Sheep

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Sheep

I wear the hide of the sheep
they slaughtered for me
twenty-three years ago
in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Like a sheep led to slaughter
I wait in the waiting room
along with other willing victims.
Heads down, silent, we clutch
open magazines, but do not
lift our heads or make eye contact.

In World War One, French troops
bleated like sheep as they marched
in tight columns towards Verdun.

They were disciplined and decimated,
one in ten shot for cowardice.
Is it cowardly to sit here, shivering,
glum faced, as we await
bad news and an uncertain fate?

I hate this uncertainty,
this inability to know what
is happening to my body.

Knowledge I can face, but
not doubt’s shadow dancing
like a will-o’-the wisp, and
leading who knows where,
keeping me awake as it did,
last night, stoking my fears
into this red-hot furnace
filled with burning coals
of fierce, fired-up doubt.

True bravery is to know fear,
to face it, and to face it down,
and to laugh in its face even
though your heart is breaking
and your gut tells you to run,
now, before it’s too late.

 

 

 

Words Overheard

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Words Overheard while Waiting

“Just one of those things,” an old woman whispers,
“my husband gone and me alone with all the grand
kids.” “Was it four years ago?” her friend says.

I remember his name, but I forget his face.”
“I’ll cope somehow, and the fourteen-year old,
with her belly 
starting to swell.” Silence wraps
a warning scarf around their flapping mouths.

Lives and worlds end and begin. Back turned
to their words, I listen to them talk. They chatter
about friends, family, acquaintances, giving
intimate details of childlessness from cancers
and sudden sicknesses, all laid out before me,
willy-nilly, to root and grow in my listening mind.

Never will I put a face to the girls with breast cancer,
the overweight women with diabetes, the old men
with their heart attacks, strokes, and damaged brains.

Fine dust dances in a sun ray.  Floating motes,
my lost loves, buried before their proper time.

On the outside

 

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On the Outside Looking In …

I walked home on my own. As usual. I’d hated the church Christmas party with all its trumped-up noise, childish games, and artificial gaiety.
The priest, formidable yet effeminate in his long black skirted robe, had made us sit in a circle on the floor, legs crossed. He stood inside that circle and placed a bar of chocolate on the wooden boards. Then he walked around the group and whispered a word in each boy’s ear.
“You must wait until you hear your secret word,” he explained. “Then one of you, when I speak that word, whoever it happens to be, may have the chocolate bar,” he stared at us, large, horsey teeth, black no hair, eyes golden, fierce, like an eagle’s, beneath bushy eye-brows. “When you hear your secret name, you must run and grab the chocolate bar. Understood?”
I had come to the party on my own as both my parents worked. The mums and dads who had brought their offspring to the party leaned forward in keen anticipation. The boys all nodded.
“Are you ready?” The priest watched us as we nodded and then he shouted “Alligator!”
Nobody moved.
“Elephant!” The boys shuffled forward, like inch worms, hands twitching, fingers flexing and grasping.
“Tiger!” A sigh emerged from multiple mouths. Some of the boys licked their lips.
“Lion!” One boy moved, but the priest shooed him away. “Sit down. That wasn’t your word.”
“M-m-mouse!” The boys heaved, a sea-wave about to crest and break.
“I do love this game,” said the priest to the parents. “And so do the boys, don’t you boys?”
“Yes, father …” came the chorus.
“Monkey!” All the boys, except one, leapt into springy action. They dived, crawled, leaped to their feet, ran … a surging heap of boys writhed on the floor as the chocolate bar was torn apart and the long-awaited fights ensued.
All the boys moved, except me. I just sat there.         “I said ‘Monkey,’” the priest frowned at me. “That’s your word. When I say ‘Monkey’, you join in with the other boys and fight for the chocolate bar.”
I shook my head.
“Have some Christmas fun. Join in the game.”
I again shook my head.
“Why not?”
“It’s not right. You’re just mocking us.  I want to go home,” I stood up and walked out of the church hall. I turned at the door and saw the priest glaring at me while a mound of boys continued to scrummage on the floor.
As I walked home, it started to snow. Not the pure white fluffy snow of a Merry Christmas, but the dodgy, slippery mixture of rain, snow, and ice pellets that turned the streets of that little seaside town into an ice rink. I turned up the collar of my coat, bowed my head, and stuffed my hands into my pockets. Two houses before my own, I stopped.
A neighbor’s house. With a window lit up in the gathering dark. I drew closer, pressed my nose against the window and looked in. A Christmas tree, decorated with lights, candles, more decorations, a fire burning on the hearth, two cats curled up warm before the fire, presents beneath the tree, stockings hanging from the mantelpiece. For a moment, my heart unfroze and I felt the spirit of Christmas. Then I thought of my own house. Cold and drafty. No lights, no decorations. No fire. The snowball snuggled back into my chest and refused to melt.
When I got home, our house stood chill and empty. My parents were out at work and the fire had died. Nothing was ready for Christmas. I sat at the kitchen table, took out my colouring book and began to draw. When my mother came home, I showed her my drawing.
“Very nice,” she said, barely glancing at it.
“But mum, you haven’t really looked.”
She stared at the picture again. This time, she saw the Christmas tree and the lights, the cats and the candles, the decorations and the presents. But she never noticed the little boy standing outside the house in the falling sleet, peering in through the window.

