Red Cross on White — A Poem for St. George’s Day

Red Cross on White

[A Poem for St. George’s Day]

The flag is nothing but a bloody gash on a white background,

stabbed guts oozing through a white nightgown.

Life is nothing more than a ride on a fairground misery-go-round.

The wheel of fortune round and round it goes.

The flag is Christ crucified anachronistically in snowy climes;

the blinding bright white light of might and right hiding behind the blood

of crusades and dragons slain and forests felled in olden times.

The stained relic of a shroud. Santa Claus coming

down the chimney to groom your children with gifts.

The red hot iron of a sword rising up from the white heat of a forge;

the rust of defunct factory machinery overrun by frost;

blood spattered by a slaver’s whip on sugar or salt;

lipstick on the pale lips of a corpse

splayed out in the powder of a burst bag of coke after a police raid

or a hit. Painted sunset seen through knife wound and smog.

The red mark of the forbidden and wrong.

The cross roads littered with the ghost limbs of accident victims.

Martyrs fall and rise and fall.

X always marks the spot.

It is an unknown, red, hot, angry, flagging

unknown, waiting to explode:

blood-borne virus on the pristine white coat of an ambulance driver.

 

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17 Section 6

[Here is section 6 of 17. Yet again I must warn readers that it contains extreme violence flippantly depicted and some strong language.]

“Better get out there and see about that,” She shouts

out at Hen pottering around the greenhouse,

hearing the battering on the front door. “Mum,

answer that!” Deb shouts down from her TV-filled room.

Hen pretends to be deaf. That old trick. Smoke streams up

from a house across the road. She sits up on the sunbed

and shouts louder. “Better do something about that.”

Hen grumpily unfurls his gardening gloves and marches

to the telephone without uttering a word.

*

The bullets hit him through the glass paned front door

before he can get his fingers into 999. “Fuck

that blinking glass door She wanted,” is the last thing he thinks.

She comes running angrily squawking.

A stray shot takes her larynx out

and she sinks to the floor over dead hubby,

speechless, gurgling, choking,

the purring telephone receiver bleeding out

faint increasingly irritated unanswered questions.

The couple lie together in rigor,

grimaces etched on their lips,

like a macabre Romeo

& Juliet, Anthony & Cleopatra,

like effigies of king & queen slumped artlessly

atop an Arundel tomb by an unsympathetic court sculptor.

*

The kids are curled up watching the soap on TV.

Roz has run off into the outback

and heart-throb Lando is off after her on his motorbike.

Dark aboriginal prophecies are inscribed in trees.

The boring bit. And the redneck couple get hitched on a sheep farm

and Roz hustles a bus-full of cross-dressers and clowns to help her win her man,

to a back drop of Ayer’s Rock. Girls go missing in the crevices. Next week’s plot.

*

A tap on the frosted glass front door. Shots. Deb rushes downstairs.

A bullet thrashes through glass and skull. Mike

muscles his way through the empty door frame

over mum&dad’s intertwined dead bodies into the home,

and puts a final flurry of grapeshot into the images of virtual neighbors still on TV.

The curtains tangled up in the cathode ray tube flare up in flame.

 

What is Going on in Brazil [2]

[I feel obliged to repost this piece that I wrote three years ago. Apart from a few inaccurate prognostications, it is still very relevant–perhaps more so–today]

Living as a ‘guest’ in Brazil—although I dispute the use of that metaphor for someone who has been a legal resident of the country for nearly 20 years—I am often cautious of commenting on local politics. Likewise, as both a long-standing sympathizer and detached critic of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (henceforth PT), I find my loyalties severely divided by recent events. Yet, as a social scientist and student of politics in Brazil and around the world, I find myself duty-bound to comment on the recent crisis, which—storm in a teacup though it may be—nevertheless poses a potentially serious threat.

Political developments in Brazil need to be set in three distinct, but often overlapping and clashing, broader contexts. First there is the history of politics and class-conflict in Brazil and, more broadly, in Latin America as a whole, within which Brazil is both a fellow-traveler and a very distinct entity. Second, there is the world-wide historical shift towards a crisis of confidence in traditional politics and ideology, which has engendered apathy and extremism in differing measures in various parts of the globe. And third, there is the global economic context, in which unprecedented and largely unfettered interconnectivity precludes the possibility of local solutions, while glaring inequalities and unsustainability sow the festering seeds of crises and conflicts to come.

