Category Archives: Writing

Joseph Roth: The Collapse of empire

I was reading Joseph Roth’s Radetzky March (1932). A great novel but also another view into this thing called Habsburg Empire. Or the death of it.

Roth writes a world of certainties. Even when fate picked a man up in Tolstoyan grasp to place him in just the right place to save the life of Franz Joseph I at the battle of Solferino (in a war I know nothing of I must confess), it simply lifted him out of the peasant rut and set him on a parallel track under the title and new routines of a Baron. A clean break. A new track. Yet uncomplainingly he continued on to be what his position demanded of him. His relationship with his old peasant father was one of distances greater than miles, silences punctuated by a ritual handful of sentences written in letters.

His son the District Captain is born to and lives on this new track, a life of settled privilege. Just as many silences, preferred by his own son. The Baron is self-contained, unchanging, moving through days of comfortable rituals. I love these descriptions so detailed you can see and smell the glowing gold of their soup.

So lunch was starting. Whenever the music paused, a soft clattering of dishes could be heard from the dining room. It lay three large rooms away from the balcony, at the exact midpoint of the second floor. During the meal, the music resounded, far but clear. Unfortunately, the band did not play every day. It was good and useful; it entwined the solemn ceremony of the luncheon, mild and conciliatory, allowing none of the terse, harsh, embarrassing conversations that the father so often loved to start. One could remain silent, listening and enjoying. The plates had narrow, fading, blue-and-gold stripes. Carl Joseph loved them. He often recalled them throughout the year. They and “The Radetzky March” and the wall portrait of his deceased mother (whom the boy no longer remembered) and the heavy silver ladle and the fish tureen and the scalloped fruit knives and the tiny demitasses and the wee frail spoons as thin as thin silver coins: all these things together meant summer, freedom, home.

A warm golden shimmer hovered in the plates; it was the soup, noodle soup: transparent, with thin, tender, entwined, golden-yellow noodles. Herr von Trotta und Sipolje ate very swiftly, sometimes fiercely. He virtually destroyed one course after another with a noiseless, aristocratic, and rapid malice; he was wiping them out. Fraulein Hirschwitz took small portions at the table, but after a meal she re-ate the entire sequence of food in her room. Carl Joseph fearfully and hastily swallowed hot spoonfuls and huge mouthfuls. In this way, they all finished in tandem. No word was spoken when Herr von Trotta und Sipolje held his tongue. After the soup the Tafelspitz was served, boiled fillet of beef with all the trimmings, the old man’s Sunday entrée for countless years. The delighted contemplation he devoted to this dish took more time than half the meal. The district captain’s eyes caressed first the delicate bacon that silhouetted the colossal chunk of meat, then each small individual plate on which the vegetables were bedded: the glowing violet beets, the lush-green earnest spinach, the bright cheery lettuce, the acrid white of the horseradish, the perfect oval of new potatoes swimming in melting butter and recalling delicate baubles. The baron had a bizarre relationship with food. He ate the most important morsels with his eyes, so to speak; his sense of beauty consumed above all the essence of the food—its soul, as it were; the vapid remainders that then reached mouth and palate were boring and had to be wolfed down without delay. The beauteous appearance of the victuals gave the old man as much pleasure as their simplicity. For he set store by good solid fare, a tribute he paid to both his taste and his conviction; the latter, you see, he called Spartan. With felicitous skill, he thus combined the sating of his desire with the demands of duty. He was a Spartan. But he was also an Austrian.

One of the best descriptions of lunch I have ever read.

I also love this description of language merged with face merged with empire. Only one generation from peasant mind you, even that peasant did save Franz Joseph.

He spoke the nasal Austrian German of higher officials and lesser nobles. It vaguely recalled distant guitars twanging in the night and also the last dainty vibrations of fading bells; it was a soft but also precise language, tender and spiteful at once. It suited the speaker’s thin, bony face, his curved, narrow nose, in which the sonorous, somewhat rueful consonants seemed to be lying. His nose and mouth, when the district captain spoke, were more like wind instruments than facial features. … from the lips, nothing moved in his face. The dark whiskers that Herr von Trotta wore as part of his uniform, as insignia demonstrating his fealty to Franz Joseph I, as proof of his dynastic conviction—these whiskers likewise remained immobile when Herr von Trotta and Sipolje spoke. He sat upright at the table, as if clutching reins in his hard hands. When sitting he appeared to be standing, and when rising he always surprised others with his full ramrod height. He always wore dark blue, summer and winter, Sundays and weekdays: a dark-blue jacket with gray striped trousers that lay snug on his long legs and were tautened by straps over the smooth boots. Between the second and third course, he would usually get up in order to “stretch my legs.” But it seemed more as if he wanted to show the rest of the household how to rise, stand, and walk without relinquishing immobility.

Immobility and silence. It seems to be all they have. That and barracks and symbols. They make Slavic highways move around them.

THE BARRACKS LAY in the northern part of town. It closed off the broad well-kept highway, which started a new life behind the red brick construction, where it led far into the blue countryside. The barracks looked as if it had been thrust into the Slavic province by the Imperial and Royal Army as an emblem of the Hapsburg might. The ancient highway itself, which had become so broad and roomy after centuries of migrating Slavic generations, was blocked by the barracks. The highway had to yield. It looped around the barracks. If on a clear day you stood at the extreme northern edge of town at the end of the highway, where the houses grew smaller and smaller, finally becoming peasant huts, you could spy, in the distance, the broad, arched, black-and-yellow entrance to the barracks, a gate brandished like a mighty Hapsburg shield against the town: a threat, a protection, and both at once. The regiment was stationed in Moravia. But its troops were not Czechs, as might be expected; they were Ukrainians and Rumanians.

So this is part, somehow, of what is holding this Habsburg empire together. These immobilities framed within wild frontiers. A strange, stilted, graceful and hierarchical isolation. Human beings moving like wind-up dolls through an endless procession of similar days. I have trouble imagining such a world, I wonder how visible it was even from where Joseph Roth was writing. Because of course, he was writing from a time when everything had changed. So much you could look back with some longing on this embalmed order of loved and loyal servants, distant poverty and sunday afternoons that in some ways is covered in the same shimmer of gold as Herr von Trotta and Sipolje’s soup.

BACK THEN, BEFORE the Great War, when the incidents reported on these pages took place, it was not yet a matter of indifference whether a person lived or died. If a life was snuffed out from the host of the living, another life did not instantly replace it and make people forget the deceased. Instead, a gap remained where he had been, and both the near and distant witnesses of his demise fell silent whenever they saw this gap. If a fire devoured a house in a row of houses in a street, the charred site remained empty for a long time. For the bricklayers worked slowly and leisurely, and when the closest neighbors as well as casual passersby looked at the empty lot, they remembered the shape and the walls of the vanished house. That was how things were back then. Anything that grew took its time growing, and anything that perished took a long time to be forgotten. But everything that had once existed left its traces, and people lived on memories just as they now live on the ability to forget quickly and emphatically.

