My Father

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My Father (Solace 1)

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            I saw my father yesterday evening. I walked through the zócalo, opened the main cathedral doors and walked in. The doors closed behind me. I looked towards the main altar and there my father stood, motionless. The evening light shone through the engraved glass panels and illuminated him as if he were some long passed saint come back to visit me. We stared at each other, but I couldn’t open my mouth to speak. The hairs on my neck stood on end and my hands shook. When I forced my mouth open, words stuck in my throat. He wore his best grey suit over a light blue shirt and a dark blue, hand woven tie: the outfit in which I had buried him.

               Three old women, dressed in black, broke the spell. One stood in front of me and wouldn’t let me approach my father. She held a large bag of knitting in her hands and the wool spilled everywhere as she pushed me away. The second threatened me with a pair of scissors that she held in her left hand and stabbed towards my face. The third beat a tailor’s measuring rod against my father’s head.  He nodded, smiled sadly, and they all turned their backs on me and hurried away out of the cathedral and into the square.

               Just for a moment, I stood there in silence. Then I pulled the doors open and ran in pursuit of my father. The setting sun filled the square with shadows that whispered and moved this way and that, as if a whole village had come down from the hills to walk beneath the trees and dance in the rays of the dying sun. I stood on the cathedral steps and called out my father’s name, but I could see no sign of him among the cut and thrust of the shadowy crowd.

               I ran out into that crowd and pushed at insubstantial people who stood firm one moment and then melted away the next like clouds or thick mist. I came to a side street and saw real people, flesh and blood beings, a group of villagers gathered behind their band. I stopped and as I did the village elder put a live match to the taper of the rocket that he clutched between his thumb and forefinger. The taper caught on fire and the rocket soared upwards with a searing whoosh. The village band marched forward and started to play a traditional dance as the rocket clawed its way into the sky to explode with a loud knock on the door of the gods.

               Tired of grasping at shadows and afraid of this living phalanx of men that marched towards me I went back to the cathedral and knelt at the altar of La Virgen de la Soledad, the patron saint of Oaxaca. Real wax candles stood before her altar, not tiny electric lights, and I inserted five pesos in the slot, took a taper, and lit a fresh candle from an ageing one that had started to sputter. I knelt and, for the first time in years, I prayed. I prayed for the soul I had saved from extinction by lighting my candle from his flame. I prayed for my father and my mother and, above all, I prayed for myself.

               On the way home to my second-floor apartment where I live alone, I bought two litres of mescal, one to send me to sleep, and the other so I would survive the next morning.

The Yfory* Tower

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The Yfory* Tower

“Tomorrow never comes,” they told me,
because, by the time it gets here,
it’s already today.

All my tomorrows are woven into today’s
threads of mist that weave silk scarves
around the open-mouthed trees,
ensuring their silence

Silence, save for click of cat’s claws,
slither of pen over page, tapping of keys,
letters turned into words, words that worm
their way over the page, soundless, into my head.

Geese fly high, arrowing their way to the south.
Autumn is on the wing as days shorten.
Cold weather will be here tomorrow
even though they tell me that tomorrow never comes.

Beethoven rewrites the Fifth. I refuse to open the door
when the postmen knocks, bearing his fatal message.
I guess he’ll be back tomorrow, although they tell me
that tomorrow never comes.

Yfory*:
Yfory, the Ivory Tower, means tomorrow in Welsh.

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.

 

 

 

On Editing

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On Editing

Some editors are really very good. They take the initial idea of the artist and polish it, turning what was an average piece into a great one. Others are not so good and turn an average piece into an automatic rejection.
On my kitchen wall hangs a line-painting by Geoff Slater representing one of last year’s hollyhocks from my garden. He gave it to us as a Christmas present, and I am very proud of it. Finley loved it too. She followed with great glee the white line that starts and ends Geoff’s painting. Then she stared at me.

“What are you doing?”
“I’m writing a story.”
“What’s it about?”
“A thin red line.”
“Oh!”

A little bit later, I saw my pens and pencils strewn across the table. My sketch book lay open and I noticed that an editor had edited some of my work. My thin red line had morphed from illusion to reality and there it lay, twisting in and out of the tangled web I had created the day before. Clearly, my average creation needed the touch of a four year old editor and apprentice line-drawer to move from average to genius.

Oh the joy and creativity of a four year old! It took Picasso nearly fifty years to learn to draw like that again. And here’s another painting by this prodigious four year old. I got this one for Christmas last year, too. Alas, it is not signed.

“Don’t you want to add some more?” My daughter asked her daughter.
“No. It’s finished.”
And so have I.