 

Brazil finds itself—not for the first time—caught in the middle of a global clash of opinions, and local politicians—yet again—are only too eager take advantage of this.

Latin America has always been at a huge geographical disadvantage compared to the rest of the world. Forbidding geographical barriers divide it from other continents and even from itself, making coast-to-coast economic or political unity a virtual impossibility and globalization a costly enterprise. This disadvantage was exacerbated by the history of European intervention and interference, beginning at a time when the continent’s own aboriginal civilizations were starting tentatively to develop their own kind of economic take-off. The European conquest devastated the continent through a combination of greed for gain, racism and slavery, and the unwitting or deliberate dissemination of infectious disease.

Easily dominated, Latin America proved much less easy to control or overrun. The gold, silver and sugar that the conquistadores and bandeirantes stole from temples and had slaves dig from the ground only served to fuel inflation in the motherlands and entrench a brutal feudal racist and increasingly fratricidal system in the far-flung colonies themselves.

Different from Europe, where feudal disputes between nobles, kings and popes gave rise to the emergence of a relatively prosperous, and hence vocal, middle- and later working-class, the Latin American haciendas and export-oriented coastal cities remained deeply divided by perverse notions of birthright, authority and race—as to a great extent they still are.

Post-independence, the new Latin American republics, for all their Jacobin-inspired and later positivistic fervor, collapsed under the weight of contradictions between their own classes in the context of an unpropitious international environment.

The nascent US treated Mexico and other nations to the same kind of gunboat diplomacy that the British Royal Navy had used so effectively around the globe. This was especially effective in Latin America, where everything depends upon a favorable balance of trade to a much greater extent than in any other part of the world.

Keen to turn round this dependency on exports and imports and consequent vulnerability to the vicissitudes of international markets—especially in the wake of the depressions of the 1890s and 1930s—Latin American governments in the 20th century embarked on a policy of import-substitution industrialization (ISI). This understandable, but ultimately misguided, strategy aimed to ‘catch up with’ the industrialized nations of Europe and North America by developing local manufacturing industries for a local market.

Import-substitution would prove to be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it did provide a kick-start for modernization, albeit it one of a peculiarly skewed and inequitable kind. On the other, it created new class fissures, without resolving old ones, and led to urban overpopulation, rural depopulation, impoverishment and degradation, and ultimately hyperinflation, since domestic technological advances could not keep pace with foreign competitors without cancelling out its potential profits and accruing massive debts through the need to import the secondary technologies necessary for the industrial upgrade.

Brazilian governments, like those of other countries in Latin America, are always stuck between a rock and a hard place in this regard. They have to keep up appearances internationally, while driving down costs at home, All too often, this results in cruelty, poverty, inequality and disenfranchisement among the most vulnerable sectors of society and the perennial pursuit of a perverse and ultimately unsustainable mirage of a trickle-down developmental path that precariously benefits none but a tiny few.

Internally, Brazilian governments, of whatever ideological persuasion, have had to negotiate a patchwork of entrenched, often violently conflicting, interests. Local coronéis (with a range of quaintly outdated ideologies) vie for favor with landless peasants and powerful trade-unions that represent not the poorest of the poor, but the already highly privileged public workers of a bloated, out-dated, at once servile and militant, civil service. No government can succeed unless it somehow juggles all these demands.

The untranslatable jeitinho of corruption is often the only way to get any good done and things usually end first in apparent amity, compromise, amnesty and impunity (em pizza, as they say in Brazil), then badly, as cycles of relative success grind inevitably to a halt. The clunky wheels of state are stalled by the accumulation of dirt left by the very oils and unction intended to lubricate them.

The apparently miraculous break with this depressingly repetitious pattern in recent years in Brazil is now being seen by many as yet another, albeit somewhat more long-standing, cyclical economic mirage.

