Ur of the Chaldees was there in the dawn,
when, as the light grew, man stirred in his sleep
and knew he was naked.
At that instant, the hourglass, which shows
that the past and the future
The sun rose.
The cock crowed.
The path lay before us,
but Ur of the Chaldees was lost in the sand.
It is said that Ancient Greek sailors found the Black Sea to be ominous and threatening. It drains through the Bosphorous to the Sea of Marmera and the Aegean, but below the strong surface current there is apparently a deeper current flowing the other way, presumably driven by salinity differences.
The Greeks wept when they reached here,
pulling their way up the hard straight of the Bosphorous.
Did they know, as we do, that in your depths you are lifeless,
or else fear the false joy of a southern shore,
even though in places
groves of hazels and walnuts reach down to the water?
Did they know that under the surface
a powerful current returned to your welcome
and all those who found it
smiled as they entered,
eyes glowing like moonstones
as they turned and departed
in diverse directions?
Young gossamer spiders spin a strand of fine silk which is caught up by the morning breeze of early autumn and takes them down-
drifting down on their birthday.
No happy returns.
When man was Neandertal,
even then he had a noble soul.
When the young first felt pain as a friend,
he would wipe tears from coarse little eyes.
If four, gathered together,
found music profound
as Beethoven's wonderful cavatina
would they not be equally moved
even though Christ had not hung on his cross
I walk alone,
yet single I have never been,
my dark twin
When my hand reaches down
but when he comes lumbering by
I have gone.
When little ones cry in the night
it is him they will name,
but me they should fear,
for I am the first born
and I walk alone.
If I could, in these narrow confines, write
words that are sweet as any siren’s song,
I would escape the broken dreams that throng
like ghosts inside my head and banish night.
Or if my fingers plucking on such strings
found notes as pure as any piper played,
so might I rest and think that I had made
profit or gain which would cast off my chains.
Then, like some minstrel yearning for his love
beside some stronghold where he knows she lies
in thrall, waiting for him to find the keys
that will release her; sound the chords that move
his heart to cross the bridge and storm the keep
of that dark place and drink the cup of sleep.
You come like a ghost
from a world that is not your own,
a phantom of summer
haunting those that remain,
to bloom through the night,
as though the moon were your true sun.
When storms walk,
or the sun casts white shadows
that last through the day
behind bare hedges,
after the pink rays of dawn
you will still be here,
but when life returns,
you are gone.
Yellow, the colour of laughter
and good yellow gold
certain enough to be spent,
and yellow the smile of a buttercup flower
under the chin,
if you love butter,
someone will know it,
but gold will return to the earth
and laughter will fade,
though never the light in the spring
of the buttercup flower.
Two souls becoming one in Palestine
with love that was prepared for hardship’s share
when Christ was changing water into wine.
The sacred olive groves, the earthly sign
of every man’s brief stay, still sanctify
two souls becoming one in Palestine.
Yet were these branches from each ancient line
more blessèd then because they first embraced
when Christ was changing water into wine?
But now, as circumstances undermine
all they have made, we wish to see again
two souls becoming one in Palestine.
The foxes that have come to spoil the vine
must not erase the joy that once was there
when Christ was changing water into wine.
But who can, in this land of the divine,
restore the burning spirit that foresaw
two souls becoming one in Palestine
when Christ was changing water into wine?
The Reconquista was the long process of recovering Spain from the Moors. The last battle was fought on the southern slopes of the Sierra Nevadas, the scene of one of the great Christian miracles where the blood of the believers and of the non-
Blood is accustomed to the hardest way,
that is its life.
Its very redness shows
how it strives against the dark descent,
until the reconquista
charges it again and makes it surge.
This dual nature most miraculously shown
when the last Moors fell.
Their blood poured down,
while blood spilt by the Glorious Christian Dead,
each cell unsullied by disdained belief.
Proud still in death,
it dried across the hillside like a jagged folded blot.
And what does this remind you of?
and men who, vanquished in the no less glorious cause,
were lined up here,
then shown their promised land.
Only he among all
is rooted in air. His dead lie in state
forever above ground. His Deutschland
embroiled on sands, does not sink.
Waves crash down,
but these five race out, charmed and unharmed.
