We only ever truly see what we are missing.
That August night in 1328
Luigi Gonzaga brought to Mantua
an ache the size of a city and
a dagger for Rinaldo Bonacolsi.
Gonzaga had a mission: he saw
nine hundred gilded rooms
he and his line must build
and fill with all of Europe’s art –
a model city floating on four lakes,
a Mount Olympus rising from
the flatness of the valley of the Po.
We only ever truly see what we are missing.
Today we visited Gonzaga’s vision:
the palaces, the frescoes, statues,
tapestries, the churches, squares
and streets in all their glory and
grandezza. I was appreciative –
but I’m afraid it did not touch me.
We’d brought a different emptiness
to Mantua; and since it’s true
we only ever see what we are missing –
ah well: I only really saw the dogs.
Across the fields to Llangattock.
At the top of the hill
the latch clangs back on the metal gate.
The canal sleeps on.
Two boats, barely moving
on still brown water.
A hiker; exchange of a nod.
Perfect reflections of foliage.
Unseen flutter of wings;
the call of a wood pigeon.
Fat stone bridges.
The sound of my footsteps.
An endless sea of ancient oak trees –
swell upon swell it runs to the horizon,
the rasp of a million cicadas a second tide
in the almost night air. Three stars are out.
In the middle distance a village, its lights
hovering between waking and sleep.
Beyond, a faint glow parts earth and sky.
Inklings of civilisation; Siena, or Florence.
Nobody seems to know why the Vikings came
to L’Anse aux Meadows. Surely not
for the meadows (no grass here), nor
the grapes the Vinland of the ancient saga
conjures up (no grapes). I blame
the boredom of interminable winter night,
the Norse testosterone egged on by mead.
Maybe they didn’t come at all –
the experts differ. But here we stand,
stooped in a spick and span,
faithfully reconstructed sod house.
The Basques, though,
they were here for sure,
across the Strait in Labrador.
A hundred years of slaughtering
the Right Whale, pouring him in barrels
to illuminate the salons of old Europe.
We visited the traces of their trade
in Red Bay, and saw a few survivors
(whales, not Basques: they all were home
by sixteen hundred.)
So were the Portuguese from Bonavista –
more canny than the Irish and the Welsh,
the Dorset men and those from Devon
who kept returning season after season,
then left their homes for good,
built shacks, a fish flake to eke out
precarious livings salting cod
until the fish was finally gone
from Newfoundland –
and now it was the outporters
themselves who were hung out to dry,
uprooted once again, their salt box homes
abandoned, shattered windowpanes
inviting in the fog… Fuck Off ’s the message
globalisation sends to Newfoundland,
and those who have a soul to sell jump ship
to drill for oil in Fort McMurray.
For those whose soul’s not marketable
there’s a shop in Water Street, Fog Off,
that sells cool sweaters to keep tourists warm
and gives a share to charity:
for those whose minds fog up
with alcohol, with drugs and
homelessness in a lost land.
A strange place, this –
and what a lucky find!
The right whale, codfish, seals:
at the rim of nothingness,
a mirage found in ice and fog,
free for the taking,
and taken –
by Basques and Bretons,
men from Dorset, Devon.
A new found land –
paid for in shipwreck,
exile and loneliness,
A strange place, this.
The sadness of a lucky find.
The hills like dusty waves –
and that’s an eagle, surely,
floating over El Horcajo.
A herd of black pigs
snuffle close to greet the car
along the bumpy track.
stalk the courtyard
stabbing at grains of corn.
Behind the wire-mesh window
a yellow digger dozes
in the evening sun.
Dusk, and a restless bird calls
in a foreign language.
On the edge of sleep
the sound of phantom cowbells.
In the small hours
thin dogs howl from hill
to distant hill:
discordant whale song
in this sea of soil.
The massive grizzly
is feeding placidly
on crimson huckleberries.
We click away.
The sudden hot stink
of putrid breath –
the crunch of jaws
on cranial bone –
This is a family holiday;
The grizzly is still feeding;
we click away.
After the geysers come the restless nights.
I’m my own Yellowstone: as sulphur mists
dissolve the rim of consciousness
my superheated soul spouts similes,
mixed metaphors thud from the mudpool
of my bubbling brain, hissing hyperboles
ricochet off the walls of lodgepole pine;
from underneath the floorboards fumaroles
steam acid vapour. The silver lining
to these endless nights: sleeplessness
crystallized in syllables; the scalloped edge
around the hotspring of my seething mind.
A blackbird binds the fragments of dreams
with the twine of his song;
a scattered archipelago of reality
emerges from the night:
clang of dawn deliveries; rumble
of dustmen’s carts on cobblestones;
the dragging steps of the Golem
after a night’s watch over his precarious city.