Did I do well
not knowing precisely
the manner of your dying
among this sand, this sea,
to come, so far behind, and live a narrow space
in this translucent bay?
I do know
that all you’d lived,
and all I later learned of you,
came gathered to one knot in time –
the hour you fell:
when urgent manly hands
gave comfort to the dying light.
Or else perhaps you lay a space alone
beneath the martyred April sky.
Did you have time to guess
how from that single point would spring
the sequence of our widowed lives?
The long shadow of your going
has touched us all –
today, has brought me here.
There are spirits, there are
potent whispers here:
the wind still holds the fragments
of that half-dawned day –
the clamour and the terror and the din,
and the blood’s insidious song.
But now the air seems healed,
and the birds have learned again to sing.
And I? among this sand, this sea,
did I do well to come?
Seddulbahir – July 1991.
You ask me how I am:
well – you see me
locked in this declining frame,
set square upon my buttocks
in this chair.
I have to tell you
that I cannot see,
I scarcely hear, and now
I’m far too tired to chase
my skittering thoughts
like rabbits round an empty field.
You see, I am the train
and I’m the track. I
have my back to the engine
and God knows where
we’re bound. But why not ask
me where we’ve been?
the mountains, along the
pristine sea, in the high old days:
I can tell you every
shining stone and every
God-made tree that
marked the way from
Durham’s ringing choir.
And that’s because the stoic
early formed in me would
not have dared to pray
to have such gifts along the way –
the advent of this other soul who
halved the whole I thought I was.
She matched her own austerity
with mine, and never quite
resolved the brightness and the shade
which she inherited.
What does the right rail
whisper to the left? If you’ll
permit me to express it so,
it’s something like ‘Let’s just
keep going dear: I really don’t
make sense alone, but
something in me says you
shouldn’t get too close’. If only
she had known (or I had told),
just how I missed this faculty of touch,
the simple need for nearness.
But then, if truth be known, I feared
the mystery and the power in her,
whose waking would have
loosened her from me –
perhaps I sensed this more than she.
Perhaps I also sensed
that dying wolf’s fidelity in her
and knew the rails need never fuse.
Ah well! I’ve pondered this too much.
I’ve offered her the best I knew,
and learned to spell the simplest
words of gratitude – I think she
heard them once or twice, and
even played with them, but I’m
past caring now. So,
when you ask me how I am,
you’ll only hear the whisper
on the water’s face whose
depth will not be stirred again.
Canterbury - June 1995
Death turned out to be
oblivion your remembrancer.
You taught us all a certain form
of immortality, because
the space you left
seemed less complex
than that you’d occupied.
Locked in your barely
sensate frame, you
disposed of perfect equanimity.
The form seemed all – it had
become the substance:
and keen profile belied
the unseeing eye; the opaque utterance,
the riddle and the pun –
were they designed to fend us off?
You left us all to fathom
the stern clear waters of
your dignity: what guarded
secret, private impulse, inner jest
were still alive down there?
Your long-ago expressed humanity?
Or was the depth as
limpid as the face we saw?
Your image, when you passed,
resolved itself so clear
we almost felt that we’d been walking
with a saint or even,
witless, to Emmaus!
And now that image too migrates
bequeathing us – to keep, -
your faint benign
imprint upon the air,
an indelible beatitude.
Canterbury – December 1995.
On the third day
the alien but familiar bird
harbinger from another world,
and startled us to sunlight.
Fear me, squawked the bird,
for I’m the flesh and blood,
I hold the resurrection
in the scarlet of my breast;
in the beating of my stippled wing
you hear the proof
of immortality; reflected
in my glittering eye you
dimly see your blindness –
I frighten you, you
how I am she,
and she is here again.
Trust me, spoke the bird,
for I’m the knowledge,
that her journey’s safely done,
she has again become
the child of Charles, and all
her yesterdays are written
on the cliff of time.
I know her raging heart, and all
that she has striven for:
I am the southern sea,
the cradling wave, the mantled
hillside of her youth –
and I have known her long before.
Love me, said the bird,
for I’m the promise
of communion, and the spirit
of the lunar dance among
the dappled orchards of your home.
And you will surely find her there
when I have flown above
the guardian willows,
and you have lost me
in the northern sky.
Selling - April 1998.
Standing together you and I,
looked forward through the lens.
And looking back now
through that same lens,
it’s easy to think
that we’re observing
lives as yet unlived,
But I think
they’re still there, and
watching us as well.
Time holds us all.
Like Mishal the newsreader,
they’re not necessarily
looking at what
you think they are:
they know a long ball’s
being thrown across
the years, across
the space between,
to where the wicket-keeper stands –
maybe falling short, maybe long:
they watch for Him
to take the catch,
sooner you, and later me,
as the case may be.
That’s what I think
they’re looking at.
But who could tell?
And who can tell?
By steeples summoned, His sheep
adorned in the black constraining cloth
follow the wet road from the sea.
In muttered unison
their devotions stir, as the sea wind moves
on the face of the salt-dew fields
whose corners are hung in heaven.
For them God’s morning
has neither time nor mark
in the thin abiding stream of piety:
when their forefathers were, God is and His iron
tolled their distant deaths at sea,
greeted the far Icelandic fleet
at the seasonal return.
But we know well the day’s identity
and the taste of the raw nerve
which lies like thin metal on the tongue.
Quimper – 1967
Whether you go or you don’t go,
whether you cross the sea,
it’s the spirit of going, dear
the will to go
that matters more to me.
Whether you stay in a 5-star
or whether it’s B & B,
it’s the sibling spirit in you,
the need to go
that matters more to me.
Whether you feast or starve, dear
on Christmas Day, on Christmas Day
it’s the open heart
and the urge to share
which matter more to me.
