Poems

TWO POEMS FOR SARAH
THREE SESTUDES
FOUR POEMS FROM ARACENA

TWO POEMS FOR SARAH

Galleons

Galleons in this wide wild sky
I saw thirteen swans sail by
Cleaving the air with soft sad cries
Like the moan of wind in rigging
Each slow muscled beat of wing
A weathered timber creaking
They laboured west across the moor
Drawn by water or the stars
Or perhaps some deep ancestral urge
To reach safe haven before dark
Their compass set a million years
Before man wrought his first frail craft
Before I lowered tattered sails
And made my landfall in your heart

Moniack Mhor, 2007

Ganesh

You could have gone your own way
In search of silk or bolts of cotton
But on that final frantic afternoon
You followed me without complaint
In and out of shops and stalls
Where swarthy men drank tea
And proffered trays of stones
Agate, lapis lazuli, cornelian
Until at last we found him
Thumb-high, smiling
Pot-bellied, pen–wielding
Merriment with a trunk

I brought him home
And sat him on my desk
My little silver one-tusk
Fragment of the east, fellow scribe
Bringer of wealth, so they say
And yes, since then my craft has flowered
My fortunes with it
Though when I think of Ganesh now
It isn’t earthly riches that I see
But your patient hand in mine
That last hot Delhi afternoon

Delhi, 2004

THREE SESTUDES

A sestude is a poem of exactly 62 words. 62 is 26 (the DNA of language) in reflection. These poems were written for creative collaborations between the writers’ group 26 and the V&A, National Museum of Scotland, Letter Exchange, and International PEN.

Pro Posteri

They come here
With the glance of his blade
Still searing their shoulders
I leather apron’d
They in lace and brocades
Flushed, clasping letters patent.
‘Make me a box,’ they say,
‘That my children’s children’s children
May cherish my ennoblement.
Make it to last.’
I finger my chisel
Picturing pine, brass, tooled morocco
And smiling say
‘That I surely will, my Lord.’

26 Treasures, V&A, Document case with manuscript, 2010

Jonet addresses the kirk

You want repentance?
Stick your fingers
Down my gullet
Haul it out
I’ll stand here
In this sack
Till kingdom come

Your pursed lips
My thickening belly
Your scalding looks
My swollen breasts
Your unclean thoughts

Tell me
Old crow
Who’s the sinner?

If it’s wrong
To love then
I swear on
All that’s holy
I’ll be faithful
To my wrong
Amen

26 Treasures Scotland, The Gown of Repentance, 2011

Mate

No es un microfono
They say in Buenos Aires
As the mate makes
Its ritual round
Don’t Bogart that gourd
Another way of putting it
Mate (no accent please –
maté would mean
‘I killed’ in Spanish)
Is the drink of gauchos
Those galloping plainsmen
Who brew in the chill of dawn
To infuse the new day
With the fierce warmth
Of comradeship

26 Words, 2013
Yerba mate, pronounced maté, is a green leaf tea drunk though a silver straw from a small decorated gourd, also called the mate, which is passed around from hand to hand.

And a 50-word poem to mark 50 years of International Pen’s support for writers in prison.

Xosé Luís Méndez Ferrín

You and the general
Shared a birthright
That awkward bastard
Mouthful of splinters
Your native tongue
But when he placed
His boot upon it
He forgot that hobnails
In the prison diet
Hone resistance
Whet contempt
While truth
Like blood or spittle
Finds its way
When even tongues are tied

26:50, International PEN, 2010
Xosé Luís Méndez Ferrín is a Galician poet who was imprisoned by Franco


FOUR POEMS FROM ARACENA


1. The Roman Quarry at Finca Banega

We woke at first light
Gracchus and I
Shivered in the Iberian dawn
Unfurled our cloaks
Rose yawning from the bony ground
And broke our fast with sweet, ripe figs
Plucked from the tree
Still cool with dew

Mist hung like bull’s breath
Among the holm oaks
As we hefted satchels on our backs
And climbed the rock-strewn path
Scattering sleepy piglets at our step

Sun rose, shadows melted
Light trickled down the hill
Warming the dust-dry earth
And on the scrawny plain below
Goat bells broke the silence
With their gurgling song

Ahead, a pocked loaf of granite
Reared into the deepening blue
In its shadow lesser boulders
Crouched like pagan worshippers

We downed our satchels, lit a fire
And cooked our porridge
In a haze of aromatic smoke
A small brown scorpion
Scuttled from a crevice
And watched us as we ate
Gracchus heaved himself erect
And crushed it with his sandal
We spat on hands and set to work

All that long hot morning
We bored stone
Wrestling augers
Till our muscles cracked
The air grew thick with dust
And sweat ran down our backs
Our necks and thighs

When the holes were deep enough
I took the twenty-seven oaken pegs
And hammered hard
Driving them one by one
Into their beds of stone

Limping 0n his withered leg
Gracchus lugged the leather bucket
To the spring
Filling it with sweet cool water
That would swell the oak
And split the rock
And conjure rough-hewn millstones
To grind our daily bread

At last we rested in the shade
Dreaming of wives and home
And waited as the sun beat down
And nature’s forces took their course

While far from this forgotten place
Amid the seven hills of Rome
More skilful hands than ours
Made gods of men
And carved their likenesses
In marble from Liguria
26 September 2006

2. The Torrent

We pitched our tent below the river fork
That was our mistake
We should have chosen higher ground
And now I’m here
Spreadeagled in the branches of this tree
Gazing heavenwards
An oracle without an answer

