ARS MORIENDI

arsmoriendi02

At the moment of her death
        she saw the curtain fidget
                around a hint of starlight.

At the moment of his death
        he heard his mother’s voice from another room
                neither scolding nor cajoling.

At the moment of her death she thought she saw herself
       in a fleeting doorway, as if from a passing train.

At the moment of his death
        he heard the wind scouring the sand
            across a vast beach out of childhood dreaming.

At the moment of her death
        she saw two black hares boxing on a heath covered with clover.

At the moment of his death
        he heard the taller doctor say as if deep into his ear,
                “Remind me of this”.

At the moment of her death
        she saw 10,000 children
                their white scarves streaming.

At the moment of his death
        he heard the pages of his open book
               riffling in a stiff breeze.

At the moment of her death
        she saw the Holy Vision in a panelled corridor.
                They passed without a word exchanged.

At the moment of his death
        he heard his name chanted in polyphony
                above the beating of deep engines.

At the moment of her death
        she saw the moon as a hole in the night sky,
                its light from all the light that there is beyond.

At the moment of his death
            he heard the sun ping like a blown filament
                    and then the dark was all there was beyond.

ARS MORIENDI#1

 ::o0o::

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LOVE SONG TOO LATE

LOVE SONG TOO LATE

LOVE SONG TOO LATE was written some years ago after a particularly vivid dream of love lost many years earlier.

Subsequently I took the poem’s narrative and wrote it up as a song. Co-writer Steve Moorby put it to music and it’s been in the gigging repertoire of Moorby Jones ever since.

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PHLEBOTOMY

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PHLEBOTOMY

As I drive home my blood
is talking to the man.
My salts and spices are telling
my story to a stranger.
Confession in absentia.

Unremarkable, that chapel
with its scattered single pews.
Then the curly-headed priest
in white, drawing the tincture,
a communion for two, into
its tiny phial. My blood, my
talkative blood, spinning
my secrets into pixels.

He reads through light
the narrative of basophils,
of monocytes and bilorubin,
antigens and ace inhibitors.
He knows the names of all
the heroes and the villains
and he calls them in, the
good shepherd, the sweet
young physiologist. His way
is calm; his song is soft and
when it’s run from clef
to staff, he turns away.

Later, I read it all in words,
an altogether sterner judgment:
sentence pronounced – its
syllables, its commas, its full stops.

PHLEBOTOMY – AUDIO FILE

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THE FAMOUS FLOWER

THE FAMOUS FLOWER OF SERVING MEN by MARTIN CARTHY

This is one huge post so I’ll kick off with the simple stuff.

Immediately above is Martin Carthy singing a song called The Famous Flower of Serving Men. Please give it a listen by clicking on the text.

Immediately below is a link to a detailed explanation of the origins of said song, Child Ballad 106,The Famous Flower of Serving Men, a traditional English ballad collected by the American folklorist Francis James Child in the late 19thcentury.

THE FAMOUS FLOWER OF SERVING MEN – ROOTS & SHOOTS
https://mainlynorfolk.info/martin.carthy/songs/famousflowerofservingmen.html

My connection to the above. In 2005, I wrote the first draft of a poetic extrapolation from the Martin Carthy arrangement of the song. Thirteen years later I have arrived at something resembling a final draft. It may be another Dick Jones grande folie or it may be a work of some reasonable substance. All I know now is that the writing of it absorbed my creative energies as few other longer pieces have and I enjoyed enormously my time spent in the hallways, fields and forests of the unnamed kingdoms inhabited by the protagonists.

By all means, if you’re sticking around for a bit, progress directly from Carthy’s performance to the epic poem called The Famous Flower,leaving all the verbiage in between to look after itself. Alternatively, if you have unassigned time in abundance on your hands, then please read my contextualisation of the epic poem that has grown so gloriously/so grotesquely from the source work. Or, of course, assuming you’ve even got this far, make a note to self to come back and check this out when the kids have been fed, or those income tax forms have been filled in, or that box set has finally been swallowed whole. Here we go…

These are exciting times for the arts: eyes and ears are open wide and there are few if any barriers standing in the way of experimentation. So within these exciting times of relative freedom from the constraints of rigid tradition and strict orthodoxy in style and form, it’s a truism to say that art thrives on synthesis. In all regions of the wide cultural territory that lie before us in the early 21st century, there is abundant cross-fertilisation, the elements of which are drawn from the most disparate of sources and made subject to the broadest of influences.  For painting, for music, for dance, for theatre, for poetry, these are, in many ways, the best of days.

One who showed the way through example was Bertold Brecht. His passionate search throughout the first half of the 20th century was for a theatrical form that would present human truth to the world, not as bound by the constraints and limitations of the immutable individual character of naturalistic/realistic theatre, but as a collective phenomenon through which human character is shown as being both formed and modified by the social, cultural, economic and political context. His search was characterised by an omnivorous appetite for artistic forms, styles and influences from across the world and the melding of them into a homogeneous whole, this prefiguring by decades the post-modern readiness to absorb and synthesise.

