THE SORCERER (by A. J. M. Smith)

There is a sorcerer in Lachine
Who for a small fee will put a spell
On my beloved, who has sea-green
Eyes and on my doting self as well.

He will transform us, if we like, to goldfish:
We shall swim in a crystal bowl,
And the bright water will go swish
Over our naked bodies; we shall have no soul.

In the morning the syrupy sunshine
Will dance on our tails and fins
I shall have her then all for mine
And Father Lebeau will hear no more of her sins.

Come along, good sir, change us into goldfish.
I would put away intellect and lust,
Be but a red gleam in a crystal dish,
But kin of the trembling ocean, not of the dust.

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THE RUBY IN HER NAVEL by Barry Unsworth (Review)

Sicily, 1149

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.

APRIL LOVE (by Ernest Dowson)

My choice – a little sad – on this St Valentine’s Day …

We have walked in Love’s land a little way,
We have learnt his lesson a little while,
And shall we not part at the end of day,
With a sigh, a smile?

A little while in the shine of the sun,
We were twined together, joined lips forgot
How the shadows fall when day is done,
And when Love is not.

We have made no vows – there will none be broke,
Our love was free as the wind on the hill,
There was no word said we need wish unspoke,
We have wrought no ill.

So shall we not part at the end of day,
Who have loved and lingered a little while,
Join lips for the last time, go our way,
With a sigh, a smile.

from THE TRUE CONFESSION OF GEORGE BARKER (by George Barker)

I sent a letter to my love
In an envelope of stone,
And in between the letters ran
A crying torrent that began
To grow till it was bigger than
Nyanza or the heart of man.
I sent a letter to my love
In an envelope of stone.

I sent a present to my love
In a black-bordered box,
A clock that beats a time of tears
As the stricken midnight nears
And my love weeps as she hears
The armageddon of the years.
I sent my love the present
In a black-bordered box.

I sent a liar to my love
With his hands full of roses
But she shook her yellow and curled
Curled and yellow hair and cried
The rose is dead of all the world
Since my only love has lied.
I sent a liar to my love
With roses in his hands.

I sent a daughter to my love
In a painted cradle.
She took her up in her left breast
And rocked her to a mothered rest
Singing a song that what is best
Loves and loves and forgets the rest.
I sent a daughter to my love
In a painted cradle.

I sent a letter to my love
On a sheet of stone.
She looked down and as she read
She shook her yellow hair and said
Now he sleeps alone instead
Of many a lie in many a bed.
I sent a letter to my love
On a sheet of stone.

DIVINE NAUGHTINESS (by “ER0TICP0ET”)

She dared me to write a poem…
it was after she had begged me
to drink her enchantment,
slake my thirst on camber and curve.

An irresistible challenge haunted me
as I merged with her warm bouquet,
passion turned to inspiration,
compelling memory to my writing hand –

Yes, everyone would know
lurking below
that bashful demeanor and
girlish Christian blushing,
was a woman the Grand Inquisitor
would have burned at the stake.

Smoldering beneath the demure smile,
behind eyes peering through halo lenses
were embers of unlit erotica,
poetry awaiting a spark
to ignite covert sensuality,

Fire lurking in iris and voice,
angel tinder, purring moans
wild and soft as solar whispers.

Beast caged by creed and pedigree
unleashed into our consensual jungle;
clasp undone, manacles snapped like icicles,
loosing an avalanche of tresses
which tumbled down shoulders and
over breasts delicately cupped,
kneaded tenderly under an illicit smile,
taut nipples proffered selfishly.

I rose to her wicked glance
and thanked God for a woman
who knew the mystery
of divine naughtiness.

BARBARA (by Jacques Prévert)

(from the French of Jacques Prévert)

Remember Barbara
The rain teeming down in Brest that day
And you striding smiling
Beaming streaming with water
Through the rain
Remember Barbara
The rain teeming down in Brest
And I passed you in rue de Siam
You smiled
And me I smiled too
Remember Barbara
I who didn’t know you
You who didn’t know me
Remember
Remember at least that day
Never forget
A man taking shelter in a doorway
And he called your name
Barbara
And you ran across to him in the rain
Streaming with water beaming delighted
And threw yourself into his arms
Remember that Barbara
And don’t mind me if I address you in this familiar way
I talk like this to all those I love
Even if I only ever saw them once
I talk like this to all those who love each other
Even strangers
Remember Barbara
Never forget
That right and happy rain
On your happy face
On that happy town
That rain on the sea
On the arsenal
On the Ouessant boat
Oh Barbara
What stupidity the war
What has become of you now
In that rain of iron
Of fire of steel of blood
And he who hugged you in his arms
With so much love
Is he dead disappeared or still alive
Oh Barbara
The rain is teeming down in Brest
As it did before
But it is not the same and all is ruined
It is a rain of terrible grief and desolation
It is not even any longer
That storm of steel of blood
Merely clouds
Starving like dogs
Dogs washed away
In the river of water falling on Brest
To decay far away
Far far away from Brest
Of which nothing is left.

AND WHILE WE’RE IN BREST IN THE 1940s, how about this abomination?

German soldiers entering a Soldatenbordell in Brest, France (1940). The building is a former synagogue.

LIVERPOOL HANDS (by Michael Daugherty)

She smelled of gin and Lime
Street station, gestured at passing life
with a hand that flew away on flights
of fancy, crash-landing on mine

time and again in a blaze
of high-octane laughter that billowed
about us in clouds of joy belied
by the pain in her eyes

when she lifted a glass
and thought her mask still safely in place.
Twenty years beyond just once, I chase
a memory to that last

train in London, not quite
fast enough to catch the me of I
who wave scarred and untouched hands goodbye
to any chance of twice.