Curving up, they pass over the reef; lost to the wreck,
but they will not make land.
This is not their aim. His world,
sliced through, is fine air
and cold fire and nowhere
does it contain any place
to entomb him.
He was an old man,
but that does not mean
he was old all his life.
In fact it was possible
to be as young in 1893
as it is now.
Do not think that a nice day in Caithness
is less than any crumb
fallen from the rich man’s table,
where they so gorge themselves
that tastes pall.
But, beyond the green horizon,
where clouds are the sun’s gate,
and place and distance are indistinct,
under the blue and brown,
distorted by time and space,
is a dark croft,
or a giant’s home.
as he senses us
and dreams of what he can not now find,
covers the pale land
in seven times seven strides
but sees only the wind
and the broken stall.
But the footfall,
that races over the green corner,
both fast and slow,
is clear as the wind’s call.
He looks down,
seeking the lost dawn
and eyes are filled with the empty stare
of the blind man.
Spring, summer, autumn, winter.
What goes round, comes round.
She, that is you,
had eyes that were blue
and a smile that was sweet,
as she walked down the street.
He, that is I,
was standing close by
and saw her, that is you,
turn to join in the queue.
They, that is we,
climbed on the same bus
And sat side by side,
that was them, that is, us.
He wanted her
to be his Valentine,
that his hand might hold hers,
that is, yours might hold mine.
But she, that is you,
saw someone she knew
in the seat just behind.
And all hopes turned to dust,
that were his,
That is, mine
Tom Hunter, born in 1896 is travelling to Edinburgh in 1996 to receive an honour for his service in the first world war. He describes to his niece an event that happened to him in 1915, and which stayed with him for the rest of his life. This is his verbatim account:
I was third sentry, my guard duty between 4 am and 6 am in Ripon Yorkshire early in the year, about the month of April in 1915. My duty was to look after the horses, some tied to a rope, some in a barn. About 5 o’clock in the morning the horses in the barn became wild and nervous. I was standing there, I didn’t know what to do about it. There was a kind of twilight, with a peculiar tinge to it-
I tried for a long time to find out what it was all about. Then one day a man heard me talking about it and he said “you saw a false dawn” I said “ Do you know anything about it?” he said “Yes, it scares the life out of you!” He explained that the rays of the sun normally go up high, but if there is a low cloud ceiling they are trapped under it. The rays heat the air directly under the cloud, expanding it, and it pushes down on the cold air below, causing a cold wind and an eerie experience.
The language is so vivid that it leaves no doubt of the reality of his experience. However, what he describes is not typical of other accounts of the false dawn phenomenon, which is normally a passive event and seen as a cone of light 2-
To a greater extent than any other war of the 20th century, the first world war was welcomed by its protagonists as ‘ a breath or fresh air’; a chance for renewal that would dignify all those took part and, ot so much set old grievances to right, as to remove barriers to the forward march of humanity and abolish forever the myth of the golden past.
On guard, a boy for the Western Front,
who answered his country’s call,
and training now on the plains of York,
before tasting the tears of War.
The ‘ War to end Wars’ for men who dreamed
of the hero’s thundering charge,
and the sleek horse and the blooded sword
and rest on the wide green verge.
Awake alone through the long night watch,
the sun an hour to rise,
but the bird calls die
and the naked clouds glow with a sickly light.
The horses fret, then rear with fright,
are they dreaming of the wire,
of the green gas and the black earth
and the gun’s cruel fire?
Though the fields are still, do the shadows creep
like wolves on the Asian steppe?
Is the faint drum-
draining their hearts of hope?
At the skies dark edge, the grass, waist high,
bends like a rolling wave,
or a regiment of men who charge
to the silence of the grave.
It passed like a rushing bird of prey,
leaving cold fear in its wake,
and nothing beyond was ever the same,
though the day had yet to break.
Long years have passed, long years have passed,
he hears dead voices call.
What horses died, what heroes fell?
May Christ receive their souls.
You saw false dawn, like birds that skim
cold waves before the storm,
when the ghosts of men whom the sirens lured,
return, despairing, home.
It was all no more than a waking dream
of days that were yet to come;
how the light that was sent to arouse men’s hearts,
chilled to the very bone.
