Why do the People…

Meditations on Messiaen
Why do the people?

1

Divide and Conquer

They divided us into houses, Spartans and Trojans,
and encouraged us to compete with each other,
single combat, and then team against team,
house against house, eternal, internal civil war.

We divided ourselves into Cavaliers and Roundheads,
Monarchists and Parliamentarians, Protestants and Catholics,
and we continued those uncivil wars that marred the monarchy,
brought down the crown, and executed the Lord’s anointed.

We fought bitterly, tribe against tribe, religion against religion,
circumcised against uncircumcised, dorm against dorm,
class against class, territorial warfare. We defended our bounds,
bonding against all outsiders to guard each chosen ground.

With it came the denigration of the other. Not our class.
Scholarship boy. Wrong end of town. Wrong accent.
We don’t talk like that here. Speak the Queen’s English, you…
and here …. we inserted the appropriate word of vilification.

Our wars never ended. We carried them from prep school
to junior school, to senior school, sometimes changing
sides as we changed schools or houses, always clinging
grimly to our best friends, protectors, and those we knew best.

After school, all those prejudices continued to hold us down,
haunted us through university, red-brick or inspired spires,
Trinity Oxford, Trinity Cambridge, or Trinity Dublin,
each gilded with the white sniff of snobbery that gelded us.

Alas, we carried them, piled in our intellectual rucksacks,
through university, into grad school, out into the wide world,
infinitely small minds based on prejudice and pride, continuing
our tribal warfare, unable to understand anything at all,
other than us or them, shoulder to shoulder, divide and conquer.

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Why do the people?

A Speaker Bespoken

Meditations on Messiaen
Revelations

7

A Speaker Bespoken

They asked him to speak at her funeral
but he never knew who she really was.
He only knew she loved the whisky bottle
more than she loved life. “What can I say?”
he asked. “Say that you loved her.” “I didn’t.”
“Say how much she loved you.” “She didn’t.
And she loved her bottle so much more.”

Should he say how he found her, soaked in urine,
covered in vomit, naked on the kitchen floor?
Should he describe the blend of alcohol and body
scents, her personal perfume, flooding the bedroom?
Should he repeat the four-letter words, and worse,
she used when he tried to stop her drinking?
Should he tell how she took her rings to town,
pawned them, and left the slips on the table
where he would find them? He paid her debts,
collected her rings, returned them. Should he tell
how she sold them again and again?
How she would play hunt the thimble,
round and round the house until she found
where he had hidden them, then took them,
and pawned them once more?

The chaplain shrugged. “Say what you want,
whatever you wish, but you have to speak.”
And speak he did, so choked up with emotion
that he broke down and cried and never a word
emerged from his mouth. An audience of chairs.
The few friends who attended also broke down
and hugged him, and said he had spoken volumes
and they had understood every single word.

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A Speaker Bespoken

Change

Meditations on Messiaen
Revelations

6

Change

The wind of change will blow and change will come,
heralded not by brazen trumpets and a roll of drums,
but overnight in stealth and silence. The valleys will lose
their coal. The seams will shrink, smaller and smaller,
until even the tiniest child will not find room the kneel
at the coal-face and sweat in adoration, shovel and pick
in hand, prying and praying in praise of the black god.

Change will come. The mines will be closed.
The miners will go on unemployment. They will move
to other areas, where mines still flourish, for a life time
spent underground is not that easy to forget and change
is never easy. Who ever said it would be easy?

The men in grey suits bring change. They walk and talk
and plan the changes they will bring about. The pit-head
baths will turn into super stores, a new trading estate will offer
work to the workless who will be changed into worthy workers
once again with course after course of education and retraining.

Yes, change will come. Some will pack up and leave,
only to return as they cannot face the face of change
as once they faced the coal-face, on their knees all day,
praying. Some will go overseas, by boat or plane.
They need never fear for Australia is near. America is a siren
singing bedrock songs of welcome and freedom. Canada calls
and many arrive there to face the white face of winter
rather than that merry, coke-black face of Old King Coal.

Yes, change will come. You will change. Your children
will be born into change and only your memories will recall
life before change, that life everlasting that came
before the fall of coal and your immortality is now
a Post-lapsarian call to constant change, secuale seculorum,
for ever and ever, until that final change. Amen.

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Change

Message

Meditations on Messiaen
Revelations

4

Message

Six in the morning.
The phone rings,
shatters our dreams.

A skeletal voice
at the other end announces
the name of the deceased
in ritual words, ending
with my condolences.

Five in the morning here,
nine in the morning over there.
Death at a distance,
three thousand miles
and four hours between us,
yet the phone call arrives
on time, instantaneous.

Your father, your mother, her mother,
gone, their absence heralded
by the police, a lawyer, a doctor,
a nurse practitioner,
an anonymous nurse,
someone you will never meet.

That call can come anytime.
While you are out in the car,
or in the garden, digging,
or maybe shovelling the snow.

And maybe that’s how death will come,
says Seamus Heaney, by telephone,
an unexpected call
from an unexpected caller.

The phone rings and your partner listens,
then hands over the receiver:
“It’s for you, my dear.”

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Message

Ash Wednesday

Meditations on Messiaen
Revelations

3

Ash Wednesday

Each of the select will be marked with a seal,
ash on the on the chosen one’s forehead
signifying all grief and guilt consumed,
reduced to the ashes of this burnt-out sign.

Dust to dust and ashes to ashes, for of dust
are we made, and though the embers may glow
for a little while, that ash will soon grow cold.
Words are quick forgotten yet memories linger.

