To be a writer ….

Photo by my good friend, Geoff Slater. Books by yours truly, who stayed on the bus and believed.

To be a writer ….

He who would true valor see,
let him come hither.
One here will constant be,
come bad or fair weather.
No line length can him fright,
he’ll with a paragraph fight,
and he will have a right,
to be a writer.

Those who beset him round
with dismal stories,
do but themselves confound:
his strength the more is.
There’s no discouragement
will make him once relent
his first avowed intent,
to be a writer.

Rejections nor bad critics
can daunt his spirit.
He knows he at the end
will a book inherit.
So critics fly away,
he’ll fear not what they say,
he’ll labor night and day
to be a writer.

Comment: John Bunyan tempted me and I fell into temptation. In fact, as my good friend Oscar Wilde once said: “I can resist anything except temptation.” So, ladies and gentlemen, change the he to a she or the pronoun of your choice, turn the writer to a sculptor, stoneist, poet, playwright, painter, novelist, dramatist, comedian, song-writer, singer. Breathe deep. Believe in your own artistic talent and remember: “Genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration.” Remember this too: “You’ll never get to Vancouver by bus, if you get off the bus at Montreal or Toronto.”

Absence

Absence

My body’s house has many rooms and you, my love,
are present in them all. I glimpse your shadow
in the mirror and your breath brushes my cheek

when I open the door. Where have you gone?
I walk from room to room, but when I seek,
I no longer find and nothing opens when I knock.

Afraid, sometimes, to enter a room, I am sure
you are in there. I hear your footsteps on the stair.
Sometimes your voice breaks the silence

when you whisper my name in the same old way.
How can it be true, my love, that you have gone,
that you have left me here alone? I count the hours,

the days, embracing dust motes to find no solace
in occasional sunbeams and salacious dreams.

The Exact Word

Le mot juste

Searching for le mot juste
the exact word that sums it all up, 
catches the essence of the thing 
and holds it in the mind forever.

Think flowers. Think scent. 
Think of the limited ways 
we describe how daffodils
lift and clematis clings.

I look across the breakfast table 
and see my wife of fifty years, 
a teenager reborn, walking into 
that café where we had our first date.

I search my memory and my mind 
for the words to describe that beauty, 
that surge of excitement, 
I still feel when she enters the room:

but find I cannot find le mot juste.

Comment: I shortened this poem from its earlier version. You can click on this link to compare the two versions. I am always puzzled by the dilemma of lengthening or shortening. My thoughts center on the longer and shorter versions of some Raymond Carver stories. Follow the editor’s advice and cut all material down to its essential bones or fill out the skeleton with flesh and blood and expand the creative process further. I also think of the exhortation to ‘stay in the moment’. Anything that takes the reader away from the central experience is superfluous. Experienced writers are aware of that moment and its importance. Writers at my stage are often baffled by it and need to be told yes, this is the moment or no, that is not the moment. I guess the more we write, the more we understand the process. Understand: do we work this out consciously or does it develop in unconscious fashion? Are some people just born with those skills or we must work hard to develop them? Sunt rerum lachrimae: tears are in all things and I guess hard work is all part of the process. As I was told a long time ago: genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. You have to put in the hard work for that little light bulb to go ‘pop’!

Scars

Los toros de Guisando, pre-Christian Celtic stone bulls, Avila, Spain.

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 easily from Spanish to English. The verbal vibes are just not the same.
            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, watered by flowing streams. Bulls grown for slaughter and public sacrifice.

The real thing: young fighting bulls (novillos) on a bull farm in Salamanca, Spain.

