FRENCH EXCHANGE

The market fills the street between the trees –
on sale, a cornucopia of terror. Terroir, that is:
it is so easy for the ambling tourist to
mistake an i amongst the offered goods
that breathe their Frenchness in the summer air.

An active visit to the schoolrooms of the past.
Monsieur le professeur stands there, upon the board
in swirling chalks the words to learn, to speak
with accents, comme il faut. Vocabulaire.
And here they are, in deeply flavoured heaps,
on baskets, stalls and benches; beneath
canopies of cotton, rainbow plastics, drily
favoured leaves that shake on branches, labelled
from a classroom life everyday has made.
Pommes, artichaux, percil, les fashions a la mode.
I reach for euros, handle fruits, exchange.
Translate coins to action, and, so soon, to taste.

A woman shouting. It is an interruption, demonstration
or unwanted agit prop. Startled people
part as down our lines she goes, anger
from beyond her wall of words. I turn to face
a rustic chicken, thin, strangled in its
shrink-wrapped sac. And she returns, repeating
urgency that penetrates. Maxwell! Petit garcon
a tres ans! At last, I understand. Not anger,
desperation. We watching people look, avoid
each others’ eyes. A puzzled pity turns, shrugs
through our faces as she fades into the crowd,
and Maxwell calling. An awful thing, to lose
a child between the stalls, the busy roads,
the scruffy secret alleys of a stranger’s town.
There are no words, in any tongue, for that.

All to do is back to bags – filled vegetables,
meats and cheeses, and all their hidden names.
But suddenly she’s there – thin, calm and smiling,
chatting to some folk, and there, safe, is Maxwell –
revealed as blond, hair never cut, unknowing,
and English middle class. She had summoned up
her own school French to voice her rising panic,
and consuming fear. And I suppose that’s why we’ve come
abroad, to buy, and save for ours what’s dear.

Rabestans, August 2021

In Another Place

Facing America, or Newfoundland, stand Gormley’s men.
Gender defying, bronzed with the wisdom of rust,
they solemn see through any looker’s thought.

So let us go for: new life free of poverty;
the grasp of lords and land denied; the chance
to grow seed in soil swept of tyranny
and of native folk. Where potatoes do not rot;
where bellies fill with pride; where God can set
a chosen people in their simple prejudice. Due
west then, with all that sunset blah-di-blah.

And yet they pull the heart. There is no kneeling
to a pot of wine or bread; no feudal shackle wearing
ankle deep in blood. Just hope, caught in a tide.

On our coast, facing east, there are no journeys to unpack.
No one set sail from here. Here are receivers only.
Here other iron men came amongst the Celts and Romans,
the Saxons clinging to their Cuthbert and his bones,
with scriptural flourishes and calf-hide history of the world
made flesh. These brought their helmets and their ships to fear,
their Nordic gods, their hunger. The local craftsmen
with their gold and timid monks, no match for them.

Churches burned, open to the sun. Places surrendered
land and names. Danelaw cracked the skulls
of words, but made a grammar everyone could read.

An invader’s coast. Huge beaches dry for miles,
their hourglass sands, awaiting seas that always come.
The rocks reward the careless navigators, and their cargoes.
but mainly these are gentle shelves for longships,
or for barges packed with Wehrmacht, and salutes.

Or so we thought. That new hordes might come
inspired our fear so lately purged of baresark screams.
New legacies of concrete blocks were sown across the dunes,
and plans to stall the onrush of field grey drawn up.

They never came. We practice-bombed the scrapyard
trucks we’d lined along the sand. Blockhouses with their
glassless windows still watch out to judge the aim
of boys with bombs. They’ll get a listing, sometime,
along with abbeys, castles, and Martello towers.

Meanwhile, on this day, breeze takes on the empty
shore between the tides. At the water’s edge, waves
practice being tough and mighty, stands Gormleylike
a naked man, hands held out in wait. He faces out
the nibbling surf, stretches left and right, throws
care into the plucking, rasping sea. His clothing
piles beyond its grasp. What destinations, or what
threats await his nudity who knows. Does he hope
for gods, or men in ships? Dolphins pass, yards from
where he stands. Perhaps he would be of their number,
heading south. We set our phones to panoroma, take it in.

 

Observe the Planet Venus as She Cross the Sun

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

James Cook FRS, Captain, 1728 – 1779

 

To begin at the end, with his body, much hacked
and mutilated by the islanders that took him.
As a god, the Hawaiians disembowel him, and cook
his flesh, such is their reverence, seeking his clean
immortal bones. Some they enshrine, that what
they loved they do not lose. Others they return –
his shipmates bury them at sea, where all mariners’ souls
inhabit. To take a king as hostage against a stolen boat
had been a final fatal error, or one beyond.

And he thought he knew the human heart,
was careful not to kill when Maoris took a life from his own crew.
He knew misunderstandings when he saw them,
as well he knew his oceans. And he knew the sea, knew,
when Endeavour struck the Great Barrier Reef,
then uncharted and unnamed, throw cannon
overboard and she’d float. And she did, leaking
prodigiously. This point he charts with care, then beaches
and careens the ship, and seals the hull. His map
in hand, divers find and bring a cannon home
in later times. Amongst the eco epics, it stands guard
in Wellington’s Te Papa, ignored by narratives and screens.

