SQ117 Wish You Could Be

Entry 117: Wish You Could Be– A definition of the noun velleity, according to Webster’sa-de-sales-image College Dictionary is, a mere wish, unaccompanied by an effort to obtain it or volition in its weakest form.  But what is the word if your wish is volition in its strongest form, that you wish for it with all your heart and soul- but that any effort to obtain it would be in vain because what you wish for is impossible? My curiosity about this led me, via the admirable site, Wordnik, to St Francis de Sales, who lived between 1567 and 1622.

a-scholastics-imageHe was declared the patron saint of writers and journalists in 1923 by Pope Pius XI because of his use of broadsheets and books to influence opinion. A bit of a mystic, he wrote, in his Treatise on the Love of God, we may well say: I would desire to be young; but we do not say: I desire to be young; seeing that this is not possible; and this motion is called a wishing, or as the Scholastics term it a velleity, which is nothing else but a commencement of willing, not followed out, because the will, by reason of impossibility or extreme difficulty, stops her motion, and ends it in this simple affection of a wish.

So, that’s the answer to my question- but it leaves me feeling a little let down and so Ia-pigs-image continued to explore the issue. The Indonesians have a saying, Bagai pungguk merindukan bulan, which translates as, like an owl craving for the moon meaning, to wish for something impossible. Porcine aviation is an indicator of impossibility in English- and also, incidentally, in German- Schweine können fliegen. The Greeks, Wikipedia informs me, have a word for it: Adynaton, which is a figure of speech in the form of hyperbole taken to such extreme lengths as to insinuate a complete impossibility.

a-coy-imageAndrew Marvell, in his best-known poem, To His Coy Mistress, supplies a great example of the usage, Had we but world enough, and time/This coyness, lady, were no crime./We would sit down, and think which way/ To walk, and pass our long love’s day./Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side/Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide/Of Humber would complain. I would/Love you ten years before the flood/And you should, if you please, refuse/Till the conversion of the Jews.

 Falstaff, in Henry IV, Part 2, exclaims, about Prince Hal, I will sooner have a beard grow ina-falstaff-image
the palm of my hand than he shall get one on his cheek
, a remark he will have cause to reflect on ruefully when the prince morphs into the ruthless Henry V.

Meanwhile, folk wisdom offers the following quatrain to explicate the matter, If wishes were horses, beggars would ride./If turnips were watches, I’d wear one by my side./If “if’s” and “and’s” were pots and pans,/There’d be no work for tinkers’ hands.

The form has a vigorous life in song, too, When apples still grow in November,/When blossoms still bloom from each tree,/When leaves are still green in December,/It’s then that our land will be free, as in this example from Only Our Rivers Run Free, written by Mickey MacConnell, about the constitutional status of Northern Ireland.

a-eliot-imageMy first encounter with the word, velleity, was in 1969 when I was studying T.S. Eliot as part of my English course. I felt, unlike the lecturer, a sympathy for the older woman in Portrait of a Lady  We have been, let us say, to hear the latest Pole/Transmit the Preludes through his hair and fingertips./ Here speaks the younger man of an older woman and we listen to his mocking imitation of her reaction to the concert, “So intimate, this Chopin, that I think his soul/Should be resurrected only among friends/Some two or three, who will not touch the bloom/That is rubbed and questioned in the concert room.”/A dash indicates his irritation as he sighs, —And so the conversation slips/Among velleities and carefully caught regrets/Through attenuated tones of violins/Mingled with remote cornets/And begins.

 Again, through his exasperated remembrance we hear her continue, “You do not know howa-bored-man much they mean to me, my friends,/And how, how rare and strange it is, to find…a friend who has these qualities,/Who has, and gives/Those qualities upon which friendship lives. We, as readers are aware of the underlying desperation of the woman but all the younger member of this drawing room drama is aware of is, inside my brain a dull tom-tom begins/Absurdly hammering a prelude of its own.

 It is clear that the liaison is foundering and will not last long. Youth and vitality are, as the poets have always told us in so many ways, fleeting and unconcerned by the travails of age. Perhaps dreams and wishes are separated by something not prey to pity and condescension, for, as Langston Hughes says in a lovely short poem,

Hold fast to dreams/For if dreams die/Life is a broken-winged bird/That cannot fly.//Hold fast to dreams/For when dreams go/Life is a barren field/Frozen with snow.

 

Wish You Could Be

SQ 118 Slip-jig Philosophising

Entry 118: Slip-jig PhilosophisingIn 1964, in a club somewhere in the British Isles, a tapea-barney-image recorder started spinning and it snared a virtuoso on the tenor banjo playing one of the oldest Celtic dances, Kitty Come Down From Limerick. A little before this, around 655 A.D. an unnamed Irish monk set down on sheepskin parchment some quite modern thoughts concerning the manipulation of time in a treatise entitled, De mirabilibus sacrae scripturae.

 Listening to Barney McKenna play the banjo makes me speculate that he must have hit upon a way to manipulate space and time to produce the notes he played. And perhaps it is not too fanciful to posit something about the Irish milieu that, from time to time, messes with our reality. After all, didn’t George Berkeley, bishop of Cloynes, in the 18th Century declare that objects are only ideas in the minds of perceivers causing Dr Johnston to kick a rock in an attempt to refute this Irish philosophising?

a-berkeley-imageIn my mind, I see Sam hopping and leaping about in a painful parody of that most balletic of Irish dance forms- the slip jig. Now, George the Bish would never have resorted to the limerick as a form for philosophical exploration but a clever English scholar and priest, one Ronald Knox, wittily used the form to poke fun at Berkeley’s immaterialism,

There was a young man who said “God/Must find it exceedingly odd/To think that this tree/Should continue to be/When there’s no one about in the quad.”/“Dear Sir, your astonishment’s odd./I am always about in the quad./And that’s why the tree/Continues to be/Since observed by, Yours faithfully, God.”

Knox, also, preceded Orson Welles by a dozen years in perpetrating a radio hoax on aa-knox-image nation: one snowy weekend in 1926, he broadcast on BBC Radio the purported news of a revolutionary uprising in London where rabid malcontents lynched government ministers and destroyed the Houses of Parliament, bringing Big Ben crashing down.

