Memories

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Memories

The old man, bag of bread crusts in his hand, walks towards that lake I knew so well in my childhood. His friends, the ducks and geese, wait for him to arrive so they can have their breakfast. The old man limps today in the early morning damp and walks, slow and hesitant, leaning on his stick.

His friends are hungry and impatient. They leave the lakeside to waddle across the road in a lengthening gaggle, fastest at the front, laggards strung out, straggling behind. When they reach him, the old man stops for a moment to greet them. Ducks and geese and traffic stand still as the world pulls to a halt. Watching, I remember how, when I was a child, those same sharp bills nibbled at the crusts I held in my fingers as my father rowed our hired boat over the lake’s smooth waters.

The old man crosses the road with his flock strung out behind him and drivers and passengers take photos and videos on their cell phones as the battalion marches on, down the slight slope, back to the waterside where the old man scatters crusts and breadcrumbs and throws corn as if it were a shower of stars from the firmament.

Greying skies threaten above dark waters. At lake’s end, above the waterfall, the monument to Scott of the Antarctic pierces the gloom with its fine, white tower. Scott sailed from this city in search of the new lands and adventures. Like me and many others he left, never to return.

I look at the bruises that decorate my wrinkled hands. Neither spots nor wrinkles were there when I left that lake behind me, was it really fifty years ago? I view the video on YouTube, shot from an I-phone in a parked car, and my eyes mist over. This was my home, this was the land of my fathers, this was the land of song that would always keep a welcome … yet I no longer go back.

The video is grainy and bears grey threads that mimic the passing clouds. I gaze on that well-remembered lake: there, so many years ago, I swam in its waters, ran and biked along its winding paths, rowed around its edges in and out of the reeds, fed the lake birds as I floated beside them, and fished the waters with my boyhood rod and line. I remember all too well the warmth of spring and the joy of the returning sun that banked the flowers and strew gold daffodils beneath budding trees.

I see myself reflected in the computer’s screen: my wrinkled skin wraps my shriveled flesh in the same way crinkly paper winds itself round an Easter egg. Yet there is so much inside that binding, so many memories and secrets dream their lives away inside me. Old bones now bind my body into its fragile box with its arteries and veins and circuited strings holding me together. I close my eyes and for a moment I am once more that youthful body flashing its jack-knife blade into those rippling waters …

Later that night, I stand in a shimmer of moonlight at the garden’s edge, my hands held out to catch a falling star. Alas, I seize only the mutterings of snowflakes strung between the stars. My scarecrow dream stretches out a long, thin hand and clasps bright treasures in its tight-clenched fist. The moon hones its cutting edge into an ice-thin blade and the lone dove of my heart flaps in its trap of barren bone. Moonlight and starlight run twin liquors, raw, within me.

Inverted, the Big Dipper hangs its question mark from the sky’s dark eyelid. A honking of geese haunts the highway high above me. I swivel from north to south to catch an impression of darkness swift and sudden that blots out the scattered grains of stars.

A finger-nail of rising moon emerges from the trees and hoists itself skywards. Stars nearby fade in its brightness. I have built a fire inside the house. When I go back inside, my goose quill pen scratches black lines in my journal as I weave words by firelight across a flickering page.

Ghosts of departed constellations drown in the nearby river. Pale planets scythed by moonlight bob phosphorescent on this rising flood of memories.

Comment: This would be a “raw poem” were it not a piece of “raw prose”! I found it among my notes late last night and revised it and put it up this morning. It was based on a YouTube video of a man feeding geese at Roath Park Lake in Cardiff, South Wales. When I was a teenager, my family moved from Swansea to Cardiff and Roath Park was a short bike road from our new home. The Scott Memorial stands at the lower end of Roath Lake, just by the waterfall. Apparently Robert Scott sailed from Cardiff on 15 June 1910 in a converted whaler in an effort to walk to the South Pole. Like me, when I left Cardiff, he didn’t return.