If I were king
and could choose my own,
I would make my crown
because even the paper hats
of Christmas time
oppress my brow
like a metal band.
Blue winter sky.
The sun casts frost shadows
that last through the day.
Over the street,
walls stream with a yellow light.
Doors burn red and green,
but those who live under the hill
see only the opal fire.
They wait for the spring,
when day will break for the first time.
You might well ask,
what is in it for them?
Why do they continue to live in the land of shade
when they could walk on the frozen path
and make dry sheets of ice
break under their heel,
and look at the grass that is neither alive nor dead,
as we did a long time ago,
when we walked in the winter sun
on the Appian Way.
These are the fields wherein our forebears
laid their bones and disowned clay,
as we are not allowed to do.
Yet would we not prefer that,
on the rough surface of this limestone vineyard.
could sanctify the sounds
of shuffling boots on stones
and broken earth.
Although the light is not nearer,
or further away,
we have tumbled towards the dark
and are taking our first steps back.
So if Pilate had once seen what the shepherds saw
and if Christ had been born at this time,
when some think that he was,
he might not have died, but lived,
and reigned here on earth,
and Christmas come only once,
and holly not bleed again.
The other day
I looked out of the window
and saw now shimmering across the world.
It was moving, but seemed to be still.
A bit later I looked out and saw it again.
I thought that it should have moved on,
but it hadn’t.
In memory of Chris Buckley, a victim of neuromuscular disease.
Leakey’s Bookshop in Inverness is in a delightful converted church, yet the interior seems to have some of the qualities of a cattle byre. There are hints of an association with some of the darker events after Culloden.
Books are as grass
growing on lawns,
on which we lay all summer long,
and then cut down,
becoming sweet brown-
bundled in byres
each at, or near, its own appointed place.
Packed like a silent congregation,
but the light of each soul
waiting for the Christ-
and a second birth.
Of the many called,
these are the few,
chosen with love
and sure and certain hope
and new life on earth.
He was old, with a little flat cap,
and I feared that he could have reversed into me
as I nosied between the ranks.
I looked back;
he had crossed over the gap
and, inches from impact,
slammed on the brakes.
His wife lost her impassive expression;
dismay and disdain surfaced in rapid succession
but his face was unchanged
and a silent
and echoed as loudly as metal on glass.
I peered into the mirror in the morning
and saw Tyrannosaurus rex there.
It wasn't all of him I saw,
only his red eyes, satiated grin
and primitive expression;
doppelgänger from a land
twenty billion days and nights beyond this window.
extinct as half-
here he is again,
in the garden
hopping from earth to stone.
Looking for something,
which he seems to find.
that used to balance the ferocious head,
cocked at a rakish angle.
As far as time goes,
lone and level sands stretch far away,
(T. rex, to you)
Soundless ladies in Ionian blue,
please explain, oh why are you so languid?
Is there no way to leave your marble world,
no more endure the endless afternoon?
You know that we can never join you there,
being, in all ways, incompletely true
to the ideal form, but fear that you
may find the key to the forbidden stair,
where every night the stream of falling gold
becomes, not your young god, instead a crude
and vulgar, swarthy man with greasy hair.
His breath may smell of garlic while his bold
and lustful limbs entwine with yours. His thighs
accounting for the look that haunts your eyes.
Tortoiseshell butterfly breaking its hibernation, lying in a patch of sunlight with its wings stretched out and waiting for, exactly what I don't know, but the moment of lift-
‘What was that you saw in the night.
so far and so close; so vast and so small?’
‘I remember it still;
Camels and tents,
night fires in the sand
and wind in the desert.’
‘But how did you see it?’
‘Alone in the darkness and facing the wall.’
A false dawn
Many of the poems in this collection first appeared in Storm in a Teashop. However the central poem of that collection, an account of a strange WW1 encounter with the phenomenon of a False Dawn, did not attain the dominance it deserved in that setting. All of the poems in the current booklet describe, in one way or another, false beginnings.
Before the phantom of False morning died,
Methought a Voice within the Tavern cried,
When all the Temple is prepared within
Why nods the drowsy Worshiper outside?
From The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, by Edward FitzGerald.