Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Spark

A tiny spark, a candle flame, a fire
suggests the possibility of pain.
A burning house, a city wreathed in flames
surpasses the compass of our anguish.
An atom bomb, volcano or the Sun
Exceed human measures of agony.
A nova, the birth of a galaxy
transcends imagined torments of our gods.

A pinprick, a nasty cut, a migraine
are afflictions most of us have known.
Arthritis, broken bones, an accident
may test the limits of our tolerance.
Executions, murders, or an earthquake
breed suffering that we could never bear.
A plague, a widespread war or genocide,
are woes mocked by singular empathy.

Experience of pain, or fear of it,
finds deathly limits to our suffering;
beyond these we cannot honestly go.
The summits of possible agony
seem infinite mountains to the victim,
 but can never reach the imaginary
summum maleficium of worldly pain
posited by philosophers and priests.

As if the pain and suffering we know
were not enough, they must construct a world
of fanciful torments to disgust
and harden our soft sensibilities
to the unnecessary agonies
caused by the institutions that they serve:
this Man-God, standard-bearer of our ills,
Hell, a realm of pain for his enemies.

By what divine accountancy must we
balance our joys against the sum of pains,
or for each bit of happiness offset
a thankless life of toil and misery?
The body knows its rightful boundaries,
the self, seeking to increase its empire,
applies its tiny spark to the kindling
of others to create a reckless fire.

By hateful word and angry glance the nerves
dance hot from eye to eye and ear to ear,
until the groping hands grip throats, or pull
at knives, guns or the levers of despair.
Cool bureaucrats ensure the strong prevail,
as smoke grenades and rubber bullets hail
upon the fleeing mob, nursing new hatreds
from the stinging blows of their master's boot.

Pain, then, is the governor of desire
and so too of joy, that surplus extreme
that persists after nature's tasks are done.
No wonder then that men of power Invest
in the pain of others and constrain their joy,
all in the interests of good government.
Money, token of desire, decides who
shall suffer and who will be relieved.

Living together in society
has not increased capacity for pain
or pleasure but overfills the amphorae
with vinegar or musty wines of joy.
Ascetic or sybarite must adjust
to the accountancy of boom and bust
as the spark falls through dust and smoke to be
quenched at last in oblivion's dark sea.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Folly's Playground

At opposing ends of life's seesaw sit
the complacent sage and careless scholar
candidates for the thorny crown of wit;
one crammed full of phlegm, the other choler,
but which is which is open for debate,
or who will prosper at the hand of fate.

Such a dialectic opposition
defines polarities of fool and sage,
but hasty judgment of one's position
still leaves the other standing on the stage,
pondering how the question should be put
if his boot were on his adversary's foot.

Impartial, standing in between the two
an invisible acrobat keeps the peace
by varying the pressure of his shoe,
a spritely dance that he can never cease;
this trinity of actors can be found,
in market place or martial killing ground.

Within the sage, a fool longs to get free
and the fool hankers after wisdom too,
the former tangled up in logic's tree,
the latter's thoughts mired by custom's glue;
one seeks his freedom chasing after facts,
the other lives a life of thoughtless acts.

Both sage and fool are bound to action's wheel,
forced to participate in Fortune's game.
The wise man wonders if the play is real,
while the fool struggles to advance his fame:
neither can be certain of success or
if wisdom lies in seeking more or less.

As the pendulum swings from side to side,
the sage devotes his time to find perfection
while the fool races down a winding slide
convinced he's going in the right direction;
one renounces joy for a final end
the other finding hope round every bend.

Anger, fear and greed are among the signs
displayed by those human beasts we call fools
but these traits were part of nature's designs
to protect and satisfy, before rules
were writ by clever kings and priestly stealth,
dividing human kind by wit and wealth.

Hatred, lust and envy, too, are despised
by seekers after truth and harmony,
who by their careful moral works revised
brash natures harsh and cruel symphony,
inclined to maximise the spread of life
despite its ravages of pain and strife.

Folly is wise judgment on the fool, but
fools think not sagacious judgment wise;
opposing wildly when the case is shut
they curse fate and shout anger to the skies.
Caught in wisdom's nets of specious laws
they damn all order and unsheathe their claws.

For each false notion the sage holds true
a hundred thousand true ones lie in store;
as many more false ones the fool holds too,
waiting ready to refute wisdom's lore.
This balance between notes of true and false
makes raucous music for the Devil's waltz.

Wisdom consists in more than doctrines tools;
the wise must assiduously enquire
into the validity of their rules.
As foolish lore falls short of fool's desire
they too must revise their kit-bag of wit
to repel wise assaults from logic's kit.

The continual question 'is this true?'
is too tiresome for the man of action,
a modus operandi for the few,
so no fool would crave this satisfaction;
but the seesaw of doctrinal debate
is too often the stage for fools to prate.

The miserly buffoon guards well his hoard,
as the sage keeps his library well stocked,
and is loath to throw old saws overboard.
The academic pantaloon is shocked,
when new ideas rain down upon his head,
taking shelter beneath old books he's read.

One hundred and seventeen kinds of fool,
listed on the manifest of Brant's ship*,
set sail upon the medieval pool
of wit, which makes this verse a tiny blip,
but that history of wise and foolish strife
stays much the same as in our daily life.

* The Ship of Fools, Sebastian Brandt, 1494

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Queen of Heaven

Oh Cricket stridulating to the Moon,
are you hoping your lover will come soon,
or are you singing to the night-time queen,
who watches you with such a frigid sheen?

What imagined terrors we humans find
among the creatures of our clever mind,
pleroma's infinitude is too small
for a learned treatise on them all.

With what eyes could we see such majestic forms
or with what ears hear their clamorous storms,
and with what tongue could we make our replies
to their rowdy discord from the skies?

