The Buddhas of Bamiyan
Monday, 16 August 2021 at 15:05
The Taliban have just taken Kabul. Here's a poem I wrote two decades ago and which appeared in Trans (2005).
The Buddhas of Bamiyan
In March 2001, the Taliban authorities destroyed two huge ancient figures of the Buddha at Bamiyan, Afghanistan.
I met a traveller from an antique landWho said: ‘Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert..’ Shelley, "Ozymandias"
Here’s what remains: colossal holes in rock.
Not even legs. Each trunk’s just that: hollow,
an opened, empty, god-sized box.
Raided tombs, recesses shaped like Pharaohs’
coffins or their huge cast shadows.
At their absent ancient feet: boulders,
rubble, mortar casings, spent ammo shells,
Taliban on Toyota trucks - Allahu
Akbar! ...Meanwhile, back in Kabul,
it’s hush-hush Video Night - venue:
the old World-Wide language school. Banned,
but what the hell. Soldiers, perhaps ex-students,
scratch lengthening beards, bum smokes
or fiddle softpacks from black turbans.
Some place Kalashnikovs in stooks,
pass round a plastic lighter, trade contraband,
squat on the mat. Swarzenegger’s back.
Tonight his sneer of cold command’s
getting personal with a laser-sighted
45 slide; while the late-model terminator,
unperturbed, just mops up punishment,
absorbs whatever’s handed out. Boof!
And - here’s the groovy thing - from it he learns
to - how you say? - shape-shift, morph.
Once Buddha was just an empty throne.
Round here his face grew Greek or Persian,
half-way between Apollo and a king.
Xerxes, or Iskander perhaps, robes grown
stony with potency. Or Kanishka,
whose idea these statues were. - His own
headless statue stood back in Kabul:
enormous pantaloons, mighty kingly feet.
He got his last week. Full circle.
For centuries, huge mummies
wrapped in grubby bandages of rock
stood here, blind to passing armies.
Today, they blew away his legs and chin
- tank shells, rocket launchers - then
dynamited that big mutha up to heaven.
It took twenty-five explosions
to wipe the smile right off that face,
incarnate him as dust, air, an empty throne.
Bars of light across eyes, mouths that whisper
through the hatches of shapeless prisons:
women, in chador, burquas, watch the distance,
rebel gunfire where the mountains rise.
Tuesday, 10 August 2021 at 16:35
My article "Reversifying Rimbaud", about the writing of my narrative sequence on the poet's life after he gave up poetry and became a trader and gun-runner in Africa has just been published on the Royal Literary Fund website:
The sequence RE:VERB will appear from Broken Sleep Books in 2021. French Leave: versions and perversions which includes my translations and adaptations from Rimbaud and many other French poets is due from Broken Sleep in 2022. Some of those versions can be found on the website under the translation pages.
Friday, 16 July 2021 at 10:47
Continuing the theme of Palestinian / Israeli confict,here are a couple more poems from a long-ago trip to Israel.
Other side of that great new Wall,
the deconstructed town (90,000 souls)
half-stands: crunchy rubble, tutting choppers;
street-arabs dodge that tank-track sound.
What’s left is mainly walls. Jenin.
The not-quite-fallen lean
on each other, sketch a corner, put a hearth
in parenthesis, bracket off a bath.
And what’s left of many walls is sky
or a vision of laser-printed saints:
A4 martyrs aimed at Heaven,
an apotheosis bristling AK47s.
One scrawny generation thought
Charles Atlas; now, after pics
show pecs pumped with ironmongery,
bigged up, lumpy
with whole hardware bins of nails.
Hard enough for Allah,
flashgunned brief hours before their fame.
One, from where the new Wall
slices olive groves,
wears that green headband.
God’s élite – no one kicks sand
in this commando’s face.
Streetside galleries of the Shaheed:
Hamas. Fatah. Jihad – a verse
from the Qur’an bleeds through screen-grabs,
heroic deeds they’ll ink to light.
....ripped-up roots, a lonely boot,
the snap of wasp-striped tape;
fluorescent crews harvesting the red
communal fruit from sticky tarmac.
Faces strobed: the shadow’s veil,
the siren’s call to oxyacetylene prayer.
Something close to history
hanging in newly-stung air.
You’ve seen this face: bespectacled,
studious in the freshers’ photo.
A little out of focus,
fuzzy with an idea of beard.
Or snapped a year or two back:
that graduation trip to Al-Quds,
In the background, Al Aqsa:
just like the poster – that blinding mosque,
sun detonating on its golden rim.
Hizbullah, exhilarated, exhaling Allahu Akbar!
as rocket launchers whoosh Katushkas
…over the border, in the olives,
you rely on the nearby Jewish village’s siren,
wind in the right direction…
the hillside’s tachycardia.
Out of here, all clear, you’ll be lucky
to be breathing walls, your neighbour’s dust.]
… to give you maybe one thousand heartbeats
or one hundred shallow breaths to find
your wife, mother and her granddaughter:
Fatima on the rooftop hanging washing;
Zeinab scooping Leila from the garden
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.