I was not dreaming,
nor yet was I quite awake,
but drifting in that lucid state,
which is relaxed and yet alert.
Here and elsewhere, near and far.
Let me just say, I was aware of the bed beneath,
the voices of night, the call of an owl
aware too of a sudden surge
of thought and feeling,
reaching out from my stillness.
Without effort from me, I was standing
outside, on the small back deck.
The cunuku, ominous in the moonlight,
stretched before me like dark waves.
Naked I was too, so quite defenceless,
and somehow I knew, I had no choice,
but to walk the thorny cunuku.
So, with merry heart I stepped me down.
I could feel the stones beneath my feet
but they troubled me not at all.
Close by cactus, I felt the thorns
pass through my arms
but they troubled me not at all.
I knew I could have rolled in the wild cunuku
had I so desired….
But just to be,
to drift, to feel and be part of the deep
green heart of Nature
for a moment revealed…. it was enough.
How long I stayed, I do not know,
but long enough before,
obedient to some call unheard,
I floated up,
passed through the branches of a tree
and rolled on my back beneath the stars…
only to find myself,
turning in bed,
and laughing with delight.
That was my return…
And then I must have slept
for the next thing I knew
it was morning, with blue sky,
scudding clouds, parrots scolding
and a sweet smell in the air.
My book on my table,
ready and open,
I write these words
Lest I forget
the moment, the meaning,
the feeling of freedom.
Something of that wonder yet remains,
fine threads of memory bind it to me,
though the day, and its burdens,
have largely reclaimed me.
TROUBLE WITH CACTUS
I cleared some of the land round my little house mainly because I was told this would help keep the snakes and scorpians at bay. I had an idea I could set up a little table with a lantern so that I could eat out doors in the cool of the evening – but that came to nothing.
I had never been really close to cactus before, and I came to appreciate their tough beauty and the brilliant flowers that suddenly appeared sticking out from their stems like something pinned up by a child on its birthday. I came to appreciate the spines and needles too, some of which could pierce the sole of a hiking boot! So here is a cautionary tale.
They pierced my leather glove,
and my finger too. Whereupon,
they also have a barb,
But wherefore I know not.
Is this their joke,
these desert dwellers?
Is this their way of saying
“If you can’t take the sun
and the hard knocks,
better make a run
for your cold-aired room
and your tot of rum
served to you neat
by serving fellas
while you eat,
down by the warm blue sea…
But don’t come fuck with me.”
Not that cacti laugh a lot.
They save their energy,
because the day’s so hot:
though their roots,
I imagine, are merry
I pull the offending spine straight out.
See my skin pucker and then release.
A clean cut, small blood,
no nasty splinter left behind
to fester or cause disease.
So. Again the question. Why have spines at all?
The birds ignore them, pick at the flowers,
dine on the nectar, then bugger off home.
The ants like them – added protection!
And the lizards, the green, the blue and the grey
come and go as they please all day.
So that leaves just me and the occasional goat,
though the goats are too savvy and nimble
methinks to get themselves impaled.
So that leaves just me.
And I’m not a threat!
Gloved again and lesson-learned cautious,
I contemplate how best to proceed.
From somewhere deep inside something wakes up,
some atavistic root comes alive,
some caveman ancestor
– Neanderthal I like to think –
squatting on haunches as on a settee,
some proto-man in whose eyes the gleam of divinity
yet shines, who sees the world as his to own
and hence to be shared,
reaches up through the centuries
to guide me..
reach out to take a stone.
Cave man! My man! He knows what to do.
The stone he takes is shaped like a plate,
flat on one side… I wonder why…
Impatient, next he finds a stick,
one burned to a point, but minus a barb –
thus more like a skewer.
He prods and pierces the green prickly leaves,
placing each, like slice of toast, flat on the stone.
And when the plate is full, we pitch the leaves
with their fistful of spines,
into the heart of the fire.
An amazing sight, for one unprepared.
Those cruel spines,
so sharp and unbending,
mindless as mines,
primed to injure,
they suddenly blaze
with a hard white light..
For a moment they shine
like doomed stars shine, beautiful,
the moment before they are gone.
The rest of the leaves,
smoke and smoulder,
flaccid and harmless
like toad-skinned pancakes!
The trick once learned is easy.