He was neighbours in Oxford for a while with C. S. Lewis, an Ulsterman, who has given us The Chronicles of Narnia and the space trilogy which includes, Out of the Silent Planet. Lewis observed (wisely or not is up for learned disputation) Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art… It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things that give value to survival. Discuss?

a-amergin-imageThe value of philosophy to survival is most clearly seen, not in abstruse, turgid tomes of which there are libraries-full, but in poetry such as the early Irish poet, Amergin who, in The Mystery, writes,

I am the wind which breathes upon the sea,/I am the wave of the ocean,/I am the murmur of the billows,/ I am the ox of the seven combats/,I am the vulture upon the rocks,/I am the beam of the sun,/I am the fairest of plants,/I am the wild boar in valour,/I am a salmon in the water,/I am a lake in the plain,/I am a word of science,/I am the point of the lance of battle/,I am the God who created in the head the fire./Who is it who throws light into the meeting on the mountain?/Who announces the ages of the moon?/Who teaches the place where couches the sun?/(If not I).

 I find an echo of this ancient soul in a piece by one of my favourite American poets, Carla-carl-image Sandburg, who informs us in Who Am I?,

My head knocks against the stars./My feet are on the hilltops./My finger-tips are in the valleys and shores of/universal life./Down in the sounding foam of primal things I/reach my hands and play with pebbles of/destiny./I have been to hell and back many times./I know all about heaven, for I have talked with God./I dabble in the blood and guts of the terrible./I know the passionate seizure of beauty/And the marvellous rebellion of man at all signs/reading “Keep Off.”/My name is Truth and I am the most elusive captive/in the universe.

 a-dunbar-imageEven in the demotic voice, the resilience and wisdom of the people ring out, as here in a defiant shout by Paul Lawrence Dunbar, 19th Century African American poet’s Philosophy,

I been t’inkin’ ’bout de preachah; whut he said de othah night,/’Bout hit bein’ people’s dooty, fu’ to keep dey faces bright;/How one ought to live so pleasant dat ouah tempah never riles,/Meetin’ evahbody roun’ us wid ouah very nicest smiles./Dat ‘s all right, I ain’t a-sputin’ not a t’ing dat soun’s lak fac’,/But you don’t ketch folks a-grinnin’ wid aa-philospophy-painting misery in de back;/An’ you don’t fin’ dem a-smilin’ w’en dey ‘s hongry ez kin be,/Leastways, dat ‘s how human natur’ allus seems to ‘pear to me./We is mos’ all putty likely fu’ to have our little cares,/An’ I think we ‘se doin’ fus’ rate w’en we jes’ go long and bears,/Widout breakin’ up ouah faces in a sickly so’t o’ grin,/W’en we knows dat in ouah innards we is p’intly mad ez sin./Oh dey ‘s times fu’ bein’ pleasant an’ fu’ goin’ smilin’ roun’,/’Cause I don’t believe in people allus totin’ roun’ a frown,/But it’s easy ‘nough to titter w’en de stew is smokin’ hot,/But hit’s mighty ha’d to giggle w’en dey’s nuffin’ in de pot. ‘Nuff said.

The song which follows, inspired by the wonderful poem above, I need to set down as written text here because of its demotic idiom and 9/8 slip jig timing which may impede listening comprehension:

Skippin’ an’ skivin’ an’ slippin’ an’ slidin’ an’ keepin’ a-houl’ of my mind/Hopin’ an’ lookin’ out over the pitchin’ an’ tossin’ for somethin’ to find/Whether or not there is meanin’ in what we are doin’ here stands as the question to ask/Plato an’ some of the boyos had a go at it or so I’ve been told//Kneelin’ and’ prayin’ an’ weepin’ and wailin’ an’ cursin’ the oul’ devil to hell/Sellin’ indulgences foolin’ the culchies worked such a treat for a while/For the sins of commission and sins of omission we need now to take them to task/What some have been doin’ can’t help but just leave us all cold//Come join the rodeo- hope you like a rough ride//First mewlin’ and pukin’ then whinin’ and shinin’ as schoolwards you creep/Sigh like a furnace seeking the bubble rep your honour to keep/A big jelly belly a justice on telly round out well your fifth age/The sixth is a horror that gapes at the grave wherein the seventh resides//A man is a butterfly dreamin’ that he is a man or it might be the other way round/Such puzzles enticin’ the best minds delightin’ just leaves me on the ground/A big useless tree I’m wantin’ to be not some venerable sage/Just a rustling canopy shielding the nest where a small bird hides//Enjoy the rodeo- you’ll just be here for a while//Skippin’ an’ skivin’ an’ slippin’ an’ slidin’ an’ keepin’ a-houl’ of my mind/Hopin’ an’ lookin’ out over the pitchin’ an’ tossin’ for somethin’ to find/Whether or not there is meanin’ in what we are doin’ here stands as the question to ask/Plato an’ some of the boyos had a go at it or so I’ve been told//Come join the rodeo- hope you like a rough ride//So, enjoy the rodeo- you’ll just be here for a while

Slip-Jig Philosophising

SQ 119 I Won’t Cry

Entry 119: I Won’t Cry– Some days I wake up in a mood to refer Pollyanna to a specialist ina-pollyanna-imager depressive illnesses. Admittedly, such days are mostly in the distant past- presently, it’s the very odd day when I get out of the sunny side of the bed with a cheerful tune on my lips, just a-rarin’ to get out into the light and set the world to rights.

In popular digests, one may come across articles which extol the virtues of the optimistic outlook a-cassandra-imageas a promoter of longevity and which also counsel men to access their feminine side- but take care to channel Pollyanna’s I-am-a-happy-little-sunbeam– rather than Cassandra’s glass-half-empty vibe. If you are- what is the word?- proactive in your search for mirth, perhaps a spot of laughter yoga may be just what the doctor ordered.