In his presentation of formative influences, Brecht makes enthusiastic reference to a treatise by Goethe and Schiller. Through it they sought to apply to the poetic dramas of the late 18th century, principles established in Aristotle’s seminal work On Poetics.  Aristotle established – and Goethe and Schiller reiterated – fundamental distinctions between two different narrative devices available for the telling of tales. There is the ballad (identified by Goethe and Schiller in the treatise as ‘drama’ because all plays were in verse, the two modes enjoying a relationship now largely abandoned) as presented by the minstrel, the storyteller, its structure formal and its method of presentation bound by fixed conventions and devices that remove from it any sense of immediacy. The spectator now listens to the storyteller, rapt and absorbed, but able still to maintain alongside his/her involvement in the narrative, a necessary degree of objectivity and detachment whereby to enable reflection and judgement even as s/he is taken up by the tale. And there is the ballad presented as if the events were unfolding before the spectator in the here and now, drawing him/her in, implicating him/her in a course of action that, because it is immediate, is unchangeable. And, as an inevitable result of the well-told tale, these unalterable events must provoke empathy for the inevitable sufferings of the protagonists.  As the protagonists pass through the fire and emerge purged, so the spectator, through the processes of catharsis, is purged too.

Here’s how Goethe and Schiller characterised these distinctions.

Concerning the treatment of the whole, the rhapsodist, who presents what is completely past, will appear as a wise man, who, in quiet self-possession, surveys what has taken place; the purpose of his presentation will be to quiet the listeners, whereby they will listen to him protractedly and gladly, he will distribute their interest evenly, because he is not in a position to quickly balance an overly lively impression, he will refer backward and forward and wander at will; one will follow him everywhere, because he has only to do with the imaginative power, which generates images for itself, and which, to a certain degree, is indifferent to which kind it calls up. The rhapsodist should not appear himself as a higher being in his poem; he should, at the very best, read behind a curtain, so that one might abstract from all personality and only the voice of the muse would be believed to be heard in general.

The mimic actor, on the other hand, is exactly the opposite case; he represents himself as a definite individual, he wants one to participate exclusively with him and his closest surroundings, that one sympathize with the suffering of his soul and his body, share his predicaments, and forget oneself by way of him; certainly, he will also go to work in stages, but he can dare much livelier actions, because with sensuous presence, even more so the stronger impression can be destroyed by a weaker one. The onlooking listener by rights must remain in a constant sensuous exertion, is not allowed to elevate himself to reflection, he must passionately follow, his imagination is completely reduced to silence, one is allowed to make no claim upon it, and even what is narrated, must be as if it were graphically brought before one’s eyes.

Brecht fell upon the former category and, through a delicate and masterfully judged balancing of individual character idiosyncrasy and, through specific performance and design theatrical devices, a carefully managed distancing of the audience from emotional identification and the perceptual pitfalls of catharsis, he set the protagonists within the wider social context, all now agents of their own fortune. The audience is thoroughly entertained because Brecht was a master of spectacle within which dark drama was interspersed with musical interludes, commentary and humour, frequently pantomimic and bawdy. But, ideally, through the questions constantly provoked by the actions of the play, they learn too and with consciousness raised they come to appraise and assess their own position in the scheme of things differently.

Great folk song falls very much into the broad categories of that former category too. Indeed, a principle function of the early ballads was pure reportage – a rendition of actual contemporary events placed within certain universally recognised stylistic forms that must with the passing of time adopt the status of myth, uncoupled from the now forgotten situational provenance of the tale. Thus character, rather than being at the living centre of the narrative, becomes more a symbol of a range of moral constants carried by the story. The listeners are entertained, enraged, moved, made to laugh and through the seamless combination of powerful words and beguiling melody they learn and with consciousness raised they may come to view their own position in the scheme of things differently.

Whilst driving through country lanes listening to Steeleye Span singing The Dark-Eyed Sailor, I began to ponder this demarcation between the immediate subjectivity of the ‘dramatic’ and the relative objectivity of the ‘narrative’. Suddenly it occurred to me that it might be interesting to tamper with the equation as interpreted by Brecht in his re-articulation of the Goethe/Schiller proposition and extract a poem from that traditional English ballad that moved back through the formalised structures of the rhyming ballad towards the immediacy of the events that inspired the song in the first place.  The unifying themes, the sequencing of events and the ‘rhapsodic’ narration would remain the same, but there would be applied to the storyline an element at least of the emotional interactions between the human protagonists themselves and their experiences within the wider context, this forming a kind of ostensible mésalliancebetween the two oppositional modes that might, in fact, actually work.

Drawing on the storyline of The Dark-Eyed Sailor, the resulting poem was entitled, rather lamely, Folksong 1 and I posted it to Dick Jones’ Patteran Pagesin 2005, accompanied by a podcast of the song as performed by Steeleye Span plus a reading of the poem and renditions of other folk songs plus commentary. The relatively few reactions it provoked were cautiously positive. Maybe I should have taken heed of the fact that there were relatively few reactions, but I blundered on, this time with a much more substantive source-work.