Brazil and its PT government enjoyed exceptional good luck and misfortune in equal measure in the early years of the 21st century. When the PT first came to power nationally in 2003, it was—Messianic acclamations from the likes of Anthony Giddens apart—a progressive left-wing government practically alone in a world in which almost everybody else was hurtling headlong towards the now universally vindicated and supposedly post-ideological and post-geopolitical (globalized) tenets of the neoliberal right.

Ironically this global scenario provided the fledgling leftist administration in Brazil with the very springboard it needed. Global growth—especially in China—enabled Brazil to return (and much more lucratively) to the export-based economy that had been the 19th century stock in trade, exporting, as luck would have it, huge quantities of food, biofuel, steel and (later) oil to the emerging Chinese juggernaut.

This windfall enabled Brazil to pay off its burdensome debts, invest to some extent in its own technology sector, and introduce some modest much needed social reforms and wealth distribution, although the latter were only achieved by way of creative and arguably corrupt negotiations with an overwhelmingly hostile national congress—a necessary, yet morally dubious, pact with the devil that haunts the PT to this day.

Back in 2003, I was reading a lot about the origins of parliamentary democracy in 17th century England. Faced with an intractably corrupt, hostile, and backward-looking royalist parliament, Oliver Cromwell marched his roundheads down to London and closed the whole thing down. The Lula government achieved consent for social reform merely with a few well-placed bribes. Something regrettable, but far from unusual in the politics of Brazil or any other country. Though this may reflect how venal and cynical democratically-elected representatives have become, I know which I prefer… A little bit of corruption to oil the wheels and do good; not a military coup.

In the years following 2003, Lady Luck continued to smile on the PT and sun Brazil with her largesse. The Great Recession of 2007-2009 left Brazil virtually unscathed and new oil-extraction technologies, combined with rocketing prices for this and other commodities and a growing social-reform-driven internal consumer market appeared, by the time Lula left office, in 2010, to have brought Brazil within reach of its age-old aspiration and seeming titled right to join the ranks of the first world.

Many serious issues, however, remained unresolved. And luck, as it tends to, is fast running out. Social reform and wealth redistribution in Brazil, despite significant achievements, remained modest and piecemeal. While shopping and credit and real-estate speculation have thrived, buoyed by a sturdy export market for soya and steel, services in sectors such as health, transport and education—although much improved in recent years—have still fallen far short of the high standards that have become the perhaps illusory norm in supposedly more developed parts of the world.

Such shortcomings clashed sharply with the pomp of pricey white-elephant building projects connected with upcoming international sporting events and sparked widespread protests and demonstrations across the country in June 2013. This wave of dissent was led principally by the young, the wired and the far left, and was largely confined to the middle class. It was met with a painfully familiar combination of government indifference and police brutality, which came down especially harshly on the few working-class and student protesters, who were campaigning primarily for nothing more than more affordable public transport. All of this was orchestrated by a new president who had herself once been tortured and raped by a military regime.

By the time of the presidential and congressional elections of October 2014, this popular opposition movement had been fully co-opted by the right and the media barons that are its faithful thralls, resulting in an unusually bitter election campaign. Friendships were broken by the constant to and fro of increasingly polarized posts on social media.

The PT and its fair-weather coalition partners won the 2014 election by a whisker. But, unusually for modern Brazil, the opposition rejected this outcome and roused the discontent of the June days of 2013 to call for impeachment and raise, fifty years after Brazil descended into the moral quagmire of a dictatorial regime, the specter of a military coup.

The ground was muddied by a legacy of unwholesome alliances, which Dilma found herself unable to manage with the likeable panache that was Lula’s forte, and by the increasingly obfuscating glare of social media.

The outlook is not rosy. The fall in oil prices, the slowdown in China, and the inevitable levelling off of economic growth, not just in the south, but in all parts of Brazil, do not augur well for short-term prosperity or long-term stability in Brazil.

Had the legitimate concerns raised by all sectors of society in June 2013 been heeded and swiftly and robustly addressed by the central government, this situation, whereby popular protest has given way to right-wing slogans, personal attacks and the veiled threat of outright sedition, might have been averted.

The reason it was not surely has to do with the fact that, even after 12 years of government, the PT was still beholden to pseudo-centrist, backward-looking, essentially extremely right-wing coalition partners, whom its politicians were increasingly coming to resemble in all but name.

