The weeks before St Dogmael’s Day, 2019

The weeks before St Dogmael’s Day, 2019

I. London, 29 April

Whoever knows these words will not taste death.
Whoever hears and knows them not will rot.
This morning the old Royal Mews is overcast;
The atmosphere is closed, each breath is hot.
Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth is occupied
By some Tigris chimera gazing sentinel
Toward the Thames, keeping the Queen’s seat warm:
An ancient beast of bull and bird and man
Constructed from recycled Middle Eastern packaging;
This Lamassu of Nineveh declaring that
The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist.
No pasarán, proclaims the art: we must resist
The feral pigeons exorcized by Livingstone;
The Parliament Square protestors for, and against, Brexit;
The Islamic State’s new nation, new made stateless;
The fresh extinction of each frail today by fatal dusks.
Tourist herds choke up the Low Emission Zone;
The royal parish church’s pillars flex antiquity,
Flash smiles for the National Portrait Gallery.
A hubbub among hubbubs, the other side of a bus:
Martin of Tours has cleaved his paludamentum in two
And offers up the cloth, draped on his gladius,
To the Big Issue seller outside Pret. Lest we forget:
Vice-Admiral Horatio, marooned for now, unkissed
In his crow’s nest, begs lemonade and watered wine
Of low-slung clouds and lonely rooftop gales:
England expects that every man will do
Something among these dark square miles of pasts forgot.
But who will dare ask why? And who will dare ask what?
Whoever knows these words will not taste death.
Whoever hears and knows them not will rot.

I eat my seedy breakfast bar and drink my juice,
And tighten and untighten my silk noose.
I try to recall how this bench felt half my life ago
When I would sit with tinny walkman headphones on
And feed the shellshocked mock-rock doves crisp crumbs:
Hard against my buttock bones through knots in jeans.
The same, I’m sure; the same and completely different:
The same as Holbein’s Ambassadors’ anamorphic skull
Might strike me had I the time to stand before it today.
If life is long then death is length itself, the promise made.
I say: at the age of five, Jesus probably did not
Fashion twelve sparrows from Galilean clay
One sunny Sabbath morning, and sit and watch,
Spellbound, as each bird flickered its ecstatic welcoming
Of the divine spark, and shook, took wing, and flew away.

A phonecall from Zoe in marketing
At one of the rural-broadband solutions companies.
If you bring forth what is within you,
What you bring forth will save you;
If you do not bring forth what is within you,
What you do not bring forth will destroy you,
She says; or at least I think she says.
I rise to go and loiter at the glass lift to St Martin’s crypt,
Because the hour of its opening is near.
Whoever has ears to hear, let him hear.

 

II. Witton Gilbert, 8 May

If the kingdom is in the sky, it’s for the birds.
If the kingdom is in the sea, it’s for the fish.
If the kingdom is on the pavement by the North Road bus-stop
Opposite Wharton Park, it’s for streaming Prefab Sprout
On Spotify: From Langley Park to Memphis;
The Gunman and Other Stories: the rain
In Durham is different from the rain in Wales.
One thing you learn from travelling is that the rain,
The sunlight, the bus seats, the mobile network coverage;
None of these are quite the same from one place to the next.
You might think you recognize the manner in which the buildings
Look embarrassed when reflected in the puddles;
Or something in the sombre mood of a cathedral overseeing
Unforeseen events and trying to stay impartial;
Or the inalienable right of an unemptied litter bin
To offer a greasy paper bag to the wind
Or a fat plastic bottle to the tyres of a taxi.
But you are only thinking of similar things;
Trying to become the bin, having over-indulged,
Perhaps, at the Lebanese restaurant catering to
Affluent students and frugal academics –
A plateful of chicken livers, hummus, and babaganoush;
And a stack of flatbreads by way of cutlery
While a young man who sounds French persuades
A young woman who looks Chinese that she wants to order
The grilled halloumi wrap, without even looking
At what else the menu has to offer. Or trying
To become the cathedral, stoic amid the storm
Of half-baked opinions, policies, ideals proffered
By the younger of two clever gay students on a second
Or third date; trying to pretend you are above,
Too wizened to want to contribute to such base-level
Operations, and certainly would not; no, at least not but
For the want of another large glass of Lebanese white
And a friend. Or trying to become the converted
Student accommodation in some Georgian terrace
Embarrassed by – what? The news? The weather? The politics?
The economy? If any of this is the kingdom though, it looks
Too removed from you; no matter how hard you squint
For the buried reflection. If you are not in it, you think,
How can it be said to be in you? The self, and all else;
Too much dualism to fathom a truth from thirds.
If you cannot know yourself, you can but wish.
If the kingdom is in the sky, it’s for the birds.
If the kingdom is in the sea, it’s for the fish.

