A selection 1982-1999
- Refuge (Paresseux nerveux)
- A short history of knowledge
- Ishmael at the masthead (View from a balcony, Jamaica)
- One glad look
- Nuclear reaction
- i can smell the world burning
« Tout enfant, j’ai senti dans mon cœur deux sentiments contradictoires, l’horreur de la vie et l’extase de la vie. C’est bien le fait d’un paresseux nerveux. » Baudelaire Mon cœur mis à nu (Œuvres complètes, p. 422).
“As a child, I took to heart two contradictory feelings, the horror of life and the ecstasy of life. It was the making of a lazy man living on his nerves.”
All day I lay
In a self-imposed twilight,
Longing for night,
Resisting the day.
The clock strode through time
With lengthening paces.
Its digital clicks covered vast arid spaces,
Deserts whose emptiness fathered this rhyme.
At first I imagined the heat of my brain
Was building a fire and
Forging the iron
To cauterise festering sources of pain.
But the tumbling streams
Of my guilt-ridden fears
Reduced fiery ideas
To the dark stuff of dreams.
In the greyness of those hours
I recalled how the brilliant
Moments of dalliance
Live in the memory, vivid as flowers.
Then the black hole
Filled me with pity,
Enveloped my soul.
And so I slept,
A dried-up husk,
As day wore on to weary dusk
And never wept.
A Short History of Knowledge
Her every mood was mine.
Each heartbeat — her blood, my blood —
Echoed in the empty chambers
Of my embryonic brain,
Reverberated through my cramped, elastic frame,
Taught me to believe that life goes on.
The jagged contours of her work and play
Made me scale mountains.
Her sleep was a quiet valley.
She trained me for struggle and for rest,
A foetus floating outside time
In the red-black moontide of that everchanging sea.
What did this being know?
I knew the music of her organism,
Rhythmic, life-sustaining heart and lungs.
I knew that she and I were one,
The undivided we,
Immune to strangeness and the self.
Bypassing birth, the story of my life:
My mouth outstripped a stunted body’s growth.
I learned to cut and break with words;
The razor sliced, the hammer smashed.
The schoolmen smiled a monkish smile
To see so frantic an apprenticeship.
And now I scan a dusty, barren plain.
My stride devours the bounded space of earth,
A hermit seeking to bridge the unbridgeable,
Pilgrim to paperback shrines of the founders,
Calling on ancestors, self-searching explorers,
To show me the way to others and myself.
We need to know, but not like this,
Endless, abstracted seeming of horizons,
Sacrificing moments to the logic-choppers’ ends.
Oh! the lingering death of a modern education,
Meaningless sense and mind without content,
Sad cleavage of my desiccated soul.
The cure is obvious enough,
Woman, mysterious keeper of the womb,
Dark-bright complement to my sex,
A window on infinity in each exploring touch.
But every heaven-bent freedom flight till now
Has brought me crashing, wounded down to earth.
In these green eyes sea, land and sky are one.
This red mouth — wet tongue, dry teeth, hot breath —
Stops up my wooden words with watery fire.
This rainbow coupling takes me back to timeless rhythms,
Hurls me forward to my destiny,
Anchors my being singular in you.
So knowing is biblical after all?
Self-knowledge comes from the love-object,
The ineffable, renewing “thou”,
The ambiguous flash of union, fusion of elements,
A light to guide our march towards blind death.
Beginning is all, the end nothing.
October 3rd, 1987
Ishmael at the Masthead
(View From a Balcony, Kingston)
The evening sky parades its wonders just for me:
Here towering columns, residue of rainclouds,
Boiling black smoke, hellfire of blast furnaces;
There thin purple islands, feathered archipelago
Floating in an unmapped, turquoise lake.
Encircling hills, reduced to pristine dormant shapes,
Stretch out familiar fingers to the golden sea.
A forest city spreads its winking lights beneath my feet.
This surge of elevated power intoxicates,
Brings on wild fantasies of flight,
Makes all things possible from here.
We clasp cold Red Stripe in the still warm air,
Hands slipping on the bottles’ icy dew,
Our senses captive to the evanescent spell
Of sunset’s lurid melodrama,
Brief recapitulation, daytime’s curtain call.
But Herman was uneasy. “It isn’t right
To be up here when they are all down there.”
The godlike seeming was dissolved
And cooling beer now mixed with clammy sweat.
My home’s a hillside fastness, garden paradise,
Container walls like fortress ramparts,
Far more lovely, twice as safe as any bank.
Here yelping curs outnumber people,
Harrass dark strangers night and day.
White mansions show the world a surly shuttered face.
Grim burglar bars, sham rococo,
Cannot disguise the prisons that they make.
Guns guard the inmates, rich inviolate,
From unseen dangers, bleak reminder of their wealth.
The restful cool of breezy night
Is shattered by rounds of canine choirs,
Redundant drone of airconditioners
And TV movies broadcast for the world to hear.