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On the beach

On the beach

 

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Comment:

A daylight photo and a moonlit poem: I wonder how that came about? I guess we must have been beach-combing in the moonlight. It’s so long ago that I have forgotten the links between photo and poem. That said, Clare and I had spent a couple of weeks together in Santander (Spain) the previous summer, when we got engaged.

‘O bahía de Santander: tan bella bajo la luna’ / “oh Bay of Santander, so beautiful beneath the moon” as the Santander poet Gerardo Diego writes. And yes, Santander under a full moon: Mataleñas, the Segunda Playa, Jardines del Piquío, La Magdalena, the Bay of Santander itself, with Peña Cabarga in the background … there is something about beaches and midnight and moonlight which transcends the warmth of a summer’s day. It’s a sort of Midnight Magic that creates a madness of wonder in the blood. Imagine: all those silver fish, swimming their underwater roads, and rising to the surface, to ripple softly along the moon-path. Wander-lust / wonder-lust: sometimes buried words will not rise to the surface and those oh-so-precious moments of supreme poetry are lost among street lights, advertisements for this and that, street signs and the sort of stop signs that stop you and numb your mind into the dumb acceptance of daily reality: la vie quotidienne.

Memories: will they all vanish with us when we go? Of course they will. Many are fading now as we sit here at our desks, in our offices, before our computer screens. The grey screen hustle and bustle pushes memories, light and bright, back into the darkest corners. Where do I get off the bus, the train? Which number is it? Where is the office? Who am I meeting today and at what time? Did I shut the door behind me? Did I pack the children’s lunch? Did I let the cat out? And if so, out of which bag?

passionless not meaningless
the way I take your hand
tomorrow night not even we
will ever understand
the conflicts of this moonlit beach
the warmth of this sea-licked sand

PS. There, see, I told you I couldn’t read my own handwriting. Kiss / take; night / sand. Oh dear, the old grey cells are playing chess with my mind again: P-K4 / e2-e4 … whatever next? Well, I warned you!!!!

 

Beach Heat

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Beach Heat

This is the beach at Goran Haven, with Clare, on the sands, trying not to lose her engagement ring. It’s still with us, in spite of having left it in a washroom on the 401. When one of the support columns of the solitaire broke, we found the stone lying on the floor of the car … that was another close call. As for the poem, well, I suppose it is one of mine.

The enlightened may recognize its structure as belonging to The Book of Good Love / El Libro de Buen Amor, written in the 14th Century (1330-1343, according to some, though it may be a little later, 1347?), by Juan Ruiz, El Arcipreste de Hita. This early verse imitates the rhythms and sequences of Juan Ruiz’s poem: In praise of small women. Not that Clare is small: she is taller than me, and always has been. She is also younger than me and hasn’t manage to catch me up yet. She is cleverer too, but don’t ever tell her that I told you that. Life might become unbearable. Not admitting that little secret is what keeps me going.

I take it you can read my handwriting. If not, ask politely, and I will add a typed version that is more understandable. Ask nicely, mind! None of that “yore ‘andritin’ is atrooshus’ stuff, sort of, loike.”

PS: I didn’t have a very good camera in those days. As for my current cameras: wow! How the world has changed. As we have changed with it.

PPS: Indeed I have received comments, not very complimentary, on my handwriting. Oh dear. Don’t worry I can’t always decipher it myself, even with my glasses on. Thank you all my friends and anonymous correspondents. So, here comes the translation into print.

A diamond shines brightly
for all men to see
the best sweetness comes
from the wee honeybee

There is nothing so hot
as the female desire
like the cool of the beach
it burns you with fire

 

Here

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Comment:

Another photo and poem from this early series (1966) while I still lived in the UK. Like Cervantes, I always wanted to be a poet. Like him, I may always be disappointed by my poetry. However, my beloved has never disappointed me.
This photo was taken at Dodman’s Point, close to where the Spanish Armada was first sighted in 1588. Dodman’s Point / Dead Man’s Point.
In 1988, a computer ran all the tides and all the times of the Armada’s progression up the English Channel, all based on those tides and the annotations of them in the sometimes seemingly haphazard English and the Spanish logs. Seemingly haphazard: because in spite of telling the time by water clocks (clepsidras) and marked candles, and in spite of the ten day calendar difference, and in spite of all the other different differences, these were real sailors and they lived and died according to the tides, the tides that the computer can track, all the way back to 1588, even as it can track the stars and their original positions when Stonehenge was first built in 3500 BCE.
I have stood on the temple mounds in Oaxaca. I have visited Maiden Castle. I have walked on Hengistbury Head and lain in the scrapes of the reindeer people. We underestimate the intelligence of our ancestors and, by extension, of many indigenous people, at our peril. And we over-estimate our own abilities as we destroy the very world in which we live.