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 : )
Achilles, ripped and sanguine,
sure to have his way with mortal men
expects no less of softer flesh,
and, heavy with the trophies
of his speed and savage skill,
of having flung into the sand and waters
countless armed and gilded men,
he puts upon a sulky brow
the first onset of love.
Agamemnon’s grizzled manhood
lusts after elixirs, offers
“seven girls of Lesbos, plus
a bunch of even better ones”
and claims Achilles’ catch, Briseis
‘of the lovely cheeks’. Achilles,
sword sheathed, tent-bound, never
traded prize for compromise,
refuses thus to join the fray –
the ache that tore up man and beast
has settled on a girl.
“Fight, Achilles! Fight!” they cry.
Achilles likes to stay indoors
and guilty, fucks Diomeda,
who, also ‘of the lovely cheeks’
(how many lovely cheeks, Achilles?)
offers him a vessel for the sour
milk of glory.
How many men as well, Achilles
wonders in the sail-cloth light;
“for once the life of man has passed
the circle of his teeth, then nothing,
horses, gold, nor love
can call the lost life back.”
And now it seems, for love, Achilles
hides behind his teeth.
Achilles sat and sulked a while
beneath the horseflesh moon
and falling from him, slow and sure
the envy of the other men, became
for him, a counterpoint,
of what is true and why.
Were You Half So Cruel
Were you half so cruel
as the harm your cold and distant
care – you held my hand
to sympathise, and even let
me cry upon your shoulder –
wrought like any mockery,
(all that is scorned is made
foolish) brought to this tired self,
who, wrung out from surfing love
into an ancient cliff, inured
against erosion (some disparity
in the run of aeons –
you eternal, me
a fleeting suitor to your long-protected
chastity) – more wilted spinach
than man – fell upon his knees
to, quite literally, beg,
then, I might hate you.
I tried to shake you off on a thousand
dates, a hundred
beds, a hundred bodies pulsed
with throes I told not what the source
of energy, the tears I hid in pillows
bit and never brushed
by your hair, that straightened, elvish
waterfall, never matted with the subtle
violence of sex, the punitive, corporal affair
where love, for which, sparing rods
spoils chides of faithfulness
from altruistic hearts
and minds aligned
in book and thought (high ideals and pedestals
are well enough in orbit) expends
itself in fucking, sends its warriors
to the necessary resolution. Love,
it seems, must be punished,
let die, once
in a while, like the bee that stings
to save the hive.
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:
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.
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,
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.
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.