Tragedy branding

Tragedy branding

“Have you ever tried needles?” he asked,
Mancunian tongue, Gog saliva.
Thin and looking sorry for himself.
“Amazing,” he said, out of focus.
On his first morning in the city
He had a girl 12 years his junior
Navigating the stolen street signs
And temporary fencing in our
Kitchen to make him filter coffee,
And a job interview to go to.
She ironed his purple shirt for him.
I didn’t know we had an iron.
“Isn’t she beautiful?” he enthused
Before she was even out the door.
I shrugged. Heading out into the heat
Without deodorizing, no more
To watch old men in suits half as old
Reminisce on Chinese business trips
Or bankers barely older than me
Explain why communism failed,
I begrudged him his optimism.
I was leaving the city that week
Without all the answers I’d sought,
The brown corduroys I’d only just bought,
Or much beyond yes, no, please and beer
In a language I’d never now learn.
Had I tried needles? Need he have asked?
Nevertheless, by then friends were scarce.
So the day before my departure
We sat and drank in an Irish bar
In the Old Town to kill the morning,
Waiting for our mutual man, Mark;

Eyes fixed on the TV’s rolling news:
Bombs on trains and buses. In London.
This was before phones had internet –
Besides which, I was between phones then;
Between jobs, between meals, between homes…
No way of contacting my brother.
Would he still be alive tomorrow?
“What’ll they call this, d’you think?” he asked.
I recalled that last summer at home,
Before the degree and the divorce,
A Barbara Allen adaptation
On Radio 4 being cut across
By talk of World Trade Centres and planes
That would soon be dubbed Nine Eleven.
The War on Terror was underway
By then; everywhere I spoke, schoolkids
Would shout “George Bush!” and give a thumbs-down.
We never brainstormed a likely brand.
I left for a block of Danish cheese,
Which would be my only souvenir;
The stink of which would permeate through
My dearest possessions for a year.
He came to Prague to kick a habit,
As I had found out so many did.
I wonder what the place made of him –
And what he made of it. But that night
Mark and I kicked a Gambrinus can
All the way from Hlavní Nádraží
Through hot drunken streets of cheering Czechs
To our door and upstairs to our flat.
If I’m really honest with myself,
I’ve wondered more what became of that.

 

Appears in:
Rhymes for all times [2015]

Begging letters

Begging letters

Dear Nicholas,

How are you?

It’s a long time since I wrote.
You see, I’ve wanted for nothing
Since you last received my note.
I’d like to think I’ve been good in the interim,
Although, it’s harder to be sensitive
When insensible of an incentive.
And, while I know that if I find myself drowning
I might want to learn how to swim,
When I know I’m already on land I could never
Persuade myself to row.
So, I have not murdered, or lied,
Or coveted anyone else’s wives,
Or taken any more than I was willing to give,
Or knowingly suffered one whom I suspected
Of being a witch to live,

But I have asked questions,
And I haven’t always liked the replies.
You wouldn’t like them either, Nicholas;
You wouldn’t believe your eyes
If I showed you, for instance,
That your red coat used to be green
Before some puckish person’s penmanship
On the cover of a magazine
Delivered you to Atlanta
To a soft-drinks manufacturer,
Forevermore to be seen
On the side of a lorry, with a bottle in hand,
And a somehow-unhealthy sheen.

Or if I showed you of yestercentury,
When your job was done by another:
A sky god like he who you now represent
But married to our old earth mother;
Did you crawl from the ashes of the Yule Goat,
Or sail here in a steamer from Spain?
Did you fall from the heavens in the wildest hunt
Or walk over the Great European Plain?

And are you still the patron of prostitutes?
So many questions, forgive me, dear Nick;
It’s just that I hear all these conflicting messages
And wonder at the length of your wick.

Would you believe me if I told you
That the whole concept of sainthood began
Only to serve the multifaceted needs
Of polytheistic man?
What would Jesus make of it all, do you think?
Do you mind that I ask you that?
How would he feel, do you suppose,
That the empire he fought to the death against
Became the empire he begat,
Which took his death
And fetishized it
In execution-chic giftshop tat?

Zion’s still waiting,
Sore bear at the bee hive,
For something holy to arrive,
For something holy to arrive
For the first time.