            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 sand-filled 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 where she chose to fight, not die. 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, falling 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.
            On the way home, we get off the trolleybus early, at Jesús del Monasterio and enter the long string of bars that lead past Numancia towards Perines. Red wine in glasses, in porrones, with tapas and raciones to soak up the alcohol, morcilla, mariscos, callos, patatas bravas, wine consumed until our blotting-paper bodies are ready once more to sweat. Bread soaks up the wine that relieves the oil that now filters through our skins and who needs suntan lotion when the oil is inside us and bodies are oiled, well-oiled, from the inside out?
            These excursions are all male, just like the soccer teams. I have four friends and I know them by their nicknames and the way they play soccer. I also know them from the way they try to trick me and laugh at my mistakes, or the way they treat me as a human being and help me to understand this new world into which, sink or swim, I have been thrust. Total immersion in another culture does not come with a set of instructions and the rules of soccer change from grass field to beach sand. Pedro plays centre-half, loves heading the ball, even when it’s laden with sand. I watch him playing field hockey one day, out at La Albericia, and when a low shot heads for the corner of the goal, he dives and heads it away. They carry him off on a stretcher, blood everywhere, and you wonder if his scars will ever heal.
            Tennis on the clay courts, also at La Albericia. I play so slow but they play so fast. I learn top spin, side spin, back spin, cutting the racket beneath the ball and learning to bend it sideways off the clay that is not clay really, but a fine-packed Italian sand on which I can slide and glide, and commit to a shot running one way then turn and commit to another in the opposite direction. I try it on a hard court, after the immersion period ends, when I get home, and my foot sticks on the tarmac (or whatever that hard, non-slip surface is) and over I go, skinning my knees, creating more scars.

Comment: Another Golden Oldie reclaimed from the reject file. I remember the scenes so well, even though I have moved deliberately in the piece from Elanchove and Guernica (Basque Country) to Santander (now Cantabria). I got lucky and was able to attend a series of workshops on memoirs run by Brian Henry of Quick Brown Fox. Taking his workshops, I realized that most of what I write is more akin to Creative Non-Fiction (CNF), rather then memoir, though much of what I write is rooted in memory. What thrills me in this style of writing is the rhythm that emerges, the word patterns I knit with my pen and a skein of ink, the remembered brightness of the Spanish sun, the sparkle of the waves, the warmth of a people, still grieving after their losses in a bitter civil war, their willingness to accept me, a foreigner, and take me to their hearts. The Other: we talk so much about The Other. But when we ourselves have been That Other, have been dependent on Other Others for food, drink, warmth, care, and love it is so much easier to understand what The Other is lacking and what we can give. Warmth, not scars; a hug, not a punch; open arms, not a fist… so easy to say. I have been there. I know. But can we, deep in our hearts, find it in ourselves to make the sacrifices for The Other that other others have made for us? Only time will tell.

Monkey and the Bean Counter

IMG_0026

Monkey and the Bean Counter

An acolyte in a charcoal suit runs by.
He neither stops nor speaks
but slips on slippery words
dripping from another monkey’s tongue.

This other monkey has eyes of asphalt,
a patented pewter soul,
ice water flowing in his veins.
“Hear no evil! See no evil! Speak no evil!”

The hatch of his mind is battened tightly down.
Nothing gets out nor in.
The acolyte’s fingers grasp at a khaki folder,
his manifesto for success.

Senior monkey stalks to his office
and turns on the radio.
His favorite music:
the clink of mounting money.

Disturb him at your peril:
this monkey is very important,
and very, very busy.
He’s also clever:
a real smarty.

First, he empties all the chocolate candies from the box
then he sorts them into little piles:
green with green, brown with brown,
blue with blue, red with red.

Then, like the Good Shepherd checking His flock,
he counts them again and again,
to ensure that none have been stolen
and not one has gone astray.

Comment: Another Golden Oldie, this time from Monkey Temple. I have updated it slightly so it won’t be exactly the same as it is in the printed text. Senior Monkey has, of course, built a bigger box into which he can place all his chocolate candies and tuck them away for ever and ever. I guess if he were a bull and not a monkey, he would have tucked them away for heifer and heifer. Such is the sad state of reality in the Monkey Temple. But if monkey were a bull, he would be living in the cow shed, not the Monkey Temple. Oh dear, oh dear: and oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive with fiction, flash fiction, creative non-fiction, and all the other sugar and spice which goes into the spinning of spider-webs and fairy tales. Speaking of which, did I ever tell you the story of the… well, maybe next time. So tune in again tomorrow. Same thyme, same plaice, and I’ll sing you a song of the fish in the sea… and a fishy tail that will be.

Line Painting

No Exit
a line painting
by Geoff for Andrea Slater

Where is the entry point, where the exit?
This labyrinth of lines, straight, not circular,
baffle the eye, confuse with a negative space
that lightens colors and begs more darkness.

