31 May 2015

A knife placed in a baby's fist

                                         by Waldo Williams

What is Man?

What is living? The broad hall found
between narrow walls.
What is acknowledging” Finding the one root
under the branches' tangle.

What is believing? Watching at home
till the time arrives for welcome.
What is forgiving? Pushing your way through thorns
to stand alongside your old enemy.

What is singing? The ancient gifted breath
drawn in creating.
What is labour but making songs
from the wood and the wheat?

What is it to govern kingdoms? A skill
still crawling on all fours.
And arming kingdoms? A knife placed
in a baby's fist.

What is it to be a people? A gift
lodged in the heart's deep folds.
What is love of country? Keeping house
among a cloud of witnesses.

What is the world to the wealthy and strong? A wheel,
Turning and turning.
What is the world to earth's little ones? A cradle,
rocking and rocking.

Young Girl

That was what the stone carcass once was, a girl;
each time I see these bones, she takes hold of me again,
and back I go to her haunts, with every year of mine
answering for a century of hers.

She lived among people who knew what peace was,
buying their goods from the earth and the earth's gifts,
wondering silently at birth, marriage and death, tending
the human kindred's bonds.

All too soon she was put away, in her eternal foetus-crouch:
twelve times she greeted the arrival of May, and then
began to keep company with the darkness that took her, her voice
no longer heard on the hill.

So that the wide sky became deeper on account of her,
the blue sky brighter on account of her, and
the unseen ageless house above the hill's peaks more firmly founded
on account of her.

A child's skeleton in the Avebury museum, from around 2,500 BC.

From Rowan Williams, The Other Mountain.

24 May 2015

Stand still, you ever-moving spheres of heaven

                                                              by Christopher Marlowe     

FAUSTUS: Ah, Faustus,  
Now hast thou but one bare hour to live,
And then thou must be damn’d perpetually!
Stand still, you ever-moving spheres of heaven,
That time may cease, and midnight never come;
Fair Nature’s eye, rise, rise again, and make
Perpetual day; or let this hour be but
A year, a month, a week, a natural day,
That Faustus may repent and save his soul!
O lente, lente currite, noctis equi!
The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike,
The devil will come, and Faustus must be damn’d.
O, I’ll leap up to my God! – Who pulls me down? –
See, see, where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament!
One drop would save my soul, half a drop: ah, my Christ! –
Ah, rend not my heart for naming of my Christ!
Yet will I call on him: O, spare me, Lucifer! –
Where is it now? ’tis gone: and see, where God
Stretcheth out his arm, and bends his ireful brows!
Mountains and hills, come, come, and fall on me,
And hide me from the heavy wrath of God!
No, no!
Then will I headlong run into the earth:
Earth, gape! O, no, it will not harbour me!
You stars that reign’d at my nativity,
Whose influence hath allotted death and hell,
Now draw up Faustus, like a foggy mist.
Into the entrails of yon labouring cloud[s],
That, when you vomit forth into the air,
My limbs may issue from your smoky mouths,
So that my soul may but ascend to heaven!
[The clock strikes the half-hour.]
Ah, half the hour is past! ’twill all be past anon
O God,
If thou wilt not have mercy on my soul,
Yet for Christ’s sake, whose blood hath ransom’d me,
Impose some end to my incessant pain;
Let Faustus live in hell a thousand years,
A hundred thousand, and at last be sav’d!
O, no end is limited to damned souls!
Why wert thou not a creature wanting soul?
Or why is this immortal that thou hast?
Ah, Pythagoras’ metempsychosis, were that true,
This soul should fly from me, and I be chang’d
Unto some brutish beast! all beasts are happy,
For, when they die,
Their souls are soon dissolv’d in elements;
But mine must live still to be plagu’d in hell.
Curs’d be the parents that engender’d me!
No, Faustus, curse thyself, curse Lucifer
That hath depriv’d thee of the joys of heaven.
[The clock strikes twelve.]
O, it strikes, it strikes! Now, body, turn to air,
Or Lucifer will bear thee quick to hell!
[Thunder and lightning.]
O soul, be chang’d into little water-drops,
And fall into the ocean, ne’er be found!
[Enter DEVILS.]
My God, my god, look not so fierce on me!
Adders and serpents, let me breathe a while!
Ugly hell, gape not! come not, Lucifer!
I’ll burn my books! – Ah, Mephistopheles! 
(Exeunt DEVILS with FAUSTUS)

From Act VI, Scene IV, of Christopher Marlowe's The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus (c. 1589).

17 May 2015

The Shield of Achilles

                                by W. H. Auden

The Shield of Achilles

She looked over his shoulder
For vines and olive trees,
Marble well-governed cities
And ships upon untamed seas,
But there on the shining metal
His hands had put instead
An artificial wilderness
And a sky like lead.