This perhaps, more than anything, explains nostalgia. What better way to revolt against mass murder and the speed of your own time.

Yet the empire could not hold. Carl Joseph, the grandson of the hero of Solferino cannot sit a horse much less live up to his name. He has unhappy affairs. He dreams of the peasants of Sipolje. He banishes himself to alcoholism along the borders, amongst those who know they are all already finished. The empire is crumbling, he is in himself proof. He finds his way to disgrace, and his father the District Captain moves all the mountains of bureaucracy to reach Franz Joseph and save their name. Yet the victory feels dreamlike, the ruin of the man, like the empire, remains stark in the face of it.

The district captain shifted closer to the table and asked, “And why—if you’ll forgive me—would it be just as superfluous serving the Fatherland as making gold?”

“Because the Fatherland no longer exists.”

“I don’t understand!” said Herr von Trotta.

“I assumed you wouldn’t understand,” said Chojnicki. “We are all no longer alive!”

It was very still. The final glint of twilight had long since vanished. Through the narrow gaps of the green blinds they could have seen a few stars in the sky. The broad and blaring chant of the frogs had been replaced by the quiet metallic chant of the nightly field crickets. From time to time they heard the harsh cry of the cuckoo. The district captain, put in an unfamiliar, almost enchanted state by the alcohol, the bizarre surroundings, and the count’s unusual words, stole a glance at his son, merely to see a close and familiar person. But Carl Joseph too seemed neither close nor familiar to him. Perhaps Chojnicki was correct and they all really no longer existed: not the Fatherland nor the district captain nor his son! Straining greatly, Herr von Trotta managed to ask, “I don’t understand. How can you say the monarchy no longer exists?”

“Naturally!” replied Chojnicki. “In literal terms, it still exists. We still have an army”—the count pointed at the lieutenant—”and officials”—the count pointed at the district captain—”but the monarchy is disintegrating while still alive; it is doomed! An old man, with one foot in the grave, endangered whenever his nose runs, keeps the old throne through the sheer miracle that he can still sit on it. How much longer, how much longer? This era no longer wants us! This era wants to create independent nation-states! People no longer believe in God. The new religion is nationalism. Nations no longer go to church. They go to national associations. Monarchy, our monarchy, is founded on piety, on the faith that God chose the Hapsburgs to rule over so and so many Christian nations. Our Kaiser is a secular brother of the Pope, he is His Imperial and Royal Apostolic Majesty; no other is as apostolic, no other majesty in Europe is as dependent on the grace of God and on the faith of the nations in the grace of God. The German Kaiser still rules even when God abandons him; perhaps by the grace of the nation. The Emperor of Austria-Hungary must not be abandoned by God. But God has abandoned him!”

This book is beguilingly beautiful. I can do no justice to it.

The sky was very close; a good familiar shell made of a familiar blue glass, it lay within reach, over the earth. Earthly hands had pinned the stars into the nearby sky like tiny flags into a map. At times the entire blue night whirled around the district captain, rocking softly and then standing still. The frogs croaked in the unending swamps. The air smelled of rain and grass. The horses were ghostly white in front of the black carriage, and over them loomed the coachman in a black overcoat. The horses whinnied, and as soft as cat paws their hoofs scratched the damp, sandy ground.

Yes indeed, the district captain had been cheerful and exuberant when he had ridden into an adventuresome region and to his dear son. Now he was returning home, alone, from a lonesome son and from this borderland, where the collapse of the world could already be seen as clearly as one sees a thunderstorm on the edge of a city, whose streets lie still unaware and blissful under a blue sky. The doorman’s cheery bell was already ringing. The locomotive was already whistling. The wet steam of the train was already banging against the restaurant windows in fine gray beads. The meal was already over, and they all stood up. The whole battalion escorted Herr von Trotta to the platform. Herr von Trotta wanted to say something special, but nothing suitable occurred to him. He glanced tenderly at his son. But then he instantly feared that someone would notice that glance, and he lowered his eyes. He shook Major Zoglauer’s hand. He thanked Chojnicki. He tipped his dignified gray silk hat, which he always wore when traveling. He held the hat in his left hand and threw his right arm around Carl Joseph’s back. He kissed his son on both cheeks. And always he wanted to say, Don’t cause me any grief, I love you, my son! All he said was, “Stay well!”

These are the deeper silences, the things that once could not be said.

This conversation sums it up perhaps, from the District Captain’s only friend, who can see further. Who knows old ways are done and the future being built though he doesn’t understand it.

“Things were different back then,” Skowronnek replied. “Now not even the Kaiser bears responsibility for his monarchy. Why, it even looks as if God Himself no longer wishes to bear responsibility for the world. It was easier in those days! Everything was so secure. Every stone lay in its place. The streets of life were well-paved. Secure roofs rested on the walls of the houses. But today, Herr District Captain, the stones on the street lie askew and confused and in dangerous heaps, and the roofs have holes, and the rain falls into the houses, and everyone has to know on his own which street he is taking and what kind of house he is moving into. When your late father said you would become a public official rather than a farmer, he was right. You have become a model official. But when you told your son he had to be a soldier, you were wrong. He is not a model soldier.”

“Yes, yes!” confirmed Herr von Trotta.

“And that’s why we should let everyone do as he wishes, each on his own path. When my children refuse to obey me, all I do is try not to lose my dignity. That is all one can do. I sometimes look at them when they’re asleep. Their faces then look very alien to me, almost unrecognizable, and I see that they are strangers, from a time that is yet to come and that I will not live to see.

Everything was changing, communication and old order broken down, generations split asunder to become strangers. This theme of love alongside utter incomprehension between old and new runs throughout.

Jelacich, a Slovene, hit the ceiling. He hated the Hungarians as much as he despised the Serbs. He loved the monarchy. He was a patriot. And there he stood, love of Fatherland in his helplessly outspread hands, like a flag you have to plant somewhere but can’t find a roof for…But he loved his sons…He shut his eyes when he saw them reading suspicious newspapers, and he closed his ears when he heard them making suspicious remarks. He was intelligent and he knew that he stood powerless between his forebears and his offspring, who were destined to become the ancestors of a brand-new race. They had his features, his hair color, and his eyes, but their hearts beat to a new rhythm, their heads gave birth to strange thoughts, their throats sang new and strange songs that he had never heard. And though he was only forty, the rittmaster felt like an old man, and his sons seemed liked incomprehensible great-grandchildren.