Later in the year 2005, I bought the box-set The Carthy Chronicles, a four-CD retrospective tracking Martin Carthy’s long career as Britain’s premier performer of traditional folk song. On it I rediscovered Martin Carthy’s 1972 version of the extraordinary ballad, The Famous Flower of Serving Men. The song is not in fact a pure folk song in that, although it has some traditional provenance, regarding this version, both its authorship and the date of its publication are known (the balladeer Laurence Price and 1656). But it tells a tale of infanticide, flight, cross-gender disguise, occult revelation and savage vengeance absolutely typical of many ballads from the English tradition. In Martin Carthy’s version (to which he added some material) the musical setting provides a striking synthesis of sparse, driving melody, percussive picking and dry, woody voice that lifts the powerful and compelling words to the level of masterpiece. On playing it just the once, it wove its spell on me all over again and I couldn’t get either melody or lyric out of my mind. Instantly, it presented itself as providing potentially a much more fully developed example of my notion of a poem that seeks to bridge both the epic and the dramatic. Narratively, it wouldn’t attempt to embrace Brecht’s highly personalised version of Marxist dialectic as the informing force but would rather fall back on a more ancient understanding of ethics and morality – one based on an implacable adherence to a code of justice through vengeance. And living and breathing within this superstructure would be two protagonists reflecting constantly on the meaning of the events that, like tangled currents, rush them along.

Since 2005 I have been writing and re-drafting a poem called The Famous Flower, which attempts to apply to the song The Famous Flower of Serving Men the same principles that drove Folk Song 1, albeit on a mightily amplified scale. In 2008 I posted to the Patteran Pagesa draft of the first few hundred words of the poem, just to invite a response to what was emerging as, to all apparent intents and purposes, a piece of fantasy literature in verse form – not everyone’s favoured medium by a long chalk! It drew a handful of somewhat equivocal responses, suggesting, maybe, that in heading in a direction so fraught with cliché landmines, I had bitten off somewhat more than I could chew! But sometimes against reason and inclination a deeper dog-with-bone stubbornness and tenacity prevails and so here, pretty much 10 years on, is a draft – far from final – of The Famous Flower. Sisyphus Ascending doesn’t have anything close to the readership that my previous blog enjoyed in those earlier days of shared endeavour and mutual support. Only a few old friends ever respond to my posts and I apologise to them for heaving this huge, unwieldy archaism up the hill with Sisyphus. By all means allow it to roll back down again alongside that persecutory stone to lodge then amongst my unheeded back pages! But at least bear with me because I have to do this…

THE FAMOUS FLOWER

An adaptation by Dick Jones of the ballad ‘The Famous Flower of Serving-Men’ 
as arranged by Martin Carthy

       FAIR ELEANOR

  This is how it was. So long a journey from that place of blood
to this whitethorn fire; from the scattering of the may blossom
    to the blowing of these hag-tree ashes amongst the bones.

    This is how it was. I must draw the deepest breath to wrap this
story in – a broad breath both to feed the birthing and then to clothe
          a tale that comes brawling into the world on a bloodtide.

For this is how it was.

This is how it was.
It is a spring night.
A hunter’s moon
is trimming back the clouds.
A vixen cries in the coppice.
My baby suckles, eyes closed
against the pulse of milk.
My lover lifts an apple bough into the fire
and turns to reach for another.

And, noiseless from the steep stair,
    like wraiths who find their form
       only in firelight, five men
          are in my chamber.
One has drawn his sword;
    the others bear knives.
       And unhindered by passion,
          free of guilt, they work
             like men harvesting
                in advance of a storm,
                   brisk and thorough,
                      tight-lipped and breathing hard.

    My lover barely rises to his knees and they cut him down,
his mouth in a gargoyle rictus, lipless and wrapped around his jawline.
Two more strokes and his right hand goes spinning down
into the hearth like a shed glove.

        Then a silence thickens the air. A light, green and glaucous,
like through deep water, traps us between one moment and the next.
    The men pause, breathing heavy still, like cattle who have run
  the length of a field. And motionless, looking beyond the instant,
        I am a dreamer:
(I am a child wrapped in white furs,
    sleigh-bound across deep snow.
       I am a lover bearing the blessed weight
          of a lover on a bed of moss under pines).

              But my baby moves in my arms.
         He shifts his warm body inside the plaid shawl
    that wraps him, cranes his head to see our visitors
so as to smile around his two small pearly teeth at them,
    so as to fix his round sea-blue eyes on them,
        so as to welcome them to our hearth
            with his precious early words.

And one cuts him down.
    With skill. It must be said,
        with skill for his black blade
            passes my face in a whisper,
                a thing half seen, half-imagined –
                    the swift clean arc of a bird
                       glanced between two clouds,
                          or a leaf blown in a hard wind.
                             I feel its dangerous breath;
                                 I feel its voice deep within
                                    my cage of bones
(as now I hear it; as I shall hear it ever).

    And my milky babe makes no sound
    as he passes swiftly from this place.
Was present, is absent with no sense of the journey made.
(And this small grain of mercy, dropped from the store
    whose bounty it is God’s to grant or to withhold,
        is what I have hoarded through the long years).

They turn to go, their black cloaks gathered
        like Dominican shrouds.
    Save for the sword-bearer, the
        baby-slayer. He turns back his head
            and his cowl falls away to bare his face
                 to show across the left cheek
                     a lattice-work of scars,

        So it is. My stepmother’s man.
    Now all’s as clear as a chain of falling water:
        my mother’s man, her seneschal,
       and this disfigurement her work,
    her hand in his hair in sudden anger
    on a winter’s morning in the servants’ hall,
    the cause forgotten now, and she pulls him
     by his donkey’s mane to the kitchen grate
                and thrusts his face against
             the bright hot morning griddle.

And yet still he does her will – this, all this,
for her, his black, disfiguring angel, all this
to forestall the white dove’s prophecy that,
 my father slain, the bastard son shall rise
and rule in my unblooded mother’s stead.