I am reliably informed that there are over a hundred laughter clubs worldwide but whether you can easily join one of these yuck-fests is problematical. Evangelical Christians of a certain flavour practise holy laughter and there may be a place for you among these folk, although, a caveat: some view such levity as against the Spirit: for example; John Wesley, encountering uncontrolled laughter in his meetings, ascribed it to the action of the Devil.a-holy-laughter-image

We are all familiar with the gleeful mwha ha ha of the villain expressing malicious satisfaction at the misfortune of his victim. Still, there’s more to be said for laughing than for crying. Now, I wouldn’t have pegged the Germans as a particularly lachrymose nation, but must admit to being taken aback by the findings of the German Society of Ophthalmology published in 2009 which found that women cry between 30-62 times a year and that men resort to the blub on 6-17 occasions over the same period.

a-cry-imageI don’t think of myself as a flinty-hearted brute but I doubt that I would have cried more than once or twice in the past year- if even that! But, then, I was formed by that generation that had coped with the fallout of World War Two by not looking back and by damping down any stirrings of emotion by concentrating on, work, kids, the future- indeed anything that helped make it go away, even booze, for some.

Crying was seen as weakness rather than a catharsis and among a lot of people, men especially, this still applies. Of course, politicians have realised the humanising effects of crying and regularly shed a tear for thea-crocodile-tears cameras. Crocodile tears have a long lineage as a mark of hypocrisy in the shedder but this should not obscure the fact that certain animals do seem to demonstrate a capacity for grief that is more than a just fleeting response to mortality.

Elephants and chimpanzees among the higher mammals and mute swans among our feathered friends all exhibit signs of distress when confronted with the loss of a young one, fellow or partner.

Top of the evolutionary pile, we like to think ourselves unique in the animal kingdom- remember when we were once differentiated because we use tools? Because we communicate using vocalisations? Because we use play for learning? Because we can feel and express emotion? Because we are the only animal with a sense of its own mortality?

Looks more and more like a God of the gaps argument and just as reductionist. In a decaying world which we persist in poisoning with carbon, nuclear and chemical waste, it seems a bit futile to worry too much about what distinguishes us from the rest of creation.

I listened today, to a wax cylinder recording made at the end of the 19th Century. It was made by the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to the Torres Strait in 1898 and we hear the eerie sound of the death wail or keening.a-crying-image

The practice is found in Ireland and Scotland and also among indigenous peoples in Africa, Asia, the Americas and Australia. It is a link to a deep animal ache for one who is gone, and so what if, among our species, it can build into such artefacts as the Taj Mahal, Michelangelo’s Pieta or Mozart’s Requiem?

Most of us are incapable of responding to loss- either personal or vicarious- by erecting beautiful structures, carving marble masterpieces or crafting music of genius- and few have the skill to create great literary tragedies.a-crying-lear

But will we cry with Lear holding his dead child, Howl, howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of/ stone: Had I your tongues and eyes, I’d use them so/ That heaven’s vault should crack. She’s gone for ever!/ I know when one is dead, and when one lives;/ She’s dead as earth.

Or will we smile with Henry Scott Holland, who wrote lines that have given solace to many people a-holland-imagefrom a sermon delivered at St Paul’s in 1910 upon the death of King Edward VII: it starts, Death is nothing at all./I have only slipped away to the next room…  It concludes, I am but waiting for you./For an interval./Somewhere. Very near./Just around the corner.

 So who do we listen to: Pollyanna or Cassandra?

 

I Won’t Cry

SQ 120 Love Everlasting Complete

Entry 120: Love Everlasting Complete There are really only two ways, it seems to me, in which wea-jane_goodall_2015 can think about our existence here on Earth. We either agree with Macbeth that life is nothing more than a ‘tale told by an idiot,’ a purposeless emergence of life-forms including the clever, greedy, selfish, and unfortunate species that we call homo sapiens – the ‘evolutionary goof.’ Or we believe that, as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin put it, ‘There is something afoot in the universe, something that looks like gestation and birth.’ In other words, a plan, a purpose to it all.

 So writes, Jane Goodall, in her book, Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey published in 1999.  I really like that phrase that defines us: the evolutionary goof and see no reason not to accept this characterisation along with de Chardin’s idea of the universe giving birth to something meaningful. I suppose this grows out of my own experience of life and self. I am a bit of a goof- defined variously as a bozo, fathead, goose, mooncalf, nitwit or simpleton.

a-goof-imageA rather aimless, gormless stumblebum right out of a Wodehouse story as the following anecdote will illustrate: the setting; Cushendall golf club, a pleasant, undemanding 9-hole links course in the heart of the Glens of Antrim. The time; a summer’s evening in the early-80s. The occasion; a talk by poet Seamus Heaney. I had taken up golf shortly before this and was quite amazingly bad at it- but that’s a story for another occasion, perhaps.

I had spent far too long at the 19th hole and, as a result, dozeda-famous-seamus-image through most of what must have been a most illuminating evening with a revered poet. In my defence, may I say that I have heard famous Seamus on a couple of other occasions where I was totally awake for the duration. At any rate, at the end of the talk I found myself in the line-up to meet the poet who was signing copies of his latest book of verse.

When I reached the table where the great man sat, I admitted that I had not bought or brought a book for signing, but offered him my arm instead. Smiling, he scrawled something on the inside of my left arm and I wandered off to the bar where I was certain there was a beer with my name on it. Next morning, I woke with a fuzzy head and looked in puzzlement at my arm- written in black biro were the words, In hoc signo bibo.

a-booze-imageAnd then, the events of the previous night came back in splinters of chagrined recollection. But, you know, like a teenage fan of a boy band, I didn’t wash that arm for a week and smiled at the erudite joke, which recalls the time when the emperor Constantine, before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, has a vision in which Christ tells him to use the cross as a symbol to prevail over his enemies. The rest, as they say, is history.

The original Latin phrase, In hoc signo vinces, means in this sign you will conquer. Noa-cross-symbol conquests for me, though, other than those involving a tussle with an innocent pint or two of ale. Or times I have wrestled with various forms of writing, some of them involving song. The writing of this journal has taken almost 14 months between 27 April 2015 and 14 June 2016. The song component took much longer, of course.

The final song in this sequence was written just a few months before I started this journal. It is, loosely defined, in the form of a dithyramb. Entry 1 acknowledged the role of Wikipedia as an oracular source, A wildly enthusiastic speech or piece of writing is still occasionally described as dithyrambic.

a-by_grand_central_station_i_sat_down_and_wept_coverAt a marking conference in Townsville, in the early 90s, I remember defending a teenage student’s creative essay as a valid example of the form, citing Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, as an exemplar of the style the student used.

