Tuesday, March 23


Photo: time after time © pop-aj from Onexposure

if somewhere a mad poet should raise a terrible axe

as the great owl hoots
the mighty axe rises to the moon
its steel face gleaming cold
in a final fell swoop
through the dark forest
it bites the warm and supple wood

the avenging elm
shakes the imprisoned axe
makes it shiver like a mad tuning fork
calling out to the infinite
family of nails

countless mineral slivers
silently burrowed in timber
all awaken and begin
to hum and tremble
steel spikes quiver everywhere
wood tremors surge
through our carpentered world

crosses fall apart
becoming scattered rail ties
rafters shake
swallows flee quaking homes
mirrors release their looking glass
trapped reflections
shatter into jagged shards

I emerge from the ruins of my house
toppled logs kneel around me
listening to the moon owl’s song
lodged in the wounded
wooded heart of midnight

Magpie Tales 6 — Nails
This week's magpie tales deals with 'Nails'. Magpie Tales is a blog begun by willow, of Life at Willow Manor, and, in willow's words, "dedicated to the enjoyment of writers, for the purpose of honing their craft, sharing it with like minded bloggers, and keeping their muses alive and well". To see what other magpie scavengers have done with nails, click on the photo caption.

Monday, March 22

Six impossible things before break fast

For the audio to this post, before reading click on play below to listen to Ishmael by the great South African jazz pianist Dollar Brand (aka Abdullah Ibrahim).

This week's Theme Thursday subject is 'Breakfast'. By now I am several days late, but still want to break bread with you here and share this my most memorable breakfast memory, not an early morning sitdown affair at the kitchen table, but an unerasable moment I enjoyed late last August, high atop the Galata Tower as I gazed out over the Istanbul skyline at sunset on Friday during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month.

This came on the last of my seven nights in Istanbul. On each of the previous nights I had made a point of ceremoniously going up on the hotel's rooftop terrace just before sundown to see the spectacle of the mosques lighting up and hear the muezzins chanting out their adhan, the call to prayer, from the minarets. Our hotel was well situated for this observance, right next to the Shezade (Prince's) Mosque and a short distance from the Suleymaniye the Magnificent Mosque and the Beyazit Mosque, with the marvelous six-minaret Sultanahmet Blue Mosque and the Fatih Mosque a bit farther away but within clear view.

View from Galata Tower at sundown

And within earshot. There is something mysterious in the way the plaintive call of the muezzin seems to spiral up from the clarinet sentries that stand by the silent drums of all those temples and then float over the rooftops of this time hallowed city. I would try to pick up each mosque's chanting muezzin and follow their individual calls separately until they melded and flowed into each other so completely that it was impossible to hear anything but a single reverential voice crying out from the multi-throated choir.

Istanbul Sunset by Atilla1000 from Pichaus
During Ramadan the sunset call to prayer is the most welcome for the faithful, as it marks the end of their daylong dawn-to-dusk fast. Those who strictly adhere to the fasting ritual will not even drink water while the sun is up, a parching challenge when the holy month falls in the months of summer heat as it did this past year. So the muezzin's evening wail bears a cool quenching promise of imminent release from heat, thirst and hunger that seems to make it ring clearer and carry farther in the dusky red horizon.

Istanbul is a city of mosque minarets as surely as New York is the city of skyscrapers. I will never forget the gorgeous skyline that greeted María and I some 20 years ago during our first stay in the city, as we silently feasted our eyes on the countless dark mounds and delicate spires silhouetted against the fading glow of the setting sun on our return to Istanbul by boat on the Bosphorus Strait after a daytrip up to the Black Sea.

I had long been drawn to the sound of the muezzin's chant, for reasons I do not know. Perhaps it was the tug of my eclipsed Arab ancestry — although both my grandparents on my father’s side were from Lebanon/Syria, this part of my family history is almost completely unknown to me. Or maybe it was simply the exotic allure that distant desert songs can exert on a fanciful boy who grew up in New Jersey in the shadows of New York City’s soaring towers. For whatever reason, for me there is a mesmerizing quality to the throbbing plangent cry. Even before I had actually heard the mournful minaret call I felt I had recognized it in the stirring laments of Coltrane’s soprano saxophone or Yusuf Lateef’s eerie soulful oboe and certainly in the powerful hoarse seguiriyas sung by Spain’s best flamenco singers.

