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Archive for April 5th, 2013

Ruin Diary 1 – Poems

Some years ago I had the ambition of publishing a book called Ruin Diary. The idea was to put together a mix of short stories, poetry and photographs which would, in some way, reflect the theme of “ruin”. Ruin, of course, can be interpreted in a number of ways, but essentially it is the destruction of something, the remains thereof, or the process by which something comes to ruin. This is rather close to a dictionary definition wherein Ruin is described as:

The physical destruction or disintegration of something or the state of disintegrating or being destroyed.

I wanted to combine the physical and the metaphysical – the evocation of actual ruins, alongside the ruin of love, dreams and hopes etc. This might seem like a rather glum preoccupation, and I suppose in some ways it is, yet it is a natural offshoot of having an almost cripplingly nostalgic personality. It also comes from an overactive interest in history, which I indulged throughout my undergraduate degree, my honours year and, later, a PhD in late Roman / Early Medieval Italian history. I’ve spent almost half my life thinking about the fall of Rome and what it signifies – the first failure of a sort of proto-modernity. It’s a sad period, the onset of the so-called Dark Ages, but an absolutely fascinating one. The hangover of Roman civilization, the undercurrents of continuity, and, in the peoples of western Europe, the lingering, shadowing, saddening awareness that greatness was behind them, not in front of them. It’s a period full of nostalgics and studying it only seemed to fuel the emotions which often left me paralyzed in contemplation of the past.

In Ruin Diary I wanted to get this emotion across – in all of my preferred forms of expression: through photographs of actual ruins, modern or ancient, or poems and stories which touched on these places and the atmosphere and moods they generate; through stories and poems about the failure of love and relationships, the sense of loss itself, the effects of loss and failure. It was a naïve and overly ambitious idea, without an agent or publisher or real awareness of the market, but irrespective of that, it was a great spur to develop ideas based around this theme. Indeed, in the end, I accumulated more than enough material, some of which, particularly short stories and poems, have already been published on this blog.

Anyways, without further ado, the following poems are some of those I had in the Ruin Diary basket. I’ve never quite regarded them as complete and have continued working on them until recently. Some have been rejected by publishers several times, and possibly with good reason, others have never been let out of the stable. I find my style a little overblown in retrospect and have resolved not to work on these any longer, yet I still have a strong liking for the core elements of these poems, which, here and there, get it right. It is also the case that the publication of these poems is a nostalgic tribute to the spirit that first inspired them and to my slightly younger self.

I’ve also attached a badly stitched together panorama of one of my favourite ruin sites – Termessos, in southern Turkey. The shots were taken on a crappy film compact and later scanned. The quality is pretty appalling, but I think you’ll want to go there all the same after checking it out : )

Termessos, Southern Turkey

Termessos, Southern Turkey

 

l’amour, le vin et le tabac

 (After a visit to the Mucha museum in Prague)

They didn’t mention the women,

– though one photo was of

a “mistress” – of which

there must have been many:

the sleepy-eyed,

pursy Zodiac, (she’s a wet one

and a bonnie tickler)

pure tears and a prim, good heart

though not as good

a sport as the knowing Spring,

all vermicelli hair and blossoms,

languor and vigour both

in the smiling eyes, the curling

lips, the confidence and clip

of a coming bumper harvest.

 

Spring a woman, Summer

a woman and Winter

too, a woman. All these women

and, despite their vivid florescence,

none of them a cinch.

Sarah Bernhardt wanted something

quickly, something new, for

two weeks hence she strode

– Athenian and Florentine –

upon a footlit Parisian stage,

and came to you, a man

so steeped in women, prone

to idealise the softness

and the purity, threw out

the trim and trappings for a rustic

decadence, a fecund innocence,

that of a rural princess

lavish and mosaiced, a frond

in hand as if young Jesus

on a donkey comes, to bring

a message like to be misread.

 

Europe marvelled, eyes aflame

with this sudden wedding seen

upon the streets of Paris, took

the posters home to cherish,

hailed the dawning of some new

art, styled and curvy, bold

and feminine, soon to spread

to buildings, seats and lamp-posts

soon to travel far on soap-tins,

matchbooks, wine, tobacco,

scents and, indeed, anything

which a beautiful woman

might help sell. Innocence,

yet not naïve, with something

other than simplicity

in those invitations.