No human tongue could wean the Milky Way
or taste the honeyed mead of night and day,
and no earthly nostrils could smell the musk
of that great goddess of the rosy dusk.

With what lips could we kiss the star strewn hair
of  chained up lovers like Andromeda,
or with what arms could we hope to embrace
the gravid charms of some rejected grace?

What straining sinews could withstand the pain
or heart bear the lance of royal disdain,
when mortal being tries to match the fire
of the Queen of Heaven's dark desire?

Praise for such splendour would be otiose
as the cricket's moon songs are grandiose
attempts to stem the heavenly tides of love
that pluck its tiny heartstrings from above.

But casting down our eyes to sticks and stones
reminds us of the cage of flesh and bones
that is the basis of our earthbound life
and undistinguished state of pain and strife.

Small wonder then the thing within the skull
looks to the skies, where the heavenly pull
sends poets chirping madly to the Moon,
hoping their song will be an endless tune.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Washed up

Aimless in the antipodes
swam the untanned Englishman,
temporarily abandoned
by a late returning bride,
washed up on the empty beach,
naked but for a seaweed wrack
wrapped around his pallid thighs,
garnered from the petticoats
of the deceptive turning tide.

Civilisation lurks behind the dunes,
waiting to reclaim the stray,
lately unemployed émigré.
The alternative is freedom,
generated by inaction
and the promise of new tunes
to play or unforseen events
that prey upon the stranger
in a dry and uncongenial land.

Maybe near this very spot,
Flinders said to Bongaree,
'best you go and speak to your kind,
while I observe from behind this tree'.
The Lieutenant's hat was spied
and demanded by the indigenes.
Refusal prompted a single spear,
and Mathew returned a musket shot
after several misfires, on bended knee.

What dangerous possibility
attended naked Odysseus
as he spied upon the princess
washing her dirty linen; she
likely hoping for some amour
but finding a middle-aged
ragamuffin on the shore, he
too thirsty and tired for love,
a king became a supplicant.

But our pale man well breakfasted,
with wife at work and children taken
from their bed to a nearby school,
is in a wayward state of mind,
and walking down the beach
is surprised to find his Nausicaa,
sprawled out in scanty bathing suit,
posing the choice of turning back
or explaining his garb of briny wrack.

No bright-eyed goddess had whispered
that morning in her ear, warning
of her unreadiness to wed,
just hormones and the radio
with Streisand's Rose blooming in her head.
Nor did Athena glamorise
the balding stranger's age or looks,
but left him like a fool transfixed
'twixt dire straits and the siren's hooks.

Some conversation did ensue,
between forty two and turned sixteen,
mainly about her love of ten pin bowls,
and why he had no inkling of
how to pitch or the proper soles
of shoes that he would have to wear,
if he were to succeed at bowling
in the American hall, built nearby
to entertain MacArthur's men of war.

It seems what gods there might have been
would brook no union, forced or not,
between the virgin bowling queen
and her suitor dressed in brackish thong.
No feast and stories by the fire,
or return to Ithaca would be his lot,
but ignominious withdrawal along
the beach to find his shorts and towel.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The marks upon the bone

The untrammelled world awaits our care,
when all that we believe is ours has gone,
as well it might be from the usurpers
of Her state, nature will return to us
our yearning bodies and soul's lost estate.

Stooping, at last, to drink from some clear pool,
a glimpse of self as other is dispersed
by oscillation and impatient thirst,
giving way to that incessant need to
find the shortest path to satiety.

No time for idle play, while hunger drives,
to contemplate the rippling of the waves
left behind as you leap after the band,
pursuing its scampering prey, for soon
the night will cut short the brief hunt for life.

Then, in the darkness of the cave will come
memory, replaying the stored pictures
of the tiresome day of blood and death
until later sleep mixes world and mind
into brief pleasure or some fearful bind.

See the flint scratches on the well-gnawed bone,
that may soon mark the passage of the moon,
and so time works its way from mouth to hand,
whose bloody imprint on the rocky wall
lifts up the butcher to shamanic rule.

Small means; flint, wood and bone lacked that power,
not stolen yet from gods unmade in clay,
or whispering their beguiling songs from
woods and streams, or in the dying screams
of that first oryx battered by the axe.

In the heat of day, hunched over a pile
of flint and stones, some brute hammered away
among the trees and swathes of drying hay,
amused by the occasional shower of sparks
spurting from the hard rock gripped in his hand.

Later, wild explanations would be found
for the forest fires and burnt creatures
on the ground, nicely roasted for a feast
and then, in due time, to be sacrificed
to imagined benefactors of the tribe.

But when well mastered this dangerous boon
roared its dire warning to those shrinking beasts,
who circled round the living space of man,
and rivalling the burning heat of noon,
defined a place for feasts called hearth and home.

Now, with all the elements gathered round,
wind, water, fire and earthy ground were theirs
to manipulate until the fifth was found,
lurking behind the eyes or pulsing
in the blood, sweat and tears of toil and lust.

Dead branches stark against the waxing Moon
define for man a triple space within
the brain, but to the wolf remain an eye
without a head, mysterious and cold,
calling forth mindless howling to the sky.

Relieved from the immediate needs of life,
the mind is freed to contemplate its fate,
an endless task mistaking signs for things,
reducing the world to marks on bone, wood,
papyrus or clicks on a mobile phone.

Dissipated into a mental cloud,
the world seems amenable to control:
a grand delusion that soon stubs its toe
on the first obstacle to the notion
that mankind is free in thought and motion.

Truer was the shaman's drumming dance,
mimicking the lupine prance and tripping
on the roots of chance to discover how new
paths are made through the labyrinthine caves,
across the rippled sands where Charon stands.