But when I did first hear a muezzin summon the faithful on a trip to Morocco many years ago, it felt completely new and strange. There was a nasal vibrato that I had not expected, as if the guttural emotion welling out of the muezzin’s windpipe could not all pour out through the mouth and had to trill its way out through the pinched upper reaches beyond the pharynx. To me it conjured up the bleated song of lambs or a flock of goatskin bagpipes crying out or images of a giant one-stringed lute humming mightily. Again and again, the reedy chant rises up in long and longing ululations and then falls back into silence. But there is no silence when several muezzins from different mosques are heard at once, and the effect is even more striking, the lilting chorus surging and ebbing, never resting…

Photo of Galata Tower by Sametak from Flickr
Perhaps the best view of Istanbul is afforded by the observation deck of Galata Kulesi, the 220 foot high cone-capped cylinder that since 1348 has towered above the northern bank of the Golden Horn inlet that divides the city. I assumed it would be impossibly clogged with jostling sightseers at sunset, the most prized viewing hour, so I did not entertain much hope of being able to earn a spot there when I headed across the Galata bridge shortly before sundown. But, inexplicably, to my great and delighted surprise, there were no lines and I was able to quickly make my way to the top as the sun was about to end its slow daily descent.

So my break fast tableau was set, the majestic Constantinople-Istanbul stretched out before me, with her scores of historic mosques. And as the sun dipped below the horizon, the phantom minarets began to put on their show, lighting up, one after another, like the brightest stars do at nightfall. Suleymaniye, Sultanamet, Eyup, Fatih, Yeni Cami, Shezade, Beyazit, Rüstem Pasha … and, also one by one, the muezzins took their solar cue and in quick succession began their twilight incantations. The evening air was soon warbling with disembodied prayers wafting up from dozens of minaret candlesticks. And they were all converging on Galata Tower, they were all singing for me.
the arc of the muezzin’s call
bowing on a single string
goatskin bagpipes bleating
in the evening wind

a gingered night’s offering
to the whispering moon
the humming echo
of a red vesper rune
One by one the voices trailed off into the dusk, their summons ended, the choir thinning out until only one last night crier was heard. And just as it is impossible to pinpoint the exact moment when the fading golden peal of a vibrating gong ends and the ensuing silence begins, I cannot tell when the last muezzin fell silent on that crimson evening. It was break fast time.

Interior of Rustem Pasha mosque

I was recently reminded by Susan’s Through the Looking Glass series at ArtSpark Theatre of the passage where the White Queen tells Alice that “sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast". And in that spirit, I offer here six impossible beliefs to utter atop Galata Tower as I try to relive that evening before break fast:

♫ The story told on one of the panels on the Galata observation deck is true: in 1638 one Hezârfen Ahmed Çelebi did fly from the top of the tower on a glider he built himself and landed unhurt on the Asian side of the Bosphorus over two miles away.

♫ No call to hatred or subjugation will ever be heard in the muezzin’s adhan, neither by the callers, nor by the heedful called, nor by unheeding wayfarers who gratefully eavesdrop on this sublime choir.

María and our daughters, María and Isabel

♫ The stalagmite minaret lighthouses will fuse their glow with the stalactites of starlight dripping from the indigo sky to light our path out of the labyrinth.

♫ The muses locked in the mosaic tiles of all the mosques will stir anew amidst hyacinths and carnations, tulips and peonies, and we shall know their song.

Rustem Pasha tiles by G. Dall'Orto

Minarets by the Bosphorus
♫ The endless succession of dawns and dusks washed away by the currents and eddies of the Bosphorus and Golden Horn as they lap at the pylons of history will rise up from the silt and percolate their secrets out through those choppy waters.

♫ We will all sit together to break fast, quench thirst, slake hunger and sate revivified senses while our eyes drink the blue ocean and our hearts eat the sun like a fruit (to paraphrase the lovely Genevieve Taggard poem known to me thanks to blog friend Joanny the Dowser’s Daughter).

