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Nochebuena / Christmas Eve: last year, a star fell down the chimney and landed on the poinsettia. The cat and the dog stood up to deliver new versions of their Christmas vision. Birch bark: ghosts on the snow bank turned white in the moonlight as they danced, so slender and so bright.
This year an obsidian knife hacks through my mind slicing it into two uneven pieces. Snowflakes invade its split personality. Thin ice spreads across glacial fires. Incarcerated birds sing deep in my rib cage. A child’s world: with its lost toys lies buried beneath fresh snow.
Tears freeze in my eyes, drip from my eyelashes, and fall to the earth as stars. Soon I will be an enormous sunflower, trapped in this wet clay rag of a body.
If I sit here in silence will the world, like a garden growing wild, go on without me? The flowers in my yard close their mouths and refuse to answer.
A city of legends where the dead walk among the living and the stones beneath your feet come alive and talk to you. A city where the animals have voices and the songs of tree and leaf can be clearly heard. A city of hallucinations and spirits, of mystery and myths, a city, young in itself, built on land so old that memories clutch at you with treacherous fingers and lay siege to your heart claiming you for their own. This is the land of Sun and Moon. Come, enter its world. Join me there, if you dare.
Meeting my father in the main square
I saw my father yesterday evening, in Oaxaca. I walked through the zócalo, opened the main cathedral doors and walked in. The doors closed behind me. I looked towards the main altar and there my father stood, motionless. The evening light shone through the engraved glass panels and illuminated him as if he were some long passed saint come back to visit me. We stared at each other, but I couldn’t open my mouth to speak. The hairs on my neck stood on end and my hands shook. When I forced my mouth open, words stuck in my throat. He wore his best grey suit over a light blue shirt and a dark blue, hand woven tie: the outfit in which I had buried him. Three old women, dressed in black, broke the spell. One stood in front of me and wouldn’t let me approach my father. She held a large bag of knitting in her hands and the wool spilled everywhere as she pushed me away. The second threatened me with a pair of scissors that she held in her left hand and thrust towards my face. The third smacked a tailor’s measuring rod against my father’s head. He nodded, smiled sadly, and they all turned their backs on me and hurried away out of the cathedral and into the square. Just for a moment, I stood there in silence. Then I pulled the doors open and ran in pursuit of my father. The setting sun filled the square with shadows that whispered and moved this way and that, as if a whole village had come down from the hills to walk beneath the trees and dance in the rays of the dying sun. I stood on the cathedral steps and called out my father’s name, but I could see no sign of him among the cut and thrust of the shadowy crowd. I ran out into that crowd and pushed at insubstantial people who stood firm one moment and then melted away the next like clouds or thick mist. I came to a side street and saw real people, flesh and blood beings, a group of villagers gathered behind their band. I stopped and as I did the village elder put a live match to the taper of the rocket that he clutched between his thumb and forefinger. The taper caught on fire and the rocket soared upwards with a searing whoosh. The village band marched forward and started to play a traditional dance as the rocket clawed its way into the sky to explode with a loud knock on the door of the gods. Tired of grasping at shadows and afraid of this living phalanx of men that marched towards me I went back to the cathedral and knelt at the altar of La Virgen de la Soledad, the patron saint of Oaxaca. Real wax candles stood before her altar, not tiny electric lights, and I inserted five pesos in the slot, took a taper, and lit a fresh candle from an ageing one that had started to sputter. I knelt and, for the first time in years, I prayed. I prayed for the soul I had saved from extinction by lighting my candle from another’s flame. I prayed for my father and my mother and, above all, I prayed for myself. On the way home to my second-floor apartment where I live alone, I bought two litres of mescal, one to send me to sleep, and the other so I would survive the next morning.
“My grandfather told me there’d be times like these” and he was right. I wonder about his blue days, down there in the trenches, on the Somme, and on other fronts. He survived. He was a survivor. Sometimes that’s the only thing to be. So how do we survive? How do we ignore the snipers, the whizz-bangs, the star shells, the other things that go bump in the night?
There is no single answer. One of my best friends goes into hospital tomorrow, 6:00 am, buccal cancer. An operation. All may be well afterwards. I certainly hope so. I will be here for him, as my grandfather was there for me, as I have been there for others, as others have been there for me. I will not mention names. A blue, blue day indeed. But what shade of blue? If all goes well, the celestial blue of joy and hope, the blue of Mary’s robe when she crushes the serpent beneath her foot, the joy of the blue sky after the storm.
Not, we hope, the dark blue, almost purple, of the gathering storm, the blue of thunder clouds turning almost into black, the midnight blue of the last chance saloon with its overtones of tragedy and disaster. “I never felt more like singing the blues”… indeed I didn’t. But what shade of blue? And for me, it is always the blue of clearing skies, the blue of Mary’s robe, the blue of hope.
“And still I live in hopes to see, Swansea Town once more,” thus sang my father’s father during WWI. He was gassed, he was wounded, he was decorated, he was mentioned in dispatches, so many things happened to him. But he survived the snipers, Big Bertha, the star shells, the whizz-bangs, and he saw his beloved “Swansea Town once more.” As I hope I will, but my dream of a return to the blues of Swansea Bay may be fulfilled in a very different fashion.
Alas, my beloved Swansea Town is now a city. “And so I live in hopes to see, Swansea City once more.” It doesn’t sound the same, does it? It doesn’t have the same carry, the same rhythm, the same resonance. And what about Town Hill? Has it now been renamed City Hill? I am sure Town Hall, the old Brangwyn Hall where my father used to work, is now City Hall, which my father never entered. Enough, no more for “you can never walk in the same river twice” (Heraclitus).