Here’s a link to Robert Scott: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Falcon_Scott

This is the video on which the piece is based: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=clbbMt2sl0k

Geese

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Geese

The arrowhead precedes its shaft and leads its feathers into night’s perfection. Summer catches flight and waves good-bye to Arcturus as an obsidian knife flashes black lightning across the icy threshold of a morbid sky. Darkness, swift and sudden, blots out each scattered scat of golden grain and swallows an iris of stars. Inverted, the Big Dipper hangs its question mark from the sky’s dark eyelid.

When daylight breaks cold sunshine over broken ground, the great white geese lay their burdens down by the riverside. Pristine as they drift to the land, flake by fluttering flake, they accumulate the colors of mud daub and anonymity as they grub food from the neat ploughed fields that march their earthen armies across the land. Fallen angels, they sprawl down from heaven and abandon eternity to adopt their waddling time-and-earthbound shapes.

Now, the afternoon gropes steadily to night. Some people have built fires; others read by candlelight. Geese litter the riverbanks with their mud-stained snowdrifts. Freshet mud besmirches them — or is it the black of midnight’s swift advance? The geese step on thin ice at civilization’s edge. Around them, the universe’s clock ticks slowly down. Who forced that scream through the needle’s eye? Night gathers its darkening robes and the seabed reaches its watery arms out towards a magnified moon.

Ghosts of departed constellations drown in the river. Pale planets scythed by moonlight bob phosphorescent on the flood. I walk on the beach sensing the flesh that bonds, the bones that scarcely bind, the shoulders and waist on which I hang my clothes. Now I stand nameless in a shimmer of moonlight and listen at the water’s edge to the whispering night. I catch the mutterings of snowflakes strung between the stars.

My dream stretches out a long, thin hand and clasps bright treasures in its tight-clenched fist. The moon hones its cutting edge into an ice-thin blade and the lone dove of my heart flaps in its trap of barren bone. Moonlight and starlight run their twin liquors, raw, within me. What will I bury beneath this year’s fallen leaves?

Absence

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Absence

I left my father lying there
unable to look him in the eye;
I was his only living child,
but I never flew back to say goodbye.

My absence tore apart my heart.
I couldn’t face a hotel room,
no house, no friends, no family,
in the town I once called home.

I remembered my dad for a little while,
but then his face just fled.
Now I seek his smile in this photo,
but his eyes fill me with dread.

No life, no light, no focus,
nothing that I recall;
I look at him quite helplessly:
but he can’t see me at all.

 

This Fragile Light

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This fragile light
filtering through
the early-morning mind
filled as it still is
with night’s dark
shadowy dreams
their dance demonic
or perchance angelic
as light rises and falls
in time to the chest’s
frail tidal change
the ins and outs
of life-giving breath

Bright motes these birds
at the morning feeder
feathered friends
who visit daily
known by their song
their plumage
their ups and downs
as they dazzle and spark
breaking the day open
with their chorus of joy

Blind

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Blind

Warmth in a color,
with heat visible to the touch
and shocking pink a shock
to seeking fingers,
not one that you and I,
gifted with sight,
would ever understand.

Blindfolded, they wheel me
round and round the garden
in my teddy bear reality.
Gravel scrunches beneath
the wheels and I am flooded
with the inability to see, to know,
to be sure of the shadows
that are no longer there.

The ones who push me
talk and tell but cannot show.
How could they hold a rainbow
before my eyes or let me hear
the northern lights crackle the sky,
their visible Niagara a curtain
of fairy lights dancing up and down?

And those glorious organ notes
quivering the body, angel voices rising,
falling, grasping at my eye-
lashes, peeling my eye-lids apart.

Song of songs and the singer
deaf to his own sublimity,
oh dealer of cards, fingerless
pianist, bold dancer prancing
on your amputated stumps.

Comment: Raw poem, written for Gwen Martin who opened my eyes to the fact that blind people can perceive color through their finger-tips.