To hear an adhan call to prayer listen to the video below, along with images of some of Istanbul’s mosques. To get the idea of what I have tried to convey in this post, you must imagine several of these intoned simultaneously from all different directions:

Enjoy breaking fasts and breakfasts with other Theme Thursday participants by clicking here.

Credits: The music is Ishmael from Dollar Brand’s “Africa — Tears and Laughter”; Inner City records 1979
Dollar Brand: vocal, piano, soprano sax
Talib Qadr: soprano sax, alto sax, vocal
Greg Brown: bass
John Betsch: percussion

Monday, March 15

Stella by starlight ...

It is often said that we men are incapable of doing two things at once. This strikes me as grossly unfair, patently absurd and obviously untrue, given that few people would question our ability, say, to drink and make fools of ourselves all at the same time. So in that spirit I have decided to do a combination post for TFE's current poetry bus prompt at The People's Lost Republic of EEJit and for willow's Magpie Tales 5.

TFE's instructions were that we had to begin a poem with the memorable lines ...
"She was wearing Stella McCartney,
I was drinking Stella Artois"
... to which he added the helpful information that "If anyone from Mars or Carlow are looking in, Stella McCartney is a fashion designer and daughter of famous ex Beatle, Ringo Starr. Stella Artois is a Belgian medicinal cure for warts and walking straight."

And the Magpie Tales 5 prompt was the 'handy' photo shown above.

So drum roll please ... and here goes — two things at once, neither of them very meaningful on their own, but when combined, completely and utterly useless and irredeemably forgettable.

Maniacal mannequin Belgian beer blues

she was wearing Stella McCartney,
I was drinking Stella Artois
for weeks I would steal away nightly
through mad glass wondering who art thou?

by day she was clad in designer clothes
at night she was my naked nymph to behold
a wave of her hand from where no hair grows
hailing my taxi her body unrobed

yesterday Stella’s head and hands were gone
Venus de Milo with a dinosaur smile
imagine the delight in my love song
when I spotted her hand in the trash pile

her hand beckoned me to blessed wedlock
so I brought her home on the ides of march
to open bottles of Belgian hemlock
happily saved from fashion’s tides of starch

so now we stay at home and drink serene
squeezing the juice of tedium’s lemons
to wash and paint my yellow submarine
the handiest cure for delirium tremens

now I am wearying Stella McCartney
and she is stinking of Stella Artois

Well, I apologize for that and if you think yourselves capable of doing two things at the same time, I encourage you to go visit Magpie Tales 5 here and TFE's poetry bus here and see what other participants have done with these prompts.

Thursday, March 11


Observe ...

Who are these swaying, hat waving people? And why are they standing in a river, surrounded by mounted horsemen, chanting their song and rhythmically shaking their hats at a flower-laden oxen-drawn silver carriage?

Why, I thought you'd never ask...

You see, I am there in the river amongst them, my brothers and sisters, members of the Seville-based hermandad with whom every year, seven weeks after Easter, I do a ritual, centuries-old pilgrimage to a small village in southern Spain, El Rocío, home to the sanctuary of La Virgen del Rocío, literally, our Lady of the Dew.

Over three days, hundreds of us in this particular brotherhood trek the 50 miles from Sevilla to El Rocío, to join tens of thousands of other pilgrims at the shrine. The walk is a colorful and festive affair, with much music and pageantry, long streams of walking pilgrims, coaches, horses, carriages and carts.

There is sometimes rain, but more often than not searing heat and choking clouds of dust ...

We hike by and through endless stretches of centuries-old olive groves...

and fields of expectant sunflowers ...

There is much singing, but I generally walk in silence, happy to hear the songs of other pilgrims who now call me hermano ...

Young and old ...

At sunset, hats come off as the rosary prayers are murmured and sung ...
(those who know my blog from the 'Roman Pantheon' days may be able to pick me out here)

We sleep on the ground, under the stars and awake to cool mornings to travel trails graced by the spring flowering of Andalusia ...

For me the highlight is crossing the river, at the ford called El Quema, scene of the singing and ritual baptisms of new pilgrims ...

