REFLECTIONS    shining attention on time, moments

2.1  A Poet recollected while Flying (1982)

Hey! Kavaphis!
The thing that I admire
is how you range and wheel (as I do now)
high in the bright Aegean air -
contemptuous of time,
adroit scavenger of decomposed cities,
with a raptor’s eye
for private acts of grace,
a petty Seleucid’s despair,
for Caesar’s inner prudence,
and how, one bitter Alexandrian night,
there rose to Antony’s turmoiled ear
the phantom sounds of pipe and drum,
the music of a vanished god
which signified to him the end
of all his more impetuous years.

Standing at your elbow now
I watch the gilded pageant run -
immortal kings, forgotten satraps, all alike:
I marvel at the quickness of your eye
expert in irony, its charity imbued
with something more: this constant
reconciling of unbridled blood
with your ascetic heart.

And now today, what would you say
you erudite old goat
at my preoccupation with
a certain room, the blend
of darkness with erotic forms
which hang before my eye,
as I watch the burnished Adriatic sea
erode the dark Italian shore?
Would such indulgence in ‘habitual
love’ have so disgusted you?
or does your tolerant eye allow
a flicker of the heart for
the royal curve of widowed Anna’s breast
or the gust of Salome’s inchoate desire?

Out of Cairo - April 1982


2.2  Mazagan to Mogador (2010)

Unlike you, Palinurus,
I was not overboard
those three long nights,
not lost and found again,
nor murdered on an alien shore:
I had no Aeneas to
remonstrate against,
no enigma to bequeath
of accident or design.
Nor tossed, as you, between
the clutch of my identity
and the vast unconscious of the sea.

But that same space of time
was also mine: suspense of life –
the cusp between what was, what
might have been, defined
by moonlit board, that gleaming
edge between my own realities.

Unlike you, Palinurus,
I stayed on board: not
prey to all your calculations
as your practised eye surveyed
the guiding stars, horizons, land-marks,
shifting signatures in the bland
unfeatured skies, not eaten
by contempt for his betrayal, by sight
of Dido’s pyre (which only he and
you had recognised); not alien, I ,
from a city founding’s dream, nor yet
consumed by your futility.


I stayed on board, and only knew
that in the middle watch
of those three nights, my
nameless star had shone for me:
stood firm across the mast
from Mazagan to Mogador, she
beckoned, watched, played hide & seek
with me between the angry clouds,
and would not let me go
till safely rendered, as were you, to
the slow majestic dawn.

Essaouira - November 2010

In his Epilogue to The Unquiet Grave, Cyril Connolly asks ‘Who was Palinurus?’ and what might have been the reason why Aeneas’ helmsman jumped ship, after leaving Carthage and passing between Scylla and Charybdis, to spend three long nights overboard: was it suicide or accident, or was it a planned act of escape and revenge for Aeneas’ betrayal of Dido?


2.3  Last night I lay (2010)

Last night I lay by a strange sea
whose inland billows
spoke to me
all through the night:
more urgent in the dark,
then gentler, as the north wind
quietened into dawn.

They spoke to me of buried lives,
of endless cities of the dead,
an Empire they had witnessed in decline;
they answered long-locked questions
riddled in the bones of marshy graves;
a lethal plague arising slowly
from the south
which weakened men’s resistance
to the Vandals at the gate.

All banished now,
these anguished voices,
respectful of the new-born day,
as I rise up from dungeons of the mind
to consciousness;
the sun plays opal on
the crispy waves which
beat upon the cheerful shore.

Bracciano - September 2010

2.4  Byzantine land walls (1995)

I am standing, Theodosius,
at the very seaward marble end
of your once-mighty walls:
I walked them down today
from where the gulf lay gleaming
at my feet, from citadel, acropolis –
the palace of Porphyrogenitus, -
to where they terminate
before me here, a modest octagon
deprived of purpose, set within
an unfrequented public park.

You weren’t the first
to see just how this second Rome
could dominate the north
Aegean Sea, embrace the coast
across Khalkidhiki, and thence control
the fulcrum-point of all the ancient world.
But on these shoulders it was you
who built what we see now –
forbidding ramparts, towers and gates which
haltered all the seven hills, enclosed
the Holy Wisdom and the priceless seat of power.

