Why?

Different bird, same question: why? This one is from one of the beaches on the road to North Cape, PEI. Why, indeed?

Why?

In the mud nest jammed tight against the garage roof,
tiny yellow beaks flap ceaselessly open.

The parents sit on a vantage point of electric cable,
mouths moving in silent encouragement.

A sudden rush, a clamour of wing and claw,
a small body thudding down a ladder of air
to crash beak first on the concrete.
  “Why?”

 “Wye is a river.
      It flows through Ross-on-Wye
      and marks the boundary
      between England and Wales.”

And the swallows perch on the rafters
watching their fledgling
as it struggles on the floor:
the weakening wings,
the last slow kicks of the twitching legs.
“Why?”

“Y is a crooked letter
     invented by the Green Man of Wye.”

Comment: This is the original poem, written back in the eighties, wow, that’s forty years ago. I included it in my first poetry chapbook, Idlewood (published, 1991). It was a slim volume, dark green color, typed and photocopied, very humble, but MINE! A couple of years ago I wrote a prose poem, sort of flash fiction, in one of my Welsh sequences and included the story as part of the text. It came to me as a memory yesterday morning, and I posted it on Facebook. Here now is the story. Hopefully, you have just read the poem: I hope you liked it but, as I know all too well, de gustibus non est disputandum. I would like to know if you prefer the poetry to the prose. Please let me know, pretty please?

Why?

“Where are you going?” I ask. “To see a man about a dog,” my father replies. “Why?” I ask. “Hair of the dog,” his voice ghosts through the rapidly closing crack as the front door shuts behind him. “Why?” I cry out. I recall the mud nest jammed tight against our garage roof. Tiny yellow beaks flap ceaselessly open. Parent birds sit on a vantage point of electric cable, their beaks moving in silent encouragement. A sudden rush, a clamour of wing and claw, a small body thudding down a ladder of air to crash beak first on the concrete. “Why?” I ask. The age-old answer comes back to me. “Wye is a river. It flows through Ross-on-Wye and marks the boundary between England and Wales.” The swallows perch on the rafters watching their fledgling as it struggles on the floor, the weakening wing flaps, the last slow kicks of the twitching legs. “Y is a crooked letter invented by the Green Man of Wye,” my grandfather says. “Why?” I repeat. “I want to know why.” Silence hangs a question mark over the unsatisfied spaces of my questioning mind.

Crosswords

Couldn’t find a picture of a cross-bill, so I found some genuine humming birds instead. Listen carefully: you can hear them hum.

Crosswords

I wander a vacant, black and white wonderland
of empty, accusing, crossword puzzle squares.
Most mornings, I sit at the kitchen table, head in hands,
puzzled by the news and the crossword puzzle’s clues.

Outside my window, crossbills squat on the feeder,
squabbling, heads turned sideways, blinking,

and winking sly eyes. A yellow-bellied sapsucker hops
over syrup-sticky squares. His hand-carved chess board

glistens as feasting flies swarm beneath the sun.

My own thoughts are rooted in a stark, new reality.
They walk wordless through threatening spaces where
unmasked people wander grey, concrete streets or walk
in shops, in the opposite direction to arrows,
painted on the floor to guide them.

Cross-words, cross-purposes:
why do some people obey the current laws
while others ignore them and risk their health
as well as the health of others by doing what
they damn well please, in spite of the scientists
who beg them to do otherwise?
Like the puzzle’s clues: I just don’t know.

Comment: Well, last year was a year like no other that I can remember. It is so easy to dismiss it as an aberration, but we shouldn’t do that. Hopefully next year will be better. But it might get worse. Let’s look on the bright side and hum along with the song the humming birds are humming: “Yesterday is history, today is still a mystery, but what a day it’s going to be tomorrow.” I still can’t workout how or why some shoppers just head up the shopping aisles, walking or pushing their carts in the wrong direction. Nor how they can stand for five minutes at a time choosing a breakfast cereal, one hand on the handle of their angled carts, another poking at the cereal boxes, and the aisle totally blocked. I also love the people who still handle every apple in the box before choosing just one of them. For apple you may substitute grapes, pears, avocadoes, tomatoes. Oh the joys of ageing in an age of skepticism and pandemic. Mind you: if life is, as Albert Camus always insisted, absurd, or if it is, as Calderon told us, nothing but a dream, I guess none of it matters anyway. Il faut imaginer Sisyphe heureux / we must believe that Sisyphus is happy!

