Aspen Trees in winter. Morocco. PHOTO David Beatty

Poems from the Edge

 

Light 

 

Light is the now of morning

also of water and stillness

 

as one moment in the stream

of a continuum of moments

 

and sun and shade are not different

but a moment balanced

 

on the bridge across the river

or on the wing of a bird in flight.

 

Mind cocoons itself in thought

as day wraps you in silence

 

until in the hearing of it

the faint echo if its origin

 

this murmur of disclosure

breaks in upon the present

 

to join the continuum of motion

of words floating on the moment

 

as leaves on running water

that move with you through movement’s light

 

until in the quiet annihilation

of surrender you watch them go

 

from where they leave you only

their gossamer shadow imprint

 

of the moment which relinquished you

from the stilled inclusive wholeness of it

 

abandoned you to the fall of light

on water, altered but unchanged:

 

strange joy instilled by words

whose truth lives in denial of you

 

until this need arise time and again

to net with words the elusive now

 

where self is not, nor other, but only this:

that water uses light to tell a river to the sea.

 

Meteors

 

The other evening your eye resting against the sky

a blue moment before dusk’s finality

watching in silence a sudden meteor shower,

 

a burst of light falling as a fleeting question,

a shimmering so rapid across space

our minds could barely grasp it

 

as your hand grasped mine in wonder.

Momentarily taken out of ourselves

it left a shower of sparks inside us

 

a residual glow of motional quiet

stirring the embers of autumn fires

a light kindled by the last of summer’s breath.

 

Later the event lay etched in memory

against the sky’s darkness

a glass engraving of a moment,

 

the way light rims the edge of things

rendering unfamiliar the beauty

in a face turned towards the day’s close,

 

as if acknowledging there an answer

to be found in the intimacy of flesh and bone,

in the roughness of roots and of stone,

 

in leaves gathered up in an odour of mulch,

or wood flaring in the dark of the coal’s memory,

the significance of lives found again in the wind’s debris,

 

in the unintended glance of hands touching

or the shyness of birds at the window pane

scattering in flight at the morning’s first shadow:

 

moments proven by the earth’s radiance, by love’s yeast

rising with the warmth of air leavened with confidence

unveiling the new day’s singularity of things

 

measured against the nihility of deep space.

What then of those fragments falling through a void of time

burning up through stray particles of our origin?

 

What emerges beyond the dust and horizon of our days?

Do we acknowledge in their wake intimations of light?

For what are we but events carried on the stream of life

 

to be let go of in the calm intensity of a moment’s truth,

to wake one day to a surprising density of blue,

to know again the un-retractable clarity of skies.

 

 

Not Yours Not Mine

 

How you once looked at life

                and how it defined you,

now life looking back how might it see you?

The mind they say a mirror, a world reflected out there,

yet truth is neither image nor object

       as fruit and tongue are both taste

or a window significant

                for what it doesn’t contain.

 

The hand wielding the knife

                shaping life in its image

moves against the grain with the strength of adversity:

yet in each hour's enormity the immeasurable moment.

These words have the weight of time

      are answerable as stone is to the sky

they crumble into ragged speech

                 where only the light remains.

 

The air darkens before night

                 a metallic ticking in the rock

the earth beating with the cold urgency of rain.

It is the washing of the moon opens you

to each unspoken thought,

       a darkness that knows no deficit of light,

there are still unwritten languages,

                songbirds in forests never seen.

 

Love is a flower, ripens into fruit

                the bloom that deepens it is grief.

What is life but time’s motto with a tragical beat,

the world’s water is silence, falls gently as rain

heedless of borders

       the maps tattooed on our skins,

yet each language coins it

                chased in silver or gold.

 

Tomorrow speaks a foreign tongue,

                it burns fiercely with the smoke of wars,

we are steeped in the bloody hues of this future,

its cold steel dark with the ink of holy books.

As the hour grown immense

       falls within its own shadow

a wind blowing where nothing has been written

                bears all the music of the world.

 

The day scatters you unfinished

                bobbing porous as a leaf boat,

this ash loss of winds over river falls of light,

the path as you find it when the horizon enters you

and the sky is thin as glass

       and as lightly treads the ground of you,

as fragile as goodness

                the long wept-over dark.

 

Break from speech into silence

                words dissolve in sunlight and air,

in nature there are no mirrors and death a darker green.

Love is infectious: a dis-ease the body needs to heal,

the elements are fire and water

       you can never go back,

what is recognized is never truth

                and you are consumed by love of life.

 

You wake early, the sun at midnight

                a lemon light steeped in cedar and pine.