The war comes, and the old is washed away, though this scene of its coming seems quintessentially traditional:

Peasants in short odorous sheepskins, Jews in fluttering black-and-green gaberdines, Swabian farmers from the German colonies wearing green loden coats, Polish burghers, merchants, craftsmen, and government officials surrounded the customs officer’s booth. On each of the four bare walls a huge poster was pasted, each in a different tongue and starting with the Kaiser’s salutation: TO MY PEOPLES! Those who were literate read the text aloud. Their voices mingled with the booming chant of the bells. Some onlookers went from wall to wall, reading the text in each language. Whenever one bell died out, another instantly started booming. Throngs poured from the little town, surging into the broad street that led to the railroad station. Trotta walked toward them into town.

It is the end. Mass slaughter. The end of empires and the birth of new nations. nothing will be the same. The only possible, improbable way to life becomes an existential refusal of what one should be for what one is. This muted demand for personal integrity that Carl Joseph seems to find at the end. That alongside the bubbling up of ethnic identities, nationalisms, dreams of freedom. This is a novel of why things had to change, yet still such a novel of loss in a tangle of emotions almost entirely unspoken.

A timely thing to read, as we face another kind of collapse. Yet I feel perhaps this one will be reversed. Our always-accelerating lives slowed down if we survive at all, but likely lacking in grace. And Strauss.

A good thing to read in Vienna, where Roth lived some time. For a while in this building below.

Benjamin Zephaniah’s City Psalms

I loved this collection, loved it. Here are small snippets of just two passages that spoke to me this morning from longer poems, and a bit of Benjamin Zephaniah himself in full flow, because these are meant to be spoken, right? This is a battle cry for language as it is spoken, as it comes to us, as we live it and scream it. For poems that take a stand, speak to life, to reality, to global warming and bombings and arms dealing and police brutality and capitalism and politricks and punks fighting nazi skinheads. For being cold in this cold cold place. I didn’t include the amazing poem ‘The SUN’, I might be saving that for when I am really angry at some point in the future.

Me green poem

Everybody talking bout protecting the planet
As if we just cum on it
It hard fe understan it.
Everybody talking bout de green revolution
Protecting de children an fighting pollution
But check — capitalism and greed as caused us to need
Clear air to breathe, Yes
When yu get hot under de collar
Yu suddenly discover dat yu going green all over,
Fe years
Yu have been fighting wars an destroying de scene
An now dat yu dying
Yu start turn Green

Money (rant)

Food is what we need, food is necessary,
Mek me grow my food
An dem can eat dem money
***
Money made me gu out an rob
Den it made me gu looking fe a job
Money made de Nurse an de Doctor immigrate
Money buys friends yu luv to hate
Money made Slavery seem alright
Money brought de Bible and de Bible shone de light,
Victory to de penniless at grass roots sources
Who have fe deal wid Market Forces,
Dat paper giant called Market Forces



On the dawn in Lisbon (Pessoa)

249 [18/5/1930]

This dawn is the first the world has seen. Never before has this pink light dwindling into yellow then hot white fallen in quite this way on the faces that the windowpaned eyes of the houses in the west turn to the silence that comes with the growing light. Never before have this hour, this light, my being existed. What comes tomorrow will be different, and what I see will be seen through different eyes, full of a new vision.

Tall mountains of the city! Great buildings, rooted in, raised up upon, steep slopes, an avalanche of houses heaped indiscriminately together, woven together by the light out of shadows and fire — you are today, you are me, because I see you, you are what [you will not be] tomorrow, and, leaning as if on a ship’s rail, I love you as ships passing one another must love, feeling an unaccountable nostalgia in their passing. (227)

The Lusiads of Camões — Verse on the Conquering of Worlds

Luís Vaz de Camões was born in 1524 or 25, son of a ship’s captain who drowned off of Goa. He lived in Lisbon on the fringes of court writing poetry and plays, legend has it he fell in love with Catarine de Ataide (who married Vasco da Gama, the subject of the Lusiad just as she was the subject of Camões’s sonnets).

Pedro Americo, D. Catrine de Ataide, 1878

Portrait of navigator Vasco da Gama, viceroy of Portuguese parts captured in India, from the c.1565 compendium, Livro de Lisuarte de Abreu (Pierpont Morgan Library, M.525)

Exiled from the court, he joined the garrison in Ceuta (Morrocco) as a common solider, and it was there he lost his eye. He is always shown thus.

Between 1553-56 he sailed to India, took part in expeditions along the Malabar coast of India, in the Red Sea, along the African and Arabian coasts, visits Malacca and the Moluccas. In 1559 he was recalled to Goa, wrecked in the Mekong river where he lost everything but, legend tells us, the cantos of the Lusiads. He spent time in jail related to his post in Macau. Jailed again for debt. He kicks around until friends offer him passage back to Lisbon in 1570, and it is in 1572 the Lusiads are published. It is only then that ‘Camões [was] granted tiny royal pension for “the adequacy of the book he wrote on Indian matters (xxvi).”‘ It is not, I don’t think, what you might call a happy life.

Canto 1

Arms are my theme, and those matchless heroes
Who from Portugal’s far western shores
By oceans where none had ventured
Voyaged in Taprobana and beyond,
Enduring hazards and assaults
Such as drew on more than human prowess
Among far distant peoples, to proclaim
A New Age and win undying fame

Kings likewise of glorious memory
Who magnified Christ and Empire,
Bringing rain on the degenerate
Lands of Africa and Asia (1-2: 3);

As armas e os Barões assinalados
Que da Ocidental praia Lusitana
Por mares nunca de antes navegados
Passaram ainda além da Taprobana,
Em perigos e guerras esforçados
Mais do que prometia a força humana,
E entre gente remota edificaram
Novo Reino, que tanto sublimaram.

E também as memórias gloriosas
Daqueles Reis que foram dilatando
A Fé, o Império, e as terras viciosas
De África e de Ásia andaram devastando,

The whole of Os Lusiadas in Portuguese can be found here. It is written in a style heroic, celebrating the bravery and brutality of Vasco da Gama and his sailors. There is a strange invocation of Roman Gods and nymphs, an evocation of Empire that sits easier with the Portuguese project than Christianity — it seems obvious perhaps, yet I found it strange and fascinating both that the whole of it is couched in terms of Jupiter’s support of the Portuguese cause, Bacchus’s dissent and constant meddling.

