Morning Ritual

Morning Ritual

Whey-faced, hollow-eyed,
the Penitent stumbles
into the kitchen; musters
faltering forces, begins
preparations for the ritual.

He wrenches his mind away
from endless recycling
of sins the previous day.

He sips chilled water,
through parched lips
into arid throat,
to wondrous effect.

He detects the first faint flickers,
the incipient signs
of salvation.

Penitent becomes Supplicant.
He intones a prayer;
focuses his belief
in the alchemy
of the ritual into each
methodical movement.

He sprinkles the first drops
of freshly-boiled,
purified water
onto coffee grounds;
watches as they
absorb the moisture,
begin to bubble into life.

He inhales
the hallowed,
holy fragrance.

The blackness of the brew
is befitting;
from darkness came light
in the beginning.

Sip by startling sip,
the black brew seeps
into his soul,
burns away
the bleakness,
bites into
the bitterness
of self-blame.

Sip by startling sip,
the black brew infuses
new spirit, scours away
suppurating sins
of the previous day.

Mesmerized by the miracle,
he mutters a prayer
of thanksgiving.

The journey from penitence
to salvation ends.
The ritual is complete.
The day begins.

I was a callow youth, living away from home for the first time, when I first started experimenting with coffee.  I remember I was on the verge of buying a percolator, which was quite a trendy appliance at the time, when an older, wiser female friend pointed me in the right direction.  “You don’t want to get a percolator” she said “They actually boil the coffee, which detracts from the flavour.  No, all you need to get is a simple jug with a filter; that’ll give you much better coffee.”  I followed her advice, and started to fall in love with the whole process of coffee-making.

Over the years, I’ve dabbled with different concoctions at breakfast-time, but I’ve ended up with a process of the ultimate simplicity: three spoons of ground coffee, into a coffee filter, in a cone placed on top of a pint mug.  Water is then poured from a kettle – just off the boil – directly onto the coffee, which drips directly into the mug.  Sheer heaven!  I can’t imagine life without my morning coffee ritual. 

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Gerund

Gerund

A verbal noun.
How can that
Be right?
To do and to be;
Oh dearie me.
Do be do be do;
So sang Sinatra.
But is it fitting,
Is it right?
Are they strangers
In the night,
Weird fusion
Of Plotinus
And Sartre?

One might say
What ails thee,
Knight-at-arms,
Can you not see it?
Are you dazzled
By the light?
This transcendence
All should hail,
For this is it:
The Holy Grail.

I spent nine years teaching English as a Foreign Language (EFL) at a language school in London, so I am quite familiar with the term Gerund.  Before I started teaching, however, I probably wouldn’t have been familiar with it.  One of the problems I had, when I started work at the language school, was that I was woefully ignorant of grammatical terms and functions in general, as – unlike most European countries – grammar was not taught in British schools at the time.  I had to make up for my ignorance by trying to learn, pretty quickly, as much grammar as I could, just in order to catch up, and be on a level playing field with most of my foreign students.  It took quite a while before I started to feel more confident in teaching English Grammar, and I encountered difficult classroom situations on the way, when the ability to bluff came in useful.  I still vividly recall a tortuous session when I was grilled on the nature and function of the Subjunctive, by an aggressive, blonde-haired German student.

Some of my EFL memories came back to me when I was working on the above poem; but it is intended merely to poke a bit of playful fun at the potentially paradoxical nature of the Gerund.

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Serendipity (Haiku)

Serendipity

Serendipity
could be synchronicity,
said Wolfgang Pauli.

Serendipity
and my upturned glass of beer.
A drenching. Oh,dear!

Serendipity
and my half-full cup of tea
forever haunts me.

It fell through the air,
onto a head with no hair.
I fled to my lair.

Serendipity;
a word of five syllables,
but no miracles.