Then daylight brings the peaceful sun
To light this magical profusion —
Royal palms, wild ferns and clinging vines,
Banana’s crazy leaves, cascading banks of flowers—
And then at last to lull abandoned dogs to sleep.
Each morning sleek new German cars,
Evading potholes and debris of rainstorms,
Carry the masters down the winding, unkept road,
Past servants trudging slowly up that steep incline,
Eyes averted from their rulers and the sun,
Their unpaid journey almost done,
An hour or more from Kingston slum
To bright, fantastic cages on the hill.
For all their fortifying bulk
This colony’s foundations are not firm.
The fluid earth escapes the shoring walls
And leaks away in swift corrosive streams.
The race threat grasps them by the throat.
The sound of distant jungle drums
Drifts up to fill the owners’ restless dreams
Of dread invasions, crime and death.
Subversive nightmares are transformed
In frantic talk of hurricanes and land slides,
Elemental cataclysms, nature’s revolutions,
Displaced symbols of a deeper terror,
Monstrous fear of fellow men.
This fragile platform on the edge of empty space
Suspends me over chasms of despair,
Until the evening sky parades its wonders once again
And idle torment shifts to fantasies of flight
Where contradiction’s black and white,
Made gaudy by the dying sun’s strange light,
Fade into nothing and the night.
30th October 1987, Jamaica
The sun was already high when I drove my new Japanese car round the last bend onto the straight stretch before the junction. It looked as if a pile of rags had been left in the road. Rather than run over them, I stopped. It was a very thin man, a beggar with tangled dreadlocks, apparently asleep. I got out and tried to rouse him. It wasn’t easy.
“Hey! Get to the side of the road. You’ll be run over here.”
“It’s warmer in the middle than the side.”
(In desperation) “What’s your name?”
A beautiful smile lit up his face. “Alvin. No-one has asked me my name for twenty years.”
“OK, Alvin. How about moving to the side?”.
“Have you had anything to eat today?”
“Here, take this and get some patties down at Liguanea.”
I gave Alvin a small banknote which he put straight in his mouth and began to eat it pensively. I ran to the car and drove away as fast as I could.
As Dr. Johnson says, “Smile with the wise, eat with the rich”.
One Glad Look
Who could forget that pale November day,
When a stained glass sunburst
Set wild particles dancing electric
In the scented halo of your hair,
Lit up the symphony of soaring voices
And made a holy island where we sat?
Uncertain love stood trembling on the brink
As timid hearts, like moths to flame,
Were drawn so close, but never touched.
And so he soon forsook that brilliant scene,
Retreating to a more familiar place,
The inner landscape of my restless soul.
Once there, mind’s eye released by pious lids,
Love summoned up his favourite clip,
The shining moment of that one glad look
You gave me in the Anchor pub,
A more reliable key by far
To heaven’s gate than God’s grand show.
We sat disconsolate, weighed down
By life’s iniquities. I tried
To buoy you up — and then your sun
Burst out to light that dreary world,
A smile both intimate and frank
Whose charge still warms this grateful heart.
A thousand times I’ve since relived
That shocking flash, anatomised
Wide lips, pellucid eyes, flushed cheeks,
The time you chose to let me in,
Tore down the fences of our separate lives
And opened up the vistas of your noble soul.
I saw deep friendship in your honest face,
First cousin to the higher love I seek,
A shaft of human recognition, not desire.
So please accept these gentle arrows in return;
They weakly imitate that thunderbolt
You buried in my unsuspecting brain.
11th November 1996
I have lived in a nuclear age,
Through fifty years of nuclear weapons
And frantic talk of a winter
Cold enough to freeze the whole world over.
We sealed ourselves off in nuclear families,
In the airless privacy of concrete bunkers,
Seclusion of anti-social weekends,
Muffling the sound of controlled explosions.
The Berlin wall is just a memory now,
But I can hear the wild kaboom
Of atoms splitting, nuts cracking.
My dreams are filled with the flash of fireballs.
The beast creeps out from its winter lair —
Random acts of public violence,
Road rage, bomb blasts, assaults on infants —
Harbinger of a spring delayed too long.
What will become of us, the nuclear children,
Poking our noses from half-frozen silos,
Longing for connection, primed to go ballistic,
Fearful still of a last conflagration?
20 January 1997
i can smell the world burning
i wake up restless
in the dead of night
not for the first time
and smell the world burning
nothing to see
no-one to touch
dry birdcage mouth
and everywhere silence
then I hear the steady rumble
of spaceship earth
or just the fridges tuneless song
of life machines
and dreams of common flight
and still I can smell
this bonfire of dead trees
exhaust of motor cars
pungent and acrid
the world burning
while we sleep
durban paris aberdeen
4 October 1999
‘i can smell the world burning’ was published as a video in Born Magazine by Arron Bleasdale and Louise Hart (Reforms) in 2000.