Not a rehearsal

Life
they say
is not a rehearsal.
And having given the matter
due dawn consideration
I am inclined to believe
they might be right.
After all
we don’t get a chance
to take it from the top
once more
with feeling;
no going back over
our errors, missteps
stumbled entrances, fumbled lines.
So I’ve always taken the cliché to mean
that life must, therefore
be a performance:
but who would willingly
take on the role;
saying our piece, making our moves
with little prospect of applause, just reward
or even a good review
for a run that only ever ends
one way.
No. On balance, Life is, I think,
more an audition:
each day we must take a deep breath
step into that spotlight
open our hearts
strut our stuff
reach down deep
give our all
in the hope that it will be
enough.
And some days
it is.
And some days
they’ll let us know.

Crossroads V

So time went by. I did my best, just getting through the day.
But it was tough with all the stuff the world put in my way.
One night I sat up late, the empty page an accusation.
My mind was numb. The hour had come to seek new inspiration.

And thus it was I found myself back at that lonely spot
I knew so well. No way to tell if he’d appear or not.
Perhaps this time he’d let me down and leave me here to stew:
Then the silence broke as a deep voice spoke: “Well, whaddya know. It’s you.”

I turned and saw the Devil wearing his infernal grin;
The Prada-suited, undisputed champion of sin.
He waved the sulphurous smoke aside, jabbed his pitchfork in the ground.
“Long time no see. So what are we here for this time around?”

“Oh, the usual,” I admitted. Satan groaned and rolled his eyes.
“You mean to say I came all this way for that? It’s no surprise
I guess; you always were high-maintenance. Poets always are.
Guys playin’ the blues are what I’d choose. They’re easier by far.”

He sat down on the slab of stone. “So, shoot. What’s on your mind?
But just the headlines: I got deadlines – and I’m already behind.”
“I’ve tried to hope and carry on just like you told me to,”
I said, “but I’m all out of rhyme and don’t know what to do.

“Each time I think we’ve hit the bottom things keep getting worse.
No end in sight to this long nightmare. It’s like there’s a curse
On us: disease, division, hate, corruption running rife;
It’s hard to give a positive perspective on this life.”

The Devil smiled. “You noticed, huh? I kinda hoped you might.
It’s taken years – you’ve no idea – but it’s finally comin’ right.
My plans have been frustrated and derailed in many ways;
But I declare we’re almost there: behold the End of Days.”

“What – wait: that’s it? There’s no more hope?” I asked. The Devil beamed.
“I could be wrong but I think you’ve gone too far to be redeemed
This time,” he said, “It seems to me it’s over now for good.
A short delay and then we’ll say ‘there goes the neighbourhood’.”

He gestured with a languid hand. “Just look around and tell
Me you don’t think you’re on the brink and it’s all going to hell.
Believe me, boy, it’s happenin’: it won’t be long before
The final stop, when the handcart drops you right outside my door.”

“And then what?” I demanded. Satan’s face creased in a frown.
“It’s not as though you folks don’t know how this will all go down,”
He said, “It’s all there in That Book; a detailed explanation.
I fail to see why this should be some kind of revelation.”

I looked up at the starlit sky, let out a shuddering breath.
It seemed to me that suddenly I felt the weight of death
Fall on my heart like lead. “This is the end; all’s said and done?”
“Sure looks that way. Been nice to play; now it’s game over – and I’ve won.”

I felt as though the ground was shifting underneath my feet.
This was absurd: had I just heard correctly? Were defeat
And ultimate destruction coming; was I the first to know?
And now I knew, what should I do? “Tell me it isn’t so,”

I pleaded. Satan shrugged. “Look, I’m not totally elated:
I’ll have my fun; but when I’m done, I’ll be – well, terminated.
So if you’ve got complaints to make about the master plan,
Don’t give me grief: your real beef is with – y’know. The Man.”

Now I got angry. “So it’s not your fault: you’re not to blame
For all this mess; I should address – ” “Hey, don’t you say that name
When I’m around, son; bad idea. We have some history,”
The Devil hissed. “Yeah, sure, you’re pissed. But spare a thought for me.”

“A thought for you?” I cried. “Oh, right. Please tell me that you’re joking.
And if you’re not, do give me what it is that you’ve been smoking.
You unleash plague and pestilence, false prophets spouting lies
And then ask me for sympathy as you face your demise?”

