Poetry

DEAD ELEPHANTS

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Whenever and wherever I encounter

the idiom about the elephant

in the room I think of Clive of India –

the victor of the Battle of Plassey,

main accessory of the first Bengal

Famine, multi-millionaire, whose crimes,

Samuel Johnson claimed, ‘impelled him

to cut his own throat’, and whose controversial

statue stands in Shrewsbury’s town square –

and of Lancelot Spode, a stringer

for The Shropshire Gleaner, who, one foggy

November day in the ’50s, disappeared.

 

Spode’s new silver grey Triumph Mayflower

was found, locked, on the road from Market Blandings

to Much Middleford, not a league from

Moreton Say, Clive’s birthplace. The stringer,

it is said, continually searched

the whole of Salop for what he thought

would be the century’s scoop: the graves

of the three elephants it was rumoured

Clive had brought back alive from India.

 

A distant and long dead relative of mine,

a man who could have passed as Trotsky’s dad,

would claim, after a drink or three, to have found

in the wild grounds of a derelict mansion

between Moreton Say and Market Snodsbury –

long ago rebuilt as an hotel and spa –

three deep pits, overgrown, and empty.

Not far from them, still intact, was the rusted

spiral of a reporter’s notebook.

 

 

 

THE WEIRD SISTERS

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Since only the victors – usually men –

get to write history, so the renown

of the poet and of the painter, Willie

and Jack Yeats, has almost totally

obscured the sisters’, Lolly and Lily,

and their Cuala Press: from an era

when misogyny was even more

commonplace than now, and most members

of either gender accepted it.

 

They published new work only – all set

and printed by hand by a female workforce:

Willy’s poems, of course, and Jack’s graphics,

J.M. Synge, Oliver St John Gogarty.

They were one of the keys to the Celtic

Revival; recasting the South, the Free State,

Eire, the Republic of Ireland;

erasing the simian images

of the centuries’ of uprisings,

and the skeletal icons of the Famine.

 

The literary editor was their big brother.

The Press was frequently in the red

with cash flow problems, which the bank manager

seemed to believe resulted entirely

from a business run and owned by women.

William would grudgingly settle the debts

when he had cash to spare, like the Nobel Prize,

seeming to forget that the hard work

of his unmarried sisters had financed

the whole Yeats’ household – father, mother, siblings –

during crucial years of near penury.

Almost the last book they printed was

Patrick Kavanagh’s long and angry poem,

The Great Hunger, published during World War 2,

about Paddy Maguire, loveless, childless,

farming the unrelenting fields of Armagh.

 

The Yeats sisters, who had always wished

to live separately but were forced

to share the same dwellings throughout their lives,

share the same grave and simple headstone

in St Nahi’s Church of Ireland graveyard,

Dundrum, now a suburb of Dublin –

with the largest shopping centre in Ireland –

a village when the sisters lived there.

 

Lily and Lolly have been immortalised

in James Joyce’s Ulysses. Buck Mulligan,

holding court in the Martello Tower,

remarks: ‘Five lines of text and 10 pages

of notes about the folk and fishgods of Dundrum.

Printed by the weird sisters in the big wind’.

Was it tact, or misogynistic

disdain, kept them unnamed?

 

 

THAT MEMORABLE SCENE

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At the eastern end of the Banqueting House –

which the deposed tyrant Charles Stuart had had

the architect Inigo Jones design

with its Rubens ceiling centre piece –

wooden steps were constructed from the stone floor

to the window sill, and wide enough so that

the condemned and two soldiers might climb abreast.

The scaffold was built against the outside wall,

and level with the sill so the long windows

could be opened like a pair of doors.

The platform extended almost half way

across the street so that all could clearly see

what it meant to kill a king, to be

no longer bound subjects but free citizens.

 

On that January Tuesday the poet,

Andrew Marvell, attended the beheading:

 

He nothing common did or mean

Upon that memorable scene,

But with his keener eye

The axe’s edge did try;

Nor call’d the gods with vulgar spite

To vindicate his helpless right,

But bowed his comely head

Down as upon a bed.

 

Charles’s head was severed with one blow.

It was lifted by its hair and shown

to the crowd, as custom dictated,

by the masked executioner, who threw it

to the soldiers below.

 

 

 

SIMONSTOWN, FALSE BAY, SOUTH AFRICA

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Where the dual carriageway to Simonstown

is nearest the bay some cars were parked

on the hard shoulder and some folk were standing

on the stony beach. A Southern Right Whale

had calved near the shallows. We stood with strangers,

in the silence, watching the suckling baby

and the mother in their huge gentleness.

 

False Bay is wide as a sea, as deep,

so-called because sailors without charts

thought it was Table Bay twenty miles west.

Simonstown was one of the last to accede

to Apartheid. A colonial port,

way station to the East, British dockyard,

it became a diverse place of Dutchmen

and Lascars, Jews and Muslims, entrepreneurs

and runaways, Xhosa guides, and Khoisan

strayed the few miles from the heather of the Cape.

 

Opposite our guesthouse was a cove where whales,

at the end of the breeding season, came,

like ships of the line, to scrape off barnacles,

before their journey to the sounding oceans.

 

As we left town we passed the main car park,

and, at its edge, eight young men in white

and navy blue from Khayelitsha township

singing a capella: ‘Nkosi

sikelel’ iAfrika’.

 

 

MADAGASCAR

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Like Iceland, New Zealand, and the isles

of the South Atlantic, Madagascar

for most of its ninety million years or so

had been untouched by homo sapiens –

until we carved out logs, invented paddles,

outriggers, sails, and learned to read sun and winds.

 

Almost as soon as the first sailors

had come ashore the forests were slashed

and set alight, the flightless Elephant Bird

and the Giant Lemur were extinguished.

 

***

 

The damp air of New Year’s morning is heavy

with the spent gunpowder of last night’s fireworks,

and the cloying smoke of wood-burning stoves,

so we are going to the Zoo to see

the lemurs in their new enclosure,

where we hominids may walk amongst them

as if through the dense forests of their island.

 

The Zoo conserves five of the hundred species

of lemur, the world’s oldest primate,

and peculiar to Madagascar.

Larger than cats, surer than squirrels

two Red Ruffed Lemurs have leapt to the top

of the tallest tree in the enclosure –

and are calling loudly to each other,

aggressively it seems to us viewers below.

Perhaps some ancient memory impelled them

to the canopy’s highest point so that they

might see their green and pristine land, but instead

found only scorched plains of felled baobobs

and the red earth haemorrhaging into the sea

under a poisoned sky.

 

 

 

AFTER THE PANTOMIME

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When all of the evils are back in their box,

and those who can have been paired in marriage –

to an ovation from an audience

of boy scouts, elderly innocents,

and coach parties from Rhyl and Wallasey –

we emerge into Theatr Clwyd’s bar.

We watch, in awe, through the long glass window,

a vestigial sunset above Moel Famau –

variegated layers of coral

beneath a looming indigo bank of cloud.

Below – in the darkening river valley

of ribbons of homes, old mine shafts, quarries,

used car dealerships, and the Alyn’s waters

out of sight over glacial stones –

a billow of smoke, snaking round houses

at the edge of Mold and onto the hillside,

is rising white as steam.

 

 

 

DEAD ELEPHANTS

By Posted on 2 Comments

Whenever and wherever I encounter the idiom about the elephant in the ...

THE WEIRD SISTERS

By Posted on 3 Comments

Since only the victors – usually men – get to write history, ...

THAT MEMORABLE SCENE

By Posted on 2 Comments

At the eastern end of the Banqueting House – which the deposed ...