Poetry

AA Photograph by Frederic Brenner

Four old men from Saloniki

Each holds out a numbered arm

Their faces formidable as stone

The frame cannot hold them

Three wear defiance like a shield

But the fourth dissolves the others

I see him alone

Everything lost in the caverns of his eyes

Hand against his face his grief

Has become entirely mine

Drags me into the interminable

Sorrow in every fold

originally published in Voices, Israel, 2009

Sequoia 

Nothing like this, not river, not cliff.

From the forest floor a surge of rust

Bursts from a tempest of paroxysmal arms.

Around it fir and pine dissipate,

The sequoia remaining, broad as a house

High as a bird's flight

Grips the Sierra in defiance, claims all your senses

Knocks the wind out of you.

                                                      Mariposa Grove, California, 2007

originally published in Voices, Israel, 2009

Sea Lions on Pier 39 

Done in from a day's fishing, slick as rubber they heave

Onto timber floats, find a spot, flop their wet black bulks, Seeming to expose a fraud of underwater grace

Yet they know to slap a rival, shove him overboard

And yelp delight in victory, then sink back into whiskered sleep

Or lift their dog-heads, yawn, sneeze, bark and bite.

Come upon through crowds along the pier they are

So many cheerful clowns, these antics

Might imply frivolity

But seen again, black heads rising and falling

In the tossed water off Monterey,

Their yelping carries infinite sorrow.

Extraterrestrial (or A Blowfly)

Pilot and plane in one he wears

Vast puce goggles stitched

Into a leathery flying cap, his wings

Dulled quarries held with fine black cames,

His iridescent armour, seven turquoise plates

Each finely hammered, each

Adorned with fierce black quills.

Soft and naked at birth, supurb now

In metallic hardness, barbed iron legs

Spread like a threat, he walks

In weightless inversion, seeks

What we avoid, feasting off our repugnance,

Will mate on wing, then on his back will spin

Erratic circles, gather dust and die.

Aftermath

Two days passed. The fields

Emptied out, the battle moved away.

The quiet of natural things returned, Mist hung about him at dawn,

At night he smiled at the moon,

A poppy opened its red bowl,

His shirt fluttered, a cricket

Whirred across the field,

Birds tore his eyes, his cheek,

Exposed his teeth, he grinned,

Stared emptily, his hair

Soft and black as coal, a button

Hanging by a single thread,

His fingers poised, hesitating,

A letter in his pocket, unread

A spider leapt

In tiny bounds across his sleeve.

The waves of grass bowed,

Clouds gathered a shower,

Ink ran on pages in his pockets,

Water filled his eye-sockets

Ran down his temples.

Terremoto

On the sixth floor the curve of window held

forest and houses stacked

like steps to a winter sky.

We were in the middle

of a conversation I cannot recall

when the walls, your bed, my chair

lost their roots, like when a second glass

had taken my feet from under me.

You laughed - Look at this, Johnny!

everything interested you.

But I was being swept from the shore Oh, god...

How to hold on, my insides dropping all six floors

as when the fat Jumbo lifts off the tarmac and I

squeeze my eyes closed. 

And when I open them will everything be right?    

Desert

Feather-fingered, the hawk hangs in the shining air,

The reed-river coils like a lock of desert hair,

Dung beetles blunder among the bones and shards,

The sycamore holds against the wind its wind-torn arms,

The water flasks are shattered, the well is dry,

The ribs of the desert exposed against the sky.

Emperor Gum

An almost erotic electric blue, a faience game piece,
Small pod of tropical water beamed into gum-leaf space.
The Emperor Gum flaunts its gaudy adolescence.
Pimpled, tasselled in hairy fire
Scares off birds with its venomous rig.
With admirable tenacity it grips a falcate world,
An oily moon, gorges its world, eats
 
The ground from under its feet, tears
With iron jaws and shoves
The shreddings into turquoise depths,
 
Distended with pubescent lust
Nothing can satisfy this glutton,
 
Not all the gum trees in Australia. It sees
Nothing but leaves, does not stop
To ponder, but eats past its own birthplace -
A row of small, white, broken eggs
On the edga of a crescent blade.
Where will it go from here? Will it ever stop?
The sun cuts a shaft between the trees
And paints the new leaves a bloody red.
 

