Archive for February, 2010


Esther Philips, oldest of thirteen, came

from Liverpool, had tea with Buffalo

Bill and, having siblings and her mother,

a drunkard, to care for, refused an offer

to join a chorus line. When I knew her, she

had no teeth, wore the same two black dresses

and munched Quaker Oats between meals. She cried

when I played ‘La Fille Aux Cheveux De Lin’

on the upright in the back room. She outlived

two husbands and four of seven children –

and died saying that she knew how Jesus felt.




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'Saudade', Almeida Junior, 1899

'Saudade', Almeida Junior, 1899


We sheltered in the lee of the lighthouse

at what was once the end of the world,

the caliphate, for half a millennium.

Lovers still, we watched the squall move eastwards,

obscure the Sagres promontory –

whose fort’s white walls hold the Navigator’s

stone anemometer: shaped like a compass rose,

big as a bull ring, grooved like a millstone.

His caravels outflanked Islam, rounded,

at last, Cape Bojador and made the Slave Coast.

Below us, hunched in crannies on the cliffs,

their rods like jibs, their lines like skeins, anglers –

descendants of Phoenicians, Romans, Saracens

– waited stoically for bass or bream to rise.


The rain lifted. A container ship passed.

Drake, Nelson, and Browning passed: ‘Nobly, nobly,

Cape St Vincent to the North-west died away

…how can I help England?’ In Ireland,

the black rot was already in the fields –

the coffin ships all ready in the roads.


Later, drinking wine the colour of sea grass,

in O Retiro do Pescador, we

watched our black bream split, salted, sizzled, served

with sprouts. Ah, home thoughts! And Mrs. Browning:

‘…a voice said in mastery, while I strove,

“Guess now who holds thee?”  “Death, I said.”‘ We

smiled, as lovers do, and gossiped, as

lovers do, about our fellow diners

sotto voce: aging Caucasians

and a young Chinese couple with a child.

Somewhere, a radio played fado softly.

‘”Death”, I said. “Not death, but love.”‘





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'Lion', Babel, circa 583 BC

'Lion', Babel, circa 583 BC


‘Arma virumque cano’ was birched

into pimply boys who ruled their thin red lines

at every degree. Till the sun set

on heart-shaped continents, DCs in the bush

carried Caesar in their khaki shorts. Gaul or

Matabele, order was where empire

prevailed. Rule of law is a state of mind.

Ovid exiled himself. Virgil wrote

two lines a day in his villa near Naples.

On unmapped plains, horsemen manoeuvred.

Their descendants herd goats. Power, I sing, and

illusion – managing a barbarous,

imperious language.




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Even at Goose Bay, Alaska, changing planes,

there were people to greet him. He asked

who they were. ‘Eskimos.’ Mandela

remembered the igloos in the textbook

at the mission school. ‘Ah, Inuit.’

He walked to greet them in their common tongue.







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For Evelyn, b.13.1.10


Born to good music by strong women,

Ella’s ‘isle of joy’, Nina’s ‘it’s a new dawn’ –

how you nestle in your parents’ untrammelled

love, how you suck with unrelenting hunger!


Born into a world of rubble, with children

buried alive, a world of chicanery

and hatreds – you have entered a difficult,

place, little Evie, somewhere remarkable,

full of tears and amazing kindnesses!


Born into a world of snow, a fox’s

nocturnal tracks in the white garden

of the tall, Victorian villa, a Blackcap

at the bird feeder, a Redwing sheltering

in the laurel and, away on the Downs,

boys and girls, freed from school, tobogganing

over the fossils and flints on the steep shore

of a Palaeolithic sea – how you squirm

with hunger, how you bask in so much love!


Three wishes then for you, little bird:

may you be lucky, may you be gracious,

may you always have someone to love!




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