I was almost drug-free in Rome.
Just reservoirs of alcohol,
the occasional tobacco-free spliff.
Let’s not count caffeine.
Frequently, my flat feet
zigzagged a path
across needle-spattered parks.
Occasionally, a crowbar craftsman
funded a cocaine habit
from the pickings of our flat.
Once, you smoked opium,
the only time before China.
I experimented with champagne:
a bourgeois revolution
for that Brave New Year, 1989.
In Hong Kong still, you lavish
your new husband’s income
on jewellery and “E”.
A world apart,
I ponder my remaining options
of wives and drugs.
Bloody Student Cuts
A viewing platform:
the world sees him
lotus-knee’d on the flat roof
of the prematurely aged
“New Building” of a tired university
raised beyond its means,
tasked beyond reason,
refused life support, just
to keep a bottom line black.
In front of him, see
a slim spire, city symbol,
split the mountain background,
aspire to higher matters, above constraint.
Built as a synagogue, abandoned
for fear of a fall to earth,
now the nation’s cinematographic mecca,
it hints that human genius may endure,
though all will pass.
A drabber edifice, way below,
lures the protestor’s starry eyes
to meaner aspirations, baser options,
a secure footing in a young man’s world
mediated by televisual rituals
and largesse for a mogul’s minions and mignotte.
Too late the lure. The image
sweeps the world in a different format:
a photograph, stamped even on Web front pages,
portrays the youth as Sisyphus unchained,
calling us to our consciences,
reminding us that even here,
in this good-life cage, or our own lands,
a voice can still be lifted
to penetrate clamour or silence
with “Enough is enough!”
He’s marked, that lad: bad attitude,
immortalised, brands him a future.
One saving pathway beckons from the dark:
to trade his looks and locks with Mammon,
shine them with Saviour’s shampoo, whatever,
then splatter them across the waves of air
to spare us worry over life’s tough choices.
That firefly summer,
his skill entranced a nation:
a smiling urchin maestro
from the lovely brutal isle
set the capital’s coliseum aflame.
The centre of the world
lay at his booted feet.
This mothy evening, his careworn face
contorts in concentration
as he swings on a synthetic
jungle creeper, every fibre focused
on popping a paper ball in a pot
before a bourgeois lady rival does.
Then the post-match interviews,
wrung for tears. Voice cracks
as he rasps his love to the remote kids
he could not live without
till TV took him back, on centre stage,
for humiliation beyond his powers of vision.
They are the masters now,
who package us cold comfort,
feet of clay, sick heroes
for a brave new globe.
And yet, it turns.
Crime and Impunity
Sundays, this town stays shut,
shop-fronts iron-clad against custom.
Yet a fragrance of fresh-baked bread
draws the gourmet under arches
where Arab pavement sellers
swap its source for shiny cents,
alongside Chinese sunglass sellers,
Senegalese leather merchants,
purveyors of products without packaging,
meeting needs not formed by advertising,
unlicensed providers for extended families,
whom a crisp new police patriarch
promises primly to put out of business:
a clean sweep of hardened workers
into gaol or the maw of re-organised crime.
Mondays, it’s business as usual
on the other side of covered tracks,
white collar criminals back on the job,
deciding which sharp practices
should be made legally just fine
now the nation’s maximum law-maker
embodies aspirations of half the population:
money from cunning, wealth by stealth,
celebrity through vulgarity; a mogul of image,
shaper of collective lack of imagination,
fated to rule till reality bites harder than sound.
Week-long, a new Spring blossoms
for falsifiers of pharaonic accounts,
corrupters of judges, Men of Honour,
lords of cement. Just keep those immigrants
clandestine, vulnerable, desperate,
or force them to fortress Europe’s frontier,
push them across, wave goodbye
to our common future.
Slam down the shutters.
Etna, September 2001
Heat from Earth’s heart caresses sturdy soles.
Foreign boots crunch on black pumice,
resonate with the armies of intractable war
whose preparations bulge from screens
between commercials, elsewhere.
Lava has burnt a recent swathe, surgically;
incandescence excised the living from its path.
The detritus of a mountain’s wrath,
a hard rain of acrid rubble, proved
exponential in collateral danger.
Foothill villagers invoked idols;
nature and science kept people alive.
From sharp dry rock we survey beauty that
humankind is eager to sacrifice to Gods
so uneasy to please, on this heavenly body
ready to spit or swallow our fire next time.
The cage rises.
Like a single person,
the crowd draws its breath.
Behind the metal ribs,
pallor blurs the prisoners’ faces.
The cage halts.
Inside, three children
glance at one another,
try out smiles, titter.
Then their eyes rove
for parents below.
in best Sunday casuals
or pressed medieval fantasies,
townspeople and day-trippers
chuckle with their ancestors.
Learning to Drive in Sicily
A lifetime escaping the wheel.
Now it adheres to my sweaty palms,
unavoidable as conflict.
Road shock’s opening salvo is worst:
crowded alleys, slopes narrow
with random double parking,
drivers aggressive as Pacman.
Somehow the village regurgitates us whole,
on to the state highway; Claudio waves farewell.
I drive his daughter’s brand new ‘600
into the Sicilian morning. The sun revs up.
Outside the towns it’s relatively easy:
keep a safe distance, a steady grip, relax;
let the agitated overtake at will.
