by Barry Keane


Joanna Gasek, 2005

 

I

In silence I sat by the edge of the sea as the clapping rhythm of
waves washed the shoreline. An old man I saw, tired and bedraggled,
coming so close that he covered me in shadow, and forthwith
he poured out his heart:

‘The day and the mind of dreams have seldom met
Those signs seen by me, like comets of augury.
With my head in my hands I cry: ‘What is left!?
In the end all we have left is a memory that grows distant and
diluted,
Swearing oaths at our own demise, suffocated by the oncoming
silence.
With me it became a ghost in the dark, a tell-tale presence of conflict
That dims daylight and fills what is left with sultry pride.
With eternity to think on things, bolted fast behind wooden doors,
Sending anger and hatred in vapours through cracks in the creaking
floors
And walls. Murder, mayhem, confusion, or loss, they all enter this
domain.
There’ll be no peace till some embassy on friendly terms braves
what is there
And asks after my story, that is truly the sorriest of tales a man
could hear.
Like a child who is lost in a thronging crowd and screams hot
tears, like he,
All who listen will so bewail the lot that has been my misfortune to
meet - left betwixt and between.’
With this he set me wandering – the mind ever more disturbed,
Traipsing in search of night-fires and lost in visions,
Toiling over a grey terrain, every road black and getting blacker.
Accursed with the seeing.

 

II

Pounding the margin with my tired feet,
Lifting them out of the suck of the mud,
I drove on through blast of cold and heat,
Upturned as I was, all inside-out.
With sea to my right and rolling green to the left,
Ever upwards, I marched the border
Till I came to a town that had downed tool and hammer
In fear of the large waves that were tumbling forward.
I pounded till my heart would burst, quite past it all.
But with a click of the latch a fine-breasted woman with luscious
Lips opened the door, and said to me, ‘Madman,
To be abroad this day in the man-killing squall.
Men who’d swim after fish cower in terror.
The animals are not to be seen ten miles from here,
And surely the fish have swum deep to avoid it.’
She ordered me take off my things and place them at the fire.
Robed in a blanket, I sat myself down. I saw her laugh and
Her skin burn up a hot brown. Beads dripped from throat to breast,
And she laughed again, her head thrusting high.
‘It is a fine man you are, braving the elements,
with a longing for all the world can give, and lost to its nearest
comforts.
Seeing my famished state, she promised food and fine drink that
she kept, she said, for choice guests. And wait I did beside the
fire. A dreaming sleep filled with the finest imaginings came
over me then - long it seems, for when I awoke the sun’s rays
were piercing through the shutters and birds cheered the arrival
of day.
I took my leave of the sleeping household.

 

III

In a wide-open place of fallen columns,
Surrounded by a world weighing its vines,
I spotted a friend’s resting place, wild-grown,
And weary, thought to sit and reminisce.
Sun-veils of rain brought gasps and laughter.
My wet eyes, half-shut and brushed by drizzle,
Espied rainfall’s passing but a moment after.
I felt happy there, filled with warm thoughts
Of the past and pleased with the sun’s heat.
Then an outraged cry turned my heart stone:
‘Fetch yourself home. For is it not plain,
The human arena is not your domain.’
Like waking from a sleep of evil dreams,
My parched lips looked skyward for comfort.
But the words had anchored the pluming sky,
Drawing colour upwards, leaving only grey.
Then as man surely knows the sign of the cross,
I saw in this fall my own irreversible loss.

 

IV

Lost not for the first time that day, I sought guidance from the
master who trades petitions for coins, standing lonely upon a bridge
and singing to the distant hill this question:

‘If life finds prayers that can touch love’s glow,
Then how to touch the golden day,
Catch the hanging silver moon,
See tears in the night sky,
And foresee their boon?
It is a fear that grips,
As we shudder at man’s short straw –
Three score and ten,
Maybe less, maybe more.’