Oh, Nicholas, I never believed in you.
At least not in the sense that you needed me to.
Perhaps you’d have seemed more plausible
If we’d imported Krampus too
And been threatened with more than empty stockings
If we didn’t do what we were told –
Let blood and bones and entrails replace
Our frankincense, myrrh and gold –
But the Disneyfication of our mythology extends
To the bible and beyond, including folk tales and legends;
It’s a Wonderful Life followed on from A Christmas Carol,
And the suicide rate rockets annually
As you roll out the barrel.

Oh, we’re letting the Africans know
That we’re dreaming of seasonal snow;
That we’re missing sales targets
At faux farmers’ markets;
And now, it’s beginning to show.

With tear-glazed eyes we expect
Something holy, something holy;
We, our lives the size of insects,
Inspect every text that survives
For words long, long ago prophesized
And await, like the spiders the flies,
That something holy, which must arrive;
Something holy must arrive,
Soon, sometime.

Dear Nicholas,

They say it all came from Hydrogen
And I’m stuck for a contrasting explanation.
I feel sick as they insist that nothing holy can exist;
Well, how can that be true if I am writing to you?
I’m told you’re not real and asked if I feel okay.
And I did, until I lost the brief belief I entertained as a kid
That the gist if not the grist of every Christmas list
Had a hope of being met by you and the hired help you enlist;
Weren’t you some kind of superman like Moses or Mohammed
Who could see the potential in all of us:
The collateral in the damage?

If there’s no hell for Christopher Hitchens,
Will your elves carve a coffin he’ll fit in?
If there’s no heaven for Mother Teresa,
Must I dig up her bones now to meet her?

You seemed a reasonable compromise,
That promised a measure of clarity;
That wove a satisfactory mystery
Between the history of barbarity
And the barbarity of history.

But to me you just weren’t compatible;
Where were you at the nativity?
You’re a marketing power tool that got out of hand,
Something serious come of levity;
An accidental brand.

Like Saint Valentine before,
You have a lot to answer for.
You’re an icon of berries and stuffing,
To the joy of getting something for nothing,
And the hope perhaps that if we play our roles
In a pantomime riddled with plot-holes
We’ll be rewarded as we strive
And something holy will arrive
Something holy will arrive
In the half-time;
To legitimize our lives
That something holy will arrive
For the first time.

This is my plea, then, Nicholas;
At this cue, which I now give to you,
Please would you give me a clue;

What should I tell my daughter, dear Nicholas?
What should I tell her about you?
We don’t keep a working chimney, you know,
And we never saw reindeer that flew.

What should I tell my daughter, dear Nicholas?
What should I tell her if she asks?
Should I let a story get in the way of the truth,
Though it’s uglier than that which it masks?

What should I tell little Sybil, dear Nicholas?
What should I tell her about you?
What if she enquires as to your ethnicity?
Are you German, Turk, American, Saami or Jew?

Shall I tell her on Christmas eve, dear Nicholas,
As we put out your milk and mince pies,
To keep an eye on the sky –
Half-blind with lightyears of lies –
And to wait for something holy to arrive?

Shall I tell her come yuletide you’ll ride overhead,
Like Odin before, and leave coins in the shoes or the socks
That she’ll place at the end of her bed?

Or shall I tell her not to listen, not to fill her head
With the silly stories of the other stupid children
Who mention you, by any name?

Shall I tell her the history and cut out the mystery;
Throw Zwarte Piet and Rudolph out with our dead Christmas tree?
Wouldn’t that be quite a shame?

Could you advise me, dear Nicholas?
I need someone to blame.
Could you help me?

Yours faithfully,

A. S. H. Velky

 

Appears in:
Rhymes for all times [2015]

Roads

Roads

All we lowly wingless grubs
That journey through this hostile place
Know something of the bargain struck
Between individual and race;
Between cartographer and tourist;
Between a mother and her cubs;
Between the brilliant and the boorish
To help us navigate at pace
The routes that help us feed and breed,
And our ancestors’ steps retrace.

All these arteries and veins
That import oxygen and pox
Are something greater than the sum
Of their dirt and dust and concrete blocks;
Of their letters, numbers and symbols;
Of their cabs, cars, barges and trains;
Of their travellers, sluggish or nimble,
And, yes, less; with their quays and locks,
Tolls, trolls, and prices – tall or small –
For all the spices in our woks.

All our gods have fled these paths
Now they don’t tread with feet of clay;
And their absence raises questions:
Will night give way, tomorrow, to day?
Will plans allow for human error?
Will contour lines confound the maths?
Will the beauty counterweigh the terror?
Such fancies keep our fears at bay
While our destinations, dates and fates
Drift further and further away.

