from the immaculate beds
when first I knew it;
with breath of the May-mown field,
Syon Lane was strung, a bright bead
on the fast and lisping track to Waterloo.
Poplars, tall custodian trees
caressed the sky and relayed
urgent whispers of the evening wind.
Young Raj, with the fleck in his brown eye,
presided in his station-master’s cell
until that bright and dismal day
when the frail trajectory of his life
intersected with the fast up-train.
Till then the wolves still circled in the woods,
good order still prevailed –
the strutted bench embraced us
on those summer evenings: on
winter nights the gas-heartened room
cocooned some six or more.
But with Raj’s going
the back of it seemed broken
and one by one the elements gave way:
the bench betrayed its function
to serve at last the eye alone,
a bare frame of calligraphic scrolls,
the panes, the signs, the locks – all,
all yielded to conspire
in the bitter slide to entropy.
And now the wolves themselves are gone.
Bare bones are left
where the summer wind
disturbs the nettle-heads waist-high,
the poplars lost their heads last year –
with shattered stems and branches splayed
they neutrally await
the final equilibrium.
And I again await,
with sharpened ear
to catch that moment
when the iron rail
sings to the impending train,
and I am borne away.
Gillette Corner – 1988
Sidi Gaber, essence of
the essence of the ages and the western world.
Evening, point de depart :
garlanded, bright-bathed your quays
as I await the impending train,
of the desert rail:
Kafr el Zeyat, Tanta , down –
without arrest you’d fall
through all of Africa.
The stalls were stacked and terraced
high, around obscured and shouldered hulks,
an eyeless audience:
and ranks of heavy clouds had come
to see me off, spectating blankly –
the whole imbued by evening,
illumined epitaph of day,
then suddenly enlivened
by the stern imposing call to prayer.
murmur of the centuries.
The city’s sons and daughters all
were here for me as well –
that second Ptolemy, Arsinoe his
sister-wife, and Amr the conqueror who,
when heaven lay close upon the earth
and he between them both,
breathed through the eye
of a needle. All, all.
I glimpsed the little Greek,
leaning, with his pre-war suit,
lunettes and bony nose,
at an angle to the universe –
went towards him, but he’d gone.
Trembling of the ground,
overwhelming eye of light.
Immortal Sidi Gaber.
Sidi Gaber, Alexandria - August 1993.
The value of the Sidi Gaber train station for protesters cannot be overemphasized ….. the train station was built in the 1850s. It is the oldest train station in Egypt, predating even Cairo’s Ramses Station. It was the first train station constructed outside Europe, and would eventually seep into the popular imagination. For revolutionaries, it is symbolic of its connection to the Cairo state and its ability to inhibit a good section of the economy when shut down. Jadaliyya (Amro Ali – July 2013)
You come to a place
hidden brightly in a seam
of the river’s garment.
Jewelled shoals of light
against the supple dank water
defeat the unaccustomed eye.
And all at once
you are aware of
the urgent and peculiar
voice of the place: stirred
by wind, as breath, derived
from stance of willow, caught
between the island’s shadow,
echo of the sun,
trembling of its limbs,
shimmering of the trackless leaves
upon the water-face:
in all, an overwhelming agitation -
as of a girl too long ignored, -
demanding our attention
to some extraordinary event
we see, but fail to comprehend.
We have heard the sigh of willow
in another place at night
and caught the voice of
other trees before, but here
there’s something deeply unresolved –
the White Swan still awaits
her longed-for suitor.
Twickenham – 1982.
Speechless I consort with stones
whose unimaginable age defies my mind.
What mould of men were these?
What fear, what hope and what desire
could make them set these megaliths,
and then for aeons watch
the lunar dance – the endless months,
repeated cycles, years and lives?
What the overwhelming questions
which impinged upon their lives?
And what the answers now that
I can listen for, upon this solstice
as I move, untongued, among them?
Mute they sense my passing, both of us aware
that they know that which I do not.