The Devil leapt up, seized his fork. I knew I’d gone too far.
His red eyes flashed, his long tail lashed. “Who do you think you are?
I am the Prince of Darkness – Lucifer – the one who fell.
You’re nothing, boy. I can destroy you, drag your soul to hell.”

Yet my courage did not fail me. “Yeah, you say that: but, you know?
From what I see, it wouldn’t be too far for me to go.
Your wicked wiles have ruined most things irretrievably.
So do your worst: won’t be the first time life’s been hell for me.”

Ol’ Satan stared; then he whooped and slapped a neatly-tailored thigh.
“I never thought you were the sort; the kind to do or die.
I’d all but given up on you; seemed like you were a dud.
But you’ve shown your sand, so I’ll stay my hand. I’m not out for blood.”

He leaned upon his pitchfork. “Son, the things you said are right.
But all hell’s let loose and there’s no use in tryin’, alone, to fight
The hordes of liars I’ve released; the vile, mendacious mob
That run the show for now. You know I’m only doin’ my job.”

“Then what I am supposed to do if fighting’s off the table?
I can’t strike back and clearly lack a means by which I’m able
To make a difference to things now, or those that lie ahead.
What place for me, or poetry? I might as well be dead.”

The Devil raised an eyebrow. “Son, remember who I am.
You might despair and think that there’s no cause to give a damn.
But listen very carefully. I really shouldn’t say it:
That gift you’ve got is worth a lot, and you should not betray it.

“When everything seems pointless and the world is turnin’ dark
That is the time for words that rhyme; you hold the magic spark
That helps to keep the hope alive that one day will dawn brighter.
It’s what poets do; the world needs you to be a lover, not a fighter.”

His cell phone buzzed. “Must skedaddle; things I gotta do.”
He grabbed his fork. “It’s good to talk, and now I’m tellin’ you
That some day it’s all over. Don’t wish your time away.”
When the smoke had cleared, he’d disappeared. And I did not fear the day.

Been wanting to write a fifth part of my idiotic Crossroads sequence for a while, and it finally came to me yesterday. I intended this to be my last conversation with His Infernal Highness The Prince of Darkness, but I’m already missing him, and can’t entirely rule out another diabolical midnight rendezvous at some point. Not sure which I should be more concerned about, really: that these imaginary dialogues with the Devil are such a good way to get things straight in my mind; or that I enjoy writing ludicrous doggerel ballads so much! Answers on a postcard…Have a great weekend, y’all. N.

Crossroads. Again.

My life had reached a flat dead end. No way that I could see
Which way to go; no sign to show the choices left to me.
I could not sleep. So as midnight chimed I quietly closed the door;
At a brisk, bold pace I approached the place I’d been three times before.

Now as then the sky was black as a cellar filled with coal.
No moon in sight and I felt the night lie heavy on my soul.
Would he appear, I wondered; had I made my trip in vain?
Then a shudder of dread as a soft voice said, “And so, we meet again.”

I slowly turned. My palms were damp. Sweat prickled in my hair.
My heartbeat raced. And now I faced him: Satan, standing there
Immaculate in Prada as he ever was. His smile
Was cruel and keen. “I haven’t seen you out here in a while.

So, what’s up, son? No; let me guess: you’re seeking my assistance
With making rhymes, just like old times. I admire your persistence.
But before you start in asking me to help you change your fate
As you can tell, the world’s gone to Hell; I’ve plenty on my plate.

My hands are full with all the shit that’s going down right now;
The world’s in flames and all the blame’s been put on me somehow.
Oh sure, it’s good for business when you folks are in a mess,
But there’s no escape from the ol’ red tape that comes with that success.

You don’t know what it’s like down there: we’re full right to the top
With grift and sleaze, corrupt MPs: a real bumper crop
Of sinners, ne’er-do-wells and crooks; trade’s never been so strong.
I’m eyeballs-deep, don’t get no sleep – and now you come along.”

He stretched his shoulders, rubbed his eyes, scratched his unshaven chin.
Beneath his stare I wondered where and how I should begin.
“Look, I like you, son, though Lord knows why, so say what’s troublin’ you.
But make it quick, because I can’t stick around: got stuff to do.”