All this progress that we make
With these engines and this oil
Makes me hesitate unduly,
Takes this labour and makes it toil;
Takes this neighbour and makes it stranger;
Takes this baker and makes it bake;
Takes this mobile-home and makes it danger,
Such that family becomes foil
For species till, lo: by and by,
To mobility we’re loyal.

 

Appears in:
Rhymes for all times [2015]

A voice from a bin

A voice from a bin

after Lloyd James

I heard a voice from a bin
Saying something about this
Epoch I’m living in.

I couldn’t make out the tense –
Or the gist of its list of
Unproven arguments –

But it kept up its complaint;
Its tone was no less vexing
For being so frail and faint.

I started digging around
Among plastic skeletons
In that burial mound;

Therein I found a sealed box
From which my ear detected
Arrhythmical soft knocks.

I took it to experts, but
None could unlock it. I knocked
Back, yet it remained shut.

I smashed it with a hammer,
And among its smithereens
Found but gilt and glamour.

I felt a lump in my throat
As I tried to swallow all
The sentiments I wrote;

For I hoped my lilting lies
Might someday swallow the facts,
Like lizards swallow flies.

I impressed my signet seal
On a contract comprising
A real property deal,

And I built my castle there:
Its foundations in quicksand;
Its turrets in the air.

And I commanded great wealth;
I taxed my vassals by force,
And slew my foes by stealth.

I whored and gorged and purged; while
The finest booze flowed, my arse
Oozed blood, phlegm, sweat and bile.

Even the fattest grow thin:
I threw my voice once too far;
Now I speak from that bin.

 

Appears in:
Rhymes for all times [2015]

Failed states

Failed states

Stale fates in failed states
In stalemates with hale hates.

Unequal wealth, unequal health,
Unequal rights for serfs and knights.

The worth of salt, the worth of sand;
The worst default, a dearth of land.

Today’s sorrows, desires clash;
Today’s empires, tomorrow’s ash.

The hardest reigns, the tautest chains,
The tamest beasts, northwestsoutheasts.

A chartered place, a gartered race,
A bartered lease, a martyred peace.

The seed of hope, a timely trope;
The story arcs, amusement parks.

Stale ideals on splintered wheels
On crumbling roads with weary loads.

Male mirages, entourages,
Cruel collages, brisk barrages.

Ice-cube castles, cunning vassals,
Vying currents, themes recurrent.

Policy-makers, butchers, bakers;
Signatory, death or glory.

Cattle-herder, mange and moult;
Attempted murder, rise, revolt.

Condemned creations, foiled fates,
Attempted nations, failed states.

 

Appears in:
Rhymes for all times [2015]

Legacy

Legacy

This will be my legacy: a…
Horrible thought to dwell upon;
Especially when drunk, I’m told.
You helped me understand – well, tried;
For dominus is domino:
Under any influence, on
Cue, on call, or on target.
Kabbalah, code-word or cross-stitch,
Your gifts in this ongoing saga.
Old bone whittled into a shiv,
Untimely blessings for to give.

Ubiquity, a milky tea,
Played its part well and made a man
You’d not recognize as your boy
Of me. I reflect all I suck
Up with these lips like fat fungi.

Rather than being what I eat, I’d
Much rather be obsolete. It’s
Up to you to grant me this, my
Mandate for murder, my sweet; so
Act keen, and curse with your kiss. You
Need me for now, I know; but four
Decades down – if I live – my death’s
Door is yours to open and close.
And, though my story’s yours to tell,
Don’t watch me while I shuffle off.

 

Appears in:
Rhymes for all times [2015]

My diaries

My diaries

No ceremonial farewell
To my diaries. I let them
Fall into an eager bin bag
Onto leavings from days-old meals

Without a second glance. I burnt
The first in 1996
When my brother read it aloud,
But since then they’d been allowed to

Occupy a suffocating
Space in a drawer, or else a box,
In every room I’d moved in to.
Every year the stack expanded

With a slap or thud: the ring-bound
Tearaways from ’97,
The sunflower, the mottled grey,
The big red, and the little black;

A new volume each midwinter,
Filled with frustrated lusts and trusts
In weary biro, drawn out on
An indifferent shade of ruled white.

