Poetry Issue 4

   Issue 4: January - June 2005

Martin Anderson



VIII

Walking back through the city at the end of day along a street that one walked along so many times before with someone who has since died, images return, and sadness. Each year a greater effort has to be made, again, to conjure up that face that is irretrievably fading. Like the inner chain of feelings, perceptions and attitudes, that we keep re-forging each hour and day of our lives to establish a sense of our individual being, it grows slack, eventually, and brittle. So much so, that we wonder whether the sadness we feel at the passing of one close to us is not just a sadness for the ending of the passage of a life, but for something else; for the mysterious entity, itself, of the person, that ghostly substance of what we infer we are, for that wisp of a vapour which drifts and clings to our thoughts and clothes all these years, force and substrate which holds together the disparate elements of our experience. It is, that is, as if the failure of memory to retain the image of the dead one casts doubts upon the very validity itself of all its structures but, especially, upon that one seemingly enshrined as its apogee, its supreme achievement. For all the time we are, with the aid of an abetting memory, conducting our lives, we are, consciously and unconsciously, looking and listening for echoes, similarities, for recurrence, that will have as its centre and location this ‘here’ which, in space and time, we occupy. Which is why walking down a particular street in time is walking down all other streets in all other places in all other moments in time, listening for what repeats itself, for that determinate ground of our history. And thinking that we hear, in that repetition, the sound of something of substance, rather than what it is: the sound of the iron rimmed wheels of a hand-cart on the street, the bark of a dog, the clatter of broken jalouses in the wind …. which is to say, in effect, the mythos, in potentia, of a life.

 

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Under the steady light of the oil lamp and the sound of leaves of huge palms outside thrashing the air in monsoonal rain, the memory of a particular evening returns. He was reading to us from a book just recently arrived on the mailboat, and which later he placed on the shelves under the window of the office in our small library. We had taken it out many times afterwards to re-read that particular passage so that it had  committed itself, almost involuntarily, to our memories: The sunlit sweep of green field with its hayricks and grazing sheep was a wholesome sight. She was aware of a sound – a sound associated with her early memories. It was the sound of running water. Unchanged where all else had changed, the stream still ran through the field between its margins of willow and willowherb. And so it remained, and would remain.  Afterwards he had launched into a deeply sententious monologue, describing what he had read to us as a ‘dark eclogue.’ Asked to explain what this implied, he continued, somewhat in the manner of: ‘On such running waters the shadow of a romantic illusion strives to stay afloat, whilst through vast feudal swathes of land the tenancies of a nation leach, nourishing the bank accounts of a privileged minority which sits at night with hassocks under its arse, and plump red wines in its cellars. Green fields: borders, boundaries, rights of way; lines of power! – no matter how much that idealised and early eye may have roamed adoringly across them. In times of national emergency, of course, that tolerant land of green fields and staunch oak woods (most of which were, in fact, felled before it became a modern nation) was coaxed to yield up icons – giddy antique idylls and fantasies of harmony and commonality  – at the expense of its populace’s liberty of thought. All taken in by it. A manipulation of innocents. Singing the anthems. Turning out to wave flags at a parade of degenerate monarchy. Kowtowing to bewigged imbeciles. Deferential to sawbones, justices and schoolmasters. Footsloggers, canon-fodder, in the baggage-train of history that is highjacked, perpetually, by those who are, by general consent, felt to be indissolubly wedded to their own self interest.’ His voice had trailed, and his hands, gripping the air, had shuddered in a hopeless gesture of fatuity. And the wind, outside, had gone on wrecking the palm trees, bending them in wilder and wilder arcs and declivities, until it had seemed that they had become the very impresario of the storm itself, directing its tumult.

 

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Old men, alms gatherers, from the Cult of the Abandoned shuffling down tracks from the earthen floors of their temples, chipped enamel bowls in their hands, empty. Another kind of emptiness, walking beside them. Chanting, to deter that ghost of a grammar, through whose dark flickerings the sounds constitute themselves. Detecting in them a crucible for souls, for persona, for objects which, like a piece of faded calico when held up to the light, reveal, woven upon nothing but air, the warp and woof of disparate strands which, if loosened, would dis-integrate. Singly, or in pairs, in a cantillation of dust, through an inconstancy of colours, the alms gatherers move. Into their bowls a tinkling of tiny warm droplets of rain begins. They stand still, to allow a gathering of them. Then, silently, lift up their bowls and drink.