I was successful in maintaining the low A equivalent I had given it in the face of others arguing for a high C. To return to the oracle:

The dithyramb was an ancient Greek hymn sung and danced in honor of Dionysus, the god of wine and fertility. The earliest mention of dithyramb is in a fragment of Archilochus who flourished in the first half of the seventh century BCE: “I know how to lead the fair song of the Lord Dionysus, the dithyramb, when my wits are fused with wine”.

Like the poet, I, too, have led the fair song of the Lord Dionysus, my wits fused with wine.a-archilochus-image I’m with him, also, as a firm believer that discretion is the better part of valour: better a live poet living to a disgraceful old age than a youthful, dead hero where someone else gets to write a pretty epitaph on your stone. As Archilochus versifies:

One of the Saians now delights in the shield I discarded/ Unwillingly near a bush, for it was perfectly good,/But at least I got myself safely out. Why should I care for that shield?/ Let it go. Some other time I’ll find another no worse.

And it’s from these lines of that idiosyncratic poet of ancient Greece that I’ll sign off: at least I got myself safely out.

 

Love Everlasting Complete

Making the Living Poetry by Quentin Bega

The longueur between my eyes ungluing and fitful sleep
Can challenge a score most tedious or page a-snoring.
I know the ceremonies of the egg at breakfast time:
The scene has not exhausted TV writers yet-
And so I wrote a poem: commemoration blessed
By the “Times” (TV Times, that is.)

Galahad at the kitchen sink
Reviewing his strange position sees
In memory vast battles fought
Over sauce bottles and arduous
Pilgrimages to a point where two
Can understand a simple gesture.
Most strange: he shakes his elfish
Head and wrings the dishcloth.

Later, waiting for the post I hope again…
I take a turn around the garden, smell a rose perhaps.
Still later, looking at the sky, as I will often
Do outside; I gasp a gasp (small, of delight).
-I’ve read my Keats you know- I rush inside and grasping
Pen I live again and practise poetry:

Let me say to the whole sky- Hello!
Not forget the clouds or sheets of rain
But take them too and with them take the low
Swooped birds which flatten out the rolling plain
And make mirrors of the silver rivers:
Best seen from a curtain of rarest mind
Distilled which then attuned re-shivers
Shaking out the foil that makes me blind.

My wife interrupts creative flow: “The post
Has come.” I go, and grabbing missives from beyond
Return to recognise my writing- Self Addressed Envelopes-
Their purpose you all know, myself, I sigh, too well.
Not surprised and counting up the cost of postage
Am inspired to verse- strange term for despair.

If I could affix a postage stamp to my desires
And by swift courier send my dreams direct:
By easy payment cease to feel the gnaw
Of rats and slimy presences within my heart
How I would clerk away this toil:
Forego the rant and laugh away the blasted
Urges burned upon my shrieking mind
And feel the calm of statues to the moon.

My family gives advice, they find my stuff insipid.
“You’re in here while a world out there is going mad.”
They’re getting holes-in-one and winning journeys- sun
Drenched vistas kissing cardboard packets- I reply.
I can take advice from anyone; not proud, I scribble
Down a souped-up-eight-line poem, full of life.

We are excited! We are ecstatic!
The world has delivered another one to us!
I was just getting bored, going to bed
But we have been rescued! We have been saved!
They say that he lived with a tiger for two months!
Taught it Zen Buddhism! Chess! And Backgammon!
Lived on raw meat! The occasional peasant!
But now he has come he will tell us it all!

I’m glad I’ve taken their advice. Feeling humble, humble,
Bumble to the pub to re-acquaint myself again, again,
With vast events which justify the forests falling, falling.
Royalty is worth the trees, I see. Po-faced politicians, too.
Blessed be communicators, blessed be their names, their fame.
And glad to see democracy alive and well, I register dissent:

Trained at fox hunting, a guest in the Bourse
And schooled in reading the secret signs
On portals through which we blindly pass
Enables you to laugh when I say
“You are the enemy- you are no friend.”
For you point to rows of men in singlets and
Double-knits, girls in evening gowns and common prints
Who do knee bends if you but bow their way.

In the interests of realism I hope you understand me when I say
That though I was contrite earlier today I must report
My feelings now at the masses, the hoi polloi, have it
As you will- I’d flush ‘em down the toilet-
That they’d comprehend- the language and the action!
And now the spin-off: hear and mark the next denunciation.

We have seen the winners and heard them rejoice
Tumultuously in the city squares and coffee bars.
Hanging out of office windows, whooping along the corridors
Or tastefully gloating in Laundromats or bistros.
For they are vindicated in their perfect view: a loss
Of control of the hardening shades of real power
Releases them once again to their fragrant marshes
Until another prophet points to the beast nearing Bethlehem.

Fire in my belly, actually it’s beer, and quite a lot
Judging by the path worn, not to the Guinness tap, but
To the jakes. Emboldened now I borrow pen from man who serves
This slop and bursting from the close restraint of
Eight-line verse I sally on. I now attack my critics
Who send me S.A.E.’s instead of money through the post.

Quizzically befrowned, stop and go,
Reverse and sagaciously ponder,
Sniff and cock an ear toward
The howls of dogs around you.

The task- so fitting for your prowl.
The traces faint but soon perceived:
By all means call the others dogs
But hide your doghood from them.

A likely clump, some singing bush,
A sniffing joy, a wagging trill,
On spreading haunch give voice, for, Aye,
The masterpiece has found you.

No money in polemics, I decide, and dreaming, scheming
Come to know that I won’t win the pools- notice all these
References to Mammon? Yes, I admit I’m venal and greedy
But I’m safe ‘cause lots of poets have made it big by
Bringing the Confessional into the open. I hit upon a plan-
Listen to this discussion of my coffee-table poem:

Books are passé, my dear, don’t you know?
And little games on hooks, the same, the same,
I’m sure your husband uses to keep sane
The whiling day away, I’m sure. But tell me

Do you know what I myself have found,
All by myself while polishing my belt?
You don’t! Well, let me take you in, my dear,

-To my confidence, that is- what I have found.
I bought it in the Art shop down the road:
A coffee-table poem to firm our flaccid dreams.

I stumble up the hill and meet the wife a blazing:
“Where the blazes have you been? Your dinner’s burnt!”
I listen to the litany- I know it all by heart.
And I will be revenged- I will get her back.
Stamping to my room I hammer typing spite
Take that, and that, and that, thou awful kite!

