Pianissimo

Pianissimo


            You sit at the piano, my old piano, still extant in my father’s house, yet soon to be given away, though we don’t know that yet. It’s an upright, iron-frame Bechstein, a piano that I was given when I was the same age as you are now. Handel’s Largo, the Harmonious Blacksmith, hours and hours of scales. They locked me in the front room, my mum and dad, and there I stayed for an hour, two hours, or more. I came to hate music. As soon as I could, I gave up the piano, I rejected piano practice, I turned my face away from the discipline of the lock up.
            Now, I listen to you. Your untaught fingers tickle the black keys, then the white keys, one after another. You are six years old. You’ve never had a lesson, but you have music in your blood and some residual instinct latches on to rhythm and sound. Your fingers are long and supple and your touch is light, so much lighter than mine used to be, and now, on the deep bass notes of the left hand, your stronger hand, you pound away, awakening the dark ghosts of soul music that pour through my memories awakening echoes in this piano.
            I think of you as a jazz musician. Thelonius Monk, perhaps, a tinkle here, a light touch there, now a chord or two, inexplicable, and who would want to explain. It is a joy to sit here, to see your smile of absolute absorption. Mood music you call it, and today your moods are as dark as the shadows that tug at my heart, and as light as the sunlight that floats through the windows and makes the dust motes sparkle. It also frames a halo round your head. You hum to yourself as the morning sunshine fragments into colored gems and you sculpt your rainbow of sound.
            “Stop that noise. You’re driving me mad,” your grandfather, my father, stumbles into the room. He has taken his last cigarette out of the packet and the white cylinder hangs down from his lips, like an extraneous chalk outcrop hanging from the lip of an errant teacher. He pats his pockets. “Where are my matches? Has anyone seen my matches?”
            “They’re on the table in the kitchen,” I reply. “Where you always put them.”
            “I thought I left them in here,” my father leans on his stick then turns and stumbles out of the living room and into the kitchen.
            You hop off the piano stool, take the matches from your pocket, and carefully place them on the arm of your grandfather’s favorite chair.
            “Sssssh!” you say, putting a finger on your lips. Then you skip back to the piano and start playing pianissimo on high notes that float like tiny raindrops of sound produced by miniscule angels.          
            Your grandfather returns, glances round the room, spots the match box, and pounces upon it, a caged tiger finally served his red meat.
            “That’s funny,” he mutters. “They weren’t there a moment ago.” He takes out a match, strikes it, lights up his cigarette, inhales a lungful of smoke, then exhales it in a great locomotive puff of cloud. He grimaces at you through a haze of smoke.
            “There’s nice music you’re playing.”
            Your young lungs, unaccustomed to a house of smokers, can’t cope with this thin, grey, choking cigarette waste. You stop playing, put a hand over your mouth, and start to gag.

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Pianissimo

Blood and White Wash

Blood and Whitewash
A Thursday Thought

2-September-2021

Blood and Whitewash is the title of this painting. It has a subtitle: My Plan of Attack.

The origins of the title, and hence of the painting, go back to the Goon Show, with Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers, and of course / wrth gwrs, Harry Secombe, the Swansea Comedian and Master Singer. Away in boarding school back in the late fifties, one of my greatest pleasures was listening to the Goon Show on one of the dormitory’s transistor radios. As a teenager, I found the jokes and the accents incredibly funny. Still do. That’s why I painted this painting. Alas, it is silent, and you cannot hear the accents.

The following snippet of dialog occurred on one such Goon Show, I cannot remember which.

“What are we going to do?”
“Well, this is my plan of attack.”
“That’s not a tack, it’s a nail.”
“No it’s not. It’s a tack.”

So above you have my painting of My Plan of Attack, resurrected after all those years. I throw my mind back to the First World War.

The General:
“He’s a cheerful Cove,” said Jimmy to Jack,
as he walked to Arras with his pack on his back.
But he did for them both, with his plan of attack.

And there in essence is the history of the painting. First, the plan of attack, then the failure and the blood-letting, and then the white-washing of the whole history, a white-washing that turns failure into success, defeat into victory, and loss into gain. But in WWI, it was the poor Tommies who bore the burden, and all the other front line troops who obeyed orders, went blindly over the top, and charged unbroken wire with fixed bayonets.