Ironically they observe my wandering,
yearn not to help me understand
their parentage and purpose, yet shrink not
from my hand; their posture,
grain and scale invite an
intimate, respectful touch.
Their old communion, their
familiar shapes, allotted places for
the dance they still conduct – these all
transcend my presence. I know
that all my knowledge cannot reach
the simple wisdom of these early men
for whom the light
of sun and moon and fire
was all that gave them life,
and hence required their utmost skills
to comprehend, foretell and celebrate.
Lewis, Hebrides - June 2012.
At Fernald’s Neck
and just clear of the Great Bog,
there’s a natural theatre in the woods
past which as past an accident
a lazy glinting sun
drove sheepish clouds,
while tall stands of pine and birch
shimmered and flickered
against a blameless sky,
moving just their lips
as guests expectant at some grand affair.
They all contrived a sharp suspense
as she walked silent,
randomly over the pine roots,
moving in the core of his mind.
Megunticook – October 1994.
Quarry the womb
where my closest grain was written
my members roughly hewn:
countrymen fashioned me
blindly in the heat of day
with cart and forearm,
memory and desire,
celebrated my accomplishment
then put me out of mind.
Great pine soldiers
I carry in me
who themselves took seed
before the sawyers,
and whose locked heart
has still not seen the day.
Tiled I am in crystal clay
which lay in rivers here
before the Romans gave them name.
I never failed my function:
bore the first of them who came,
was party to matrimony
rough coupling, the shriek
of childbirth and the long
approach of dark, played host
to industry and indolence
echoed song and scandal
was privy to tenderness
and the bitterest games that
heart can play.
Harbour I was they went from
shelter always shared,
and as I watched them
when the sun was high
already braced my back against
the meaner wind to come.
In short, a constant home
in which they thrived,
or failed, and placed
their petty stamp
Did they mistake my
dumbness for assent?
Was none of them aware –
in that still hour
illumined by the
westered sun –
that another lived among them
implying earlier lives than theirs?
Had none of them an ear
for such reverberations? –
the silent agitation
the will unheeded
as it watched the
and the good man sit
hemmed in by circumstance
and stare his life
to embers in the grate?
And even when
as happened once or twice
they fought for me,
never after dark did one of them
with rough litigious hand
caress my flank or
cast a heart felt word and
listen keenly for
my echo in reply:
my antecedents, my great bulk and all
my benefacts conveniently distilled
to esoteric script
in some official book!
But I have older friends:
I watch that cavalcade
of battering sun
traverse the bowl of valley
arc of sky –
complaisantly dispel the chill
disordered symptoms of the dark
and then disrobe to stand
as glaring helion, to
pierce the forehead pierce the eye
and not let man forget
the oldest god of all.
The mountains are my allies too
observed me from the start,
and held me
in their loose embrace.
I have tried to see the place
before the mountains came, and then
have glimpsed the chthonic power that
heaved them up
and set them where they are –
rock head reared against the sky
which sleeps at noon
but looks the thunder in the eye.
I have watched the mantle on that
massive shoulder change
from open fabric of ebullient green
to the evening’s
dark impenetrable cloak, and then
the huge and sombre wall of night
pricked by cold Sirius
and the dog’s bark.
Allies they are, but
care not for my form,
will cradle me when all
my parts are decomposed,
my identity is gone – that
form and function fused
in me by men which only
men sustain: and of them
all that now remains,
the faintest echo in my vacant frame
and all their rotten artefacts
so carelessly bequeathed.
Cruel to cleave and carry,
mould and forge my parts
to such a high estate, and then
withhold the hand of love.
There was only one who came, alone
and as he stood I felt he
saw the mountains through my eyes
perceived my deeper pulse,
indulgently evoked my consciousness - but left:
and now I wish that he had let me sleep,
because my hearths are cold,
and I am ready to dissolve
and join my ancient friends.
Le Blavet - September 1980.
