Walls

Walls

             
I remember little Willy, the mad boy at the end of our lane, whose cries of “Uh! Uh! Uh!” were the closest he came to speech. His presence still haunts me, for my father and grandfather made throaty sounds ‘Uh! Uh! Uh!” to chide me whenever I did something wrong or disobeyed the dictates of their adult world, their grown up world that layered cement on top of the high brick wall, that inserted bottles in the still wet cement,  that waited for the cement to dry, and then smashed all those bottles with a hammer and locked little Willy, the boy with whom I must no longer play, into a high-walled cage whilst I watched and waited and knocked at the door and asked politely: “Please: can Willy come out and play?” But my only companion was his wild sound “UH! UH! UH!” flawed words torn with clawed hands from his throat and floated like invisible butterflies over the cruel glass jest of the wall they had built between us.

Black Death

Black Death
1438

Outside my window
horizontal hail
rain blown sideways
surgical the wind
dismembering trees
uprooting the weakest
flattening the strong
rages the storm

Who am I
the one who abhorred thee
who now adores thee
and kneels before thee
in grief and pain

Death’s Dance before me
each street filled
with skeletal horrors
bare bones dancing
naked beneath a star-
spangled sky

‘No thought is born in me
which has not “Death”
engraved upon it.’

Michelangelo

Don’t Look Out

Don’t Look Out the Window

Don’t look out the window, you don’t want to
know what’s lying out there. Don’t look out.

Play ostrich. Place your head in the sand,
pretend there’s nothing there to worry you.
Pretend you can see the missing PPE,
the vanished masks, the surgical gloves,
the sanitized hand-wash that everybody needs.
Just don’t look out the window. Don’t look out.

Pretend there’s nothing out there. Deny that
nearly two million people are ill.
Deny that a hundred thousand have died,
not in vain, but from ignorance and vanity
 and a total denial of scientific truth.
Just don’t look out the window. Don’t look out.

Just look at these walls that surround you.
Smile back at the smiling faces, the nodding heads,
the puppet-string politicians who agree with
every piece of nonsense that issues, meaningless,
from empty mouths. Surround yourself with people
who believe what you believe, who think and do like you,
fellow narcissists and bullies, cheats and liars,
who have deceived and stolen, lied like you, to build
enormous fortunes while they have cheated on
their wives, gone bankrupt, and borrowed shady money
in questionable deals with shabby, foreign banks.
Don’t look out the window. Don’t look out.

All those employees know a bum deal
when they are on the sharp end of one.

But nobody speaks out and nobody,
but nobody, dares open those curtains
for fear of seeing that reborn beast,
its hour come at last,
slouching down the streets.
Close your eyes. Don’t look out the window.
Don’t look out.

Comment: I rarely comment on political events, let alone write poems about them. That said, I do not consider this poem to be a political statement. For me, the key to the poem can be found in the final five lines beginning with ‘for fear of seeing …’. I have explored inter-textuality before in these pages. I hope the reference to W. B. Yeats’ poem The Second Coming, is clear.

Royal Doulton

Trying not to …

Royal Doulton
            Some nights I woke up during the night, needing to pee. At night, I slept with my gran. I never liked using the Royal Doulton chamber pot that squatted coldly beneath her huge brass bed, especially if she was in the room. We had no indoor plumbing, nor running water. Apart from the rainwater the only tap was at the far end of the field, a long way away. Rainwater, caught in a bound, wooden barrel, was the only water we didn’t need to fetch.
            The cows that wandered through our yard at night really frightened me. We would meet them in the lane some times, a noisy, dusty, flowing, multi-colored tide that flooded the pathway and forced us walkers into the next field, if there was a gate close by, or to climb high into the hedge, if there wasn’t a gate. One cow, with a crooked horn, had gored our neighbor’s dog. She had also broken a young girl’s leg. Vicious when, isolated from the herd, she often meandered around on her own.
            At night, when I wanted to pee, I walked outside, to the outhouse. I would grope my way out of the bedroom and slide back the bolts on the door. Then I would half-open that door and peep out, listening carefully for any sound of the cows tearing out the grass with their teeth. I would sniff the night air, and if I caught the sweet breath of a cow in the vicinity, I would pee through the narrow crack of the open door and swear in the morning, when someone found the little puddle, that it wasn’t me, that it must have been one of the cows.
            One quiet night, I walked bravely out into the dark and stepped right into a fresh, warm cow pat. It sifted upward between my toes and rose to assault my nose. After I had gone pee, I wiped my foot again and again in the long grass beside the outhouse, then placed it beneath the water-spout from the rain barrel, trying to flush it clean before I crept back into bed.
            That was the night I left the back door open. Next morning, Nana woke us all up with a series of long, loud screams. The black and white cow had wandered through the open door and ended up in the kitchen where my grandmother had come face to face with it in the early morning light.
            I still have dreams, nightmares, really, of a herd of cows invading my bedroom, breaking down the doors, climbing in through the windows, and me all alone, trapped in my bed, shivering ferociously, squeezing myself, trying desperately not to go pee.