Methodically I skewer and lift,
Skewer and lift,
Skewer and lift.
Look, I can quell a cactus entire
In just a single shift.
And is this good?
My ancestor looks quite glum.
He turns away, without a word,
and without a backward glance,
is gone. He has seen it all before.
There are lines, you see.
Invisible true, but for all that, real,
Lines you see with your heart
but not your eyes.
Lines that are everywhere,
and you cross them at your peril!
I had done that, used my intelligence
in my dealings with the cactus,
but not my god-given imagination
and capacity for love.
My ancestor too, in his own time,
had done the same. And his son,
and so on down the ages,
to where we are now!
Thus each generation must confront
MY FRIEND KRISHNA
The following poem was written to record a rather special meeting one lunchtime. I had dropped in to see one of my students called Takai ,and we chatted as people do about this and that, and ended up having the extraordinary conversation I have tried to reveal here.
My friend Krishna: he’s a drummer man,
much in demand for weddings and such.
He’s thoughtful too, and can im-pro-vise.
So M.F.K. he says to me one day,
he says, “God is a drummer man too.”
I pause, sip my water, say nothing. Wait.
“But no, man,” he says, misreading my silence,
“I am serious! God is a drummer man,
and when you are born, he puts a small drum,
the kind you turn, with a bead on a string,
inside your heart, and there it goes tick-tock,
tick-tock, tick-tock until the day it stop.
Then God takes up the music again,
beating out the rhythm on his big base drum,
while you lie back, sleep till you wake,
eat sweet mangoes from a silver plate.
While perfumed ladies demand your kisses
still the beat goes on and never misses…
Until God says, “Hey man. I get tired too.
You take up the slack, you take up the rhythm.
Get back down there, and say its God given.”
Then he sets the drum again in your heart
And away you go to play your part.
Tick-tock, tick-tock.till the day it stop.
So here’s the message I want to give,
we’re all drummer men for better or worse.
And the only curse, I mean the only strife
is to not hear God’s beat, just once in your life.
For when you do, all is forgiven
So dance and sing, cos that’s God’s rhythm.”
So now you know why, when MFK speaks
I remain rather silent and listen.
For I think our dreams, though cultures apart,
Run parallel. And he is right,
we each listen for the drum in the night,
and awakening, we tell the truths we know.
For me, it was the boom of the North Sea comers,
whipped to a lather by the chill east wind,
thumping the headland, just like a drum beat.
That was the sound first set my heart dancing,
as a child when I sat, at my third floor window,
hearing a call from a land unseen.
Older now, every night I listen. Whether
close to the woods of Choussy, or closer
to home in the bush near Brooklyn,
hoping to hear the beating of a drums
in the teeming rain; or a single beat
as the hunting owl drops to takes its prey.
I take my leave of my friend Krishna.
I wish him well, bon appetit, etc
and we slap palms.
For a moment time has opened.
For a moment the world has made sense.
But once again the clouds cover the stars.
I’d like to say more, as I climb
into my jeep, but I have not the words…
And in any case my thoughts are confused.
I know I am unaccountably sad, close
almost to tears… for the pity of it all.
Something has touched me like a point of flint.
It is a memory of innocence,
of a better world, slipping from us fast.
I think: “Drum well, Krishna, drummer man.
For in the time to come, when it will seem
as though Darkness is come upon us again,
we’ll need the best drumming you can.”
Last night I did not switch on the lights
as I rolled from my bed in the dark.
I had been conditioned by fear, you see,
and thus, placing my foot, flat and firm
upon the cool, dark and un-seen tile,
was an act of affirmation… or foolishness,
for scorpions are real, and here,
though humble, small. and timid.
But the scorpions that live in the mind
are bigger by far, and faster too,
especially at night. They are gifted
with cunning and venom greater
than any poet can imagine. So….
I stand in the dark, aware of shadows –
the moon at half in a dark blue sky
and the steel bright stars gleaming.
They give light enough
for window and door,
but not bright enough
for the brown tiled floor.
So… I stand in the dark,
conditioned by fear.
Uncertain until, Again…
I step down firmly.
That moon, so slim, so like a blade,
catches me unaware.
That ship in the sky.
That girl on her back,
that draws my spirit
like twine on a spool,
so beautiful I turn away.