Alone the quiet of love has an authentic sound

the instruments of water and of wind in the grass,

a music pared down to the last leaf

       silently shakes you:

this truth is neither yours nor mine

                is there only when you’ve forgotten your life.

 

 

Indeterminate Day

                                                                      

what if

a sound at night’s window

the soft beating of wings

the wind in your dream that woke you

       scattering pages

all that the years discarded

of your history a shooting star and then

the full moon at daybreak

 

sometimes only light decides the day

we are not the weather

except (inevitably) in our transience

       at other times

the rain shines somewhere beyond

there are no definitions

of what happens between

       the still shadow of your hand

and a cloud’s moving shadow

 

no need to cry then over spilled ink

let it run leached from your vein

the blood of perfidy endangers the arteries

       it is rumoured

some words impair the heart: erase them

find joy in this moment’s pulse

 

your eyes intend the day’s direction

in a sentence you cannot finish

undoing the morning:

       just live then

until the evening unravels

the night in advance

you can never depend on what is finished

       here now always

the enigma of infinite departures

 

sudden declarations of love

light up the sky

inevitably the storm disappoints

       wisdom is

no sudden flash behind the eyes

rather the mail forwarded poste restante

usually collected after the event

as if love is a conversation

       unfinished years later

a journey never written down

 

remember the colour blue

was the evening of discovery

the day we never set out

       but remained

fingering the light among the wind-flowers

the journey had promised us:

needless (to say) we found them

with no second thoughts:

the hours of going nowhere

 

always there are days like this

when everything intended

cancels the horizon

       we saw a lake

as a distant prospect

you dipped your hand in the present

the day revealed itself

in the water cupped in your palm

 

the end of the day walked you

beyond the sand bar

your ear found the moon’s turning tide

       but words

could not find your tongue

always expectation is hopeless

once again neither the stars nor firelight

 

when love is not there

looking over your shoulder

the key of water unlocks the stream

       and the flow

is only deciphered by the tongue’s caress

in tonight’s orchard only silence

can taste the rain in the fruit’s darkness

 

round the corner of every night

seeking to fill your life

love is another day waiting

       to empty you

where the light forgets to remember you

you have hardly begun and

only sleep understands you then

 

the indeterminate day finds you

a minute before the hours                                      

of collecting the rain                                                      

       silence is

the shortest distance between

your voice and the sound of your name

 

across the trackless page of water

       the day carries you

to where the echoes of its syllables fade

as the sky’s mirror opens your eyes:

the quiet of a shape carved out of air

 

under each vigilant footstep

new grass resurrects the light

from the ambling pace of your stride

       tomorrow will happen

whether you follow it or not:

in the diaspora of your days are found the hours

unburdened of their waiting

      

 

Safari

 

Level ground lifts the mind beyond eye’s reach

where drifts of rain cloud join sky to land

undressing thought as leaves to the wind,                       

the steady pace of feet binding passion to earth

as storm’s passing edges shadow into light,

clarity achieved outpacing the weather

across open savannahs of burnished grass;

a moment’s pause to change direction, ease breath,

vent scudding clouds of haste, rein feet

to heart’s rhythm, body’s natural grace,

my agile guide, this moran* stilled in his element,

casting eyes to horizon’s edge, advising silence.

 

Darkness lifts from the warrior’s brow

his lion gaze cuts sunlight to the flickering grass

knowing the wind’s hidden places, unfazed

by rootless light’s deceptive shadow,

detecting signs as fleeting musk on a breeze,

sudden glissando of grass bent against wind,

or where no breath stirs and silence speaks.

 

We move on wordless through day’s heat

wild herds distant across plain’s immensity

small groups edging to water in evening’s shadow,

striding clear-eyed as the solitary gazelle

who lifts her head toward green uplands,

elegant and graceful even as death stalks her

the wind bearing her fate west to the tensed claws,

the concealed fang’s silent predatory stealth,

limbs marshalled by hunger to the rapturous kill.

 

Resting, consider these white bones of an antelope,

wind-scoured and sun-bleached, flesh scavenged

to dried leather, rib-cage a stranded shipwreck;

bright flowers bloom in vacant eye-sockets,

finding beauty in the savage swiftness of death

shall empty the mind as we move on, climbing now

into higher ground, the evening’s chill to greet us 

clear as the crescent light of the moon’s shell burning,

mind-body all one, in the shadow of the god’s mountain

each step into emptiness a breath out of time.

 *moran - a Masai warrior.

 

The Turning

 

Here where the land reaches beyond itself

I look to unattended things, to intervals of change,

minutiae of flora against the tenacity of stone.