Ffynon Wen

McAdam Railway Station drawn by Geoff Slater

Ffynon Wen

Stuffy, you said. I can’t breathe. Early morning mist scratched pale finger nails down your bedroom window. Grey foggy faces glanced in, grimaced and scowled. Damp and slippery, the window frame, when I opened the sash. What time is it?  Before I could answer, you demanded more milk for your tea. I left you there, in bed, went downstairs to the kitchen and brought back milk. Then you wanted more sugar. Shut the window, you said. It’s cold. I’m shivering.
Puppet on a string, I raised my cord-bound feet and danced at your command. Then I went downstairs, fetched more sugar, came back, and left the morning paper on your bed. On the front page, a picture of the last passenger engine, green and rusty, from the GWR (Great Western Railway). It used to carry passengers from Swansea to Cardiff to Paddington in London. Now it pulls a line of filthy coal trucks. Covered in dirt, rain, steam and dust, I couldn’t make out the name or the number.
Passengers on trains speeding to different destinations, we never had time, time for talking, time for understanding, time to think, time to be heard. Laden with baggage, our minds followed different tracks. Platform lights blazed in the night, a Van Gogh blaze of starry fires. We flashed past towns, stations where we’d never stop. Windows glowed in deserted waiting rooms, shattering the darkness, their full moons reflected in the double glass of a locked carriage door.
We rattled over cross-tracks, never knowing why, yet I have never forgotten the rhythm of the wheels, slowing, accelerating, running at full speed, the telephone wires looping, cattle in fields grazing peacefully, wondering why …
We rarely talk. I guess we have little to say. We leave big questions to float in the wind. We don’t tell our nightmares, our stories or our dreams. Trivia is too trivial. Serious issues cut too deep, unspoken, unanswered to this day. We bury our noses in the daily paper. We gloss our lives away. We flash past so many signals with their pointed mechanical signs.
When your train finally stopped, I disposed of your body in Thornhill Crematorium, opposite the Ffynnon Wen, the White Well Restaurant and Bar where we celebrated our last supper together.

Comment: An old story, resurfacing from the Archives in which I found my old, dusty Cambrian Chronicles. It’s also a story I have reworked many times, as poem, flash fiction, philosophical statement, personal memoir … I guess such moments, such memories, are very hard to come to terms with. They lie just out of sight and gnaw at us at night, surfacing when least expected and packing a powerful punch of helpless hopelessness. And no, there is nothing we can do about such things except stare blank-faced into our moon-faced morning coffee and blink back the tears we were unable to shed at the time.

I guess, deep down, it’s all about grieving and how we grieve. In some cultures, it is all about manhood and stiff, upper lip. In others, it is letting the tears flow and the emotions run riot. It differs with each and all of us for we and our circumstances are all unique. I look at the current state of the world and I keep thinking that, no, it’s not a case of one size fits all. Not everybody is the same, and each one of is special, and needs something special, especially in these difficult times. Keep safe, keep well, and do not provide, if you can avoid doing so, any reason for your loved ones to mourn for you.

Keeping Score

Avila 2007a 035 (2)

The Score

It’s the old conundrum:
you place one grain of wheat
on the chessboard’s first square,
two on the second,
four on the third.

And so on and so forth,
eight on the fourth,
sixteen on the fifth.
Now close your eyes
and make a wish:
“Let all these pandemic victims go.”

Alas, no.
You must sit and watch them grow:
32, 64, 128,
and that’s the first rank done.
Seven more marching ranks to go.

256, 512, 1014,
Lord above: how many more?
2028, 4056, 8112,
what on earth can people do?
Wash your hands, stay inside,
and hope your best friends
haven’t died.

Doubled again
that’s even more:
16 thousand 224.
Upon this rank
just one more square
sees 32 thousand
lying there.

How many more,
how many more,
and each death ringed
by family and friends.
This week it seems
death’s dance will never end.

Comment: La Calle de la Cruz / Street of the Cross, shown in the above photo, runs past the cathedral of Avila. It is also known locally as La Calle de la Vida y de la Muerte / the Street of Life and Death as it seems duels were sometimes fought there. It seemed an appropriate photo to accompany this poem which speaks of the seeming lottery, with its winning and losing tickets, in which we are all currently involved. The lower photo, incidentally, captures a stone mason’s mark carved into the face of the cathedral in Avila.

