Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Counting-Reading Song

Counting match-ends,
reading labels on bottles,
distinguishing patterns on wallpaper,
watching the smoke rise from the fire,
counting on somebody else,
reading new meanings into words,
distinguishing myself on a wall,
with a blunt pencil,
watching the smoke rise from the fire,
counting dead sheep,
reading pornography in the urinal,
distinguishing good from bad,
watching the smoke rise from the fires,
counting the dead,
reading the obituaries,
distinguishing the heroes from the cowards,
watching the smoke rise from the pyres,
counting the cost,
reading labels on bottles,
distinguishing the faces
and putting labels on them,
with names and numbers on the labels
and caked blood on the faces,
washing the salt from my eyes
and the blood from my hands,
leaving no traces.

First published poem from 1968.( in 'Dawn' ) I was taken aback by some of the prescient imagery. Chopped the last two lines from the original. Superfluous. Made one or two small changes. Pic. Anti-Vietnam War demonstration, US Embassy, Grosvenor Square. The time and place of my political birth!

Sunday, August 26, 2007

An Najaf 2007 ( after Seamus Heaney )

We were killing time when the Americans came back
That dazed morning, sunlight guttering outside
The slaughterhouse. Inside the half-track
They would have heard our futile muttering
Of prayers, then heard the whispers cease,
Give place to our lungs’ urgent pleading,
Long since driven to our knees,
Before one shot was fired, already bleeding.
Two lines of shadow deployed across the street,
No IEDs to snag their careless feet.
A Black Hawk hovered overhead.
GIs lined up eyes like gun sights,
Eyes blank with the terror of long nights,
Scoping both the living and half dead,
Sun scarred hands and arms made
For farmers, now each preparing one grenade.

Heaney’s original is ‘Anahorish 1944’ p7 in ‘District and Circle’ published by Faber & Faber 2006. The picture is of US troops engaged in a fire fight in a cemetery in An Najaf. A spokesman later claimed that when it was over 'many dead enemy combatants were discovered in the area'.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Beech Wood

An exposed ribcage of trees, floating

On a crimson shroud of leaves, bathed

In a delusion of light, wiped clean

By air that whispers as it swiftly chokes

And rain that blisters into all consuming smoke.

Even the dark earth is melting underfoot,

Beneath it no green shoot, no tangled root,

No comforting stone,

A fresh eruption of bone.

This used to be one of my favourite Klimt landscapes until I visited the Belvedere Gallery in Vienna and saw the original. It was every bit as stunning as I expected, but it was the caption in German that shook me to the core - ‘Buchenwald’, Beech Wood. I can’t ever look at the painting without the German title superimposing itself.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Black Chair 4. Crowning Glory

They called for you three times,
But you were long gone out of the trenches,
Into the field of blood,
Raw food for wire and bullets
To pluck from the drowning mud.

In the still of the marquee,
None could even dream
Of the roaring in your ears,
The blind surge forward
Towards an unseen enemy,
Or conjure into mind
The ghoulish scene that day
The two choirs streamed forward as one,
Only to discover the big guns’ singing,
The wicked descant of the falling shell,
The rising chorus of the invitation
To dissolve into a man made hell.

Those places where one man after another fell
They all had names – Pilckem Ridge,
Passchendaele and more
Than thirty thousand reasons
In just one day to remember them,
That day when two choirs
And one shepherd poet
Rose and fell as one
and of our boys but four survived
to witness the sinking of the sun.

In Birkenhead,
They bear away the sword
And shroud your throne.
Too late they listen to your words,
Then take away the empty chair
Home to the whispering slate,
Where your fire is already cold,
Its spent wood charred.
Dark nights ahead and in the corner
Now stands carved black oak
For a newly crowned Black Bard.

Sunday, August 12, 2007



Wake up! The war is over.
Peel your fingers from your ears.
There’s no more need to cover
Your eyes. See, the smoke has cleared.

Outside your window, the street is bare
Of soldiers. Even the sniper lurks no more,
No sign of your father’s killer anywhere.
He’s safe in the US, minding the local store.

No more unexploded shells in the square
Of a garden, only a row of untidy graves,
Your brother and two sisters lie there,
While a lost uncle chews his fists and raves,

Where Mother once searched for remains
Until the depleted uranium took firm hold
And she joined her family near the drains
Before you had time to wake and grow old.

