POETRY

THE RECLINING GARDENER

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On the first spring day of prolonged clear sunshine

she mows the lawns, weeds the paths, hoes the borders,

counts the figs, admires the honesty,

tends the low, lavender hedge – then relaxes

on a lounger in front of the gazebo,

framed by clematis and magnolia blooms.

 

She sleeps, safe in the garden’s ivy clad

chambers – the alfresco rooms she has made

from soil ravaged by lime and gravel.

If she lies too long she will catch the sun –

a curious, promethean turn of phrase

yet right for a gardener who has acquired

from the air itself wild strawberries,

welsh poppies, common columbine, even

honesty. Perhaps I should not let her sleep –

but waking her seems always an intrusion

into the private solitude of dreams.

 

We have been in love for more than fifty years –

doppelgänger, alter ego; boxing hare,

comedy partner; devil’s advocate,

critical friend; anxiety’s balm, pearl

irritant; good companion, turtle dove.

She stirs – wakened, no doubt, by that slow passion

of plants – before I can rouse her with a kiss,

like any common or garden prince or frog.

 

Note: The poem was originally published on the site in August 2016.

 

AT THE END OF THE PATH

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This is the path the servants would have taken,

the cook, the scullery maid – and the tinker

who sharpened the knives, and the butcher’s lad –

by the side of the house, along this path

of Victorian blue diamond pavers

cast at a local brickworks, and brought

on a flat wagon pulled by a dray.

The works closed down in the Depression.

After the war the chimney was demolished.

Bitter sludge from an oil refinery

was secreted in the kilns – and grassed over.

 

***

 

I pause under the golden candelabra

of the laburnum. In its aureate light

I listen to the bees in the saffron folds

of the tree. Their humming, frantic drone

is electric, as if I were standing

beneath a pylon. The blossoms overhang

the black wrought-iron gate at the end of the path.

 

***

 

The day I began sketching this poem

was the day more than forty years ago

Bobby Sands died in the Maze. Some hung black flags

in our neighbourhood. A north east wind

is forecast that will wrench and scatter

the yellow petals like a broken necklace.

 

 

DULCE DOMUM

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Built well before the Mahdi sacked Khartoum,

like a ledger or the Church of England

our house is square, accommodating. Swifts,

each May, pronounce their southern benison

on ashlar cornerstones and dead masons…

 

A butterfly, lost in the wintry cellar,

seems closed as death but wings part knowingly.

O peacock eyes, how you seduce from purpose

and time! Imperial birds cry harshly

in paper gardens…

 

At dusk, in indigo,

swifts dissolve. The house is white, seems solid

as a steamship. Darwin and Marx sent more

than smoke up the funnel.

 

Note: The poem was originally published on the website in May 2010.

 

REMEMBERING GAZA

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Hitler – to avenge the assassination

of Reinhard Heydrich, the Reich Protector

of Bohemia and Moravia,

and one of the Holocaust’s chief architects

– ordered the isolated mining village

of Lidice (twenty miles from Prague)

to be razed, and males over fourteen shot.

The women and children were deported

to Chelmno and gassed. The barbarism

is still echoing around the world.

 

The Nazis en route to capture the oil fields

of Baku, besieged Stalingrad, blitzed it

with bombs and artillery then entered –

only to be shot at by snipers from each

windowless tenement and rubble-strewn

courtyard. Winter came, and the cannon-fodder

battalions of the Russian Army.

The Germans – outnumbered corpse for corpse,

surrounded, cold, starving – surrendered.

 

When the remaining Jews in the Warsaw ghetto

discovered the truth about the trains to the east,

about their destinations, and the purpose

of those destinations, those who were not yet

too traumatised by humiliation

and hunger felt able to resist.

Between them they mustered six revolvers

and built an arsenal of Molotov cocktails

and bits of masonry. They resisted

the Wehrmacht and the SS for four months,

and received no help from the Allies.

 

And, no, no parallels are being drawn

or analogies being made, only echoes

being heard. Lidice was a war crime,

Stalingrad a rout, The Warsaw Ghetto

Uprising nemesis. Lidice’s ruins

have been preserved as a memorial,

Stalingrad re-built then renamed again,

the razed ghetto’s borders marked in remembrance.

The Third Reich lasted for barely a hundredth

of its vaunted one thousand years, and never

reached the oil fields beside the Caspian.

