand in my pocket.

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“You do not have enough money to buy it, and if you did, you wouldn’t be the man I think you are. And in that case, I wouldn’t sell it to you,” his eyes took on a faraway look. “However, it comes from your mother and I promised your mother I’d give you this.”

            El Brujo’s eyes hold a power that disconcerts me. I lower my head to his fire and the copal makes my eyes water. I cough and my vision blurs. My lungs fill with perfume and El Brujo pushes me closer to the incense. I inhale deeply and break out in a sweat.

“You must wear this always. It will protect you,” El Brujo places the medallion round my neck. I place my hand upon it, feel its rough edges, and see through my tears that it is incomplete, for it has been broken in half. What remains shows half a cross with some broken roses where the crucified Christ would normally appear.

“But it’s broken.”

“Not broken, but divided. You must find the missing half.”

“Did my mother tell you that?”

“Your mother is dead.”

El Brujo lapses into silence and stares me down. Then he breaks into a weird, wailing chant, using a language that I do not know. As he sings, he leans forward and brushes my eyes with an eagle feather that he draws from his pocket.

“Now, you will be able to see.”

… an old woman dressed in black, pushes at a young man … colored threads hang out from her basket … they flap like flags in the single ray of sunshine that breaks into a million tiny sparks of fire … hummingbirds, tiny warriors, wing their dance around a sun that bears a man’s  face … a pair of scissors snips at the string that ties a child’s balloon to the earth and it floats away up into the air high above the cathedral tower … fire catches its wings and it flares like zopilote, the trickster, in the dawn’s early light … the cathedral spire is a notched measuring stick conducting the clouds as they dance and weave their patterns … within the prison of the sky … trenchant shadows, twisted dancers, old warrior kings bend themselves in and out of shape as they struggle to escape … an old man  wrings his hands, then vanishes …  a soap bubble floats away on the wind … a young girl stands on a bridge in winter … snow swirls and  draws a curtain around her body as she falls into the waters below … an old crone wrapped in rags carries a bundle of clothes to a set of steps and leaves it there …

            “The medallion vibrates, it’s heavy and warm.”

“It knows you.”

“What do you mean, ‘it knows me’?”

“Did you feel nothing? Did you see nothing?”

“I saw nothing,” I cough and clear my throat. “I saw nothing at all.”

El Brujo looks at me long and hard. He opens his mouth to speak, then shrugs his shoulders.

“Come, you have accepted the medallion your mother left you. Now accept my blessing.”

“Why?”

“Because I ask you to. Are you such a coward that you cannot accept a blessing from an old man? Here, kneel beside me,” El Brujo taps the ground at his side and, wondering what on earth I think I am doing, I kneel beside him.

Dream World

 

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Dream World (Solace 2)

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… dream worlds circle outside my bedroom window … starry sky … two full moons floating, one real, one mirrored in the glass …  inside the bedroom, tulips inscribe red gashes on white-washed walls … sharp fingernails scrape across paint, blood red shadows trickle down to the floor …

… above the azotea, the temples of Monte Albán string out their sheets on the sky’s washing-line, glowing in the moonlight … against a background of granite and stucco, trenchant shadows sculpt dancers into grotesque, pipe-wire shapes as they struggle to escape their carved imprisonment …

… priests in long black robes gape at the night sky. From their sanctuary in the observatory, they plot how they will persuade the people to believe the future they will foretell as night’s giant finger herds the wild-cat stars …

… three young women walk at an angle up the temple steps … when they reach the top, a moonbeam holds them in its spotlight and they wax with the full moon’s beauty …  the doorway to an unclosed grave opens its crocodile jaws and the three women descend the temple steps, ageing as they walk … at the temple’s foot, they enter the tomb’s dark mouth … an old man in a faded grey suit walks behind them … the grave swallows them all, burying them in the hidden depths beneath the mound …

… dreams back themselves into a cul-de-sac, a wilderness of harsh black scars … an ancient Aztec god catches Rabbit by his ears and throws him against the second sun that sizzles in the sky … his sharp teeth burrow, burying themselves deep in the sun-fire’s light … the second sun loses its glow and turns into the moon’s cold stone …  the rabbit’s skull simmers in the new moon’s dwindling pool …

With a clicking of claws, knitting needles come together to pluck me outwards from my dreams and upwards towards death’s golden guillotine that floats in the sky. The moon sharpens its knife edge on the keening wind and sets my blood tingling. I want to be free, free from those nightmares, those nocturnal visions that rise up from the past and stalk me as I lie in bed.

Drowsing, I long for the alarm clock to shuffle its pack of sleepless hours and to waken me with its piercing call as it tears me from these winding sheets, these grave clothes in which I lie. I wait for the sun to shine into my window.