Monthly Archives: February 2015

Cailleach

 

I suppose the Cailleach – a word which seems to imply equally “old woman” or “young girl” – will probably be known to most who are up with their Celtic folklore, which I’m not. I can’t actually remember how the word sprang into my mind but assume I must have read it somewhere. The Lady in the Water, ever so slightly clunky as some of Shamayalan’s tend to be, is nonetheless inevitably one of my favourite stories in the world of film.

 

The Cailleach

She said I’d not see her again
and though I did not recall
having seen her before, what a blow
her words seemed to bring, as if
at the departure of an old friend.

She’d been hidden in the Loanhead stone
but now, as it leaned towards
a toppling point, it was time to go
the purpose served, the doorway
to a new time finally opened.

Only once before, as I walked
with my dead grandmother
along the Tayfirth shore
could I say I’d caught that same
glimpse, never guessing it might be her.

An old woman, for sure
her mantle pulled up to her chin
but the wizened face a kind of frame
through which a young one
scarcely through her teens

gazed out, holding my gaze
– she’d have held anyone’s gaze! –
with a look almost reproachful –
that I’d seen? or that I might failed to guess
she was there, in that disguise?

That was what I saw, and if
I’ve offended, offended either
the old or the young, I humbly
beg pardon, even knowing
I might have to pay with my life.

 

The Lady in the Water

She was called Story, and she still is
but oh my dear that dress was never meant to get stained
that shirt that never even covered up her modesty
no storymaker worthy of the name
would ever have set mark on that sunbleached
undyed hemp, he put it on her for respect
and because she was shivering, though
not cold. The writer-man, the ripper-man
had no place there, no place at all.

I never understood how you could sleep so much
I never understood how I was going wrong
that I could go wrong, that there was a right
and a wrong way to things. Call it
arrogance if you like, it was never meant.
Not until I glimpsed the lost
faces again, heard the lost voices
of those I left abandoned, with my head high
not till then, oh my dear, and not till then

would I understand the reason for your sleep
why I could never waken you. So the prints
have been running crisscross, through the dewy grass
across the smooth floor, the water
taken from the one, left on the other, all askew.
I never asked this oh my dear, but can the water
now wash the sheets clean, can you raise your head
break surface again, can we
start another Story?

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My Country

My country
says she hates her face
she hates herself, though she won’t admit it
she’s starved herself
of mercy and pity
thinks her hard edge will
do for positivity

My country
says she’s not creative, creativity
is for the toffs and ponces
she’d like to be like them
but it’s not for her, and anyway
someone has to sort the expenses

My country
says it’s better to stay in a pack
there’s laughter and strength in the herd
everyone keeping their head down
she’d kill a leader rather
than let him break cover

My country
says she’s the least important
of all countries
and if I say the opposite
she’ll hang me up
expose me to public ridicule

My country
says anyone who wants to stay in her
must be weak in the head
she’ll happily give passes out
to sunshine and ease of living

My country
does not take kindly to initiative
or authorship, that mug’s game
if initiative’s about
there’s some foreigner behind it
– she’ll always take kindly to him

My country
is empty except
where she’s knotted into conurbations
there the lights
keep out the stars, she never lies
now, contemplating the moon

My country
has thrown out all her mythologies
where she puts her feet down, that’s
where it’s all at
the only spirit she recognises
comes from a condensing worm

My country
is a stubborn old goat
I’ve pictures that tell me
I liked her when we were young and fresh
but now I’m too weary to remember
if she was really ever dear to me
– and ever dear is saying a lot.

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Resurgence

One of my happiest memories from student days (those that I remember, at least) is reading Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival (yes, in the original – I was a smart lad back then, even though I could hardly put a “guten Tag” together nowadays). The poem must be about 800 years old now, but as fresh as ever, and I think deals with the democratisation of an esoteric/spiritual tradition, as symbolised in the Holy Grail (resonances of magic pots in Celtic tales, not to mention the Cauldron in the I Ching) – it was this democratisation that led to the Knights Templar and modern Freemasonry & other such stuff that “sure was a good idea, till greed got in the way”. Anyway, I’ve always had a soft spot for young Parzival/Parsifal, the ultimate Grail Knight, and in fact do think about him now and again – the archetypal “young fool” (the story kicks off when his mother tells him he should become a knight by winning a ring from a fair lady’s hand, so what does he do? he creeps into bed beside some random fair lady and hauls off her wedding ring before she even realises what’s going on, making off with it in dubious triumph). Actually the older I get the more young fools I see around me, and I like to remind myself that any one of them could turn out to be a Parsifal.