‘Master,’ I cried from the side of the bridge, ‘I can help you in your
quandary, I believe, with words I once heard from a silver-haired
old gentleman with soft blue eyes and lines on his face. He was old
but his back was straight, and he laughed to himself as he looked
upon flower beds and clouds floating by. I remember his first words
to me were these:

There’s nothing I love more than a blue sky. Here I sit every day
upon this park bench. And the band plays and the place is a riot of
colour and people. Here the memory of my departed wife and the
flowery scent could drop me to my knees. I’ll declare to you, young
man, our creed, remembering her sweet face and the final words she
spoke –
I’ll be ready for all slings.
It would not be like me, fighting and philosophical,
To give way to trouble and wring my hands in despair.
I’ll take every moment with a smile,
And should I fail, then I‘ll shout with regret —
For it was the pain and not my reason.
And I’ll tell friend and foe alike not to fret, but to take consolation in
this:
I saw the world and saw too my place within it,
Clasping your hand all these years.’

With sadness I left the bridge seeing how the master’s tears
flooded the river below, and he wailing with these words:

‘If I could throw day on this veiling night,
Halt in its tracks this sweeping sleet.
Then I could resolve the chaos,
Bring order to the sight of loss,
Suspend things for a few hours,
Give my hands and feet some use,
Hurl pride upon a passer-by – who’d listen.
Tell him of my bright-eyed boys and girls,
All the reasons a man had to rejoice .
Gone from here to a city of darkness.’

 

V

I journeyed away from this green land,
And counting every pence, walked towards a rattling town,
Cheering every sugary tea that warmed my freezing skin,
Gladdened by the sight of scones, crouching in cardboard boxes.
I stood in the shadow of a column and fixed an eye
On people building or busy,
Aching to soak brick in the sun’s shoots,
Aching to mark sites with arcane rites.
‘Who knows,’ I cried, ‘what could come from these steps?’
I walked to the centre of this place and listened
To the buried water running underneath,
Drowned by bustle and business,
And heard the bitter waters sing to bitter sorrow.
Tears splashed my hands,
That curtained from others wet cheeks as I flew away once more.

 

VI

I wandered the forest-trail that led towards soft mountains.
The night took on a heathery shade with the onset of darkness.
Winding at a pace through twisting paths, feeling my way through,
Worried about the worsening light, knocked about, unsure.
Fears proved right as a black beast trotted around the bend.
Head high and haughty, dog, wolf, or boar – I saw my end.
All three I feared the most, and all three it seemed to be.
‘But how,’ I cried, ‘could I be seeing this threesome thing I see?’
There was no third choice, but to fight or flee.

I set my course to the right and walked with care toward brush.
It too swaggered slow toward the brush. Wet wood lying on the
forest floor was all I had to repel its charge and tusks. I must do,
I knew, what I thought needs must, and run and run did I, pedalling
hard and gliding over the terrain, making hard for the forest’s edge –
the leaf-filled world sliding by. It was there at the edge that I saw an
old man, sitting on a bench and enjoying the quiet of the early day.
The sun’s breath was warm and the breeze was conducting a duet of
dancing grass and working bees. ‘Old man,’ I cried, ‘what is it that
I’ve just seen? Big and black, bullish and bearish, rabid and wild,
set to set itself upon me. As luck would have it, my legs kicked it off
my heels in some hungry place back there.'

‘Nonsense child. Such creatures don’t exist.
Still, you’ve twig-legged far before breakfast.
Your face tells tales of tall encounters,
Of aversion, loss and fear.
It’s clear, too, your mind and soul are in a twist.
The question’s what took you through there,
And how far you’ve left to traipse and wander?

Take this path anyhow. It runs to the bottom of that solitary mountain
in the distance that overlooks a fine stretch of coast. Yes, the
one that struggles with the wind beating its crown. Yes, that’s the
one, meadow-fair and fragrant at its waist, and with struggling granite
that climbs toward the sky as it meets the sun’s rays, blistering
through the crown of slow-moving grey cloud. Make your way up
there and embrace the lie of the land.’

With clear purpose I departed and walked toward the mountain
with its silver head.