They wander among celestial fields of glory
where nimbuses of nebulae crab sideways
to claw-crack veiled mysteries in an effort,
often vain, to reveal them and lay them bare.

Bird song, far below, flickering fading,
luminous confusion of son et lumière,
infused with the ineffable joys of paradise
and time eternal, successive yet simultaneous.

Birds in the branches of the Tree of Life
gather its fruits with multitudinous song.

Forgotten offerings litter the hidden path,
trodden by the few wise men who in the world
did live. Gold, frankincense, and myrrh may not
be accepted. The offerings are we ourselves, for a
broken and a contrite heart will not be despised.

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Ash Wednesday

Clockwork Universe

Meditations on Messiaen
Revelations

2

Clockwork Universe

A golden globe of sunlight, this orange,
moving in time with the shadows in the skies
that time has ticked to captivate the stars.

Its auburn skin burgeons, polished shiny
by the low fall sun penetrating the window,
desiring to slice this tree-fruit into segments.

A Prelapsarian orange, it glows with the glory
of its unblemished birth in that distant garden
where everything was perfect, before the Fall.

Apples and oranges, chalk and cheese.
Clichés ring out but oranges and lemons sing
the bells of St. Clements as children dance.

Heads bowed they pass beneath archways
of linked hands, imaginary scaffolds bringing
candles and choppers to chop off their heads.

So much more certain, a clockwork orange,
wound up and ready to serve as an alarm clock
that awakes us to the realities of unsustainability.

Or are we all just marginal oranges, placed here
to be devoured, when needed, or thrown away
when our time has run out and our glow is gone?

Circular perfection, balanced now in my hand.
When my nail pierces the peel it releases a perfect
storm of essence of orange, assaulting the senses,
droplets, scent on nostrils, tangy taste on tongue.

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Clockwork Universe

Brother Donkey

Meditations on Messiaen
Revelations

1

Brother Donkey

A statue of St. Francis stands in the corner
of the roof garden. He holds out his hands
for Plaster of Paris birds to settle upon them.

St. Francis wears a brown, sack-cloth cassock
bound at the waist by a knotted, white cord.
Living birds would come to him, if he called,
but he is silent. He knows the birds by their names,
not the Latin or Spanish names, nor their names
in Mixtec or Nahuatl. He knows their true names,
their own ineffable names that grace each of them
and brightens their songs of colored glory.

Brother Sun, by day, and Sister Moon, by night,
bless him with their soft-feathered gifts of light.
Alas, he is bound to this earth by Brother Donkey,
the flesh and blood body he once wore and now
wears in effigy. Of the earth, earthy, his thoughts
are bent on beating this sackcloth body down
and raising his mind in birdsong that will reach up,
higher and higher until it achieves his Kingdom Come.

In front of him, the Bird of Paradise offers him
that which he most desires, a return to earth
in avian form, winged like a miniature angel
armed with a golden harp and an aura of song.

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Brother Donkey

Time Beyond Time

Meditations on Messiaen
Quartet for the End of Time

7

Time Beyond Time

Time beyond time and the eternal
ever-present in the quotidian.

When the Seventh Angel sounds his trumpet,
time will be no more and this earth
will be pulped, like an orange,
in an almighty hand, clenched into a fist.

Thus it is writ, and sundry have read the words.
repetitive forms cycle and recycle themselves,
diatonic chords disassociated by duration.
Laud, bless and praise always the vivid joy,
light and color lighting up the skies
in an aurora borealis seldom seen.

Indefectible light, unalterable peace,
rhythmic repetition, time’s serpent
circling around itself and devouring its tail
in assonance and dissonance, the utmost beauty
of raindrop birdsong, its liquid forever decanted.
Infinitely slow, ecstatic is the message.

“Laud, bless, and praise him all thy days
for it is seemly so to do.”
Old One Hundredth.

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Time Beyond Time

Crystal Liturgy

Meditations on Messiaen
Quartet for the End of Time

6

Crystal Liturgy

Here, in the abyss,
where song-birds pluck their notes
and send them, feather-light,
floating through the air,
here there are no tears,
no fear of shadow-hawks,
for all blackness is abandoned
in the interests of sunlight and song.

Here, the crystal liturgy surges,
upwards from the rejoicing heart,
ever upwards, into the realms of light,
where color and sound alike
brim over with the joy that, yes,
brings tears of release to head and heart.

Here, the seven trumpets will sound
their furious dance that will announce
the end of this singer, the end of time,
but not the end of song itself.

Here, seven-stringed rainbows reign.
Here, the harp is tuned and plucked.
Here, the everlasting music
cements the foundations of earth and sky.
Here, the master musician conducts
his eternal choir, their voices rising,
higher and higher, until they reach
the highest sphere, and song and voice
inspire, then expire, passing from our eyes
and ears into the realms of everlasting light.

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Crystal Liturgy

Silence

A stopped clock: accurate twice a day.

Meditations on Messiaen
Quartet for the End of Time

5

Silence

Pain stops as the sounds of silence
break against the walls of the room
in which I sit.

Silence, yes, yet silence broken
by the renewed intrusion of the clock,
by the electric hum from lights
and heating, from a distant tv
suddenly breaking into my thoughts:
cheers from a tennis court,
the eternal advertisements
invading my innermost being.

What triviality now shatters
the Messiaenic mood that wrapped
me for a moment in a many colored
cloak of musical oblivion.

Now time’s teeth gnaw again
and the grandfather clock
nibbles at my soul, extracting
its essence in a surge of sound,
tick-tock, tick-tock.

Westminster Chimes now choke
life from the hour and ring
the tick-tock knell that files
my life away, second by second,
minute by minute, day by day.

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Silence