Ponderings

18 May 2020

I am reading Japanese novels and I delight in their smallness.

                                                                                      ***

A palm tree outside my bedroom window, one of those tall fan palms with broken off brackets of old branches forming a crisscross pattern on the trunk. And there, between the brackets is a perfect tiny brown head. I have just noticed it - nose, eyes, jowls, perfect, like a medieval carving.

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The sharav has arrived, the sirocco. There is barely a breeze. The sky is iron grey. The heat is thick and heavy like a great overcoat that weighs you down. S and I are nonetheless braving the garden. It seems unfair that the spring is so short and should be interrupted by these impossible days, just when the garden is at its finest and the mosquitoes have not yet become bothersome. A week ago, we had showers and this week the temperatures are soaring at the high thirties and with no prospect of change till the weekend. So here we are, S curled on the floor of the tiny patio and I at the table shaded by a heavy canopy of fig and ivy leaves, morning glory not yet in bloom and honeysuckle full of flower. Inside is air-conditioning but I cannot work indoors, and I refuse to. My garden is what my mother used to call a postage-stamp garden. It is narrow and long, and fenced off from the busy street by a virtual jungle of bay trees and vines. Three small fountains muffle the sound of passing traffic. It is tiny, but it is a tiny paradise, inhabited, other than by myself and S, by a continual flow of visitors: yellow and white butterflies, a variety of insects, an occasional stray cat (until it notices me or S) and most noisily by birds coming to bathe; thrushes, bulbuls and the occasional purple sunbird.

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19 May 2020

I rarely read a book. It is always six or seven. Is this evidence of my fickleness, impatience, lack of what my mother referred to as sitzfleisch? I prefer to think of it as proof of an inquisitive mind and broad interests, but it is probably those other things as well.

                                                                                          ***

Books were always around in our house. My mother was an avid reader of novels (modern and classics) and cookbooks. As she was American her tastes were largely American, but she liked British works as well, and from her I discovered Theodore Dreiser, Edgar Alan Poe, Melville, Twain, Hemingway and the wonderfully wordy novels of Thomas Wolfe, but also Hugh Walpole, Robert Louis Stevenson, particularly Treasure Island, which she loved to read out loud, and modern works like The Magus by John Fowles. Her cookbooks held no interest for me, though her cooking certainly did, but she also had a book of first pages of the New York Times, and that, I imagine, fed into my growing love of history. My father had inherited some of his grandfather’s vast collection of Shakespeare, which included such gems as Animal Lore in Shakespeare’s Time, Hard Knots in Shakespeare, Where Shakespeare Set his Stage and other such titles. I don’t recall him ever reading them and they were, I suppose, regarded as an inheritance rather than as something to open. But there were others; Kipling, Samuel Pepys, Dickens, and books of humour such as It all Started with Eve, 1066 and All That and Schoolboy Bloomers. In his old age his interests turned to religious books and cheap romance novels about doctors and nurses, mainly, for some reason, from New Zealand. Many of his books were on engineering, which might have been dull reads for a child, but sometimes contained wonderful illustrations. One, for example, had photographs of oil wells burning in the desert, and was about controlling disasters in oil refineries. Another, the contents of which has left no residue in my mind, had wonderful illustrations in the flyleaves - drawings filled with fat little men in a factory or some similar setting, each of whom was unaware that he was about to cause a disaster or series of disasters by knocking something over or tripping up over something. Mostly, at the age of thirteen or fourteen, I preferred those book club volumes from the Reprint Society that my Aunt, Bette, who lived with us, received at regular intervals – The Wind Cannot Read, by Richard Mason, The Flag by Robert Shaw, and similar, largely forgotten works.

In short, my reading material as a teenager was eclectic certainly, and with a lot that might best be labelled “trash”, but also with a few items that exposed me to fine writing.