I turn my head and vomit water
My thoughts mere fragments of mosaic
At last they start to reassemble
Slowly, piece by piece

Here’s Gracchus
Coaxing sparks from sodden wood
His sandals rotten from a month of rain
I’m mixing flour and water in the pot
When there’s a roar
Deep from the throat of Hades
And round the bend it comes
Taller than three men
Faster than a charging bull

I see the look on Gracchus’s face
His mouth agape with terror
Then I’m punched and drenched
And swallowed whole
By some wet-bellied monster of a fish
Whole trees and boulders grinding in its gut
It bucks and rears and sucks me down
And spins me round and round

I gasp for air but water fills my lungs
You should have learnt to swim, I tell myself
No life unreels before my eyes, just the reproach
You should have learnt to swim
As if I might be master of my destiny

And with that almost comic thought
I yield, surrender to the roaring force
As suddenly my struggles cease
Fear leaves me, calm descends
I know my hour has come

I let myself be borne along
Till something snags me
Pokes me in the ribs
I gasp and gasp again that I can gasp
My famished, burning lungs
Awash with air

Presently all movement ends
The roaring leaves my ears
And rumbles off, retreating thunder
Till there’s silence
And I crane my neck to see the ground
Waterlogged but solid, there below me

Snared in the branches of this tree like a netted bird
I thank the god that I remembered to make prayer
This morning as I rose
For how else can I answer to this miracle?

But Gracchus, my compadre, companero
Amicus meus maximus
Oh, Gracchus of the withered leg
Where are you?
Did you remember to make prayer
This morning as you rose?
27 September 2010

3. El Moro

I feel the air change
As I cross the straits and sail on northwards
Cushioned now on thermals
Thick with scent of oranges
And carrion of a different kind
Sleek black bulls
Bristling boar
More succulent, more putrid
Than the scrawny goats and gaunt gazelles of home
But I do not come to gorge

A thousand years ago
He left our shady, whitewashed courtyard
With its bubbling fountain
Salim Bey, my pride, my son
Sent forth to civilise this faithless land
With aquifers and arches
Down among those cork-clad hills

A few short seasons passed
We’d grown accustomed to his absence
When the mule-boy brought the news
The women wailed, clawed at their cheeks
While I turned eastwards
And beneath the gaze of Allah
Gave thanks for his brief life

And now?
I plane the currents
Bridge the continents
Searching, always searching
For the place where he was laid to rest
The unknown place where my heart broke

And sometimes, far below
I see them shade their eyes and point
Look, they cry: a buitre, griffon, leonado
See the vastness of his wings
His naked neck and great hooked beak

I glide on
They do not know that I am truly Ismail Bey
El Moro, spirit of The Moor
Grieving down the centuries
For my lost son

25 September 2007

4. New World

They were raising a tree against the church
As I climbed the path to Cortelazor
A gaggle of youths and scrawny old men
Huffing and panting, hauling on ropes
Cursing and shouting ‘Glory to God’
Though I knew they’d other things in mind
And it wasn’t trees they’d raise
Later that sultry summer’s night

I trudged on
Fifteen years and nothing had changed
The high June stench of slaughtered pig
Charcoal and dung, piety and lust
Flies buzzed at my beard
My armour clanked
The mule like lead behind me on the tether

A gang of grimy children saw me first
Squealing as they ran for cover
At their mothers’ skirts
The women watched me sidelong
‘Hijo de algo’ whispered one
Eyeing my sword
‘Indiano’ muttered another
With a curl of the lip
‘Dinero’ said a third simply. Money.
Little did they know

Above me, shouts, feet clattered
And a mighty crash, stunned silence
Then a fusillade of oaths
The tree had pitched its length
Across the baked-mud square
We called our plaza

As they began again, grunting like oxen
I passed, unrecognised, ignored
God’s glory! Hah! I knew a thing or two of that
Sweating up those stony paths
That vanished into cloud
Or paradise, for all we knew
While Indian devils, copper-skinned and silent
Rolled their boulders at us
Devils who had neither wheel, nor arch, nor horse
Who saw us, mounted, and believing we were centaurs
Fell to their knees, babbling with fear

Yet…devils who had gold
More gold than we could ever dream of
More than we could carry home to Spain
A thousand royal ransoms
And still their treasure stores were full
Meanwhile, their king, who never did us any wrong
Died anyway, strangled by our captains
Mad for wealth and power
And for that great impiety, I
Who helped to throw his servants off the cliff
Food for fox and condor
Now came hobbling home
With nothing but a battered helmet
Rusty sword and scabrous mule
My last gold piece palmed by some greasy fellow
In a wine shop in Cadiz

We plodded on, the mule and I
Out of the plaza and up the hill
To curious stares, though not one nod or smile
I was too strange an apparition here
Steel-clad, gaunt-faced, burnt like oak

And so at last we came before the house
Low-walled, with brushwood roof
The darkened doorway gaping like a sigh
Minutes passed. Out came a crone
On shuffling feet, shapeless as a sack
She looked at me askance and then
For one brief instant something flared
In the dark eyes. The summers fell away
Before me stood the slender girl
To whom I’d pledged my heart’s heart
There in the church below

In my eyes, too, some spark was struck
She took a faltering step, words forming in her mouth
Then came a voice, deep, impatient
‘Quien es, mujer?’
Her gaze held mine an instant more
Before she turned
‘Ninguno,’ she replied, shuffling for the door
‘It’s no one.’

The mule and I walked on
To find ourselves some new world
Here amid the old

 8 September 2008

A large house on the outskirts of Aracena, Andalucia, is where the annual Dark Angels Advanced course is held.

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