It is precisely these self-interested, right-wing, fair-weather backers of democracy that threaten  to bring it down, drawing opportunistically on a justifiably indignant and fearful popular imagination.

And, given the dirty deals the PT has done in the past decade to spur, stagger, or stall social development, these reactionary forces are in an ideal position to smugly and self-righteously blackmail, smear, and bludgeon their one-time partners into submission.

The Brazilian PT—once the great hope of the world—has nurtured a nest of vipers in its bosom. Let us hope that the venom is not as potent as opponents pretend and that stings will backfire. And that the PT will wake up finally to its duty and one-time promise to provide genuine political and socio-economic reform for this proud and great, yet perennially self-destructive, nation that is Brazil.

April

{This is a sort of Haiku love poem, not written in my own voice.]

It all began as a joke

coming out of a deep cruel winter depression

of snowy winds:

flowers, dinners

lingering frost;

the slow resurrection of seeds from the ground.

Ovid I.ix

[This translation is of a poem by Ovid, but nevertheless forms part of my series of Propertius translations on the subject of conjugal discord in a time of war. Although the bulk of my Propertius translations were written around the time of the 2003 Iraq war, this one was written much later and reflects a different age.]

I’m telling you, my friend, love is a battleground

and we the soldiers on it.

If you’re too past it to be drafted,

you’re too past it to get your leg over too.

Nothing’s sadder than a dirty old man on parade.

And the sort of stuff that sergeant majors are looking for in a new recruit

is the same sort of stamina chicks go for in a bloke.

Both stay up half the night, sleep rough;

one guards his girl’s front door, one his commander’s tent.

Squaddies yomp stoically across a harsh terrain,

but a lover-boy with a sweetheart off the leash

will chase her till he drops.

He’ll scale the scree of craggy peaks; wade through flash floods;

walk knee-deep through a slushy swamp in dead of frosty night;

set sail in haste on storm-blown seas—

no life-jacket, no GPS. Who gives a fuck!

Agents are sent to spy on shifty enemies in foreign lands;

lovers at home forever on the lookout for potential rivals.

Armies pound rebel-held cities with heavy artillery fire;

brutes sickened by love batter at bedroom doors with their bare fists.

Sometimes it’s best to catch the enemy a-napping

and whack ‘em with a weapon while they’ve none to hand;

as when the mob orders a bloody hit

to corner markets or tie up loose ends.

Thus lovers too will move in for the kill,

as hubby sleeps off beer.

Sappers and sorry lovers both have the job

of getting round the guards or prying neighbors’ eyes.

All’s up in the air in war and love alike:

a vanquished foe can of a sudden surge again,

while those believed invincible are felled.

So, if you’ve been inclined to call love work for idle hands,

now is the time to hold your tongue.

Love is the fruit of genius and endurance.

When cuckold mopes and sulks and drowns himself in drink,

the time is ripe to snatch his purse.

Sweethearts placed flowers in the metal helmets

of Tommies taken off to trenches by a train;

fodder for guns.

And rich & powerful old men are prone to fall

for any bit of skirt,

however much of a nutcase or a bitch she is;

as paparazzi snap their lucrative pics

of VIPs canoodling with spouses not their own.

*

I once was a lazy bastard, apt

to lie abed and watch late-night TV;

lust for a pretty girl the boot

that got me off my ass.

Now I am kitted up on covert ops each night.

Take my advice, my friend.

You wanna get a grip on life;

go out, get yourself laid.

17 Part 5

[Here is the latest (fifth) installment of 17, comprising Section V entitled Fall and Song #5 entitled Song for a Guy. The ‘songs’ seem to be taking over from the sections, as this long grim poem unfolds.]

 

V Fall

Mike hates Autumn:

the night drawing in,

the leaves falling prettily from the trees,

harvest, thanksgiving,

Dad gone with a thump, Mum burning

love notes, bank statements, pretty clothes in the dustbin next to the coal shed,

shedding tears,

blood dribbling from her nose, the pink blue flicker

of the paraffin fire barely warming them,

as next door’s fireworks go up on Bonfire Night

and they light up a guy.

 

Song #5 Song for a Guy

The girls on YouTube drool over Guido’s

barber’s shop hashtag Occupy coiffure

and swoon over Tito’s

early morning twitter chorus of camp fake news.