Railway Yards

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Railway Yards

The enemy came to bomb them. And they did. Tracks rooted out, twisted like spaghetti. Engine sheds burned down. Rolling stock ruined. Many children that year lived with the fear of thunder and lightning as Swansea, my home town, burned, in spite of the black out curtains and the air raid precautions. My father’s father lived by the railway yards. When I stayed with him overnight, the shuffle and clank of steam engines and the clatter of coal trucks scarred my dreams.

My mother’s father lived by the sea and each night the ebb and flow of the tides rocked me to sleep when I stayed in his house. I told the time by the tides and I knew every ship that entered and left Swansea Docks. Standing on the front step, with field glasses to sweep the bay, I could read the ships’ names, painted on bow or stern, and then check their movements in the local paper, the South Wales Evening Post.

Timetables: they ruled my life: time tables for the trains, tide tables for the ships.
When they drove me away to boarding school, I was far removed from the rail yards and the sea. I was now summoned by bells, my every activity chimed in by bell after bell. Bells: wake up, get dressed, eat breakfast, be silent. Bells for each class, for the angelus, bells for dinner, supper, bed time, and baths. Bells on the altar as we knelt before tall candles that flickered light as the tinkling bells flicked sound across the chapel. The only escape from bells came during field games. No bells then, just whistles. But bells and whistles whittled the timetables of a carefully regulated working life.

When we moved from Swansea (Abertawe) to Cardiff (Caer Dydd), our new house also backed onto train tracks and railway yards. The rattle of rolling stock lulled me to sleep. Each day, I opened my eyes to the clash and clang of early-morning shunting. Each night, at exactly 3:10 a.m., the express train to London would rattle past my bedroom window and shake me awake as I lay in my bed. The one day I didn’t hear the train, I woke up anyway, listening for its sound. When silence stalked beneath the stars, I knew there had been an accident, and I couldn’t get back to sleep. Radio and newspapers, there was little television then, screamed the news, so many people dead and injured. We mourned for the unknown dead, just like we did in the mine disasters and the bombings.

Lights out at 9:30, prefects and house masters on patrol outside dormitory doors enforced the silence that ruled the night in those inland boarding schools that I was forced to inhabit. No trains, no ships, no tides, no rattling of rolling stock, no steam whistle, no salt smell of the incoming sea disturbed my dreams, just the snoring and whimpering of lonely little boys lost in their iron-frame beds and longing for the comforts of home.

