The Burghers of Calais

The-Burghers-of-Calais

Some with eyes of bold acceptance
Of impending horrors
That cancel others.
And this one turning back,

With open pleading mouth
To the city that
Already goes about its daily business,
And hears the hawkers in the streets,
And sees the watchmen at the wall.

And this one with grim determined cheeks,
Gazing straight ahead
At the arrayed captors,
While the condemned hour
Dances on his lips

And he almost smiles.
And at last, the key holder,
In the centre,
around whom the others
Revolve like abandoned stars,

His head bowed with the weight
Of the sacredness of his death,
While it is not despair, but
Release
That floats across his gaunt face.

That the city may be saved,
These five must go away.
And so, like one without a homeland,
Whose body is no longer chained

To anything,
His feet move toward the open field
As though they were
Of another’s volition,

And how light,
How pleasant the wet grass
As he gazes into immense distances,

Eyes filled with reverence,
Far beyond the bristling soldiers
And the walls of the surrendered city.

Night Poem XXIV

Night of my harsh confessions,
you won’t let me turn away.
Tonight, regret is a new nerve,
and I probe the opening
where my years writhe exposed.

My failings dance before me.
I throw them wild flowers,
I throw them cabbages,
and they dance and sing and burn.

I failed to love anything
fierce enough to die, they sing.
I failed to be driven mad with longing
for a slice of this world.

Everything I touched,
I let drop from lukewarm hands,
my music, my literature,
my one aching adventure,
the girl who loved me with a dangerous sky.

They all got away,
and now another, bolder man
has the girl and the dream,
while I sit waiting for the night,

for the dawn, for the naked revelation.
I am the lion that never roared,
the bronco that never bucked,
the rolling stone that got stuck in the moss.

Night of my harsh confession,
I cannot turn away.
My regret is an old nerve,

and it tells me I will live out my life
in a parlor like a piece of furniture,
with my drunken relics,
my moth-eaten youth.

Can I salvage a brazen mouth,
a roar,
a life of pristine adversity,
a dangerous core?

The Friend’s Counsel

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For you, the shadows are a dark tongued language,
and you find in them, all the tones
of that foreign land that echoes you.
I have always thrived in the dazzle
of this light that casts away the
dank and furtive promise.

I want the world to speak in the clear
voice of shapes,
I want an immaculate music of pillars
rising from the ruined flowerbeds.
But in this divested light, only
the outward dares speak.

You, who listen, who abide
the crimson banners of your dawn temple,
why do you understand
that which you cannot translate,
your cherished melancholy,
your contraband life?

I will have my order,
clean, sterile and magnificent.
But still, I envy your assiduous preparation
for euphoric desolation,
this prowess I have discovered
in your sensitivity.

The Tourist

You are not a part of this
garden of rock paths
and moon viewing huts
that once thronged with the
drama of an afternoon,
and is now locked tight-shut
as a collector’s shell.

Stand here, by the papered screen,
or over there, next to the
ivy-choked lantern,
try to hear the envoys’
hushed gossip in the moss,
or the faint call of the
courtesan’s treasonous steps
over these smooth boards.

Ah, the spell is broken
by the fall of a shutter
somewhere off out of view.
But it was not only this
which locked you out forever.
For this place of long concealed dreams

once revolved around the
smallest of continents,
no bigger than a pomegranate,
and though it looked eternal,
succumbed as soon as we
came near to touch it.

Gallipoli 2015

Three thousand dead on the fingertip of a dry old empire,
and they were just a drop of blood for the larger conflagration,
in which they now lie embalmed.
If it was a senseless war, universally agreed,
the bloom of Europe snuffed by a red frost,
then how much more indefensible
the loss of these young lives of a young world
ten thousand miles away?

What did they die for?
Tell me the return on their fields of flesh.
A doomed and arrogant empire, a generation without death?
Or was it simply war for war’s sake?
Very modern,
that love for a colonial boy’s adventure,
and uniforms for smitten girls, and the brotherhood of mud,
and the arousal of violence, let’s not forget that.
So, was it just one big glorified blood sport?
The World Cup on steroids and ten storey high guns,
a way of sorting out the wusses from the men.

Except, the men and the wusses all lie in the same stiff holes.
How can you tell the one from the other now?
What have we learned after going two rounds
in that bloody century of our brave new world?
As we remember one hundred years on, lest we forget,
a sickly tone of glory sneaks home.

We paint the glorious dead larger than life
in both their virtues and their sins,
colossus that now looms over our fraught tomorrow.
Imposing monuments, the blare of trumpets,
the fanfare and parades of the shell-shocked dead
hide a more prosaic truth;
we really don’t know why they went,
but we cannot tell them that.

I fear the nightmares of the past
still lurk in the cupboards of all nations,
dusty empires still stalk the crowded continents,
and there’s still a quick buck to be had in the cynical grab
for the spoils of the afflicted masses.
Everybody jostling on a shrinking stage,
lighting powder kegs for hot Julys.

And if it does blow up in our faces once more,
will we go off happily to other people’s wars as we did then,
bristling for the good fight, as loud in our certainty
that it will all turn out for the best?

At the exhibition on “our boys” at Gallipoli,
fathers point to the soldier mannequins,
all with faces like star rugby players, unreal athletes of a great game,
that any Sanitarium kid could one day hope to play.

A History

Not all history is written down
in bone white books,
trapped between full stops.
We occidentals have made an art
of pickling our history in jars,
scrutinizing dead parchment
and forcing dusty patients to speak.
Envy the history of the forests though,
of the people we once conquered.
Theirs remains still too immense to write down,
or translate into marrow and paper.
The carriers of that kura wānanga
just inhale and know it happened,
know birth happened,
know war happened,
know oracles happened,
know weeping happened,
know skies happened.
No need to kill it in a book shop,
dissect it from a podium.
It’s there in the brightly folded faces
of the kaumātua,
their rich voices that haul it back
from oceans where it always swam,
it’s there on the love-worn, stained notches,
staff of the long recounted dead,
the living, breathing dead.

Ginkakuji

At this silver pavilion
a shogun
once put away his robes of state,
and while embers fell with snow
on the elegant little ways
of old Kyoto,
he whittled his country
into this breath taking
and gaudy masterpiece.
How many millions became shavings
for Yoshimasa’s
detached and graceful poems
from a floating world?