The bonnie prince coming over the ocean

with lance and unicorn

and the slender man waiting in the shadows

to sweep one special one away.

Guys queue up to chat.

 

On Bonfire Night the TV is replete

with public health announcements about burnt fingers

and scarred faces and plastic surgery,

prosthetic limbs and surgical masks,

as intercontinental ballistic missiles soar thrillingly into the sky,

and Catherine is tortured on a wheel.

and effigies and sausages are toasted on stakes.

“That Guido’s so into you,” Sophie gushes.

“That Tito is so cute. Such a shame he’s gay,” Em

gigglingly adds.

“Whatever!” someone posts

and gets a smiley face in reply.

The Goth girl in the corner

with the hashtags and the dreadlocks

and the attitude problem

and parent-approved dentistry student boyfriend

is watching online streaming video of infidels

beheaded and burnt alive,

Zwingli slain on a snow-swept mountainside

fighting for the right to eat blood pudding on Good Friday,

sangria puked up by Sloane Rangers all over the après ski,

as minarets rival the Matterhorn and the downed towers

of Manhattan and the moon descends unwatched

through a starless streetlamp-lit stretch of urban sky.

17 Part 3

[Here is the third tranche of Poem 17. It contains Section 4 and Song #4. This poem is exhausting me. There are so many ghosts in it and it is so dark and sad.]

IV Bangers

Back home, Mike takes it out on the car,

kicking the weak metal panels in and firing a shot

into that bald tire. Mum and neighbors shout

about the racket: cars backfiring, that old eyesore

of a clapped out banger parked in the drive,

the noise of rows. Mike remembers

sausages popping in the saucepan

and rockets going up on Bonfire Night

and bangers thrown to the ground to explode

amusingly around the feet of fearful girls.

He unloads a volley of shots into the bloody car

and sets off down the street armed and alone.

 

Song #4 Child Auto Accident Victims Lullaby

 

The wan little ghosts hang their yellow ribbons around

traffic-lights and trees,

crossroads, hedges, suburban setbacks,

bus-stops across the road from pubs and schools, zebra and pelican crossings,

hard shoulders, sloping driveways, country roads

in the middle of nowhere, singing polyphonic threnodies

through bloodless Cupid’s bow lips for lost lives.

The cherry and the apple blossom

falls about them like a vehicular glass of snow. Blood-

stained glass windowing our wing mirrors with guilt and grief.

Like frost, they are there every morning the mercury drops,

like a dew of tears every summer dawn, damning us.

No anti-freeze can melt them away.

Singing us to sleep with their sweet salt song of tears,

they blight fertile ground with corpses too soon put into the earth,

by haste, engines, wheels, machinery, gears, cogs, hub caps, gas, ball bearings,

glove compartments, sunshield mirrors, spark plugs, bald tires spun off into the air.

All sorts of bric-a-brac

they bring back from the grave as evidence, jangling

like the trinkets of gypsy children, bidding us with their black eyes

bid them due process and due farewell.

17–Part II

[Here is the second tranche of my ongoing long poem 17, consisting of three ‘Songs’ and two Sections (II and III), entitled Picnic and Gas respectively. Like 64, 17 contains a number of free-standing ‘songs’. But, unlike 64, in 17, these are clearly marked off as such and only very loosely connected with the sprawling main narrative of the poem. As is common in my work, all sections contain acts of violence (which I do not condone) recounted in a casual unsentimental or unconventional manner that some readers may find distressing or offensive.]

Song #1 The Ballad of Robin and RedCap

Robin, hoodied, rips the copper
piping out of the new starter homes
going up in the urban jungle and sells it on
for drugs for his merry band.
Little Red, brim of Man U baseball cap
pulled down over her mascaraed eyes,
is plied with magic mushrooms and raped in the woods by the gang.
The council pulls the travelers’ shacks and tents down in the night.
The police come round.
“Keep quiet about that,” Red’s Roma grandmother warns,
“or they’ll have you ’for good.’
“The wolf is always at the door.”
Red keeps mum,
as they tramp past the graves of Hansel and Gretel
and the rundown foreclosed gingerbread house on the way back home.

