On Life and Living

On Life and Living

“To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.”
Oscar Wilde

To live, to really live, what does it mean? I guess that depends on each one of us, our backgrounds, our education, our culture. W. H. Davies wrote one of my favourite poems “What is this life, if full of care, we have no time to stand and stare.” To know how to live is also to know how to stand and stare, how to make time for oneself, how to take joy in the simple things.

But what if the simple things are no longer accessible or ‘within easy reach’ as my poet friend, Jane Tims, would phrase it? When the cost of living rises, when we cannot afford to heat our homes, when we have to choose between eating or heating, or between food and medicine, can we truly be said to be living? Then, like it or not, existence, in the words of Sartre, precedes essence, and the very act of existing, surviving, maintaining body and soul together, takes over from any thoughts that may strike us, any time we may have to stand and stare.

Do the little things in life, said St. David of Wales, Dewi Sant. But what happens when so many of these little things are taken away from us? Some of us are lucky, privileged, blessed – and we are able to heat the house, run the car, meet a sudden unexpected bill. We do not have to choose between heat or eat, between food or medicine. Others are not so fortunate. They may have lost their homes. They may not have a car, or they may be living in it. Their transport may be a metal trolley, ‘borrowed from a shopping mall before it was lost’. Their only unexpected bill may be the Old Bill, coming to arrest them for loitering, with or without intent. For these people, on a daily basis, an hourly, basis, life’s hard choices are upon them. They are faced every day with a very different choice in answer to Hamlet’s question – ‘to be or not to be?’.

I see them, the people making those choices, sitting on the sidewalk outside the super-market, plastic coffee cups before them. Heads down, eyes closed, scarcely able to look me in the eye. I see them at the traffic lights, holding up their cardboard signs. I look at them as they sit there or stand there or walk up and down, sitting, standing, staring at the traffic.

They also give a new meaning to the last couplet of W. H. Davies’ poem – “A sad life this, if full of care, we have no time to stand and stare.” They have the time to sit, and stand, and pace, and stare – indeed they do – but do they live, or do they just exist? And for how long? These are the real questions.

Boxing Day

They’re not Boxing Gloves – but they could be. Photo by my friend Geoff Slater.

Boxing Day


            By the time I get up, the gloves are really off and the sparring has begun in earnest. I hear angry, raised voices, walk downstairs to the kitchen, and a hush falls on the room. Knife-edge glances slice their menacing ways through the thickening atmosphere.
            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 above the wooden duck-boards that line the floor on the far side of the room and keep the enemies’ feet clear of mud and water.

Wilderness

Wilderness

This wilderness wasn’t a wilderness
until they arrived and called it ‘wild’.

They constructed roads, ran boats
up and down our rivers,
built bridges, fenced fields,
built stone buildings, desecrated
the curves of the land
with square shapes and right angles,
razor sharp lines that ‘tamed it,’
they said, but we said ‘destroyed it’.

Where now the spring salmon runs?
The dam that put the river in chains
drove all those fish away.

Upstream, down stream,
towards the river and away from it,
the four cardinal points
brought ruin to our sense of direction.

Where now the land’s lost soul,
the ancient paths our people walked?

In place of the circles we built from stone,
the stones that pointed the time of sky,
that tracked the seasons,
and planting time and harvest time,
they gave us clockwork clocks.

Yes, they tamed this wilderness,
but they broke it down and we watched,
helpless, as they stole its soul.

Click here for Roger’s reading on Anchor.
Wilderness

Loss

Loss

By the time I remembered your name
I had forgotten your face,
and then I couldn’t recall
why I wanted to talk to you
in the first place.

Words and phrases bounce,
water off a duck’s back.
They sparkle like a high tide
rejected by the retriever
as he shakes his coat dry
on emerging from the sea.

This book I read is a word parcel,
a clepsydra of droplets,
a rainbow strung with colored beads,
each scouring a bull’s eye
on the world’s taut literary hide.

Mapa mundi of forgotten lands,
I trace dark landmarks
on the back of scarred hands
and wonder why I have never visited
faraway places with strange-sounding names.

Tourist guide to a failing memory,
I track the trails of drifting ships
as their white sails vanish,
blank butterflies from a distant summer,
floating over a darkening horizon.

Click here for Roger’s reading on Anchor.
Loss

The Cry

The Cry

I had forgotten the who,
what, when, where, and why.
A t first, I didn’t hear the cry,
despondent, squeaky, like a mouse,
timid until it climbed up higher,
inspired by the grief within.

My own heart, paper thin,
could not confine the sobbing
that assaulted my own stronghold,
the oubliette, where everything
lay hidden, but never forgotten.

A pebble on the pond, the cry
rippled onwards and out,
became a whimper, grew into a shout.
What’s it all about, I asked
and took the cry to task
for rippling my pond’s tranquility.

Click here for Roger’s reading on Anchor.
The Cry







Reunion


Reunion

So sad, the reunion.
Each year, fewer participants,
faces older, hair whiter
(if there’s any left)
grizzled beards,
hands shaking, not just shaken,
memories lost or at odds
with reality, multiple dreams
turning into nightmares.

So much lost, youth,
energy, confidence, contact,
microscopic minds
turned in on themselves,
cognitive cogs
barely functioning.

What really happened
all those years ago?
Nobody remembers.
Nobody cares.
Nobody really wants to know.

Click here for Roger’s reading on Anchor.
Reunion


Eclipse

Eclipse


Was it a total eclipse,
or just a partial eclipse,
that sky the likes of which
I will never see again?

I do not want to see,
let alone experience,
the mushroom cloud
that descends from the skies,
then swells up again
to embrace them,
leaving my ashen body,
a bleak, black shadow
on a brick wall.

Meanwhile, back in my kitchen,
in the lull before the storm,
I wait and wonder if my world
and all within it
will be eclipsed.

Click here for Roger’s reading on Anchor.
Eclipse


Speaking

Speaking

I speak to a generation
I cannot see
as others in the past
have spoken to me
in languages I had to learn
words in books
hand-written on paper
or carved in stone

who now will listen with their eyes
as I have listened with mine
adding subtracting challenging
sometimes blindly accepting

my world is not their world
nor is their world mine

yet the sun still rises
the same moon
waxes and wanes

hate happens
yet hope and wisdom
still remain

Click for Roger’s reading on Anchor
Speaking



Hollyhock

Hollyhock

Is it a silken purse
made from the pig’s ear
of its seed pod,
or just a single seed
excreted by
an incontinent bird?

Its bruised
evening-sky hues
stretch their emperor’s
imperial purple all too thin.
In the late summer sun
it swallows one errant bee
in its leviathan mouth.

Sole survivor,
from a score of flowers
that once climbed
the seven foot,
eight foot stalk
to sway in the wind,
it stands on guard
against fall cold
and winter’s snow.

Click here for Roger’s reading on Anchor.
Hollyhock

Comment: I didn’t like the ending to the earlier version, so, when it came to reading it, I rewrote it first instead. I much prefer this version. Apologies to those who read the earlier words.