I have planned these visits carefully;
If the weather was fine, I told myself,
I would walk the four miles back from Witton Gilbert
To Durham city centre via the derelict Beaurepaire Priory.
Now, since it has been said that you are my twin
And true companion, examine yourself.
The weather is foul, but I cannot examine myself on a bus.
I’ve been told. So since the forecast feels wet, but not too cold,
I opt to brave the county’s footpath network, and descend
From Witton Dene into the vale of the River Browney,
Where disused railway lines have been reclaimed for cycle-paths
And fields of oilseed rape are quiet but colourful company.
The churchwarden had promised or threatened to accompany
If the weather was fine; but the weather is foul
So I will break in my new walking boots alone
Till by the time I have reached the B-road
They have begun to break me: rendering me derelict.
And, for the trees, I do not see the priory.

Give to Caesar such things as are Caesar’s.
Give to God such things as are His. Give me
Such things as are mine: Dinarius, Tiberius.
Give to Dives and take from Lazarus.
Contactless donations: a tale as old as crime.
I rescue my suitcase from the reception at the inn
And stagger to the station, wet and sweating, just in time.

 

III. Walkhampton, 13 May

Woe to the flesh that depends on the soul.
Woe to the soul that depends on the flesh.
For a wilderness, Dartmoor is awfully civilized.
The road that labours its way from Plymouth
Suffers little of its destination to encroach;
Those nameless tors are half-familiar though,
And invite the mapless to hazard suggestions.
What is the soul of this place, and does it depend
On its crust, or its contours? The bed and breakfast
Is airy and hums with absent activity. The room
Is much richer than its urban equivalents:
The complementary air is not even bottled;
Breakfast is a box-ticking horoscope;
A schoolchild’s tray in the corner invites boots.
The pregnant woman in the pub across the way
Calls me dear and darling, suggests the best spot
For people-watching, from which, after polishing off
A wedge of steak pie and a shovelful of chips
And half a packet of frozen peas, I watch her
Pausing in the passage between the snug and the lounge
For a moment’s mute reflection. The ale is heavy,
Like burdens should be; so I know that before
I drink another I should walk the three miles round
To the village with the amusingly rude name –
To photograph myself with its sign, to test my blisters,
Discard my shatter-resistant shattered sunglasses
On the spot I find someone else’s, to wonder
If I’ll ever retrace these wasted footsteps
Or whether the owner of these will, only to find mine.
Well, things are not always as we recall them.
Memory cannot be trusted to tell us the truth
About ourselves. A rambler with a camera risks
Coming between a mare and her foal. Crapstone.
The blossom of the hawthorn is said to smell
Of rotting meat; to contain a common chemical,
And yet to be quite good to eat. I tried a leaf once
But it tasted like a leaf: nothing more nor less.
Sunday night and the Co-Op is closed. Worse luck.
The pastel-shirted men and perfumed women
Have mostly left the pub, and the carpark is sore
With their removal. I read nothing because
I finished my book on the train. Alone with
My thoughts – or rather, my phone – I try
As usual to massage my public image
Into something at once enigmatic and whole.
Woe to the flesh that depends on the soul.
Woe to the soul that depends on the flesh.