A Thought for the New Year

Couldn’t find a photo of Don Quixote so I attached this instead. A suitable symbol for Brexit!

A Thought for the New Year

“Sábete, Sancho, … Todas estas borrascas que nos suceden son señales de que presto ha de serenar el tiempo y han de sucedernos bien las cosas, porque no es posible que el mal ni el bien sean durables, y de aquí se sigue que, habiendo durado mucho el mal, el bien está ya cerca.”
Miguel de Cervantes : Don Quixote de la Mancha.

“Know this, Sancho, … All these squalls that beset us are signs that the weather will soon clear up and better things will come to us, because it isn’t possible for good or ill to endure, and from here it follows that, these ills having lasted so long, good times are now close.”
My translation.

Comment: This quote was sent to me by Marina, my close friend from Avila, with whom I have maintained contact, even though it is now twelve full years (2008-2020) since we last saw each other and talked, except on Messenger. Break ups and lost and absent friends and families: it seems to be the story of my life. And how could it be otherwise when one is a migrant who emigrates and immigrates and passes on and through, rarely resting in the same place for long? I guess it is also the story of the Intelligentsia: those whose learning and understanding and life experience moves them out from one place and into many others. Cualquier tiempo pasado fue mejor / any time from the past was better. Hiraeth: the knowledge that the past is lost, save in our minds, and can never be recovered, even though sometimes we wish so badly to do so. The Intelligentsia: always dissatisfied, both with the past which they can never recreate and which they view through the pink lens of nostalgia and with the present which is never as beautiful as that pastel pink past, that in reality probably never existed. Toda la vida es un sueño y los sueños sueños son / The whole of life is a dream and dreams are just dreams, and nothing more (Calderon de la Barca).

Death by Devilry

Silence in the garden. A hawk perched nearby. There are so many ways to die.

Death by Devilry

Silence in the garden.
A hawk perched nearby.
There are so many ways to die.

A cerebral bleed, minor,
but enough to send him to hospital
and keep him there.

Cured, ready for release,
he would need extra care
and added attention.

The devil lived in the small print.
Too much attention needed now:
his care home wouldn’t care for him.

Back to the old folks ward he went.
There he lay, waiting for a vacancy
in a home that would really care.

One day, Covid came a-visiting,
stalked the ward that night, choosing
its victims: you, you, and her, and him.

What killed him?
A cerebral bleed, a minor stroke?
Or a major stroke from the devil’s pen?

Bold words, bare words,
a barren ward, another vacant place
around a Christmas table.

Comment: Sitting at the breakfast table, with an empty space before me, I penned these words. So tragic, so avoidable. Yet how many families have gone through something similar in the past twelve months? How many empty spaces are there, vacancies that will never again be filled? I look at today’s figures from the USA: 18,466,231 infected and 326,232 already perished, an increase of 227,998 and 3,338 since yesterday. I am reminded of the words of Pink Floyd: “Is there anybody out there?” Blas de Otero also echoes through my mind: “levanto las manos: tu me las cercenas” / I hold up my hands: you cut them off. And yet it is Christmas Eve and there is still the Christmas promise of joy, and hope, and a new year entering. Let us raise our hands in prayer: and let us pray they are not hacked off.

Heraclitus

Geoff Slater’s mural at McAdam Railway Station. ‘You cannot step in the same river twice.’ Heraclitus.

Heraclitus

Nothing will ever be
as it was before.

Time, like water,
like these people marching,
constantly flows,
trickling through my fingers,
uncatchable, unstoppable,
 sand filtering through
the hour glass’ waist.

Water flows, currents shift,
rocks wear down,
banks slide and fall.

“You cannot walk
in the same river twice
nor ever attend
the same demonstration.”

Nor can you recapture
that first, fine, careless rapture,
the touch of that first
drop of river water.

Kneeling by the river bank,
like St. Kevin and his Blackbird,
I cannot recall the river’s name.