A plain without a feature, bare and brown,
No blade of grass, no sign of neighborhood,
Nothing to eat and nowhere to sit down,
Yet, congregated on its blankness, stood
An unintelligible multitude,
A million eyes, a million boots in line,
Without expression, waiting for a sign.
Out of the air a voice without a face
Proved by statistics that some cause was just
In tones as dry and level as the place:
No one was cheered and nothing was discussed;
Column by column in a cloud of dust
They marched away enduring a belief
Whose logic brought them, somewhere else, to grief.

She looked over his shoulder
For ritual pieties,
White flower-garlanded heifers,
Libation and sacrifice,
But there on the shining metal
Where the altar should have been,
She saw by his flickering forge-light
Quite another scene.
Barbed wire enclosed an arbitrary spot
Where bored officials lounged (one cracked a joke)
And sentries sweated for the day was hot:
A crowd of ordinary decent folk
Watched from without and neither moved nor spoke
As three pale figures were led forth and bound
To three posts driven upright in the ground.
The mass and majesty of this world, all
That carries weight and always weighs the same
Lay in the hands of others; they were small
And could not hope for help and no help came:
What their foes like to do was done, their shame
Was all the worst could wish; they lost their pride
And died as men before their bodies died.

She looked over his shoulder
For athletes at their games,
Men and women in a dance
Moving their sweet limbs
Quick, quick, to music,
But there on the shining shield
His hands had set no dancing-floor
But a weed-choked field.
A ragged urchin, aimless and alone,
Loitered about that vacancy; a bird
Flew up to safety from his well-aimed stone:
That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third,
Were axioms to him, who’d never heard
Of any world where promises were kept,
Or one could weep because another wept.

The thin-lipped armorer,
Hephaestos, hobbled away,
Thetis of the shining breasts
Cried out in dismay
At what the god had wrought
To please her son, the strong
Iron-hearted man-slaying Achilles
Who would not live long.

10 May 2015

Tiger Music

                                       by Marius Kociejowski

Tiger Music

                                                'You see that eminence?
You shall have your heart's fill of them there.'
The village elder, almost blind, pointed to a crag floating in
      distant haze.
                                                           Thus sped with hope,
Our guns cocked, although it was never our purpose to kill,
      we went looking for tigers.

                                        If what the fellâhîn said was true,
If there was nothing they could not, in their language, describe,
We met not a soul who knew all the words, the more than fifty
      or so,
That speak the many shades of tigerness between one which dozes
And another that lunges,
                                               the different music they make.

All day we watched for movement in the stone.
We saw lizards which at our approach slid off like lightning into
A couple of eagles from an eyrie
                                                                           on the crag above
Wheeled and hovered, their shadows like two
Spots of ink moving upon the mountain-side.
We watched for tigers but saw none, although we did see
A gazelle, its gashed throat jewelled with flies.
Whiteness pooling his eyes, the village elder
                                                    was confused or so he appeared.
'What could have made them go away>' he asked. “Once, I saw
      tigers everywhere.'

                              All night we fought among ourselves.
One man said leopards dwelled here, while another lynzes.
Anything but tigers, such was the consensus of all but one.
The old boy stuck to his guns, of course, warned us
Of the dangers that come of grabbing tigers by the tail.
'A snake doubles back upon half its length,' he said, 'whereas
      a tiger goes it whole.'
Our dragoman, scoffing at him, said this was
A country as bare of tigers as his soul of truth.
'So why then,' the other replied, 'if indeed there are none,
Should our language have fifty or more words for the many
      moods they strike?'
                                                       We drank our bitter coffee,
And discussing what provisions we should take,
Said tomorrow perhaps would see the settlement of our dispute,
As to what those famous tigers really were.

Marius Kociejowski, So Dance the Lords of Language, 2003.

03 May 2015

Sitting in front of us, laughing

                                      by Kate Tempest


The boys have football and skate ramps.
They can ride BMX
and play basketball in the courts by the flats until midnight.
The girls have shame.

One day,
when we are grown and we have minds of our own,
we will be kind women, with nice smiles and families and jobs.
And we will sit,
with the weight of our lives and our pain
pushing our bodies down into the bus seats,
and we will see thirteen-year-old girls for what will seem like the first
       time since we've been them,
and they will be sitting on front of us, laughing
into their hands at our shoes or our jackets,
      and rolling their eyes at each other.

While out of the window, in the sunshine,
the boys will be cheering each other on,
and daring each other to jump higher and higher.


We wander into school, happy children;
kind and bright and interested in things.
We don't yet know the horrors of the building.
The hatred it will teach. The boredom it will bring.

Soon we'll learn to disappear in public.
We'll learn that getting by is good enough.
We'll learn the way it feels to see injustice,
and shut our mouths in case it comes for us.

We'll learn to never think but copy blindly,
To ally with the mean and keep them near.
We'll learn to not be talented or clever,
and the most important lessons
for success in a career:

How to follow orders when you're bordering
on nausea and you're bored and
insecure and dwarfed by fear.

From Kate Tempest, Hold Your Own, 2014. Winner of the Ted Hughes Award for Poetry.