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I love to read and I love books. The book and its contents are two distinct things. A book is physical; the actual volume, leather or paper bound, with its pages and print and perhaps illustrations. It has a colour, a texture, a smell. But a book is also abstract; an intellectual and emotional creation fashioned by the author’s combination of ideas and thoughts transmitted through words. I love books as objects and as ideas.

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20 May 2020

Somewhere nearby there is a tree producing puffs of cotton-like material that comes floating down into my garden in tiny clouds. I look across through the trees and see that the air beyond is full of them. This brief spring with its bursts of burdensome heat and coolness is the most vibrant time in the garden. Everything is involved. Some evergreen trees are shedding masses of leaves and bell-shaped flowers that drop like little bombs, the strawberries and blueberries and lemons are swelling daily. The oleanders are blooming, the roses already fading, but a few pink and white cyclamen are still there, looking as if they are about to lift off their stems into flight. One variety of jasmine, that with the twisted propeller-like flowers is at its height, the others are still only sending up new branches and leaves. The garden is never dull, even in the winter, but now it is impossible to keep up with it. In this heat, watering and raking the leaves has become Sisyphean work.

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I remember the springs of my childhood. They were very different; softer, brighter. Here they are harsh, extreme and brief. The winter ends and for a few weeks everything is bursting with renewal; birds are nesting and singing, the air is full of insects darting and fluttering, wild orchids and anemone rise like jewels in the long green grass, the black branches of almond trees are filled with delicate pink and white blossom. Then comes the first heat. Overnight the almonds scatter their petals like snow, and in a week the hills are golden and dry. By the time of the sharav only the watered gardens bloom. 

                                                                                          ***

Y detest pigeons. She regards them, as many do, as a sort of feathered rat. For me they are a favourite bird. Not for their appearance for in truth they have little beauty, nor for their cleanliness for in that they are worthy of the rodent comparison, but for their cooing, gurgling song, which is among the most pleasant sounds I know. Sometimes, when I awake in the morning, they are singing and I am reminded of Sunday mornings long ago when there was no school and I could lie in bed late, the sun coming through the window, turning the yellow curtains to gold, and the smells of freshly mown lawn and burning gum leaves in the air.

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21 May 2020

One of the first things I noticed when exiting the old Lod Airport terminal building on a warm day in May, fifty-one years ago, was a stand of tall eucalyptus trees. That very first image of something so familiar has always stayed in my mind. It was enormously significant. In fact, I am rather certain that it was what enabled me, with some ups and downs, to come to terms with the extreme change I was to undergo. Imagine if you were hurtled through space and crash-landed on Mars. If you were to emerge from your spaceship and find ants crawling across the ground, normal earth-type ants, you would think… “Well, this can’t be all that different.”

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Mamilla. The grass in the cemetery is knee high and already has turned to white gold. The black trunks of carob trees and peppercorns are in stark contrast to the pale grasses and the light grey soil. Above are masses of dark green foliage and sparrows dart between the trees. The air is full of their chirping. The tombstones struggle to be seen. There are so many of them: stepped shrines and box-like small versions of Hiram’s Tomb, and those with pillars rising on either side like two slim guards watching over the deceased. Some are decorated with carved circular geometric patterns of the type found over the doorways of old houses and others have inscriptions in beautiful Naskh script. But most give no clue as to whom their subterranean residents might be. They are like so many unknown soldiers. What was their history? No one will ever know and their bones lie cloaked in anonymity and silence beneath the memorials that should have spoken for them but have fallen into an Alzheimer haze of forgetfulness. The tombs are scattered randomly in the long grass. Here is one on its own, here is a group, and all but a few dissenters are swung like the arrows of great compasses, as if by some powerful magnetic force into a north-south alignment so that the long-forgotten inhabitants might face another Holy City far away in the desert to the south.

