In the mud nest jammed tight against the garage roof, tiny yellow beaks flap ceaselessly open.
The parents sit on a vantage point of electric cable, mouths 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?”
“Wye is a river. It flows through Ross-on-Wye and marks the boundary between England and Wales.”
And the swallows perch on the rafters watching their fledgling as it struggles on the floor: the weakening wings, the last slow kicks of the twitching legs. “Why?”
“Y is a crooked letter invented by the Green Man of Wye.”
Comment: This is the original poem, written back in the eighties, wow, that’s forty years ago. I included it in my first poetry chapbook, Idlewood (published, 1991). It was a slim volume, dark green color, typed and photocopied, very humble, but MINE! A couple of years ago I wrote a prose poem, sort of flash fiction, in one of my Welsh sequences and included the story as part of the text. It came to me as a memory yesterday morning, and I posted it on Facebook. Here now is the story. Hopefully, you have just read the poem: I hope you liked it but, as I know all too well, de gustibus non est disputandum. I would like to know if you prefer the poetry to the prose. Please let me know, pretty please?
“Where are you going?” I ask. “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. “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 questioning mind.
“Sábete, Sancho, … Todas estas borrascas que nos suceden son señales de que presto ha de serenar el tiempo y han de sucedernos bien las cosas, porque no es posible que el mal ni el bien sean durables, y de aquí se sigue que, habiendo durado mucho el mal, el bien está ya cerca.” Miguel de Cervantes : Don Quixote de la Mancha.
“Know this, Sancho, … All these squalls that beset us are signs that the weather will soon clear up and better things will come to us, because it isn’t possible for good or ill to endure, and from here it follows that, these ills having lasted so long, good times are now close.” My translation.
Comment: This quote was sent to me by Marina, my close friend from Avila, with whom I have maintained contact, even though it is now twelve full years (2008-2020) since we last saw each other and talked, except on Messenger. Break ups and lost and absent friends and families: it seems to be the story of my life. And how could it be otherwise when one is a migrant who emigrates and immigrates and passes on and through, rarely resting in the same place for long? I guess it is also the story of the Intelligentsia: those whose learning and understanding and life experience moves them out from one place and into many others. Cualquier tiempo pasado fue mejor / any time from the past was better. Hiraeth: the knowledge that the past is lost, save in our minds, and can never be recovered, even though sometimes we wish so badly to do so. The Intelligentsia: always dissatisfied, both with the past which they can never recreate and which they view through the pink lens of nostalgia and with the present which is never as beautiful as that pastel pink past, that in reality probably never existed. Toda la vida es un sueño y los sueños sueños son / The whole of life is a dream and dreams are just dreams, and nothing more (Calderon de la Barca).
Boxing Day By the time I get up, the gloves are really off and the sparring has begun in earnest. I hear voices, walk downstairs to the kitchen, and a hush falls on the room. Knife-edge glances slice their menacing ways through the thick fog of war. Time for boxing: on my left, in the blue corner, my mother, smoking what is probably her second packet of the day. A thin haze of grey smoke escapes from her bruised lips and a cloud of exhaled fumes crowns her head with a murky halo. On my right, in the red corner, my father. White-faced, hungover yet again, truly into the spirits of Christmas. He breathes heavily, like a Boxer Dog in the mid-summer dog-days, snoring and snorting at a bitch in heat. In the middle, my grandfather, the referee. He is keeping the combatants apart, creating a tiny breathing space so the true Spirit of Christmas can disentangle itself from those false Christmas Spirits and bring peace to earth again for at least sixty seconds between each round. I look around the heaving, seething, threshing silence of a room where conversation has suddenly ceased. The fire is burning merrily. Beside it, tongs, poker, and small shovel stand to attention. On the hearthstone, the little red brush, with its long handle lies in ambush. This is what my father uses to beat me when he can’t be bothered to take off his leather belt. Scorch marks from the hot coal fire sear the handle and back of the little red brush. I threw it on the fire one day, hoping to see the end of it. Of course, it was rescued from the flames, resurrected, and I got beaten for that act of rebellion too. “It’s all your fault!” My father breaks the silence, pointing at me. His red-rimmed eyes blazing with a sudden and renewed anger. He starts to rise, but my grandfather steps between us. “Go and see your granny,” grandpa tells me. “She’s in the kitchen. Go now!” He points to the kitchen door. I run a gauntlet of staring eyes and go to my gran. As I shut the door behind me, voices rise higher in the room I have just left. Boxing Day, indeed. The gloves are off. The battle has begun again. My grandfather has evacuated me from no-boy’s-land and, for a moment, I am no longer trapped in the mud-filled, cratered, shell-holes between the trenches, the uncut barbed-wire barriers, the poached-egg eyes peering through periscopes and spying on me from the parental and priestly parapets. Here in the kitchen, for a while, I walk on the wooden duck-boards that keep my feet dry and clear of mud and water.