On Learning Welsh

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On Learning Welsh
            Here I sit, an old man now, in front of my computer, learning at last my mother tongue, Welsh. English is the language of the invaders, the mine-owners, the men who own the steel works and foundries, and who rule this land with a fist of coal inside an iron glove. Welsh is the tongue of farmers and fishermen, of the villagers who live on the hills and tend the sheep and plant potatoes in tiny small holdings where only the fittest children survive.
My mother’s father was the last of us to speak Welsh. It was banned in our house because it was bad for the kids. In a working-class household, Welsh, be it language or accent, was a barrier to success. And success came from imitating your English betters, and climbing upwards, like a vine, or Jack on his beanstalk, until you achieved the impossible and talked and looked and dressed like them.
Sitting here, I have discovered the beauty of simple words, not so much their meaning as their sound, the way they flow, the poetry of remembered rhythms:
Cwmrhydyceirw, the Valley of the Leaping Stag, though legend has it that ceirw was really cwrw, and cwrw is beer, and its real name was the Valley of the Brown Stream Frothing like Beer.
Words have their own music, even if you cannot pronounce them properly: Mae hi’n bwrw glaw nawr yn Abertawe / it’s raining now in Swansea. Mae’r tywydd yn waeth heddiw / the weather’s worse today. Bydd hi’n dwym ddydd Llun / it will be warm on Monday. Why, oh why, in Wales, do we always talk about the weather?
Place names also have their own magic: Llantrisant, Llandaff, Dinas Powis, Gelligaer, Abertawe, Cas Newydd, Pen-y-bont … Meaning changes when you switch from one language to another:  gwyraig ty / a housewife, gwr ty / a househusband, a concept of equality that has ruled Welsh lives since Julius Caesar invaded Albion, coming from Gaul with his legions in 55 BC.
            Un deg chwech, dau deg saith, tri deg wyth, naw deg naw … The photographer asks me to speak in English, then in French, then in Spanish, then in Latin, and lastly in Welsh. He checks the memory card in his camera and looks puzzled.
“You put on a new face each time you speak a different language,” he tells me. “Look, this is when you spoke French.” He shows me the photo and yes, I look happy.
“And this is when you spoke Latin.” He holds out the camera and I see myself on the screen. I look ever so grim. English, French, Spanish, Latin, Spanish, and Welsh: all different and each language is a new a map carved into my face.  Am I a clown, then, a comedian, a chameleon to wear so many masks and to slip so easily from one to another? Which, then, is my language and where is the Old Red Sandstone from Wales into which I can carve my memories and my dreams? More important, which of those many tongues will shape my story as I sculpt each letter of my tale?

Invisible Scars

 