Try as I might, I couldn’t feel
Any warmth transfer to my hands
From these embers of me. I hoped
Nightly they would rewrite themselves

Into something my grandchildren
Might want to read – or else a tract
So scandalous I’d need to feed
Them to the flames, like the first one,

In order to be freed. But no:
Days just come and go, like days do,
With longer gaps between until
Early May, 2004,

Brought LiveJournal, Blogger, Twitter,
And so much more; and all intent
Became a public history,
Showing another side of me:

The side I’d rather people see,
For better, worse. Now I only
Feel how I felt writing in them
When nobody knows where I go.

 

Appears in:
Rhymes for all times [2015]

Beware enlightenment

Beware enlightenment

You washed and dried your hands
Of every mystery:
Told them to solve themselves,
Sat down to take your tea,

Took time to jot down words
For each solid object,
Threw out the deities
But kept every insect

You could catch in your net
Displayed in a glass case
Buffed enough to show your
Face: bodies pinned in place.

You confidently quote
The most modish mouthpiece
For your philosophies:
Words only yours on lease,

Only prescient at
Time of going to press.
The impressions they leave
Might not for long impress.

Beware enlightenment,
With surety be not shod.
Eschew truths: an ignored
God is an angry god.

 

Appears in:
Rhymes for all times [2015]

Painted horses

for Tadeusz Narkiewicz

Painted horses

Painted horses graze the pastures
In the past I thought I had,
Churning turf in sepia fields
Dewed by the blood of the bad:
Men with scimitars and turbans
Who rode in from eastern lands,
On their own unpainted horses
With their bibles in their hands.

I am descended from knighthood
So my father often told;
How a distant male ancestor –
Gentle, brave, gallant and bold –
Had fought off Ottoman armies
Along the Danube so blue;
He painted his horse red and white,
And did what he had to do.

Painted horses, said my dad, met
The panzer in ’39,
Built in far-away factories
By the green banks of the Rhine.
But I never thought to ask my
Grandad when he was alive –
I can barely recall his voice;
He died when I was just five.

And no horses were included
In his wartime photographs;
But tanks and uniformed young men,
All of whom soon parted paths.
He was born in Vilnius, and –
So my father often said –
When he was still a teenager,
Stalin painted that town red.

He was kept in a transit camp
Until Russia joined the West;
He lied about his age and was
Sent west then at their behest –
Crossed the Great European Plain
And somehow ended up here,
Far away from painted horses
And all he had once held dear.

In a town in the Black Country
He settled down with a wife;
Like many others, did his best
To make an attempt at life:
Scrubbed tanks in a chemical plant,
Never sending letters east;
Had four children, lost his wife, and
Smoked his way to his last priest.

Alas, no diary was found
Among his personal cause,
Just the mundane mementos of
That second greatest of wars:
Some photographs of his family,
Some photographs of his friends,
And some letters typed in German
With “Heil Hitler” at the end.

Though any of us could now play
Judge, historian, or sleuth
In an impossible quest for
That illusive thing called truth;
Like a madman, like a minstrel,
Like a boy I still believe
In horses – in painted horses
There is nothing to reprieve.

 

Appears in:
Rhymes for all times [2015]

Rhymes for all times

Rhymes for all times

Let us be honest. Let us be thorough.
Let us keep faith in our quest for the truth.
Let us deal fairly with one another:
An eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth.
Let us strive to choose only the right words
For the tales we tell those who bury us.
Let us have no shame. Let us join no herds
By force. Let us pay those who ferry us,
But change the course of this river for good.
If they come to doubt our obedience,
We’ll only say we’ve changed its course for good;
And when out shopping for ingredients
We’ll never again take lemons for limes:

Rhymes, rhymes for all times.
Rhymes, rhymes for all times.

Let us cut corners. Let us build borders.
Let us burn bridges and books where we must.
Let us follow protocol and orders:
Reducing all dissenting bulk to dust.
Let us strive to record the right voices
For cacophony will drown out our tune.
Let us lead by force. Let us make choices
On behalf of all. Let us claim no boon
We’re unwilling or unable to repay.
Let us prey. Let us pounce. Let us draw blood.
Let’s find a way to get folk to repay
What they owe to us: plague, fire, famine, flood.
We’ll state that the deeds justify the crimes:

Rhymes, rhymes for all times.
Rhymes, rhymes for all times.

 

Appears in:
Rhymes for all times [2015]