“If you want to find the sargent,
I know where he is, I know where he is,
If you want to find the sargent,
I know where he is.
He’s hanging on the old barbed wire.”

“If you want to find the chaplain,
I know where he is, I know where he is,
If you want to find the chaplain,
I know where he is.
He’s hanging on the old barbed wire.”

“If you want the whole battalion,
I know where they are, I know where they are,
If you want the whole battalion,
I know where they are.
They’re hanging on the old barbed wire.”

Singing as they marched to their deaths, obeying orders, like sheep, and nipped on by the eternal sheep dogs. Things were so bad at Verdun that instead of singing, the men marched, bleating, like sheep. “Sheep unto the slaughter.” There was so much ill-feeling and rebellion in the face of orders and certain slaughter, that French regiments were decimated, one man in ten shot for mutiny, as they marched bleating, instead of singing, to their deaths.

“Oh, we’ll hang out our washing on the Siegfried Line,
have you any dirty washing, Mother dear?”

“Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it.” So, tell me, “where have all the young men gone, gone to graveyards everyone, when will they ever learn, when will they ever learn?”

And that, dear friends, is my thought for today: The History of My Plan of Attack. When, indeed, will we ever learn?

My Grandfather

WWI Dispatch Rider. A friend of my grandfather’s.

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My Grandfather

My grandfather gave me my first sewing lessons.
He sat before the kitchen fire and put a grey
wooden darning mushroom inside the sock,
stretching woolen threads to expose the hole.

He chose with care his colors: bright yellows,
oranges, reds, sky blues, anything that stood out
against the sock’s dark rainy-day drabness. If
the socks were thin, he split new wool, pulling it
into individual strands that he would dampen
with his tongue. Then he would thread the needle.

Wool in place, he would cross-hatch the sock’s hole,
slowly forming a life-raft that he’d fill with color.
All my life, I have darned socks, sewn buttons,
and mended my sweaters. I use bright colors,
to my friends’ dismay. I still have my grandfather’s
World War One sewing kit, all wrapped up in
a canvas bag with his needles and some wool.

It’s wonderful to touch where his strong hands were.
There are dark blood traces where he pricked his thumb
and deeper stains where he sewed up wounded friends.

Comment: My Grandfather, the poem, is available on DiversityTV where it is read by Alejandro Botelho. Thank you, Alejandro, for a great reading and a fine interpretation of this poem. Click here > My Grandfather < for Alejandro’s reading. Note that My Grandfather begins at 13.30. Note too that the other poems on this site are worth listening to as well.

Survivors

Survivors

Last night’s rainstorm shrank the house.
We closed down rooms
and now the walls are closing in.
There’s so much we no longer use, nor visit,
so many rooms we no longer enter.

Almost all our friends downsized long ago.
We are the holdouts. We love it here
in this big house with its lawns and trees
and flowerbeds with bees’ balm, butterflies, birds,
and the yard abuzz with sunshine and bees.

But now we are starting to throw things out.
Maybe we’ll move, next summer perhaps,
or maybe not. For now is the time of indecision.

Like friends of the same age,
we travel the lesser road of memory loss,
a name and a face here,
a date or phone number there.

Perhaps, when the time comes,
we will have forgotten how to move.
Meanwhile, the mandatory old man’s question:
‘where did I put my glasses?’

