My Grandfather’s Chair

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My Grandfather’s Chair
For Margie Goldsmith

“Write about that chair,” Margie said,
and I wondered what was in her head.
How can I write about that chair
when those who sat in it are not there.

Before the coal fire my grandfather sat,
snoring away, on his lap slept the cat.
At three years old, I climbed that chair,
and blew on the bald spot in his hair.

So many things we no longer know:
my grandpa did the same thing, years ago,
and years before that, his own grandad
did just the same to make his old man mad.

Now I, in my turn, when I drink deep,
like to sit in that chair for a little sleep,
and my grand daughter, there’s no grandson,
climbs up that chair, as others have done,

and sees the bald spot in my hair
and blows and blows as I snooze there.
The years roll back and I see the smiles
of generations woken by a young child’s wiles.

Comment: Talking the other day, I mentioned my grandfather’s chair, the only piece of furniture rescued from my parents’ house, and Margie said I had to write a poem about it. So, last night I did. The result is something very different from what I normally write. This is what in Spanish is called an occasional poem and it celebrates a specific occasion, a specific set of circumstances. Thus, it is written under different rules, rhyme, rhythm, stanzas. It is always an adventure to write something suggested by someone else. Poems like this cross the boundary between poetry of play (which this is) and occasionally enter the realm of poetry that expresses the authenticity of being which, to a certain extent is present in this poem too. The above photo, from our local newspaper, The Daily Gleaner, is the only one I have of the chair which resides in the basement where I keep my books. The article is an old one (2017), but the photo is nice!

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.

On Learning Welsh

 

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On learning Welsh

Welsh
is a key to my childhood.

Every day I learn something
about myself and my upbringing.

It’s not the need to talk
so much as the necessity
of diving into myself
and mining my memories.

Brynhyfryd / Mount Pleasant.
Ty Coch / the Red House.
Pen-y-Bryn / the Top of the Hill.

This latter the house
in which I was born.
No room in hospitals
for war time babies.

All of my wartime family
born in the same in-the-country
Gower bed.

Three of my brothers
did not survive
those rough, household births.

I still bear the forceps’ scars.

And I still bear the scars
of carrying my brothers
with me all my life.

A long and difficult
and very private history.

But it’s mine
and I embrace it
and I love it,
with all its warts.

Comment: The photo is of the dragon in Kingsbrae Garden. I think of it as a Welsh dragon … Y ddraig Coch … the Red Dragon of Wales, but of course, it isn’t. Anyone can write easy poems: Twinkle, twinkle, little star … it’s the hard, gut-wrenching stuff that’s hard to put down on the page. My close friend, Margie Goldsmith, encouraged me to write this. Thank you, Margie. Thank you for caring. This is indeed my life ‘… with all its warts …’ It’s easy to wear rose-tinted glasses and see everything as ‘for the best in the best of all worlds’. However, it’s more difficult to grovel on your knees, in the trenches, and to come face to face with the stark realities of who we are and where we come from. Thank you, Margie, for helping me and encouraging me to do just that.

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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A Sacrifice to Mithras

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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.”

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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?

Fire and Flame

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Fire and Flame

1

The world is on fire.
Someone, somewhere
lit a match.
The world exploded.

A match in the lungs.
the whole world burning.

Someone, somewhere
sneezed into their sleeve.
the world collapsed
in a fit of coughing.

“It isn’t the cough
that carries you off,
it’s the coffin
they carry you off in,”
said the talking head,
scientific boffin.

2

Intelligence, give me
the exact name of things:
corona virus, vaccine,
air that’s pure,
drinkable water,
a new, fresh world
for my daughter
and her daughter.

I wish I could spare them
from all this slaughter.

Comment: The echoes in here are obvious to me, but to how many others? Octavio Paz strolls through the first stanza while Juan Ramón Jiménez patrols the second one. How many people read their poems now? Polvo seco de tesis doctoral / dry dust of a doctoral thesis, as my friend José María Valverde once wrote. He, too, passed and will all too soon be forgotten like the rest. And time: what is it? How does it function? Is it linear or circular and repetitive? It twists and turns, like we did last summer, but not like we’ll do this one. My old arthritic bones will allow me to twist no more. Vingt-et-un, quatre-vingt- et-un: twist and bust. Yet time flows by, like water under Le Pont Mirabeau and days blend into days. 79 days of lock down now, all voluntary, or is it 80? El tiempo aquí no tiene sentido / time is meaningless in here, as my friend and mentor, José Hierro wrote, so long ago. And yes, these memories linger on, as time lingers on, as life lies heavy around us, and time limps by with its lame, old feet, yet looking back, it has raced passed like a spring river in spate. And the leaves are back, and the flowers are coming up, and the spring birds and bees and butterflies are arriving … and, in spite of everything, perhaps even because of it, life is as lovely as it ever was. Keep safe, keep well!

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Ego

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Ego

I am not worthy
to be called her sun,
and yet her world
revolves around me.

She spins in my space
and short-circuits
her own life to make
mine more livable.

I’d like to say ‘joyous,’
but tears are in all things
(sunt lacrimae rerum)
and
death touches mortal minds
( et
mentem mortalia tangunt
).

The best I can offer:
a salt water world,
filled with inadequacies,
drowning us in tears.

Comment: Several things of note in this poem and the voice recording. Should we mix languages in a poem? Why ever not, so long as we explain them. This Latin tag goes back over 2,000 years and links my poem (Intertextuality, remember?) into a long Western tradition. Am I worthy of that tradition? Is my poem? Well, that is a totally different question. However, I am linked in, as you might phrase it. A second question: does my reading of the poem affect your understanding of the poem? If so, how and in what way? Does the phonic word play sun / son affect your understanding of the poem? If so, how? And how does the double meaning of ego work on your mind? Does the Freudian Ego / Id stand out? Or does the schoolboy “Quiz?” “Ego!” spring to mind. Or do you immediately think of the first person singular (Latin) ego as in ego sum lux, via veritas? More important: are you aware of any of this or does the poem disappear into a desert landscape of nothingness with no apparent strings attached? Good questions all: I invite you to think about them all. Blessings and best wishes. Keep safe.