Wednesday, February 24, 2010

374. Gentle Into That Good Night

Death is not proud nor is it peremptory.
It is no rigid Prussian officer in a spiked helmet
calling out commands in a military falsetto,
nor even a full-bosomed hospital matron
with eyes the Gorgon would have paid for.

It is false to think our lives are made for
happiness; the pursuit of ephemeral dreams
knocks the moral compass off its mark, leaves
us reeling in the dark; the aims of the American
Republic have disarranged us all since then.

It is extremely hard to convince young men
that what they are, their character, is what they get.
It is neither birth, education, nor application,
nor thrift and toil, nor midnight oil,
that define the course of a man’s existence.

Belief, the very force of bland persistence
can make us blind to the subtle markers
showing here and there upon the trail: how often
do we hear these words “succeed” and “fail”
only in terms of money, pleasure ... feelings?

When we take the measure of all our dealings
in the course of our three score and ten,
(having been statistically exempt, let us say,
from murder, disaster, car-collisions, war),
wouldn't you ask yourself what was it for?

It wasn’t for the money … well, not really,
and it wasn’t for the boss or the job
or the house; nor even for the lack of money
or house or boss or job. It wasn’t for the drugs,
wasn’t for the drink, not even for the wonderful sex
that came and went like a summer shower:
these things we hardly remember at all.

What do we remember? Ask yourself.

Karen, you're such a sweet little thing,
you remind me so much of your mother,
or was it your grandmother? No matter,
would you care to dance? -- Grandfather,
really, you shouldn't be bothering the young girls,
says fat-lipped Mario, the oily bastard
who married my cousin's daughter. I glare
at his Facebook ... no, his MySpace grin,
his sheer, impregnable, unapproachable
idiocy, his wasteland of vacant hollows. I sigh,
give up, and return to the table of Old Ladies.

Death comes down like a benediction,
the taxi pulling up to the door, throbbing,
five or ten minutes early: ready to go?
Well, no. Hang on a sec …
When in pain or misery or despair
it arrives ten years too late.

Fate … which might be too heavy a word
to put upon it, usually and very often
repeats itself, like the old photographs,
see Mam and Dad younger than you are now,
the old portraits, diaries, sketches, samplers,
the books we read as children, the books
we still read now, how we keep the past alive.

Ten years ago I would have punched him.
Now he might punch me back. Couldn't handle
that: where's me fuckin revolver? I was
in the War, you streak of shit, and where the fuck
were you? Not born. Not even here. And now,
dear God, I'm not even here no more.

The dead only become really dead
and pass like wraiths into the shades
when the memory of the living fades.

What of it? A dance, a drink? Fuck this
sitting with the sly old ladies, don't they
know me too well? But the anger
wells up in me. I was a far better man than he was
or ever will be, back in my prime, and I am still
the same man ... but I know I'm not.

The anger. Calm down. Take a pill ... take three.
O, Jesus, take the whole fuckin bottle!

What of it? So come in, you cheery young men,
and carry me out upon your shoulders.
I don’t believe in a Disneyland in the sky, nor any
perennial Auschwitz in the bowels of the earth,
(nor any half-way house inbetween!) despite
the Fathers of the Church, Evangelists, Bible-thumpers,
and the whole collection of bloody fear-mongers.

She was a fish-monger, and sure twas no wonder,
For so was her father and mother before ….
That’ll do, thanks: ahh, sweet (dead) Molly Malone.

You come in and you leave this world alone,
but you never really do. You are surrounded
by people all your life, a smiling enormous crew
who say they love you: who'll show at the end?

Taxi? I never called no taxi.


