Archive for April, 2016

FOLLOWING THE CHAIN

The photograph could have been taken anywhere

they forged the Royal Navy’s anchor chains –

Dudley, Newcastle, Ponypridd or here

in Saltney, Chester, reclaimed marshland

near the river. Wherever the Sea Lords chose

to give the contract the chain makers

and their families moved – like funfair folk

or circus people – if they were able.

 

There are thirteen men in the picture – a shift

about to go on judging by the spotless

faces, arms and hands. They are not burly men

though their biceps were developed hauling,

rolling, beating, linking the molten iron.

There is no fat on them – despite the buckets

of draught beer the employer provided

to hydrate them in the purging foundry.

 

They are pale, working in the dark except

for the furnace glare. They have been posed –

by some Edwardian photographer

keen to record the locality –

in their full length leather aprons, some with caps,

some bare headed, three with mufflers to wipe

the sweat from their eyes, four with waistcoats.

They are sons of blacksmiths, grandsons, village lads,

from the coast, from the hills, from the valleys.

 

The ones in front are on one knee, with sledge hammers

and tongs, a length of chain at their feet. Unused

to cameras, some look at the lens – like two

kneeling – or away like the one at the back

with his tash and his thumbs in his waistcoat.

He was Simeon Harris – my wife’s grandad.

 

After the Great War the contract moved. He stayed –

married by then to his best friend’s widow,

responsible for two sets of children –

and never worked again, living on the dole,

the rare rabbit snared on the Duke’s estates,

the very occasional shared salmon

lifted without licence from the river,

his wife’s pittance for cleaning the chapel,

soup from the workhouse for breaking stones.

 

The day before he died – his wife scolding him

for idling – he sat, on the back step,

smoking a roll-up, his muffler hiding

the cancerous lump on his neck. My wife,

then nine years old, sat close. He whispered to her,

‘I feel bad today, love’.

 

 

 

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A MATTER OF MATHEMATICS

The garden is busy today. A robin

and a wren appear to be nesting.

The noisy blackbirds certainly are.

We are preparing for the partial eclipse

with the pinhole cameras we have made

from paper plates. In the event –

on the first day of spring – the sun is veiled,

as if by wisps of smoke, so we can glance

directly at the moon’s crossing, at this

dark geometry. There is excitement

in neighbouring gardens – and, over the road,

from the Pilates class at the Methodist’s.

 

*

 

Today we drive along the coast and see

the high tides yesterday’s configuration

partly caused – a spring tide in every sense;

water levels covering the stanchions

of a pier, lapping the top of a quay.

At the turn, the sea leaving the straits

hits the sea entering. A cormorant

twirls gracelessly in the rushing, tumbling race,

a dinghy with an outboard wallows,

the pilot bobbing like a marionette –

aware of the swift calculus of the waves.

 

*

 

How we gaggle like geese for, rightly,

a wonder or a marvel or a portent!

A feather falls. Intuitively,

we revere such elegant algebra.

 

 

 

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DYSTOPIA: A WORK IN PROGRESS

When the British and the French almost

literally drew lines in the sand

to divvy up the Ottoman Empire –

tutored by romantic, wistful Arabists

at the Quai D’Orsay and the Foreign Office –

there was nothing left for the Yazidis,

the Druze, the Kurds… It was always about oil –

and then Sunni Arabs and Zionist Jews.

It is always about oil, diamonds,

timber, gold, slaves, coal — and useful idiots.

 

*

 

Saddam hanged, Gaddafi sodomized then shot.

Being careless about what you wish for

appears to bring bandits, to make Frankenstein

monsters out of mercenaries, assassins

out of mujahideen. Better perhaps

the secret police, with pensionable jobs,

than unofficial executioners?

Better restriction than chaos, repression

than havoc? Better to live in servitude

since death ends all chance of liberty?

 

*

 

The democratic chancellories

of Europe, its communes and councils are

panders soliciting votes from racists

to prostitute the body politic.

They make virtue of prevarication

and casuistry; extol cohesion

and nationhood; plead penury –

yet erect frontiers of razor wire

and bomb far-fetched ideologies,

making accidental martyrs and migrants.

 

*

Does only a fool or knave decry

the efficacy of aerial bombing?

Do only knaves or fools advocate peace?

Do only both call, ‘Follow the money!

It’s all about oil!’? Will it always be

about oil – until the earth has become

one unrelenting desert, one vast sea

and there is no one to care about money?

Tetchy, ironic, rhetorical

questions give no shelter, change nothing.

 

*

 

It is about oil and useful innocents

seeking exile, seeking sanctuary.

They run from the bullets at the border –

anonymous children, young men, women

in labour, grandmas – or wait, patiently

for the most part, as if despair were a crime,

as if anger were a fault, in the rain

and the smoke, or, duped, drown in silence.

Theirs has become a name, whoever they are,

to conjure pity and heart break – or lies.

 

 

 

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ET IN ARCADIA EGO

I have not heard a cuckoo here since childhood

when fields were wilder and trees less sparse.

I heard one this year in Gascony,

on the Plateau de Lannemazan,

on a wooded ridge with the late March winds

from the Pyrenees rasping the corn stubs

in the field below and rushing

through the budding trees bright with lichen

and ruffling the flowers on the blackthorn

and the violets among the leaf mould.

 

Between a gap in the trees the ridge way

was bare limestone. There were walnut shells

and empty 12 bore shot gun cartridges.

Before me, down the slope, was the village

that was a town until the Black Death –

fortified to subdue Basque and Occitan.

The clock on the Mairie struck a muffled hour

but the fell bird sang clearly over the wind.

 

As I descended the lane I passed a field

where an English ex-pat’s donkey brayed at me,

a Belgian’s house with dogs that yelped and howled

and a hunter walking up towards the ridge,

his gun broken on his arm. I heard dogs

and donkey distantly as he passed them –

and knew the wild woods would soon be silenced.

 

 

 

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THE RULES OF THE GAME

I had my first hair cut when I was three.

(I had been tricked, bamboozled, farfirt).

My grandpa took me to his barber’s –

redolent with banter and tobacco smoke –

near the junction of Cricklewood Lane

and Finchley Road. It was frequented

by his card playing cronies. I watched him

have his hair trimmed and some strands combed over.

I was invited to try the high chair

but, no sooner there, I was begowned

and the scissors flashed. ‘Fetch a policeman!’

he always claimed I called out. I imagine

a shop full of Jewish refugees laughed

uneasily at my accidental vits.

 

He smoked Craven A in an ebony

cigarette holder, drank tea from a glass

with a silver plated handle and snacked

on Rakusen’s matzos coated with

Colman’s French Mustard. When I was eight

he taught me to shuffle a deck of cards,

perfumed with nicotine, from hand to hand

then thumbs and forefingers like a croupier.

He taught me Gin Rummy where the twos

of any suit are also deuces and wild

like the jokers. We could choose whether aces

were high or low. I liked the black cards best.

 

When we were playing he would sometimes pause

to tell me stories: of Kiev; his escape

from Russia; my father; my grandmother.

We continued to play well into my teens.

There were questions I did not know how to ask

and ones then I simply did not know to ask.

I pass the tiny tales on like pieces

of a mosaic. ‘Remember’, he said,

‘for patience whichever way you shuffle

first the jokers remove!’

 

 

 

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