Now you can watch them, risking all
In frail timbers on treacherous seas,
By routes never charted, and only
Emboldened by opposing winds;
Having explored so much of the earth
From the equator to the midnight sun.
They recharge their purpose and are drawn
To touch the very portals of the dawn

They were promised by eternal Fate
Whose high laws cannot be brokem
They should long hold sway in the seas…. (27-28:8)

«Agora vedes bem que, cometendo
O duvidoso mar num lenho leve,
Por vias nunca usadas, não temendo
de Áfrico e Noto a força, a mais s’atreve:
Que, havendo tanto já que as partes vendo
Onde o dia é comprido e onde breve,
Inclinam seu propósito e perfia
A ver os berços onde nasce o dia.

«Prometido lhe está do Fado eterno,
Cuja alta lei não pode ser quebrada,
Que tenham longos tempos o governo
Do mar que vê do Sol a roxa entrada.

Fate absolves them of everything and I love that they expect the hand of friendship wherever they go, despite their plan of conquest. This is at once a constant complaint of the lack of trust among strangers and a victorious poem of war against all unbelievers.

It is an eternal conundrum,
Unfathomable by human thought,
That those closest to God will never be
Lacking in some perfidious enemy! (71:17)
Ó segredos daquela Eternidade
A quem juízo algum não alcançou:
Que nunca falte um pérfido inimigo
Àqueles de quem foste tanto amigo!

Hilarious. Reminded me of Hugh Makesela singing ‘Vasco da Gama, he was no friend of mine‘ in Colonial Man. The other side to this whole poem, and the side to be on. But we continue.

Canto 2

In which they send prisoners out to reconnoiter — I’m not entirely sure of the wisdom of this, but I suppose they weren’t just going to run away? There seems to have been a choice among prisoners as well. Ah, the jolly life of the sea.

Even so, from among those prisoners
On board, sentenced for gross crimes
So their lives could be hazarded
In predicaments such as these,
He sent two of the cleverest, trained
To spy on the city and defences
Of the resourceful Muslims, and to greet
The famous Christian he so longed to meet. (7:26)
E de alguns que trazia, condenados
Por culpas e por feitos vergonhosos,
Por que pudessem ser aventurados
Em casos desta sorte duvidosos,
Manda dous mais sagazes, ensaiados,
Por que notem dos Mouros enganosos
A cidade e poder, e por que vejam
Os Cristãos, que só tanto ver desejam.

Venus worries for them, she intercedes with Jove, he lists the many victories they will have (there are many such stomach-turning lists).

Even the tough, formidable Turks
You will see consistently routed;
The independent kings of India
Will be subject to Portugal,
Bringing, when all falls under his command,
A better dispensation to that land (46:34)

‘You will see the famous Red Sea
Turning yellow from sheer fright; (49:34)

Os Turcos belacíssimos e duros
Deles sempre vereis desbaratados;
Os Reis da Índia, livres e seguros,
Vereis ao Rei potente sojugados,
E por eles, de tudo enfim senhores,
Serão dadas na terra leis milhores.

«E vereis o Mar Roxo, tão famoso,
Tornar-se-lhe amarelo, de enfiado;

They will take Ormuz, Diu

‘Goa, you will see, seized from the Muslims
And come in the fullness of time to be
Queen of the Orient, raised up
By the triumphs of her conquerors.
From that proud, noble eminence,
They will rule with an iron fist
Idol-worshiping Hindus, and everyone
Throughout that land with thoughts of rebellion (51:35)
«Goa vereis aos Mouros ser tomada,
A qual virá despois a ser senhora
De todo o Oriente, e sublimada
Cos triunfos da gente vencedora.
Ali, soberba, altiva e exalçada,
Ao Gentio que os Ídolos adora
Duro freio porá, e a toda a terra
Que cuidar de fazer aos vossos guerra.

They will take the fortress of Cannanore, Calicut, Cochin

‘As the very ocean boils with the fires
Ignited by your people, Battling
Taking both Hindu and Muslim captive,
Subduing the different nations

Until every sea-way is subservient (54:35)
«Como vereis o mar fervendo aceso
Cos incêndios dos vossos, pelejando,
Levando o Idololatra e o Mouro preso,
De nações diferentes triunfando;

Ser-lhe-á todo o Oceano obediente.

Canto 3

In which da Gama gives a brief history of Portugal, ‘noble Iberia, The head, as it were, of all Europe’ (17: 51) to a Muslim Sultan. That doesn’t stop him from insulting the moors often and deeply of course, though he mentions that among them were Amazons (44:56). That’s cool.

Canto 4

In which Manuel the king of Portugal has a dream…

‘I am the famous Ganges whose waters
Have their source in the earthly paradise;
This other is the Indus, which springs
In this mountain which you behold.
We shall cost you unremitting war,
But perservering, you will become
Peerless in victory, knowing no defeat,
Conquering as many peoples as you meet.’ (74:91)

The king summoned the lords to council
To tell of the figures of his dream;
The words spoken by the venerable saint
Were a great wonder to them all.
They resolved at once to equip
A fleet and an intrepid crew,
Commissioned to plough the remotest seas
To explore new regions, make discoveries. (76:92)

«Eu sou o ilustre Ganges, que na terra
Celeste tenho o berço verdadeiro;
Estoutro é o Indo, Rei que, nesta serra
Que vês, seu nascimento tem primeiro.
Custar-t’ -emos contudo dura guerra;
Mas, insistindo tu, por derradeiro,
Com não vistas vitórias, sem receio
A quantas gentes vês porás o freio.»

«Chama o Rei os senhores a conselho
E propõe-lhe as figuras da visão;
As palavras lhe diz do santo velho,
Que a todos foram grande admiração.
Determinam o náutico aparelho,
Pera que, com sublime coração,
Vá a gente que mandar cortando os mares
A buscar novos climas, novos ares.

They asked for it you see.

But then there is an odd counterpoint, an old man calling out to them as they depart from Belem

–‘O pride of power! O futile lust
For that vanity known as fame!
That hollow conceit which puffs itself up
And which popular cant calls honour!
What punishment, what poetic justice,
You exact on sou;s that pursue you!
To what deaths, what miseries you condemn
Your heroes! What pains you inflict on them!

‘You wreck all peace of soul and body,
You promote separation and adultery;
Subtley, manifestly, you consume
The wealth of kingdoms and empires!
They call distinction, they call honour
What deserves ridicule and contempt;
They talk of glory and eternal fame,
And men are driven frantic by a name!