And here is Venus,
a virgin again, bright
with the same sun-born
light as the moon,
and showing, coy as a nymph
amid the clustering palms,
the same silver beauty.
I am a lucky man.
Two gals in one night,
The one cool to be won,
The other rich in lust
and the arts of love.
TODAY WE HAVE MAKING OF MASKS
The hardest thing is starting on time,
amid the clamour of three languages
contending, blazing like a forest fire,
the whole conflagration,’
fuelled by a native enthusiasm
which is hard to resist with discipline.
Besides, I admire their rapturous,
salsa inspired, total disregard,
for my feeble, “Attention. Please,”
sounding more like a beg than an order.
Yet order does prevail.
When the cell phones are off,
drinks had, chairs moved, pencils found, books opened
I am startled to hear the sound of my voice.
“Today we have making of masks.”
Amy has volunteered, and now
she sits, face gleaming with Vaseline.
hair pulled back, eyes whited out with tissue –
No, not tissue, just feeble old Kleenex
which tears under pressure …..
…… For a moment I drift away,
remembering the sweet smell
of apples and oranges, picked in their prime
each wrapped by hand and placed in trays….
Forget the fruit, smell the tissue paper.
Test its strength. It will not tear
but modestly adheres, covering eyes,
obedient to the mask-maker‘s hand.
This Kleenex is candy floss.
a wilter and tearer! Adheres to
the finger, not to the face.
Amy is patient while I fulminate,
but time is now against us.
There’s a meeting’s been called
for dead on four, or so I am told.
Something to do with a distant location.
We’ve 45 minutes. Ok. Let’s go.
I work fast as I am used to,
Explaining techniques, short cuts, cautions.
And just as I warn ‘gainst closing the nostrils
I see that I have done that by haste.
I tease open a space, grateful to Amy
For being a trooper, not one to quit.
(Later she tells of a moment of panic,,
Which passed when she found
that again she could breathe.)
Silent now. Respectful as at a birth,
They watch, as delicately, I prize
the hardened cast from the now smiling face.
Surgeon and patient heave sighs of relief.
Not too much hair snagged, a credible likeness,
Mission accomplished, five minutes to spare.
“When you return,” I say. “When you return
From your visit to countries,
we think of as neighbourhood,
Venezuela, Porto Rico,
not to mention old New York…
When you return you will each be expected
to serve your turn as surgeon and patient,
and each make a cast as here demonstrated.
So when you return… Yes, when you return,
we will all make our masks for Commedia.”
Black Brighella, keeping time.
Time to go.
“See you all when you return.
Have a good time in the ‘neighbourhood.”
But the masks never were made.
As I turn on the tap,
and experience the first
shock of the water
on the back of my head,
the silly thought emerges –
as I gasp with surprise –
that day cool water
is more honest than hot.
Less dissembling, to be sure
you know where it’s at.
In the quick response
of shoulder and leg,
you become aware
of yourself refreshed,
more alive in the Now
and pleased with that.
To be honest is to know
not just where you are
but why you are there
even though you are trapped
and caught between contraries,
uncertain and alone,
standing in a shower,
with only one tap.
– with Hooters and Salsa
Study the rainbow,
study it closely>
Which colour is fairest?
Which will you trust?
And now at last, a day of peace.
After days of distortion and ear blast
The tranquil world of the bathing pool,
Re asserts its self.
Election day! The drums are silent,
but the road is still clogged
And the flags are still flying,
Though just what they mean no person can tell.
I would relish conversation.
Some news of the outer world.
But we are locked in a time warp here.
Sun-rise, blue sky,
clouds scud from East to West.
Blue sky, sun set.
Same clouds, same direction.
And then the Moon with Venus in tow,
adds its silver magic to the night
while the palm trees murmur together
nodding like women at the well.
Still there are no guests, save me,
the lonely man of Xanadu,
prince of the ivory deck-chairs,
and the iridescent pool,
eating his chicken salad,
sipping his glass of wine
while the fate of an island, hangs in the balance.
For days they have hogged the highway,
The party vans, sounding identical.
Salsa distorted and pumped out at max
Or bullying voices, shouting a message.
A dazzle of flags held by girls in bikinis
Or old grizzled men with too much to lose.
What is going on here?
One feels the raz-a-ma-taz, is a cover –
Sun glasses to hide a black eye.