In the chain of recognitions that nourished me

I became as rain to the clouds,

or as a breath to the wind.

Now on the edge of abandonment

the earth turns me once more

towards each questioning venture

where memory yields to uncertainty.

 

Grant this terrain shall surrender me to its elements,

to the wood’s heart and the river’s rain,

the savannah’s light to its dark silences,

the valley’s green flanks to its water’s secrets,

shaping my tongue to this adopted land,

wind-soled and fleet as the flight of birds

along the causeways of  thought,

a nomad among the ancient trails

the waters mirroring the sky’s vastness

in the contemplation of millennia.

 

I have broken with the pernicious winters,

the austere solitudes of leaf fall,

the blessed revelations of stillness.

Now I hunger for the language of movement,

a pilgrim mapping the pathways

in the rootless spaces where I am found,

seeking music in topographies of motion,

the land writing itself immeasurably

in the words it finds for my tongue

in the traces their sounds leave on the wind,

in the cartographies sketched on the pages of dust

and the broken paths of stone and of sand.

 

By the river tonight I lay wood on fire.

Through the lens of the moon’s pillar

these embers give darkness to the leaves.

The night sings in the turning sparks,

in the throats of birds invisible to the eye,

and in the melancholy song of the river cello:

a quiver of air bowing its sonata of sound

across the shimmer of waters

where I rest until morning,

my sleep resonant with the primal voices of night.

 

 

Olorgesailie                                               for Richard Leakey

 

Midday and the light

                             a blinding sheet

you are fiercely wrapped in it

                             a straitjacket of heat

where the rift breaks into mirages

              and light falters at the edge

                             where the road vanishes

and there is nowhere to go

              except down.

 

Descending escarpments of time

              as though backtracking centuries

out of the city’s squalor                     

              beyond the tin roofed shacks

                             with their migrations                                            

from poverty to poverty

              and everywhere now the world is city

the movement of people is the city

                             and money and fear and crime

              is the city

                             the road taking you now

backwards into the scrub/desert

              the Masai women bright with beads

                             pass in a shimmer of heat

              and the tinkling of goat bells

the vanished winds have left everything

                             coated in a white silence

the friable earth powdering your face

                             like a death mask.

Only the thorn is in flower:

              green leaves dusted with heat.

 

Tornadoes of light

                             the mind’s chimeras

lakes suspended in breathless skies

              your eyes are unquenchable:

mountains reduced to paperwash

                             tracing a bird’s solitary flight

a hairline crack in the sky’s porcelain

                             where will this road end?

              here: white rags of cloud on a dead tree.

 

Your foot slipping on a shelf of rock

              drops you

                             ten thousand years

from gravel bed

                             to fossil print:

              pumice and grey ash unveil

a volcano trapped in rock

              the land’s anatomy gives up its secrets

                             scalpels of wind and sun

carving a skeletal elegance

                             down millennia

              into diatomaceous reaches of prehistory.

You are walking on a lake bed

                             a million years ago

yet even now our own depths

                             are unknown to us.

 

Flakes of the land’s memory

             (once a body of knowledge)

of vanished water deep still and silent:

              minute skeletons of algae

                             traced in cell walls of silica

and trapped in the ghost of a swamp:

              the white bones of an elephant.

 

They hammered stone here

              cut rock, flaked and sharpened tools

                             making blades that cut to the bone

handaxes that gave power

              to kill to feed to deter and defend.

Was this butchery

                             or munitions factory?

 

Here in the night, prey to predatory beasts

             sudden volcanic firestorms,

                             they huddled in groups

with weapons of wood and stone

              and sometimes bone

                             with fear the greater weapon

the one we still carry with us

                             so terrible in its power.

 

Out of stone came technology

                             out of fire, stories

where words became sparks

              lighting the night

                             and a torch in time

became the flickering tongue,

                             the story of language

from the first hand on the stone

              down long ages of shadow

an echo clamouring out of the dark

              and the slow articulation of light.

 

At midnight in the moon’s shadow

                             a scorpion in the sand:

hermit of the desert kingdom

              a fallen constellation

                             with ‘the eyes of a lion’

possessing the ten thousand suns:

                             Antares: the scorpion’s heart

fire-finishing star of the ancients.

 

Say nothing for there is nothing to say

              in the stillness

intelligence is not fear

                             but the beauty of vigilance,

the breath of light awakening

              to the cold whispering of stars

                             enlivening the night,

where even silence seems voluptuous

              amid such vibrant austerity.

 

And this is our origin:

              from these unburied fragments

of bone and cut stone

                             our common humanity.

