Finisterre

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Finisterre

Nothing left now but this pain in my heart.
It makes me think about ageing, growing old,
that unstoppable process of the body’s slow,
inevitable breaking down from all to nothing.

I should probably go to the doctor, but what
can she, will she do? She can’t stop the hands
on my body clock and lop ten or twenty years
from my life. Nor can her pills, lotions, potions

gift me with the long-sought magic of the Fountain
of Youth. The truth, unwelcome as it is, is that
the day I was born I took my first steps on the path
to death, my own death, an inescapable law

that tells me that body and spirit will be forced
apart, that the flesh will wither and perish,
and that the person the world and I know as
me will no longer be able to hold together.

Comment: Finisterre, the Pillars of Hercules, the Nec Plus Ultra beyond which there is nothing, Terra Incognita … that spot in Newfoundland where my friend, Dr. Leo Ferrari, who founded the Flat Earth Society, stood at the edge of the world and looked at the horrible void below him which ended in nothingness.

Nihilism is the point of view that suspends belief in any or all general aspects of human life, which are culturally accepted. Most commonly, nihilism is presented in the form of existential nihilism, which argues that life is without objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value. Moral nihilists assert that morality does not exist at all. Nihilism may also take epistemological, ontological, or metaphysical forms, meaning respectively that, in some aspect, knowledge is not possible, or reality does not actually exist.

The term is sometimes used in association with anomie  to explain the general mood of  despair at a perceived pointlessness of existence that one may develop upon realizing there are no necessary norms, rules, or laws.

Nihilism has also been described as conspicuous in or constitutive of certain historical periods. Many have called post-modernity  a nihilistic epoch and some religious theologians and figures of religious authority have asserted that post-modernity and many aspects of modernity, represent a rejection of theism, and that such rejection of theistic doctrine entails nihilism. All the above is borrowed shamelessly from this Wikipedia article on nihilism.

What this leads to is the danger of losing our faith in these troubled times. G. K. Chesterton wrote, a long time ago, in the century before last, that people who lost their faith were inclined to believe anything. Please, do not believe everything and anything you hear. For example, no, Leo, my friend, the world is not flat. And no, my beloved readers, drinking Chlorox or Drano will do you much more harm than good. In fact it may well turn you into the nihil [Latin for nothing] from which nihil-ism is formed.

More important: believe in life, in positivity, in the light that will shine through this darkness. Believe, as Our Lord Don Quixote [thank you, don Miguel de Unamuno, for that wonderful book, and thank you also for gifting us with your philosophy in The Tragic Sense of Life] believed that yes, we can see all of this through and that yes, we are the children of our deeds, and that yes, as my friend Pedro Calderón de la Barca told me a long time ago, obrar bien, to do only good, be the best that we can be, that’s what really matters in this vale of tears and shadows, this tv reality show that we call life.

Morning in Island View

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Morning in Island View

             Morning in Island View and I dream of warm lips rising from stone cold waters. Somewhere, the early sun floats petals across a lily pond. Framed among lilies, my beloved’s face drifts through a watery space. So sweet, her embodiment: she lies languid among the lilies, beside herself in bloom after bloom, each flower gigantic in its frame beneath a wooden footbridge.

            I envision her as she was, this lily who will toil not, nor spin, and who sighs with the morning breeze that ripples her smiling countenance into a thousand fragments. She lies cushioned amid the lily pads, a work of wonder in a liquid impression of fragmented light.

            Fortune rattles its poker dice and they fall haphazardly, here and there, wherever they will. Once thrown, like the spoken word that can never be recalled, they lie there, still on the table’s green baize. They fall, but not by chance and chance itself blossoms with their falling. Like Venus born from the waves, my beloved rises from the waters, born in a conjurer’s trick of blossom turned flesh and pulled from the stream’s dark sleeve to flash her mysterious magic in a thicket of flowering water.

            Now, I see her everywhere: a model in a window, languid in a pavement puddle where raindrops ripple her eyes, couched among the floating clouds as evening steals color from the day. Dusk’s shadows draw their curtains across street and square and now she becomes my lily of the lamplight and I frame her anew in the streetlight’s afterglow, night’s figment dreamed alive beneath distant stars. I walk with her, hand in hand, at noon, when the cathedral wears its strawberry suit, and again in the late afternoon when a blueberry blush descends with bells.