No, it's not as bad as all that. But I do have a couple of rare old friends of my father dating back to the really old days of the Spanish War and the Battle of Britain who are more or less on their last legs (90s) and I can see how old age infuriates them since they were such furious (young!!) hyper Alpha Males when they were machine-gunning Fascists and Nazis of the Luftwaffe. They saved the country from invasion ... that's what Churchill himself said. Now they have to deal with filthy streets, insolent oblivious kids and the National Health -- hard to say which is worse. Outliving the people of your own generation seems to be a curse better done without.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

373. Molokai

The pilot in his shorts and Aloha shirt
skims low, very low, over Maui island,
at ease in his little 12-seater;
now he dives to show us a herd of goats
who scatter, and all the passengers
grin widely but hold on awful tight.

On the ground. Alive. Molokai.
The aiport’s about the size of a caravan
with a smell of rain, bougainvillea, plumeria;
shrug on the backpack, head off for the road
where the first car slows down, stops,
“Eh, brah’ – wanna ride” – “Sure!”

“You wanna stay my house, eh?” – “What?”
“Eh, brah’, you like take or geev?” –
understanding takes a few minutes or so;
it seems like boys like boys on this island
and they’re so removed from the tourist track
that nobody even knows or cares.

I politely, regretfully, refuse: what a prick
I am, well, maybe in this case a non-prick,
but the young driver just shrugs and smiles;
he takes me to the eastern tip of the island,
to a hidden valley, a track to a waterfall,
one of the loveliest places I’ve ever seen.

I camp for two days, see nobody,
smoke dope, walk naked, talk to God,
the sort of things we did in those days;
when supplies run out I head for the road,
and sure enough, the first car stops again,
and (polite refusals later) drops me in town.

With some food and good-priced pakalolo,
I hitch a ride north, walk through pineapple fields,
and in a grove of trees set up my evening camp;
in the soft pastels of the morning, in boots and denims
I stumble down the crazy drops of the dangerous trail
to Kalaupapa, the forbidden peninsula.

So little, in those days, had really changed
since the time of Damien, the Belgian priest
who had come here to care for the castoffs;
this spit of land had been set aside for lepers,
an affliction the islanders could not deal with,
and it was in exile here they lived … and died.

The setting was far from grim, rather beautiful,
made into a village now of whiteboard houses,
the mountain behind, the sun-speckled sea around;
an old man, a leper, was pleased to guide me,
so very cheerful and gay with his stumps of fingers,
and it was a day of humility, sunshine and hope.

Later, back in Waikiki, more-or-less grinding out
the dirty dollars that would later set me free,
amid braying mid-Westerners, the military, the local touts,
my mind would revert to that lovely little island,
a place so physically close yet so far far away,
with its elderly lepers, its diffident homosexuals.


This was Molokai in the early 1970s. Since then the hotel chains have moved in and the place has been totally made over. Here's some further info on the leper peninsula of Kalaupapa.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

372. 物の哀れ (mono no aware)

sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt
Aeneid I.462 (Virgil)

when the tears arrive
tensely flowing from your eyes
they embrace the void

here there is nothing
once there were so many things
nothing now remains

a feeling of fear
your eyes seek here, they dart there
still there is nothing

fresh green tatami
the absence of all objects
emptiness, nothing

from the great window
stripped, denuded of curtains
the outside looks in

in a flower vase
under the tokonoma
three sprigs of blossom

you have never been
this lonely in your life ...
nor quite so happy.

Lacrimae rerum (from that dear old imperial sycophant, Virgil): Aeneas, while crying, says, "sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt" as he gazes at one of the murals found in a Carthaginian temple, which depicts battles of the Trojan War and deaths of his friends and countrymen: ... "tears for mortal things (sufferings) touch the soul." ... The burden man has to bear, ever present frailty and suffering, defines the essence of human experience.

