The Champion

The Champion

There I was, in dreamland, half-asleep,
leaning on my cart, when this phantom drifted
towards me. “Help me,” it said. “I’m hungry.”

I woke up from my dream, looked at the ghost,
tall, skeletal, thin, cavernous eyes, cheekbones
protruding, gaps in the teeth, grey face drawn.

“Sorry!” My reply was automatic. I looked
at him again. “I only carry plastic.” The excuse
limped heavily across the air between us.

I saw something in his eyes, I knew not what.
As I walked away, I added one hundred pound
of muscle to his frame. He had played hard.

I remembered him holding up the Maritime Cup.
But I couldn’t remember his name. I pushed
my cart all over the store searching for him.

At the ATM I withdrew cash I could give him.
I would tell him he had dropped it. I could invite
him to the snack bar, buy him a meal and more.

I could tell him to buy what he needed and meet
me at the check out. I could add his purchases
to my bill. I looked everywhere. Nor sight, nor sign.

One opportunity. That’s all we get. Miss it, blow
the match. Grasp it, hold it tight, we’re champions.

Comment: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” “Or my sister’s?” Here and now we are living with realities that we have rarely faced before. Not everyone has kept their jobs. Some are indeed living out on the streets, helpless, homeless, panhandling, hoping. Right now they are lucky. Sunny, warm, hot … though sometimes too hot. At least it isn’t 40 below and freezing their butts off. So what do we do? Turn a blind eye? Say we are sorry? Suddenly recognize an old friend, turn quickly away before he recognizes us, and burn ever afterwards with shame?

I cannot answer for you. I can only answer for myself. I am ashamed of my slick answers, my throwaway negatives, my disguised barbs. “Go get a job.” There are no jobs, or very few anyway, Covid-19 has seen to that. “Do something useful, can’t you?” There’s very little they can do, and seemingly there’s very little can be done for them. “Go home!” They have no homes to go to.

So what are the alternatives? Love? Charity? Comprehension? Embracing their situation? Understanding? How can we understand, you and I, who sit before the computer screen, the cell phone, or the I Pad, scanning this in comfort? Think about it: there, out into the street, but for some good luck, and the grace of God, go you and I. Think about it. Now do you understand?

Daffodils

Daffodils

These daffodils were not painted by an unknown painter, but by a painter whose paintings are unknown. There is a subtle difference. There is also something sweet abut covering a blank space with color and shape, even if the hand is unsteady and the eye unsure. This painting is also unframed and belongs in a photograph album or a long-forgotten painting book.

“Fair daffodils, we weep to see thee.” Indeed we do, for they are so transient lasting but a week, or less, cut and placed on the table in a vase of water. So sad to watch them as they stiffen, turn slowly brown, dry up, and then hang their heads in the shame of old age. We are not so dissimilar, those daffodils and me. This photo will capture me forever, or until it is erased, because a photo isn’t a photo anymore. That painting will capture those daffodils too, for little while, until my subscription to the blog runs out and I forget to renew it.

“Poor daffodils, we weep to see you.” But weep not for us, they tell me. Our day is done. Our life is fulfilled. We have brought beauty and scent, however brief, and we have given light to enlighten your days and joy to light up your heart. And that, I guess, is the message. “Gather you daffodils while you may, for Father Time is flying. And those sweet blooms you pluck today, tomorrow will be dying.”

Thus it is during the Corona Virus 19 pandemic, and thus it was during the Spanish Flu, the Black Death, and all the other plagues that have come to bring understanding and make us see reason. Our lives are as short as the lives of flowers. Seize your life, hold it in both hands, admire it, enjoy it, make the most of the mall things, for they are often, like the smiles of small children and the daffodil’s golden glow, the most important things of all.

Ah would some power …

Ah, would some power

“Ah, would some power the giftie ge us / to see ourselves as others see us.” Robbie Burns, a Scottish Poet.

And sometimes I think the flowers would like to be seen as they see themselves, not as we see them with our imperfect eyes, not with the cataracts of the Elderly Monet, not with the blunted vision of many artists who have stopped, and sniffed, and bent their heads, and wondered at the colors that entered their paint brushes through the nostrils. Vision and reality: the photo versus the objects as we see and sense them. The reality versus our own version of it.