Minus

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Minus

“The earth is geoidal, i.e. earth-shaped.”
These words, dictated to me by the geography
master when I was about fifteen years old,
taught me that teachers didn’t really know
all there was to know. Nor, indeed, did they
need to know everything. “I don’t know,
I’ll check and tell you later,” breaks the myth
of infallibility but sets up sympathetic links.

“What do groundhogs eat?” the little girl
asks her classroom teacher. “Spaghetti,”
comes back the instant answer from one
who doesn’t know that every day the child
watches the groundhog that lives in her yard
devour delicate New Brunswick violets.
“Spaghetti, with mushroom sauce, of course.”

Then one day comes the spelling test:
“How do you spell minus?”
M-I-N-O-S.”
“Wrong. Try again.”
M-I-N-A-S.”
“Wrong again.
You think you’re so clever.
Everybody knows it’s
M-I-N-U-S.
Don’t we class?”
The class breaks into shrieks and giggles.

Everyone knows how to spell minus:
even the one who has just read how Theseus
followed Ariadne’s thread to escape from
the Minotaur who roamed the Labyrinth
beneath the Cretan Palace of Knossos.

That one was present too, in her own mind,
at the Siege of Minas Tirith, when Gandalf
held five evil kings at bay and Aragorn fought
the nameless Dark Lord who dwelt beneath
the shadow in the land of M-O-R-D-O-R,
a Lord not so powerful M-I-N-U-S his ring.

Metatheatre: Wednesday Workshop

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Metatheatre
Wednesday Workshop
22 March 2017

It sounds complicated and, in the ivory tower of academia, it can be. Wikipedia describes metatheatre (or metatheater), as describing “aspects of a play that draw attention to its nature as drama or theatre (theater), or to the circumstances of its performance.” A more complex description of metatheatre and its effects follows.

“Metatheatre” is a convenient name for the quality or force in a play which challenges theatre’s claim to be simply realistic — to be nothing but a mirror in which we view the actions and sufferings of characters like ourselves, suspending our disbelief in their reality. Metatheatre begins by sharpening our awareness of the unlikeness of life to dramatic art; it may end by making us aware of life’s uncanny likeness to art or illusion. By calling attention to the strangeness, artificiality, illusoriness, or arbitrariness — in short, the theatricality — of the life we live, it marks those frames and boundaries that conventional dramatic realism would hide. It may present action so alien, improbable, stylized, or absurd that we are forced to acknowledge the estranging frame that encloses a whole play. It may, on the other hand, break the frame of the “fourth wall” of conventional theatre, reaching out to assault the audience or to draw it into the realm of the play. It may — by devices like plays within plays, self-consciously “theatrical” characters, and commentary on the theatre itself — dwell on the boundaries between “illusion” or artifice and “reality” within a play, making us speculate on the complex mixture of illusion and reality in our ordinary experience. Any theatrical device can work metatheatrically if we sense in it a certain deliberate reflexiveness, a tendency to refer to itself or to its context in a more general mode: to theatre itself; to art, artifice, and illusion; and perhaps above all to language as such. (Quoted from https://courses.cit.cornell.edu/engl3270/327.meta.html)

While metatheatre is usually connected with the theatre, it occurs in other areas as well. Miguel de Cervantes, for example, uses it as a device early in the Quixote. Don Quixote returns from his first venture to find that his library has been boarded up and no longer exists. When he asks how this has happened he is told that a magician appeared on a fiery dragon and magicked the library away. DQ is left wondering how and why these sage enchanters have picked him for an enemy and delight in tormenting him. At one level, this is comic. At another, it is tragic. Metatheatre often has this tragi-comic edge to it. Comic: that anybody would believe the lie in the first place; comic when the reactions of the deceived are viewed in light of the lie. Tragic when the fabric of the real world is destroyed by deceit.