Filling up with poison like a poison sac
Suck I in and blow me out, drinking down
And then piss out some fraction of the death
I comprehend and, indeed, I apprehend
Although it makes no difference in the end.
Breathe pure air if that you really must
And drink the chlorinated water from your tap.
But why to me you come if you would know
Why flowers will not flourish under snow?

My paranoia blossoms in the afternoon- I read new poetry.
And don’t they understand, the silly shites, ensconced inside
Their cradles in the colleges and universities? For most
I see from notes have safe positions, teaching students,
Or cosy sinecures the councils for the Arts provide:
No starving-in the-garret poets grace the page. No more:

There is no time for a new poetic
For guns are made faster than language.
The opiated spires are falling to
The rocking tilt of flashing boots.
At rest within your soft regime,
A scented bath in a palace of liquid sound:
The regiments of silence bid the eunuchs
With twisted towels from behind…

And just as darkness falls I have a swipe at God.
Oh, don’t we all? Easy, now they don’t burn us anymore.
But as Edwin Brock says, we’re left here in this century-
And that’s enough. The TV essay tells us of those men,
The particular physicists, who now aver that here it is,
Or maybe isn’t- could be fish or could be pheasant:

The hand outstretched from sky above
In Books and Tracts teach to remove
From mud and slime to be sublime
Encounter His most perfect Love.
To reach, to press, with fingers splayed
Through brush and bramble, rock and void,
Avoiding by-ways then I clutch
The outstretched hand of the anthropoid.

Black, brooding thoughts- on the dole, no work this year at all.
I’m resting! I’m resting! Well, it’s true enough-
I’m paid to play the part of bludger, work-shy me.
I pick up my guitar and dedicate a song to the Employment Minister.
I get a reggae beat; dreadlock anger- words come easy
And I sing my song alone, I sing my song alone:

I watch them from my window walking down the street
They’ve everything they’ll ever need or have to know
Why do they scream from the dole queues of their plight?
They’re all right They’re all right

I have to rise up every morning half past five
I catch the train and join the swarm just half alive
They sleep all day and party half the night
They’re all right They’re all right

My ulcers and my taxes always get me down
My neighbour’s son relaxes there’s no work in town
And yet he tells me things are getting tight
They’re all right They’re all right

I went away last summer on my holidays
But they were all around me in the sun to laze
I wonder why I work with all my might
They’re all right They’re all right

What more could they want I just can’t figure out
They take this question as a taunt without a doubt
It’s as clear as black is black and white is white
They’re all right They’re all right They’re all right…

My wife comes in and asks, “Have you written for those jobs
I marked for you in the paper?” No…no…no…no…
“I told you! You should have gone for that temporary teaching post!”
Oh God, I remember, remember last year, the last day,
That last day of teaching. We played that silly blackboard
Game. I saw more than a game. Felt a metaphor. I wrote then:

Let’s play hangman. It’s easy!
Strokes and dashes, wild guesses
That get nearer and nearer to the
Point where the rope begins to choke.

It’s fun, and a treat you know,
For the whole family. Take a flask,
Cut sandwiches and a rug to sit upon.
Find a grassy knoll- some small prominence.

Now, nicely settled, let us aid the man.
“A?” No. “Z?” Never mind, the charge
Will not survive this mob. Now look!
He’s worried. Time is short. Running out.

He knows the class only crowded there
To see an end. The last letter is now in place.
Nice to see…
Nice to see…

The memories of the past, the recent past, impels a scramble
To my box of papers, poems, songs, half-finished essay:
All the detritus of a negligent literary life. I come across
A spring-back folder read the hopeful dedication. Hopeful
In that I wrote 25, then scrubbed out five, wrote six,
Stroke, seven, stroke eight, I scrub eight, write in nine:

Twenty-nine and nothing done
And at this age to do
So, nothing doing?

Time of search and I review
And nothing in my view
Is worth reviewing.

Once I seemed to have it made
But find I’m on the make
With nothing making.

Embrace my form and find it false
But am I just a fake
Or merely faking?

I’m drinking whiskey now from a pint glass diluted with
Brown lemonade. It looks like ale but it doesn’t fool
My wife. And now we scream at one another. No point in
Describing it for you. Most of you will know what it’s like,
If not from life, from books or the TV teaching eye. I threaten
To leave. And I’m taken at my word:

What do you mean you’re going away?
You say that life with me is no longer your scene
You say our interests are now far apart
For you it’s over and you want a new start

Baby hold on this won’t take much time
I must be blind deaf dumb stupid yeah lame-witted so could you explain
Why you tell me that you want to stay friends (no thanks)
Is that what you call making amends?

Baby you have been listening too long
Those songs on the radio just don’t tell the truth
Nor do the books that you point to with heat
The Moon and Sixpence is not me at all

Do you recall when we walked down the aisle?
You swore to stay by me neither falter nor fall
You say the truth is everything now
Is that what you call breaking your vows

I want to know tell me then go
Are you leaving me because it now shows?
That you’re a failure you’ve fooled all your friends
But you couldn’t hide it from me in the end

I know I must bear some blame
I could have lied to you but what would remain
Narcissus with an echoing head
Who made love to a mirror in bed at night?

So I go. Couldn’t stay after that. And I walk. I know
A friend- he’ll put me up. He isn’t pleased. “I’ve walked
For miles- I’ve nowhere to stay!” We stand. “All right!
You’d better come in- and don’t waken the house. So what’s
It all about?” I tell him. He’s not impressed, goes to bed,
Taking pen and paper I now repay his hospitality:

My false friend tells me things that I should know
The terror in my rambling only fear of night
My lack of something called technique and feeling
Overwhelming reason why to him I should defer.

But have you seen a hare caught within a trap?
No technique or what you would call feeling
Yet the terror and pain flooding a tiny body
Makes me wince in my gross hemisphere.

This dark meandering within my resting time
When I catch the scraps of minutes when
I cast the books and pens and papers all aside
Attends no febrile muse of high domain.

There come a time, I think, when I must reject
The counsels of the learned and the sage
For time throws up a coursing track where
All their stratagems become a trap.

Where will I go now? Perhaps Australia, but no…no…
It beat me too. Quietly leaving through the glass door
At the front I walk to the shore. Remembering with pain
The lost years. I put it in a poem, the only one ever published.
Crown of sonnets, crown of thorns. Beaten and leaving,
My friends published it- favour or good riddance gesture?