So who is this anonymous artist who delivers these visions to my blog and allows me to glimpse alternate realities that are so different to my realities. I think of Lorna Crozier, The Garden Going on Without Us. I think of Kingsbrae Gardens, at night, when the flowers are alone and talk only to themselves. I think of Monet at Giverny as his vision lessened and his instincts grew. Who are we? What are we? Do we see ourselves as others see us? Do others see what we see? Color, shade, light, hue … El ojo que ves no es ojo porque lo ves, es ojo porque te ve / the eye you see is not an eye because you see it, it is an eye because it sees you (Antonio Machado). Does the man or woman looking out at us from the television set see him or herself as we see them?

The night before last I sat alone in a hotel room. The television screen was much, much wider than it was high. All the facial images were greatly distorted. I didn’t recognize the people I saw, except by their voices. Who will distinguish the reality of the flowers, each by each and one by one, privatim et seriatim? Who will listen to their floral voices and call them by the names they have given themselves, rather than by their horticultural names?

Tell me, what reality do we see when we see the flowers? What reality do the flowers see when they see us? The anonymous painter who painted this picture that Geoff Slater, my anonymous friend, framed so nicely did not see those flowers the way that I saw those flowers. Why not? Why can’t I see like him (or her)? and why can’t she (or he) see like me?

Ah would some power …

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.

Ffynon Wen

McAdam Railway Station drawn by Geoff Slater

Ffynon Wen

Stuffy, you said. I can’t breathe. Early morning mist scratched pale finger nails down your bedroom window. Grey foggy faces glanced in, grimaced and scowled. Damp and slippery, the window frame, when I opened the sash. What time is it?  Before I could answer, you demanded more milk for your tea. I left you there, in bed, went downstairs to the kitchen and brought back milk. Then you wanted more sugar. Shut the window, you said. It’s cold. I’m shivering.
Puppet on a string, I raised my cord-bound feet and danced at your command. Then I went downstairs, fetched more sugar, came back, and left the morning paper on your bed. On the front page, a picture of the last passenger engine, green and rusty, from the GWR (Great Western Railway). It used to carry passengers from Swansea to Cardiff to Paddington in London. Now it pulls a line of filthy coal trucks. Covered in dirt, rain, steam and dust, I couldn’t make out the name or the number.
Passengers on trains speeding to different destinations, we never had time, time for talking, time for understanding, time to think, time to be heard. Laden with baggage, our minds followed different tracks. Platform lights blazed in the night, a Van Gogh blaze of starry fires. We flashed past towns, stations where we’d never stop. Windows glowed in deserted waiting rooms, shattering the darkness, their full moons reflected in the double glass of a locked carriage door.
We rattled over cross-tracks, never knowing why, yet I have never forgotten the rhythm of the wheels, slowing, accelerating, running at full speed, the telephone wires looping, cattle in fields grazing peacefully, wondering why …
We rarely talk. I guess we have little to say. We leave big questions to float in the wind. We don’t tell our nightmares, our stories or our dreams. Trivia is too trivial. Serious issues cut too deep, unspoken, unanswered to this day. We bury our noses in the daily paper. We gloss our lives away. We flash past so many signals with their pointed mechanical signs.
When your train finally stopped, I disposed of your body in Thornhill Crematorium, opposite the Ffynnon Wen, the White Well Restaurant and Bar where we celebrated our last supper together.

Comment: An old story, resurfacing from the Archives in which I found my old, dusty Cambrian Chronicles. It’s also a story I have reworked many times, as poem, flash fiction, philosophical statement, personal memoir … I guess such moments, such memories, are very hard to come to terms with. They lie just out of sight and gnaw at us at night, surfacing when least expected and packing a powerful punch of helpless hopelessness. And no, there is nothing we can do about such things except stare blank-faced into our moon-faced morning coffee and blink back the tears we were unable to shed at the time.