I was a teacher of EFL (English as a Foreign Language) at a language school in central London – just off Oxford Street – for a period of nine years in the 1980’s.  One lunchtime, without really thinking what I was doing, I threw a half-full cup of tea out of the window of my room on the first floor.  Seconds later, I heard a cry of rage, and looked out of the window.  The contents of my cup of tea had landed on the head of one of the busy lunchtime shoppers walking below.  The man, who appeared to have a completely shaven head, looked up, saw me looking down at him, shook his fist in anger, and shouted some incoherent swear-words at me.  At this point, the reality of what I had just done finally dawned upon me.  I realised the man was almost certainly going to enter the building and come looking for me, with vengeance in mind, so I took evasive action, and hid in the nearest available toilet.  When I emerged, ten minutes later, and timorously returned to my room, one of the secretaries had scribbled a message on the whiteboard: A MAN CAME IN, LOOKING FOR YOU.  BROWN LIQUID WAS DRIPPING FROM HIS HEAD.  HE SAID, WHEN HE FINDS YOU, HE’S GOING TO KICK YOUR ARSE.

I’ve tried to write poems about the incident, without success, over the years.  It would probably work better as a short story.  Last week I was in a pub with a friend one lunchtime, and inadvertently knocked my glass of beer all over him.  It reminded me of the incident all those years ago, and I suddenly realised that one way of writing about it could be in the form of Haiku – two lines of five syllables, enclosing a middle line of seven syllables.  The poem above is the result.

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Old Scarlett

Old Scarlett
(Robert Scarlett, 1496-1594)

Enter the cathedral. He is still there,
painted onto a wall, above a door.
A bizarre, intriguing figure,
Robert Scarlett – “Old Scarlett”,
immortal grave-digger.

What a story he could have told,
what a life he must have led,
enduring to be so old;
yet living with the dead.
Like a leech, or vampire,
perhaps, sucking their blood,
for sustenance, as food,
a hunger that must be fed.
Unsurprising, perhaps,
his surname means “red”.

He buried Mary, Queen of Scots,
and Katharine of Aragon,
with hundreds of others,
their stories long-gone.
He had an unquenchable
lust for life; aged eighty-nine,
he wed his second wife.

Look again at the painting;
a tiny detail, almost unseen,
gives an edge to the image
of this man who buried queens.
Stocky in build, stout, not lean,
fierce character, pugnacious mien;
a direct gaze, sturdy in the hip,
there dangles from his waist
a slightly sinister whip.

As followers of this blog will know, I live in Peterborough, Cambridgeshire, and Peterborough happens to have a notable cathedral, which dates back to Norman times.  I constantly castigate myself for not visiting the cathedral as frequently as I should, but I do like to read about its history, and the local history of the area.  It was while I was reading a book about the history of Peterborough that I first came across Robert Scarlett, who was described as one of Peterborough’s most legendary residents.  Scarlett was born in 1496, worked as a gravedigger, and was employed as sexton by the cathedral.  His main claim to fame is that he buried both Katharine of Aragon and Mary, Queen of Scots after their funerals in the cathedral, but he is also notable for living to the age of 98, and for marrying his second wife – only a year after the death of his first wife – when he was 89 years old!  It is possible that Shakespeare based the character of the gravedigger in Hamlet upon Scarlett.

As soon as I read about him, I wanted to write a poem about “Old Scarlett”, but it wasn’t until I found out that there was a painting of him in the cathedral that I realized how I could actually do it. 

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The Race

The Race

The clocks have been changed
The days stay longer
In their place
Already
I am losing pace

The year begins
To tighten screws
Already
I begin to lose

A quarter of this year
Has gone
The year to me
Hardly begun

No matter
How I come and go
How I struggle
Toe to toe

No matter
How hard I try
To reconcile
To live and die

No matter
How to allay fear
To harmonise
The speeding year

No matter
How it’s dressed in rhyme
Already lost
The race with time

The Easter weekend always comes, to me, as a kind of marking-post in the year.  Winter is over, we are now in the middle of Spring, with Summer fast approaching.  I’m sure it must be a phenomena common to a lot of people, but, as I head towards my late sixties, I seem to be astonished, year after year, by how speedily the year seems to be passing.  I started having the first thoughts about a poem on the subject when we changed the clocks a few weeks ago, to mark the change from GMT to BST, and “The Race” is the final result. 