I
TRAVERSING THE DUNE

“Drowning Tragedies Have Occurred Here”
We strike, tentatively, away from water.
Coarse grass closes on my foot. I fear
This place; a man saw a girl and caught her
Unaware at just this point. The dune
Has stood an age dividing Fairy Creek
From ocean waves while life, like the moon,
Has waxed and waned: a burgeoning or bleak
Retreat as circumstance rolled snakes eyes or sixes.
Pushing through the bush the senses blur
And then the foliage flows to form a rictus-
Pulls us through and into time we swirl
Where tyrant lizard stamped to win and lose
The Earth; exult and then, too late, accuse.

II
ALONG THE BEACH

Two factions, gulls, squat down; one in ooze,
The other sand prefers. The canopy
Breaks behind- a black bird arcs to use
The air, the morning under wing, slapping
Down our gazes as it traces in
The wind a portent of the bones the beach
Has hidden ‘til the rumours rolled within
The sea-tongue stripped away the skin revealing…
I did not know the beach had bones or was
So old. My son plays in a pothole twice
His size and seeks to know the why, the cause.
The wind whips my coat: I feel the ice.
Beyond the gulls are rising as a hand
Shakes the trees- the squat dune bleeding sand

III

AT NORTH BEACH PAVILION

This beach is home in summer for that band
Of sybarites who dwell inside the sun
And, surfing, dream of king-waves: timeless, bland
Rejection of our life- seen on the run.
The beach is washed away, a wreck of stone
And weed. The storms exist in time and place
But northwards the surfers run chasing foam
On unspoiled strands: sun on every face.
Schoolboys take their midday break in cars
Their fathers lend and carefully ignore
The desolation; think of girls in bars
And plan the cheap seduction placed before
Their willing eyes: the TV stations nourish
All our baser dreams so they may flourish.

IV

BATTERY PARK

Backed by high-rise flats and units: boorish
Architecture blots the sky behind.
Two cannon point to sea: did there perish
Cruising vessels in a former time?
I think not- every high park near the sea
By regulation, it seems to me, has cannon
Pointing bravely making phantoms flee,
Their bores with litter jammed and kids upon
Their roundness: candid snapshots for the album.
Gulls sweep down to eat discarded food
The council workmen throw to see the fun
As weaker birds are buffeted: a rude
But common spectacle- these gulls have fought
And thrived upon the scraps we leave to rot.

V

BELMORE BASIN

The north end graced by craft that most cannot
Afford (convict labour built the basin)
Best seen, surely, from the picnic spot.
A warning tells of fearful infestation-
Sharks! (they’d have understood the sign.)
We walk along and watch the trawlers run
In toward the southern, working end. A line
Of Norfolk Island pine has swept the sun
Back toward the dune; while out the harbour mouth
The spray, like lace, adorns a shore a million
Miles away. The gulls sweep down then out
As frosty flowers falling from chill
Hands…and all I know has left me- dazed
I turn and scan the basin; stand afraid.

VI

WOLLONGONG HEAD

The rocks here; fissured, whorled and splintered gave
Prefiguration to the land before
This city, poised below a frozen wave,
Stamped its uses- like a semaphore
Of silent signals radiating pain
And danger: land will not give up with ease
What aeons shaped and groaning made. In vain
We grasp the shadow, think the substance seize.
Endeavour Drive is patched with wind-blown sand.
I watch surveyors making measurements
While sand-wraiths whisper past unnoticed. Hand
In hand we walk, my son and I: we spent
The day exploring- now it nears its end.
Above, the lighthouse gleams and there we bend.

VII

THE LIGHTHOUSE

Occulting ten times a minute, sending
Light to mariners: avoid red sectors.
The reef and islands to the south sent
Men to liquid doom. The graven vectors
Etched in metal celebrate the voyage
Captain Cook assayed- he didn’t climb
Here: failure jarred his journal’s page
The sun sets, and for the first time
Today the wind drops. Tiny insects
Whir above the commemoration plinth.
A ghostly light on Fairy Creek reflects
And tarnishes the time the dune fought: since
From the water, binding close and near
It gave rise to a future human fear.

I borrow a two-man tent, a sleeping bag and fifty pounds,
Hitch a lift to Ballycastle and catch the boat for Rathlin Island,
Almost as inaccessible as Australia, and as bare. It awakens memories.
Out through Ouig, past the loughs I walk to Ushet Point reflecting
And remembering, hearing in my head the song I wrote upon returning:
The light reflects upon the waters of the sound as I sing:

Singing songs over coffee cups, trancing in the gloom,
Reading Nietzsche in a darkening room, Lord how it gets you down.
I wish I were a rolling wave approaching a winter shore
Where the moon consecrated the blood as the spay hits a windowpane.

Playing fool with the troubadours, laughing in an empty space.
Changing masks in a burning glass with a rigid facility.
I wish I were a scented breeze along a garden path
Where ladies parade and sing my praise, fed swans on a silver lake.

Dreaming down in the Southland, poised beneath a frozen wave,
At the carnival of Babel lost the voice to struggle through.
I wish I were a nomad fire scorching a frosty plain
Where shadows dance as fire, a lance, keeps at bay night again.

Sailing in through the spice-lands, watching as the curve fell north,
Under the shadow of Krakatoa, held my breath until we passed.
I wish I were a high peak scraping holes in heaven’s floor,
Sun above and clouds below, surrounded by prayers and poems.

But I go back. A week on Rathlin does me. I can’t be Joyce or Singe.
No, perhaps for me, naiveté, domesticity, and, yes, verbosity,
Is as close to high art as I will get. We meet, my wife and I:
She cries a bit, and so do I- not the stern stuff of heroes made.
Walking back to my room, resuming the life I left before,
I feel a dislocation and try to type the ghosts away:

It seems so strange, after days and days away,
To come back- as to a scene of murder.
First the slow survey. You recognise a pile
Of papers, written on and once sufficient
To hold at bay what you have since become.
It seems so strange, after days and days away.

My forensic skill increases- to read the clues,
Discarded whistles, mute bouzoukis, flaccid
Bodhran, banjos, bones and my guitars
Lie scattered in the room to which I come
To try to re-establish lost communion.