I took a deep breath. “All right,” I said, “I’ll lay it on the line:
I know for you and your wicked crew that things are going fine.
But I look at my life and wonder where my hope has gone.
What do I gain from all this pain; why should I carry on?”

The Devil looked at me askance, a red glow in his eyes.
“Oh, something small; I’m glad that’s all. If I may summarise:
We gone from helping you write poems, maybe get some sleep
To life and death in just one breath. I’d call that mission creep.”

“It’s you who got me here,” I said, “Thought you were on my side;
We had a deal; but life’s revealed the painful truth: you lied.
You said you’d help me find my voice if I gave up my soul;
But you tell me: where’s poetry in this infernal hole?

What use am I and what I write when life has reached this state:
I might as well join you in Hell and save myself the wait.
Why shouldn’t I find a way out to release me from this curse.
The whole position, by your own admission, is bad – and getting worse.”

He shrugged. “It’s like I said before: we see things different ways.
What’s great for me might seem to be for you the end of days.
But if you’re serious we’ll play the oldest game in town.
No A to Z, it’s binary: stay up, or come on down.”

“Is heaven not an option, then?” I asked. My voice was faint.
Ol’ Satan grinned, “’Fraid not; you’ve sinned too much to be a saint.
Besides,” he said and shot his cuffs, “you’re better off with me.
Their climate’s good, but I know you would prefer our company.

Sure, I’d be glad to have you there; you’re always welcome, son.
But now is not the time; you’ve got a lot left to be done.
And when you’ve done it, then perhaps you’ll join me and admire
The place I dwell: great views of Hell, across the Lake of Fire.”

Then he fixed me with a bloodshot eye. “Son, there will come a day
When this will end; but I recommend you don’t speed it on its way.
So count your blessings. I didn’t say that. Don’t you dare repeat it.
Sure things are rough; but look, you’re tough. Hang in there. You can beat it.”

“That’s your advice? Just suck it up? You’ve nothing else?” I said.
“No bargain struck to change my luck? Just struggle on instead?
I thought you’d think big, work the angles, beat a different drum.
I can’t believe I was so naïve. I wish I’d never come.”

The Devil glared. “Be careful, boy; you’re startin’ to upset me.
Time’s come for you to go and do this for yourself. You get me?
You’ll hurt, for sure, but when it’s over you’ll thank me for showin’
The old sayin’s true: when you’re halfway through Hell, best to keep on goin’.”

He checked his Rolex. “Gotta run. I need to see conditions
Are suitably unsavoury for incoming politicians.
Adios,” he said and with a whiff of sulphur he was gone.
What he said was true. All we can do is hope, and carry on.

Needed a shake-up and a talking-to this week, so I consulted an old friend. As usual, he was right on the money. N.

Dog’s life

Me: So. What makes a good and worthy life?
My best friend just looks at me
With fond, pitying eyes that plainly say
What kind of question is that?
Please. I need to know.
OK. First, eat. Anything and everything put before you.
Plus whatever you can find. You may surprise yourself.
Then sleep. Dream. Find the warm spots.
Let others envy your repose, so instant and complete.
Yet always be ready to respond.
There is promise in every sound and movement. You just never know.
Ignore the stick, the ball, the bird:
Mere distractions, unworthy of your speed and skill.
Not so the cat, the rabbit:
Always engage with your true work. For you will have your day.

And those I meet?
Some will reach out, some recoil.
Learn when to press for friendship, and when to walk away.

What are my watchwords?
Loyalty without subservience.
Courage without recklessness.
Fierceness without savagery.

To sum up, then…
Live enormously.
Love immoderately.
Serve unfailingly.
Be adored, remarkable, irreplaceable.

And is that enough? I ask.
My best friend’s eyes are laughing now.
You tell me.

Their greatest fans, of which I’m one, would readily concede that whippets aren’t the brightest dogs in the world – they’re born to run, not to think – but like all canines, they know a thing or two about living. Even an example as irredeemably obtuse as our beloved Viggo is consistently in tune with what’s truly important in a way I never seem able to maintain. How I envy his simple outlook, uncomplicated moral code and serene, untroubled mind, especially in times like these. N.

