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.

Misdirection

We do not write poems about dogs –
Not, at least, if we want to be taken
In any way seriously.

Dogs are not sensible, grown-up subjects
For sensible, grown-up writers.
They are not issues or arguments

But the stuff of rhymes we write at school
Like sunsets, springtime and the sea
The root of all doggerel.

No. Instead, we stick to abstractions
Write loftily of love, fidelity, domestic intimacy,
Age, infirmity, and the bitter, plunging agony of leaving

While carefully kidding ourselves
That we’re not really writing
About dogs at all.

Plein air

IMG_0153

A sin to stop
Just six miles short of home
And sit on a slab of weathered wood
In the sun and set
A few words down on paper;
But what’s another moment stolen
From a day already plundered;
My conscience is as a clear
As the blackbird’s song
In the cherry tree
And the June sky I’d have missed
If I’d taken the other road.

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.

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.

Returning

For Thomas Davis

To wander is the privilege of youth;
Explore new lands, sleep under different skies,
Run lightly through the world, uncover truth
Through work, play and the counsel of the wise.
We follow diverse paths en route to find
The true course of our lives; these are the years
To test and try; make up, then change, our mind,
When all we have to lose is sleep, and tears.
Now I am old – or old enough to know
When time’s right to retire my travelling shoes
And settle to the row that’s mine to hoe:
Take up the tools I best know how to use.
How far I’ve come to find myself back here;
My strength restored, my path and purpose clear.

If I could

I would

Pen some pleasant paean
To the fire-tinted fall
The heavy apples hanging
By the garden wall
The splash of geese arriving
On the silver pond
The view across the ploughland
To the hills beyond.
The buzzard slowly circling
In the endless blue
Or even of the weather;
Anything would do.

But when the world is burning
And danger is at hand
With enmity and violence
Poisoning our land;
When all we knew is ending
And everything’s in doubt
The darkness is encroaching
And the lights are going out

What is the poet’s duty?
Who am I working for?
Do I serve truth and beauty
Or rise and march to war?

How do you do it

She asked
With her customary
Lack of preamble.

Now that
I replied
Is an excellent question
And the greatest mystery
Of them all.

It can start with a word
That you’ve glimpsed, overheard
Or that simply popped into your head.
You might get an idea
That will give you a steer
But you often just go where you’re led.

Could be sparked by a question
A casual suggestion
A challenge, request or a dare.
Some can summon the muse
Any time that they choose
(Which the rest of us think is unfair).

Poems sometimes arrive
Fully formed and alive:
Get the thing written down and you’re done.
Or they may stretch your powers
To the limit for hours.
You never can tell. That’s the fun.

What I seek
Is that slender splinter of truth
That gets under your skin
And begs to be worked out.
That’s all a poem really is.

And on a good day
A shard of that splinter
Gets left behind;
A constant presence
That never quite leaves you alone.

She looked at me.
Oh.
So you don’t
Really know?

Stage fright

I switched on the radio
For the weekly one-hour show
Where they talked of art and poetry – the kind
That reassures and makes you feel
That the stuff you do is real
And you share a space with others of like mind.

At the top, the host declared
They were live and being aired
From the Poetry World Series in LA.
Ten finalists would read aloud
To a huge, adoring crowd:
Whoever garnered most applause would win the day.

This was all brand new to me,
And my curiosity
Was off the dial as the first contender stepped
Up to the waiting microphone
And in low, portentous tone
Spoke of hard times down in Arkansas. Folk wept.

Next, a young girl from Mesquite
Skipped on light iambic feet
Through a sonnet to her lover in Fort Worth.
Then a wit from Pasadena
Shared a scurrilous sestina
While the audience convulsed in fits of mirth.

A professor from Cornell
Had his pretentious villanelle
Swiftly and deservedly shot down in flames;
Half the room was sent to sleep
By an ode to raising sheep
From a softly-spoken citizen of Ames.

As the show’s denouement neared
No clear winner had appeared;
The compere called the last contestant to the stage.
A nervous cough, then he began.
And as I listened to the man
I felt a sudden wave of nausea and rage.

I sat rigid in my chair
Cold sweat prickling in my hair
As the poem flowed out, line by gorgeous line.
Not a single word was changed;
Not one stanza rearranged.
Every dot and comma in that thing was mine.

When he finished, silence fell.
Then a vast, ecstatic swell
Of approbation rose. No question who had won.
With the trophy in his hand –
And a cheque for fifty grand –
He was on his way. His new life had begun.

As the host closed out the show
I leapt up and shouted ‘No!’
Logged into my blog and scrolled back frantically.
Many years and posts had passed
But I tracked it down at last.
The winning poem. Word for word. And all by me.

Wasted long hours flicking through
All the Likes, but not a clue
Emerged from readers’ avatars. The trail was cold.
Punched a hole right through the wall
At the injustice of it all.
But I had to face the facts. I’d just been rolled.

There’s not much that Time won’t heal.
I regained an even keel
And my levels of resentment slowly sank.
And I chuckled at the news
When the critical reviews
Of the winner’s new collection came. They stank.

I kept writing anyway.
Then the doorbell rang one day.
Two LAPD policemen and a guy
From the Poetry World Series
Who explained there had been queries
Over who the victor’s work was really by.