    And now he strikes the sullied sword twice
upon the granite hearth, sheering the blade in two
          and casts the hilt behind him for man
may not sheath a sword that bears a baby’s blood
    and even now he fears for his immortal soul.
Hilt and blade sing off the stone they fall upon.

He turns and follows his companions
        down the winding stair,
            the scuff of their falling feet
                their valediction into the night.

   o0o

  The earth at the moat’s edge is soft with the night’s rain.
 It yields to the broken sword, its hilt and tongue of blade.
The winding sheet must be the plaid shawl that wound me
  through the winter by the fire as I gave breast and crooned
        the songs he took with him into his moonlit dreams.
  The sword, its hilt and bloody blade are the cross of Christ
to raise above my boy. The bell that tolls him through Eden’s
  gate is the blade struck hard against the mounting block
           (that block from which in spring, in summer
               I would ride, laughing, to hunt the hind).

    His marker is a hawthorn spray,
placed by this witness cruelly spared.
        And the psalm is wound
    into the wordless sounds that,
like some beast, its tongue ripped out
    by the root, I cry into the night.
And as dawn arises – curds and whey
    in a heartless sky – I hack away
my sunset locks, the hue of brass and gold
    that once my lord would comb and plait
so that I might slumber, weightless,
         timeless and wave-borne.
And the bone-white face, bound in a corolla
   of ragged flame, that shivers back at me
from the white sun in the morning water
  weeps for the last time. A man’s face now,
       drawn and grim, with sea-grey eyes
       that must look back always towards
where the hills encircle the birthing place,
    the bower, the hearth, the fire that died.]

 o0o

        Clad in his hauberk and helmet
    and with his surcoat stained to black
         from the ashes of that final fire
     and the moat-side mud wherein lies
    my babe, I climb astride my dead lord’s courser.
 I cross bridges numberless, pass over
    close waters that roar like oblivion
  or within the deepest gorges slumber,
  out of seeing and unheard, until the marches
       fall away and the long, sad, flat reaches
    of the fens lift towards gentle hills and valleys
               and the questing loops and curls
                    of hearthside fires rising.
But pacing me south like a woven skein I see
    the forest’s edge, now close with elm
        and larch and beech and oak, plaited
           against the light, now rimming the horizon
              like the faintest memory of trees

o0o

THE KING

Thus it begins, as in the manner of all such things:
a horseman comes alone out of the north, wearing
the threads and hide of a week’s desperate weather.
I watch him from high above, the slow, unguided
pricking steps towards the gate that he senses
more than sees. Only a child or a woman should so
embrace a horse’s neck, I note, as I turn toward
the narrow stair and so descend to greet my fate.

It is said that all may know the road from
its first few stones. Yes, and so it is.
The courser stands at my bridgehead, blowing,
his great head hanging. His rider lifts a bone-white face.
Two sea-grey eyes look down. They neither ask,
nor do they demand, nor do they plead. And
as I wave away my two gatemen and step
onto the bridge; and as I take up in my right
hand the hanging reins; and as I brace against
the heft of that slim body sliding down the horse’s
sweating flank, I know of my heart’s turning; I know
that now no other moon will ever tug my tides again;
I know in this instance that I am a king in chains.

‘My famous flower’, I dub him, my Sweet William,
    and I bind him to me as my chamberlain,
        my chatelain, the hoops of keys chiming to sound
            like muffled bells within the flowing robes he wears.
Moons come and go unheeded; leaves form and fall
and ever he moves down passages, through doorways,
under arches cowled like a fragrant, pastel-drawn
Dominican, his voice, so rarely heard, a grass-blown
whisper. Some deep and distant sorrow hoods his eyes.
He sees amongst the blazing logs and branches
late at night swift phantoms, shifting spectres.
From my chair I watch him, turning and turning
his empty flagon, fire blooding the marble
of his cheeks. And if I speak of this, my fingers
on his wrist as one might seek to still the pulse
of a sickly child, he leans away towards the dark
beyond the fire and I’m alone inside the light.
And yet come dawn he pours my water –
    lifts the ewer like an offering,
        fills the bowl, watching
            the water fall as if in benediction.
All is ceremony:
    the cloth across his arm,
        the opening of the casement,
            the tipping of the ewer,
the turning with the heavy bowl.
And as at the heart of all such sacrament,
there is, I know, I know, across the reaches of
the passing days, the flame incarnadine of love.
Not worship, fear or fealty, but love unlimited.

And from the tail of an eye I can spy them
smirking like children, even those who wear
my favours in their caps, those who hold
their fortresses and fields at my good behest,
those who have my love as won in battle. Loyalty
is mere duty. To know the lineaments of my soul
so as to read my true intent – there’s no one here
can see beyond the radiance of my crown, behind
the lion’s golden face. No one save, perhaps,
my silver son, my close and bounden one, my
Sweet William, famous flower of serving men.

o0o

                    FAIR ELEANOR

    With the owl still calling from the oak
    and only a rim of red above the hills,
my lord goes riding. Even before I have risen
    and slipped into my robe and tried the door
            between our chambers, he is gone.

Although he keeps his unstrung bow and his quivered arrows
    in with his tack below, I know he’s off to the hunt
    for his jerkin’s out of its press and his water’s poured.