There’s no need to cry. Can’t you see
Where once terror stalked your land,
Where once crooks and profiteers
Swarmed over oil polluted sand,
There’s a kind of silence now
and a new model of democracy?

Just heard some Brit neo con raving on about how nuclear weapons had kept the peace for over 50 years. What do they take so early in the day? Pic taken on the streets of Baghdad.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

The Black Chair 3, Sword

this black, black chair

This isn't working on the page and to see the effect properly yourself, you need to copy the text, paste it, then centre it. Can't find reliable advice on how to to this on Blogspot, so if you know, please tell me!
Anyway, when Hedd Wyn won the Chair at the National Eisteddfod in Birkenhead in 1917, the carved oak chair stood on the stage and a sword was placed upon it. Then, when it was announced that Hedd Wyn was dead, the sword was removed and the chair draped in black. The picture shows Ray Gravelle, current Keeper of the Sword and a Welsh hero in many more ways than one.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

The Black Chair 2. To the passive witness

How many shepherds must be
Plucked from our hills,
So that the shallow graves gouged out
By deceivers may be filled?
How long before the unchecked lust for oil
Subsides, its quota of innocents fulfilled?
As much as he who coldly strikes in rage,
They, who stand by silent, also kill.
It’s not enough to rant and rave,
As precious ink across my blank page spills
Or with eyes downcast like common slaves
Tamely surrender up our very wills.
To write a different end in perfect peace,
Rise up! Rise up! There’s time to do it still!

Hedd Wyn was the bardic name given to Ellis Evans,
a shepherd poet from Merioneth. Literally it means
‘white peace’, but a better translation, I feel, is ‘perfect
peace’. Evans was called up for military service in 1917,
but before going to the front, he had time to complete
his entry for the National Eisteddfod held in
Birkenhead that year and somehow send it in spite of
military censorship. ‘Yr Arwr’ – ‘The Hero’ was
announced as the winner and the author was called three
times to stand. There was no response, because
Evans had been killed in the first assault at
Passchendaele. As this was announced, the bardic chair
was shrouded in black cloth, and was known from
that moment as ‘The Black Chair’.

The more I read about Evans, the more ideas force
their way into the open and I find myself constructing
a cycle of poems around them. You are getting them
as they are written and it is already evident that the final
order of the poems will have to be re-jigged when I am done.

Friday, August 03, 2007

The Black Chair 1.War

The Black Chair

1. War

In the depths of our despair,
God is nowhere to be found
And men go hurtling in his wake,
Take on the hideous mantles of tyrant kings.

As God steals away,
Brother wields murderous sword against brother.
The syllables of slaughter fill our ears.
Death’s shadow swarms over the land.

The harps of old, the ones that used to sing,
Hang, choke on the branches of weeping trees.
The hot wind swells with the screams of our abandoned sons.
Sand commingles with their blood.

This is a radical re-working of a translation into English
of the prize winning poem by Hedd Wyn. No translation
into any language can match original rhythms and nuances.
This is especially true of translations from Welsh, but I have
gone beyond literal translation and its alternative, the attempt
to catch the essence of the original in a new form. Instead, I
have overturned the religious overtones of Ellis Evans’ poem
and introduced contemporary resonances whilst at the same
time relying heavily on much of Evans’ own imagery.
The original, in Welsh, is given after this and I would be
interested to discover what Welsh speakers might make
of the liberties I have taken. More of ‘The Black Chair’ is to
come, together with some history of the poet who set me off
on this track.


Gwae fi fy myw mewn oes mor ddreng,
A Duw ar drai ar orwel pell;
O'i ô1 mae dyn, yn deyrn a gwreng,
Yn codi ei awdurdod hell.

Pan deimlodd fyned ymaith Dduw
Cyfododd gledd i ladd ei frawd;
Mae sŵn yr ymladd ar ein clyw,
A'i gysgod ar fythynnod tlawd.

Mae'r hen delynau genid gynt
Ynghrog ar gangau'r helyg draw,
A gwaedd y bechgyn lond y gwynt,
A 'u gwaed yn gymysg efo'r glaw.