I wait on Walkhampton Common for two hours
Like some character in a computer game.
A pony comes to drink from the stream by my feet
But no brigands set upon me. St Mary’s stands high
Above the village, but far below this low stone row
Protruding through the turf like ancient teeth.
The south and the west of the county sprawled out before me,
The sun beats down its fists and I kid myself that I can
Just ignore it; face the other way. Lounge behind
A parasol of gorse. Hope I will not be skeletalized
Like this sheep was. Scorched? The records of Barbosa
From the early 16th century claim that, at that time,
St Thomas’s tomb in Madras was well maintained
By a Muslim who kept a lamp always burning there.
But I misread that as “lamb” and had absolutely the
Wrong impression about the scene for half a day:
Picturing charred meat, and heat-lamps, and a spit.

A shepherd had a hundred sheep. The largest strayed.
He left the others and sought it out, by day and night;
Through sun and rain, both high and low. And, finally
When he found the creature, he whispered in its ear:
I love you much more than the ninety-nine.
The rector is quietly proud to inform me
He’s recently accepted a promotion to
The archdeaconry. He said on the phone he was
In sales, not management; but the weather I requested
Was served nonetheless. As I am leaving, he shows me
The grave of a lad who once got lost in the mist
Up on Dartmoor – the villagers paid for a tomb
To serve as a warning to others. He died in July.
I catch a cold on the return journey. The next morning,
In the shower, I find two ticks embedded in my waist.

 

IV. Pickersleigh, 17 May

If two make peace under one roof, say to the mountain
Mountain, move, and it will move away.
No one made peace in Great Malvern today;
Or at least if they did, they did not tell it to
The hulking mastery of the Malverns.
Last time I was here I bought two poetry books
In a second-hand bookshop. The woman
Who served me asked me where I had come from
And when I said I lived in the shadow
Of the Preselis she seemed impressed: Carn Ingli
Is a holy mountain, she said. Aren’t they all? I replied,
Somewhat facetiously perhaps – but aren’t they all?
The springs that riddle these bald hills – Moel Frynau –
Were holy wells before the water was bottled
And if St Brynach found solace on Angel Mountain
How do we know St Dogmael didn’t find more, or better,
On Talfynydd, Foel Feddau or Foel Cwmcerwyn?
I am collected from the station by the Churchwarden:
No pilgrimage for me to make today.
No time for mountain-climbing nor mountain-moving:
I’d rather not see what’s underneath anyway;
And but for the fact of being self-employed
I’d have stayed in bed this morning,
The bug I picked up in Plymouth or thereabouts
Having laid me low, but not quite low enough
To stall my arrival at this week’s second Marychurch.
We discuss the dedications while I focus
My DSLR to capture the scaffolding
On the gable end of this brick building.
No medieval missionary here:
The church apparently attracts accidental Catholics
Or accidentally attracts deliberate Catholics.
I suppose they see a modern building
And do the maths. They sometimes stay, but they don’t come back.
No wonder so many mountains as yet remain,
If what’s known to be so can be trumped by what’s thought untrue.
If two make war under one roof, another roof
Will soon be required – or else the first will fall.
And if a roof should fall, why not the sky as well?
Much of this I think but, being uncertain, little say.
If two make peace under one roof, say to the mountain
Mountain, move, and it will move away.

Seek and do not stop seeking till you find.
When you find, you will be troubled.
When you are troubled, you will marvel and rule over all.
They invite me to lunch, and we talk about life:
About life; around life; over life; through life;
But not under life; nor quite after life.
The vegetable soup is the sort of thing
That soothes sickness, psychologically;
Quite unlike the can of Red Bull and Ginster’s slice
I left in the station cafe in Hereford,
Dashing to arrive fifteen minutes early for my train.
I knew no vicars when I was young and impressionable;
There was a Catholic priest who came to see us once
Or twice. He pretended to remove his thumb, but
Even at the age of… five, I think it was,
I could tell an illusion from a miracle.
Rabbi, my mouth is utterly unable to say
What you are like, I might have said, I might have thought.