        Whenever he rises as the stars fade, he goes alone.
His bright hair coiled within his hood, the cloak that wraps him
      fashioned from darkness itself, he sets his saddle
   while the grooms sleep on. By dawn he’s cleared
the brakes and dykes and he’s reining in at the forest’s edge.
He knows where the hind drinks and where the boar roots
      and he would bring down with a single shaft
the one who follows with officious sword and shield
    to guard his king as he chases his chosen prey
                      through copse and thicket.

This quest is his alone,
   its purpose and its urgency
        denied even to the one
            who keeps his keys and who
                – if the stars were scattered differently –
                   would unlock his heart.

  The wind rolls gentle from the west
and as the sun’s wheel turns the day,
  the boys run down to the river where
    a ship with two indigo sails docks
and unloads spices, bolts of cloth and three
  caged falcons. And then, running from
the sudden rain, tossing between them
  a painted leather ball, four-and-twenty
of my lady the mother-queen’s maidens.
  Now, joined by their lords and suitors,
they scatter crying like seaside birds about
  the empty hall, chasing the arcing ball
through fading sunbeams and gathering
  shade. Alone beneath the great mantle
beam, before the unlit grate, I watch
  and yearn as the brace and girdle of
tyrant memory hold me fast. And here,
  most alone, I close my eyes and cross
  my arms across my breast as one
  in the fastest sleep, a replica of death.

And through the whoop and halloo of
  those scampering fools, I hear as
  a deep enfolding echo the boom of doors
    flung wide and the iron-shod clamour
     of a horse’s hooves on flagstones. As
    I drop my arms and open my eyes
to the dusty gloom, all in a moment
 my lord is high above me, wrenching
his skittish courser sideways so the better
    to lean and gather me up before
  his pommel, half across the horse’s
   neck and half in his encircling arms.
And before the stilled and unbelieving
  crowd, he kisses me cheek and chin
and eyes and hair and weeps as one
  distracted. Holding me hard with one
tight shuddering arm as if I were
   to drown, with his free arm he flails
the air and cries to the company within
   to quit this hall on pain of slaughter.
And as they tumble in a moiling flight
  of legs and turning heads through the
open doorway, we must tumble too, out
    of the saddle and into the ashes of
 the empty hearth. Face to face we kneel
    like marble saints, his hands amongst
my cropped inglorious curls, his eyes
   defying mine to spurn his gaze, begging
that I should read some diamond-hard
    effulgent truth within and so believe
far beyond the call of simple hollow words.

But I am in retreat as all refracts
    and shivers into a halo of tears and all
        that’s true and palpable are his two
            hands around my face and his breath
against my lips. Rising, he lifts me and
    I’m guided gently pacing over rushes
        to a settle flush against the wall.
            We sit and with crooked finger,
                knuckle raised, he draws my tear
                    back to its source and sighing deep
                        and long just once, he tells his tale.

o0o

           THE KING

In at the day’s birth as I strap the girth
beneath his belly. I hug his great head
to still the hooves treading the straw,
and kick closed the stable door. I want
no bleary grooms fresh out of their dunghill
dreams to reach down bridle and harness
half asleep, or a watchman, fresh on his rounds,
eager to jump step and dance attendance
on his king. I long for the dew to rise at my gallop;
for the black air to part against my speed.
I need, oh need, to bleach the livid phantoms
that visit me by night to tug intangible
at my sheets, that would have me cast off
my garments and cross those twenty paces
to your door and through to unleash havoc.

    So as I rein in at the forest’s edge and stand
    high in my stirrups, I rejoice in my solitude
    and breathe in lime and leaf-mould. Here,
    where the sudden trees crowd deep, I am one
    and one alone. And now as I edge us in between
    the mighty boles to find the ancient tracks
    laid down before (so long before) our hubris
    had us call each other king or commoner, I’m
    in my peace. My eyes are honed on the dark:
    I read the arcane script engrained in trunk
    of oak and sycamore; I watch the ooze of silver
    sap from the birch and golden from the maple.
    My ears are sifting every tiny sound – the fall
    of a single leaf through buttresses of branches
    high above; the switch and turn of a weasel
    deep inside the forest floor; the clap of the
    pigeon’s wings in a clearing half a league away.
    I urge my Champion forward. He picks and steps
    across and around the twisted roots and down
    the mossy banks. I stoop low in my saddle,
    my face along the horse’s neck and branches
    plucking at the bow across my back. One
    clearing and another and the bramble and
    the bracken yield to a pathway laid through
    thickets fettle-deep. I crane down low, half
    hanging, stirrup-free so as to seek for scats,
    or broken stems, or the trace of cloven hoof.
    I straighten and my yellow hair is laced
    with the rust of ferns and tiny flames of gorse.

And I rise into silence. All is still and clear,
as if the forest should slumber on the instant.
I sit, ear tilted to the breeze, like a rabbit
on a stump. And even as I sit the last breath
of air subsides and all there is to hear is
the blood-beat of man and beast, hunter
and steed, two hearts that cross and chime.
Light arrests and shadows freeze. I close
my eyes against the mass of silence, here
on the cusp of old familiar day and something
just beyond, something half-familiar from
the hinterland of dreams and the dawn of
just awakening. I open my eyes and there
in three long shafts of light shining through
the rising terraces of a mighty beech,
a hart of purest white stands motionless on
a catafalque of woven fern and purest moss.
His perfect neck is yielded as an offering,
a steady pulse embossed like a silver cord
from jaw to scapula. As one in the honey weight
of sleep, against the sense that all that’s due
is homage, I slide my yew bow from back
to hand and lift an arrow to the nocking point
and draw the bowstring back to where
my knuckle for a heartbeat touches the lobe
of my right ear and I let the arrow fly.