Know there is something of value

              you will take from here

and will return it later

                             in ways as yet unknown to you:

the moon’s hare leaping at dawn

                             a sunbird’s iridescent wings

              the yellow fire blazing in the thorn

how water on dust has the smell of rain,

                             how the light defines this land

the bones of its history

                             which are these stones

              the exposed roots of memory,

and how it redefines you

                             within the larger memory

still fragmented       

                             always unfinished

of who you are and are not

                             in the light of silence

              which awaits you.

 

 

Silence                                              for Xavier Verhoest

 

As though a livid sky unfastened the lake

      it is there again briefly

that glimpse of darkness

                  as the day slips from my grasp

even as the present holds me

      extending beyond what I know

before the words the names the hours

    

standing waist-deep in an indigo sky

      below me the sliver of a new moon

in a space neither water nor air

      once more coming to myself

touched by that faintest of sounds

                  threading the minutes

the evening's caress flowing

                            through my fingers

as though water gathered time to itself

                  all my days made of years

      now become shadows in its depths

 

the moments returning one by one

                            with the same question

      as if for the first time

                  in a language untaught

a constant presence without name or age

      that was there before me

and my astonishment at the unspoken light

                  having no weight or measure

but a resonance of which I am made 

      carrying the echoes of an older story

                            never fully grasped

                  but known as music is known

each overlapping phrase summoned out of air

       unrecognized, fathomless, unrepeatable

                  but somehow not forgotten

a succession of such moments

                            rising to the surface

in ever widening circles

                  through which I glimpse

a majestic flight of birds

      sailing the deeps through the last of the day

a breathless hush of wings across water

                  still lucent with its passing

 

knowing I must wait for the words

       that come unannounced

                steeped in the residues of time

their sounds surfing the waves

                            in the wake of wings

                through the torn cloud

borne on the soundless crest of a moment

      for which there are no words

                 but only a light growing

from the other side of today

      as though returning me in secret

                            to this liminal hour

 

the whole of me waking into it

                  with all of before and after

alive, listening, with nowhere to go

                  the moment flying on with me

alone into the night

                 planting signs in the dark.

 

 

After the Rain

 

How sometimes it happens when your listening

inclines to the earth after rain

as you go towards the light

and somewhere within you the word grows

burrowing silently from root to green

before it will find itself in your voice

and the way drops into shadow the sky 

unfolding around you its gauze of blue air

just as the evening’s tendency accepts you

in the pause between thoughts

in the sudden clearing opening within you

as the way ahead takes you backwards

to where the long memory of trees began

the songs of the wind you listened to

through the dark falls and the river of leaves

and then on up towards the night

through the final shadows of you

as tall as the trees and their years

once more to witness the last of the green

where the water lifts the emerald grass

from the dry earth after the long days of heat

following the tumbling stream and all your days 

dropping to a mere whisper of light

the water carrying within it the sky’s burnished fires

cold to your touch as it opens onto a dark flight of birds

and the only sound the remains of the wind

that will take you alone through the night

through all the blindness of its sleep

unraveling the dark feathers of its flight

to the place that once showed you the stars

where the day shall find you before you awaken

the light of beginnings amber at your window

and morning a syllable of water the river song

at the threshold of all you do not know

blue ocean of air of everything not you

flower of no season belonging to no one

a silence the colour of the sky after rain

and the way still untravelled

beyond which words could not take you.

 

 

Kol Nidrei    28.10.2018

 

Dark melody of Aramaic prayer

gently coaxing from the cello strings

the cantor’s rhapsodic voice

conjuring stillness from time’s shadows.

 

At the threshold of silence

I feel my heart pulled so quietly

into the melancholy swell of notes

a dark throbbing undertone

trembling beneath evening’s liturgy.

 

Shadows of leaves pattern this wall

as the day prepares to disown me

lighting candles for the departed

Time’s gift once more summons me

ever closer to death’s genesis.

 

Riding the breath of night

grief lingers a while longer

sung upon a still tremulous string

until I am only a heartbeat away 

from such loss as deepens night

into love’s note of quiet surrender,

 

asking once more how sorrow’s bitter taste

can yet open hearts to night’s long vigil

towards forgiveness.

In the skies above a trillion shining stars

proclaim the heart’s innocence

amidst love’s unbidden tears.

 

 

The Ancient of Days                                   for Rhodia Mann

 

How time disappears

while we live under

the big tree.