My compliant lady bird
who rested flickering in my hand –
as now you catch the spirit of the air,
I’m trying to define the thing you are
to me (and I to you):
my falcon on a gyre
my magic acrobat
my child, my vibrant Pegasus
my cerf volant, my flying stag –
all these by turns you are.
Or are you just my double self
my leash’d spirit freed,
which for a narrow spell
embodies all my yearning
and the ancient wish
which drove that father
and his boy to sail too near the sun?
Am I your governor
or your accomplice? – hold you tight
against your will
so that all the stallion force
which you derive
from the blind and muscled air
does wield my very arm
and like a whip can cut my hand?
Or do I hold, support and will you up,
so that as you strain
my heart leaps up to you,
and as you dip and falter,
or wheel a great relentless curve to earth,
I bleed and die for
our coupled failing?
Do these slim and gleaming strands
retain you or sustain? At times
you seem to stand on them
like legs of gossamer,
but then again they are your silken chains.
Is your will at one with mine
or a rebel child’s desire
for freedom like the arrow from the bow?
Do you not know
that if I give you all
the towering height you crave
and the freedom of the sky
you’ll quickly fall to earth?
And don’t you sense
my strength to draw you down
against the buoyant promise of the air
in your small form, my love more concentrate
than all the winds of heaven?
My pull it is that plays upon
the wind to give to you
the grace and fire you have.
Of these all, I cannot say,
but what I know –
as you rise and take my breath with you
to stand against
the azure bowl of sky
losing your dark wings against the blue,
with only the red triangle of
your breast to signal you in heaven, -
you are my abstraction
and my firey dream,
yours the freedom
yours the power to
fly before the sun,
to blind the eyes which
watched and guarded your ascent,
to break the hands which held you.
And yours the right
to seek the tryst that you desire
in the sky where you belong.
Le Canadel - April 1985
Ayeyar - you know my name,
scoured deep into this ancient land. I’m God’s
appointed life-giver, have multiplied
you for a million years. The shifting
gentle shoals you watch upon my placid face
belie my power, my torrent, born of glaciers,
cataracts and gorges in the northern wastes.
The sun’s my oldest ally: you’ve seen me mirror him
each day across the vault of sky,
between his cradle in the eastern hills - when we
have watched him glint between the trees, -
then through the glaring noon
which lends my face that unexpected blue,
until he westers, blinding gold,
behind the mountains’ purple brow.
You so-called masters of the earth, you
make me laugh - your crusty
little habitations, your cities and your ports,
your vanities all built on my beneficence.
With your banks and quays you think
to tame me, with fragile bridges halter me. But
don’t presume to master me, to dam me up,
or foul me with your sewers and your pesticides.
Have you forgot how easily I, in times gone by,
have changed my course, withheld
my monsoon flood, my myriad streams
which feed you on my journey to the sea?
Remember that I wasn’t born for you, I have
a deeper purpose than to serve your little lives:
have you not heard me groaning in my bed?
If I do not conduct, deliver every season’s snows
into the steaming sea of Andaman,
I shall have failed my function.
And then in turn you’ll learn
how all dimensions of your life
evaporate within the blinking of an eye:
you’ll leave behind your crumbling stupas,
golden images and echoing halls, to testify -
while resurgent forests occupy your
cultivated fields, and lease them back to
humbler animals than you.
And a million golden icons still
will countenance it all.
Mandalay - February 2014.
She paid - o yes, she paid.
Mors Janua Vitae, they wrote
a dark play on words:
a gateway sorely needed
for a lifetime unredeemed.
Banquo took, that day,
the masks of all the children gone;
green bones stirred unseen
beneath the riddled moor
that day: a choir of silent screams.
The ashen mother lay too sick
to cast a word of love: the
diabolic master’s mind was dull
behind the bars; a former female
lover was reported seen.
Massed the photo lenses, unrewarded
in the freezing rain; the lorry
drivers’ horns were echoed by
a simple placard ‘Burn in Hell’ -
gratuitous the hatred, but
officially condoned, that day.