But who is fooled? Certainly not the people
They know they are disempowered.
Some no doubt are drugged with salsa
And the comfortable myth of One Happy Island.
But not all. There are those who remember
a better time, Aruba before the
American invasion, the High Rise Hotels.
Not so prosperous as the world knows these things.
They could grow their own sweet corn.
This country, now, though richer is poorer.
But tell them that in Charlie’s bar
and they’ll laugh in your face.
My House in the Cunucu
I am the light you see
amid the dark cunucu,
the sun no more
than a stain in the sky.
Mine is the only house you’ll find
when you have passed
the last barking dog,
and the sudden dip
where the road degenerates
to pot holes, sand and rock.
Soon you will enter a world of cactus,
of thorn bush and sweet frangipani.
of oriole, eagle and scorpion.
But first you must pass the perimeter.
This is the place where civilization
… and cunucu begins.
There is no mistaking the border.
Here creeping plant meets creeping garbage.
Here someone voided their trailer –
of broken tiles, tin cans, Balashi bottles,
a bent aluminium aerial,
and ubiquitous plastic bags.
Always plastic bags and bottles.
We are drowning in plastic.
Perhaps it was here their car could go no further –
for the way gets rough and many cars stall…
or stun their axle on concrete blocks,
‘Like driving over frozen waves,’ I think
as I lurch and bound in my jeep,
(for she can cope.)
Or else they lost their nerve seeing the darkCunucu loom.
Beyond the jetsam the land becomes clean,
the plants are more assertive.
They’ll scratch your car given half a chance,
and don’t walk here in the night.
You’re looking for a sign,
neatly stencilled in blue on white,
nailed to a slanting telegraph pole,
stating simply 177 and an arrow.
pointing down a river bed.
Now you can see my house.
Tiled roof above the cunuku.
Here you will find
cool water in the fridge,
a lamp to guide the late traveller.
From here you can just see Venezuela
but not hear the roar of the road.
Nature and wandering goats.
Limes, iguana and BBC.
I’ve killed a Gecko,
not by choice,
but by chance –
I hasten to add…
For geckos are friends
in this harsh land
taking on flies,
spiders and more.
The door being open
the day being hot
it had, seemingly,
chosen to stand –
legs spread and watching
in true gecko style –
the shady location
close to a thing
that we call a hinge…
Need I say more?
Perhaps it was just
a gust of the trade wind.
Certainly I heard no
cry of distress –
but geckos rarely do complain.
They live their lives,
they do their job…
Until a door slams.
and there’s an end.
Out of a blue sky
For us, for them.
I was sweeping the house,
when I found it by chance,
still staring out,
and into the room,
its head quite whole,
its body pressed flat.
This was the gecko
I’d watched in the evening
patrolling the wall.
This was the gecko
in the way of such things
I’d considered a friend.
And then came the ants…
I have a thing about ants –
quite simply destest them –
since the day in France
they invaded my larder,
climbed up the wall
and into my books.
That day I discovered
the gecko first.
To them no doubt
the smell of death
lures like roses to a grave.
And they came
in their millions,
touching and running,
sharing glad tidings
of food for the nest.
For six days they laboured,
at Nature’s behest,
each no larger
than a seed of black mustard.
But that is enough
for legs and mandible
with which they can nibble
the flesh of a gecko
killed by a door.
And on the seventh day…
is all I discover,
and abandoned –
the army gone home.
Or perhaps gone to scavenge
in another location,
summoned by roses
that I’m glad I can’t smell.
But a brief prayer I offer,
if God will protect me.
O let me not tumble
to die on the floor,
and so share the fate
of my lovely friend gecko
as he stood
at my door.
The Mordor I refer to in this next poem is an oil refinery. It was built in the 1950s I think: then closed for a while, on-sold, up graded and re-opened. It provides the only significant employment in St Niklaus which is situated in the eastern part of the island and which once was a thriving city.. The wealth is nows in the west where the high rise hotels dominate the skyline and the restaurants are plentiful. Not many tourists make it to Baby Beach, so named because it it so safe for little children
The trade winds blow across the island from NE to SW and carry the smoke and smell away – except sometimes they don’t. Sometimes the trade wind stops, especially if there is a huricane such as Katrina making it presence felt in the north. A short time ago I heard a statistic that simply stated that cancer rates in St Niklaus where significantly higher than in any other part of the island.