‘To what new catastrophes do you plan
To drag this kingdom and tehse people?
What perils, what deaths have you in store
Under what magniloquent title?
What visions of kingdoms and gold-mines
Will you guide them to infallibly?
What fame do you promise them? What stories?
What conquests and processions? What glories? (95-97:96)
***
‘Already in this vainglorious business
Delusions are possessing you,
Already ferocity and brute force
Are labelled strength and valour,
The heresy “Long live Death!” is already
Current among you, when life should always
be cherished, As Christ in times gone by
Who gave us life was yet afraid to die. (99:96)
***
‘The devil take the man who first put
Dry wood on the waves with a sail! (102: 97)

– «Ó glória de mandar, ó vã cobiça
Desta vaidade a quem chamamos Fama!
Ó fraudulento gosto, que se atiça
Cũa aura popular, que honra se chama!
Que castigo tamanho e que justiça
Fazes no peito vão que muito te ama!
Que mortes, que perigos, que tormentas,
Que crueldades neles experimentas!

«Dura inquietação d’alma e da vida
Fonte de desemparos e adultérios,
Sagaz consumidora conhecida
De fazendas, de reinos e de impérios!
Chamam-te ilustre, chamam-te subida,
Sendo dina de infames vitupérios;
Chamam-te Fama e Glória soberana,
Nomes com quem se o povo néscio engana!

«A que novos desastres determinas
De levar estes Reinos e esta gente?
Que perigos, que mortes lhe destinas,
Debaixo dalgum nome preminente?
Que promessas de reinos e de minas
D’ ouro, que lhe farás tão facilmente?
Que famas lhe prometerás? Que histórias?
Que triunfos? Que palmas? Que vitórias?

***

«Já que nesta gostosa vaïdade
Tanto enlevas a leve fantasia,
Já que à bruta crueza e feridade
Puseste nome, esforço e valentia,
Já que prezas em tanta quantidade
O desprezo da vida, que devia
De ser sempre estimada, pois que já
Temeu tanto perdê-la Quem a dá:

***

«Oh, maldito o primeiro que, no mundo,
Nas ondas vela pôs em seco lenho!

And they just sail away as he speaks. But I wondered if that were not perhaps exactly what Camões himself thought, maybe that is the heart of this epic poem, this old man railing against violence and pride. Against the colonial project. There are echoes of this throughout.

Canto 5

He describes Madeira — known for its great forests. Soon to be cut down and forgotten. The Numidian desert of the Berber people, a land where ostriches digest iron in their stomachs! The Senegal river, Asinarus that they have rechristened Cape Verde. The Canary Islands, once called the Fortunate Isles. It is a map, this poem. They pass Jalof province, Mandingo…

Off the River Niger, we distinctly heard
Breakers pounding on beaches that are ours
***

There the mighty kingdom of the Congo
Has been brought by us to faith in Christ,
Where the Zaire flows, immense and brimming,
A river never seen by the ancients.
From this open sea I looked my last
At the constellations of the north.
For we had now crossed the burning line
Which marks division in the earth’s design (12-13:100)
O grande rio, onde batendo soa
O mar nas praias notas, que ali temos,
***

«Ali o mui grande reino está de Congo,
Por nós já convertido à fé de Cristo,
Por onde o Zaire passa, claro e longo,
Rio pelo antigos nunca visto.
Por este largo mar, enfim, me alongo
Do conhecido Pólo de Calisto,
Tendo o término ardente já passado
Onde o meio do Mundo é limitado.

This…oh man, there is so much in here isn’t there. The view of the other, the incomparable arrogance, the initimitable violence, the begginings of this trade in beads and baubles founded on a lack of respect for a culture that cares not for forks or gold.

I saw a stranger with a black skin
They had captured, making his sweet harvest
Of honey from the wild bees in the forest.

He looked thunderstruck, like a man
Never placed in such an extreme;
He could not understand us, nor we him
Who seemed wilder than Polyphemus.
I began by showing him pure gold
The supreme metal of civilisation,
Then fine silverware and hot condiment:
Nothing stirred in the brute the least excitement.

I arranged to show him simpler things:
Tiny beads of transparent crystal,
Some little jingling bells and rattles,
A red bonnet of a pleasing colour;
I saw at once from nods and gestures
That these had made him very happy.
I freed him and let him take his pillage,
Small as it was, to his nearby village.

The next day his fellows, all of them
Naked, and blacker than seemed possible,
Trooped down the rugged hillside paths
Hoping for what their friend had obtained.
They were so gentle and well-disposed (27-30:103)

Vejo um estranho vir, de pele preta,
Que tomaram per força, enquanto apanha
De mel os doces favos na montanha.

«Torvado vem na vista, como aquele
Que não se vira nunca em tal extremo;
Nem ele entende a nós, nem nós a ele,
Selvagem mais que o bruto Polifemo.
Começo-lhe a mostrar da rica pele
De Colcos o gentil metal supremo,
A prata fina, a quente especiaria:
A nada disto o bruto se movia.

«Mando mostrar-lhe peças mais somenos:
Contas de cristalino transparente,
Alguns soantes cascavéis pequenos,
Um barrete vermelho, cor contente;
Vi logo, por sinais e por acenos,
Que com isto se alegra grandemente.
Mando-o soltar com tudo e assi caminha
Pera a povoação, que perto tinha.

«Mas, logo ao outro dia, seus parceiros,
Todos nus e da cor da escura treva,
Decendo pelos ásperos outeiros,
As peças vêm buscar que estoutro leva.
Domésticos já tanto e companheiros

They continue on, still on. And then the Cape of Storms rises up embodied before them, grotesque, and again all the contradictions in this colonial project come rising to the surface with him.

‘Because you have descrated nature’s
Secrets and the mysteries of the deep
Where no human, however noble
Or immortal his worth, should trespass
Hear from me now what retribution
Fate presrcibes for your insolence,
Whether ocean-borne, or along the shores
You will subjegaute with your dreadful wars

‘No matter how many vessels attempt
The audacious passage you are plotting
My cape will be implacably hostile
With gales beyond any you have encountered (42-3:106)

«Pois vens ver os segredos escondidos
Da natureza e do húmido elemento,
A nenhum grande humano concedidos
De nobre ou de imortal merecimento,
Ouve os danos de mi que apercebidos
Estão a teu sobejo atrevimento,
Por todo o largo mar e pola terra
Que inda hás-de sojugar com dura guerra.

«Sabe que quantas naus esta viagem
Que tu fazes, fizerem, de atrevidas,
Inimiga terão esta paragem,
Com ventos e tormentas desmedidas;

The spirit describes the Portuguese need to atone for ‘his bloody crimes, the massacre | Of Kilwa, the leveling of Mombasa (45:107).

Unexpected. These are celebrated later on but only after this first mention, the cost of what they are doing, its criminal aspect. The more I look at the poem the more I am intrigued by this very slender thread of self-knowledge of crimes inflicted against man and earth.

