Collateral Damage

And that’s not all they checked: a regular Spanish Inquisition. Post Covid-19 it has all fallen silent. Those doctors don’t call anymore.

Collateral Damage

Once a month, they used to stick
a needle in my arm and check my PSA,
cholesterol, and testosterone:
blood pressure rising, cholesterol high.

The doctors kept telling me
it was a level playing field
but every week they changed the rules
and twice a year they moved the goal-posts.

Monday Night Football:
a man in a black-and-white zebra shirt
held a whistle to his lips while another
threw a penalty flag. It came out of the tv
and fell flapping at my feet.
Someone on the field called a time out.

I haven’t seen my doctor for three years.
My urologist has been silent
for more than eighteen months.
It’s been two years since I last spoke
with my oncologist.

I have become collateral damage.
My body clock is ticking down.
I know I’m running out of time.

Comment: I know I am not the only one to have fallen between the cracks in the medical service. Nor will I be the last. I don’t want to cry ‘wolf!’ and yet I feel as though I have been completely rejected. A year after I recovered from my cancer, I received a survey asking me to assess my post-cancer treatment and services. I read it and cried. I did not even know that the services I was being asked to assess were even being offered. I had certainly received none of the follow-up services. “A law for the rich and a law for the poor” indeed. And so many cracks between so many floorboards with so many people falling through. This is not a rant: it is a warning that all of us must look out for ourselves. I can assure you that if you don’t care for yourself, nobody, but nobody, except for your nearest and dearest, will give a damn for you either.

Queen’s Gambit

I always hated Queen Pawn openings 1. P-Q-4 – P-Q4. 2. P-QB4… the poisoned pawn.

Queen’s Gambit
the poisoned pawn

Openings are so important.
They should be magnets
drawing you in,
but sometimes they’re whirl-pools
dragging you down.

You try to hold your breath,
but you must breathe and let go,
you must go with the flow and sink
to whatever awaits you in the deep.

Down there, it’s a different world.
Light breaks its alternate shadow,
and you are the light in the darkness,
down there, where no sun shines.

You are the glow-worm,
glowing where no stars glow.
You are the line, the sinker, the hook,
the bait, the temptation that encourages
your opponents to sacrifice their own peace,
 to join you, to swim, or to drown.

Comment: To take or not to take, that is the question. It’s a long time since I read Hamlet or played competitive chess. I have forgotten many of the ins and the outs, the traps and the snares, the devils that hide in the details of ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Sometimes we must just take a chance and play by the seat of our pants. Sometimes we must try to recall all the nuances and shades of meaning. And we all know how one step leads to another and how a misstep leads to one disaster after another. Not to win or lose, but to play up, play up, and play the game. Says who? I don’t find those words in my favorite chess book: Chess for Money and Chess for Blood. The poisoned pawn, indeed: and a throw of the dice never eliminates chance / un coup de dès n’abolira jamais le hasard. Go on, take the pawn, throw the dice, I dare you.

Crosswords

Couldn’t find a picture of a cross-bill, so I found some genuine humming birds instead. Listen carefully: you can hear them hum.

Crosswords

I wander a vacant, black and white wonderland
of empty, accusing, crossword puzzle squares.
Most mornings, I sit at the kitchen table, head in hands,
puzzled by the news and the crossword puzzle’s clues.

Outside my window, crossbills squat on the feeder,
squabbling, heads turned sideways, blinking,

and winking sly eyes. A yellow-bellied sapsucker hops
over syrup-sticky squares. His hand-carved chess board

glistens as feasting flies swarm beneath the sun.

My own thoughts are rooted in a stark, new reality.
They walk wordless through threatening spaces where
unmasked people wander grey, concrete streets or walk
in shops, in the opposite direction to arrows,
painted on the floor to guide them.

Cross-words, cross-purposes:
why do some people obey the current laws
while others ignore them and risk their health
as well as the health of others by doing what
they damn well please, in spite of the scientists
who beg them to do otherwise?
Like the puzzle’s clues: I just don’t know.

Comment: Well, last year was a year like no other that I can remember. It is so easy to dismiss it as an aberration, but we shouldn’t do that. Hopefully next year will be better. But it might get worse. Let’s look on the bright side and hum along with the song the humming birds are humming: “Yesterday is history, today is still a mystery, but what a day it’s going to be tomorrow.” I still can’t workout how or why some shoppers just head up the shopping aisles, walking or pushing their carts in the wrong direction. Nor how they can stand for five minutes at a time choosing a breakfast cereal, one hand on the handle of their angled carts, another poking at the cereal boxes, and the aisle totally blocked. I also love the people who still handle every apple in the box before choosing just one of them. For apple you may substitute grapes, pears, avocadoes, tomatoes. Oh the joys of ageing in an age of skepticism and pandemic. Mind you: if life is, as Albert Camus always insisted, absurd, or if it is, as Calderon told us, nothing but a dream, I guess none of it matters anyway. Il faut imaginer Sisyphe heureux / we must believe that Sisyphus is happy!

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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