A charm against wanton destruction

IMG_0171 (2)

I cannot stop you tearing up the land;
Turn back the clock or stay your heedless hand;
No word of mine can still your crushing wheels;
My flesh and bone no match for your cold steel.

But what I can, I’ll do. And so I lay
This charm upon you and your deeds this day.

From sullied soil, let briar and bramble spring –
Let thistle burn, thorn scratch and nettle sting;
And when the summer sun warms earth and sky,
Come, adders, sharp of fang and cold of eye.

In every vehicle that you blithely ride
Let spiders big as saucers now reside;
And in the cabin where you take your rest
Bid hordes of wicked hornets build their nest.

Then let it rain and churn the clay to mire
To grab and grip and clog each helpless tyre;
And when the cries of rook-bands fill the air
May you hear mocking laughter everywhere.

Now let this doom hang heavy round your necks;
A right reward for him who rips and wrecks
Without regard or care. My rhyme is done.
But not the charm. Its work has just begun.

Over the hill?

There’s really no need
To paint
SLOW
In large mocking letters
On this thirteen-percenter:
I’m not about
To flout the speed limit here;
It’s all I can do
To keep this small gear
Just going over
And my two wheels turning.
With legs and lungs burning
Approaching the top:
Can’t stop. Kicks up again:
More pain
Piled on. Now. Just one
More push and it’s done.
And suddenly
Gravity
Lets go of me
And I’m no longer quietly dying
But flying.

Thwarted

No torment so sweet
As a brand-new bicycle
Confined to the house
As the rain falls.

The spotless silver chain,
Those glossy black tyres
That smooth, gleaming paint:
I cannot do it –

Something within me rebels
At the very thought
Of knowingly exposing her
To what’s out there:

Bleak roads all awash
Seeded with needle-tipped flints
Slathered with churned filth
Potholes like bomb craters.

Fear not, my lovely.
The moment will come
When, under blue skies,
We finally get acquainted.

 
 

The calendar says it’s spring. The daffodils, primroses, snowdrops, celandines, windflowers and assorted amorous birdlife all concur. The weather, however, is refusing to get with the programme. Profoundly bored of the endless wind and rain now; longing for dry roads and warm, sunny days. N.

Return of the jorio

It’s just four lines
Of four words each.
Can’t be that hard.
I mean, come on:

Not like the sonnet,
The villanelle, the ode
And not even close
To the wicked sestina;

No rhyme, no metre,
No stressed, counted syllables;
No getting stomped on
By careless iambic feet

And no limits, either:
Gorge yourself on stanzas;
Let rip, cut loose
Because here, anything goes.

Even the ending’s easy:
You just quit when
You’re no longer inspired
(No rhyming couplet required).

Is it a poem?
Depends what you mean.
OK, so it’s not
Shakespeare, Shelley or Sassoon

Wordsworth, Whitman, Browning, Blake,
Marvell, Masefield, McGough, Muldoon,
Hardy, Hughes, Heaney, Holmes
Or Gerald Manley Hopkins;

But if every word
Is carefully, thoughtfully chosen
Earns its rightful place
Carries its full weight

Adds to the story
Hooks them, holds them
And, were it missing,
You’d feel the loss

It seems to me
That it must be.
As to this one
You be the judge.

 
 

I haven’t written a jorio for ages: I’d forgotten how much fun this simple form can be. A good warm-up for the brain before getting down to something more exacting; or, as with this one, the perfect cool-down after being shackled to the keyboard until late by the day-job. Glad to have rediscovered it. N.

Big step

I have boots to go walking
In rain, mud and snow;
I have black shiny numbers
To wear should I go
To a wedding or funeral
Or a big interview:
But I’ve nothing, my love,
To go dancing with you.

I have trainers for training
Bike shoes for the bike;
Flip-flops for a holiday
More boots for a hike;
All occasions are covered
Save for one, sad but true:
I have nothing to pull on
And go dancing with you.

How did I let this happen
What was my big mistake?
When did I get distracted
Which wrong path did I take?
It’s a damn poor reflection
When I can’t even choose
To take my true love dancing
Just because I’ve no shoes.

It’s a bad situation
I won’t take any more:
Going to find me some footwear
And step out on that floor.
There’s so much in this life
That leaves me feeling blue:
But tonight I’ll be happy
When I’m dancing with you.