Canto 6

Sail on and sail on. Past a succession of sultans who lie and cheat the Portuguese until they come to Mozambique, where finally the Sultan fulfills his promise to give them guides. There is a meeting of the gods under the sea, summoned by Triton. And I love this passage

The hairs of his beard and the hair
Falling from his head to his shoulders
Were all one mass of mud, and visibly
Had never been touched by a comb;
Each dangling dreadlock was a cluster
Of gleaming, blue-black mussels.
On his head by way of coronet, he wore
The biggest lonbster-shell you ever saw.

His body was naked, even his genitals
So as not to impede his swimming,
But tiny creatures of the sea
Crawled over him by the hundreds;
(17:122)

Os cabelos da barba e os que decem
Da cabeça nos ombros, todos eram
Uns limos prenhes d’ água, e bem parecem
Que nunca brando pêntem conheceram.
Nas pontas pendurados não falecem
Os negros mexilhões, que ali se geram.
Na cabeça, por gorra, tinha posta
Ũa mui grande casca de lagosta.

O corpo nu, e os membros genitais,
Por não ter ao nadar impedimento,
Mas porém de pequenos animais
Do mar todos cobertos, cento e cento:

They are becalmed, and the strangest tale told of Magrico, in which John of Gaunt who has been allied with King Joao summons twelve Portuguese knights to represent the ladies in a joust for their honour and the knights win of course…I suppose it is just to tie Portugal closer to their English allies, but so curious.

Canto 7 — A last listing of Portuguese possessions after an excoriation of the infighting between Christians — the Reformation I imagination, he is particularly upset at the Germans. Canto 8, the treachery of the Muslims. Chapter 9 finally they head home, with reflections on all they had won — lands mapped, men and spices pillaged and plundered.

He sailed by the south coast, reflecting
He had laboured in vain for a treaty
Of friendship with the Hindu king,
To guarantee peace and commerce;
But at least those lands stretching
To the dawn were now known to the world,
And at long last his men were homeward bound
With proofs on board of the India he had found.

For he had some Malabaris siezed
From those dispatched by the Samorin
When he returned the imprisoned factors;
He had hot peppers he had purchased;
There was mace from the Banda Islands;
Then nutmeg and black cloves, pride
Of the new-found Moluccas, and cinammon,
the wealth, the fame, the beauty of Ceylon. (13-14:179)

Parte-se costa abaxo, porque entende
Que em vão co Rei gentio trabalhava
Em querer dele paz, a qual pretende
Por firmar o comércio que tratava;
Mas como aquela terra, que se estende
Pela Aurora, sabida já deixava,
Com estas novas torna à pátria cara,
Certos sinais levando do que achara.

Leva alguns Malabares, que tomou
Per força, dos que o Samorim mandara
Quando os presos feitores lhe tornou;
Leva pimenta ardente, que comprara;
A seca flor de Banda não ficou;
A noz e o negro cravo, que faz clara
A nova ilha Maluco, co a canela
Com que Ceilão é rica, ilustre e bela.

And then Venus, who owns many of these islands, prepares one for these heroes. She fills it with nymphs who are theirs for the taking.

There she intended the sea nymphs
Should wait upon the mighty heroes
–All of them lovely beyond compare,
***
So with redoubled zeal, each would endeavour
To please her beloved mariner, whoever…(22: 181)

But make way, you steep, cerulean waves
For look, Venus brings the remedy,
In those white, billowing sails
Scudding swiftly over Neptune’s waters;
Now ardent loving can assuage
Female passion… (49: 186)

Ali quer que as aquáticas donzelas
Esperem os fortíssimos barões
(Todas as que têm título de belas,
***
Pera com mais vontade trabalharem
De contentar a quem se afeiçoarem.

Dai lugar, altas e cerúleas ondas,
Que, vedes, Vénus traz a medicina,
Mostrando as brancas velas e redondas,
Que vêm por cima da água Neptunina.
Pera que tu recíproco respondas,
Ardente Amor, à flama feminina,

the sailors land and go chasing their nymphs through the forest — Tethys takes da Gama to the mountain to show him ‘the still-unmapped continents’ and ‘seas unsailed’ and ‘There they passed the long day | In sweet games and continuous pleasure.’ It seems to me all one elaborate metaphor of rape that he explains thus:

For the ocean nymphs in all their beauty,
Tethys, and the magic painted island,
Are nothing more than those delghtful
Honours, which make our lives sublime.
Those glorious moments of pre-eminence (89:194)
Que as Ninfas do Oceano, tão fermosas,
Tétis e a Ilha angélica pintada,
Outra cousa não é que as deleitosas
Honras que a vida fazem sublimada.
Aquelas preminências gloriosas,

It makes me feel sick really, this treating as parable what these European sailors in reality took as divine right and with violence wherever they landed.

Canto 10

This canto contains the great summation of death and destruction the Portuguese will wreck upon the world from the lips of Venus. I’ve just pulled some of the highlights out, more feeling sick:

The goddess sang that from the Tagus,
Over the seas da Gama had opened,
Would come fleets to conquer all the coast
Where the Indian Ocean sighs;
Those Hindu Kings who did not bow
Their necks to the yoke would incite
The wrath of an implacable enemy,
Their choice to yield or, on an instant, die (10:199)

Pacheco will not only hold the fords,
But burn towns, houses, and temples;
Inflamed with anger, watching his cities
One by one laid low, that dog
Will force his men, reckless of life,
To attack both passages at once, (16:200)

Together, by the power of arms,
They will castigate fertile Kilwa,
Driving out its perfidious princeling
To impose a loyal and humane King

‘Mombasa too, furnished with such
Palaces and sumptuous houses,
Will be laid waste with iron and fire,
In payment for its former treachery
(26-27:202)

But it is Emir Hussein’s grappled fleet
Bears the brunt of the avenger’s anger,
As arms and legs swim in the bay
Without the bodies they belonged to;
Bolts of fire will make manifest
The passionate victors’ blind fury (36:204)

But what great light’“ do I see breaking,’
Sang the nymph and in a higher strain,
‘Where the seas of Malindi flow crimson
With the blood of Lamu, Oja, and Brava? (39:205)

‘That light, too, is from Persian Ormuz
From the fires and the gleaming arms
Of Albuquerque as he rebukes them
For scorning his light, honourable yoke. (40:205)

‘Not all that land’s mountains of salt
Can preserve from corruption the corpses
Littering the beaches, choking the seas
Of Gerum, Muscat, and Al Quraiyat,
Till, by the strength of his arm, they learn
To bow the neck as he compels
That grim realm to yield, without dispute,
Pearls from Bahrain as their annual tribute. (41:205)

Renowned, opulent Malacca!
For all your arrows tipped with poison,
The curved daggers you bear as arms,
Amorous Malays and valiant Javanese
All will be subject to the Portuguese (44:205)

Having cleared India of enemies
He will take up the viceroy’s sceptre

For all fear him and none complain,
Except Bhatkal, which brings on itself
The pains Beadala already suffered;
Corpses will strew the streets, and shells burst
As fire and thundering cannon do their worst.(66:210)

Cantava a bela Deusa que viriam
Do Tejo, pelo mar que o Gama abrira,
Armadas que as ribeiras venceriam
Por onde o Oceano Índico suspira;
E que os Gentios Reis que não dariam
A cerviz sua ao jugo, o ferro e ira
Provariam do braço duro e forte,
Até render-se a ele ou logo à morte.