They had probed and dug around
On the internet and found
My original. The case was black and white.
They’d confronted Mr Winner
With the proof he was a sinner;
He was going gentle into that good night.

They said the title now was mine
And I told them that was fine
But I didn’t want the cash or silver cup.
Being famous ain’t for me:
Leave me anonymous and free
To do my own work, my own way. And make things up.

 
 

Legend has it that Albert Einstein conceived his Theory of Relativity while riding his bike. I, on the other hand, only ever seem to come up with nonsense like this. Make of that what you will! N.

Crossroads – Part 3

Deep darkness closed around me as I lay there, wide awake:
A shapeless dread swirled in my head; a fear I could not shake.
As the church clock in the sleeping town tolled out the midnight bell
I dressed in haste and then retraced the steps I knew so well.

One empty road ran west to east, the other north to south.
And where they met the stage was set. My heart was in my mouth.
The full moon slipped behind a cloud. A silence fell. And then
A voice I knew: “Well, well; it’s you. And so we meet again.”

I turned. There Satan stood once more. He gave a ghastly smile.
“How long’s it been? I haven’t seen you out here in a while.
What brings you to this fateful place at this ungodly hour?
You here to make a deal; to stake your soul for some new power?”

I took my courage in both hands. “You broke your word,” I said.
He didn’t speak, but my knees went weak as I saw his eyes glow red.
I went on: “We agreed that you would help me write some stuff.
And in return my soul would burn. You said things could get rough.

I know in hard times and dark days is where real poems are;
But with everything that’s happening, I think you’ve gone too far.
You’ve unleashed forces much too great. What gentle heart can cope
With all this strife, endure a life devoid of joy or hope?”

The Devil laughed. “I’m sorry, son; not sure that I can see
The problem here, but so I’m clear: you think it’s down to me
That Brexit, Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and climate change
Have come along? Well, boy, you’re wrong: yeah, I’m good, but my range

Of diabolic miseries for you folks ain’t that wide.
I ain’t to blame, though it’s a shame I’m not. God knows I’ve tried.”
“But what about our bargain?” I protested, feeling bold.
“I’m way too stressed to write my best. I think I’ve been mis-sold.”

Ol’ Satan shrugged. “It ain’t my fault you’re led by cheats and fools.
I tempt ‘em, true, but only you elect ‘em. Them’s the rules.”
He grinned. “Don’t worry. You can trust your pal Beelzebub:
Be sure they’ve got a special spot in my infernal club.”

Then he sighed. “Truth is, this Devil gig ain’t all it used to be.
I do my worst, but they get there first. They’re running rings round me.
And when I look at all those crooks, the charlatans and liars
Who run the show, I think: ‘You know, perhaps I’ll just retire.’”

We stood there at the crossroads, just as we’d done twice before.
“What now?” I said. He shook his head. “This time, son, I’m not sure.”
He smoothed his Prada jacket, gazed down at his cloven feet.
Then shrugged again. “Can’t help you, friend. You finally got me beat.”

I snapped. “Come on: you know I have to write of the events
They’ve ushered in; but I can’t begin to make the slightest sense
Of all the rage, division and the damage being done.
Hard as I try, the well’s run dry. Help me, O Wicked One.”

Then Satan looked me in the eye. I shuddered. “Very well,”
He softly drawled, and my whole skin crawled. “Then pack your bags for Hell.
I’ll give you all the words and grit you need to be the voice
Of unity; and then let’s see if you live to rue your choice.

“The fact is, son, you’ll waste your time: most folks have no desire
To be disabused of their own views. You’ll be preaching to the choir
Or trying to win round hearts and minds that were made up long ago.
Don’t look to me for sympathy when it turns out I told you so.”

“That’s not quite what I had in mind,” I said. The Devil glared.
“Oh really?” he asked sneeringly. “Not many men have dared
To answer back; and those that did are wishing fervently
They never had. You think I’m bad now? Just you wait and see.”

“I’m sorry, Mighty Prince,” I gasped, “I really meant no harm.
“But I’m not a man who thinks he can do anything to calm
A fevered nation, heal the fractures, make the whole thing right.
I just need ways to get through days and sleep again at night.”

The red flame in his eyes died down. I gulped and breathed again.
“Son, I like you. But I can’t do a thing to ease your pain:
Remember that my job is spreading discord and despair.
I’d lose my clout if word got out that I’d been known to care.”

A faint light touched the eastern sky. I said: “Time’s running short
And here I am, still in a jam. You know, I really thought
That third time would be lucky; you and I would seal a pact
And we’d both win from our part in this hellish double-act.”

A sulphurous cloud erupted as he snarled: “Boy, don’t you see?
“These crazy times are full of rhymes for you; but look at me:
I’m old-school and I can’t compete with this new breed of hood.
Thought I’d done well at raising Hell; but these bad boys are good.”

The earth revolved. The bright stars wheeled. The Devil gave a cough.
“Well, that’s it, son; I guess we’re done. High time I headed off.
But you keep writing, boy, you hear? This is the lot you’ve drawn.”
A puff of smoke, and I awoke to face another dawn.

 
 

My latest poetic encounter with the Prince of Darkness…a little light relief on a day as hot as hell. N.