 

VII

On the summit I saw stretching along the coast
Hillocks, cliff heads, sea surf, barb-twists joining post,
Land-locking wide bays that embraced the curious tide,
White waves, deep sea, the trampling surf in sea-slide,
Salty green estuaries greeting a river’s sea-bound flow,
Grass - blade green - and seals, rippling fish shoals.
Smiling times were these, this pulsing land, thrusting sea
This high peak, lofty space, this low sky tumbling free.
My eyes were wind-watery, my cheeks were stung and flush,
Surrounds that unfurled my soul, or at least I thought as much.
A cry gushed forth like a paused sob when the hurt bites deep
Frenzied with turns and thoughts of sleepless sleep.
Head low I stepped into the step-jolting descent,
Chasing twilight towards the gloom-black haunt.

 

VIII

Dark then, my eyes saw the black as well as can sleep.
‘Is this not a vengeance upon me,’ I cried, ‘to be more lost than ever
in this open place, with the wind sweeping through me, and I upon
this slope of the mountain.’ The howling and crashing, as if the
mountain was tumbling to its knees, left me with no life at all.
I dropped and crawled blindly for something and fell under a standing
boulder in my path. Crawling under its lip, I lay there waiting
for sun up. And memory fashioned an inner fire, a fire to keep
hopes bright and at bay a biting dark. And the crisis gave way to
song:

'If life has, as it seems, flung me astray,
Then it is a trick of mind and memory,
Some wrong voice that keeps sense at bay.
Perhaps I hunt life’s hiding story,
That leaps over the sun-streaming horizons,
Forever falling, and with it pulling me
By an ethereal cord tied to my waist,
Hurtling and pedalling over the world’s edge –
A retreating fall into things eyes fail to see.'

And I laughed and cried at my poor attempts at good-cheer, as the
entire night reverberated with the clamour of space that pummelled
the rock, standing up to it all and extending itself outwards to keep
me from getting too wet. ‘Things could be worse,’ said I, ‘and
morning light can’t be far away. So I’ll pre-empt whatever song
there’ll be then, as the darkness is overpowered by grey and the
blue breaks through, if that indeed be the course of events –

If I am a soul in pain,
I’m surely not alone,
Surely not the only one
Wandering a darkened room.
Lost in the emptiness
Of this wandering home.
I have celebrated with others
And as well as the next.
And though often vexed,
Contentment I’ve known,
With it all sliding by,
Thinking no more on
The daily slings of misfortune,
And quietly satisfied with
The few occasions when I thought
The world walked in my shadow
And followed my step, and looked
Upon my leaps, and shone upon
My smiles.
Indeed. Good days I have had.’

Though morning broke reluctantly, soon all before my eyes sang
a finer tune.

 

IX

T
he return road, they say, is a pleasure
Compared to the penance of an outward journey.
All is familiar and the head is subtracting hard
The time left from the time that it took.
We are more decisive, some say.
The road is better known, say others.
Both true, I think, but in this instance...
It is heart-strings that pull me home.
Time passes when you’re thinking
And day-dreaming of the good times
As you hope they’ll be.
To journey is necessary, but it is a failed enterprise
If you cannot return.

 

X

The next morning I set off to the beach
Where I love to sit and love to swim,
Intending to plot my journey with each stone I’d skim
In an episodic form and according to skipping prowess,
So as to refashion each story and vision
And throw them to the waves,
Where they may leap for life before sinking to the sea-bed.
Some would overshoot an incoming wave,
Whereas others dropped quickly into rushing surf.

In seeing one loses more than one gains,
Like wind swiping the feet from under you,
All is off centre and heavy is the strain
From striding upon open roads and looking to the skies.
But we are all making a journey home,
And today, every stone that I have flung into the sea
Will find its way once more to the shore.


Barry Keane was born in Dublin in 1972. He is a Doctor of Polish literature and teaches literary translation in the Department of English at Warsaw University. He is the author of acclaimed works on the Polish Renaissance poet, Jan Kochanowski, and the Polish modernist Skamander poets. In 1997 his translation of Piotr Tomaszuk’s 'Doctor Felix,' performed by the Wierszalin Theatre, won first prize at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. He has written one previous book of poetry entitled The Crystal Side (1998). This poem is from his forthcoming collection called Inshore, published by Shoregate Press.

Copyright © All text by Barry Keane 2005 Copyright © EighthSquare.com P.O. Box 580 New York, NY 10113