Whether or not she embraces you
and whether Big Apple is sweet
it’s the winter journey,
the fact you’ll be there
which matter a lot to me.
Balham, December 2008
Waking, we learned he’d gone from us
having left a day or two before Now Ruz:
a small step performed
according to his hidden plan,
a step beyond the sea-mark of his life,
embarking on his longest journey
at the turning of the year.
He left us and when we knew he’d gone
what wrench of heart, what empty shriek
to call him back. He’d passed beyond recall,
but must have known we’d scream
like children at the dark chasm of his going –
our father, child: the sickness
in his sturdy frame would lead him
to that place where he could
hear again the early voices in the trees,
the wind from where he came.
Blind, so blind, we let him trade
the ring he left
for his priceless life to take away
and spend in cloistered days:
what nameless room was harbour,
witness, to that lonely trail? -
he even cursed the kin who followed
and bequeathed us
little knowledge of those last few days.
No voice can touch him now.
Privately he’d slipped
beyond the needle’s eye while we
had slept on other thoughts.
And now we vow we’ll forfeit sleep
and go abroad each night
to shout his name ‘Baba! Jalil!’
in every white and nameless street,
in every town we will not cease to call, expect
the silent answer ‘He was here but passed’,
until we hear the longed-for echo of your voice
to know you pardon us our blindness,
accept the heavy love we owe.
And we shall find you -
saintly, with the feet we loved,
your father’s-feet, curled, at rest
in some delicate white enclosure, locked
in that intricate garden which is Iran;
set amongst the myriad villages
you are the motionless traveller
waiting timeless at the gate
for us to come.
Chiswick - 1976.
My old Serbian friend!
you had too much youth in you
to leave us yet.
I had not the wit or grace to sense
that you were on your way:
two whole long months or more you stayed
among that multitude before the gate -
you fought no doubt, but then
slipped through upon the tide.
In truth, I know it was not thus.
I later learned you would not tolerate
a slow decline: the sharp incursions,
all the fuss, the loss of pride
were all too much to bear. I sense
the dull conviction slowly grown in you
that this was not the way - and then
the overwhelming surge, the reckless steps
along the corridor, the open window, end
of body, flight of soul. How else?
Iconic in your way, old friend,
should I allow your image to corrode,
to coruscate beneath
the tongues of your inheritors?
to be betrayed by men
less civilised than you by far?
Especially I think of what
you shared with them,
the substance written in your people’s genes,
the Slavic words, Cyrillic script, the pride
which has withstood the desecrations,
not from alien faiths, but from those
jealous siblings of the one true line
of Macedonian warriors and wide Byzantine eyes, of
frescoes and basilicas, and fortresses
astride the mighty confluence you lived upon.
I miss – will never compensate, -
the quickness of your laugh, your
moments of abandon, casting plates
at our Ionian feast long
after time had disallowed them.
My grief is guilt – how could I think
despite the sickness in your blood
that somehow you’d be always there,
that faintly wicked, winning smile of yours
could always stay alight,
that easy walk and talk could come again?
But actually, they do, and that is you -
at leisure on the shore
a year or two ago, at Heaven’s City,
in transit to the Holy Mount
you knew at last you would not climb again.
Beside the glimmering north Aegean sea,
quiet talk of earlier times
as the sun slipped down the sky,
the quiet lapping of translucent waves,
then sudden steep descent to blessed depths …
They all conspired to leave with me
a fixed, unchanging image to reflect upon.
But still, my friend, I cannot reach you now
and you had too much youth in you
to leave us yet.
Thameside - December 2006.
Shemiran, my Shemiran
speak to me of innocence:
lost seasons, snakeless meadows, blessed gift of snow.
Let me race in spring your ribbling waters
down long down to where my heart resides.
Eyeless Esteghlal, gaunt sentinel
recount for me your terrors:
forsaken years, the foddered youth, the mindless war.
Can I assuage your fractured soul
with balm deep balm of history?
O Safi-Ali-Shah, dear mansions,
don’t sing to me your memories,
they are too strong: the ghost of laughter, evenings gone,
your hearths unpeopled, attics lost, and through your halls
the flitting owl of Ha’fiz reigns.
Ageless Ashura, tonight
lend me your grief, re-mind me of your sufferings:
through darkened streets your new crusaders mourn,
the beaten breast, the deep processive drum – while I,
O thirst of my irreducible spirit, am calm.
Tehran – April 2000.
Our Brixton boy, our Lazarus,
when finally you arrived at the dark river
did your ferryman not quibble
at the price you’d set upon your life
as a fee for him to carry you across?
Did he not haggle for an extra obol
on each of those your sightless bandaged eyes?
But maybe he was unaware
of all the hoo-ha you had raised
on your departure,
maybe the Underworld Gazette
had failed to tip him off
how precious you, his human cargo, had become.
Poor Charon can’t be blamed:
it was very dark down there – perhaps he
couldn’t read the news: it was his duty anyway
and he could hardly have declined,
but if by now he’s read the
acclamations of your life,
he must regret not haggling for
that extra coin or two.
And anyway, it seems
he may have missed a more important point:
only in the rarest cases
does history record the placing of
the coins on eyelids – as a rule the fare
was placed inside the open mouth:
if he’d been up to speed
he should have realised that you
were no ordinary customer, that you
were much intent on resurrection
on the other side, or were perhaps
already-risen from the dead:
he would have had to read the rules
again, his job description,
to be sure the Stygian Carriers
Union would permit the transport
of the not-yet-dead, and whether
just an obol – let alone a button –
on each eye-lid really would suffice.
So all in all it seems to me,
our Brixton boy, that you were
taking quite a gamble that
your well-considered plan
would pass the necessary tests
for entry to the underworld.
And frankly, now you’re gone,
it’s clear that we will never know!