Comment: This is, of course, the true origin of the term Boxing Day. A genuine Boxing Day has nothing to do with the myth that it was the day on which the servants, who worked Christmas Day on the Lord’s estate, received their Christmas Boxes. Peace on earth and mercy mild has got nothing to do with alcohol-fueled quarrels, raging hangovers, and little children who should be seen and not heard. Sometimes, when all the elders are down at the pub on the corner, the night may, for a little while, actually be silent. But the noise when the drunks roll raucously home is most unholy. Then little children should be wise like the wise men, run quickly into bed, and lie there, neither seen nor heard.
Yours are the hands that raise me up, that rescue me from dark depression, that haul me from life’s whirlpool, that clench around the jaws that bite, that save me from the claws that snatch.
Yours are the hands that move the pieces on the chess board of my days and nights, that break my breakfast eggs and bread, that bake my birthday cake and count the candles that you place and light.
You are the icing on that cake, and yours is the beauty that strips the scales from my eyes, then blinds me with light.
Comment: what excellent timing: thank you for publishing three of my poems to Clare and on our 54th wedding anniversary too (24 December 2020). An incredible gift and Clare and I both thank you for it, Brian. How to make a memorable day even more memorable. Tonight, when we open the champagne, we will have a glass for you on the table. Much as we would appreciate your presence, the two week quarantine on entering New Brunswick places a blanket over so many invitations and celebrations. That’s why every little helps, and this is so much more than a ‘little’, it is a lot, a very thoughtful lot. So, for Brian, his family, and all my family and friends: tonight we will be alone in our home. But we will raise a glass to absent friends, and we will be together in our hearts. “To absent friends”!!! Here’s the link to Brian’s page.
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.
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.
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’!
Once upon a time, there was a man who carried a large round rock upon his back. It was huge and heavy, like the globe that Atlas carried. One day he felt tired, laid that rock upon the beach at Bocabec, waded out into the Bay of Passamaquoddy, and was never seen again. He left the rock there for my friend to find. My friend called it Magic Rock, but what he did with it and thought about it is his tale to tell, not mine. I must tell another story. Once upon a time, St. Patrick arrived in Ireland. He celebrated Easter on the hill above Tara, the royal palace of the ancient Irish kings. Then he walked down the hill to their palace and tried to convert them to Christianity. But that is another story, and it is not mine to tell, even though the name of Tara was given to the red and white house of another friend of mine, red and white, like the dogs and cattle of Ireland. But that’s not my story. Once upon a time, a rich and powerful man came to St Andrews and built a summer home on the hill above the bay. Later, another friend of mine purchased it, painted it red and white, and turned it into a wonderful home for guests and visitors. I wanted to tell her story, but it’s hers to tell, not mine. I can only tell my own story. Once upon a time, my friend who lives on the shore at Holt’s Point, walked on the beach outside his house and found an enormous, metal ball, weighing almost two hundred kilos. It was almost as big as Magic Rock. It lay there, on the shore waiting for some one to find it. My friend went home, drove back to the beach in his truck, winched the ball onto the flatbed, and brought it home. What he did with it is not my tale to tell. I must tell my own story. So, what is my story? What tales do I have the right to tell and how shall I begin my tale? Well, once upon a time, in Ty Coch, a red brick house on the Gower Peninsula, in Wales, a little boy was born … and that is my story … but I will not tell it here and now. Instead, I’ll tell you another tale. But you will have to wait until tomorrow.