Even as I lower the bow and grasp the pommel
as my horse goes turning, turning in a gyre
of sudden fear, I twist to see the ash-wood
arrow run the fifty paces from this patch
of earth to where the milk-white hart awaits,
still as a patient lover. And that nave of air
between us turns into a chamber charged
with some strange humour, thick yet aqueous
and my arrow passes like a cautious fish that
noses forward, straight but circumspect.
I watch the fletching ripple in the current; see
the nock engraved like the cross of Christ; and
I note the kissing moment of the head against
that silver corded pulse to loose a plait of blood
go twisting, purest red against the ivory. Then
so lifts the caul, the amniosis and my horse,
my brave, strong Champion, his nostrils drinking in
the air like a swimmer risen, hacks back
a step or two. He staggers and his haunches drop
so that when I turn to spy the star-white hart,
he’s gone. There’s blood upon the leaf and branch
and fallen like ruby tears on the forest floor,
but never a broken twig nor trampled covert,
never a parted thicket nor spray upon the sand.

As if she flew thus trackless, the blood-trail
tugs me spellbound through that dappled day,
winds me into coiling nets of brambles, under
the grappling arms of beeches, down through
root-bound tunnels plunging, up the ferny sides
of valleys, scattering pebbles crossing runnels,
racing the long beams of the setting sun across
the sudden swards, chasing the bloody pearls
that shine like buboes in the dying light until
at last the trail ends in a sanguine cross laid
like a marker at the forest’s edge and we spin
and turn and sink, winded and blown, beneath
the tresses and against the waist of a mighty oak.

Great shadows cloak the spreading moss beneath.
Foxglove, heather, bluebell gleam within the gold
and copper pools. And before us, laid like a mighty
green and velvet cloth amongst the cautious trees
that dare not tap the sacred earth beyond,
a smooth and grassy glade. And in the centre,
fixed like a boss, a tomb aligned from east to west,
a single basalt box, the length of a man who would
be blessed either head or foot by the long walk
of the sun. And even as we catch our breath
beneath the hanging branches, all the forest
stills once more like a great settling of wings.
Light withdraws; shadows blacken the turf
like water rising from beneath its roots. No bird
lifts or settles; no creature scatters the leaf-mould,
troubles the canopies of leaves. Horse and man
as one in battle, bold Champion and I hold hard
to the shade. He snickers once and tilts a hoof.
I rise up in the saddle, shift a hand from pommel
to sword hilt, watch unblinking as for a glint
of dying light from a blade, or a thread of smoke.

Then, even as I gaze into the far treeline,
a spectral form like a grounded cloud bleeds
into the gap between two trees. In motion yet
glacial too, standing clear as if forever
fixed in place and time, the white hart, head
turned back, the arrow proud and a bright chain
of blood from neck to flank to earth that seems
to tether him for the taking. I draw my sword
(for arrows seem to pierce this beast in vain)
and blade before, I heel my charger forward.

From the touch of frog on clover, a hoof parting
the paper bells, a song begins. Full-throated but
so far away, as if it were blown like vapour through
the crowded trees; so many voices pitched from
keening trebles out of the thinnest air down to
rich profundo rolling out of thunder, wordless,
or in some tongue unspoken since the first footers
made their mark on sand or parted grass. As if
these tussocks were spikes of mist that rose
from the skin of some enchanted lake, we glide,
unsailed and rudderless, onto the lawn.

As the pagan introit melts back into the trees,
so fades like a fume the phantom hart, once chalk-
white pelt, now smoke, now dream. Again, I close
my eyes and shake the fancy out of seeing;
open them and in wonder watch a dove – fashioned
surely from the very salt and snow of my errant
hart – go soaring high from that self-same place,
into the dusky blue, now pocked with early stars.
Then, like one such star, the dove comes falling,
wheels and turns and alights upon the northern
head of the sable tomb. I sheath my sword
as we tread the carpet grass. Against the
flawless black, the dove is silver now, tipped and
still like a crescent moon. And as we draw
beside the tomb, it seems that through some
silken valance, rippling like water, first a sleeping
face and then the outstretched form, full and clear,
of an armoured knight reveals within, shield arm
across a naked sword, sword arm severed from
the wrist, his feet upon a serpent, coiled
and striking. And as I slip to earth and make
to kneel in some obeisance to this marvel,
a voice as deep as the fastest clay, yet as close
as two lips pursed in secret discourse at my ear
begins at once to speak.

And the tale is your tale
    from the apple bough fire
        to the slaughtered babe,
            to the sword cast down
                by the hoodless murderer,
                   your stepmother’s thrall.
I feel the slicing of the air
    by silent blades; I hear
        the breath in the throats
            and mouths of labouring men;
                I smell the blood that gouts
                   and eddies over the flags.
  And I see your grey eyes
      in my own contorted face,
          hanging over the moat-water.
             And your grief, red-raw,
                laid open to the briny air,
                    beats inside my own heart’s pulse
                        and stills my very breath.

                     o0o

               FAIR ELEANOR

   Oh, the bee’s-wing brush of fingers
 on my lips, the tender tug of fingers
    in my hair, the dry leaves of a voice
 falling to silence through dust and dark!
   For a lifetime moment in the wake
of the tale, there is the sound only
    of the wind in the chimney breast and
 a pigeon’s wings as she passes from
    one high window to the next. And then
  he rises, rises as one so weary of
    the darkest transports of this world,
        and he stands half shadowed,
    half illumined and all about us in
 that empty hall the strands and tresses
    of the two tales, his and mine, settle
 amongst the leaves and dust and dark.

