How It Is
Come, Bright Birds
1. Icon Schmicon
2. Oh Jesus
3. Spare a Thought for the Dead
The Golden Triangle
My earliest awful words -
Hitler and Stuka, Himmler and Dachau -
Have sunk to the bottom of the filthy sump.
They cannot hurt us now.
They bide there in a lump
Of unadulterated misery
And wickedness and pain
So bad that they could never come again,
Not on our continent, not in our time
(We say this to fend off the final crime).
Historical memory probes the blinding fumes,
A searchlight fingering pitchy clouds,
Trying to find the Junkers and V2s
Above the storms of fire.
Frankly, my mind is at its ease -
It is so used to sorting out the blame
And weighing up each cause -
Because my family did not disappear
Into the ovens' flame
Or die as skeletons slumped on jagged wire
In a stupor of despair.
So now we search for Satan, trying to track
The whole appalling carnage to its author -
A beetle-browed gauleiter dressed in black
With glossy leather legs, a soft-voiced Arab
Sending us videos from a mountain cave....
We burrow back and back
And there he isI he started it,
The chain of killing, Cromwell in Drogheda,
Pizarro in Peru, Caesar in Gaul;
And where is the calm, sweet-smelling country
Empty of generals and armourers?
Only in Paradise, before the Fall.
HOW IT IS
In every land of the known (and unknown) world
Then, now, and forever
The power of the powerful comes down on the powerless
Like a butcher's cleaver,
Burns like electrodes clipped to sensitive parts.
The blood and urine spurts.
In his stylish office on the fifteenth storey
The bossman scans his spreadsheets,
Looks at his watch and farts,
Resumes his scrutiny, countersigns his orders -
Tanks for Uzbekistan, shackles for Brunei,
Landmines to secure the borders
Of Congo, Somalia, and South Korea...
The bullets, handcuffs, shells and detonators
Flood out in an infernal diarrhoea
To every sovereign state,
All conjured by the bureaucratic magic
Of the end-user certificate.
Nothing will ever stop the filthy flow.
Once I fondly expected general peace,
A sort of permanent armistice,
But that was more than fifty years ago.
Why did I have to see
The black saw-teeth of shadow
Cast by the banisters on the staircase wall
As pointy snouts of a wolf-pack,
The enemy waiting for me?
Exploring my uncle's 13th-century cellars
I saw too early that the world
Is full of cells and dungeons
With rusty manacles leaded to the walls.
Already on the 1st of September 1939
I expected the invaders
In field-grey uniforms and coal-scuttle helmets
To come trotting through the streets
And drag my parents to prisons overseas.
It would have been so nice
To snuggle into the warm dog-basket
Of my perfectly safe and cosy home;
So good to imagine that our holiday house
Nine hundred feet above sea level
In a neuk of the mountains
Would be ours for a never-ending summer.
Soon I was seeing that the mountain's face
Had altered barely at all During the wars and executions,
Famines and plagues and dismemberings.
The bracken spreads, the cranberries fruit,
The crossbills crack the pine-cones...
They are perfectly self-contained,
Unlike my head with its nagging seismograph
Calibrated to register each spike
Of tremor from the agonies of others.
COME, BRIGHT BIRDS
Birds are weird. All birds.
Falcons mantling their stricken prey
Humped as Apollyon with his leather wings.
Galvanic blue-tits feeding their young
Six hundred times between dawn and sunset.
Featherless jackdaw young, blue-diamond-eyed,
Mudlarking on the floor of a limestone cave.
And when the grey third eyelid shutters down
Over the glistening orb
Their ancient lineage re-emerges,
Morphing them into reptiles once again.
Toothed napes and erectile crests
Bristle behind the lattices of tree-ferns
And green and scarlet feathers cool and harden
Into a carapace of scales.
Birds, weird birds, stay with me.
Mynah and parrot, talk to me -
Even your guttural parodies
Are a bond of sorts, more voluntary
Than a canary down the mine.
Enslaved birds sing for their millet-seed.
Our garden visitors can flee
To their own coverts, having stripped
Our crimson berries into their crops.
Stay with me, dipper, bubble of bird,
Brown elf on a seething stone.
Heron, may your eel-neck
Be feathered against the fogs of winter.
Swift, black bolt on the wrack,
You are more graceful than a spider,
More eloquent than a scorpion.
Bright birds, quicken the woodlands with your calling.
Surround me with your nests.
People the continents and oceans
With your unending journeys.