            One evening, in a fit of hope, or is it despair, when my heart pants for a cooling stream, I tread the lily pad path across the pond’s untroubled waters. Dark bells ring out their jug-o-rum chorus as I seek the light of her countenance. Dusk is a violent bruise, scoured purple and red across the waters as I try to become one with my lady of the lake.

            I still don’t know what drew me out. But when I emerged, I sensed that all had changed and that nothing had changed more than I had, the viewer, that once-young man, now old and arthritic, typing away, one finger at a time, battering my key-board to recreate the wanderlust of those day-dreams wrought sous le Pont Mirabeau, along the banks where the Seine flows, or up by the bouqinistes where bridges span the river, words bounce off the page, and painted lilies in the Marché aux Fleurs bewitch the viewer with a staring madness that mirrors pondweed and drifting hair. Now my beloved’s face floats through the cathedral’s eye that ripples in the river. I see the great rose window of Notre Dame, and I seek her once again in those dark waters where she holds out her hands, a place mat for my un-drowned heart.

Time Flies

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Time Flies

… bends like a boomerang,
flies too rapidly away,
limps back to the hand.

Endless this shuffle of unmarked
days dropping off the calendar,
extinct so many animals
that exited Noah’s Ark.

Hands stop on the clock.
The pendulum swings:
time and tide stand still,
do not move.

‘As idle as a painted ship
upon a painted ocean.’

The print in my grandma’s house:
seemingly moving seas,
sails swelled out,
the ship stays firm in its frame.

Our garden fills with birds
and squirrels, light and dark.
Morning ablutions: each day
a twin of the day before.

The TV screen fills up its washbasin:
tired, shadow faces boring us
with endless wit and wisdom.

Time flies:
an albatross around the neck,
an emu, an ostrich, a dodo,
all flightless,
an overweight bumble bee,
too clumsy, too heavy to fly.

Avila 2007a 102

Comment: The top photograph shows the year 1555 marked in standard figures and in glyphs from the Mixtec calendar (Oaxaca, Mexico). … time flies you can’t they fly too fast … This is a conundrum from the General Knowledge Paper in the school leaving exams (1961). Punctuate this sentence: time flies you can’t they fly too fast … Proposed answer: Time flies? You can’t. They fly too fast!”  I seem to believe there were about ten of these on that paper. However, never trust your memory.

The second photograph shows fledgling storks in Avila, Spain, trying to fledge, to fly, to leave their nests. Some will succeed earlier than others. Those who do not manage to fly, who are not brave enough to leave their nests, will sit there. After a while, their parents will not feed them. And then they must fly or starve. Sometimes, time flies. Sometimes, time sits on its hands and the clock hands refuse to move. Think: time enjoying yourself (it just flows by). Think: time in the dentist’s chair with a root canal, time lying prone having an anal biopsy for prostrate cancer, time spent, those everlasting ten minutes, while a cataract is being removed and a new lens is inserted.

Oh yes, time is flexible. Not only is it flexible, it is insistent, inexorable, unstoppable. Those clocks tick on, whether we are awake or asleep. The seconds lull us with their security, the minutes lull us with their monotony, hours lull us with their harmony, days faze us, daze us … hours: each one wounds, the last one kills. Time marches on. We can rewrite the past (revisionism), but we cannot relive it, except in our dreams.

Avila 2007a 150

 Doors close.
We can never go back.

The Journey

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The Journey

I sense the rust in her mind’s clockwork
clogging her brain, slowing down thought.

I watch her search for words, stumbling through
sentences.  “Wind up the flowers,” she says
handing me the key for the grandfather clock.

When she says “water the clock” I receive
the plastic watering-can meant for the flowers.

Fellow travelers, we journey side by side on life’s
train. I watch her as she looks out of the window
at the passing countryside with its tiny stations.

She frets as she clasps her weak hand in her strong
one and I realize she’s worried because she no longer
knows when, where, or how the journey will end.

Comment: I wrote this originally in memory of my grandmother. However, as I have been involved in the rediscovering / revision / rewriting of older poems, I have come to realize that, as our visions change,  our poems become more accessible to a wider audience. In other words, given what is happening right now with the pandemic, none of us know when, where, or how the journey will end. This leads directly into the twin themes of the fragility of life and the nature of memory. What do we remember? Why do we remember a particular incident? Did it happen just as we remember it or have we already doctored our memories, re-creating them, so to speak.