Pepe’s Bar

Pepe’s Bar

Friday Fiction

Pepe’s bar was at the top of a steep, cobbled street, on the left-hand side. When we got there, it was crowded with men, mostly fishermen off the North Atlantic ships that cross the sea to the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. The men stay away for weeks at a time, and when they get back home, they too have a huge thirst, large and curious appetites, and money with which to indulge them. We all pushed our way into Pepe’s bar to join the crowd.
            “Phew! Let’s get out of here. The place stinks of fish!”
            “We can’t go without drinking something. You know what Pepe’s like.”
            “Let’s share a porrón.”
            And a porrón of red wine duly appeared. The porrón is designed for a small boat in the open sea. It is a glass flask of variable size, holding half a litre or a litre of bright red wine, depending upon the number of people drinking from it. It has a wide funnel at one end through which the wine enters and a thin spout at the other through which the wine exits in a fine ruby jet which the experts shoot directly into their mouths; done with skill, no lips ever touch the flask which circulates from hand to hand amidst cries of appreciation for the skilled and jeers for the careless (and the educational tourists, like me, here to learn about the language and the culture) who suddenly choke and cough as they squirt a red stream of wine up their noses and onto face, shirt, and tie. By dint of hard work, some of it done in the bath tub at home while nobody is watching, I can manage a porrón in the quiet confines of the bar; but I still don’t know how I would fare, out at sea, in an open, wind-swept boat.
I was soon going to find out.

Little Red Brush

Little Red Brush

Timothy heard his older brothers moving from room to room, searching for him.  He knew they would find him but for now he had found refuge beneath his grandfather’s double bed. It was dark under there in that sepulchral space. He had placed his grandfather’s enormous Royal Doulton chamber pot between himself and the door so that the dog would not pick up his scent, run to his hiding place, and lay the Judas lick upon his cheek.

His grandfather had forgotten to empty the chamber pot. Dark urine splashed on Timothy’s hands and sleeves as he squeezed behind the giant china pot that overwhelmed his nose fills with his grandfather’s nocturnal vapors.

The voices got louder as his brothers climbed the stairs and approached the bedrooms on the upper floor.

“Where is he now, drat him?”

“Don’t worry, we’ll find him.”

“And then he’ll be for it.”

“I’ll beat him with the little red brush they use for cleaning the fireplace.”

“That will teach him.”

Timothy was familiar with those threats, especially the little red brush.

He remembered the fox the hounds killed at his feet, one sunny morning a year before. He cycled down the lane outside his family’s summer cottage. The fox limped along the side of the lane, saw the boy on his bike, but too tired to run from him, continued limping in the roadway. Timothy got off his bike, leaned it against the rough stone country wall, and watched the fox. Its tail, speckled with mud, dragged behind its low-slung body, sweeping the ground. Timothy observed the twigs and thorns protruding from its black-tipped orange redness.

Timothy walked towards the fox. It tried to move away from the boy but collapsed and lay at the edge of the lane, flanks heaving, tongue lolling out through the white strings of thick foam that choked the muzzle and streaked saliva on the forequarters.

The hounds came from nowhere, an incoming, barking tide that rounded the corner and rushed towards Timothy who froze with a fright that pressed him against the wall.  Sun-warmed stone jutted sharp edges into his back. As he stood there, unable to move, a rough hand came over the wall and grabbed him by the shoulder. He felt himself hauled upwards. The flint points dug into his back and he yelped as the firm hand drew him over the top of the wall to safety.

“Get out of there, you stupid boy, or the hounds will have you.”

Timothy hid his face in the farmer’s rough homespun shirt. He shuddered as the dogs bayed and growled and scrapped and scratched. Then the fox, it must have been the fox, let out a high-pitched yap and whine and the pack gargled itself into a drooling, slobbering sort of silence. The farmer pushed Timothy’s face away from his shoulder and forced his head towards the spot where the hounds, on the other side of the protective barrier, rubbed their ears into the dead fox’s torn and bloodied body.

“That’s what they’d have done to you, my boy. Never come between a pack and its kill.”

Timothy watched a member of the hunt staff pull a knife from his jacket. The foxhunters broke into cheers and howls of pleasure when the man severed the fox’s brush and held it on high. The farmer thrust Timothy towards the Master of Hounds.

“Here, blood him, Master, he was in at the kill.”

The Master of Hounds opened his mouth to flash a smile filled with pointed, foxhound teeth.  He stooped, dipped his fingers in the still warm fox blood, and streaked a smear across the boy’s face.

“There,” he said,” you’re blooded now. One of us, eh what?”

The mingled scents of fox and hound and blood and death and urine and feces made a heady mixture and Timothy started to hyperventilate. His breath came hard in his throat and, as he struggled to breathe, tears rolled down his cheeks.