W.S. Merwin “By the Mango Trees”

 

That day you were born now more than seven decades ago,

your parents’ lives uprooted by war and persecution

exiled after years of wandering ever further

from where they were born carrying in their hearts

an old story of dispersion and now belonging only to each other

as each destination began yet another journey,

who could have known then of the days gathered here

in the shade of a mango, of the African roots your life found,

of the green leaves spread like hands of welcome

on each one of which a story might have been written,

overheard on long afternoons of sumptuous teas

composed both of Polish recipes and conversation

as ardent as the hot gusts of wind the green darkness

of the mango’s cavernous shade shielded us from.

 

Who would have known that your seed planted here

would not quite relinquish the nomadic fire

that is your inheritance and for many years your passion,

or that all that you learned and gathered from your travels

would be shared among so many less fortunate

in countless stories, while a late sun slanted

into eyes of astonishment and mirth. And after tea

with the late hour’s conviviality enhanced by chilled wine,

we would recollect days almost irretrievably lost

as the dials on the post-colonial clocks are now without hands,

and history brutally interred beneath modernity’s emporiums

along with collective memory, much of it unwritten,

held tenuously in the minds of elders shadowed by age,

forgetting that without a past there is no future.

 

Each year on days determined by occasion you assemble

in the shade of the mango tree a company of friends and strangers

united by shared dishes as culturally diverse as your travels,

your generosity evocative of a world that recedes each year

into the lost archives of histories whose daily erasures

tell of the coming age where trees like languages

are endangered species, books extinct and conversations

occur in silence on portable screens, reminding each other

we are only products of the choices we believed we made,

and the wise voices of elders have long been silenced

age being of no account along with duration,

as the unnumbered years of ripening become barren

in a world where technology is the new immortality

even as we live longer amidst a tyranny of noise and speed.

 

But while there is still time as you age gracefully

in the company of this tree, home to vanished courtesies

and rooted intimately in all the lives and occasions

of which she is silent witness, I name her The Ancient of Days,

for like a goddess she has welcomed us unreservedly,

overheard without judgment our comedies and tragedies,

our scandals and griefs, bestowing her eternal benediction

on all who gather yearly to celebrate this day

your life, your work, your gift of generosity,

her branches’ welcoming shade drawing us evermore

beneath the green embrace of her years that we may know

the enduring wisdom of trees, the flower and the fruit,

the living air, the light that is still ancient today and here,

the silence long after the wind in her leaves took all our words.

 

The House of Leaves, Kitisuru 20.10.15

 

Markets Down, Walking the Sky – A Journey into Elegy.

(December 2008)

 

I listen carefully to all native peoples, because whether they are farmers, pastoralists or land-based peasants, they share a far closer link than we do to a way of living that at one time was the only way people survived on this planet. Gary Snyder, Poet and Deep Ecologist.

 

1.

 

Driving south into horizons of salt and thirst

            the landscape flattens out

a dry heat swimming between hills and scarp

            people, animals, trees

                           float free of the ground

as if the sky had reached down, lifted them

            from earth’s weight,

transfixed by light you feel gravity might fail,

            a world relinquished of its burden,

as if once more the sky and earth were one.

 

If there is an art to getting lost

            then I have yet to master it,

still unwilling to concede to land

            the weaving of its mapless paths

                            into the mind’s geography,

fixed on far horizons thought protests

            losing itself more in its denial,

now helpless in turning circles

            passing the same group twice:

five Masai traveling in search of water.

            I stop, asking directions, they smile,

having observed my erratic course

            through terrain known to them

as starlight is known or the tracks of birds

            the land known only as a life is known

when lived as slowly as a tree

            with the long patience of trees

                         unassuaged in the rain shadow,

to be reminded here of your true north

            that it lies beyond you

in a self compassed by the world.

 

One woman with a child slung on her back

            wants a ride to her manyatta,

                         she wears beaded jewellery:

white beaded cuffs, white beaded earrings,

            she has perfect teeth,

                         eyes shaped by the sun,

she is small boned, carries a scent of earth and milk,

            smiling she opens her garment

                         as naturally as the wind

parting the leaves of the sycamore tree,

            and the child suckles

at her swollen breast as we drive.

 

 

2.

 

One morning to have set out

            unknowing of where the road or why,

                         but that it light a way

            through shadows of hills,

the flicker of miles under a strobing sun  

            now easing into forgetfulness,

the curve of life invisible

                          beyond this moment,

beyond the burden of anticipation,

             the endless traffic of desires,

incessant breaking news,

                         metallic voices urgent

with market news of global meltdown,

              the air humming with anxiety,

                         while here a desert endures

and far away the effect of one life

            upon another goes unacknowledged:

the cattle ribbed by hunger fallen to their knees,

            a marabou stork dead, a feathered crucifix,

the bones of a giraffe crusted with salt,

            stripped by the light of all living semblance.

