“The masters of the Mediterranean are fellaheen today”
James Joyce, Ulysses
On watch –
In a long slow timeless wash
Reflux of freighted waters
Slim frigates ride –
Grey grace the warping waves bestride
And fall and rise again like Greeks
Upreared on dolphins
(That classic life still breathing
Like a soul trapped in a ribcage.)
Floats palaces and palm trees –
Towns sick with age, walls punched with holes,
Flung windows, stone stares of greats
Long metamorphosed, and
Cool tiled courts
(Full ugly now with fat in shorts –
The Renaissance closing down.
Descent of Vandals –
Cloisters flap with fall of sandals
And a squeak of trolley wheels).
Recurring dream –
Lachrimae Christi under an olive tree
That chirrups with cicada.
Things heard and seen –
Geodesies down cobbled streets,
Domes like miracles of maths,
Bones in jewelled shrines –
Grinning saints recline
On altars overtopped with gilt.
Crossing seams –
Glassed cabinets that gleam
With faience David meets Goliath-
Bourbons-Knossos-Rome and Corinth.
Flayed Venetian skins –
Cornices of red-beard kings –
Crusaders climbing their own walls.
Golden fleece and fruit,
Leaf-gods stir and bruit
In the mildest of mild autumns.
Shepherds in oils
Syrinx sheep at tumbled walls –
Arcadia besting Athens.
Homes at posterns –
Fishermen dangling lanterns
Over an abyss.
Wheel-ruts cut rock
And carry down to former docks
In a misknown metropolis.
Roofs fall to floors,
No-one knocks on woodless doors
Or waits for any answer.
We walk on flags –
(Tesserae of hunted stags
Always on the cusp of pulling down).
Libraries burn, beacons showing
Fat backs to hungry lands,
Last reach of sands
(Empty Quarter, Ozymandias)
Before the temperate begins.
Hooves in the night,
Alarms far out in darkness,
Simooms carry hot howling to all coasts.
Colossi razed – highways which haze
Immediately to epic.
Passed things passing –
Even sibyl smokes soon thin
And pass into empyrean
Fan-vaults of blue
Propped by cypress – (and, oh, the silky shoe
Of the Bay at Posillipo.)
At sea-ends of streets
Breakwaters are ranged by cats –
Mange among detritus, harbours
Fish float gut-up, their innards spill,
Contaminate our food-chain.
Our Sea no more –
Our Sea no less – because that shore
Landmarks our geography.
Manifested across miles, brought
Close by deceit of light.
Proficient navies shift
And GPS themselves again.
They scan the skies
That swelled about Odysseus,
Stare the straight blue line
That falls away
To Sirte and Barbary
Seeking what they fear to find
In the reminiscent glare
And seditious glitter of the Gulf.
(Crew can’t look at each other)
Darkling marks brought Swiss-lens sharp
Wave for attention –
Hands across the sea, children
Of a Common god look up,
Are flashed –
As frantic rotors lash
The oppressive air to froth.
Code of the sea:
Hoist all misery
On davits to our decks.
Code from the shore:
Lower the launch once more
We need to be seen to have done.
And sailors do –
Unable not to –
They raise the drowning drowners as their own.
This is our Creed –
To each according to his need.
Failed states have given, and received.
What would Jesus have done?
Fished them as one.
(Stella Maris still lingers in the West!)
Familiar fable –
Green fields in play on a great blue table
(Mortgagees are drinking in the sun.)
Orbs fumbled, falling –
Spires shaking, engines stalling,
To go again just as the gears
Click sudden loud
And Ocean slaps the ship around –
The grey ghost shudders then recovers,
And makes away
Along a lighted pathway as
Winds are freed from bags to blow all strayers home.
Our watch –
In the phosphorescent wistful wash
Redux of weighted waters
Slim frigates ride
Cetaceans plunge and sport beside
As sailors spit and swill the decks,
Plough again the back and forth,
Sharp weather front declining North,
And losing its identity.
This poem first appeared in the January/February 2021 issue of Quadrant, and is reproduced with permission