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22 May 2020

The power of the senses as memory-triggers is remarkable. Most of what we experience in our lives rapidly vanishes forever from our minds like the dissolving of dreams within seconds of our awakening from them. But come across a particular taste or smell and you can be transported back over decades to a time when you previously experienced that same smell or taste, even though almost all the things external to that experience remain lost. The sense does, however, shed a tiny amount of light around it so that, smelling a freshly opened carton of milk you might recall not only the taste and smell of milk in the thick glass bottle that you were handed from a crate sixty years earlier, but also you can recall the feel of your finger and thumb as you peeled back the thin silver aluminium seal, pushing down onto it with your thumb, and the touch and weight of the thick glass rim as it once came into contact with your lips.

24 May 2020

There are places in which beauty is all around, and overwhelming. Here there is beauty, great beauty indeed, but one has to look for it, and it is often hidden among plain or homely things, so that you might not see it at all, until suddenly and unexpectedly you do. It is like a person with an unexceptional face who, when suddenly smiling becomes stunningly beautiful. Walk through Talbiya, there are some fine old Arab houses, some nice gardens, but you might not see beauty as such until you look away to the east, through the houses and trees, and there you catch a glimpse of it all of a sudden. And it has always there, and always beautiful, but you hardly ever notice it, until you do - the pink hills with their blue shadows, the blue and pink hills of Moab.

                                                                                          ***

Five days of exceptional, record-breaking heat and then today a heavy rain that sent a gathered week’s dust in white waves down Gaza Street. And now, all afternoon the wind is churning the trees, the branches bending in all directions at once, the leaves shivering, and the sky is once again the deepest blue.

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25 May 2020

I once shared an apartment on Rome’s Via Tiburtina with two friends. I had never before lived in such a place. It was in a dilapidated old apartment building, but you could see that it had once been quite fine, and it was still full of ageing but attractive pieces of furniture that suggested that it had indeed seen better times as well as better tenants. When we moved in we were asked to come around to the landlady to pay our respects, and perhaps an advance on the rent as well. She occupied another apartment in the same building. She was a countess, and I had never seen one before, so I was duly impressed. And she behaved like a countess, which impressed me all the more. A man, a servant or perhaps friend, opened the door, showed us in and promptly disappeared, and we entered an elaborately furnished room where we found the countess reclined on a sofa. She was tiny and as thin as a child, and although she was plainly dressed her white hair was tied back with a ribbon in an elegant fashion and something about her manner reflected nobility even onto her simple cotton dress and found expression in the manner in which the folds of cloth lay carefully and precisely placed along the length of her frail reclining body. She did not get up to greet us but gestured for us to sit and spoke to us in a broken but reasonable English. She seemed to be ancient, far older than the building, so old in fact that you were led to think she might almost have had in her youth the opportunity to exchange a few words with the emperor who once owned the villa at the distant end of this road.

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26 May 2020

Places of great history can make a powerful impression on us for what they possess, whether it be preserved traditions or physical remains, and usually it is a combination of the two. But sometimes we go away from these places with a remembrance that has nothing to do with the monument or its history. In 1974 I travelled through the Peloponnese with a friend and a group of newly acquired acquaintances in a hired car. There were many places we visited that impressed me for their history, and for the beauty of their location. But if I am to choose a single profound impression of that excursion, it has nothing to do with the places themselves.

We had arrived at Olympia after the sun had set in the wake of a long drive. It is very many years ago now and I cannot recall precisely where we were, perhaps we had found a hostel, but we were outside and it was a beautiful warm night and the sky was awash with stars as is only a sky far from the city. The night was still, even the murmur of my friends had died down. Quite suddenly the silence was broken by a distant baying of a dog. As there was no other sound it caught my attention and it continued steadily for some minutes. Then, quite unexpectedly the sharp crack of a rifle shot rang out and was immediately followed by a pitiful howling that began loudly, then dropped away and stopped altogether. The whole thing was over in a minute and the silence returned. I had seen nothing but the black shape of the hills and trees, yet image  was so clear that I might have actually observed it myself from close at hand. I had no doubt what had happened though I knew not why. It was cruel and incomprehensible and pitifully sad. If I think of that trip long ago, and of all the wonderful things I saw, it is this unseen image that always come back to me most strongly.

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