II Picnic

The place makes a nice spot for a picnic, amidst the buttercups,
on the old chase just outside the woods overlooking the stately home.
The blue and white checkered tablecloth is laid out over the grass
held down at four corners by salad bowls so the wind doesn’t blow it away.
Mum shouts at the kids disappearing into the woods,
as slices of egg and sausage meat pie set in aspic and pastry crust
are set out on the plates alongside spring onions, baby radishes, shredded iceberg lettuce,
a dollop of sweet pickle, scooped out from variously sized items of Tupperware;
wasps and ants flicked away.
Mum shouts out at the kids who have disappeared into the woods,
messing about.
The first shots ring out, bringing her to her knees.
Hans and Greta return from the woods with cobnuts,
blackberries and sloes and the skeletons of a dead mole and bird
to show for their adventures, as mum lies
face down in the egg-salad, bullet-wound oozing out blood
blooming through her flower-patterned dress.
Radishes and spring onions and lettuce hearts wreathe her cadaver
and the crumbs of pork pies are wolfed up by blackbirds and stray neighboring dogs.
Sirens go up all around, as mum is zipped up in a body bag
and Hans and Greta go off into care.

Song # 2 Hansel and Gretel Duet Lament

Trashing the doll’s house was probably a bad idea, Hans thought.
Greta cried for hours but never breathed a word.
The oven-baked flour-paste homemade toy cups and plates and fruit laid out
on the doll’s house dining room table; beds neatly made;
the stiff wooden limbs stuffed in doll clothes of doll mum
and doll dad tucked up neatly in bed for the night, curtains drawn.
The fun idea was Action Man, on night ops, sneaking in
through the chimney top, like Santa Claus, for a spot of B&E vandalism:
lewd graffiti on the wallpaper, drawers emptied, and dresses
and panties strewn about. Just kids messing around.
Mum doll wakes up in a fit and Dad doll is shouting at her
to shut the fuck up and calm the fuck down and throwing his fists around.
Broken china cups and plates and a black eye. The front door left
wide open as he leaves. Greta shrieked when she saw the work of art
in the playroom in the morning and weeping carefully rearranged
everything exactly how it was before.
“Where’s Greta? Mum asks, as Hans gobbles down
his soggy cornflakes and tea. “Playing with her doll’s house, probably,”
Hans replies with an angelic twinkle and smirk.
“Picnic today!” mother smiles.
Hans and Greta punch each other on the back seat as Mum concentrates on the road.
The car winds around the forest roads. Greta coos over the grazing ponies.
Hans is bored and looking out of the window for road-kill.
*.
The care home looks like a hospital.
“Why can’t we just go home?” Greta wails.
Hans is silent and beats up on a younger boy as soon as they arrive.
Sobs himself to sleep; a baby bawling in a cot on the other side of the ward.
The girls are all round Greta, interested in her clothes.
The pair are let out for the funeral, Greta thrusting Hans’s comforting hand away
as colleagues and distant relatives toss clumps of earth onto the descending coffin.
“You trashed my doll’s house,’ she whispers hissingly into her brother’s ear.

III Gas

Mike screeches into the gas station like Marlon Brando.
He doesn’t say it is a stick-up. The gun is shaking
violently in his unsure grip and the Goth girl on the cash-register
has frozen and pissed herself. He legs it.
She is already on the blower to the cops.
They are no Bonnie and Clyde.

Song #3 Piper Alpha Gas Workers Requiem Chorus

—-“The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit.” Psalm 51

We are the Piper Alpha crew.
We’re alphas to a man.
We pipe the gas out of the sea
and pump it to the land.

We are the alpha piper crew.
We hunt a microscopic prey,
for you to burn in homely hearths
to warm your winter days.

We take a boat from Aberdeen
across the cold gray sea.
Our muscles and tattoos are seen
by every lass we lay

Our bones are made of granite.
Our skin is soaked in tar.
We breathe a toxic fiery gas
that dragons all your cars.

We are Christ fallen
boring
into the underworld
and coming up
with stolen fire,
to quicken your dreary days.

