Friday, 16 July 2021 at 10:13
Ten measures of beauty gave God to the world; nine to Jerusalem and one to the remainder.
Ten measures of sorrow gave God to the world; nine to Jerusalemand one to the remainder.
You’ve seen that poster? The young Israeli soldier’s
burying his prayer here in the Wailing Wall.
His rifle’s slung at his elbow, stock tipped
from the strap, bow-strung from his shoulder.
These huge stones make us all feel small.
Above and beyond is al-Haram al-Sharif.
Another poster, the Tourist Office’s, makes
that gold mosque’s rising dome the must-see sight.
Up there, Abraham quivered with his knife;
Mohammed ascended a staircase of light.
Temple Mount’s out of bounds to Jews
by their own Holy Law, and off-limits to non-Muslims
these last tense weeks. Security’s real tight,
so I’m sticking out among the Hasidim
in their old country, old century, black and white.
The bus rattles through the sun-struck shtetl.
Last week, another martyr blasted off to heaven
right here – dressed as a Haredi, I heard:
black coat, white shirt, black suit, the broad-brimmed hat.
I’m guessing he already had the beard.
And, undercover of that black black suit,
that newly-laundered winding-sheet of shirt,
doubtless beat a very special heart:
one that knew injustice, indignity, spite,
or grew sour at some subtler private hurt.
One sullen spark, long fanned, may start
God’s love to smoulder in any heart.
One day that love may burst into flame
with such force the soul escapes
its cage of ribs and rips your world apart.
He was raptured up right through this bus’s roof:
this jagged crescent’s a witness to his light.
Small stars now stud the dark where rivets
discovered their holy vocation, shunned the night
and aimed themselves at sky, his moon.
Bedeck the walls, the deck is flower-strewn,
confettiblown: the petals and stems of washers, bolts,
sprays of glass, bouquets of skin; the ecstasy
of flesh dispensing with the need to be;
the jolt of bodies beside themselves in joy.
He came. He went. An exemplary life. He undressed
himself right down to the marrow of his soul,
took nothing with him, bequeathed his companions all.
Yet powerfully persuaded his Mitteleuropäischer guests,
who have come so far, to strip off their Sabbath best,
and dance, here in the hot Middle Eastern sun.
And now even those wallflowers, too shy
to hang up their long black coats, can’t help themselves
– they’re nodding heads and hats and beards.
Soon they’ll be fingerclicking, toe-tapping,
getting down and dirty to the beat.
And on this bus now trembling at the busy stop
as you fumble on the step for change, who knows
what may have caused another drummer’s heart
to quicken while the diesel ticks?
Thursday, 24 June 2021 at 20:22
I've not posted for some time. So, I'll try to catch up over next few days and weeks.
Listening to the recent news from Israel reminded me of a series of poems I wrote after a visit there several years ago.
Megiddo is better known to us as Armageddon, site of an ancient Canaanite city and Biblical prophecy. This poem is part of a sequence Yod set in Israel during the Intifada which appeared in Pilgrim Tongues (Wrecking Ball, 2015).
Route 66 forks off.
West Bank: Jenin’s just a stone’s throw east,
half-bulldozed, curfewed by the IDF.
Assyrians, Egyptians, Ottomans, British,
all yomped through here. Slid their arms
round Israel’s impossibly tiny waist.
Now the iron corset pinches - Green Line, Intifada -
cinches waist to an hour-glass these lines in sand
run through. One click north, it’s Armageddon:
camel’s hump or monk’s scruffy tonsure.
From the bald patch, look out where Jordan’s
just smudged horizon: the Valley of Jezreel’s
blunt with haze. Down there, all green bits fade.
It’s 40 in the shade. There is no shade.
She unplugs the plastic tappet, glugs water
from its blue-ridged shell. Hot as hell, you unstick
shirt from skin, wipe sweat from inside straw hat.
Nothing said. Displacement activities.
Blind fingers trace words. This rock’s
a palimpsest that’s thirty cities deep…
you out; or drop to breathless reps. Press-ups.
Khaki fatigues merge with dust or dark.
Little sun-driven engines discover fissures,
skitter off on erratic missions into stone,
seeking tunnels, caverns, water-courses…
It all began round here, you think: Big Bang,
the One True... and then that other thing...
Now tiny restless dynamos materialize;
you see saurians play tricks with their stored-up thunder.
Basilisks. Blood cool from rivers underground,
stripped to nerve, low bump, mere lobe,
they outstare, throb with something ancient, limbic.
Your mind’s on rifts, cracked stone, hind-brains;
things contrary, strange; cloven or twinned;
things winged yet featherless; mythic, primeval;
that crossroads where what slid, crawled, or crept
met the newly and clumsily bipedal.
Back at the car, you’re already headed north.