The clematis unfolds bruised purple on the porch. Beneath the black and white hammers of ivory keys, old wounds crack open. A flight of feathered notes: this dead heart sacrificed on the lawn. I wash fresh stains from my fingers with the garden hose while the evening stretches out a shadow hand to squeeze my heart like an orange in its skin. Somewhere, the white throat sparrow trills its guillotine of vertical notes. I flap my hands in the air and they float like butterflies, amputated in sunlight’s net. The light fails fast. I hold up shorn stumps of flowers for the night wind to heal and a chickadee chants an afterlife built of spring branches. Pressed between the pages of my dream: a lingering scent; the death of last year’s delphiniums; the tall tree toppled in the yard; a crab apple flower; a shard of grass as brittle as a bitter tongue at winter’s end. I know for sure that a dog fox hunts for my heart. Vicious as a vixen, the fox digs deep at midnight, unearthing the dried peas I shifted from bowl to bowl to measure time as I lay in bed. I sense a whimper at the window, the scratch of a paw. I watch a dead leaf settle down in a broken corner and it fills me with sudden silence. Midnight stretches out a long, thin hand and clasps dream-treasures in its tight-clenched fist. The lone dove of my heart flaps in its trap of barren bone and my world is as small as a pea in a shrunken pod. Or is it a dried and blackened walnut in its wrinkled shell of overheating air? Sunset, last night, was a star-shell failing to fire. Swallows flew their evensong higher and higher, striving for that one last breath lapped from the dying lisp of day. Its last blush rode red on the clouds for no more than a second’s lustrous afterglow. I lower the delphiniums, body after body, into their shallow graves. Night’s shadows weave illusions from earth’s old bones and rock becomes putty, malleable in the moonlight. Midnight readjusts her nocturnal robes and pulls bright stars from a top hat of darkness. Winged insects with human faces appear with the planets and clutter the owl’s path. Night swallows the swallows and creates more stars. The thin moon hones its cutting edge into an ice-cold blade.
Memories deceive me with their remembered shows, shapes shifting with a click of the magician’s fingers. What magic lantern now slips its subtle slides
across night’s screen? Desperate I lap at salt-licks of false hope that increase my thirst and drive me deeper into thick, black, tumultuous clouds.
A pandemic storm lays waste to the days that dog my mind. Carnivorous canicular, hydropic, it drinks me dry, desiccates my dreams, gnaws me into nothingness.
At night a black dog hounds me, sends my head spinning, makes me chase my own tail, round and round. It snaps at dreams, shadows, memories that ghost through my mind.
Tarot Cards and Tea Leaves are lost in a Mad Hatter’s illusion of a dormouse in a teapot in an unkempt tale. Hunter home from the hill, I return to find my house empty, my body devastated, my future a foretold mess.
Comment: Tough days around us and even tougher ahead. Covid-19 in the schools and people I know, young and old, frightened and in quarantine as a result. People I know and members of my far-flung (thank you, Jennifer, for that long-lost word) family. Funerals to the right of me, funerals to the left of me, of friends I know, acquaintances I hardly know, and many more whom I’ll never know now. “Into the jaws of Covid-19 rode the gallant six hundred, all masked, many falling, fewer of them every minute of every day.” Gallows humor keeps me alive. Last night my favorite teddy bear went AWOL. I got up at 3:00 am and sent out a search party. Sharp eyes spotted the copper band I lost last week. It had been hiding under the pillow. Then, joy of joys, they spotted Teddy’s black velvet band, the one that ties up the hair that falls over his shoulder and gets up my nose and makes me sneeze. They hauled him out from under the bed. I picked up the phone and cancelled the 911 call before the masked men in their jackboots and their PPE could break down the door and strip search the house for a missing bear. Alas, dear Mabel: I would if I could but I am not able.” How those words resound in my ears. Left ear, right ear, and, like Davy Crockett, a wild front ear. I will not give in to morbidity. ‘He who fights and runs away lives to fight another day.” I will survive for another day. Meanwhile, I’ll call for General Worthington, the fellow who can always make the enemy run. “Will you have a VC?” I said “Not me: I’d rather have a bottle of Worthington.” Alas, they don’t make it anymore. And Watney’s Daft Red Barrel has bitten the dust and gone the way of the dodo. And all my friends are in the doldrums, watching, as Admiral Brown abandons ship, mans the boats, and hauls away into fairer weather and cleaner waters. You say you do not understand? ‘Blessed are the poor in intellect, for they shall know peace in these troubled times.’
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.
Yesterday I went limbo dancing
in the bedroom mirror.
Lower and lower I danced
until I fell into the mirror
and became my reflection.
Rough were the waters.
I know how to swim, but
I thought I would drown,
except the light was too shallow
and my feet touched bottom
when I let down my wheels.
I swam on and in
looking for a deserted island
on which to build
my idle, sandcastle dreams.
Two people said they saw
my reflection swimming,
a goldfish in a silver space.
They said I stared back at them
with circles of longing
ringing my eyes, but I laughed
when they said they had seen me,
for when I looked in the mirror
that reflected the mirror,
I saw myself limbo dancing,
heaven and hell
in a dance hall called Virus
where I drank Corona.
Whose eyes watch me now
as my video goes viral
and I twist and I dance
in a fantasy land
filled with sweet nothings.