I have a clear memory of seeing Sir Frank Worral batting at St. Helen’s in Swansea, when I was about 11 years old. A close friend of mine, an outstanding cricketing historian, checked the details in Wisden and told me that Frank Worral wasn’t playing in that match, so I couldn’t have seen him batting. And then there was Sir Everton de Courcy Weekes: I swear a saw him score a century at Bristol, yet, again according to my friend who checked the records, he only got fifty in that game! Games: what mind games the mind plays with us as we age. So, do I go with the fantasy land of my memories in which much has been (re)-invented? Or do I go with the world of truth and checkable reality? As an academic, I lived in the latter world: research, check, double check, avoid expressing personal opinions, facts, facts, facts, and exact dates. As an ageing poet, I would much rather live in that former world where truth and reality march hand in hand with fairy-tale and fiction, a little bit of one and a smattering of both.

How far is from fairy-tale and fiction to the dream world we inhabit at night? Just a short step, I reckon. Sometimes I remember my dreams and write them down when I wake up. Sometimes they vanish and I can only recall some vague feelings of joy and anguish. And what is life, that fragile, dream-like reality? Is it really a dream, as Segismundo tells us in Calderón’s La Vida es Sueño? Or is it a real world? And if it is real, do we create that reality or do we dream it? And if we dream it, do we sleep walk, sleep talk, sweet talk our way through it? Or do we portray it just like it really is, with no creativity, just a factual repeat of reality as we know it?

¿Qué es la vida? Un frenesí.
¿Qué es la vida? Una ilusión,
una sombra, una ficción,
y el mayor bien es pequeño,
porque toda la vida es un sueño,
y los sueños, sueños son.

What is life? A frenzy.
What is life? An illusion,
a shadow, a fiction,
and the greatest good is small,
because life is a dream,
and dreams are nothing
but dreams, after all.

 

Empty

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Empty

Empty now the house, clean the floors where she
spattered food and scattered her toys, polished

the tables, grubby no more, where small hands
clattered fork and spoon, her breakfast not wanted.

Empty the bathroom, the tub where she bathed.
Dry the towels, full the toothpaste tubes she

emptied in ecstasy. Where now her foot
-prints, her laughter and tears, the secret

language she spoke that we never understood?
Empty too my heart where, a wild bird, she

nested for the briefest time, then flew, yet
I possess her still, within my empty hands.

Commentary: The lead painting is the one Finley painted for me. I received it as a Christmas present, a couple of years back when she was 3 or 4. When asked if she wanted to add some more to the painting as the canvas wasn’t full, she replied: “No, it’s finished. That’s just how I want it.” Picasso once said that he spent the first half of his life learning to paint and the second half learning to see again as children see. Sometimes we complicate our art so much that we kill our inspiration and our vision. Some poets necessitate a dictionary in order for a reader to understand their words, yet when the meaning emerges, we find that the poem is convoluted, stilted, almost meaningless and even emptier than it was before.

Question: why do we try to gild the lily? Why do we lead to the slaughter the gift of the goose who lays the golden eggs? Are we writers or assassins? Are we not capable of putting meaning on paper with the directness and simplicity of a child? Good questions all. Sometimes I think that poets are like the existentialists of Albert Camus’s novels: they are the assassins of language and the murderers of direct and clear writing. And who are the victims? The words, images, metaphors, feelings that are strangled in the cradle or forced into captivity behind prison bars of jumbled lines and scattered thought.

Original ideas? No, not at all. This is the basic argument that Francisco de Quevedo (conceptismo) had with Luis de Góngora (culteranismo) in the Spanish literary salons of Madrid between 1613and 1627. The literary insults they wrote to each other are still a scandalous joy to read. These two seemingly separate styles of writing, which are actually very similar on many levels, eventually blended together and led to a total renewal of the Spanish literary language.  This in turn was bastardized by second-class imitators who did not have the skills of the original ‘super’ artists. And thus the pendulum swings: innovation > standardization > parody and satire of a worn out language > fresh inspiration and innovation.

As for me: how I would love to regain the clarity of vision and the joy of words that I experienced when I was a child. Back then, the world was a magic place, the pen and pencil were magic wands, and the empty page was a blank canvas to be filled with wonder. Alas: then I was sent to school. Rules were set. Bars were installed. Blinkers were inserted. Doors and windows were locked. Creativity ended. I will say no more.

Applause

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Applause

All that I hear
around me:
the mixing and matching
of shingle and stone,
waves hissing,
grinding the beach down
as they move in and out.