1. ICON SCHMICON
The Virgin Mary hangs by a hole in her back
From the inverted stump of a ruined tree.
She is mimicking her son.
Serene in her miraculous chastity
She puts to shame or comforts everyone
Who passes by along this woodland track.
Her plastic arm supports a plastic stem
Of lilies and her breast a lamp of fire.
Arranged in a Cola bottle, hellebore
And holly flourish next her garment's hem
More beautiful than any diadem,
But she is everlasting, they will die,
So say the priests of immortality,
And look, the tree has died.
Its branches laden with chestnuts, spreading wide
Above the brown mulch of their leaves, are gone.
Its roots are stubs of antler, stunted horns
Protecting Mary like a crown of thorns.
She will survive while someone from the village
Makes her rheumatic journey to replace
The water and the flowers, perhaps expecting
A sign from the white impassive face.
And if the village dies? Why then, the tree
And the goddess will compete in their withstanding
The merciless boredom of eternity.
2. OH JESUS
The words applied to the sufferings of this man
Are pompous, abstract. Even 'crucifixion'
With its barbed-wire consonants
Has little in it of the splintering nails,
And 'deposition' has nothing
Of that mortal slump, a person
Forsaken, then destroyed
And nothing left to do for him
But bandage bloodied limbs
And smuggle him to Afghanistan.
His Arab skin is sanctified with pallor,
His mother denatured to virginity,
His father's palms, calloused by axe and handsaw,
Figured again as objects
For the Roman torturers.
We think too much about him, trying to see
The man behind the ethereal dazzle
Of the unbelievably credulous cult.
The evangelical President
Should turn his thoughts for a change
To Ali in a Baghdad children's ward:
'Can I have my hands back?'
He says again and again
Between the shots of morphine.
3. SPARE A THOUGHT FOR THE DEAD
At a turn in the footpath
From Stoppia down to Peralta,
A natural place to pause for a breather;
At an elbow of the hairpin bend
Between Pieve and Buchignano;
Next to the Banca Toscana and the gunshop
Where the shooters gather:
Everywhere, in fact, except
On the autostrada, or the esplanade
Where Toscanini, Puccini, and Marconi
Gossiped and drank their amarettis,
Mary and her baby are enshrined
In niches with little roofs,
Two flat tiles and a curved one
Installed with reverent craftsmanship,
Or it was brisk and workmanlike
With a dab or two of cement.
Fresh flowers, roses or hellebore,
Stand in a vase beneath
With a plastic bottle of water at the side.
Mary and her baby
Patiently pose in bas-relief.
Meek pubertal modesty was never
More uncomplainingly expressed
Than in her masking eyelids,
Her brow downturned, her cheeks
As smooth and white as candles.
Her legs invisible in stony folds
Vanish downwards into the marble
Like snowdrifts melting into snowfall.
Only her gown is coloured - palest blue.
In the more expensive shrines
Mary and her baby ride on a cloud,
Flanked by an angel and a male model
Discreetly draped. An imploring pilgrim
With staff and broad-brimmed hat
Adores them, staring upwards,
Yearning for a blessing, a sign.
Don't worry, pilgrim, it will come -
Something, a flower on the cyclamen
After seven years, a crane's nest on the chimney,
A letter (with a cheque) from America....
Lucky for them they were not Buddhists.
A mile or two from the mountain
Where Gautama left his footprint
After his giant leap from India,
Next to the road, in homely paintwork
On a concrete plaque,
A happy band of sinners
Are climbing constantly up a yellow tree
Where blue thorns set like dragons' teeth
Tear at their hands and feet
And scarlet gouts drop heavily
Onto the murderers and adulterers below.
Nearby, on the back wall of a cave
In exquisite chiselled lettering
Like the cross-section of a crab,
A tariff lists the eternal punishments
For lusting after a married woman,
For fratricide and infanticide,
For desecration of temples
And violation of virgins....
Are this world's various cruelties
Not enough for the priests?
The matt black iron cross
At a fork above a limestone gully -
Here Vittorio was kicked in the head
By his mule and bled to death
Before his neighbours found him.
(He may or may not have cheated on his wife.)
The hellish shrine at Ratnapura -
Near here Pera Perumal was butchered
Bu Sinhalese machetes
At the height of the Emergency.
(There is no sound evidence
That he had murdered his brother or his children.)
Spare a thought for the dead.
Focus them clearly. Understand them.
Your prayers are as obsolete
As human sacrifice
Or axe-heads made of flint.