The theatre of distance

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Selected poems

 

 

Crows (slightly gothic) in Croydon

They're a jagged black hole

light disappears into, re-emerging only

as their dismal call:

narc ... nah ... naa-aarc ... !

 

The sort of noise the world might make

if you could crowbar

open any of its aching surfaces

and let out its primal cry

 

this mouthing of such bleak utterances

at passer-by pedestrians.

Bad black jokes

flapping down pole to pavement

 

yet no one really notices the crows

encroaching on the nerves

of Croydon, scraping

pain from the loosened edges of the mind.

 

Behind the locked loo block

out the back a homeless man needles

embroidered veins

and staggers off through the gate

 

into those van Gogh

cornfields the crows continue to inhabit ...

Though with dusk

even they fall silent, disappearing

 

in the cracks of darkness

spreading all along the elm's branches.

The gate forecloses

on any further possibilities.

 

 

 

The zen of mud

Consider mud. Buddha

did, in fact extolled

its virtues to the monk

who asked the BIG

questions. The Buddha

replied: what do you

see beneath your feet?

Thus, consider mud

a good place to begin.

 

The faithfulness of mud

is one thing. There is

nothing quite like it

for cooling the blood,

for instance. The monk

must've realised that,

his ardour for another

kind of enlightenment

quite quickly quenched,

for the big questions

still remain unanswered.

Is he still bogged down

in them? Is the monk

muddled? Consider it ...

 

Mud doesn't put on airs

but just gets on with it,

sticks to the job at hand.

It knows its limitations

and that's why Buddha

thought it so apposite.

Here's mud in your eye

(he might have said)

so cleanse the windows

of perception. Blake

thought London's mud

too much, but Buddha

would've told him just

to keep his eye on it.

 

 

 

At the departure gate

Partir, c'est mourir un peu

(Edmond Haraucourt)

 

We have made a pact, never to look back

when we say goodbye. Practice

 

makes perfect, you've said, so we continue

practising, assiduously. However

 

practice only makes more practice, I'd say.

We are far from being perfect.

 

Still, we count down 3-2-1 then turn away

unravelled into a peopled hall

 

bereft though certain it's the only way to go.

Later, I confess I did look back

 

once to find you gone, and your image in me

turned precipitately into salt

 

and you reply you'd also looked back, once.

I'd been folded into distance ...

 

Thus we will remain here, forever taking leave

Rilke told us, but forgot to add

 

that in departure we will be our own remains

strewn like burnt-out ashes

 

through some abandoned tourist destination.

Parting means to die a little.

 

And shadowed by that larger story, we forget

to look each other in the eyes

 

when again we back away from one another.

Afterwards, your eyes are all I see.

 

 

 

Theatre piece

One's real life is often the life one does not lead

(Oscar Wilde)

 

There's a kitchen table, two chairs, and a light

hanging over the table, and two people, a man and a woman

come into the room from elsewhere and sit in silence

and they do not speak and only sometimes

do their eyes meet, yet still they do not speak, and later

they will get up and walk away, away from

the table and this room, away from one another ...

 

There are other rooms in other places where they

will not meet, where other lives intersect and then diverge

but part of them remains at this first table

ghosts to one another, asking silent questions

and in each place there are these leavings, scripts

and stage directions cast about, scenes not enacted, phrases

lingering near the open doorway, still unspoken.

 

Just occasionally someone voices what has been intended

all along, or else some random gesture of a hand

awakens someone else to memory, and

they find themselves gazing towards what might have been ...

 

Suppose we live just a part of our lives, fulfilling

only some of its possibilities, what happens to the un-lived

substance of those lives? Another man, another

woman might come into that first room, sit down at that table

and picking up the traces take the story down

along some other path, towards that other

life in those other places, in those prior habitations ...

 

So we find ourselves, gazing towards what might have been.

 

 

 

As it is

Voyez, près des étangs ces grands roseaux mouillés

Voyez, ces oiseaux blancs et ces maisons rouillées

(Charles Trenet)

 

A friend in Perth once suggested I should live there, and when

I said it felt remote she looked around, scuffed at the dusty

ground beneath her feet. 'Really?' she replied, 'it's just here.'

 

Such is the theatre of distance. I dreamed Thoreau told me

that whenever I was lost, if only I'd remember that it was not I

but simply those familiar places of the world that were lost

 

then I would realise at last the trick of standing upright here ...

So I've lost and found myself. Once in Iran, in those arid valleys

Estarkafteh and Estaroftideh where not even a local villager

 

would go; and in the karst mountains of southern China where

poets etched their poems on the rocks, at least their words

surviving purges; and across a meadow in between the granite

 

walls of Yosemite where an Ahwahnechee woman glanced up

from her weaving to thank me for my silence; and from the

West MacDonnell Ranges in Central Australia gazed towards

 

Tnorala where once the star-child came to earth. Now, here in

the Camargue, we look across the Middle Earth Sea, its blue

deepened by blood, through centuries of joys and sufferings of

 

light with shadow, while behind us the flamingos spread their

wings into the breeze, flash pink-vermilion, settle and go on

stalking the waters of L'Étang de Vaccarès. Several white egret

 

sentinels edge the saltmarsh as we walk on back ... Distance

looks our way, looms up suddenly so personal, asking what we

might become. Everywhere, departure opens wide its gates

 

into the nothing that awaits us in the dusk, this fading light

offering its private spaces for our grief. Far offshore, twelve

refugees drown. Somewhere beyond the sea a mother weeps.

 

Note: Charles Trenet wrote the lovely chanson 'La Mer' in the mid-1940s, from which I've quoted for my first epigraph, to be translated roughly as: 'See near the ponds / these tall watery rushes / See these white birds / and these rusted shacks'. Then in the final line of my poem I quote a familiar phrase from the English version of this song as popularised by Bobby Darin: 'Somewhere beyond the sea [she's waiting for me ... ]'

There are a couple of celebrated passages quoted here from two New Zealand poets: ' ... the trick of standing upright here' is of course from Allan Curnow's sonnet 'The Skeleton of the Great Moa in the Canterbury Museum, Christchurch'; while the phrase 'Distance looks our way', is from Charles Brasch's poem 'The Islands'.

'[Colours are] the joys and sufferings of light with shadow' is from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's 'Farbenlehre'.

 

 

John AllisonJohn Allison has had poems published in some 250 literary journals worldwide. His fifth collection, A Place to Return To, was published by Cold Hub Press earlier this year.

Topic tags: John Allison, poetry

 

 

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Existing comments

Lovely.
MICHAEL DUCK | 26 November 2019


Wonderful set of poems, John, capturing the crow’s cry and its implications, the essence and value of mud, as well as lives lived and not lived.
Bill Wootton | 01 December 2019


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