When writing the poem, I repeated the numbers naming them with their single digits, thus: 256, 512, 1014 becomes two five six, five one two, one oh one four (line 14). This allowed me to manage rhythm and rhyme. In my mind I always associate  rhyme with reason, but in this current pandemic, I can see very little reason. I guess, as I wrote in one of my earlier poems, ‘there are so many ways to die’. I just hope Corona Virus isn’t one of them. No, I don’t want to live forever, but hell no, I don’t want to die just yet! Keep safe, keep well!

Avila 2007a 039

A Sacrifice to Mithras

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A Sacrifice to Mithras

“What is this sound?”
“It is your own death sighing,
groaning, growing
while you wait for it
to devour you.”

“What is this feeling”
“It is the itch of your own skin
wrinkling and shrinking,
preparing to wrap you
in the last clothes you’ll wear.”

“What is this taste?”
“It is the taste of your life,
bottled like summer wine
once sweet tasting,
now turning to vinegar.”

“What is this smell?”
“It is waste and decay,
the loss of all you knew
and of all that knew you.

“That carriage outside?”
It is the dark hearse
come to carry you
to your everlasting home.”

“Look on us in our darkness,
help us to seek and see the light.
Keep us strong, keep us brave.
Mithras, always a soldier,
help us to die aright.”

F1010019

Comment: I am re-reading Puck of Pook’s Hill (Rudyard Kipling). It was given to me for a Christmas present (1955) by my father’s younger brother, my Uncle Frank. His signature is there, on the fly leaf, and his hand writing is as I always remember it. As I write these words, I can still hear his voice. The Song to Mithras, on which this poem is based, can be found on page 191, my edition (MacMillan, 1955), as a prelude to The Winged Hats. Without these clues, the poem operates in another space, more personal and more morbid, perhaps. The rites to Mithras were associated with the sacrifice, at midnight, of the black bull. The upper photograph shows one of the Bulls of Guisando (Los Toros de Guisando), which have stood in the province of Avila, in Spain, since time immemorial. So old are they, that the Roman legions left their mark on them in Latin, as you can see from the photo, when they conquered Spain after the Carthaginian wars.  The lower photo shows fighting bulls on a bull farm in Salamanca, Spain. Born from generations of fighting stock, these animals have been bred for thousands of years to die in the bull ring, as the bulls dedicated to Mithras were bred to die in the Roman temples. This is not a defense of the cruelty of bullfighting or the sacrifice of animals. It is rather a statement regarding the longevity of cruelty, of sacrifice, of the natural flow that leads men and women from birth, through childhood, to maturity, and on to old age, and death. My father is long gone now, as is his younger brother. Who will have access to these memories of mine when I go? Who will remember my family when I am gone?

Finisterre

fundy 05 mist+wolfepipers 081

Finisterre

Nothing left now but this pain in my heart.
It makes me think about ageing, growing old,
that unstoppable process of the body’s slow,
inevitable breaking down from all to nothing.

I should probably go to the doctor, but what
can she, will she do? She can’t stop the hands
on my body clock and lop ten or twenty years
from my life. Nor can her pills, lotions, potions

gift me with the long-sought magic of the Fountain
of Youth. The truth, unwelcome as it is, is that
the day I was born I took my first steps on the path
to death, my own death, an inescapable law

that tells me that body and spirit will be forced
apart, that the flesh will wither and perish,
and that the person the world and I know as
me will no longer be able to hold together.

Comment: Finisterre, the Pillars of Hercules, the Nec Plus Ultra beyond which there is nothing, Terra Incognita … that spot in Newfoundland where my friend, Dr. Leo Ferrari, who founded the Flat Earth Society, stood at the edge of the world and looked at the horrible void below him which ended in nothingness.

Nihilism is the point of view that suspends belief in any or all general aspects of human life, which are culturally accepted. Most commonly, nihilism is presented in the form of existential nihilism, which argues that life is without objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value. Moral nihilists assert that morality does not exist at all. Nihilism may also take epistemological, ontological, or metaphysical forms, meaning respectively that, in some aspect, knowledge is not possible, or reality does not actually exist.

The term is sometimes used in association with anomie  to explain the general mood of  despair at a perceived pointlessness of existence that one may develop upon realizing there are no necessary norms, rules, or laws.

Nihilism has also been described as conspicuous in or constitutive of certain historical periods. Many have called post-modernity  a nihilistic epoch and some religious theologians and figures of religious authority have asserted that post-modernity and many aspects of modernity, represent a rejection of theism, and that such rejection of theistic doctrine entails nihilism. All the above is borrowed shamelessly from this Wikipedia article on nihilism.