Within small city limits,
traffic attacks on every front,
stereophonic klaxons, anguished brakes,
amazing revelations on genealogy.
No need to snap the rules: there are none.
Selinunte, Agrigento, Syracuse,
golden cities of Magna Grecia
masquerade as pit-stop threats
to a tyro driver’s further journeys.
Yet I get the hang of it, expand
a body’s sensors into the metal,
become as one with the road,
begin to get high on the trip.
Erratic, loving navigator, you call the turns.
I take us higher, through volcanic ash
around Etna, dry mountains of the Madornie.
We zigzag down to a champagne-clear sea,
spin along the heat-haze of a coast,
mix it with the capital city of chaos.
Back in Carini, no more fear,
just another village to get lost in
till Claudio materialises on a motor bike
to guide us home to his hill-top court.
Week two, we chill on a traffic-free island.
Into the poets’ word-flushed faces
gaudy flags flap their medieval design
on Millennium cloth, brilliant
as San Giulio’s water, sun and sky.
Lake Orta speaks through throats of boats;
its marine past, affricative as a wet whistle,
turns plosive, though that reverberation fades
as a wedding limo stretches,
empty, in the foot-filled square,
where the tense gridlock of traffic
is banished for us strange visitors,
our flags our flapping tongues.
Dipping sun dampens colour
from brilliance to shimmer;
its haze renders contrast
among persons, places and times
less distinct, tougher to pinpoint,
Welcome, McDuff! Khartoum street banners
hail the failed footballer from far Cornwall
come to raise Al-Hillal, foremost club
in the continent’s furthest-stretched country
to higher pastures.
The goals flow, and all is well.
McDuff reaps due reward, until
dry pitches, harsh tackles bruise his bones,
that saviour status sags, those banners fade,
his welcome sours.
The Roman streets are paved, well cold,
poor players two a lira. McDuff is here,
scrounging beer, inventing a future
to match his inglorious past:
all that remains.
His mate, Fat Ian, keeps him fed
and works him in his bar,
no natives welcome there.
McDuff now teaches English
five days, one night.
He sells his tongue, he trades his hands,
his feet find no demand.
Yet he skips ahead, from bar to bed
of people that he has charmed
with no songs.
The men of Khartoum remember him still,
a young man with the world at his toes.
These years they play in the Champions League,
McDuff’s eyes glisten at Sudan’s war scores.
So it goes.
Set in Stone – The King
The fortress refracts the silent scorch of noon;
here below, warriors scream and kill.
The King cannot endure this fate for his men,
torn at the roots by a maelstrom of greed,
short lives halved in his service.
Yet fate wills the fortress be his.
It is done. He staggers among those excised
from self-awareness. Is he the only soul alive?
His eyes burn with sweat and blood, his own,
sinuses aflame with the stench of others.
He tastes vomit, spills it, drops to his knees.
The fortress is his. This cannot go on.
He prays. There is no answer. Duty
lifts him to his feet, forces them forward,
up the grassy knoll toward stone walls
untouched by mayhem, aloof
yet vanquished, one strong link
in the chain he would see set
around his neck before it is severed.
The sun slithers toward the mountain backdrop,
mutates into two cold orbs in a female face
that pierce him, halt his steps, tell him
all he wishes to hear: peace in his time,
abundance, fertility, his name blessed.
He knows her provenance; the price
Set in Stone – The Actor
Midsummer sun lays siege; inside the fortress walls,
damp chill inhabits every patch of shade.
Costumed bodies move between two seasons,
today’s future and tomorrow’s past: self and role.
Seeing is believing: the dungeon walls ooze.
Best follow with care the set-light cable,
thread through the labyrinth, tread with caution
or rock steps rise to smash your crown.
Burning torches flare or flicker,
set-lights dazzle. Cover your grief,
but let it show, at your adviser’s grisly death.
You’re all entombed below the Alpine stone.
From indestructible ramparts, your brother
heralds your anarchist’s kingship
over all you survey. For this, you have traded
your children’s souls with the underworld queen.
You wonder about driving conditions
to the city as you reneg on that deal.
Mayhem will follow.
(They should be okay.)
Sun sets into stone. We shoot and shoot.
Every man-jack of cast and crew gives all.
Sure it’s a B-movie, but it’s our B-movie.
Theatre of the Absurd
Shock waves from Jerusalem
galvanise my North African neighbours
into a 3 a.m. frenzy of celebration,
awakening us all to the joy of bombs.
A swirl of Islamic music
profanes this pre-dawn Friday, draws
a nuclear Jewish family to their balcony,
erodes fragile infidel sympathy.
Euphoric at yesterday’s blood, they know
the dawning day’s revenge will strike elsewhere.
The world accelerates its particles
towards inevitable entropy.
Behind our ghetto courtyard,
in the cauldron of this night,
Turin synagogue’s oriental towers
endure in silence.
The Boar Hunter
Shotgun in hand, in his element,
on the track of a sow, wild
in the Basilicata bush, free
of city language, chains of civility.
Manipulator of drying bones
in a shared Rome surgery,
proud of an ailing crooner client
soon to slip from wheelchair to grave,
the hunter lavishes more on his mother
than the mistress who clips up the driveway
one morning per week for a quick orgasm,
few kind words, a delusion to cherish.