Would you be proud, I wonder -
to see how they survive?
You probably thought little
of centuries ahead,
were just preoccupied to keep
the vandals out, the infidels at bay.
A thousand years might seem
too far ahead, but that’s how long
your triple walls did duty – thrice breached in your own life,
and not by Huns (Attila even did not dare)
but by the jealous forces of the earth:
you must have questioned
whether Rome’s old gods
had better guarded you than this new faith.

Would you rejoice, I wonder -
to think there’d be an age
when structures such as these
would still be there
but long have lost their function,
would just be sights for idle
eyes to ponder on, with
little comprehension of
the awesome purpose they fulfilled?

Marmara – 1995

2.5  Fish (1994)

In the systole of the
lapping Cretan sea,
beneath the dark remembered rock,
I found you, my old gold
fish – my jewelled
ichthymorphic avatar.

Knowest thou me again? didst
even wait for me,
glistening in the grotty
chambers of the shore,
my Samian mystery –
still, abiding double
of this vagrant mariner?

Benign and watery deity
that witnessed my foreshadowed self,
custodian of the eternal spring,
willst now stand surety for me
against the day that I’m reborn?

Mykonos – October 1994.


2.6  Night Wind (2002)

Impetuous Zephyr!
whatever be thy name,
who wakst and workst all night
to sweep the welkin blue by morn
to chase away the mist’s last shroud
and paint the islands clean
beyond the trackless azure sea.

What pains thee so, to thrash the
suffering bendy oak outside
and irrespectful enter in to dance around
the very chamber where we lie?
What devil’s in thy breath,
what ghost disturbs thee, wind? impelled
by what fanatic mission must thou blow?
Dost thou not long, as we, to rest
and lay thy work aside?
But no, thou constant harrier,
violent child, the night’s not time enough
to tire thee – all the morning, all the day,
thy fingers poke our very soul,
they catch the doors and bellow roaring
down the flues, they make the house
a tossing anchored ship
shuddering, foundering before
each fearsome gust and blast
in case this be the one that breaks the tree,
uproots the wall, and throws the window
into shards about our feet.

We do not see thee, must infer thy agency
from every shaken bough; yet canst not
even vow to leave us peaceful with the sun
when thou hast fled?


We have to suffer thee upon thy
unconditioned terms which make us
on reflection, think again
and not presume thy fault:
some mountain sent thee,
ocean sucked thee down the river’s corridors.
The graven shifting visage of the sea does
not complain - in fact he laughs
a million glinting, frothy smiles
and shakes his shoulders underneath;
the white gull riding madly up the sky
is not afraid to breast thee;
and somewhere in the thickets by the shore
the nightingale looks songless out
and bides her time – she
seems to know thou bringst no harm to her.

In fact, it’s only we it seems complain:
perhaps that devil lies in us
and goads us from within
to fear thee as his other self, perhaps
if we like gull and sea
and nightingale could relearn innocence,
thy restless sighs would be the music
apt to bury us in sleep.

Le Canadel – June 2002


2.7  Easter at Calatafimi (2012)

This ancient land, this sky - old comrades
who have shared so fruitfully
the seasons and the winds:
could man have not found humble space
among you just to share as well,
to simply strive and thrive?
Seems not: it seems that tree and vine,
and ox and bee, could not be food
for thrift alone, but always led to strife.
And could not grape and corn, and wine and bread,
have simply served as blood and flesh
again at this crucifixion, this Eastertide?

You ancient witnesses, you long
have understood our need to yield to death;
you know for each true life,
however small, there needs to be
a commensurate dying,
a passion and a sacrifice.

For all their deities, their rituals performed,
each conqueror’s pantheon
successively obscured the God within,
that one perennial Lord of the cosmic dance:
their empty sacrifices made to bribe
the fates, they did not understand
the death of ego, sacrifice of self
which should be made again
for this resurrection, this Eastertide.

And even now they fail to see
the Calvary on that high green hill
outside the town – so much
young blood so blindly given;
instead of written on this dull stone, anv empty reckoning of cost,
could that have not been better spent
again for this ascension, at this Eastertide?

Calatafimi, Sicily - April 2012.