Mono no aware (物の哀れ, mono no aware, lit. "the pathos of things"), also translated as "an empathy toward things," or "a sensitivity of ephemera," is a Japanese term used to describe the awareness of mujo or the transience of things and a bittersweet sadness at their passing (which explains why the whole country is so big into cherry blossoms, which are undeniably beautiful but only last about a week). This poem goes off on a slightly different tangent, to "wabi" and "sabi" which is the old, but very closely related (and quite definitely NOT modern) fixation on absence and silence and ... (not brought out in the poem) the studied non-perfection of carefully-made beloved things: so if you like your old teacup or teddy bear from when you were a kid, or insist on wearing that smelly old pullover you had in college then you are closer to the wabi-sabi ideal than the following Wikipedia definition: Wabi-sabi (侘寂) represents a comprehensive Japanese world view or aesthetic centered on the acceptance of transience. The phrase comes from the two words wabi and sabi. The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is "imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete" It is a concept derived from the Buddhist assertion of the Three marks of existence (三法印, sanbōin), specifically impermanence (無常, mujō).

tatami - Japanese mat flooring, green and pungently aromatic when new, then gradually yellowing with age. All traditional Japanese houses (or rooms within houses) have this flooring, as do temples.

tokonoma - an alcove let into a wall in a traditional Japanese room to allow for a hanging scroll or other decoration, usually fronted with a vase of seasonal blossoms or flowers.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

371. A Hospital Visit

Darling, honey, we need to speak of your funeral;
I've just been on the phone to Monsignor McNeill
And they seem to want such ... well, so much money.
Mercenary was the thought that crossed my mind
Since their church is really quite empty on weekdays:
I think we can dispense with the RC service.

I seethe in my coma, this twittering bitch,
Serena, my second ill-chosen wife, mother
Of none of my children, Thank the Lord for that,
Sits here, smiling, perched beside my hospital bed,
In a happy flush of exaltation: I twitch,
But she knows I cannot speak.

I shall keep the house in town, she says,
But I plan to sell off your stamp collection;
The books you’ve collected for the last forty years
Can be sold off, I’m sure, in a job lot.
I’ll wipe clean the computer, of course,
And shred all the files of your silly poems.

A ping and sudden peak in the monitor
Is the only reaction that shows; comatose,
My defeated body lies flat on the bed;
I pray to God for a surge of strength,
to allow me to rise from this bed like a Titan,
and smash to pieces her evil head.

Oh, my dear, you seem to be quite upset,
that unbecoming bulge in your bloodshot eyes;
I suppose it can hardly come as a surprise
Since the doctor says the cock winds down
Even on the most robust constitution; my resolution
Suggests Spain with my hairdresser Germain.

The monitor pings.

Your children from your previous marriage
Have expressed some wish to see you;
I said there was really no cause for alarm
(Ill-founded concern can cause such harm)
So they won’t be coming, darling, so sorry. PU?
PU, an incoming text on my mobile phone.

Ping, ping, PING!

PU? Please Understand? Unveil … Undress?
Germain’s such a tease, he can often fail
To understand the nuances of language;
But he’s a Demon Little Big Boy in Bed!!!
The influence of anguish, the soft caress:
Oh, another message! … it reads,

God, in the end, came through,
And I rose up from the bed with a leonine roar,
Lifted her bodily from the floor, and ….

The patient had fallen from bed to a chair
When he died; his wife, in an access of despair
Seems to have thrown herself from the window.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

370. Nineteen Thirty-Six

Ava Waverley
married Peter Ponsonby
for the mordauncy of his tongue
for the excellence of his tennis;

The alternative view
drifting into disenchantment
said the little bitch just did it
to arouse every hackle in sight.

Von Brickendrop, ex-champagne
salesman, now German ambassador,
appeared, and so did Lady Astor
with the well-heeled Cliveden Set;

There were two telegrams
from Wales and Wallis at Fort Belvedere,
one from Mussolini, not a peep from WSC
on the Cote d’Azur with Maxine Eliot.

Betty Cranbourne, later Lady Salisbury,
when writing a letter to someone
remarked that plays had left the stage,
the spotlight now shone down on Us;

Colin, who was in Cambridge at the time,
a friend of Burgess and MacLean,
took me aside, he said quite sensibly
it’s all drama, nothing to worry about.