 

 

Epochs

Most of our epochs (and by this I mean

the parcels within which we group recollections)

are woven of lovers or houses

 

are mapped by the heart and the places

we dwell. And Rome, no stranger

to epochs, though I never foresaw

 

such meadows of learning, of love and of war,

wrapped, like a rubric, in four long

months, a lifetime of potent nostalgia.

 

For three years preceding, my fields

had run wild with some loves

overlapping the brinks of each other

 

so Rome promised, in word and in deed,

farewell to the wet newspaper days,

that left one so close and so permeable.

 

On those frozen-toed, sandalled, Campidoglio

dawns, we were taken to see such masterpieces,

some absolute heroism on a wall, or the pocked

 

boldness, standing victorious in stone

buildings (it was the Renaissance

after all) or frescoed in dim-lit churches half

 

propped with the spolia of past

ages when grandeur first – Roman

hardware, Greek software – crushed the West.

 

And well, that was winter, or January

anyway. How I slept and breathed, having bashed

up my organs in an English climax in parting

 

from an orgy of work. Through a slower,

February of keen archaeology;

drove to ruins in snow-smoothed Tuscan

 

hills; to a frosted, icicle-hung

amphitheatre; field-walked the Tiber Valley,

carried ladders into Herculaneum

 

to measure Roman houses, eyes fixed

firmly on a Manx redhead I hoped

to touch up in Ostia Antica,

 

bracing in sunlight against the February

wind. Soon March was upon us with war

leaning close and the neatness that hedged

 

in behind me the past, the warmer sun

set fresh shoots blooming and, feeling at last I

belonged here, I chirped from my hedgerow

 

a wholly new song. Going now,

to the Pantheon daily, finding

beneath the streets, things hard to believe. Such sights

 

and the bright holding tight to privilege

must have coloured my cheeks just enough

to be bedded by a famous man’s mistress

 

after three congenial dinners in a month

of monasteries: Farfa, Assisi, Subiaco,

Cassino, that ended with hopes pinned

 

to a guest list of girls’ names come for another

stirring course. And what girls, when they came

and were friendly. Tiber Island roared

 

with rains and thaws and on the first April

day, lit like the sun-side of Mercury, I fell

in love, wounded, having dived

 

into a hedge on the post-shrove Wednesday,

slashed and scabbed like Easter’s coming thorns.

She cut my hair with praise for the way

 

these hands kept to themselves, when later we

sat on a colosseum backdrop

slope. There, that milk-skinned kitten, that doe-eyed

 

soft pixie, Lottie of the grass heads, bloomed gorgeous,

legs tucked beneath her, sun streaming

down. I should have run to do her whims

 

– but to be apart from her! So I ran

faster still and she crowned me

with a makeshift laurel; her fingers

 

brushed my ear-tips as she placed

the very grass heads that made her like a flower

when she and I sang with Nils, full of pride

 

for the odd bond I’d knotted between now and then,

salvaged in a day of proclamations.

Unable to lean for a peck; to declare

 

with a cheek-kiss the birth of a new love

while Baghdad enthralled in the common room and April’s

new tone was a blossom of history to come.

 

It was a month that soared on to the winding

down of this heart-wrench of coming and going

and still never knowing which epoch the present

 

belonged in, whereon to prop and nurture

some constant in life and love.

 

 

La Pelosa, Stintino, Sardinia

Tomorrow’s feted high upon this stretch

of Caribbean tints. The sea and sky run through

in lissome strokes; azure and watered cobalt overwrite

a blazing, foreground palimpsest

of lemon essence light, tinctured soft with pearl.

 

Stripy market stalls arise

among the littered towels and humps

of footprints dug by posing youths,

while sagging older bathers prop, as wineskins

hung before a vision inked upon a rippling silk.

 

There is an invitation in the dunes to rest a while,

yet, cool and jewelled, the ocean lures; shallow

is the gradient of shore, invisible the water

lapping near, so creeping up the shins the coolness

comes; the body horizontal, starts its glide.

 

Across this smite of paradise a cannon tower calls

the swimmers on. They fetch up here

to sample lizard heat and squatting shrubs and view

this structure, rough and sharp; its jagged stone

makes weathered shelves for ample seagull nests.

 

History left this island half unmade as epics

gathered round Aegean shores and poets

slung their words to Sicily. Pirates sought

this empires’ afterthought and Spaniards, fearing them

erected towers such as this to guard their chiming ports.