                         

            Here even the human dead

by tradition were once left unburied,

            disposed of by scavengers,

                         hyenas or jackals,

as in the sky burials of Buddhas

            ritual interment once only the preserve

                         of honoured chieftains,

death here a stark reminder of the fragility

                         into which we are born.

 

Yet somewhere in back of me

            the mind clings to the road behind me

trying to free itself of all ephemera,

            to burn away the carcasses of pain,

sear intolerable memory to the bone,

            transiting these solitudes

                                   unheeded by mountain and thorn,

by lakes alkaline with a ruthless light

            flamed by tall flamingoes lifting their soft fire

                                    on the day’s heat.

 

Was it then a fleeting trick of the light

            or the shape of a cloud

                                    bypassed the years

to the shifting dunes of childhood,

            a sense of peace like distance,

                                    white light streaming from a window,

a memory of rain falling

            on green hills in a distant land,

yet nothing to mute the eternal riddle of this life,

            though the day lies unwrapped by the wind

                                    in all its splendour.

         

A raw uncertainty persists

            a taste of dust and emptiness,

                                    as though far horizons

were needed to take me through

                                    beyond the death of me,

through all the silences

            the empty words, the lies and the questions,      

the ones we are still learning to live through.

                                   Perilous now the chosen path

            our way on it uncertain,

                                   the old calamities resurrect

from the rubble of earlier catastrophe,

                                   the ruins built over,

behind every victory a darkness in the smile.

           It is the way of the trickster

                                   to cloak his shadow with light,

and if I had to choose I might go the way of loss.

          

           

3.

 

Listening to the migrations of birds

           a solitary herdsman perched on one leg

                                    in heron-like immobility,

knowing patience to the core of his bones,

                                    reading the signs,

who bears on his face

            the silence of the landscape he walks in,

a face shaped by the power of that silence

           formed out of the openness

of desert and lake

            where a face cannot hide from itself

as it cannot hide from the land that formed it.

            I greet him and we walk a while together

side by side across the salt flats,

                                     sharing a silence

            which is the silence of stone and of sand,

of the sky and of the wide night,

                                     its words buried in the wind,

in the calligraphy of birds and of stars.

                      

 

4.

 

Beyond here a whole world is falling:

           Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch,

                         Goldman Sachs

            say those names out loud

they vanish into salt and sunlight,

                                      not even an echo remains.

            The Masai elder smiles at the foreign sounds,

his looped ear lobes tremble with laughter,

            he points with his stick to the dried dung

                                      friable as the dust.

Far from here in the steel and glass canyons of greed

                                      those in the temples of power

            defecate gold as markets crash,

and how old now is the memory of rain?

            The air crackles with static:

somewhere a radio in the hands of a child

                                      the world’s panic leaking out,

a commotion of voices like insects

            dying on the parched earth.

 

5.

          

At dusk the desert opens like a fading rose

            because it remembers the rain.

People survive the answers they are given,

                         the old here knew better,

the silence was a given and it nourished them.

            It was flowers in the desert after rain, she said,

it was the savannah at night covered in starlight,

            it was the sound of their herds

moving through the long grass,

            it was “The She to whom I pray”

their god Ngai not male nor female

                         but both and neither,

the sky and the earth joined by the silence,

            the cattle a gift one day descending the aerial roots

                          of the wild fig oreteti,

but the child with the foreign sounds

                         held between his hands

trickling their answers onto the parched ground

            will not know this silence,

it is fractured like the earth

            and today the wind bears new fevers

                         toxic with despair,

while the laibon shakes a sheaf of grass as a blessing,

            in his fist it is a sign of peace,

his face etched by the wind and the silent light

                         looks at you with eyes

            cataracted with failing sight,

in his gaze words falter at the edge,

            a blindness that holds you steady as a mirror

with the glaring light of an injustice

                         his tongue cannot formulate,

of days corralled to a future

                                       devised elsewhere.

 

6.

 

And the seven yearly gatherings of eunoto

                         grow smaller, he said,

            few now are the generations

that will follow in the ageless knowledge

           proud in their bearing,

to tell of their birth through the passage of rites,

           who bore the pain of the blade

and for their courage a crown of coloured birds,

                         chasing virgin girls

with the cupidity of blunt arrows,

           each captive gifting them a token of rings

they gather by the dozen for their admiration,

           of the warrior days stalking a lion,

of those who came lion-maned to their pride of place

           to fling their ochre braids on a bride’s cheek

                         as they danced,

who laid with her innocence

                         in the tenderness of their youth,

were blessed by the elders with milk and honey beer,

           their locks shorn of their boldness

into the shining purity of their manhood,

           while the fallen braids of their youth

                         were gathered

           in memory of freedom’s intimacy.

