Category Archives: History

Lunatics

The asylum is vast and state-of-the-art
and you have to admire
the single-mindedness of the inmates

moonstruck indeed
they spend every waking hour
computing arcane calculations
assembling monstrous machines
long after the sun has sunk and
the sane seek sleep

as the cold marble rolls
slowly across the sky
their restlessness increases

imagine their fierce dedication
only sometimes a yelp can be heard
or low keening or fully-fledged howl
imagine the terrible itching
of their coarse grey hide
when the sphere has grown full

it is true that abandoned children
cry for food and
fighting has started outside the walls

but you have to admire
the ruthlessness  of their religion
and appreciate it is only thus
they can ever hope to succeed
in putting one of us
on the moon

 

July 20, 1969 – first man on the moon

 


Migration

They are long gone.
Long gone from the now tame valley of the Saane.

In olden times
they were abroad here, fleeing from storms

and sheer starvation:
the wild blond-bearded men dragging baggage

of tattered womenfolk
and meagre, filthy pigs and children; desperate

for shelter and a home
in our inhospitable, narrow mountain valleys.

They’re just a rumour now,
lost in a legend. Only some autumn nights,

when storms rage
all around the comfortable farmhouse

and the sturdy stable,
we keep the lantern burning in the kitchen

and huddle close, hearing
the harsh barbaric voices, hammering fists

on double-bolted doors,
dogs whimpering, the desperate lowing

of the cattle as
the seven thousand Friesians stare at us

from empty sockets
on their endless aimless journey in the dark.


Triumphs of Design

A few millennia hence
(fresh from inventing
the shovel and the spade)
those who came after us
will be chancing upon
an ancient sign bearing
an opaque message from
a more illuminated time:

a smiling Death’s-head
on fluorescent yellow,
radiating magic rays.

Desperate, curious,
ever hopeful
they will start digging.


On Washington Crossing the Delaware

Not today, though,
in the Metropolitan Museum of Art,
not today he isn’t.

The entrance to the room
is barricaded with plywood permitting
only a partial glimpse

of the General: upstanding, unfazed
by the turbulent ice floes,
unwavering gaze fixed on, well,

plywood. The impeccable turnout,
in democratically dun-coloured mantle
(lined with scarlet),

thrown in dramatic folds
over shoulders bearing the weight
of a nascent nation –

all for nothing today. He shall not
reach the far shore, shall not
trounce the Hessian mercenaries;

and this great nation shall never,
now, be birthed – and not
just this room, no, the entire museum,

Fifth Avenue, all of Manhattan
declared closed
for the duration; New York roped off,

the Empire State Building un-built,
stone by stone, steel girders
dismantled, the Brooklyn Bridge

melted down and Brooklyn cut loose
to drift out to sea.
By and by the prairie schooners

will return from the West (California
now only a word
whispered in feverish dreams

and no more), and from a non-place
not called Washington,
in a porticoed, pillared white house

that never was, a last tweet proclaims
the fading usurper’s futile fury –
then silence. Peace.

Washington Crossing the Delaware


Ellis Island

Sofia, age 23, from Siberia:
processed in Ellis Island, 1921;
destination Gackle, North Dakota.

You have to wonder.

Gackle, North Dakota:
founded in 1904;
located at 46°37′38″N, 99°8′36″W:

not even the middle of nowhere.

Population (1920): 424.
Population (1950): 606.
Population (2016): 291:

not exactly Boomtown ND.

Things to do in Gackle ND:
ˮGackle is home
to the Gackle Public Libraryˮ –

that is about the extent of it.

They must be doing
an awful lot of reading
up there in Gackle, ND.

And you have to wonder:

Did she find her home there?
Was it worth the loss of loved ones,
the heartbreak of exile, the long journey

all the way from Siberia – to Gackle, ND.


Walking on Thin Air

You will never be standing
on that impossibly thin line
four hundred metres
above the ground
between the two towers –

oh but you will:

all of us will, or were,
or are (even now),
only we did not realise then,
or have forgotten,
or choose to close our eyes

to the immensity of the drop.

 

(On 8/7/1974, Philippe Petit walked  the tightrope betweeen the twin towers of the World Trade Center.)


John Brown in the Met

The Old Testament beard blows
in the gale of a mighty shout;
the hair on his head raised
by the sheer force of fury; eyes
rolling under the promontory
of a frowning brow; brawny arms
outstretched in righteousness
burst the confines of the canvas –

This John Brown is anything but
a-mouldering in the grave.

This giant is girded with pistol
and sword; this prophet’s rage
raises tornados; this patriarch
dwarfs all who come near –
the settler unaware of the storm
bearing down on his wagon;
the cowering negro looking up
to the saviour that towers above him.

John Brown in the Met

This John Brown is a soldier
in the Army of the Lord indeed,

and that his soul goes marching on,
of this the artist allows no doubt.
But that is not the question.
The question is whether
the voice of the black man
for whom this storm was raised
can be heard over the giant’s shouting –
if he can ever make himself understood

over the endless deafening chorus of
Glory, glory, hallelujah, Glory, glory hallelujah …