 

Not all we build winds up to be for us alone

for time and seasons bring new dwellers in. So witness

in this structure not our strength in making lasting things

for to the rocks the purpose of our striving soon is lost

and by the weather, transience, is nurtured slow to dust.

 

 

Winter Morning, Campo dei Fiori

I’d been here before at night,

drunk and swearing through spittle;

with Italians singing songs

of bandits and hard-working

peasants; “bella ciao, bella

ciao” – drunk as well, but never

as drunk as a foreigner.

 

Back here I stand where they sang

beneath some martyr who burned

for I forget what. He is,

nonetheless, unforgotten

in a statue – (no hissing

gobbets at dawn in the drum-

fires of the slow-warming men).

 

So here I am hoping for

real scenes, but it’s so real that

I see no mystery, and point

my camera in vain at some

old men; popping off half-arsed

shots in this “field of flowers”

in the winter of the day.

 

Spring comes and flowers come too,

rolling on rusty carts; wheels

fat with weight, and stumpy men

pushing and pulling colour

to make the tents blossom. Blooms

erupt in the piazza

and the stalls wash with women.

 

Sun creeps down the palazzo

and falls in a canyon street.

Again I shoot the essence

as Romans sit on bollards

to thaw beside their mopeds,

and once again the “unique”

pales into quotidian.

 

I’ve drunk from springs all morning

to quench a colosseum

thirst, for I’ve been walking since

oily light infused across

the Apennines; angling low

through the burnished frost; rich clad

in the promise of warming.

 

Once home, my fragility

is paramount. Emotion

strikes, my hands begin to thaw;

the agony, as blood resumes

its course, jewels my eyes with tears,

and, by my Roman window

I cry, weak as a blossom,

but a blossom all the same.

 

 

Ancient Sky

The diesel warmth of the metro breathes

me onto the broken pavement:

Rome, bus station, dawn.

Aboard the bus I lose my eyes

in the smear of road lights;

sinking into holiday’s end,

sinking into thinness strung

across long sleepless nights

and wakeful days.

 

Then it hits me, here at last,

through fatigue and failing

hope, it comes,

the light, the sullen pink;

bloated fire dulled by frost,

fanning from the mountains so

at last I see things as they were

in the silhouette of peaks;

grey-brown, massive, graphed against

this nebula of dawn.

 

From here was marble dug,

the sources flowed, the Samnites poured,

the very spine that Pyrrhus hoped to break,

– the unchanged, ancient Apennines.

And above them, blooming slowly,

a sky as like to those of distant days

when Justinian’s vengeful murderers

shattered Italy to a ruin.

 

 

To Capo Caccia, Sardinia

Dry and rugged, the land about Fertilia;

sharp and rough, the rocks. Bristling

tinder, sparse forest, needles and ochre

yellow earth in suffocating heat.

Until I entered a darker coastal stretch

of deep green undergrowth coolly shaded,

sunk in a fecund gully.

 

This was once a land of pygmy elephants,

dwindled hippos, rhinos shrunk

on an island trapped in a basin of burning

salt; a landlocked sea that came and went

until the pillars of Hercules fell

bringing an Atlantic deluge

to flood the briny deltas

of the Rivers Rhone and Nile.

 

The first peoples left us no writing,

only tombs and bee-hives:

Nuraghi, the rounded citadels;

dusty and softly echoing

with stones like hardwood mushrooms;

iron rich and orange as the cork trees

peeled to an umber trunk and dotting

the tawny grass of the island’s hilly fields.

 

Concrete lattice rises, rusty, weed run;

clicking with insects and the rubbish tipped

in the many failed constructions,

and, just along the coast of these,

the beach resorts milking

sweeps of sand between volcanic

rocks to which the mastic

trees and hardy cistus cling.

 

I remained optimistic, when passing Palmavera,

of reaching the Grotto of Neptune,

beneath Capo Caccia, till from the cliffs

I spied a vast bay and saw how maps

can trick one. Back through the thorns

of briar-trapped forest, a long retreat

in forty-degree heat.

 

Was this because I had swum

and masturbated in a rocky shadow,

spilling my seed in the ancient God’s sea?

Blistered, dry-mouthed and miles from the cape,

I shuffled back to Alghero.

At dusk, the town welcomed me sore

and I took the first hotel to lick my wounds.

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