Timothy feels safe in his secret hiding place beneath his grandfather’s bed. He can hear his brothers’ taunts and calls as they search for him, but they haven’t found him yet. Sticks and stones may break my bones, he whispers, but names will never hurt me. But names do hurt. Tiny Tim they call him and ask him where he hides his crutch. I don’t limp, Timothy once replied. When he said that, one of his brothers, Big Billy, kicked Timothy as hard as he could with the toe of his boot, just above the ankle. Timothy screamed with pain. You’ll limp now, said Big Billy, and his other brothers found the joke so funny that they all called kicked Tiny Tim at every opportunity. Limp, Timmy, limp, they chanted as they chased him round, limp Tiny Tim, Tiny Timmy

“He’s not up here,” one of his brothers called out.

“Must be out in the garden, the coward, we’ll have to hunt out there for him,” another replied.

“Can’t run, can’t hide,” said Big Billy. “Get the dog, we’ll track him down.”

The voices finally faded. Protected by the barrier of his grandfather’s cold but intimate body waste, Timothy curled up like a fox in his den and fell asleep. He dreamed of the proud brush of a tail flying in the wind, of a warm stone wall, drenched in sunlight, and of a farmer’s strong, all-protecting arm.

Comment: I have written several versions of this story, some longer, some much shorter, some in the first person singular, some in the second person. In all of them, the word-play on the little red brush (fox and fireplace) is paramount. This particular version occurs in my short story collection, Nobody’s Child available on line. Sometimes a story will not leave me alone. It wanders around, takes slightly different twists and turns, and new images and scenes emerge, as they do in this particular piece. Alas, I didn’t have a photo of a fox, so I used a photo of three plump pigeons hiding, you might even say ‘cowering away’, from a hungry hawk circling overhead while they hid in a crack in a wall in Avila, Spain. It always surprises me to know how many people (and animals) flee from what Robbie Burns called “man’s inhumanity to man”.

Fall

Fall
13 October 2016

Just one leaf dropping from the tree
and the fall a call of nature and no freak
chance of fate. What throw of the dice
eliminates Lady Luck? None at all,
or so the poet says, lying there, indisposed,
his ribs cracked hard against the wooden
boards of the porch and his right foot
caught in such a way that the hip slips
slightly from its socket and try as he may
he cannot stand but lies there in the chill
evening wind, a lone leaf, getting on in age,
plucked from his tree and cast to the ground.

Comment: And don’t forget the family of crows, sitting in the tree, giving me the eye. watching every movement. I half expected them to flap down on to the balcony, and take a closer look, but when I started to move, it was game over, Rover, and they all cawed and flew away.

Vets

Autumn Leaves, the Peace Park, Mactaquac

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Vets
A Thursday Thought

Mary Jones

I met her unexpectedly in a restaurant in St. George.
I was masked, but she knew me right away. She hadn’t
changed. How could she have? She is as she is. Straight
forward, upright, honest, true to her words and her values.
Ex-military. A United Nations Peace-Keeper. A Blue Beret.
World traveller to some of the roughest, toughest, ugliest,
craziest spots. Everywhere she went, she helped keep the peace.

She came back home to find out what she already knew: that
rural New Brunswick was as wild as anywhere she had been.
She was anonymous, here, was just another number in a book,
a casualty in a nameless war of attrition after which the winners
rewrite the history of events, twisting them this way, that way
to suit themselves and their own instincts and interests.

“Best of the best,” I wrote in the book I gave her. Fortuitous,
it was, finding her again, finding that copy close to hand,
reserved for her alone. That book and this poem are my tribute
to her for her courage, her fortitude, and her strength of will.
They are also a tribute to her role in making the world a safer place
in which others, less fortunate, can create, without fear, their lives.

Comment: There is very little more to be said. Each former soldier is an individual with a history and personality of their own. This is my tribute to a very good friend who served her country and the United Nations Peace Keeping Forces with pride and distinction. Mary Jones, I, an academic, a writer, and a non-combatant, salute you for all the positive values which you have brought into this sometimes troubled world of ours. You and your well-being are in my Thursday Thoughts.