For others it is the procession of the Virgen del Rocío, the religious acts and several days of merriment in the houses at the village...
In the weeks to come, as I prepare for the this year's trek, I will post more on this ritual, the beautiful people I have known there and some of their stories. For now I will just tell you that it all began with a sombrero ...
A photo of me (right), next to Carlos, the dear friend who introduced me to everything I have discovered on those trails, standing in front of the shop in Sevilla where we bought our sombreros rocieros.
For other hats from Theme Thursday participants click here.

Sunday, March 7

Flamenco reply to a Prayer Request

Seguiriya sung at dusk by the sea
The cantaor opens his ancient well
from out of the mineral depths
the flint tongue hurls sparks at the moon

a night raven rises up
to circle in the riderless sky above
beating the hoarse moon drum
with its broken wing
drumming and strumming
circling and circling

to the thumping cantered beat
he howls an unsurrendering lament
licking and fanning fatuous flames
with a busted throat
fanning and flaming
beneath the tightening circle

silver in the sky
copper on the sea
blood on the sand

For Isabel, I sing a flamenco poem for you, Ricardo (photo) and your family in answer to your Prayer Request and send it across the waters, gathering moisture to soften its dry seguiriya scream into a misted fado prayer with all of the healing that music and love may wring from anguished moments like these...

And for blog friends who have never heard a seguiriya, listen below as sung by Camarón de la Isla with Ramón de Algeciras on guitar

Tuesday, March 2

A scale trued by memory ...

The photo prompt for this week's Magpie Tales is the beautiful 1 kg clunker shown here.

Never alone
never alone,
the dark iron weight bobbed up
and down on the bronze plate
in the company of river fairies,
arrowheads and lunar sails

no, señor kilo never danced alone
as he proclaimed his dense message,
the only thing we need to know about him:
I weigh exactly one kilogram

Abril would always surround him
with small river washed stones
she gathered every Sunday morning
after mass in the shady bend
of the stream behind the village church,
La Pedrera,
that sat in pious silence at the edge
of the meadow

the other pan brimmed with potatoes
and onions I would carry back home
happy to heed the daily commandment
“go see Abril and bring me one kilo of each”

with steady hands that always
smelled of moss from river rocks
Abril would hold up the scale
dangling from a jangling chain
and load my end
with the earth blessed offering
for that night’s tortilla
while señor kilo concentrated
on holding up and down
his end of the see-saw bargain

and then,
so I would know the deal was fair
that what’s right was right
and lighter than right
she would add a couple of river polished stones
to señor kilo

she may not be able to read or write,
she might be named for the
month of her birth and not for a saint
because her parents were not wed,
never were and never would be,
but the deal was oh so fair

as señor kilo and his sleek pebbles
locked anew into still balance
with my next meal
her eyes would lock on mine
and hold me gently in
her streaming mists

in a trembling voice that cooed
like a warm throated bird
warbling smooth water stories
gurgling her river song
she would tell me
one stone was the earring
dropped by a Xana nymph fairy
while she danced on the river
in the coming of spring

this one is a sail
made of June moon
that floated down to the church
to celebrate my communion

another was an arrowhead
flung by an ancient warrior
in September’s waning sun

and here is the eye of a star that
fell to earth when her constellation
was shaken by a winter wind

I remember meadow frozen drops of dew
I remember petrified tears

señor kilo now sits alone on the edge of my desk
holding down telephone bills and unopened envelopes
in awkward perfect balance with the computer
that loads down the other end

I now buy potatoes and onions from I know not where
I pick them out myself, wearing plastic gloves,
and weigh them on
perfectly calibrated digital scales

but when life
seems to tip off-kilter
I see señor kilo
under lightly prancing Xanas
dancing their naked ear lobes
under showers of arrows
shot by blind stars

and then my scales will
lock into perfect balance
though they teeter
on an ever sharpening

Photo of me, 3 years old, near my grandmother’s farm in Asturias, Spain, presumably looking for Xanas and arrowheads.

Do stay a while, take my hand and stroll with me, and then go see what other Magpie Tales participants have put on their scales by clicking here.

One year later (Feb 18, 2011), I am linking this post-poem to One Stop Poetry, where Peter Marshall has asked us to dig up old poems from or about our childhood or youth. To see Peter's own poem and what other participants at One Stop Poetry site have done for A Saturday Celeberation: Your Past, click here.