A dragonfly shimmers on the aerial’s stamen.
She turns the key; unwinds the road to Nazareth.
French Leave - Rimbaud
Sunday, 11 April 2021 at 17:51
On the Poet’s list one bloom is top,
For trembling by the topaz seas:
O Lily, long the poet’s prop,
O enema of ecstasies!
But in this age of sago pud
And heavy labour on the farm,
Your lilies grow from soul, not mud,
Exuding an oddly pious charm.
Your lines are gilded with lilies, lilies,
Which, day-to-day, are rarely seen.
Farm-folk will find such verses silly:
Why do they tremble? So what’s that mean?
When the Poet takes a shower,
His shirt’s on the line with his meagre kit:
A fluttering common or garden flower,
With yellow deodorant-stained armpits.
And if the Poet decides on roses?
He pens them red, inflated, blown.
O laurel stem! The question posed is:
Where on earth are such roses grown?
The Poet snows his roses down:
In bloody great red drifts they lie.
– Imagine the snow-red rosy ground!
Red snow? Red mists this reader’s eye.
French veg is ugly, gnarly, crabby
– Pissed on by weasels, rats and hounds.
French verse abhors the low-down shabby
Tubers prised from stony ground.
O Great White Hunter in the wild,
Tracking prey through the Fields of Pan,
You paint yourself as Nature’s Child
– But botanic ignorance reveals the man.
Sometimes even exotic species
Can’t outweird your mythical blooms:
Stuff that feeds on unicorn faeces,
Or craves the shade of Pharoahs’ tombs.
Your verse turns over good French earth,
And weeds out all its native plants.
The poet’s now a floral flirt
Wearing orchidaceous fancy pants.
3. Green Shoots of Recovery
I know you’re taken by the tropics,
But try to be more down-to-earth.
Add economics to your topics:
Think what those foreign fields are worth!
Time now to praise the great plantations
– Sugar, cotton, coffee, tea.
No need for slavish imitations
Of do-gooder eco pieties
– Screw them and their sanctimony;
Freedom means the Market’s free.
What’s truly holy is the money.
The freshest growth is GNP.
The future’s here and tapping rubber
For Mackintosh’s waterproofs.
The whale at least gives up its blubber;
You blub liberally but stay aloof.
Your antique mythic scenery’s
(Asphodels gathered by Venus and Cupid)
Just creaky stage machinery.
It’s all about the economy, stupid!
Lose the amaranths, such plants
Obscure just what is really plain.
Your mystic visions are worn-out, pants.
The drowsy poppy’s for killing pain.
Tradesman! Colonist or Medium!
Your rhymes now gutter pink and white.
Forget your midnight oily tedium:
Turn on the bud of electric light!
Sing of useful growing profits,
Laud workers set to tasks like ants.
Forget the floral; be the prophet;
Hymn the blooming industrial plant!
Our seasons now have all grown hellish.
This is what the future’s for.
Just describe it, don’t embellish,
The flowery rhetoric’s a bore.
The future’s bright, now listen to it:
Electric wires begin to hum,
Those old-style Poets were deaf and blew it;
Think four-stroke metre and banged oil drum.
From your dark poems, new lights must rise:
Illuminate those reds, blues, greens;
Pin swarms of acetylene butterflies;
Write of things as yet unseen.
La Ville Lumière has banished night:
– No Baudelairean Flowers of Evil,
It’s time to rhyme potato blight
With noble rot and the flour weevil.
Lose the muse of bucolic lies,
The dawn’s new chorus trills alarms
As other horrible workers rise
To man the aisles at factory farms.
Progress means increasing yields.
Irrigation! Drain what’s sodden!
Bogs and deserts turned to fields!
One must be absolutely modern!
French Leave: versions and perversions
Sunday, 11 April 2021 at 17:28
Over the last couple of years I've been working on French Leave: Versions and Perversions which attempts variations on some classic French poems, mainy from the nineteenth to the early twentieth centre. The collection includes verse based on poems by Théophile Gautier, Gérard de Nerval, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Apollinaire, as well as some less famous names. Also included are a few lesser-heard women poets such Anna de Noailles Marie de Régnier, and Renée Vivien. I've also been cheeky enough to include some fictious poets.
Here are my versions of a couple of poems by Baudelaire and Rimbaud. They originally appeared online in The Literateur, which is now sadly defunct. It seems a good time to give them a further short lease of life. I'll also add them to the Translation portfolio pages. First the Baudelaire.
two variations on Baudelaire’s “Sed non satiata”
1. Vendange d’outre-mer
Odd goddess, whose skin’s a smoky musk
still redolent of opium and Havana.
You may be some obi-man’s opus, some savannah
saviour’s ju-ju, or child of the Bayou dusk.
