Death by Devilry

Silence in the garden. A hawk perched nearby. There are so many ways to die.

Death by Devilry

Silence in the garden.
A hawk perched nearby.
There are so many ways to die.

A cerebral bleed, minor,
but enough to send him to hospital
and keep him there.

Cured, ready for release,
he would need extra care
and added attention.

The devil lived in the small print.
Too much attention needed now:
his care home wouldn’t care for him.

Back to the old folks ward he went.
There he lay, waiting for a vacancy
in a home that would really care.

One day, Covid came a-visiting,
stalked the ward that night, choosing
its victims: you, you, and her, and him.

What killed him?
A cerebral bleed, a minor stroke?
Or a major stroke from the devil’s pen?

Bold words, bare words,
a barren ward, another vacant place
around a Christmas table.

Comment: Sitting at the breakfast table, with an empty space before me, I penned these words. So tragic, so avoidable. Yet how many families have gone through something similar in the past twelve months? How many empty spaces are there, vacancies that will never again be filled? I look at today’s figures from the USA: 18,466,231 infected and 326,232 already perished, an increase of 227,998 and 3,338 since yesterday. I am reminded of the words of Pink Floyd: “Is there anybody out there?” Blas de Otero also echoes through my mind: “levanto las manos: tu me las cercenas” / I hold up my hands: you cut them off. And yet it is Christmas Eve and there is still the Christmas promise of joy, and hope, and a new year entering. Let us raise our hands in prayer: and let us pray they are not hacked off.

R.I.P.

Forget-me-not!

R.I.P.

He was a good man,
and a better friend.
He came over to mow the lawn
and stayed for a beer.
“This is gonna sizzle!”

Some called him uneducated,
no BA, no MA, no LLB,
but he had a golden heart
and a PhD in the school
of life and hard knocks.

I met men like him in Wales,
coal miners in bars,
steel workers on rugby teams,
sheep farmers from the hills
in the big city for the game.

Humble, they were, honest,
hard men, hard working,
intolerant of pretension and fools.
When I went to university,
nineteen and full of ideals,
they pulled me on one side.

“You’re one of us,” they said.
“However high you rise,
don’t lose the common touch.”

I met men like him in Spain,
foot-soldiers from the Civil War,
riflemen, dynamite throwers
with their skills learned
at coal face and quarry.

Machado wrote poems about them:
“Donde hay vino, beben vino;
donde no hay vino,
beben agua de las fuentes.”

Where there is wine,
they drink wine.
Where there is no wine,
they drink water from the fountains.

A good man, an honest man,
an uneducated man, some say,
who taught me more about life
and how to live it
than any university professor.

Comment: I read the obituary of one of my best friends in the newspaper today. He moved away from the neighborhood and we lost touch. But I never forgot him. As I have never forgotten those who shaped me in Wales and Spain. I have forgotten many of their names. But I have never forgotten their faces, nor their words of wisdom. At first, his passing brought a shadow to my life. Then I realized that no, he would not have wanted that. I think now of the good times, the laughter, the joy and, instead of mourning for him, I rejoice in all the goodness he gave me. Rest in peace, my friend. I will forget-you-not.

Heraclitus

Geoff Slater’s mural at McAdam Railway Station. ‘You cannot step in the same river twice.’ Heraclitus.

Heraclitus

Nothing will ever be
as it was before.

Time, like water,
like these people marching,
constantly flows,
trickling through my fingers,
uncatchable, unstoppable,
 sand filtering through
the hour glass’ waist.

Water flows, currents shift,
rocks wear down,
banks slide and fall.

“You cannot walk
in the same river twice
nor ever attend
the same demonstration.”

Nor can you recapture
that first, fine, careless rapture,
the touch of that first
drop of river water.

Kneeling by the river bank,
like St. Kevin and his Blackbird,
I cannot recall the river’s name.

Comment: I love the reality of the river, its impressionist style of flowing water, impossible without the enormous presence of Claude Monet and his portraits of the Seine. However, what makes the mural, for me, is the brutal reality that breaks into the painting’s unreality. The boards covering the interior wall, the hand rail blended into the painting, the skirting board, the electric socket. I also like the intertextuality: art speaking to poetry, poetry replying to art, the links to Heraclitus, poetry speaking to poetry, the anonymity of the river, and the further poetic links to Robert Browning and Seamus Heaney. I often wonder if readers and viewers pick these things up. Or do they just speed-read, link to their own experiences, and move on with no further thought? You tell me. But what I will tell you is that artists reaches out to art, poets extend their hands to poetry, and our world is an inter-connected maze of thoughts and ideas, linking and unlinking, occurring and re-occurring, lapping like an incoming tide at the fingers and toes we immerse in those amniotic waters, often so long-forgotten, in which our creativity is berthed and from which it is born.