We are the dead who died
for your sins,
not for pleasure or for pay,
not some poor sods on a sunken cruise-ship off on holiday.
We live in Sodom and Gomorrah
with salt sea all around.
We mine a prehistoric wood
to fuel your luxury.

We go out in a blaze of glorious blinding light,
the cold sea
and the carcass of a rig
our only grave,
as body bags are flown
by helicopter to Valhalla by Valkyries.

We are the ghost pied pipers.
We crawl out of the deep
on hand and knee over the weed-strewn
moonlit sand
to entertain your children on the net.

Lucifer Falls over Lancashire: an obituary for Mark E. Smith

Like anyone my age who crawled reluctantly out of adolescence into adulthood listening to late-night John Peel sessions on a tinny transistor radio tucked under the pillow, I have always been aware of Mark E. Smith and The Fall. And, like many who were never hardcore aficionados, such as Peel himself, I would never have described The Fall as my favorite or even one of my favorite bands. But it was a sound and an attitude that was always there deep in the mix of the soundtrack to my career as a person, always there in the wing mirror as I hot-rodded my way clumsily through life, always at least vaguely visible out of the corner of my eye.

In the weeks and days leading up to Mark E. Smith’s death last Wednesday, I oddly found myself humming Lucifer over Lancashire over and over to myself in my mind, as I taxied—cripple that I now am—around this crippled city of Recife, to a dark backdrop of impeachments and coups, recrudescent poverty, politically-motivated corruption trials, and fake news.

And, like many, I imagine I am one of those, who, when I woke up on Wednesday morning and read of the death of Mark E. Smith, for the first time, started working my way methodically through listening to his entire oeuvre. And, like many, I kicked myself and told myself I should have done this long time ago. Everyone, I know, says that when someone close, important or famous is suddenly gone.

Smith’s is indeed an incredibly powerful body of work and does not need death to garnish it. But it does need to be read as a whole, not in little poppy snippets. It follows a very straight, if perverse, line, yet somehow over time reflects all the other kaleidoscopic elements of a life sound-tracked by independent music and buffeted by the vicissitudes of a post-Thatcher Britain and world.

Dead pop stars and artists come in all shapes and sizes. There are those whose deaths shock and seem unjust, those who go out in a blaze of glory or after a descent into ignominy, and national treasures who fade away peacefully after a long productive career. All of these make us feel a little sad. Mark E. Smith was none of the above. Nor would he wish to be. There was never anything mawkish about him. He had always scrupulously eschewed celebrity and sentimentality. It is just as if last orders had already been called and he had been drinking after hours—living too late, in the words of one of his most famous songs—and chucking-out time finally came. The natural order of things. Rest in Piss.

The evening star sets over Manchester this evening, but will appear again in the morning as the morning star amidst a million new stirring angry points of light and life. Just one part of the cycle. A worker’s life well lived. Much work still to be done.

17 Prologue Selva Oscura

[This is the first tranche of a new long poem, entitled simply 17. It is both a prologue to this longer poem and a free-standing piece. While the overarching setting and theme of my previous long poem (64) was the sea, 17 is set around a forest landscape. It has a very different tone.]

17 Prologue Selva Oscura

The place reeks of life and death entwined;
buds reaching up heavenwards above the canopy,
catkins drooping sneezy sweet-smelling pollen
through blent, intermittently sunlit, dank air
amongst the tangles of rotting branches and living roots.
Rodents scuttle through the undergrowth of decay
and feed uncurling ferns and sleek moss and blooming
bluebells with their gift of excrement. Sun is tempered
by leaves and berries swell and drop and rot in the dripping rain
and are eaten up and carried away.
And bark peels away as the xylems and phloems of expanding trunks
keep careful record of weather and the glacier-march of time.
In winter, it is a graveyard of frost, crucifixes and icicles.
*
And the men in green and black
force their slithering stealthy way on their bellies
through the undergrowth, like snakes,
knife clenched in teeth,
trap, garrote or musket at the ready for rabbit
or fellow human being who strays this way.
When shots ring out, the grouse flee through the treetops
and the leaves of elm and ash and birch and beech and oak
quiver in fear. The forest is a place set aside by law
for the rich, overseen by a corrupt local judge. The jury of owl and eagle,
weasel and wild boar, stag and hare and hen, eagerly await their turn.