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Teddy Bears’ Picnic

Teddy Bears’ Picnic

Raggle-taggle music,
straight from a funfair,
roller-coasters in,
as you mope in your lair,
sullenly grooming your
existential despair.

You look out the window:
a shabby white van,
Mr. Softee, the ice-cream man,
Orange Maids, Mivvis,
Strawberry Splits.
Your childhood comes back;
the rough magic of it.
Noddy and Big Ears, Rupert Bear,
Nutwood, the animals living there.

Your sins, deceits,
little white lies,
all swallowed up
By a huge pair of eyes,
silver coins held
in small, grubby hands,
the wonder of
those fairytale lands.
Enid Blyton’s Famous Five,
perhaps, after all,
it is good to be alive.

It smashes into
your self-imposed shell,
frees you from the stress
of your personal Hell,
for you know it betokens
that all will be well,
and all shall be well,
and all manner of things
shall be well.

Long-time followers of this blog will be aware of the fact that I frequently get ideas for poems whilst relaxing in a warm bath, browsing through anthologies of poetry.  I was engaged in this activity recently, when the joyful sound of an ice-cream van suddenly intruded into my musings, and immediately provided the inspiration for the above poem.  Please excuse the fact that the last three lines are a blatant borrowing from Julian of Norwich’s “Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love”.  I have always loved those lines, and have finally found an appropriate place to quote them; besides, T.S.Eliot quoted them in “Little Gidding”, and if it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for me!

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Cambridge: The Punt

CAMBRIDGE (5): THE PUNT

This is anything but relaxing;
clinging onto the sides
of this precarious craft,
as it wobbles along the Cam.
My first time in a punt, and,
I swear to myself, my last.

And then it happens,
as I knew it would: a collision,
on this congested course,
and suddenly the wife
of the prize-winning novelist
is in the water.

She shakes the sodden hair
from her face, like a dog,
and swims, not with a dog-like
paddle, but a powerful breaststroke.

She had told me of idyllic times
on Greek islands, when she
and the budding novelist
were young lovers.

Now, her breaststroke
cleaves through the Cam,
as it must have once
done in the Aegean,
in those halcyon days.

Following on from my previous post, this is the next episode from my continuing autobiographical reminiscence of my student days at Cambridge in the late 1970’s.  As in the previous post, it features the wife of the novelist Barry Unsworth, who was later to go on to win the Booker Prize.  It will come as no surprise to readers of this poem that this remains the one and only time I have ever been in a punt!

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Cambridge: Greek Drama

CAMBRIDGE (4): GREEK DRAMA

Six of us, crammed into the intimate
interior of a portakabin; our first seminar
in Greek Drama. We are all unknown
to each other; anticipation, tension
simmers in the small space.

Anagnoresis:
We give our names to the tutor, and
a little, unexpected drama of our own
unfolds. The woman sitting next to me
appears to be twenty years older
than the rest of us. When she gives
her name, there is a slight intake
of breath by our tutor. He hesitates;
says a man’s name, questioningly,
and she is suddenly revealed to be
the wife of a prize-winning novelist.

I have never heard of the novelist,
but feel a thrill of awe. I am sitting
within inches of – I could actually
touch – the wife of one of those
fabled beings: a writer. And not just
any old writer – a prize-winning novelist!

 Hubris:
The novelist’s acolyte; could she
initiate me into the sacred rites?
With her as my guide, could I
enter those hallowed groves,
and walk with the gods?

Hamartia:
Yet she seems so normal,
so human, even slightly gauche;
laughing nervously, shaking back
the fringe that hangs, curtain-like,
over her eyes.