Comment: We are surrounded by news, fake news, false news, and systematic deception. What can we now trust? I no longer know. But I do know that the above poem is not nihilistic. It expresses the reduction of applause and insubstantial glory to the minutiae of the daily doings of the natural world, in comparison to which we humans are nothing. “Look on my works ye mighty and despair” … hand gestures, smiles, thunderous applause from the chosen gathered to bear witness and paid to applaud, whatever the event. Alas, I cannot say it as well as Shelley. Here’s his Ozymandias (11 January 1818).

I met a traveler from an antique land
who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

and wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
tell that its sculptor well those passions read
which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
the hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:

and on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
the lone and level sands stretch far away.”

 

 

 

 

Black Angel

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Black Angel

You cannot hide
when the black angel arrives
to knock on your door.

“Wait a minute!” you say,
“While I change my clothes
and comb my hair.”

But he is there before you,
in the clothes closet,
pulling your arm.

You move to the bathroom
to brush your teeth.

“Now!” says the angel.
Your eyes mist over.

You may know you are there,
but you can no longer see
your reflection in the mirror.

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Comment: Another Golden Oldie from the same dusty manuscript (as if e-files could get dusty), but a little bit more sinister, this one. As long as you can see your reflection and as long as your shadow is still clipped to your heels when the sun shines, you are probably all right. A friend of mine had a nasty turn the other night. He woke up with cramp at 3 in the morning, got out of bed to stretch, blacked out while he was stretching, and came round on the bedroom floor an hour later. It took him 10 minutes to roll over, perform a push up, get onto his knees, crawl to the chair, and pull himself upright. He climbed back into bed and forgot all about it until it was time for him to get up the next morning. Then he lay there worrying until the forces of nature forced him to his feet. Now he says he’s fine … he might be. I checked his shadow and it’s still there and when I talked with him on Messenger, he’d managed to shave.

Fragile

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Fragile

Snow flakes fall fragile
strength in numbers
not in each morsel
falling rom grey skies

a word to the wise
there is no health
nor strength nor wealth
each one of us fragile

one puff of wind
a sudden gust
and we are gone
turned into dust
when that voice calls
go we must

Comment: I sat here looking out of the window. I didn’t mean to write a sonnet, especially such an unstructured one. Then, poetry, like life, sometimes just happens. A sudden gust and the sky filled with snowflakes. Light and airy, winter fairies floating across the lawn, not settling, scurrying on. I blinked, looked again: the wind had dropped and they had gone. Now they’re back, wind-blown, and in a flurry. Just passing through. How many in a minute, in an hour, in a day? Anonymous, no name, the numbers game: some days that’s all we can play.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Day 23 CV-19

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Day 23 CV-19
Codes and Coding

“Languages: they say that to learn another language is to gain another soul and another set of eyes through which to view the world.” I wrote these words just yesterday [Day 22 CV-22]. The words are mine, but the idea belongs elsewhere. I have borrowed it and adopted it. I would willingly attribute it to a specific author, but I do not know who said it first. I offer my apologies to the to me unknown genius who first spoke these words.

Why codes and coding? A rhetorical question, of course. But codes and coding are the basic elements through which language transfers thought, our thoughts. What is a code? Well, we know all about Morse Code and the elaborate codes through which spies from all countries communicate their needs. A code is a way of converting language, changing it, making it available to those initiated in the code and unavailable to those who have not received such initiation. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

When I was travelling regularly to Spain for research in Spanish libraries, my first port of call was always the local barber shop. I did this for several reasons. In the first place, my Canadian haircut gave me away as a foreigner. This is the hairdresser’s code. The barber’s shop was always the centre of local gossip. Here, buzz words changed hands, politicians were discussed, all the local news was immediately available. Each of these items was a code, a code that made an insider (acceptable) versus an outsider (not to be spoken to). I remember, one summer in Madrid, not getting served in any bar or restaurant. Check haircut: okay. Check shoes: bought new pair. Check shirt, jacket, tie: all up to date. Inspect lucky customers … ah … they are all wearing a shiny brass pin showing the symbol of Madrid: El Oso y el Madroño, the bear and the strawberry tree, as seen in La Puerta del Sol.

