Sailors in starched whites,
Jostling, joking, bumming
Cigarettes, whistle as I pass.
Young mothers, beside cranky
Children, seem wistful.
Old men glance up
From newspapers, smile
As I pass with my tall,
We find our seats.
I reach for his hand.
He shakes me off
Like a smoldering ash,
Leans back to nap.
I turn away, fuming.
When I gaze out,
Into the dark glass,
A panicked stranger
Dianne Moritz enjoys capturing brief moments in time, celebrating trials, tribulations, and beauty of life. She dreams of publishing a book of all her drabble.
They were younger than I,
Younger by all my years, those country lassies
Who little dreamed their dreams
Of love would bring me here,
Travelling away from their accustomed days
Into this strange place, beyond their guesses
Of a future that might be
Some day, some far-off day
Beyond companionable kitchen and plain stone house
Under unchanging hills and a wide sky.
Deceiving dreams of love, that promise only joy,
It was to me you led, along a lonelier road
Than ferny loning where each lingered with the lover
She needs must choose, since he it was that met her on the way
And stepped into the circle of her dream
To carry her away, to carry me away
Into the exile of that dream’s awaking.
Or are my waking days the regions of their fears
Whose dark shapes were lurking, passions and griefs
Less innocent than those familiar songs of Scotland tell of:
And yet my dream tells still of Paradise.
There were goldfish in the pond where I grew up,
shubunkins and huge golden carp, newts
of course, and tadpoles, and in spring great skeins
of frogspawn. Concealed among the water lilies,
I would watch as dry, clothed people
strolled past or sat upon the wooden bench
and chatted or kissed or simply rested awhile
and gazed at the pond, the water lilies, me,
But time goes by and life,
and the world we knew goes with it:
one day, the officers of the law –
a social worker, a teacher,
a policeman – came and fished me out
and sent me away to school.
Now I sit on that bench and gaze and dream
and see great golden carp glide into
the sunlight then with a silent flick of a fin
slip back under the lily leaves and out of sight.
Watch a frog swim up to breathe, climb out,
look round. Put out my hand. It hops away.
Tadpoles have gills, frogs don’t.
Which is unfair. Children too,
though most don’t care, don’t
understand that for them there’s still
an option to living on land.
A fly on my arm crawls and tickles. Another
joins it. I move, they buzz, zip, return.
I lower my hand into the water, close
my eyes and dream I never went to school,
never learnt to be a person, clothed and dry.
I cannot see. The place I do not know.
Who is that person standing by the wall?
Why do you ask the date on which I died?
Where is the house to which I am asked to go?
What was the question you put to me when
I happened to be listening to that child
Crying for god knows what outside the door?
Who is it calling me again and again
From my own chamber like a person lost?
I hear the dead man calling from the desert
But never the love, never the love, never.
I saw you. I saw you there. You were the other
Side of that window always hidden in shadow.
I cannot see. The place is not the place where
I was supposed to be. Who are those people
Whispering, with heads together, in the corner?
Why do they speak when they should be silent?
I think that I see, walking in the moonlight
The Magus Zoroaster and my dead father
Talking together. What is this heartbroken
House? Is this my home? Why do you look at me
As though I had no parents? Who is at the window?
You? Is it you? I saw you pass, your hand
Covering your face in shadow, and, in the moonlight,
Falling, seven wounds, like stars.
‘Christians? You put yourself on a level with them, you who are of Christian birth? You call them Christians, these filthy palace Saracens that claim to be converted to our faith and secretly continue to practise their own?’ ‘I have seen no evidence of this,’ I said, but he did not hear me or showed no sign of doing so. ‘Once a Saracen, always a Saracen, it is in their blood,’ he said. His eyes had a staring look now, that famished smile had gone, and with it all pretence of benevolent interest in me. He leaned forward across the table, bringing his face close to mine. ‘It is in their corrupted blood,’ he said, ‘and they will corrupt our blood with it if we allow them. […] Tell me, Thurstan, what does Christendom mean to you?’ ‘It is the term we use for those regions where our Roman faith is predominant.’ ‘That is all it signifies to you? This great spread of our faith no more than a matter of geography? I will tell you what Christendom is. Christendom is the universal Christian Church, the universal Christian society. Christendom is a mighty host that is destined to bring the world under its sway.’
An unusual but fascinating setting: the court of the Norman King Roger of Sicily. Following the failure of the great army of the Second Crusade at Damascus, Sicily – and the whole of southern Italy and the eastern Mediterranean – seethes with unrest. Palermo, with its Muslims and Jews, its Byzantine Christians and its Roman Christians, seems a kind of melting-pot, symbolic of the rest of the region. King Roger, who has sworn to maintain equality between the races and creeds, is visibly failing to do so as his Norman courtiers seize more and more power and property for themselves at the expense of the rest.