Já não defenderá sòmente os passos,
Mas queimar-lhe-á lugares, templos, casas;
Aceso de ira, o Cão, não vendo lassos
Aqueles que as cidades fazem rasas,
Fará que os seus, de vida pouco escassos,
Cometam o Pacheco, que tem asas,

A Quíloa fértil, áspero castigo,
Fazendo nela Rei leal e humano,
Deitado fora o pérfido tirano.

«Também farão Mombaça, que se arreia
De casas sumptuosas e edifícios,
Co ferro e fogo seu queimada e feia,
Em pago dos passados malefícios.

«Mas a de Mir Hocém, que, abalroando,
A fúria esperará dos vingadores,
Verá braços e pernas ir nadando
Sem corpos, pelo mar, de seus senhores.
Raios de fogo irão representando,
No cego ardor, os bravos domadores.

«Mas oh, que luz tamanha que abrir sinto
(Dizia a Ninfa, e a voz alevantava)
Lá no mar de Melinde, em sangue tinto
Das cidades de Lamo, de Oja e Brava,

«Esta luz é do fogo e das luzentes
Armas com que Albuquerque irá amansando
De Ormuz os Párseos, por seu mal valentes,
Que refusam o jugo honroso e brando.

«Ali do sal os montes não defendem
De corrupção os corpos no combate,
Que mortos pela praia e mar se estendem
De Gerum, de Mazcate e Calaiate;
Até que à força só de braço aprendem
A abaxar a cerviz, onde se lhe ate
Obrigação de dar o reino inico
Das perlas de Barém tributo rico.

Opulenta Malaca nomeada.
As setas venenosas que fizeste,
Os crises com que já te vejo armada,
Malaios namorados, Jaus valentes,
Todos farás ao Luso obedientes.»

«Tendo assi limpa a Índia dos imigos,
Virá despois com ceptro a governá-la
Sem que ache resistência nem perigos,
Que todos tremem dele e nenhum fala.
Só quis provar os ásperos castigos
Baticalá, que vira já Beadala.
De sangue e corpos mortos ficou cheia
E de fogo e trovões desfeita e feia.

A reminder that in it all, it is the women who are always promised as plunder.

This was not the crime of incest
Nor the violent abuse of a virgin,
Still less of hidden adultery
For this was a slave, anyone’s woman. (47:206)

All these heroes, and others worthy
In different ways of fame and esteem,
Performing great feats in war
Will taste this island’s pleasures,
Their sharp keels cutting the waves
Under triumphant banners, to find
These lovely nymphs (73:211)

Não será a culpa abominoso incesto
Nem violento estupro em virgem pura,
Nem menos adultério desonesto,
Mas cũa escrava vil, lasciva e escura,

«Estes e outros Barões, por várias partes,
Dinos todos de fama e maravilha,
Fazendo-se na terra bravos Martes,
Virão lograr os gostos desta Ilha,
Varrendo triunfantes estandartes
Pelas ondas que corta a aguda quilha;
E acharão estas Ninfas …

And then she bids Portugal look West, not just East. Don’t, you say. Don’t. But of course they did. This is the monument in Belem that marks where all of these conquerors set out with their swords. Hardly surprising it was built under the dictator Salazar, and rises above a great cartographic rose given them by the apartheid state of South Africa.

Lisbon

Decline and Fall: Waugh’s hilarious thoughts on marriage and home

I’ve never read Waugh, I found this a hilarious, biting satire, and enjoyed it greatly to my no small surprise.

They should have told me about marriage. They should have told me that at the end of that gay journey and flower-strewn path were the hideous lights of home and the voices of children. I should have been warned of the great lavender-scented bed that was laid out for me, of the wisteria at the windows, of all the intimacy and confidence of the family life…Our life is lived between two homes. We emerge for a little into the light, and then the front door closes. The chintz curtains shut out the sun, and the hearth glows with the fire of home, while upstairs, above our heads, are enacted again the awful accidents of adolescence. There’s a home and a family waiting for every one of is, we can’t escape, try how we may. It’s the seed of life we carry about with us like our skeletons, each one of us unconsciously pregnant with desirable villa residences. There’s no escape. As individuals we simply do not exist. We are just potential home-builders, beavers, and ants… (102)

And an extra thrown in:

for anyone who has been to an English public school will always feel comparatively at home in prison. It is the people brought up in the gay intimacy of the slums, Paul learned, who find prison so soul-destroying.

Waugh, Evelin ([1928] 1968] Decline and Fall. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin. Books

Ibsen and Negotiating the Use of Candles

‘I should not like my dear sister to know, but I am reading the Plays of Ibsen, and I was finishing Hedda Gabler.’

Mrs Bradley nodded comprehendingly.

‘And of course, Ibsen being What he is, and the light in my room being Quite Invisible from my sister’s room, and our having agreed From the First to consider candles a Separate Item so that neither of us need make the burning of them an Affair of Conscience as, of course, we should be obliged to do if they came out of the housekeeping, I read on until past ten o’clock.’ (210)

An incredible passage about the ‘naughtiness’ of both reading late and Ibsen and the constraints on both that the economics of housekeeping can produce, if not carefully negotiated. Also, the wonderful use of capital letters.

Not until now do I realise how much luck it is to be born at a time when we do not have to negotiate the cost of a candle to read as late as we would like…

Mitchell, Gladys ([1935] 2014)The Devil At Saxon Well. London: Vintage Books.

Roque Dalton: Unas Poemas

Acaba de leer  La ventana en el rostro, que no he leído por anos, y en este entonces no sabía nada de las referencias a Nazim Hikmet, no apreciaba tanto Federico García Lorca. Este libro publicado por la UCA e imprimido en El Salvador, traído a Los Ángeles por Don Toñito. Uno de los pocos libros, junto con Poemas Clandestinos, que he guardado conmigo desde este entonces, ya casi veinte años.