Later, in Part One of the Quixote, the priest and the barber set up an elaborate play in which they act out their roles as supplicants to the knight. The priest is saved from the necessity of wearing an ox-tail beard by the appearance of a beautiful young lady who plays the role of distressed maiden to perfection. In this play within the novel, the plan is for Don Quixote to be persuaded to return home under oath and not to wander anymore. Of course, it all goes wrong with emphasis throughout on the comic, rather than the tragic, nature of deceit believed.

In Part Two of Don Quixote, published some ten years after Part one (1605 / 1615), metatheatre takes on a more sinister role. In the castle of the Duke and Duchess, an elaborate theatrical plot is laid out in which Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are the principal actors. Crucial to this plot is the episode of Clavileño in which DQ and SP are blindfolded, set on the back of a wooden horse, and flown to the moon and the stars. Lies within lies within lies: the entrapment and enhancement of madness, and who is the real madman when the mad lead the insane on a spectacular and fictitious dance?

Again, when Sancho receives the long-promised governorship of his island, the cruelties, beatings, purges, and indignities that descend upon him in the name of a third party’s so-called humor, make him walk a thin tight-trope between comedy on one side and tragedy on the other. And what can we say about the appearance of the Knight of the Woods and the Knight of the Mirrors? Real knights (apparently), out of time and out of place, as mad as the madman they are baiting, and they bait him by challenging him to fanciful, dressed-up jousting duels on horse-back. Mind you, the ‘they’ is fictitious too, since ‘they’ are yet another character, a single character, who engages falsely in two different but equally fictitious roles.

As with all academic and artistic concepts, much depends on how you define and frame your terms. At its most simple level, metatheatre is crying wolf. When the little boy cries “Wolf!” he creates a situation in which other people believe the lie (there is no wolf) and come running to the rescue. Of course, when the wolf does appear, the boy cries “Wolf!” but nobody believes him. That is when comedy turns to tragedy and the boy and his flock of sheep are devoured. There may be amusement as the elders of the village mill around looking for the wolf, but there can be no comedy when the elders are absent, or refuse to turn out in force, and both sheep and boy disappear down the wolf’s dark throat.

So, in addition to crying “wolf,” one can set out simple or elaborate plans to enmesh other people in a new and mendacious reality. By distorting this reality so that the false appears to be true, we get metatheatre, even though there is no theatre present, save in the minds of those, manipulators and manipulated, who are engaged in the action. All of these things are used in literature, both poetry and prose, to create theatre within theatre, plots within plots, deceits within lies. But what happens when we encounter the same thing, not in literature, but in real life?

In exile from the land of my birth, I come face to face with doubt and fear. I am deceived by my senses; in what can I put my trust? I am subject to delusions. I cannot separate wakefulness from sleep nor dreams from reality nor the truth from these pictures I create in the wood-fire’s flames. And in my philosophy book I read that “… there is no earth, no heaven, no extended body, no magnitude, no place and that nonetheless I perceive these things and they seem good to me. And this is the most harrowing possibility of all, that our world is commanded by a deity who deceives humanity and we cannot avoid being misled for there may be systematic deception and then all is lost. And even the most reliable information is dubious, for we may be faced with an evil genius who is deceiving us and then there can be no reassurance in the foundations of our knowledge.”

René Descartes wrote those last words to express in philosophical terms what Cervantes, and other members of Spain’s literary circles, especially the theatre, had created in literary terms about fifty years earlier. Spain’s Golden Age may be a long way away and it may even have been re- named the Early Modern Period, but the danger of the application of a literary device, metatheatre, to real life is ever-present.

What if our world is indeed commanded, not by a deity, but by a human being, or a set of human beings, who deceive humanity on a regular basis? What if there is systematic deception? What if the most reliable information is dubious and we can no longer trust it? What if we are faced with an evil genius who deceives us with misinformation, disinformation, false knowledge, and outright lies that destroy the foundations of our knowledge? If such is the case, when our knowledge is suddenly without foundation, then we are indeed in deep trouble.