I’m worried about being found out. My doubt,
My cynicism, my inability to suspend
Disbelief, even for lent: but whatever her, or his,
Intent, they give the best impression of calm compassion
And simply meaning well: simply trying to make
The time spent on this earth more heaven than hell.
Because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed…
Doubt. Doubt thyself. Doubt even if thou doubtest thyself…
Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.
Doubt all. Doubt even if thou doubtest all.
My doubts are yet impressed with each footfall.

 

V. Bluntisham, 20 May

The kingdom is within and without you:
Split a piece of wood, or lift the stone, and you will find me.
I am the smell of stale tobacco and leather
In the heart-rot of the ash tree I split
Last spring; I am the dark-loving, wriggling thing
Beneath the slate lintel I dug from the river;
I am each sap-cracked shoot of Japanese knotweed
That will not get to go to seed this June;
And yes, I am each plastic bag of household waste
The man from Llangolman throws in the river;
But moreover, I am the man at the cashpoint
Up the road from the Cromwell Museum
In Huntingdon, and on my way to Bluntisham.
These villages are shaped like hooks, I think.
I pass the sign for Houghton and Wyton
Where my mother-in-law lives, and my father-in-law lived,
And can’t recall what was the conclusion:
Was one meant to indicate left or right
When coming on from the slip-road, westward?
These mad machines are all we have for beasts;
There is no megafauna here: this place was civilized.
Blessings on the lion if a human eats it,
Making the lion human. Foul is the human
If a lion eats it, making the lion human.
Lead-theft is rife in this corner of England:
Thieves go where spires pierce the sky: St Dogmael’s
In Mynachlogddu is always open
With nothing to hide, and nothing to steal.
Lead to keep the rain out is hardly gold and gems,
But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty
And it is you who are that poverty.
And though I am being paid quite handsomely to journey here
I barely recognize my reflection
In the upper-deck window of the bus;
Though I would make myself a whole nation
If I could only find the right foundation.
Show me the stone which the builders rejected;
It is the cornerstone, I remind me.
The kingdom is within and without you:
Split a piece of wood, or lift the stone, and you will find me.

It takes an age, once I am done, to get out of the fens.
I ride the A-roads between flat fields, bread-baskets,
On the tops of empty double-deckers,
Daydreaming about that time in 1999
I fell asleep in the same seat between
Winchester and Fair Oak to the rattling
Of branches against the glass, dim behind
Whatever Californian pop-punk I had taped
From someone else’s CD yesterweek,
And awoke to a shower of shattered glass
And cuts as thin as filaments across my brow and cheek.
I wonder how anyone who travels for a living
Is not an alcoholic. Last night’s hotel room
Across from King’s Cross, gasping over Swinton Street,
AKA the A501, would drive a saint to drink.
And no one ever accused me of being a holy man.
I re-read the Louis MacNeice on the train:
An extract from Autumn Journal about
The 1938 Oxford by-election.
The choice then being to appease or not to appease.
Peterborough next week: the choice being Brexit
And antisemitism or Brexit
And islamophobia. We try to construct
Connections amid the chaos of order:
Because it’s always reassuring to observe
A border that looks like a border.
I began this job on my dad’s birthday
And have not spoken to him once since then.
I note this fact more to exemplify than to inform.
The day I submit my final invoice will be
St Dogmael’s Day. God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders, as much as His blunders, to perform.

In the 18th century, a Jesuit missionary
From Bohemia lived among the Guaraní
In Paraguay. Seeking out the cacique of one tribe,
He was told: We have no need for you, priest:
Paí Thome Marangatu walked on our homeland himself
Carrying a wooden cross from place to place;
He taught us of the Truth, and prayed for us
In the name of the saviour, Jesus Christ.

