The Unexamined Life

The Unexamined Life

“The unexamined life is not worth living.”
Socrates.

A philosopher’s life’s based on thinking,
and drinking, and thinking about drinking,
and thinking while drinking,
and drinking while thinking,
and thinking about thinking when drinking.

He gazes on and on at his navel,
every day for as long as he is able,
and talks to his wife
about trouble and strife
and the problems they have to unravel.

But all is not doom and gloom
when a philosopher enters the room,
though none can debunk
the size of the trunk
of the elephant stuck in the room.

As for me, I am caring and giving,
and although I work hard for my living,
I’d willingly share
with a friend in despair
half my cloak and a third of my living.

“The unlived life is not worth examining.”
Pseudo-Socrates.

“Join the army,” that philosopher said.
“There’s no life like it,” he said.
“You get very few thanks
when you’re in the front ranks,
but it’s better than walking round dead.”

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.

Finisterre

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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

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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.

Still Life with Hollyhock

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Still Life with Hollyhock
Geoff Slater

How do you frame this beaver pond,
those paths, those woods? How do you
know what to leave, what to choose?
Where does light begin and darkness end?

Up and down: two dimensions. Easy.
But where does depth come from?
Or the tactility, the energy, water’s
flow, that rush of breathless movement
that transcends the painting’s stillness?

So many questions, so few answers.
The hollyhock that blooms in my kitchen
is not a real hollyhock. It is the painting
of a photo of a genuine flower that once
upon a time flourished in my garden.

A still life, then, a nature morte, a dead
nature, portrayed in paint and hung alive,
on display in this coffin’s wooden frame.

Comment: I love the way language changes the way we look at life.  A still life painting becomes nature morte in French and naturaleza muerta in Spanish. Still life becomes dead nature. Fascinating. I also love the way in which the camera captures nature and the natural world. We think it is an accurate depiction, but really it isn’t necessarily that accurate. Filters, light and shadow, mood: they all fluctuate and sometimes we capture that which we never saw and sometimes that which we saw is never captured. Oh the subtle enigmas of creative art.

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And it is the same with the hollyhock, my hollyhock, Geoff’s hollyhock. At the top of the page is Geoff’s painting of my hollyhock. The above is a photo of my hollyhock. Which bloom did Geoff capture and reproduce in paint? Language: and what do I mean when I say ‘my hollyhock’? My indicates possession, ownership. How and in what way does one own a hollyhock? How does one possess a garden, a flower bed, a tree? Are they not free, living, beings with a life and maybe even a mind of their own? Does one hollyhock talk to another hollyhock as the trees are said to converse with the trees? Do the trees in the garden possess a soul and if they do, in what sense do they possess one? And what is a soul anyway? I guess it depends upon the church and creed to which you belong. Certainly the garden has a life of its own and we discover that every spring when the grass and flowers grow back and the dandelions return.

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Questions: dangerous things, questions. Several of the questions posed above could have landed me in an Inquisitional institute in Spain in the 1500’s and 1600’s. That is a frightening thought. Alas, the philosophy of all that is way too deep for this poor poet and apology for a philosopher. One thing I do know, though: I love the garden going on outside my window and it is a privilege to be allowed to watch it, admire it, and follow its progress as the sun returns and the draws the birds back with it.

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¡Vale! Hail and fare thee well.

Heroes

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Heroes

In 1898, when Spain lost Cuba, they lost the last vestige of their world-wide Empire and were forced to turn back in on themselves. Miguel de Unamuno, along with other artists from the Generation of ’98, turned to the concept of intra-historiaHistoria / history means the great historical events, battles and conquests, kings and kingdoms (how male it all was!). Intra-historia / intra-history meant the every day lives that ordinary people led, lives that had remained basically unchanged for centuries, except when the men who made history rode through.
Do the small things in life: that’s all most of us can do and have done, throughout the centuries. And we are the true heroes, certainly of intra-history, you and I, and people like us, because we have worked all our lives at our daily tasks, we have brought up our children, we have made the small, micro-world which we inhabit into a better place. Intra-history is dedicated to the house-wives and the house-husbands, heroes all, who have done those small things in life, walked the dogs, fed the chickens, milked the cows, gone out to work, day after day, to put food on the table, delivered and brought up the children, looked after the sick, assisted the dying on their departure from this world, buried them, and given them peace. Heroes all, especially in these times of troubles, I salute you. 
Nurses, health care workers, pharmacists, ambulance drivers, supermarket workers who allow us to bring the food to the table, care-givers, cleaners, garbage men, street-workers, heroes all, I salute you. It is time the ‘little people’ reclaimed their world and took it back for the REAL people, the real heroes.
So, my heroes, be brave, battle on, and accept this floral tribute.
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Garbage Day