    But he is a king and bred into the warp
and weft of pledges, oaths and fealties.
His sword is dinged and dented from
a hundred battles fought to break
or build within his realm of mountains,
meads and rivers and beyond. And now
as he slowly turns as one out of late
dreaming and into this time and place
of honour, debt and obligation, fire
rises behind his eyes, bone and sinew
realign and his sword hand strays
to the hilt. I am looking up at a man
who will reach for his bridle, who will
climb into his saddle and set his eyes
on one dark mark upon a long horizon.
And he will ride as straight and true
as the multitude of roads and passes
will allow, untroubled by reflection,
guided by the lodestar retribution
and the love entire and boundless
in whose radiance I am standing now. 

o0o

                         THE BLOOMING of the MAY

    He takes a cohort of his finest – each man strange to mercy
 in the service of his king. And beneath a new device – a dove
upon a sable field – in three days they are clear of our gentle lands;
    in four they cross the fens; and in a further six they reach
the same hills that encircle the birthing place, the bower,
            the hearth where the fire died.

And on a lambent dawn fashioned more for the properties of love,
         they burn her gatehouse, breach her mighty gates
                     and sack her citadel.
    In a corner of her hall, she crouches like a shitting beast
 behind her seneschal. He swings his mace right-handed; in his
left he wields a sword. He knows that he shall die and as he turns
   and turns about, he sings out loud a wordless song. My lord ensures
        within the circling of his blade that, with a stroke, he severs
             the seneschal’s right hand and with another he guts his man
             from groin to jawline and then steps back so both
                may watch him die amongst his liver and his lights,
                                unsinging and unsung.
   And she my stepmother, her eyes crazed white
and spittle on her chin like some trapped and fevered dog,
   attempts to rise, but falls back into her own rank juices.

So then she’s taken from that place
  and down through all the broad lands
    to our hearth and home. For near a year
      she languishes in irons bound, awaiting
        the blooming of the may again so that
          she might be brought into the spring fields
            for the reckoning.

      And now the may is blooming
and dressed in a verdant gown and crowned
  with plaited quickthorn, she is queen of the pyre.
Some dance at her foot, circling and circling
   the maypole’s axis mundi, singing the catches
  of the season. Others grim with purpose lift
     and heave and stack the thorny bundles high.

    I sit upon a white mare. Now my hair
 falls down my back, held at my nape
     by a twisted silken cord. Mounted close,
my lord’s right hand covers my left.
   His middle finger turns my golden ring.
We are still; we are silent. There is
  no triumph in the directing of these
    engines of redress. All must submit
  to the greater will that binds us
in the dark. And so he tips his head
  the once to his watching chamberlain
and the burning brands are thrust
   deep into the bosom of the stack.
The fire cracks and spits. Inside
  the flames, leaves curl and cat-haws pop.
    Yet from the shading beech a thrush
  is singing, a pearly chain of falling notes
          as if to purify the air.

    And then, like the sound of the tearing
 of some mighty tree by a hurricane
    from the rocky bonds of earth,
  my lady cries abroad from her nest,
    swathed in smoke and licked by tongues
  of fire: Alas the day that she became
    the famous flower of serving men!
And in my belly like a dancer turns
   the boy conceived in love alone, he
who as the dove foretold shall take
    the orb, the sceptre and the sword
  to rule the land in peace and plenitude.
   My lord, he leans from his saddle low
and plucks a sprig of hokey green to tuck
 into my hair. I pick a single leaf. I lift it
  to my lips. This shall be a sacrament
t o be held in a locket of gold against
   the dark winds of the world and for
  the love that might slumber through
    the heart’s long winter but shall rise
      exultant with the blooming of the may.

                                 END

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STILL LIFE

mum202620dad2_2

My mum died ten years ago. It was the quietest of deaths – a pulse stopping at the end of years of exile in a dark, silent place so far removed from the places of laughter that she had shared with us across her long life. Death itself is neither dignified nor noble. These are judgements made by those who witness the passing. There is simply a moment that follows a moment before but is unfollowed. 

However, when the nurse called me over and I stood at the head of my mother’s bed and watched as the pulse beat still and then after a few seconds simply didn’t beat any more, although I have no faith, I had a sense of all confinement, all limitation falling away and even as I wept for everything that had been, I felt a peace which, to paraphrase Philippians 4:4 – 7, ‘transcends all understanding’. And I guess it did ‘garrison and stand guard’ over my heart in the days and weeks following. There was nothing of God in that release and protection: it was a function entirely of an overwhelming sense of the absolute rightness of that moment when the passage from life into death is managed.

I wrote this poem during the time of her long exile.

mum_2_2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

STILL LIFE

Each morning they organise your bones
into the wheelchair, stack you leaning
out of kilter. Thus I find you, wall-eyed,

feather pulse and mouth ajar. This is
a stillness you are learning as silence
silts up your blood. I name you: ‘Mum’.