I guess, deep down, it’s all about grieving and how we grieve. In some cultures, it is all about manhood and stiff, upper lip. In others, it is letting the tears flow and the emotions run riot. It differs with each and all of us for we and our circumstances are all unique. I look at the current state of the world and I keep thinking that, no, it’s not a case of one size fits all. Not everybody is the same, and each one of is special, and needs something special, especially in these difficult times. Keep safe, keep well, and do not provide, if you can avoid doing so, any reason for your loved ones to mourn for you.

My Grandfather’s Chair

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My Grandfather’s Chair
For Margie Goldsmith

“Write about that chair,” Margie said,
and I wondered what was in her head.
How can I write about that chair
when those who sat in it are not there.

Before the coal fire my grandfather sat,
snoring away, on his lap slept the cat.
At three years old, I climbed that chair,
and blew on the bald spot in his hair.

So many things we no longer know:
my grandpa did the same thing, years ago,
and years before that, his own grandad
did just the same to make his old man mad.

Now I, in my turn, when I drink deep,
like to sit in that chair for a little sleep,
and my grand daughter, there’s no grandson,
climbs up that chair, as others have done,

and sees the bald spot in my hair
and blows and blows as I snooze there.
The years roll back and I see the smiles
of generations woken by a young child’s wiles.

Comment: Talking the other day, I mentioned my grandfather’s chair, the only piece of furniture rescued from my parents’ house, and Margie said I had to write a poem about it. So, last night I did. The result is something very different from what I normally write. This is what in Spanish is called an occasional poem and it celebrates a specific occasion, a specific set of circumstances. Thus, it is written under different rules, rhyme, rhythm, stanzas. It is always an adventure to write something suggested by someone else. Poems like this cross the boundary between poetry of play (which this is) and occasionally enter the realm of poetry that expresses the authenticity of being which, to a certain extent is present in this poem too. The above photo, from our local newspaper, The Daily Gleaner, is the only one I have of the chair which resides in the basement where I keep my books. The article is an old one (2017), but the photo is nice!

On Learning Welsh

 

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On learning Welsh

Welsh
is a key to my childhood.

Every day I learn something
about myself and my upbringing.

It’s not the need to talk
so much as the necessity
of diving into myself
and mining my memories.

Brynhyfryd / Mount Pleasant.
Ty Coch / the Red House.
Pen-y-Bryn / the Top of the Hill.

This latter the house
in which I was born.
No room in hospitals
for war time babies.

All of my wartime family
born in the same in-the-country
Gower bed.

Three of my brothers
did not survive
those rough, household births.

I still bear the forceps’ scars.

And I still bear the scars
of carrying my brothers
with me all my life.

A long and difficult
and very private history.

But it’s mine
and I embrace it
and I love it,
with all its warts.

Comment: The photo is of the dragon in Kingsbrae Garden. I think of it as a Welsh dragon … Y ddraig Coch … the Red Dragon of Wales, but of course, it isn’t. Anyone can write easy poems: Twinkle, twinkle, little star … it’s the hard, gut-wrenching stuff that’s hard to put down on the page. My close friend, Margie Goldsmith, encouraged me to write this. Thank you, Margie. Thank you for caring. This is indeed my life ‘… with all its warts …’ It’s easy to wear rose-tinted glasses and see everything as ‘for the best in the best of all worlds’. However, it’s more difficult to grovel on your knees, in the trenches, and to come face to face with the stark realities of who we are and where we come from. Thank you, Margie, for helping me and encouraging me to do just that.

Keeping Score

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The Score

It’s the old conundrum:
you place one grain of wheat
on the chessboard’s first square,
two on the second,
four on the third.

And so on and so forth,
eight on the fourth,
sixteen on the fifth.
Now close your eyes
and make a wish:
“Let all these pandemic victims go.”

Alas, no.
You must sit and watch them grow:
32, 64, 128,
and that’s the first rank done.
Seven more marching ranks to go.

256, 512, 1014,
Lord above: how many more?
2028, 4056, 8112,
what on earth can people do?
Wash your hands, stay inside,
and hope your best friends
haven’t died.

Doubled again
that’s even more:
16 thousand 224.
Upon this rank
just one more square
sees 32 thousand
lying there.

How many more,
how many more,
and each death ringed
by family and friends.
This week it seems
death’s dance will never end.