She even paid in death - the
cost of obsequies was charged
to her estate as, through that
charitable gate, she humped
the baggage of her life, the unremitting
column-inches all, extinguished by
the fierce unjudging fire.
And somewhere else
(a hospital committee’s minute
book records), the room in
which she died would be redone;
if silk emulsion couldn’t neutralise
a lifetime’s obloquy, at least,
they saw, it could protect the blameless
place from rape by darkened minds.
Thameside - November 2002
Anything: anything but …..
in the black vigil
it came to me.
Anything but this,
was I born for this?
My heart, a tree,
has slowly died, my hopes
all shed, dead leaves.
Did my own amma know
it would be this?
Did she know that I would end
without all choice, or only one –
to choose which end
of it all?
Let the waters close,
the blessed, filthy waters
close above my head.
O Kali, how do you allow
this life, this end – and
why do you withhold your power?
Anything but this life,
the beatings day and night,
the drink my terror:
the beating then the ravaging.
Durga, where are you?
My broken arm, my broken leg
my only night companions –
sleep, I did forget your name.
Just let the waters close –
O Chandi! my children –
are they to come with me?
Am I to leave them here with him
this goonda and his
cruel conspiring kind,
Better they should put me
out of mind along with fruit
of that of which alone
I have the power to dispose –
my useless body.
Are they to come with me?
She has no other life
this little part of me:
but is he mine to kill,
to drown that little flame –
have I the duty, or the right?
Kali, guide me, why not fight for me,
lend me just one
of those, your fearsome arms?
Or will you be content to wear
my children’s skulls for necklaces,
and is the bright blood
upon your tongue
to be my children’s blood?
So I shall go
to the lake,
go as a bride for the
Lord of the lake –
Ah! that will be my deceit for them –
to his watery palace gleaming
beneath the sick,
unsmiling water’s face.
Chandi, at least,
in my extreme,
on this morning of all mornings,
at least tread with me.
Tread with me, my
children, feet sink
into this foulest mud
water rise above the knee
flesh all consumed below,
let none deliver now, no
call divert, I pray:
Chandi, all I ask -
just let the waters close.
Chennai - April 2007.
Like Palinurus, I
was lost a space upon the main.
First waked from deeply-frozen
prospect of consumption at
an orderly repast,
then pitched by moonlight
into unaccustomed waters,
I sailed – as you will see – the gamut
round, until I ended in
this deeper darker tomb
inside the earth, beyond
the reach of fox or hound, and
where a better class of worm
will pick me slowly clean at last.
For seven days and seven nights
I stately sailed upon my little raft
my legs obscenely splayed, my
puckered arse exposed
as in a coyly proffered kiss to those
who watched disgusted from
the serried windows of the port,
who mocked my nudity, indignantly
abused my origins, and little thought to rescue me.
But friendless, I, without the wherewithal
to hide my shame, declined to sink,
bouyed up by certainty that I
was victim of some real mistake:
at night the swell would take me out
among the broad dark waters of the Thames,
but each new day would find me back
a-bobbing squarely by the boats,
outside the windows known to me –
a bold petitioner, who silently accused
the offending hand that set me loose
then hid its name from me.
A tribulation undeserved, for me
who’d played my blameless part
from egg to supermarket floor,
hygienic to the core and salmonella-free,
my weight, my price transparently displayed
upon my breast for all to see.
As hot October days passed on
I lost my self-respect –
a whiff of something more
than under-wing BO rose up
to wrinkled noses round the port,
while other birds – the moorhen, grebe
and goose and swan – all
skirted me with seeming little
sense of fellowship, and fish
kept low, unappetised –
until I knew for sure
that putrefaction was my name.
And then behold! The seventh day
delivered me, so here I lie interred
and slowly feasted on by
myriad amorous little mouths –
darkness, to oblivion, to nothing.
Thameside – October 2001.