 

VI. Martlesham Heath, 21 May

When will the kingdom come? When will the kingdom come?
The kingdom is spread out upon the earth. You do not see.
I’m going farther East in England than I’ve ever been.
The other people on the train don’t seem to care
Or seem to notice at all that we have jumped
Dimensions and are entering a sun-drenched impression
Of what the East might mean in my mind when
A weather map or a history book cites a reference.
Ipswich is oddly like Bangor, and unlike Ipswich;
As if my mind has run out of new ingredients:
Like it had to be constructed from the places
I’ve already been; like every place I go now –
Now I’ve resigned myself to the probability
That I’m unlikely ever to travel beyond
Eastern, or rather Central, Europe,
Or maybe North America once or twice more,
Because of various reasons: like money, age,
The climate emergency, not wanting to
Subject my children to unnecessary hazards,
And loving where I live too much to leave for long –
This is those places already visited and catalogued,
Disassembled and reassembled: these towerblocks,
This church, this railway track, this river,
These Georgian terraces, that flyover,
This high street, this monument, this charity shop…
I buy a Gerard Manley Hopkins book
And some Hilaire Belloc cautionary verse
Because the price of the Auden in Waterstones
Was much more than any dead man needs or deserves.
And neither best-of had The Two or The Witnesses,
So I keep re-reading it on my phone,
Neglecting the books I bought: I soon saw
That although the music and rhythm of Hopkins
Display true mastery, the substance does nothing for me.
The bus to the Heath takes a week, all round the Wrekin,
Or rather Kesgrave; and I cannot but sweat in the sun.
When will the kingdom come? When will the kingdom come?
The kingdom is spread out upon the earth. You do not see.

Walking the side-streets of East Anglia, these days,
I estimate that the country is 52%
Old men spraying pavement edges with Roundup.
This is not the kingdom. This is not the kingdom.
I am dropped like a twenty-pence teddy by a claw
In Tesco carpark, and must navigate my way
Across roads and roundabouts unforgiving
To pedestrians: all this was planned by human hands
For wheels: four wheels good; two wheels bad.
Legs? A heresy. The vicar does not like to look up
And see stained glass windows depicting the bombers,
Hurricanes, Spitfires, Typhoons, etc.
That occupied this space before the church,
The houses, the cafe, the hairdressers’,
The kingdom; but if this is not not the kingdom
Then then was it not not not the kingdom?
I do not ask. It’s not my job to ask. Not to ask that.
I ask about the way the internet has helped
Blur the boundary between church and community;
With mission and security, and funding,
Flexibility. I have a checklist – the same checklist
I’ve had for every interview, though I write it out
Anew, afresh, each time, and I’m not sure why yet.
I forget to ask his favourite colour. At the bus stop,
Packing my camera microphone away, I ask the clouds,
Lord, we know not whither thou goest; how can we know the way?
Let’s also go, that we may die with him, they seem to say.

I must cease now from my exploration
For St Dogmael’s Day is ever nearing,
And with it my nearest, latest, destination.
And the end of all my contracted exploring
As prophesied by the Super Offpeak open-return,
My suitcase full of crumpled underwear and shirts,
And the stack of receipts that fattens my wallet,
Will be a katsu curry at Paddington Station,
A mad dash for the nineteen-fifteen Great Western
Which I’m always early for, and which is usually late,
An accidentally purchased passion-fruit IPA,
A packet of disappointing crisps, an energy drink,
A nut-free chocolate bar, a half-full bottle of water,
And some Times-bestselling geopolitical tome
Which will keep me company on my lumbering journey
In search of the half-remembered notion of home;
And no knowing any more where I am going
Than knowing where I was going has gone,
And no key to a kingdom of many,
And no anthem for a nation of one.

 

Appears in:
My most serene republic [?]

Notes:
Written while travelling England for work in spring, 2019, this poem incorporates quotations and paraphrases from various Christian texts, mostly the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas.

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