When he arrives the Maori have already cleared
the land of many names: moa, flightless birds
with thighs as big as cattle, adze-bills, and the rest –
No chance for them. Bones from their rubbish pits.
Cook brings only names for bays and coasts to flourish
in their stead. He also brings the light of maths,
the secret slavery of time. And traders follow
to unwrap the gift, with settlements to open up
its veins. The Maori having no sense of property
swap land for rifles, and introduce themselves to war.

Ideas march and fight, old things perish and succumb.
You could condemn. “Oh, that those lands might
have stayed, darkened and untouched.” You could
also stand with Cook. Feel the timbers creak and spring,
the slap of wind and water in your face. You could
cruise his waters, read his name in places and in signs.

 

 

 

 

 

In Poverty Bay the Maori took his vessel as a bird,
and came to worship. Believing this to be attack,
shots took lives, and Endeavour sailed away,
her food and water unrefreshed. And thus the name.
He’s now established here, life-sized, in bronze.
Next to the timber ships that take away
the latest harvest from a land unlocked.

What’s left? A modest Yorkshireman, [half Scot]
and loving solitude. A self-taught navigator,
A restless mind, a maker, mapsmith and a navy man,
brought up to ferry Whitby coal, who is with Wolfe
and plumbs the depths of war beneath Quebec.
His 3 voyages make safe uncharted corners
of The Earth. In less days than in a year, sound out
New Zealand’s coastal intimacies – her passages,
her deepest fathoms, plotted and still good for use.
It is a long journey of discovery, in only 50 years.
His god flourished on the metaphors of sacrifice,
but he condemned the sacramental eating of ones
enemies. And he fell, perhaps remembering.

There’s clamour to remove him from the scene –
downgrade him as another white who stole and robbed,
and cleanse the routes of history of his blood.
So read his life and story while you can.
He also sought the path of Venus as it crossed the sun –
this may be all that destiny allows his name.

SCHOOL PHOTOGRAPH

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A photo detaches from its rest and finds the floor –
blurred faces, young, grey, names mostly gone,
but there is my sheepish grin in the back row.
We are uncomfortable for the camera, made to lose
our childish selves by being still. And so the years.

This year. Top junior class of 59.
Some still I recognise, but others, all the girls,
who knows? Amongst us will be the early deaths,
from accident or cancer, or from cares.

But this is fifties London, our parents fought
and knew the Blitz. War has managed them,
and helped to bring us here. Next to our school
a bombsite’s opened privacies and crumbled lives –
between our playground and the dentist’s, another missing tooth.

Across the road, St Mary’s, it’s tower sides
a rocket ship held down by copper strips.
We pass in twos to eat our daily dinner in the hall.
Served from vats, the suets, stews and
watery mash presented, warm and flavourless,
the form and spirit of the age. We would not
starve, and red capsules with our daily milk
went down quick lest they should burst.

And in our classes, little remains: is what we are.
Our teachers, absent, reduced to names. Mr,
Mrs, Miss. They’re going too, their wrinkled frowns,
Their greying hair, a carbunkle or a wart or two.
What they taught lives on, but unremembered.

Our playground races, zooming dogfights
arms outstretched, the daily rituals of scissors,
paper, stone, are there, as are the journeys home,
and waiting for the bus. A 54 or 109.

And here we stand, summoned from arithmetic or crafts,
to show how smart, how cared for, are our shoes and smiles.

Darmstadt in the Greenwood

for David Selzer

1986
We’re in a forest. Cunningly contrived
from plastic pipe and card. Lighting makes the
moonlight dance. In the illusion of a glade
we hunker down, imagining the beasts
that nightly prowl, the fears and loves
that have at you in a sword’s breath.

It’s Germany, the land that rose to conquer
Rome, and darken Europe with its soul.
I’m talking, waiting for the speech that
everyone else could make from heart. The wood
entrances, sighs. Moving to the edge of shadow,
I too hear my words – All the world’s a stage,
and all the men and women merely players.

And so it nightly goes. Our teacher’s troupe
on a cultural exchange, performing As You
Like It on a stage designed for opera
and oompah, in language we have learnt,
to those who Shakespeare was a European
giant, big as Beethoven or Brahms.
Ein sohn und eine tochter aus Elysium.

And out beyond our flimsy world, that packs
so neatly on the coach that brought
us on our theatrical blitzkrieg, the planet
continues on its way. The Rhine heaves past,
removing silt and ash. The cities that we crushed
or burned rise in concrete triumph to the skies.

Cars stream from factories, technicians
study for their grades, and memory recycles
as all pass. Relieved to find we are but people
in the end, we find ourselves at home with
families who feed us pickled herring and
are happy we have come to stay. This Europe
is their home, and we are welcome in it too.

The war is past – the communities and monuments
rebuilt. The Catholics were next, they tell us.
We were on their lists. And that reassurance
is what we’ve come to hear. That even
reputation and survival can be forgiven.
Hope shines from children, parents, players.
Exits and entrances. And all the world’s a stage.

2020
But in no space at all, that candle on the set
is out. Bubbles dance and burst, and time goes
tiptoeing to bed. The hand is thrown away,
age, in its sevens, makes running cowards
of our state. Vergissmeinnicht. A soldier poet
shows a card. We are to leave, to no goodnight.