Comment: La Calle de la Cruz / Street of the Cross, shown in the above photo, runs past the cathedral of Avila. It is also known locally as La Calle de la Vida y de la Muerte / the Street of Life and Death as it seems duels were sometimes fought there. It seemed an appropriate photo to accompany this poem which speaks of the seeming lottery, with its winning and losing tickets, in which we are all currently involved. The lower photo, incidentally, captures a stone mason’s mark carved into the face of the cathedral in Avila.

When writing the poem, I repeated the numbers naming them with their single digits, thus: 256, 512, 1014 becomes two five six, five one two, one oh one four (line 14). This allowed me to manage rhythm and rhyme. In my mind I always associate  rhyme with reason, but in this current pandemic, I can see very little reason. I guess, as I wrote in one of my earlier poems, ‘there are so many ways to die’. I just hope Corona Virus isn’t one of them. No, I don’t want to live forever, but hell no, I don’t want to die just yet! Keep safe, keep well!

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A Sacrifice to Mithras

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A Sacrifice to Mithras

“What is this sound?”
“It is your own death sighing,
groaning, growing
while you wait for it
to devour you.”

“What is this feeling”
“It is the itch of your own skin
wrinkling and shrinking,
preparing to wrap you
in the last clothes you’ll wear.”

“What is this taste?”
“It is the taste of your life,
bottled like summer wine
once sweet tasting,
now turning to vinegar.”

“What is this smell?”
“It is waste and decay,
the loss of all you knew
and of all that knew you.

“That carriage outside?”
It is the dark hearse
come to carry you
to your everlasting home.”

“Look on us in our darkness,
help us to seek and see the light.
Keep us strong, keep us brave.
Mithras, always a soldier,
help us to die aright.”

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Comment: I am re-reading Puck of Pook’s Hill (Rudyard Kipling). It was given to me for a Christmas present (1955) by my father’s younger brother, my Uncle Frank. His signature is there, on the fly leaf, and his hand writing is as I always remember it. As I write these words, I can still hear his voice. The Song to Mithras, on which this poem is based, can be found on page 191, my edition (MacMillan, 1955), as a prelude to The Winged Hats. Without these clues, the poem operates in another space, more personal and more morbid, perhaps. The rites to Mithras were associated with the sacrifice, at midnight, of the black bull. The upper photograph shows one of the Bulls of Guisando (Los Toros de Guisando), which have stood in the province of Avila, in Spain, since time immemorial. So old are they, that the Roman legions left their mark on them in Latin, as you can see from the photo, when they conquered Spain after the Carthaginian wars.  The lower photo shows fighting bulls on a bull farm in Salamanca, Spain. Born from generations of fighting stock, these animals have been bred for thousands of years to die in the bull ring, as the bulls dedicated to Mithras were bred to die in the Roman temples. This is not a defense of the cruelty of bullfighting or the sacrifice of animals. It is rather a statement regarding the longevity of cruelty, of sacrifice, of the natural flow that leads men and women from birth, through childhood, to maturity, and on to old age, and death. My father is long gone now, as is his younger brother. Who will have access to these memories of mine when I go? Who will remember my family when I am gone?

Lamplighter

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Gas Lamps

When I was very young, a long time ago, in Swansea, many of our streets still had gas lamps.  The lamp-lighter would appear in winter around three or three-thirty to light those lamps. I remember him walking up the street with his long pole over his shoulder, moving from lamp to lamp. We had one outside our front door. He would turn on the gas, then light the lamp from the lighted wick at the end of his pole.  Sometimes he carried a ladder with him. Then, every so often, when the lamp needed tending, he would climb the ladder and adjust the wick. These gas lights were not very bright but they stood out like light houses between stretches of darkness and we would walk from pool to glowing pool, as if they were stepping stones leading us up the hill to home. We all knew the lamplighter and he would often wave to us as we sat in the front room window to watch him walk by. We rarely saw him in the mornings when he came back to turn off the lamps. We were all tucked safely into our beds. I remember that I wanted to be lamplighter. Later I realized that there are many ways to light a lamp and spread brightness through the world. When I grew up, I became teacher, a coach, a faculty adviser, a mentor, a creator, and those roles allowed me to establish myself as a lighter of a very different set of lamps.