Forget your Grands, your Premiers Crus, your Nuits;
for tenue, what lasts long on my tongue’s your mouth.
You are my full-bodied beaker of the South;
you slake, yet provoke thirst better than any Burgundy.
I note the rich robe, as you hold me with your eyes:
the worm goes through the cork, I’m mesmerised
to breathe the botánica’s bouquet and, as I taste
your voodoo vin gris-gris, too late, I’m lost;
my palate echoes with santería; head
with your blanc de noirs, those lives I never led.
No wine is fine enough; no drug can do
the tricks you (turn and) do, my wine-dark sea,
my nest of mermaids, my girl in every port,
the witchy Circe of this odyssey
who dulls all thoughts of fine Penelope.
My mind’s your glass. You take my stem and twirl.
I’m half a world away: moly, oily swirls
of sea-serpents, sargassos. Shipwrecked, all at sea,
washed up on some calypygian Aphrodite’s
shore, whose wily Calypso I discover to be you.
Have we lived and loved in other lives?
You always my stormy siren. Me, saoul
…drunk, rudderless, compass-less, (compassionless
for that good – still faithful? – wife.) Lost. Déjà-bu.
French Leave and Sea Changes
Friday, 9 April 2021 at 19:27
My friend the poet Davd Wheatley has put up a few of my lversions of French poems on the Grierson website at the University of Aberdeen, where he teaches. The versions, or perversions, are from French Leave a project I've been working on for some time. Here's a link. https://griersoncentre.wordpress.com/cliff-forshaw/
There are also more versions on the Translation pages of this website.
Looking at Esau's Children again, I see the better poems tend to be connected in some way with the natural world, often animals or the sea. They also make some attempt, through stanzas and rhyme or half-rhyme, to engage form, though they usually avoid metre. I think I might salvage a couple more poems from this era. Here's "Sea Changes": it's pretty much as it appeared back then, with the punctuation changed a little.
The wind wrinkles the sea’s
brow, weaves weeds through the water
where slime hardens to stone. This jetty’s
just frayed ropes and rotten planks, warty
with limpets now. Half-sunk, a waterlogged
dory’s chocked up on a frayed tether.
The low sun turns distance to fogged
film, sky simmering. The weather’s
so weird these past months. The sea
thickens nightly to a muscled slime, twitches
with the low flap of leather wings. At dawn, bees
swarm over drift-wood and drown. Smith’s bitch
ate all her litter. At night, I scan the heavens
for meanings. Old Ma Jones flicks cards. Paul
and the others drink. I’d leave but Stevens
says there’ll be work in the fall.
I don’t know why I feel so bruised.
Migratory birds flit like erratic needles.
Strange winds buffet their plumage.
They take off, and land again, confused.
Thursday, 8 April 2021 at 17:59
I haven't been able to post anything for quite a while. There was a complication with my cancer treatment: I got an infection and as chemotherapy pretty much knocks out the immune system I had to spend a couple of weeks in hospital with various drains and drips. I'm out now and my chemo and radiotherapy is over though it'll take a while to recover. I still can't swallow and have to feed myself by a tube sticking out of stomach. It'll be a good few weeks before I'm up to eating, but despite a very sore mouth I'm looking forward to some good meals. Very necessary as I lost over three stone in the last couple of weeks and there isn't much of me left.
But this is all much better than the alternative. I've been very tired and not able to do much,however the energy is returning and I've been getting back to work on the poems, though I don't quite feel up to painting yet.
It's been odd, but somehow seemed to fit with the strange times we've been living through with Covid. Good to see that there is some respite from that at last in this country at least. I hope to be able to get out more and travel a little in the summer, though for the moment it seems much wiser for me to keep fairly isolated until I get my strength and immune system up to par. I still have a little further hospital business including an operation to remove a polyp in the colon, which if not already cancerous already is likely to go that way.
Meanwhile here's a very old poem. The poem appeared in Esau's Children in 1991, though I think I wrote it much earlier, perhaps on one of several trips to Greece in the mid or late 80s. It may be even older, as it seems to have a sort of hidden memory of snorkelling in Belize: I was on a Christmas break from working in Mexico in the very early 80s and encountered a moray eel. Very scary. Think of the song "Amore" with the words: "See that thing in the reef / With the big shiny teeth / It's a moray."
Anyway I'm remembering sunny times and adventures in Greece and the Caribbean and looking forward to getting out and about again whenever that seems possible. Here's "Snorkelling", not a great poem (none of the poems in Esau's Children were) but there's something bright about it I like. Many of the poems I wrote at this time tried to capture moments in foreign environments. It was also, I remember, a time I started get much more interested in form, experimenting with rhyme and stanzas to pattern poems much more clearly.