In place of this schools join them now

           in the new knowledge of the dispossessed.

 

In the village the women lie in the shade,

           wrapped in their new colours,

and nothing here is unaccounted for

                         by those who depend on it,

           now become curiosities

to those with the X-ray eyes who do not spit

           (unlike their own people with eyes

who see the transparency of others

           whose spit is a blessing like rain)

                         for whom the livelihood of cattle

spoils the pristine view of wilderness,

            now the preserve

of the rich whose distant lives

                         impact on their territory

as locusts once visited death on whole communities.

 

 

7.

 

Tell me there is not something they know

           that they are not the root of us

                         kept alive in them

without which the tree can branch no more,

           as nothing passes entirely

without a trace of value.

                         Once steadfast

in their rootless self-possession

           being always in motion

seeding generations with knowledge

           down to the roots of their time,

fierce in their resistance to change yet graceful

           in the giving of their colours

                         to emptiness and scarcity,

in the giving of their songs

                         to the rains’ grasslands,

driving their cattle and moving on

           with nothing to lose but everything

as when a red moon portends disaster.

 

Tell me what freedom of choice means here

                         how choice defines freedom,

the choice between rain or no rain,

           between moving or staying,

between meat today

                         and no meat tomorrow,

how the consumer “choice” of the many

           (and for even one of their number

                         a multitude of “choices”)

           in their earnest pursuit of happiness

becomes a scarcity for the needful

           who must beg even for necessity,

while choice is unable to say

           how your foot touches the ground

                         and lifts again

when the hand held out to comfort a child

           is not a decision

and the girl’s smile in her mother’s eyes

           is as a flower

                         and unmarketable

           being all of one price.

 

           

8.

 

Nothing is given

           except it be taken away

                         by drought or by flood

or that it perish with the herds

           in their dying pastures,

with the ever further migrations,

           with homes abandoned

                         to a lamentation of winds,

of songs turned elegy

                         for the grieving earth,

for the proud endurance of lives

           worked to their season’s harvest,

for the ancestors

           honoured in their time,

for a wisdom resistant to change

           but honed to the motions of living,

for the death of wilderness

                         and its intimacy with death,

for the vast unsheltering sky

           spread massively now above

the relentlessly diminishing plains,

           the calculated marketing of lives,

of beasts in their measured allotments of space,

           the only wilderness left in mind,

even as components of nature

           unravel their mysteries to reason,

while we are ever perturbed

           by the fragility of goodness.

 

Forgotten now

           the silence that wells up

                         out of solitude,

forgotten the sky’s immensity

           that fed the tree’s roots

with light years of suns,

           and we are grown smaller

                         in the forgetting

           diminished by so little

that appears to us as great

                         as we are failed

by our achievements,

           the sacrifices entailed by them

                         suffered by others,

their beauty mired in our excess.

 

 

9.

 

All night long in the manyatta

                          they fed the darkness with songs.

           In the morning at first light

the earth’s song rose gently on the rim of dawn

                         migrating on the wind’s voice

           to be heard in the throats of birds

unseen among the leaves

                         turning to light in the sun

as I turn to take my leave, 

           the journey back already burdened

by thought of that impatient city

           which long ago devoured their land,

now burgeoning with all its dread hungers,

           where spirit worms underground

                         famished by need,

           its waters long sucked dry.

Yet I carry their invisible gift, honoured by tradition

                         of hospitality freely given,

           winnowed by song

and by the dust of winds,

           by the spareness of lives

                         honourable in their time

as their language is honourable

                         as collective history

           bound by unwritten memory,

to which my words add nothing in departure

           except that they ask to take as loan

                         but a portion of this sky

           and learn from it a silence,

not the scarce remains of a day,

                         but the light that surfaces

from a dreamless sleep,

                         stalking the night

as only a lion can move with a lion’s quiet

           parting the grasses

with the stealth of midnight,

                         hard as a diamond

           but with a darkness

that shimmers with the clarity of starlight,

                         the stillness of lakes,

           evanescent as the dawn breaks slowly

over the rose-hued salt flats,

           a light with the sharpness of crystal

yet as fragile as ice held in the palm,

           all joy all grief reconciled to this:

the knowledge that all we render expendable

                         persists in such generosity

           of returning beauty,

a poignancy of hope transfigured into being,

           all voices stilled but a moment

                         to flare willingly

into a love radiant with loss.