 

 

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Silvery white barks of poplars in the brick-dust of an autumnal light. Long shadows over the crinkled skin of an old land; tumuli; root cracked boulders; detritus, a fine residue sifted by the wind, rolling over the plains, through the passes where one sets out on one’s long journey into blowing sand and sun dazzle, with a last word to the gate keeper, who asks one’s name, and the sadness of an intimation that one might not come back to be reunited, in the ground, with one’s ‘home’. The smell of dried grass and charcoal cooking fires. In the stoves and the drinking vessels, in the roads and in the walls, an overwhelming sense of the red earth, Terra Mater, from which they come. A dry exhalation, the breath of a body too worn down by war and famine and the passage of the seasons, to notice one has gone. Its graves, in the shape of upturned boats, breasting the hillsides. For who would go, journeying back through the dark waves of such a landscape, and burrowing through all its rooms and courtyards, all the repositories of its infinite miseries and joys, without a sail. And when the camel trains finally, years later, bed down beneath the city’s walls, will they not pay back the hard tithe of its exile, with an exile of another kind. The soft word, the smile, of those who have seen too much, been too far and too much alone; of those, above all, who, the sweet smell of dung around the fire at night in their nostrils, have eradicated  hope.

 

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Pallid, and perspiring. Priests, whose language we recognise as our own. The unlovely, and unyielding, condiments of their speech. A meal we have forsaken – to bask and to indemnify ourselves within these sounds of another. To wander down the rich auditory passageways of a house we can never own; yet, we never ’owned’ the one we came from, and are still posited in, either. Were always grubbers, squatters in it, always exhibiting ourselves within an accent which attracted only opprobrium and exclusion, our proprietorial rights all but denied to the air inside our bodies, the thin column of fluted warmth that rises into our mouths. Estranged from the very contours that we had tended all our lives, breath hills and valleys, from shaping and ordering them in the way we felt best. What is it, to be a part of nothing? Better to be a Mennonite perspiring amidst these fugitive forms of sounds that one will never claim  as one’s own and which will always be ‘foreign’, and to be greeted as they issue from one’s mouth, not with scorn, but a general and unreserved air of welcome.

 

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In the yellow tallowy light of whale bone lamps soot is filtered into, and darkens, the lacerations whilst the old woman performing the act, croons. A spirit map deeply incised for days under the skin, the representation of a world removed from the senses, a continual periplus of loss: no land for compradors, for merchants. That corresponds to no known geography. Finally the bearer stands up, covers the configurations on his body, and walks over to the other side of the room and squats. The iron stylus still sings in the air of the little nipa hut where we linger at the door. Inside, she begins to enumerate a list of names, of places no one has ever, we are told, heard of, of trials and ordeals over bone hungry seas and high mountain passes where words freeze on the tongue; and she begins to narrate a cosmography of all those topoi that he will, alone, find himself amongst in times to come when, like the stranger, the guest at the door, he will seek to be invited to cross the threshold. She repeats the verbal talismans whose utterance will ensure his safe arrival and put him at ease in such unknown and untraversed places. An odour of rotting vegetation stirs, in the breeze, around us. The sound of the slow, rhythmic fluxion of water in the swamp. As an undulant note from a swan bone flute hangs in the doorway, and the interior of the little hut begins to grow opaque with the vapours from pots of fermented betel nut leaves smouldering on the floor, we quietly leave. 

 

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From the Studio Of Indigenous Instruments the long hypnotic harmonies of an afternoon weave in and out of our consciousnesses as we recline, in a lassitude of iced teas and tiffin, upon the verandah. Voluted, supple movements of air that, like the heat itself, seem to issue from the borders of some profound amnesia, so that they seem to be, at the same time, strange and yet familiar. An almost inaudible vibration ripples in the shutters on the windows behind us. A ripple that departs, and then returns, and repeats itself - like a wave pushing forward upon the ever receding crest of a present, moving within both space and time but to no pre-ordained tempo or destination. The mind follows it, through all its intense diminuendos and silences; silences so sustained, it is as if the orchestra had packed up and gone home. In those vast vicissitudes of hesitation and emptiness to which the silences give birth, one loses one’s way, drifting like a somnambulist, wondering if one will ever get back. And, if so, to where. And then, suddenly, in an almost imperceptible agitation of the air, the sound (deeply bowed) returns again carrying with it, in the shadows, a rhythm which one does not recognise at first and, yet, which one is convinced, somehow, one knows, and which belongs to all the long borne absences, all the anguish of the endless siestas in empty rooms, and to the multitudinous sighs of all the tired twilights that have dominated one’s life. Although there are no flowerbeds nearby in this part of the city, an unusual fragrance, like that of frangipani, but it is not frangipani, something infinitely evasive and evocative, maybe not a flower at all, fills the air of one’s whole being. From where or from whom it comes, from when, whether it is real or simply imagined, one does not know.

From a longer book length work The Hoplite Journals (I - IIX) which is being published by Shearsman Books in the UK early next year.Available through Amazon.com.