I call, quietly at first, as if this were
only sleep and you might resent the passage
interrupted. But your shade is walking

a broken road on the far side of dreams.
I keep my coat on, lean in the doorway,
breathing in the alkalines and salts

that are your presence in this world.
Beyond, through narrow windows, rain
drifts like smoke. The trees shift

their high shoulders, hefting their leaves
like heroes. I can see the lift and fall
of their evergreen breath, the slow,

dispassionate pulse. Such senseless beauty,
propping up the sky as if there were no
tides turning or falling stars, no ashes to dust,

no time at all. You speak – a half-word,
cracked in the middle. Syllables drift
like fumes. Somewhere in that steam

of meaning, the filaments of memory:
the horn’s tip of a lover’s moon,
a song’s dust, the eye’s tail catching,

not quite catching, doorway phantoms,
window ghosts. Grief crosses my mind:
its hydrogen release – from local pain

to lachrymae rerum, all in one long
skidding step. It would be a simple thing
to self-heal, here against the lintel,

watching not the rise and fall of your
fish-breath, your insect pulse, but
the immortal trees beyond. Too easy;

but death looked in and turned away,
indifferent, and now it’s down to me,
the blood-bearer, to wish away your life

for you. The house ticks and hums.
A voice calls out, thin and querulous;
another coughs. I turn down your light.

There, against the window, dusk outside,
day by night you are becoming your shadow
cast against the shifting of the trees.

mum2

Sound file: Still Life

 

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PETANQUE AT ST. ENOGART

St Enogat is a small, pretty town just a few miles from Dinard on Brittany’s Côte d’Émeraude. One quiet Sunday I sat in the shade of a persimmon tree and watched two elderly men preparing to play pétanque on an otherwise deserted terrain. They went about their business silently at first, moving slowly and deliberately in the manner of those for whom the activity is governed by unwritten but immutable protocols. Half way through the game, without varying pace or style, the blue-shirted man began to speak. This is what I may have overheard.

boules 2

PETANQUE AT ST. ENOGART

There are the two men,
this square of ground,
the sun, the cypress tree.
The men unpack
their boules. The man
in the blue shirt
clacks a pair together.
The man in the
red shirt arcs
the coche into
the dust, steps back
and lights a cigarette.
The blue shirt
throws his three.
One hugs the coche
and two lie close.
The red shirt bowls.
His final boule
scatters the group.
The two advance.
They contemplate
the spread of boules
and coche, the disposition
of them all, then stoop
to gather and cast
the coche, the boules
again. Inside the
cypress shade the
blue shirt cups
his boule and lifts
it high. At the point
of release his fingers
tip it back, reverse
its spin. At the point
of its contact with
the coche he says:
“Your sister. Is
she well?” The red
shirt draws deep on
his cigarette.
“Quite well”, he says.
“She’s been home
three weeks now.
She’s walking. She
can cook. She walks
the dogs down by
the canal. She manages”.
The blue shirt listens,
two boules held
between his fingers.
The red shirt drops
his cigarette, grinds
it into the dust.
“Go on”, he says,
nodding to the splay
of boules and coche.
And from out of
the shade of
the cypress, the blue
shirt drops each boule
behind the coche,
completing a triangular
wall. “Once”, he says,
still stooping, his hands
on his knees. “There was
a time once”. The red
shirt lights a second
cigarette, shakes out
the match, steps up
to throw. “There’s always
a time once”, he says
and he looses a boule.
The blue shirt watches
the arc and fall, the
puff of dust where
it lands behind the
triangle. “Celine and I”,
he says. “On the beach
at St Enogart. Down
by the rocks”. The
red shirt straightens,
purses his lips. “Enough”,
he says. “Enough”.
“And then”, the
blue shirt says,
“you and I, we might
have been brothers”.
The red shirt works
the cigarette to the
corner of his mouth.
“Brothers enough without”,
he says.

2 boules

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THEIR VOICES IN THE NIGHT

I have a sleep disorder that – compounded currently by the side effects of medication – ensures that each and every night is fragmented into a sort of archipelago of the  5 stages of slumber varying from just stages 1 and 2 up to the full cycle, including REM. In between these sequences is inserted from time to time long periods of insomnia. Living as we do in relative rural isolation, this means that the sometimes comforting social sounds of nocturnal traffic, arrivals and departures and even the late-night carolling of a friendly drunk are denied us. Randy cats, foraging foxes and the haunted crooning of the barn owl only serve to underpin the sense of utter isolation and exposure that can be the principle characteristics of insomnia. This poem describes a joyful exception to that dilemma.

Nighttime Geese Clouds Moonlight Lake Flying Moon Tree 3d Wallpaper

THEIR VOICES IN THE NIGHT

Unable to sleep, I sit before
the heartless brilliance of the screen
with the real-world darkness

hovering, fearful but persistent,
at my back. It seems as if time
has packed her bags and left

for the coast and then beyond.
I take off my glasses, knuckle away
the mess of my tears. And then,

like importunate drunks through
a suddenly opened door, the geese
are overhead. Some crass dispute

as to the whereabouts of water
in the impossible night, their voices
skronking inside a collision of

cranking necks and wings. As they
tumble through the unseen clouds,
I laugh out loud and love them all

for their unconsidered vandalism,
neither thought nor theory troubling
the palate of their need.

THEIR VOICES IN THE NIGHT – AUDIO.

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