Thursday Thoughts Ubi sunt …

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Thursday Thoughts
Ubi sunt …

Ubi sunt qui ante nos fuerunt? Where are they who went before us? As St. Augustine is said to have written: O homo, dic mihi, ubi sunt reges, ubi sunt principes, ubi imperatores, qui fuerunt ante nos… “O man, tell me, where are the kings, where are the princes, where the emperors, who had been before us” {Wikipedia]. Many philosophers have written on this theme, and many poets, including Villon in his famous ballade “Mais où sont les neiges d’antan?” Where is last year’s snow? Cervantes also echoes the theme with this slight variation “No hay pájaros en los nidos de antaño.” There are no birds in last year’s nests.

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Goran Haven, Cornwall, July, 1966. I was waiting to receive the results of my final exams from Bristol University. Clare and I decided to spend a week in Cornwall and ended up in Goran Haven. When we came back, I made her a book of photos from the trip with hand-written poems beneath them. I discovered that book the other day and was taken back to a time when I wasn’t even thinking of coming to Canada. Fifty-three years later, looking at these photos, I ask myself ubi sunt … where did those days go? All those days, the old country, and everything that went with our youth … ubi sunt?

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Same thing happened when I visited McAdam Railway Station: wonderful memories of all the steam trains of my youth. And those railway names: Great Western Railway [GWR], London Midlands Scotland [LMS] , London North Eastern Railway [LNER]. So many things that I can never forget: the smell of the old steam engines, the sound of their wheels going clackety-clack, the taste of smoke and ash when I thrust my head out of the window, in spite of the sign that said, Do not lean out of the window, the feel of those worn cloth seats beneath the fingers, and the sense of excitement and joy when an empty corner seat begged to be sat in. Something else I’ll never forget: the cold taste of a Cadbury’s Milk Flake stuck in an ice-cream on a warm summer’s day.

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Gower

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Gower

To be Welsh in Gower is to spell it funny
and pronounce it worse: Gwyr.
It’s to know how to say Pwll Ddu.
It’s meeting the cows in the lane to Brandy Cove
and knowing them all by name and reputation,
which one kicks, which one gores,
when to walk in the middle of the lane,
and when to jump for the safety of the hedge.

It’s to know the difference between the twin farmers
Upper and Lower Jones.
It’s to recognize their sheepdogs, Floss and Jess,
and to call them with their different whistles.
It’s knowing the time of day by sun and shadow;
it’s knowing the tide is in or out
by the salt smell in the air
without ever needing to see the sea;

and now, in this far away land called Canada,
it’s hearing your stomach growl for crempog or teisen lap
whilst memory’s fish‑hook tugs at your heart
in the same way your father hauled in salmon bass
at Rhossili, Brandy Cove, Pennard, Oxwich, and Three Cliffs.

Commentary: I was checking Gwyr, the Welsh for Gower, where I was born, and found this interpretation of the name. <<G is for generous, your giving nature. W is for wise, more tomorrow than today. Y is for young, the years never show. R is for rapport, friends seek you.>> I don’t know if that’s me, but it certainly wouldn’t be a bad set of descriptors to live up to.

 

Dies Irae

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Dies irae

Nowhere has she found peace, save
in the dregs at the bottle’s bottom.
She solves life’s dilemmas with single
malt or grape’s blood fresh-plucked.

Doctors tell her that she must stop drinking,
not stoop to conquer yet another bottle.
The remedies they suggest will never suit her.
Family and friends lecture her in vain. 

She knows she will not live forever,
that one day a higher power will call.
So she opens another bottle of Scotch,
just a drop before she goes. She falls

to the floor, and lies asleep. Three still
born babies cover her with their love
to keep her warm. “Sleep well,” they say,
“you’ll find greater peace in eternity.”

Commentary: Another poem that was not easy to write. The last line is a tribute to Seamus Heaney and his poem, Yellow Bittern, the inspiration for this one. “You’ll be stood no rounds in eternity.” In the literary theory of Intertextuality, texts talk to texts and a series of interlaced textual dialogs move across time and space. Hablo con mis ojos a los muertos, I speak through my eyes with the dead, as Francisco de Quevedo said in the 17th century. He was reading Seneca, another great writer born in Spain, when he wrote those words.
I restructured this poem three times. I began, following Seamus Heaney, with the first person singular [I]. Then I changed it to the second person singular [you], but you, in English, can never approximate to the intimacy of tu [versus vous] in French, or the multiplicity of [versus usted, vosotros, vosotras, ustedes} in Spanish. Finally I settled on the third person and settled on she [rather than he]. I guess when  a woman loses three children, she is entitled to lose herself in a bottle of Scotch and shut out the world.

Time-Spirits

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Time-Spirits

Zeitgeist

Zeitgeist is a concept from 18th- to 19th-century German philosophy, translated as “spirit of the age” or “spirit of the times”. It refers to an invisible agent or force dominating the characteristics of a given epoch.
Wikipedia

Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”

Poems for troubled times.

Introduction

Our world finds itself in an incredible mess right now. Somehow, we have to sort it out. Images and metaphors tie past, present, and future together. We must pick our ways through the difficulties of these troubled times, as you must pick your way through the intricacies of these poems. Many of you will give up. Some of you, the chosen few, will make your way to the heart of each poem.

These poems are deliberately cryptic. Each one is a mind game I am playing with you. I do not underestimate you. I have placed clues throughout each poem and if you follow the clues you will arrive at many of the poem’s hidden meanings. Some poems are more difficult than others, their meaning more recondite. Others seem very straightforward, yet still contain secrets.