Comment: I love the reality of the river, its impressionist style of flowing water, impossible without the enormous presence of Claude Monet and his portraits of the Seine. However, what makes the mural, for me, is the brutal reality that breaks into the painting’s unreality. The boards covering the interior wall, the hand rail blended into the painting, the skirting board, the electric socket. I also like the intertextuality: art speaking to poetry, poetry replying to art, the links to Heraclitus, poetry speaking to poetry, the anonymity of the river, and the further poetic links to Robert Browning and Seamus Heaney. I often wonder if readers and viewers pick these things up. Or do they just speed-read, link to their own experiences, and move on with no further thought? You tell me. But what I will tell you is that artists reaches out to art, poets extend their hands to poetry, and our world is an inter-connected maze of thoughts and ideas, linking and unlinking, occurring and re-occurring, lapping like an incoming tide at the fingers and toes we immerse in those amniotic waters, often so long-forgotten, in which our creativity is berthed and from which it is born.

Absence

Absence

My body’s house has many rooms and you, my love,
are present in them all. I glimpse your shadow
in the mirror and your breath brushes my cheek

when I open the door. Where have you gone?
I walk from room to room, but when I seek,
I no longer find and nothing opens when I knock.

Afraid, sometimes, to enter a room, I am sure
you are in there. I hear your footsteps on the stair.
Sometimes your voice breaks the silence

when you whisper my name in the same old way.
How can it be true, my love, that you have gone,
that you have left me here alone? I count the hours,

the days, embracing dust motes to find no solace
in occasional sunbeams and salacious dreams.

The Exact Word

Le mot juste

Searching for le mot juste
the exact word that sums it all up, 
catches the essence of the thing 
and holds it in the mind forever.

Think flowers. Think scent. 
Think of the limited ways 
we describe how daffodils
lift and clematis clings.

I look across the breakfast table 
and see my wife of fifty years, 
a teenager reborn, walking into 
that café where we had our first date.

I search my memory and my mind 
for the words to describe that beauty, 
that surge of excitement, 
I still feel when she enters the room:

but find I cannot find le mot juste.

Comment: I shortened this poem from its earlier version. You can click on this link to compare the two versions. I am always puzzled by the dilemma of lengthening or shortening. My thoughts center on the longer and shorter versions of some Raymond Carver stories. Follow the editor’s advice and cut all material down to its essential bones or fill out the skeleton with flesh and blood and expand the creative process further. I also think of the exhortation to ‘stay in the moment’. Anything that takes the reader away from the central experience is superfluous. Experienced writers are aware of that moment and its importance. Writers at my stage are often baffled by it and need to be told yes, this is the moment or no, that is not the moment. I guess the more we write, the more we understand the process. Understand: do we work this out consciously or does it develop in unconscious fashion? Are some people just born with those skills or we must work hard to develop them? Sunt rerum lachrimae: tears are in all things and I guess hard work is all part of the process. As I was told a long time ago: genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. You have to put in the hard work for that little light bulb to go ‘pop’!

Monkey and the Bean Counter

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Monkey and the Bean Counter

An acolyte in a charcoal suit runs by.
He neither stops nor speaks
but slips on slippery words
dripping from another monkey’s tongue.

This other monkey has eyes of asphalt,
a patented pewter soul,
ice water flowing in his veins.
“Hear no evil! See no evil! Speak no evil!”

The hatch of his mind is battened tightly down.
Nothing gets out nor in.
The acolyte’s fingers grasp at a khaki folder,
his manifesto for success.

Senior monkey stalks to his office
and turns on the radio.
His favorite music:
the clink of mounting money.

Disturb him at your peril:
this monkey is very important,
and very, very busy.
He’s also clever:
a real smarty.

First, he empties all the chocolate candies from the box
then he sorts them into little piles:
green with green, brown with brown,
blue with blue, red with red.

Then, like the Good Shepherd checking His flock,
he counts them again and again,
to ensure that none have been stolen
and not one has gone astray.

Comment: Another Golden Oldie, this time from Monkey Temple. I have updated it slightly so it won’t be exactly the same as it is in the printed text. Senior Monkey has, of course, built a bigger box into which he can place all his chocolate candies and tuck them away for ever and ever. I guess if he were a bull and not a monkey, he would have tucked them away for heifer and heifer. Such is the sad state of reality in the Monkey Temple. But if monkey were a bull, he would be living in the cow shed, not the Monkey Temple. Oh dear, oh dear: and oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive with fiction, flash fiction, creative non-fiction, and all the other sugar and spice which goes into the spinning of spider-webs and fairy tales. Speaking of which, did I ever tell you the story of the… well, maybe next time. So tune in again tomorrow. Same thyme, same plaice, and I’ll sing you a song of the fish in the sea… and a fishy tail that will be.