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Garbage Day
(1789 AD)

all the dustbins
dancing down the street
trying no doubt to achieve
a spring time copulation
so they can give birth
to even more dustbins

you can’t have a revolution
without dustbins
dusty … dusty … filthy
dusty dustbins
a sadistic way to look at
dustbins full of sawdust
heading off down the street
between potholes
and blowing bins
a right Danse Macabre
conducted by
St. Vitus

me sitting there knitting
Montreal Canadians
this Red Cap
I keep flying high

even though I stand
upon Gibraltar’s Rock so fair
not to mention Paris
the Place de la Bastille
with tumbrils rattling

Old Moll in a Moll’s Cap
toothless fairy
at a Goblin Party
watch out
for toad s’tools
[sick this poem
this joke

and all that’s in it]

Comment: A wonderful drawing by my friend, line painter Geoff Slater. The poem, of course, represents the garbage in (and out of) the garbage can. 1789 is the date of the French Revolution. I found this poem in my discard file, so it was one of those that didn’t make it anywhere. Maybe it shouldn’t have made it here either. But it takes all sorts to make a world and Geoff’s red dustbin reminds me of the red caps knitted by the old women beneath the scaffold and the guillotine. Funny things, guillotines: invent them and they drop on you when you fall out of favor. There are so many allusions in this poem that I am ashamed to say I remember them all, and not all of them are pleasant. Mind you, few things are pleasant nowadays and remember: it is better to leave your dustbins out to roam the streets and be plundered by the crows and swept away by the high winds than to leave them festering and smelling bad and all cooped up in the locked down garage.

Why?

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Why?

“Where are you going?” I ask again. “To see a man about a dog,” my father replies.  “Why?” I ask. “Hair of the dog,” his voice ghosts through the rapidly closing crack as the front door shuts behind him. “Why?” I cry out.

I recall the mud nest jammed tight against our garage roof. Tiny yellow beaks flap ceaselessly open. Parent birds sit on a vantage point of electric cable, their beaks moving in silent encouragement. A sudden rush, a clamour of wing and claw, a small body thudding down a ladder of air to crash beak first on the concrete.

“Why?” I ask.

The age-old answer comes back to me. “Wye is a river. It flows through Ross-on-Wye and marks the boundary between England and Wales.” The swallows perch on the rafters watching their fledgling as it struggles on the floor, the weakening wing flaps, the last slow kicks of the twitching legs.

“Why?” I ask.”

Y is a crooked letter invented by the Green Man of Wye,” my grandfather says.

“Why?” I repeat. “I want to know why.” Silence hangs a question mark over the unsatisfied spaces of my questing mind.

Comment: A golden oldie. We would all like to know why. But there are no answers. Just riddles cast, like two trunk-less legs of stone, on the sands of time. Nothing beside remains. Yet still we ask the age old question? Why? And still we get the age old answer from the ageing masters who rule our childhood lives and teach us everything they know: “Because.”

Keeping Score

 

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Keeping Score

(‘… we blossom and flourish
like leaves on a tree
and wither and perish …’)

In the beginning was the number,
and that number was one:
number one.

Place it on the chessboard,
square A1,
bottom left corner,
black.

Next door,
on square B1,
white,
place number 2.
Next door,
C1,
place number 4.

The D1 square
claims number 8.
The players are abandoned
to their fate.
16 perch
on square E1.

32
land next door,
what fun,
and crowd into
square F1.

Square G1
sees 64
and H1
numbers
128,
each number a person,
forsaken of late,
and left to perish
in a perilous state.

Black on the left,
white on the right,
the numbers will soon rise
out of sight.

That’s just the start,
the first rank done.
Now we can really
have some fun.
A bean counter’s work
is never done.

H2 = 2-5-6.
Now we’re really
in a fix.

G2 = 5-1-2.
Whatever are we
going to do.

F2 = 1-0-2-4.
Now we’re rattling
up the score.

E2 = 2-0-4-8:
why did we procrastinate,
enjoying ourselves,
rich, young and wealthy,
thinking everyone
hale and healthy,
encouraging them
to drink and party.

D2 = 4-0-9-6.
‘What’s this?’
They cried.
‘It’s just the dead ones,’
we replied.
“Surely there can’t be
many more?”
We said we really
couldn’t be too sure,
though we all wished
it was somewhat fewer.

Body bags are not too pleasant,
laid out in rows,
or curved in a crescent.

“C2?”
We were asked
by a man in a surgical mask.
“8-1-9-2,”
came the reply,
“and there’s lots more
yet to die.”

“B2?”
“I’ll have to tell you later,
when I’ve checked
my calculator.”

We punch the numbers,
one by one.
Keeping score is so much fun.
“8192
multiplied by 2
gives us
1-6-3-8-4.”
“My God,” he said.
“How many more?”

A2
multiplies by two
the numbers laid out
on B2.
“We’re sorry,” we said,
“the news ain’t great:
now we’ve climbed to
32 thousand,
seven hundred
and sixty-eight.”

Don’t bother to give us any thanks.
We’ve got to calculate six more ranks.

Maybe when we get to square H8,
the dying will decelerate.
Then maybe we can celebrate.

Until then we’ll just keep score
and hope there aren’t too many more.