A recent re-surge of interest was sparked by a Frank Turner song (no, I wasn’t listening – not intentionally – “this music crept by me on the waters”) about him playing on a broken old piano “on the banks of the muddy Thames”, and then another one about the Fisher King which confirmed for me, aye-aye Frank had an education, for all he likes to put himself across as a proper Essex boy – so it all added up to T S Eliot and The Waste Land, which getting on for a hundred years ago represented a great updating of the Grail legend and later (I’m not a hundred yet) became one of my biggest influences when a young fool in my own right. So then I walked into Waterstones, St.Andrews and there was a copy of The Waste Land right on the front table (beside Robert Crawford’s new book about Eliot) and luckily people in Waterstones are just looking at the books or wondering if there’s any coffee to be had so I didn’t make too much of a spectacle of myself reading it with tears pouring down my cheeks. Ha, should auld acquaintance be forgot…..

That’s a rather long introduction for a considerably midget-ish poem, compared with the Man’s mighty work, but it’s my submission for the current New Moon:

The Question to the Fisher King

Just ask the question, Parsifal,
just ask the bloody question.
Your mother must have brought you up
to a commendable condition of primness:
we don’t pry, we don’t push,
don’t look up ladies’ skirts
and we don’t open boxes –
and what are you, universally
approved of? Such nice manners
such a get-along-with-everyone
easygoing, laughing, young
well, dolt – what can we say
just ask the bloody question.

Are you too polite to
see how the crops are withering
too restrained to notice
how the birds are starving in the trees
too much everyone’s pal
to hear the coughing of the rodents
in their lost corners
I suppose when the grey stretches
through the soil, and air
you’ll get some nice bright paint
to counteract it, when the wells
dry up you’ll come along with
the merry chink of bottles.

Of course, you’ll be averse
to all forms of psychotherapy
and I don’t blame you
which of them would say the obvious
piss on the land, youngster and
bring its life back? But when
will you have enough care in your heart
to stop, to say no, not
your answers, not your happy faces
your I’m-all-right-are-you-all-right
when will you stop and
search out the place no-one can search for
go the path that can’t be chosen?

See, life is bright
and we can eat anything we want to
go anywhere, do anything
you can shut that old king
up in a box, store him in the cellar.
No-one will make you go down his highway
and self-questioning’s a trim little
wren that chucks in a tree: hello sweetie
you say before it flies and never think
of its meaning. And he’s blood-streaked,
unrequited, he’s in none of the places
you like to look, among the dancers and
the drinkers, with their flushed distracted faces.

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White Noise

Old friend, always so blushing with life
forgive me if I say I was shocked
to find you so white,
so cold and smooth, unyielding
I’ve basked in your warmth these thirty years
I must have thought it would never change.
Did you say wake up, wake up?

Now the cold moonlight
enlightens my steps, the water
icy and frothing
cascades from the heights where
everything feels like understanding
and forgive me if I think, for a few moments
who wants understanding?

It’s true, our companionship,
yours and mine, was
if always comforting
not always comfortable
but we were allies, were we not
– in the end we were surely allies:
our paths parted, but met again.

Did she truly say that, if you
leave me, then I’ll leave you?
Did she say that to you? I could not
have imagined her so cruel;
hurt must have done it to her.
perhaps the same hurt I feel when
you turn away, don’t speak.

Out in the wide ocean the Gulfstream
the unpredictable dragon
shakes out its tail
rain and snow and biting
southerly winds come and go
with no semblance of their old order
I watch your cold fever, weeping for you.

After the turn of the year, I know,
the soil smells different:
again hope and innocence
have tangible strands
(the robin on his bare birches
is speaking to me of this)
but fatuous it’s not, I’ll dare hope

In the end it’s going somewhere, that
the note is different each new year
subtly, infinitesimally, by increments.
This is good enough, old friend
but my peers are those others
frail and stooped, those ones
dried and rattling in the wind

Remember that. A tooth cracks, a white
hair shows and
the end’s coming, she announces
but you say the new shoot always splits
the ground, the sod, the dried bleached
detritus of before. It splits it
and how could that be without pain.

You’ve inflicted pain, old friend,
inflicted it on me, on her, and on
yourself. So you’ll say I shouldn’t give up hope
but what is hope to me
I ask you, what’s its function.
I used to speak to her through you
but now, as you lie there still and cold

whatever I say, I don’t think she’ll listen:
unless I can raise my voice louder
than winter, much louder
than these lungs might suggest
and speak to the ears of many
I’ve little hope she’ll listen
now that I’m white noise for her.

You tell me spring
is just around the corner – no,
you whisper it, barely audible
yet want me to believe:
a spectre rising, out of you –
is that an angel, a guide?
A white thing, old friend, just a white thing.

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