This is the fourth episode of my on-going autobiographical poem recounting my student days at Cambridge, back in the long-ago days of the late nineteen-seventies.  The main character in the poem – the “wife of a prize-winning novelist” – turned out to be Valerie, wife of Barry Unsworth, who was later to go on to win the Booker Prize for fiction, with his novel Sacred Hunger.  Valerie and I became great friends over the following three years, and I was a regular visitor to the family house on Garden Walk, where I also got to meet their three charming daughters.  Later on the marriage broke-up, I moved to London, and, eventually, lost all contact with Valerie and the Unsworths.

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KAB

KAB

The Kurdish contingent congregate
mid-day on Friday, at the corner of my street.
How the Kurdish populace propagate
is a miracle, for they are exclusively
male, and bearded. They meet,
they greet. Glossy leather shoes
adorn their feet.

The Kurdish contingent:
thereby hangs a tale
of innocent illusion,
and myself, in a state
of self-willed delusion.

“Kurdish Association
of Britain”.
So weak, the functioning
of my brain.

For months on end,
I would walk past, and see
the sign on the building: KAB.

That’s handy, I thought;
convenient for me,
next time I need
to call a taxi.

Months passed by,
before I would see
the small-case letters
underneath “KAB”.

“Kurdish Association
Of Britain”.
That took months,
to clarify, in my brain.

In a previous post (Local Knowledge, November 12, 2015) I wrote about my lack of attention to street names, as I walk about my locality, and the difficulties it causes when people ask me for directions.  I am afraid I am showing no signs of improvement, as regards to this.  Indeed, I pay so little attention to the sights around me that I seem to be walking around in a sort of self-obsessed mental fog at times.  Not the best of attributes for an aspiring poet, one might think!  The above poem was written when I finally realized – after a period of months – that the sign outside a building I walked past every day had a completely different meaning from what I originally thought.

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Accident

ACCIDENT

I’d just crossed to the other side
of the road, at the Zebra crossing.
The beeps had just stopped, when
the sudden sound of impact shattered
the air, like a crack of thunder.

I saw the shock on the faces,
the hands flying to the mouths;
heard the screams of horror.
Then, the rush of the crowd;
the mix of human concern,
human curiosity.

I turned my head, in fear
of what I would see. He lay
beside his bicycle, holding
his head, silent. I knew
that, a moment before,
he had been pedalling
across the Zebra crossing;
unique thoughts and feelings
cocooned in that head.
I knew the sudden, nightmare
sensation, as the car had hit
him; the incredulity, that this
could be happening to him.

Twenty yards ahead
of where he lay, a dented car
pulled to a ragged halt.
People rushed towards it,
fuelled by shock and anger.

I watched, for a few minutes.
I could feel, I could see
the brutal import of it all;
as it once happened to me.

I was walking along a public footpath one day, during Summer last year, when a man on a bicycle rode straight into me.  He was going at pretty much full speed, and the force of the impact completely knocked me over.  I fell on my face, my hands and my ribs, sustaining gashes to my lip and my hands that needed several stitches.  I was lucky not to have broken any ribs, but my ribs and chest were severely bruised, and the bruising took over a month to fade away.  The cyclist was thrown off his bike by the force of the impact, but he jumped to his feet, apparently unscathed, and proceeded to berate me, while I lay prostrate, bleeding onto the pavement.  “This is all your fault!”  he shouted at me “I warned you!”  He then remounted the bike and rode away.  I’m convinced he must have been either drunk or on drugs.

So, when a similar incident happened, a few days ago, in Peterborough town centre, it had a real impact upon me.  This time, however, I wasn’t the victim; it was a cyclist, crossing the road at a Zebra crossing, just behind me, and a car – trying to beat the lights – drove straight into him.  As soon as I got home, I sat down and wrote the above poem, while the incident was still fresh in my mind.

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