And can it be repaired, so much hope
For this one, last throw? Driven back
Impacted, retreating like a stone before a flood
And even the ossified heart sends out its signals
Help help help help help help help help.

And so my life goes on. The dole-man’s been, has to know
The reason why I haven’t signed. I’ll tell a lie tomorrow.
And reaching for my Russell, read again that magic prose
Made for dunderheads like me- explaining Western thought.
Then, taking down the Tao Te Ching, I read my favourite passages
And from them both I gain, once more, a reason why I write my poems:

Any way may lead to no end:
No way may lead to the One.

In the room a pale electric glow
Allows the cursory pen
To lead the line, direct the flow
Wherein a poem or tale is spun.

Further into darkness spinning round
Begins the night squalls

The table shakes
The words are written down

The house shakes
The wind is at the walls.

I climb the stairs, I’m tired now. My wife is sleeping in the
Other bed- no chance of her joining me tonight. I look in on the
Kids. Yes, they’re both asleep- I wonder did they miss me?
But sleep won’t come just yet. I reach beneath the bed and
Set down random thoughts on the pad I always keep there. A cat
Cries, and the gibbous moon outside inspires a nocturne:

The cat outside my midnight window
Rubs the moon Rubs the moon
This book of poems beside my pillow
Filled with gloom Filled with gloom
My wife beside me breathing
Over there Over there
My eyes inside their sockets seeing
All so bare All so bare

The light off now and late night thoughts: a tune swirls in my
Head. And round it goes. Words come. I compose sometimes like this.
And tomorrow? Well, I suppose I’ll wake late as usual- no work.
And try to hold myself together with words and songs. I have it
Now. The words won’t go away, or the tune. The advantages of being
Simple, I suppose. And tomorrow? Tomorrow I’ll make the living poetry:

Don’t shed a tear for me, Mr Brown,
I’m on my knees, I’m almost off the ground.
I’m on my way back up to a life
That you won’t blight
Send back the wreath, Mr Brown.

I read your sister’s poems on the lawn,
Down by the gasworks sang songs of your son.
And if it comes out that I agreed,
Don’t send for me-
Look to the road, I’ll be gone.

The job you gave me almost filled a need,
The problem was, my spirit atrophied.
Don’t think I’m not grateful, it’s not that.
But when I look back,
I didn’t breathe, I didn’t bleed.

If we should met again, Mr Brown,
Don’t ask me to laugh with you at the clowns.
I’ll laugh at you, at your expense.
And in recompense,
I won’t shed a tear when you’re down.

Don’t shed a tear for me, Mr Brown,
I’m on my knees, I’m almost off the ground.
I’m on my way back up to a life
That you won’t blight
Send back the wreath, Mr Brown.

Wollongong Sonnets by Quentin Bega

Wollongong Sonnets

 

I

TRAVERSING THE DUNE

 

“Drowning Tragedies Have Occurred Here”

We strike, tentatively, away from water.

Coarse grass closes on my foot. I fear

This place; a man saw a girl and caught her

Unaware at just this point. The dune

Has stood an age dividing Fairy Creek

From ocean waves while life, like the moon,

Has waxed and waned: a burgeoning or bleak

Retreat as circumstance rolled snakes eyes or sixes.

Pushing through the bush the senses blur

And then the foliage flows to form a rictus-

Pulls us through and into time we swirl

Where tyrant lizard stamped to win and lose

The Earth; exult and then, too late, accuse.

 

II

ALONG THE BEACH

 

Two factions, gulls, squat down; one in ooze,

The other sand prefers. The canopy

Breaks behind- a black bird arcs to use

The air, the morning under wing, slapping

Down our gazes as it traces in

The wind a portent of the bones the beach

Has hidden ‘til the rumours rolled within

The sea-tongue stripped away the skin revealing…

I did not know the beach had bones or was

So old. My son plays in a pot-hole twice

His size and seeks to know the why, the cause.

The wind whips my coat: I feel the ice.

Beyond the gulls are rising as a hand

Shakes the trees- the squat dune bleeding sand.

 

III

 AT NORTH BEACH PAVILION

 

This beach is home in summer for that band

Of sybarites who dwell inside the sun

And, surfing, dream of king-waves: timeless, bland

Rejection of our life- seen on the run.

The beach is washed away, a wreck of stone

And weed. The storms exist in time and place

But northwards the surfers run chasing foam

On unspoiled strands: sun on every face.

Schoolboys take their midday break in cars

Their fathers lend and carefully ignore

The desolation; think of girls in bars

And plan the cheap seduction placed before

Their willing eyes: the TV stations nourish

All our baser dreams so they may flourish.

 

IV

 BATTERY PARK

 

Backed by high-rise flats and units: boorish

Architecture blots the sky behind.

Two cannon point to sea: did there perish

Cruising vessels in a former time?

I think not- every high park near the sea

By regulation, it seems to me, has cannon

Pointing bravely making phantoms flee,

Their bores with litter jammed and kids upon

Their roundness: candid snapshots for the album.

Gulls sweep down to eat discarded food

The council workmen throw to see the fun

As weaker birds are buffeted: a rude

But common spectacle- these gulls have fought

And thrived upon the scraps we leave to rot.

V

 BELMORE BASIN

 

The north end graced by craft that most cannot

Afford (convict labour built the basin)

Best seen, surely, from the picnic spot.

A warning tells of fearful infestation-

Sharks! (they’d have understood the sign.)

We walk along and watch the trawlers run

In toward the southern, working end. A line

Of Norfolk Island pine has swept the sun

Back toward the dune; while out the harbour mouth

The spray, like lace, adorns a shore a million

Miles away. The gulls sweep down then out

As frosty flowers falling from chill

Hands…and all I know has left me- dazed

I turn and scan the basin; stand afraid.

 

VI

 WOLLONGONG HEAD

 

The rocks here; fissured, whorled and splintered gave

Prefiguration to the land before

This city, poised below a frozen wave,

Stamped its uses- like a semaphore

Of silent signals radiating pain

And danger: land will not give up with ease

What aeons shaped and groaning made. In vain

We grasp the shadow, think the substance seize.

Endeavour Drive is patched with wind-blown sand.

I watch surveyors making measurements

While sand-wraiths whisper past unnoticed. Hand

In hand we walk, my son and I: we spent

The day exploring- now it nears its end.