 

Magadi, Southern Kenya, December 2008.

 

 

 

Persephone Afrika

 

Freedom of the sky this hour

where mind wakes into morning blue

confident and wordless

with unspoken hope

a single cloud upon horizon’s lip

as if in answer to a prayer,

but the words are not there

to answer the silence of this desert

as the hours fall still with dust

covering the tracks as the day fails

at the rim of night to wait again upon a star.

 

From drought into despair,

the barren faces of long patience

worn thin by journeying to dried pastures,

vascular threads of green evaporate to sand,

deliver to the parched eyes nothing

but a mirage against the frail bones

of a stoic hope blasted by winds of dust

the land wrapped in cerements,

as the women sit wrapped in silence.

 

Now one, she spits a jet of tobacco juice into the sand,

complains that her daughter, married to the city,

has been gone two seasons now as though

her long absence had brought misfortune

and only her return, until now forbidden

by tradition of an unsettled debt, would bring new life:

an ox to slaughter, festivities and rain,

a desert once again in flower.

Like a season gone missing then

the rain flowers, of yellow and of red,

the colours of her bridal necklace,

that bring to each renewal a jubilance and bliss,

lie underground nourished by darkness,

and she who walks for the last time

to the well dug in the river bed

and in the harrowed light finds only sand

feels all the sweetness gone

who only tastes the tears of children

that moisten her lips with rage

against the weight of the sun’s anvil.

 

Like Demeter she grieves for her daughter,

as though her abduction by marriage to the city

were to blame for the weather.

She tells me that of all her daughters

she is the most beautiful, an African Persephone:

 

Where are the roots of the many

that fed the one flower

among all the flowers

in which she saw herself as in a mirror

in her prime of beauty

before they came for her

took her down into the darkness

of the machines, the casinos of desire,

to the matrix of despair, her beauty sworn

to a dark forgetfulness of flowers?

 

Would the desert flower on her return?

Will she carry within her the

dark seed of the pomegranate,

her mouth stained red by new desires?

Will she bring harmony or discord?

Will the seasons of rain return

the wells be filled, the children flourish?

 

The sky belongs to god, she said.But water is life.

Turkana, Kenya

 

Lerr

 

Above the ancient tree

whose shape seems formed

by as yet untold stories

whispered only to the wind

by its fitful branchings under starlight

lies the whetting stone.

 

For how many centuries

were the blades sharpened here

on sun-struck stone shaped by nameless winds

to shed the blood of an ox

that ran in scarlet rivers over the sacred rock?

 

For how many days have the elders gathered 

for the work of disputing

out of patience to reach consensus

that must come to them in good time

to bring fortune or to halt disaster?

 

This tree, whose shadings

encompass broad agreement

before the elders take their leave

their work done,

is sole silent witness to their pact,

its fleeting passage into deed,

and to the stories committed to memory

that mark each of them

like the growth rings of an ancient fate

long after they have gone into tomorrow’s dark,

tall figures cloaked in red

each one scored by the long days of attrition

and of the yellowing earth that awaits rain

the bringer of peace.

 

 

Distance

 

We think of it as where we came from

and what still lies ahead of us

yet at times it can seem

we are unmade by distance

that comes to us uninvited

in the high note of a bird

or an unexpected wind

feathering the trees

the leaves lifting

as in a calling to invisible heights

 

From our earliest years

memory recollects being drawn to it

yet we are not of it

feeling its summons yet fearing it

and are drawn back from the edge

by the guardians

to the flesh of need and of comfort

 

Yet from a window at night

we see lights moving silently

through the darkness of trees

as if pain were longing

and beauty’s distance

the very fear of it

 

Even words cannot grasp it

being made of the spaces between stars

and so we name only what we see

reasoning from what is known

making order from reaction

seeing ourselves only in the results

that determine what we sanction

knowing order as ours

 

But in the end what eludes us

might be who we are

reminding us of distance

when all that is near

and most dear fails us

thinking perhaps

even love must be made of it

 

Then we set out again to know distance

heeding its call as to a song unfinished

that we may find the words to complete it

though it carries wholeness

deep within it

which is ours when we know

we can never know and are free

not knowing without trace of regret

as a flower is when not seeking light

it opens to the sun

and the sun is distance

as the rain is from the mountain

which by giving life to it

make it wholly what it is

 

We think we can measure it

but from what beginning

to what end

we think we know ourselves

but being also made of it

which is yet empty of us

know it only as who we are

when we abide in it

forgetting what we are or are not

in its infinite embrace.

 

C David Beatty 2016