2.8  Thunder off Palermo (1997)

Deep I saw the sea
in dream realms
and struggled with the thunder in my bed.
Great clouts mounting high in heaven
which cracked the roof of mind –
from bank to bank of cloud, they passed like whit-fire
rolling far away from land,
to places where the sea-face will not sleep
nor the dark debate will die,
where great lights leap and flash,
and silent run the compass round.
They witness wars we cannot fight:
it isn’t cities burning there,
no Carthage no Jerusalem with turrets falling,
flames arising high behind the sea:
it’s an anger fit to sink Atlantis,
and there it is I’ve watched these hours,
breathing through the needle’s eye,
and echoed that debate.

And still I cannot rest
though dawn’s glint came up upon the sea
and the thunder grumbling died away.

Palermo – 1997


2.9  U-2 (1968)

The prison hasn’t changed him,
nor the months his face.
Fancy: it was as though I
should never see him again,
after that morning we drove him.

Even now, I do not comprehend
the chance that brought us face
to face that day, and brings us here today –
this town, this court-room thick with
people wholly strange to me,
who seem to hang on every word I say:
for them this was some great triumph but
to me, he’s just that boy delivered –
not for me to judge him either way.

I, Viktor Asabin, whose fingers
look, are rougher than this rail
they hold and square as bolts …
yes, it’s near four months since then …
I, Asabin, came the first -
after that noise and the disbelief,
there was smouldering of dust
in the place, sun on glass,
and the dull permeation of something
at the core - not metal, neither dust nor glass…
You watch me, yes, my face is old,
with the mountains … you see, I stood,
not doubting: then there was Surin running,
and suddenly this boy was on the field,
so still, it seemed delivered, something
God-like, and I laughed
With fear of the light of him.
And I see him just the same today.

Then … O, then Chuzakhin came
the young one … Yes,
I think that’s all you need to hear from me.

London - 1968

By the time Gary Powers, pilot of the U-2 spy plane shot down by Soviet Russia on 1st May 1960, came before a Russian court, Khruschev had already exploited the incident to intense embarrassment of President Eisenhower by berating the US and walking out of the Paris Summit held on 16th May, which immediately collapsed. At the court hearing evidence was given by three peasants – Asabin, Surin and Chuzakhin, who were first to arrive at the wreckage of the plane.


2.10  Ode to a Secretary (1974)

regathered in you
components each sufficing
to distinguish and compel.
Such egregious beauty
makes me smile – I almost share
with you the fact of it:
almost more it’s mine than yours,
this star that I see shine
in the line of you, the dark of you,
the move, the whisper calm of you:
O Khanoum Firoozi!
Sustain or break this spell in me
this image mirror’d back in time
which takes account
of features shadow’d long ago
in coin, brooch and cameo.
So let us share again the smile, and
let us contemplate the curve of shoulder,
classic brow, the queenly aspect, secret breast,
which sum you up, and make you what you are.

Tehran – 1974.


2.11  The Western Stock Exchange

As Doctor Thompson of Wisconsin
brushed hands with immortality,
the shares of Geron Corp
(of Menlo Park)
rose sharply in late trading
on the Western Stock Exchange.

And by the way, I learn
there is another absolute
which God has chosen to reveal –
it’s two-one-O, not more or less,
the utmost tally of
my cellular expressions,
which differentiate
my members and my parts,
and which suffice (as David
would have put it) to fashion me
behind and before.

But then you have to set apart
the embryonic stem cells
(a mystery which eluded capture
until now) because, like particles,
they scarcely are,
they cannot stop themselves
convert to muscle, skin and bone;
and yet, apparently, they are
the same primordial cells
which take the fast track
to the ovum and the sperm
of my descendants – O well!
You needn’t drum it in!
I’m just a seed pod, just
a vehicle on lease to carry genes.

So Dr Thompson breeds
his stem cells from the
inner mass of blastocysts,
(so carelessly bequeathed
by seekers of fertility).
And God observes,
perhaps facilitates,
the culture of these cells
to help alleviate
the shortage of all kinds
of organs and spare parts.

Go to it, Dr Thompson!
Just fiddle, fiddle with the code,
just re-program that DNA:
I cannot really blame you –
since God permits you to proceed –
for knocking at
the central mysteries of life
to leverage your options and
delight the hearts
of Geron Corp’s stockholders
on the Western Stock Exchange.

Boston - December 1998


End of Reflections