In the middle of all this, a young Anglo-Norman called Thurstan Beauchamp works under a Muslim, Yusuf, the minister responsible for the Diwan al-tahqiq al-ma’mur, the Diwan of Control (or Diwan of Secrets) – and dreams of the knighthood and the life that should have been his, would have been his if his father had not entered a Cistercian monastery and given all his lands and property to the Cistercian Order, thereby leaving his son unable to pursue his training. Now, under Yusuf, Thurstan is officially responsible for recruiting and organising entertainers (dancers, singers) for the royal court, but in fact much of his work is on the secret side, carrying out confidential missions for Yusuf.
All this comes together as he sets out for Bari (a port on the east coast of Italy) to meet a Serbian emissary and deliver a message, but, while there, he falls under the spell of a penniless gypsy dancer, Nesrin, (who, after the start given to her by Thurstan in Palermo, becomes famous throughout the courts of Europe – she’s the one who, later, has a ruby in her navel “that glowed as she danced”). And then, quite by chance, he meets his childhood sweetheart, Lady Alicia, now a young widow and recently returned from Jerusalem.
A love story, yes. But Thurstan has already been offered a substantial bribe if he will accuse Yusuf of attempting to make him a convert to Islam, and thus bring about Yusuf’s downfall. He, of course, refused. But when Alicia is taken prisoner, and her release – her very life – depends on Thurstan bearing false witness against Yusuf, his long-time friend and mentor – what is he to do? Is honour the most important thing for him? And the consolation of Nesrin the dancer? Or should he accept the knighthood and land he is offered, and the hand of Alicia?
A marvellous story, and beautifully written, as one would expect from Barry Unsworth, thrice shortlisted for the Booker Prize and once the winner. But don’t expect another Morality Play: Barry Unsworth is not one to repeat himself, and this book, its setting and its hero are as different as A Tale of Two Cities is from Hard Times.
SPEAKING OF SIVA is a book ofvacanas, religious lyrics written in Kanada free verse by medieval Virasaivas. As the translator, A.K.Ramanujan, says, “They all speak of Siva and speak to Siva: hence the title.”
Kanada is a Dravidian language spoken today by about twenty million people in the South Indian state of Mysore. The vacana poetry, written between the 10th and 12th, centuries represented a breaking away from the rigidity of classical Sanscrit tradition. It is spontaneous free verse written by ordinary men or women – yes, women – of various castes, some even outcaste, some illiterate.
Their leader was Basavanna, whose poems exemplify both the protesting (“protestant”) stance of the movement and its bhakti devotion to one god, in this case Siva. A perfect example, perfectly translated, is:
The rich will make temples for Siva. What shall I, a poor man, do?
My legs are pillars, the body the shrine, the head a cupola of gold.
Listen, O lord of the meeting rivers, things standing shall fall, but the moving ever shall stay.
The second poet represented in this collection is Dasimayya. Whereas Basavanna always addresses Siva “O lord of the meeting rivers”, Dasimayya calls him “Ramanatha”. When he says that to the true Virasaiva
his front yard is the true Benares, O Ramanatha
we hear again the voice of the best of the Old Testament prophets, the truly spiritual man.
But for me the star of the movement, and of this collection, is Mahadeviyakka.
Mahadeviyakka, or Akka Mahadevi, was initiated into the worship of Siva at the age of ten and from then on considered herself his bride; however, she was a very beautiful girl and men clamoured for her hand in marriage. When the king spotted her, her fate was sealed, and she became one of his wives. Eventually, though, she ran away from the palace (probably to the King’s great relief!) throwing off, according to legend, not just marriage but all the conventions (including her clothes) and spent the rest of her life as an itinerant poet and ascetic.
You can confiscate money in hand; can you confiscate the body’s glory?
Or peel away every strip you wear, but can you peel the Nothing, the Nakedness that covers and veils?
To the shameless girl wearing the White Jasmine Lord’s light of morning, you fool, where’s the need for cover and jewel?
Or here is another favourite of mine by Mahadeviyakka:
Who cares who strips a tree of leaf once the fruit is plucked?
Who cares who lies with the woman you have left?
Who cares who ploughs the land you have abandoned?
After this body has known my lord who cares if it feeds a dog or soaks up water?
Do, please, read more of these perfect translations of her poems and those of other great Virasaiva poets by the late Attipate Krishnaswami Ramanujan, a great poet and scholar.
It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Matched with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.
I cannot rest from travel; I will drink
Life to the lees. All times I have enjoyed
Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone; on shore, and when
Thro’ scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea. I am become a name
For always roaming with a hungry heart;
Much have I seen and known – cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honoured of them all –
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravelled world whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
As tho’ to breathe were life! Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains; but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this grey spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.
There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail;
There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toiled, and wrought, and thought with me –
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads – you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all; but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.