Cave Paintings

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Cave Paintings
Cantabria

Who painted these pictures on the walls of night’s cave?
This grayish hand, fingers flexed, outlined in black soot,
that deer dancing, those bears, horses, bison, running?


Did they come from nowhere, plucked from nothing but
the artist’s memories of what he saw as the ice age faded
and heat and warmth returned to warm his world? Drawn
from life, without doubt. Unless these Neanderthals were
truly creating art from a literal vacuum with nothing new
invented since according to Picasso. And he should know.

Imagine them as sounds, as letters from distant relatives,
as colored vowels scored on the blocks of a child’s first
alphabet set. Sit and stare. Watch flames flitter over
sharp shapes. See life enter the drawings as flimsy
light flickers over the cave walls’ dips and bumps.

Once seen, never forgotten. Not just the paintings, but also
the clammy cave damp, the red hanky draped over a pocket torch
to imitate firelight, the drip of water, slow growth of limestone
deposits growing into stalagmite and stalactite. Such things
flit in and out of my mind like owls or bats, drop in on my sleep
wake me with predatory beaks and claws, calling for my skull’s shut
doors to open wide, to let them in, and to bring them back to life.

Comment: The picture comes from an ash-tray my parents bought at the Cuevas de Altamira, in Santillana del Mar (Cantabria, Santander as it was known then) in 1963. We visited many cave sites in Cantabria including Puente Viesgo, where we saw the sooty hands. Back then, the caves had only just been opened. At Altamira, a young lady came to greet us. We asked her if we might view the caves and she whistled loudly. Her husband came down from the fields where he was working. He took a large iron key from his pocket, opened a huge door set in the rock, and in we went. One light bulb illumined the inner chamber. Only a small segment had been dug out. We reclined on a rocky bank. He doused the electric light, took a torch from his pocket, and covered it with a red pocket handkerchief. He moved this back and forth to imitate firelight and immediately the whole wall came to life and the animals moved in the flickering light. Pure magic. Unforgettable. We were the only people there. Four of us. A few years later, you had to book an appointment and a place. Within six years, the caves were closed as the heat of human bodies raised the cave temperatures and caused the paintings to deteriorate. I was so fortunate, so privileged, to see those paintings in what was almost their pristine state. In 1991, I visited the facsimile of the caves built in Madrid. I paid my money, went in, sat down, and came out crying for all those things we had lost, for all that beauty that had been denied.

Ginger Marcinkowski

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Ginger Marcinkowski
(KIRA, August, 2019)

“My walk each morning, rain or shine,
feathers my black galoshes with dewy grass.
There I would ramble through gated doors
that kept out the world and sealed in
my pen’s work for that day. 

I often found myself sidetracked,
exploring paths that led through flowerbeds,
and up to my favorite sculptures.
I paused to watch my fellow artists
as they focused on chosen subjects
unaware that I was eavesdropping. 

Then silently, I would steal away
along the well-trod path to my studio,
pausing long enough to greet the llamas
and baby goats. If I listen carefully
I can still hear their bleating. 

In wonder, every day, I climbed the steps
of wood that led to my studio, opened
the door, and turned to breathe in my good
fortune. “What a blessed woman you are,”
I would tell myself before taking my place
for hours on end at my desk, each moment,
each stroke of the pen, each letter added
to the growing lines on the page, a gift.”

Comment: I have been writing poems about the KIRA artists as part of my next poetry book, The Nature of Art and the Art of Nature. This is my KIRA2021 project. The Nature of Art is a revision and expansion of a poetry manuscript of the same name that placed second in the WFNB’s Alfred G. Bailey Award (2020). This poem appears in the section entitled Impressions of KIRA Artists. Currently this section contains eleven poems, but it is still under construction. This poem is interesting in that it is a ‘found’ poem, in the sense that Ginger wrote these words to me in an e-mail. I removed them, reordered them, polished them, and sent her back her own poem in her own words. What fun! This should help explain the use of inverted commas at beginning and end, for this poem is spoken in Ginger’s own words.