THE EMBRACE OF NOTHING




i

Rome’s legionnaires quarried its sandstone cliffs

and Ptolemy put the Dee on the map.

William the Conqueror, in winter,

force-marched his army over the Pennines

to reach the river and waste the town – the last

to submit.  For eighteen years, Prince Gryfyd

ap Cynan, shut in the keep, heard only

the river’s voice, dyfrdwy, dyfrdwy.

Parliament’s forces sent fire rafts downstream

to purge besieged citizens. On its banks,

King Billy’s infantry was camped

while, in the silting estuary, his fleet

provisioned for Ireland.

ii

The winter I had scarlet fever

my mother read me Coral Island.

While I was deliriously admirable –

with Ralph, Jack, Peterkin – Mao’s Red Army

crossed the Yalu. One person’s commonplace

is another’s Road to Damascus.

When the Apprentice Boys shut fast the gate,

they had the Pope’s blessing.

iii

Standing on the leads of Phoenix Tower

(eponymously, King Charles’), he saw

his cavalry routed on the heath, scattered

through its gorsey hollows and narrow lanes.

Watching Twelfth Night,  Charles crossed out the title

on his programme and wrote, ‘Malvolio –

Tragedy’. He was a connoisseur of

defeats. ‘I’ll be revenged.’

iv

On a Whit Monday, long before bandstand,

suspension bridge and pleasure steamers,

two watermen rowed an outing of girls.

When one of the men threw an apple,

they jostled to catch it. Shrill scrambling

upturned the boat and drowned them, lasses and men…

A school acquaintance, bright, admired, sculling

late on a December afternoon,

somehow – where the river curves like a sickle

round meadowland – upset the skiff and drowned

beneath that ‘wisard stream’.

v

Even here are Principles and the Sword.

Two Christian martyrs share one monument

on Richmond (then Gallows) Hill: George Marsh,

John Plessington, Protestant, Catholic –

distanced by three monarchs, a civil war,

a regicide and a little doctrine –

each burnt by the others’ brothers in Christ.

When Bobby Sands had starved himself to death,

some houses flew black flags.

vi

In the ten minutes or so it took me,

one bleakly raw February-fill-the-Dyke day,

to cross the ‘twenties suspension bridge,

pass the Norman salmon leap and weir,

return across the 14th century

three arch sandstone bridge to where I started,

by the bandstand with cast iron tracery,

the rising river – awhirl with the debris

of factories,  mountains, centuries

– had covered the towpath.

 

 

 

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  1. #1 by John Chapman - May 2nd, 2011 at 08:12

    A rather dark and depressing set again this month, nothing to “stir the vitals” to give hope or lift the heart.

  2. #2 by John Huddart - May 10th, 2011 at 11:45

    Well, that depends what lifts the heart! A lover faithful and courageous unto death. The shifting waters of the Dee. The faithful observation of monuments preserved in everyday. A pretty good hand at narrative and irony. No need to make those statements questions! And, in any case, it’s a gloomy old world, so there’s pleasure in a shared acknowledgement!

  3. #3 by John Chapman - May 13th, 2011 at 23:00

    Well, just here we have:
    A town laid waste
    A man in solitary confinement for eighteen years
    Fire rafts downstream to purge besieged citizens
    Childhood disease
    Routed cavalry
    Two Christian martyrs burnt alive
    Regicide
    A boat load of people drowned
    A man starving himself to death
    Despite what you say, still seems pretty dark from where I am sitting!

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