What this leads to is the danger of losing our faith in these troubled times. G. K. Chesterton wrote, a long time ago, in the century before last, that people who lost their faith were inclined to believe anything. Please, do not believe everything and anything you hear. For example, no, Leo, my friend, the world is not flat. And no, my beloved readers, drinking Chlorox or Drano will do you much more harm than good. In fact it may well turn you into the nihil [Latin for nothing] from which nihil-ism is formed.

More important: believe in life, in positivity, in the light that will shine through this darkness. Believe, as Our Lord Don Quixote [thank you, don Miguel de Unamuno, for that wonderful book, and thank you also for gifting us with your philosophy in The Tragic Sense of Life] believed that yes, we can see all of this through and that yes, we are the children of our deeds, and that yes, as my friend Pedro Calderón de la Barca told me a long time ago, obrar bien, to do only good, be the best that we can be, that’s what really matters in this vale of tears and shadows, this tv reality show that we call life.

Time Flies

mistec4

Time Flies

… bends like a boomerang,
flies too rapidly away,
limps back to the hand.

Endless this shuffle of unmarked
days dropping off the calendar,
extinct so many animals
that exited Noah’s Ark.

Hands stop on the clock.
The pendulum swings:
time and tide stand still,
do not move.

‘As idle as a painted ship
upon a painted ocean.’

The print in my grandma’s house:
seemingly moving seas,
sails swelled out,
the ship stays firm in its frame.

Our garden fills with birds
and squirrels, light and dark.
Morning ablutions: each day
a twin of the day before.

The TV screen fills up its washbasin:
tired, shadow faces boring us
with endless wit and wisdom.

Time flies:
an albatross around the neck,
an emu, an ostrich, a dodo,
all flightless,
an overweight bumble bee,
too clumsy, too heavy to fly.

Avila 2007a 102

Comment: The top photograph shows the year 1555 marked in standard figures and in glyphs from the Mixtec calendar (Oaxaca, Mexico). … time flies you can’t they fly too fast … This is a conundrum from the General Knowledge Paper in the school leaving exams (1961). Punctuate this sentence: time flies you can’t they fly too fast … Proposed answer: Time flies? You can’t. They fly too fast!”  I seem to believe there were about ten of these on that paper. However, never trust your memory.

The second photograph shows fledgling storks in Avila, Spain, trying to fledge, to fly, to leave their nests. Some will succeed earlier than others. Those who do not manage to fly, who are not brave enough to leave their nests, will sit there. After a while, their parents will not feed them. And then they must fly or starve. Sometimes, time flies. Sometimes, time sits on its hands and the clock hands refuse to move. Think: time enjoying yourself (it just flows by). Think: time in the dentist’s chair with a root canal, time lying prone having an anal biopsy for prostrate cancer, time spent, those everlasting ten minutes, while a cataract is being removed and a new lens is inserted.

Oh yes, time is flexible. Not only is it flexible, it is insistent, inexorable, unstoppable. Those clocks tick on, whether we are awake or asleep. The seconds lull us with their security, the minutes lull us with their monotony, hours lull us with their harmony, days faze us, daze us … hours: each one wounds, the last one kills. Time marches on. We can rewrite the past (revisionism), but we cannot relive it, except in our dreams.

Avila 2007a 150

 Doors close.
We can never go back.

Memory Loss

Time-Spirits

Memory Loss

A carton of eggs
abandoned in the supermarket.
Her cousin’s face, her daughter’s name,
the parking spot where she left the car.

Forgotten phone numbers.
Birthdays of family members
never remembered.

“What day is it today,” she asks,
for the third or fourth time.

Her programs no longer work.
Many files now inaccessible,
are written in coded jabberwocky.
I show her photos but to her they are
blank spaces, gaps in her photo album.

“I recognize your face,” she says to me,
but I can’t remember your name.”

Comment: Towards the end of her life, my grand-mother started to lose her memory. I penned this poem a long time ago, then recovered it from my poetry discards. Some years ago, a virus entered my computer system and destroyed many of my files. I had backed them up, but I never really accessed them all when I bought this new computer. Now, in this time of much sitting and screen viewing, when friends no longer knock on the door to share a cup of coffee or tea, time weighs heavy, and I can look at those old files again. This also what I have done with my chess, breaking out the first travelling chess set I bought back when I was nine or ten years old, and re-playing favorite games with its red and white pieces in their cardboard box. I haven’t played serious chess since I came to Canada and, as a result, I have forgotten the openings, mislaid the combative combinations of the middle game, and can now plot only the simplest of endings. This too, in its own way, is a sort of memory loss. Yet as I replay the Fischer-Spassky series of 1972, so much comes flooding back. Memory loss: some things do return, but as I age, I wonder if that other memory loss, the more fatal one, will one day grip me, as it gripped my grand-mother, and leave me damaged and un-repairable. I wake up some mornings, confused from sleep, and wonder whether this is what awaits us all.