Snorkelling – your vision’s a lit globe,
head gone bobbing through a halo of light
that’s warped by ribbed sand in the ripples’ strobe.
From below, the sea’s silver-backed, a bright
mirror you crashed through into a dumb
domain sound-tracked by creaking sea; the wheeze
of your breath’s an accordion through the pipe,
a gullet whining in an offshore breeze.
Fish blips. Suddenly a glittering shoal
flashes telegraphic needles through dark weed
outcrops. They’re storm clouds being seeded
by an aerial burst of silver foil.
White coral knuckles where the shelf sheers
down to depths packed with a shuffling fog
that confuses distance. Fish disappear
or torpedo out of the blue to goggle
you up close. Your mind hangs in water, but
obscure corners writhe with electric eels,
the punch of fists grinning teeth, cables cut
loose. You gulp back a water bolt. The sun reels.
Suddenly your mask fills with molten light
as you burst up. Stars explode in the spray.
The bit ripped out, you cough salt. The big day
surprises you kicking free from dreams, from night.
Monday, 22 February 2021 at 10:38
Apologies, I've not posted since New Year. I was diagnosed with head and neck cancer just before Christmas, and after various procedures I've been having chemo / radiotherapy five days a week, plus various other tratments and explorations. The cancer in my neck was fairly advanced and it will soon get difficult for me to eat for a while. This means I've had a feeding tube fitted into my stomach. Hope I don't need it, but it's better than starving, and I should finish this treatment around Easter, with the chemo and radio wearing off in the following weeks. Then I'll have another operation, as it seems I have another site to be excised in my colon. I am trying to get as much done in terms of poetry before I get too tired and have managed to finished a long narrative poem about Rimbaud's later life in Africa. I hope I can also get some new painting done and have ideas for something of a departure from my recent cityscapes. Let's see.
So, this does put a new perspective on things, but it's not terrible.The main drag at the moment is that radiotherapy is temporarily (I hope!) wiping out my taste buds: I have little appetite and can't taste what I try to force down. The feeding tube is uncomfortable and it ain't pretty. But this is all much better than the alternative. I am very lucky as the Covid epidemic has meant that in some areas of the country cancer treatment is being delayed. Here I am provided with excellent support from NHS and everyone is very helpful. As Nick Cave sings "I don't beieve in an interventionist God"... but the NHS comes as near to divine intervention as I need. Let me say just how fantastic the NHS has been. Much gratitude to this most civilised of organisations. My partner Mary has also been great. My immune systen is pretty low, so I'm shielding and M has been a rock. We have both managed to get the Covid vaccine. Excellent!
As I say: new perspective. In an odd way, this is welcome. A wake-up call? Maybe, but certainly a strange opportunity to take advantage of. More than ever need to Seize that Day (and then have a good afternnon snooze...). I feel pretty good mentally and emotionally. Though my treatment is very much a full-time job at the moment, I have a renewed zest for getting projects finished. I gave up my RLF Fellowship in the New Year, but hope to return in the autumn, all being well. Until then it's getting whatever I can do. And there's still lots to get on with.
Spring around the corner and I'm waiting for the frogs to start their noisy mating in my pond. Meanwhile, here's an poem from Trans (2005) though written, I think a couple of years before.
Red plastic, leaf-spattered,
salvaged from the pond months after the big wind.
Tipping out tannin stew, weed-slobber, twigs,
at the bottom of the bucket something moved -
a slimy twitch. Felt it shift against the gravid ooze,
saw it quicken, scramble back up on the lip,
kick out against a gob of falling green.
Bloat King in his winter palace:
Nureyev thighs, chest barrelling out
a brocade doublet nubbed with muddied emeralds,
gloved fingers medievally slabbered with rings, cuffed with filthy lace.
Out of last year's dark sloth, its crusty deeps,
eyes bulge, blink off silt,
the slow growth of crystals clicking into place.
That saurian grin slits a throat grown big
with the thyroid's retarded tick.
Cortisone Czar drunk with swollen glands, the seep
of time: a bomb which can explode the world in slo-mo.
The snot-blown leap
as vigour becomes the feasible miracle,
gone giddy, outstretched on the air's tremble.
He crashes through leaf-fug, chlorophyll,
drags his belly through rustle, bramble,
beats about the bush,
animates it with his transplanted throb.
.... All a falling dream: still torpid, alarm set for snooze.
In the dark,
he'll find his patch of dank.
Squat it out
until it's time to crawl to his stony throne,
match the moon's cold eye in his own.
In the crackly night,
he'll crank it up,
the creaking machine,
the old old song.
A frog in the dark's throat,
fields choppy with froglets,
sargassos of oiled princelings,
distant seas, dynasties of his kind.
He'll call and call new frog-queens to his kingdom.
Time out of mind. Out of mind.