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’!

Teddy and the Angels

Teddy and the Angels

Warm in Bed. Cozy. I roll over and the flashlight clipped to my Teddy Bear’s ear drives its hard, metal lump into my face.
            “Are you awake?” Teddy’s soft voice lilts across the pillow.
            “I am now.”
            “Look!” Teddy points with his little leather paw. “The moon: it’s climbing the fir tree.”
            Sure enough, a thin fingernail of gold is perched on a branch. It hides its face among the fir’s darkness and vanishes for a moment.
            “The maple tree has a garland of tiny Christmas lights,” says Teddy, pointing again.
            “Those aren’t Christmas lights, they’re stars.”
            “Spoilsport. Look, that one’s moving. I think it’s an angel.”
            “What time is it, Teddy?”
            “I don’t know.”
            “Here, lend me your flashlight.” I pull him towards me, switch on the torch, and focus its light on my wristwatch. “4:55 AM. That’s the early morning flight from Toronto. It’s a plane.”
            “I’d much rather it was an angel.”
            “Me too.”
            “Can we pretend it’s an angel, a Christmas angel?”
            “Of course we can. But it’s gone now.”
            “Perhaps angels don’t live long when they come to earth.”
            “I think they live for ever. Especially if we believe in them.”
            “Do you believe in angels?”
            “I was taught to believe in my guardian angel.”
            “What’s a guardian angel?”
            “He’s the one who looks after you when you sleep at night.”
            “But you don’t need a guardian angel. You’ve got me.”
            “But you’re a teddy bear, not a guardian bear.”
            “That’s true, but you’ve got Blueberry. He’s your guardian bear. Look at him standing there, on guard, all night long to protect you from the Night-Bumps.”
            “Ah yes, good old Blueberry. I’ve got a busy day today. I need some more sleep.”
            “Okay. Blueberry and I will watch over you. I’ll watch over you. I’ll let you know if any more angels climb the tree.”
            “That would be nice. Now I’m going back to sleep.”
            “Good night. Or should that be ‘good morning’.”
            Some days, when I wake up, I think I have dreamed all of this. Other days, I believe in talking teddy bears and angels. Today, I’m not so sure.

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

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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.

Building Bigger Boxes

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Building Bigger Boxes

Some of the worst educators I have been unfortunate enough to work with over my undergraduate and graduate years have come up with cliché after cliché in an effort to the sway students into believing that they really are getting an excellent education. One such phrase is the infamous: “We are teaching you to think outside the box.” So, what is their definition of ‘the box‘? Alas, I do not know. They deal in clichés and, by definition, a cliché is a  phrase that both parties (teachers and taught) accept as being meaningful, even though it is often without meaning. It is also a conversation closer, as in ‘it is what it is’. It’s hard to argue with that or to reason your way around it. ‘But it doesn’t have to be!’ rarely cuts the mustard aka mouse-turd.

So, if these teachers are teaching their students how to think outside the box, how are they managing to do so? Why by building bigger boxes inside which each student can be safely taught to think, without asking questions, and without looking for independent answers.

Today’s cartoon has two titles: (1) Brave hearts  escaping, finding meaning outside the bigger boxes and (2) can the true heart escape its coffin in a bigger box? I love the boxes within boxes and the drawers within each boxed segment into which the young, developing mind can be stuffed and crammed. How do we release those hearts? How do we develop those minds? Certainly not by confining them in bigger boxes. In the battle for hearts and minds, how do we set our students free?

It must be done on the student’s terms, each student, one by one, in co-operation with intelligent, meaningful teachers who step away from cliché and commonplace to enter the learner’s world and to themselves learn how to contact each learner at a mental, spiritual, and intellectual level. Only then will teacher and taught be able to speak of true intellectual freedom. Until that happens, be very careful when your child comes home and announces that today, of all days, that child has been taught to think outside the box. “Verily, I say unto you, open the cage door. Let in the sunshine and the light. Set those children free.” But remember, it must be on a  case by case basis, with each individual weighed, assessed, understood, and released to find their own individual way of earning the things they specifically need to know. In true education, one size really doesn’t fit all.

Comment: Another Golden Oldie that suddenly surfaced and, on emerging from the depths, reminded me of another of my callings: that of a teacher of philosophy and a teacher with a philosophy. Retired now, I can no longer help young minds to create and shape themselves. This is doubly true with Covid-19 haunting us, waving at us from the shop-windows, supermarket aisles, and street corners, flapping its wings and trying to fly into our bodies. And remember to distinguish between clichés and things that are not clichés, like ‘Wear a mask’, ‘wash your hands’ (twenty seconds, with soap), and ‘keep a safe social distance’. Do this all the time and hopefully you will avoid thinking inside the bigger box of a six foot pine Covid-19 coffin.