Above, the lighthouse gleams and there we bend. 

 

VII

 THE LIGHTHOUSE

 

Occulting ten times a minute, sending

Light to mariners: avoid red sectors.

The reef and islands to the south sent

Men to liquid doom. The graven vectors

Etched in metal celebrate the voyage

Captain Cook assayed- he didn’t climb

Here: failure jarred his journal’s page

The sun sets, and for the first time

Today the wind drops. Tiny insects

Whir above the commemoration plinth.

A ghostly light on Fairy Creek reflects

And tarnishes the time the dune fought: since

From the water, binding close and near

It gave rise to a future human fear.

 

Quentin Bega as a character from a novel

Chapter 1 At The Hunting Lodge.

 

Friday October 4th 1968

-Shite.-

-Pure shite.-

-Pure, unadulterated shite!-

 

Quentin Bega, a first-term, first year student at The Ranch (the name given to St Joseph’s College of Education in Andersonstown,) shook his head in disagreement. He was seated in a bay of The Hunting Lodge, with a fellow first-year, Kieran Costello and Arthur McAllen, also a first year but repeating having had to leave during his first attempt because of what he termed “the head-staggers”.  The table was covered in chip packets and spilled beer, the ashtray filling rapidly. Having consumed one round apiece of pints, they were in disputatious mode.

“He’s not that bad”, opined Quentin. “Shite covers it adequately.”

“Yer oul bollocks,” riposted Costello, “his lectures are pure shite and that’s a fact.” To add emphasis to his argument he lifted a cheek and farted loudly.

“Boys, boys, boys,” Arthur McAllen set down his glass and looked owlishly from one to the other, “neither of youse has yet to sit through a full week of Starkey’s drivel. Sure, you’re stuck in this hole most of the time.” He waited for either to comment, then continued, “Solemnly I say unto you, Starkey has plumbed the depths and is now mining, for our delectation, PURE…UNADULTERATED…SHITE!”

As the ancients did with classical Gaul, the lads had divided the quality of their lecture experiences into three. Shite was the term applied to discourse that was of some interest and utility, pure shite denoted material of no interest but some utility and pure, unadulterated shite (which appellation stuck to most of their lecturer’s output) was stuff that held no interest whatsoever for the lads, and was deemed to have little or no utility. That they had scarcely begun their desultory studies in education in no way vitiated their feelings of having gained the measure of this new place (republican Belfast) and their surroundings.

                             ……………………………………………………………………….

 

Jimmy Devlin felt contempt for the smart-arses. He nursed a Guinness and watched the trio from across the room. Students! Coming in here with their airs and graces. The old man had been made the butt of their larking last week and now they would pay. He turned to the small, grey man beside him sipping at a hot whiskey.

“Is that them, Da?”

“Aye, but son let it be…”

“Not a chance!”

“Sure it was only in fun, and anyway, the tall, geeky one with specs made the remark-“

“Then he’ll answer for it.”

Jimmy was their age but got up before six to make it to work, real work, on the site across town. He was also nursing a swollen jaw and aching ribs. He’d got off the bus that morning shortly after six at Divis Street and was walking across to the Unity Flats complex, nearing completion in Carrick Hill, where he worked as a brickie.

“Show us your paper.” Two young lads in their late teens were blocking his path

He automatically reached for the pocket of his duffel coat. He’d purchased The Irish News, as he did every morning, at the corner shop next to where he got off the bus.

Then he stopped, “Buy your own paper.”

          “We want to see yours.”

It was on.

Jimmy was small and wiry and quick on his feet- and with his hands. He threw his work-bag down and caught the larger of the pair with a jab to the side of the head.

“You Fenian bastard!”

Jimmy lashed out with a kick to the groin of his mate who caught his swinging foot and upended him. They swarmed on top of him gouging and swinging. Slippery as an eel, Jimmy got out from under them using his head, knees and fists to inflict as good as he got. He grabbed his work-bag and legged it towards North Queen Street. His assailants gave chase but he was faster, adrenalin and fear for his life lending him speed.

He reflected bitterly that he’d have to go the longer way round, now that the lads from the Shankill would be watching for him on his former short-cut. And that would mean getting up a quarter of an hour earlier!

…………………………………………………………………………

 

“Are you for Derry this weekend?” Quentin enquired of Kieran. He knew that Arthur was heading down to the family boat-hire business on Lough Erne. He was broke did not relish a weekend at the Ranch in the halls of residence without any mates to provide craic for the next couple of days.

“Aye, my bollocks of a brother wants me to join him for the parade tomorrow.”1

“Give it a miss, man; sure you don’t want to bother with all that political crap.”

“Yeah, but if I don’t the bollocky one won’t sell me his clapped-out car at a price my purse will bear.” This gave all pause for thought- to have a car of any kind would confer undeniable status for a student of The Ranch, and by extension, those connected with the fortunate wheeled one. Shanks mare was overwhelmingly the mode of transport for the impecunious trainee teachers of Ireland at that time, bicycles were not uncommon, and, for a dozen or so, their motorbike carved a raucous path through the Belfast streets. But a car! Only a handful possessed one- generally final year students. Quentin sighed:

“Aw, frig! Do you mean to tell me that I’ll be stuck up here on me tod for the next two days?”

Arthur interrupted, laughing, “You’re as transparent as a washed window, Bega. None of that oul flannel about missing us- you’re skint and the thought of two days without your ration of piss is bringin’ you out in welts.” He opened his wallet and handed a five-spot over the table.

Feigning insouciance, Quentin pocketed the note. Barely unpacked, last weekend he’d lost his term’s grant in one poker hand. He smarted at the thought of the grovelling to be gone through when he visited his home in the Glens of Antrim the following weekend. His mother would part with the cash, but not before two days of lectures and phone calls to her two sisters to inveigh against the stupidity of her youngest son and the fact that silly wee blert had yet again scalded her poor oul suffering  heart.

The three friends, having met for the first time when they moved into the halls of residence at the Ranch, were already gaining a reputation for unruly nonconformity. The seeds of unrest, sweeping across from Europe where the students in Paris were demonstrating that they were a potent force and America where the opposition to the Vietnam War was gathering force, had found fertile ground in the cohort just arrived at the college where the old system of prefects transplanted from Catholic boarding schools was already being challenged.

………………………………………………………………………………