The next bar I entered saw me sporting El Oso y el Madroño in my lapel. Qué quiere el señor? Immediate service and with a smile. These are social codes, the codes that include the winks and nudges of the upper class, the secret handshakes and foot positions, the names dropped so gently and quietly that they never shatter when they hit the floor. There are also language codes. Northrop Frye wrote The Great Code: The Bible and Literature, a study of the mythology and structure of the Bible was published in 1982. In this wonderful study, Frye showed how themes and language from the bible have influenced the structure of Western Literature, particularly that written in English. Within this code, names, themes, miracles, parables, psalms form a body of are common knowledge available to all readers who are christian and whose first language is English.

But there are other codes. Think Petracharism. Petrarch’s poetry, originally written in Italian, was widely imitated throughout Europe. Italian literature, Spanish, French, English, all dip into that code, as does Shakespeare among so many others. Think the Great Chain of Being. Shakespeare is incomprehensible in places unless you unlock this particular code. Think Platonism, Neo-Platonism, Stoicism, Existentialism … okay, so all this is academic, and I do not want to lose you in a sea of academia. So think NFL, think NBA, think NHL, think baseball, think cricket, think rugby, think darts, think all of the things we manipulate on a daily basis in our lives and think how they include some people (those who know and share our codes) and exclude others (those who are unaware of them). LBW, c&b,  c. A, b. B, st. A b. B, w, W, b, lb, dec., rsp …

This is a wonderful line of discussion. It follows along the lines of micro-language and macro-language. Macro-language is accessible to all who happen to speak that language. Micro-language in its multidinous forms incarnadine belongs ONLY to those who share the micro community, be it family, household, village, town, county, region … all that is closest and dearest to our micro-hearts.

Self-Isolation Day 22 / Ducks

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Self-Isolation Day 22
22 =Ducks, Patos in Spanish.

Ducks, because the 2 and the 2 seem to float together like a pair of ducks or a pair of Swans. How did Swansea get it’s name? Some say it was because handsome white swans used to swim on the salt waters of the bay: Swan+sea. Other’s say that  was on account of a battle where a man called Swain lost his eye: Swain’s Eye = Swansea. Oh dear, it’s so much easier in Welsh: Abertawe, the mouth of the river Tawe.

Speaking of Welsh, this is the 290th consecutive day that I have done my Welsh lessons. I guess the pandemic has helped over the last few weeks. Nowhere to go, nothing to do, and all those Welsh memories bringing a fresh light to enlighten the darkness that is Corona Virus aka Covidis-19.

Language Teaching: never easy. And I should know after 43 years of teaching Spanish in Canadian universities (1966-2009). Relevance and irrelevance: how do we teach meaningful things? Good question. Dw i eisiau prynu’r crwban ddu fach / I want to buy the little black tortoise. Very useful. I bet they use that phrase on the streets of Llanelli and Abertawe every day of the week. How about Mae’r ddraig coch yn callu smwddio bob wythnos / The red dragon is able to do the ironing every week. Well, well: I suppose I did remember these two wonderful phrases. I am sure I will use them the next time I go to Cardiff.

I much prefer the Welsh of St. David: Gwnewch y pethau bychain mewn bywyd / Do ye the little things in life or Byddwch lawen a chadwch eich ffyd a’ch credd / Be joyful and keep your faith and creed. These two quotes from the patron saint of Wales are full of meaning, especially at this oh-so-difficult juncture in all our lives. Funny really: I laugh at the first two, the dragon and the tortoise, but without them, I would probably never have arrived at the Original Welsh of St. David / Dewi Sant.

Languages: they say that to learn another language is to gain another soul and another set of eyes through which to view the world. We view the world through our languages. Limit the language and we limit the world. Reduce the language, any language, to its lowest common denominator, and we reduce and diminish the world around us. Sparrows, juncos, chickadees, Cedar Waxwings, robins, mourning doves, crows, hawks (Cooper’s Hawk, Sharp-Shinned Hawk, Marsh Hawk) are all reduced to birds. Mountain Ash (Russian or European), Birch, Hackmatack, Tamarack, Spruce … all these are reduced to trees, nothing more and nothing less than trees.

Think about language. Savor language. Roll it round your mouth. Taste it on your tongue. Use the correct names for things. Expand your vocabulary. Do not be satisfied with Grade 9 English. Learn. Advance. Develop. Carry a dictionary (Y geiriadur Gymraeg newydd) and look up words, learn their meanings, learn how to spell them. Never give up. Do not be satisfied, ever, with the lowest level of existence. Flower, flourish, rise up and fight for your own self-education, for your own language, for your own destiny, for your own rights!