Building Bigger Boxes

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Building Bigger Boxes

Some of the worst educators I have been unfortunate enough to work with over my undergraduate and graduate years have come up with cliché after cliché in an effort to the sway students into believing that they really are getting an excellent education. One such phrase is the infamous: “We are teaching you to think outside the box.” So, what is their definition of ‘the box‘? Alas, I do not know. They deal in clichés and, by definition, a cliché is a  phrase that both parties (teachers and taught) accept as being meaningful, even though it is often without meaning. It is also a conversation closer, as in ‘it is what it is’. It’s hard to argue with that or to reason your way around it. ‘But it doesn’t have to be!’ rarely cuts the mustard aka mouse-turd.

So, if these teachers are teaching their students how to think outside the box, how are they managing to do so? Why by building bigger boxes inside which each student can be safely taught to think, without asking questions, and without looking for independent answers.

Today’s cartoon has two titles: (1) Brave hearts  escaping, finding meaning outside the bigger boxes and (2) can the true heart escape its coffin in a bigger box? I love the boxes within boxes and the drawers within each boxed segment into which the young, developing mind can be stuffed and crammed. How do we release those hearts? How do we develop those minds? Certainly not by confining them in bigger boxes. In the battle for hearts and minds, how do we set our students free?

It must be done on the student’s terms, each student, one by one, in co-operation with intelligent, meaningful teachers who step away from cliché and commonplace to enter the learner’s world and to themselves learn how to contact each learner at a mental, spiritual, and intellectual level. Only then will teacher and taught be able to speak of true intellectual freedom. Until that happens, be very careful when your child comes home and announces that today, of all days, that child has been taught to think outside the box. “Verily, I say unto you, open the cage door. Let in the sunshine and the light. Set those children free.” But remember, it must be on a  case by case basis, with each individual weighed, assessed, understood, and released to find their own individual way of earning the things they specifically need to know. In true education, one size really doesn’t fit all.

Comment: Another Golden Oldie that suddenly surfaced and, on emerging from the depths, reminded me of another of my callings: that of a teacher of philosophy and a teacher with a philosophy. Retired now, I can no longer help young minds to create and shape themselves. This is doubly true with Covid-19 haunting us, waving at us from the shop-windows, supermarket aisles, and street corners, flapping its wings and trying to fly into our bodies. And remember to distinguish between clichés and things that are not clichés, like ‘Wear a mask’, ‘wash your hands’ (twenty seconds, with soap), and ‘keep a safe social distance’. Do this all the time and hopefully you will avoid thinking inside the bigger box of a six foot pine Covid-19 coffin.

Milton Acorn and the Jack Pine

Milton Acorn and the Jack Pine

            I met Milton Acorn in the photocopying room of the university in which I taught. I didn’t know who he was, but I soon found out.
            “Oy! You,” he waved his strong, carpenter’s hands, and stabbed me with a gnarled index finger.
            “Are you Milton Acorn,” I asked. “The poet?”
            “Yup. Make this machine work.”
            “I’m meant to be taking you to lunch.”
            “Got this job to do first,” he pointed at the machine. “Turn it on.”
            I typed in my code and the copier leapt into life.
            “Now go away. I need to be alone.”

            A few minutes later, I returned to find him lying on the photocopier, eyes shut, face pressed against the glass. Lights flashed, the copier whirred, and a copy of his face emerged. He descended from the machine and added his face to the pile of photocopies that lay at his feet.
            “Tape,” he said. “I need tape,” he again stabbed me with his finger and held out his hand.
            “I’ll go and get some.”
            I went to my secretary’s office.
            “What the heck is he doing in there?” she asked.
            “I haven’t got a clue. But now he wants some Scotch tape,” I held out my hand and she handed me a roll of tape “Thanks,” I said.

            I gave Milton the tape and watched as he taped the copies together. He had photocopied his whole body, arms, legs, back sides, feet.
            “Me,” he said happily. “That’s me,”
            Triumphant, he showed me his work: a self-portrait, shadowy and cloudy, still warm, with him all whiskered and worn, smelling still of photocopying ink, unique, unmistakable, uncouth, unseemly, but the real Milton Acorn, a jack pine sonnet self-grown in his own poetic image.