            This style of poetry has a long history going back to Anglo-Saxon riddles and way beyond, back into the mists of time. Luis de Góngora (1561-1627) and Francisco de Quevedo (1580-1645) specialized in similar forms of recondite poetry, often based on metaphor and the juego alusivo-elusivo, the game of alluding to something while eluding the act of saying what it is. Jorge Guillén (1893-1984) and Federico García Lorca (1898-1936) also played this game, as did Octavio Paz (1914-1998). In the works of all of these poets, the clues may rest in the poem or they may be found in a generic knowledge of the mythology of the poem’s exterior world.

             Always remember that “those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it” (George Santayana). Otherwise expressed, in the words of T. S. Eliot: “Time present and time past / are both perhaps present in time future / and time future contained in time past” (Burnt Norton). The seeming anachronisms in these poems suggest that all time is ever-present and that each new day presents us with events that have already occurred on many occasions.

Commentary: The idea for Time-Spirits aka Zeitgeist was born around the kitchen table in Island View on Saturday, 22 December 2018, during a literary conversation between Gwen, Victor, and Roger. A poem at a time, one after another, grew from that table top chat. The result: 70 poems, not easy to read, deliberately difficult, that reflect our troubled times. My thanks to Geoff Slater, line-painter, who drew the cover picture: Robin Red in Claw and Breast, a symbol of nature ‘red in tooth and claw’. So are we in the words of Albert Camus who writes ‘nous sommes ou les meurtriers ou les victimes’ . Is it the early bird that catches the worm? Or is it the late worm that gets caught by the bird? Whichever: it’s the worm that gets eaten, until the robin bites the dust, when he is eaten in his turn. Just think of it as nature doing its regular recycling …

 

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A Fly on the Wall

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A Fly on the Wall

Behind me, two elderly ladies, obviously grandmothers, exchanged intimate family details about husbands, daughters, grand-daughters, acquaintances.
“Bessy, my granddaughter, you’ve met her, well, she can’t have any children. Something wrong with her womb after that bout with cancer. You must remember that?”
“I do. Terrible thing, cancer. Had her whole womb removed didn’t she?”
“That’s right. Well, she’s thinking of adopting.”
“I don’t like adoptions. All those yellow and brown babies. You’ll never find a white one.”
“She’s working with the church. They say they’ll find her a nice little pink one.”
“That would be nice. Boy or girl?”
“She wants a girl. That’s why they said ‘a nice pink one.’”
“My Annie has breast cancer. They want to cut them off, but I told her ‘no,’ there must be another way. So they’re giving her chemo. They wanted to send her to Moncton, but she said she wasn’t going anywhere near that French speaking lot. So, she’s going to Saint John instead. Her daughter drives her down most days.”
“Lucky to have a daughter like that. So many cut you off when they lave home. They just don’t care.”
“I know. Not the churchy ones, though.”
“Them too, sometimes.”
“How’s your Bert?”
“He walked out.”
“Never!”
“He did. Just up and left. Never said where he was going or anything.”
“Younger woman, probably.”
“Don’t know. Took to the road and went out west, I think.”
“Just one of them things. My husband’s gone, too. Stroke or something. I sat with him in the hospice for a week. He never spoke again. I just sat and held his hand. Poor thing.”
“At least it was quick.”
“A week at his bedside didn’t seem like quick. All those tubes. Stuck in everywhere. And me, left all alone now with the grand kids. I’ll cope somehow, and the fourteen-year old, with her belly already swelling.”
Words settle. Fine dust dances in a sun ray that spotlights floating motes. Lives and worlds end and begin. I spot my beloved walking down the stairs in the heath centre and get to my feet. The two women are silent. I do not turn to look at them. My beloved waves and I walk towards her. Hand in hand, we go to the door and walk to the car. When we are safe inside, we’ll start to talk.

A Chill Wind

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A Chill Wind

computer programs
no longer function
buy a new app

word files
no longer
accessible
without a new app

photos that vanish
leaving a blank space
a new app
will bring them back

memory blinks
goes blank
brain farts
friends say

forgetting
phone numbers,
words misplaced
Freudian slips

“What day is it today?”
she asks
for the second
or third time.

“I’m sure
I know you,” she says,
“but I can’t remember
your name.”

Memorial Service

15 May 2002 Pre-Rimouski 141

Memorial Service

In the funeral home we meet, crack jokes, exchange
greetings and pleasantries, renew friendships,
shake hands, avoid eye contact. Family members

greet us, recall our names, mention us in the same
breath as the dearly departed. Musical chairs:
we shuffle from hand to hand. Discomfort is both

mental and muscular. We tighten our faces
into skeletal smiles, peeling lips from teeth.
We search for washrooms, step inside, recover

breath and balance. Outside, empty chairs await.
We shun reserved seats, drift to the back of the room,
close to the exit. A polished pianist plays

Beethoven, some Bach, music that softens the soul
for the family’s sucker punch of intimate loss.
A sister stands up and speaks: growing up together,

so close. Sibling comforts extract a tear. All sigh.
She breaks down. Packets of Kleenex, strategically
placed, spring into action. Someone sobs. Like the common

cold, it affects us all. Service over, we pay tribute with known
family members. One after another, we offer our last
respects, and leave. Someone says “Follow us home.

We’ll celebrate.” Another discovers a flat tire
and calls the CAA. A man phones a Chinese take-out.
I hobble to the door, locate my car, and drive
the long way home, sitting in the car, all by myself.