I meet my friends at Baby Beach.
where clean white sand slopes gently down
from nodding palms to pale green sea.
Here,the reef is close, and so…
With snorkel and fins and arms spread wide
I hang in the water, face down,
and study the life of all that swims.
I was there for an hour or so, loving
the silver bubbles of the breaking waves
almost as much as I loved
the darting iridescent fish.
I dived to a shoal of midnight blue
who parted to let me in, and then
I met a parrot fish who,
browsing the coral, let me swim beside
with no more than a sidewards glance.
“Plenty of food for all,” he said,
and with a wave of tail, vanished.
Surfacing to speak with Lilliane and Rob,
wanting to share my childlike glee
– for this was their beach and
they’d sung its praises long and loud –
surfacing, I say, with my back to the reef,
I beheld the grim spires of Mordor.
To say I was shocked is to say the least.
I was violated, and as victims often do,
I felt ashamed. Angry too.
Of course I had seen Mordor before,
Eugene had made sure I saw the worst
as well as the best of Aruba,
but here, now, the stark contrast,
pristine bay and dirty sky,
reminded me of a drunk I saw
who tipped his beer at a party once,
down the dress of a pretty girl, because
as he said when we threw him out
she was “getting too happy.”
Why? I wondered then.
And why? I wonder now,
At a coffee break, or in barber’s chair
or while my car is being fed,
I casually sniff the air and say,
“Wind must’ve changed.”
Bait you see, cast on the calm blue silence,
of this Happy Isle to catch opinion.
And sometimes the wind had indeed changed.
On those days, schools close
and those who work in shops
make sure the doors are shut,
the air-co turned to full
hoping, I suppose, to freeze the stench
and chop it in chunks
for burial in the deep cunuku.
For twenty smoke stacks belching fumes
day and night, come rain or shine,
can sour the air for many miles
so that the very stones do stink,
and the washing on the line.
Of course when the trade winds blow
the smoke goes out to sea.
It lands on Venezuela,
but not on you or me.
HUNG OVER LINES
Hung over today
but the poems come at me like arrows,
single lines, nicely ambiguous,
hinting of depths yet to be seen.
Stanzas even, with tricky rhymes.
But today I must clean the house
I must, or even the scorpions
Only a tremble in the grass
now reveals where passed
the mighty Iguana.
Stand very still and watch.
Look to the trees.
You may see him climb –
a green shadow in a dappled tree –
snake tail banded, sliding up.
And when he stops ….
This morning, when the rain had passed,
I went in search of fresh green eggs,
for such I think of them,
these globes I find
beneath the lime in the shade of the dawn.
And always, they are waiting there,
damp with dew, my a gift for the day,
for such I think of them,
green pearls which glow
as though touched by the hand of an angel.
Thus I learn the meaning of green,
a quintessence of sun and earth,
for such I think of them,
these limes I hold,
mysterious in the palm of my hand.
THE WHITE BALLOON
The fisherman, yet in his teens,
but with old practiced hands,
ties the neck of the white balloon
tightly to the nylon cord
and lets the bait –
grey lumps of day-old squid –
Then, balloon held high, and
deftly avoiding flailing hooks,
he gives it to the trade wind,
and that wind, trusty as of old,
bustles the balloon out of his hand,
carrying it metres out over the sea,
trailing a thread of pale nylon behind.
It settles to the waves, sudden
as though caught by glue
and begins its cock-eyed
journey away from land,
showing every buffet of wind,
every tap of wave, tugging
I guess a foot of line a second.
Soon, it is out there
bobbing where the colour changes
quitting azure for the aqua marine,
thus signalling depth.
It is now where the big fish play.
The wind is stronger too I see,
And the waves steeper, their crests white
And weeping with flung spray.
Finally the balloon is lost to sight.
The fisherman stares at his hands:
Now only the running line,
held twixt finger and thumb
tells of its journey.
And what is its fate?
Will it suddenly dip
As a fish takes the bait,
To be drawn back slowly,
whether tattered or whole
Bringing home food for a fisherman’s family.
Mission accomplished, no more to say
Will it come back empty,
Its sharp hooks gleaming?
Or will one of the speed boats
Sever its line, set it to drift,
to wander and founder,
stranded on coral
on some distant shore?