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Invisible Scars

            Our minds absorb words as blotting-paper soaks up ink. Phrases carve beehives deep in our inner circuits. No te preocupes / don’t worry. Yet tone and carry are different in each language and the comfort-blanket serenity of no te preocupes does not translate.
Nor do the catcalls from the soccer, aimed equally at opponent and referee, and tumbling raucous from the stands where people sit. Shrill whistles sound in the bull ring: a matador who seems afraid to approach this particular bull for reasons only known to him, yet his shakiness visible to all who watch and understand what they are seeing.
The Cordobés answers the telephone he places on the bull’s nose, yet fails to approach between the horns and his sword rebounds off bull bone: pincha hueso. Each one wounds, the last one kills. El Viti, stately, graceful, an elderly churchman proud of his vocation and always willing to perform to perfection the weekly ceremony of the sacrifice. The boos when the bull enters the ring, stumbles, and comes up lame and limping. The cheers that accompany the arrival of the seventh bull. The refusal to eat meat that has been slaughtered in the bullring, even though it is advertised outside the butcher’s: tenemos solomillo de toro de lidia / we have tenderloin steaks from fighting bulls. Bulls who have led the best of lives, fed on the tenderest pastures by flowing streams. Bulls grown for slaughter and public sacrifice.
Guernica. The bull fight in the sand-filled square. Except it wasn’t a fight, it was more a circus. The slippery pig. The hens and chickens. The rabbits and hares. All the animals running scared. The animals released, one by one, and the spectators jumping into the ring, really a square, one by one, and chasing down the animals, taking them home for dinner, if they could catch them.
Then the bigger beasts. The mule, ferocious, jumping into the air, kicking four tormentors, one with each leg, and biting a fifth with his teeth. No fearful, clucking chicken this, nor the cow who came after with her padded horns. Participants moved more carefully now. She watched them from her querencia the place where she chose to fight to the death. She knelt, scraped off the rubber balls that covered her horns. Re-armed, she charged and the crowd scattered, all but one young kid, caught, fallen to the ground, the cow standing over him, ready to gore again.
Sixteen years old, an outsider, I jumped with others over the barrier, twisted this away and that, thumped the cow’s side, smelled her fury, her fear, the whole soured being that emanated from her. Together, we hustled her, bustled her, dragged her kicking, butting, from the ring, backwards, pulled by the tail.
Visible scars of damaged animals. Scars of the participants. That young man who broke his leg. That old man, inebriated, stuffed with food and drink, who loosened his belt to move more freely. We watched as his pants slipped from his waist to fall around his knees and trap him, just as the cow charged. He survived but will bear the scars forever, some visible, many not.
Long summer days, on the Sardinero, the Segunda Playa, playing soccer. Different rules, different skills, different swear words: I carry a dictionary tucked into my bathing trunks and refuse to play while I look up the words spat at me by my opponent. Good heavens, I think, is that anatomically possible? The ball bounces away on the hard, sand ridges. I chase it and steadily dehydrate under the hot sun. A sea-salt wind desiccates my body. My mouth fills with salt water when I swim out to retrieve the ball from the sparkling sea. My tongue sticks to the inside of my mouth. When I spit, I spit dry and everyone laughs. Now I am totally dry, shiver, and no longer sweat. Now I am no longer my self, but I’ll never be one of them.

 

Think about it!

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Commentary:

Climate change, is it real or is it a hoax? Do we believe the scientific facts or do we follow the propagandistic myth makers? Your choice. The issue has become so clouded by the religious and the anti-religious who stress belief above fact. It reminds me of the religious wars of the sixteenth century: believers, true believers, non-believers, un-believers disbelievers, all summed up in atheists, agnostics, gnostics, and true believers. But believers in what, and in which, and in where, and in why, and in whom?

I am not a scientist: I am a linguist, an analyzer of language. I do not know the rights and wrongs of maths and science. But I do know the difference between Stork and Butter, or Talk and Mutter, as David Frost (the original) once said in TWTWTW (That was The Week That Was — remember that? If you do, you are as old, or older than I am! And you probably didn’t live in this geographical region). I have never played poker. But I have studied languages, more than most people have and I know from body language when the speaker is bluffing, throwing up Aunt Sallies (remember them? Rhetoric 100), Straw Men, or Pestilential Pancakes.

Bluster and Bluff. Emotion not argument. Lies not truth. Think about it. Listen carefully. Make up your own mind. But please: move beyond twits, twitter, and tweets. Move beyond bewitching personae. Move beyond the casual joke, the witty epigram and read beyond the grade nine press and the flagrant advertisements. If you can’t, and if you are trapped in the comic art of the rhetoritician’s net, please consider upgrading your knowledge, your studies, and your education.

Our well ran dry a summer ago. Think about it. I did. Deeply. Our neighbors wells have also run dry. Think about it. I have lived here for thirty years. Never before have we seen a water shortage. Think about it. I thought about it. Luckily, in our case, it was a problem with the pump. $200 for a new control panel and a couple of adjustments, not $12,000 for a new well and an even deeper dip into the diminishing aquifer.

Lucky, lucky, lucky: but for how much longer?
Think about it!