Ayer

Junto al dolor del mundo mi pequeño dolor,
junto a mi arresto colegial la verdadera cárcel de los hombres sin voz,
junto a mi sal de lágrimas
la costra secular que sepultó montañas y oropéndolas,
junto a mi mano desarmada el fuego,
junto al fuego el huracán y los fríos derrumbes,
junto a mi sed los niños ahogados
danzando interminablemente sin noches ni estaturas,
junto a mi corazón los duros horizontes
y las flores,
junto a mi miedo el miedo que vencieron los muertos,
junto a mi soledad la vida que recorro,
junto a la diseminada desesperación que me ofrecen,
los ojos de los que amo
diciendo que me aman.

Pero Cantos a Anastasio Aquino? Híjole, son los que mas me encantaban esta vez.

Así comienza:

Anastasio Aquino fue la encarnación del más antiguo
ideal del hombre pacíficamente americano: el ideal de
convivir con la tierra, con la libertad, con el amor
repartiéndose.

En el año de 1832, exactamente un siglo antes de la
dolorosa epopeya de Feliciano Ama y Farabundo Martí,
padres de la patria futura, Anastasio Aquino se rebeló al
frente de la comunidad indígena de San Pedro Nonualco,
contra el sistema opresor de los blancos y ladinos ricos
que comerciaban, como ahora comercian, con el hambre
y el dolor del indio.

Después de muchas batallas victoriosos, fue capturado
por las fuerzas del gobierno salvadoreño y fusilado el
24 de junio de 1833.

Y sigue:

Orígenes

I

Tu pie descalzo ante la dura tierra: barro en el barro.
Tu rostro unánime ante el pueblo: sangre en la sangre.
Tu voz viril de campo enardecido: grito en el grito.
Tu cuerpo, catedral de músculo rebelde: hombre en el hombre.
Tu corazón de pétalos morenos, sin espinas: rosa en la rosa.
Tu paso hacia adelante presuroso: ruta en la ruta.
Tu puño vengador, alzado siempre: piedra en la piedra.
Tu muerte, tu regreso hacia la tierra: lucha en la lucha.

Anastasio Izalco, Lempa Aquino:
desde que tú nacistes se ha hecho necesario apedillar
la lucha y ponerle tu nombre.

(Fuego desde el Jalponga y el Huiscoyolapa,
grito desde el añil, amor desde la hondura de tus puños,
lava desde tu pecho hasta el Chicontepeque,
pueblo desde el ayer hasta la vida.)

Río y volcán: un hombre.

Otra, ultima:

Para la paz

Será cuando la luna se despida del agua
con su corriente oculta de luz inenarrable

Nos robaremos todos los fusiles,
apresuradamente

No hay que matar al centinela, el pobre
sólo es función de un sueño colectivo,
un uniforme repleto de suspiros
recordando el arado.
Dejémosle que beba ensimismado su luna y su granito

Bastará con la sombra lanzándonos sus párpados
para llegar al punto.

Nos robaremos todos los fusiles,
irremisiblemente.

Habrá que transportarlos con cuidado,
pero sin detenerse
y abandonarnos entre detonaciones
en las piedras del patio.

Fuera de ahí, ya sólo el viento.

Tendremos todos los fusiles,
alborozadamente.

No importará la escarcha momentánea
dándose de pedradas con el sudor de nuestro sobresalto,
ni la dudosa relación de nuestro aliento
con la ancha niebla, millonaria en espacios:
caminaremos hasta los sembradíos
y enterraremos esperanzadamente
a todos los fusiles,
para que un raíz de pólvora haga estallar en mariposas
sus tallos minerales
es una primavera futural y altiva
repleta de palomas.

Manchester, bank holiday Monday

Garbage swirled against my ankles. Napkins and plastic cups used, crushed in the hand, dropped carelessly. A large dead rat lay decayed flat beside a bin. A scattering of people still wandered, some with their dogs and some still wringing the last dregs from a night out. Others settled in where they would sleep. A woman screamed liar and streamed filth from somewhere in the darkness of Picadilly Gardens. ‘We don’t do spice‘ two girls said to a man as I walked past, as I waited briefly to cross behind the tram.  Warm summer night as claustrophobic, overheated. Everything felt edged. From Glasgow to Wigan to Victoria, late trains and late arrival and the further station and a ways to walk to the bus and I hadn’t money to waste on a cab and streetlights out, and God I thought to myself I am not sure about this city whose cheeks are growing hollow as it drowns itself in nonrenewables and sends luxury’s chrome and steel up into the sky and kicks its people into the gutters.

Paula Meehan, Prayer for the Children of Longing

I should be on break, should be done, but instead I am working and working to finish up this report for the Welsh Government on the progress of the new homelessness prevention agenda of the Housing Act 2014 and I just finished the section on vulnerable groups… fucking vulnerable groups. The young people I spoke to sit within this category as though trapped in amber, bureaucratically stripped of the fierce tragedies of their angry, lost, scared, funny, resigned presences vibrating with life sometimes falling in tears, sometimes erupting in a torrent of abuse on the phone. They survive streets and misery and old wounds and abuse with alcohol and drug medleys, and more and more with mamba, ‘legal highs’, spice. These kids are not easy, but they are ours and we are letting them die.

I read this poem this morning, and it felt like a Christmas gift. One among many, for Paula Meehan’s Painting Rain must be one of the best poetry collections I’ve ever read. A gift for me and for them. For all those who loved them, tried to save them. A prayer to whisper beside every Christmas tree.

Prayer for the Children of Longing

A poem commissioned by the community of Dublin’s north inner city for the lighting of the Christmas tree in Buckingham Street, to remember their children who died from drug use.

Great tree from the far northern forest
Still rich with the sap of the forest
Here at the heart of winter
Here at the heart of the city

Grant us the clarity of ice
The comfort of snow
The cool memory of trees
Grant us the forest’s silence
The snow’s breathless quiet

For one moment to freeze
The scream, the siren, the knock on the door
The needle in its track
The knife in the back

In that silence let us hear
The song of the children of longing
In that silence let us catch
The breath of the children of longing

The echo of their voices through the city streets
The streets that defeated them
That brought them to their knees
The streets that couldn’t shelter them
That spellbound them in alleyways
The streets that blew their minds
That led them astray, out of reach of our saving
The streets that gave them visions and dreams
That promised them everything
That delivered nothing
The streets that broke their backs
The streets we brought them home to

Let their names be the wind through the branches
Let their names be the song of the river
Let their names be the holiest prayers

Under the starlight, under the moonlight
In the light of this tree

Here at the heart of winter
Here at the heart of the city