 

Under the sea floor off the Gaza Strip,

and in Gaza itself, far, far below

the tunnels, and in the West Bank,

are oil and natural gas deposits,

enough to make all the peoples between

the river and the sea comfortably off –

unless or until the whole earth were

to become unliveable.

 

 

 

THE WAR ON TERROR

The adult life of Goyahkla, aka

Geronimo – the famous Apache

spiritual and military leader –

may be divided into three parts:

combating the Mexican invasion

of his people’s homeland – now north east

Mexico and south west USA;

combating the American invasion

of the territory; managing

his twenty years or so of enforced exile

in Alabama, Florida and finally

Oklahoma. His soubriquet, it is said,

resulted from fearful Mexican soldiers

calling upon San Geronimo.

 

He was much photographed, and charged a fee

when he was in exile – as he did

for the events to which he was invited,

like President Teddy Roosevelt’s

inaugural parade. One photograph

was taken just before his surrender

after decades of guerrilla warfare.

Geronimo, and four of his ‘braves’

are standing foursquare before a landscape

of Arizona shrubland. They are holding

carbines the US Cavalry used,

he an infantryman’s long rifle.

 

***

 

After 9/11 the US Congress

passed the Patriots’ Act, setting up

Homeland Security to prevent

future attacks. Osama Bin Laden

acquired the code name Geronimo,

which, given the latter’s long struggle

to prevent the piecemeal genocide

of his people, and the ethnic cleansing

of their lands, where they had lived for at least

a thousand years, was curiously Freudian.

 

***

 

My favourite tee-shirt was manufactured

in Honduras  – one of the poorest countries

in the Western Hemisphere – for Port

& Company, who have a declared

responsible sourcing policy, and are

based in Wilmington, North Carolina,

a Confederate port in the Civil War.

The photograph of Geronimo

and his warriors has been reproduced

on the front of the tee-shirt – between

‘HOMELAND SECURITY’ and ‘FIGHTING

TERRORISM SINCE 1492’. So,

while I am swaddled in the ironies of

white supremacy and capitalism,

I may enjoy the brief but life affirming

humour of the gallows.

 

 

THE SKELETON ARMY OF STEVEN STREET

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Each Sunday the Salvationists would gather

at St Giles Cemetery – once the site

of a medieval leper hospital

set well beyond Chester’s city limits.

To the thud of the bass drum, to chords of brass,

to banners declaiming ‘Be just, and fear not!’,

to the singing of ‘A friend of Jesus,

O what bliss!’, uniformed they would march

onwards to a ‘Stronghold of Satan’ –

past the spot where, high above the river,

a Protestant and a Catholic

were burned to death a century apart.

 

Beside the canal, near the abattoir,

steam mill and lead works, was a purpose-built

enclave of constricted streets of back-to-back

lodging houses, public houses, gin shops.

Steven Street – perhaps three yards across

and fifty long – was the centre of the slum,

and home to hundreds of Irish Catholics

who were refugees from the Great Hunger.

 

The Salvation Army would march past the cramped,

noisome ghetto along the canal path

to ‘O boundless salvation!’. One Sunday, ‘Black

Sunday’, an ecumenical group

of English and Irish, Catholics

and non-Catholics – probably outrageously

drunk, as well as outrageously poor –

waited for the parade to pass by

the canal end of Steven Street, then followed

the last rank – mocking the hymns, hurling abuse,

dead rats, stones, and unfurling a raggedy

banner with a scrawled skull and crossbones.

Some Salvationists were seriously

assaulted, needing medical attention –

but the magistracy, concerned for Chester’s

tourist trade, considered the Sally Army

provocative, so bound over

the Steven Street ‘generals’ to keep the peace,

despite green-ink letters to the local press

railing against Fenians and Popery.

 

That year the British sent forty thousand troops

to land at Alexandria and invade

the Suez Canal Zone, the canal itself

being supposedly under threat. Steven Street –

or, rather, its straitened dwellings – was demolished

when I was a young man, and replaced with a block

of social housing. About twenty feet

of narrow road way, barely a car’s width,

remains – but not much else has changed: lives crippled

by accident, and the self-interest

of others; lives abridged by class, and want,

and bigotry; whole nations hoodwinked

by wonders and marvels, by abstractions;

consumed, diminished by avarice.

 

 

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