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.

Alternative histories

I find myself surrounded now
By millions drenched in pure nostalgia –
One hundred per cent proof against
The world they see as forced upon them –
For a time and country they never knew
That like Arcadia or Atlantis
Is all the more beguiling
For never having been.
Their wish to rewrite and rewind our history
And fervent fealty to their imagined glory
Have won for them the crown and flag
I used to see as mine as well
And in so doing made a shell-shocked fiction
Of all I thought I knew.
And so I will allow myself
A little longing of my own
For another life I never lived
And, had it been handed to me then
Would probably have refused
As one too frightened, small, suburban
For something so grand, hard-edged, expansive.
So permit me a moment’s misty-eyed
Far-back-reaching, sadly sighing
Regret for all I never was
And in all honesty, humility and likelihood
Never could have been.

Hope dawns

Day is not come.
Not quite yet:
Malignancy and malice linger still.

But this is now, at last,
The hour before the dawn
And somewhere in the dark

A throng of birds begins
To sing, full-throated; and soon their song
Will ring unchecked across the land.

Then light will flood the sky
And with it we’ll forget
The night we once believed would never end.


God bless America. The thoughts and hopes of the world are with you. Thank you. And Johnson? You’re next.

Droighneach: Defiance

For the first time in my life I am despairing.
Our worst fears realised: sickness, hatred, strife, corruption
Spreading through the land; our leaders gross, vile, uncaring
As we’re heading, deep in denial, for destruction.

When I was younger, stronger, I might have resisted.
But I no longer have the will to fight; defeated
By depths of greed and lies I never knew existed.
And deed by wicked deed the coup’s completed.

So to the wood, the field. In their quiet rehearsing
Of good, timeless tales, truth is revealed; no agenda.
I regain my voice and strength. The dark is dispersing.
My choice is stark but clear. I will not surrender.

The Celtic droighneach is probably the most challenging form I’ve encountered; although it looks simple enough, to my mind only the sestina comes close in terms of metrical constraints and complexity. It’s so taxing I can manage only about one a year, but it’s always fun to do (in hindsight, and following a stiff drink and a lie down in a darkened room). N.

Pyre

Everything is burning.
I could sweep up
All the oceans of the world
In a bucket big as the moon
And still not douse the flames;

What will be left
But blistered brick, charred timbers
Glass puckered like a fairground mirror,
Ash and soot, reeking skies,
Survivors wandering the ruins like lost dogs.

And what will rise:
Golden cities, verdant acres – or dead grey wastes
Where blank-faced blocks like sarsen stones
Throw their sharp shadows
And chill all those who pass.

 
 

Not very cheerful for a sunny Friday, I’m afraid. But with everything that’s going on here in the UK, it’s pretty much all I’ve got today. I’m sorry. Take care of yourselves and those you love. N.

UDI

Wish I could declare
A republic of myself;
A polity of one
With humane statutes,
And no bronze statues.
I’d open up my borders
Live in lasting union with the world
And in my sovereignty
Extend the hand of amity
To all. But here I am
An enclave in a hostile land
Overlooked and overruled
A subject of a tarnished crown
Beneath a ragged, bloody flag,
Gazing out across the water
Wondering helplessly
At the wretched state I’m in.

Something in the air

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Now the breeze brushes the barley
Sweeping through the crop like a cavalry charge;
Darkening the bright awns
Like velvet rubbed against the nap;

Then switches, swings, retreats in waves of pale gold;
All the field in motion, shaken by a hidden hand.
A power – all-present, fierce, unseen –
Swirling, sleepless, through the land.

Taken I

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A faint breeze wafts the feathery tops
Of the grasses in the hayfield;
Soft, tawny with sun, downy with pollen.
Shut up safe all spring,
No hungry mouths to tear and chew,
No hard hooves to spoil and trample.
But soon the end will come
In the whine and slash of spinning steel
And thus laid low, all will be withered, gathered up,
Neatly compressed, and then consumed.

Taken II

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The sward close-cropped, shocked
Pale and scarred as a convict’s scalp.
The careful husbanding of months
Undone; stripped and carted, buried deep
Beneath black plastic. Overhead
The buzzard circles, patient, watchful.
While in the shattered stems
The urge to grow anew gains strength
And, irresistible, prepares a second crop
To be cut down in its time.

Droighneach: Back on track

You have not changed: it’s me. I’ve been distracted
By events, become estranged from you: unlearning
All I knew and understood, my view refracted
Through dark prisms; all good things lost. But I’m returning.

I let myself be taken. Dumb and dutiful
I joined the fight. Chain yanked, cage shaken, I ignited;
Burned hot and strong awhile, but nothing beautiful
Formed in that flame; no song beguiled, no line delighted.

Please: show me all I’ve missed; the slow revolving
Of the seasons; days kissed by early snow, descending
Into winter’s night, rising to summer, dissolving
In fire and bright gold as the great wheel turns, unending.

By long ways round I stand back where my road divided.
A wrong turn? Perhaps: yet it showed my true endeavour
Is to be your voice, speak your truth. I have decided,
Made my choice. And so to work; today, and forever.

 
 

Continuing from yesterday’s post, I’m making a conscious return to the forms and themes I was exploring – and enjoying – before the events of 2016 and afterwards knocked me off course. I thought my duty as a writer was to join the war effort; but there are many, many others far better qualified who can make bigger and more meaningful contributions to those debates than I ever could. And it turns out I’m not a fighter anyway; it just makes me miserable.
One could argue (and I have told myself for years) that writing about the beauties of the world is pointless, frivolous and self-indulgent, when there is so much hard, real, dangerous stuff to deal with. But I’ve found that road, for me at least, leads nowhere good. It’s time to accept my purpose lies elsewhere and believe it has a value; somewhere, somehow.
Anyway. I felt the need to stretch my writing muscles again – and nothing stretches ’em like the droighneach. (Apart from the sestina, but that’s for another day.) I haven’t attempted this fiendish form for about five years, and now I know why: it is a refined and exquisite torment, made up of four-line stanzas (as many as you can stand) of nine to 13 syllables, with at least one cross-rhyme between the first and second line (eg long/wrong, road/showed) and third and fourth line (voice/choice) in each. Oh, and there’s the small matter of the ABAB rhyme scheme; AND that every line has to end on a three-syllable word. It was quite the tussle, and I’m still not sure who came out on top, but I feel SO much better for it! N.