Mystery surrounds the sitter’s form: the board walk,
no Dutch kitchen this, the chair on which she sits,
the locket she wears, the landscape, seascape
against which she is framed. White noise, perhaps,

but noise that turns to a single voice, a single line,
that of the paint-brush tip-toeing, delicate its thread
through interior, exterior meaning, just beyond

the viewer’s grasp. Yet walking past, each person stops,
stands still, as the painting draws them in, ties them up,
binds them with an ineffable thread, stronger than words,

mightier than the eye that traces its way along paths
that deceive, disturb, throw us from the high-wire created
by an artist who turns circular colors into linear space.

Comment: No Exit forms a part of my manuscript collection The Nature of Art and the Art of Nature that placed second in the WFNB’s Alfred G. Bailey Award (2020). This collection will soon be made available online at Amazon / KDP.

Geoff Slater
the inventor of line-painting, gifted me this painting,
one of my hollyhocks about two years ago.
This is indeed a gift that keeps on giving.

Paella

Paella

A bullfrog lives in my computer.
He eats all the full stops and I can’t
type a period to end my sentences.

I imagine he thinks they are tadpoles,
though the commas, with their short,
twisted tails, would be visually better.

I could live without commas, I can’t face
an endless future with no periods in sight
and www-comma-com just isn’t right.

I guess I could survive a future without
frogs, though cuisses de grenouille appear
each summer at my local super market.

I ate a paella québécoise in a Spanish café
in Montreal once. It was full of frogs’ legs
and was very, very tasty. I wonder if I can
find that bullfrog and put him in a paella.

Striations

There are striations in my heart, so deep, a lizard could lie there, unseen, and wait for tomorrow’s sun. Timeless, the worm at the apple’s core waiting for its world to end. Seculae seculorum: the centuries rushing headlong. Matins: wide-eyed this owl hooting in the face of day. Somewhere, I remember a table spread for two. Breakfast. An open door. “Where are you going, dear?” Something bright has fled the world. The sun unfurls shadows. The blood whirls stars around the body. “It has gone.” she said. “The magic. I no longer tremble at your touch.” The silver birch wades at dawn’s bright edge. Somewhere, tight lips, a blaze of anger, a challenge spat in the wind’s taut face. High-pitched the rabbit’s grief in its silver snare. The midnight moon deep in a trance. If only I could kick away this death’s head, this sow’s bladder, this full moon drifting high in a cloudless sky.

Comment: This is the prose version, from Fundy Lines (2002). The prose version was based on an extract from a longer poem that first appeared in Though Lovers Be Lost (2000). Though Lovers Be Lost is also available on Amazon and Kindle.

Fire and Flame

IMG_1571 (2)

Fire and Flame

1

The world is on fire.
Someone, somewhere
lit a match.
The world exploded.

A match in the lungs.
the whole world burning.

Someone, somewhere
sneezed into their sleeve.
the world collapsed
in a fit of coughing.

“It isn’t the cough
that carries you off,
it’s the coffin
they carry you off in,”
said the talking head,
scientific boffin.

2

Intelligence, give me
the exact name of things:
corona virus, vaccine,
air that’s pure,
drinkable water,
a new, fresh world
for my daughter
and her daughter.

I wish I could spare them
from all this slaughter.

Comment: The echoes in here are obvious to me, but to how many others? Octavio Paz strolls through the first stanza while Juan Ramón Jiménez patrols the second one. How many people read their poems now? Polvo seco de tesis doctoral / dry dust of a doctoral thesis, as my friend José María Valverde once wrote. He, too, passed and will all too soon be forgotten like the rest. And time: what is it? How does it function? Is it linear or circular and repetitive? It twists and turns, like we did last summer, but not like we’ll do this one. My old arthritic bones will allow me to twist no more. Vingt-et-un, quatre-vingt- et-un: twist and bust. Yet time flows by, like water under Le Pont Mirabeau and days blend into days. 79 days of lock down now, all voluntary, or is it 80? El tiempo aquí no tiene sentido / time is meaningless in here, as my friend and mentor, José Hierro wrote, so long ago. And yes, these memories linger on, as time lingers on, as life lies heavy around us, and time limps by with its lame, old feet, yet looking back, it has raced passed like a spring river in spate. And the leaves are back, and the flowers are coming up, and the spring birds and bees and butterflies are arriving … and, in spite of everything, perhaps even because of it, life is as lovely as it ever was. Keep safe, keep well!

IMG_1264