Queen Ayesha

I suppose this ought to be on my “Cats & Catterel” page, since it’s pure catterel (i.e. not doggerel) but that has become long and rather unwieldy although I have just added two contributions to it from comments by freefall852. Anyway, I find it easier to add this “pome” here instead.

Just a little background: Ayesha belongs to my neighbour and is indisputably Queen around here. If she’s relaxing in the middle of the road outside her house, she will not deign to move for any vehicle and you just have to stop and park where you are.

I was taken aback the other day when I saw her lurking on her doorstep in a most un-majestic attitude, and on closer inspection discovered that someone had shaved her body, leaving mane, tail and legs still bushy. However, poor Ayesha most definitely did not appreciate this new look – if a cat could blush, she was blushing, Whether it was done because her gorgeous fur was matted or as a gesture towards helping her combat the present heatwave, I don’t know. But the sight inspired this:

QUEEN AYESHA

We live in a cul-de-sac
Where Queen Ayesha reigns supreme
Over any other cat
Or human who may dare to dream
Of trespassing where she reposes
Amid the sweetly-scented roses
Or in the middle of the road –
All traffic stops at her abode.

White and black
Fur, long and glossy,
Stately gait
Majestic pussy.

But what is this? Alas, alack,
Big bushy tail and legs and mane
But body shaved – a buzz-cut cat!
No signs of majesty remain
She sits head bowed
As if she’s cowed
By all her loss of body fur
And brings forth not a single purr.

Still, when temp-er-a-tures soar
To 35 degrees or more
What seems most sensible to you?
To suffer from the heat? or do
The same as humans – doff your coat
And hide yourself somewhere remote
From prying eyes and ridicule?

You may look funny – but you’re cool!

Moon in a Summer Dawn

My translation of a poem by Philippe Jaccottet that perfectly describes a sight I am blessed to be able to enjoy here in the Swiss Alps on a regular basis at this time of year:

In the slowly brightening air
Lingers this gleaming tear
Or flickering lanterned flame 
While from the mountains’ sleep
Arises a golden haze

Hanging yet
In the balance of the dawn
Between the promised blaze
And this lost pearl

Original French:

Lune à l’aube d’été  

Dans l’air de plus en plus clair 
scintille encore cette larme
ou faible flamme dans du verre 
quand du sommeil des montagnes 
monte une vapeur dorée 

Demeure ainsi suspendue 
sur la balance de l’aube 
entre la braise promise
et cette perle perdue 

More for Ukraine

Like many others, I read the news (because I can’t bear to watch) about the war raging in Ukraine, and feel helpless, powerless. I grew up in the industrial Midlands of England during WW2, and my lullabies were sirens and bombs exploding. But I never experienced the horror of an armed invasion. How long can we sit back and refrain from action?

These are my translations of two more of Nelly Sachs’ poems that are as topical and relevant today as when she wrote them. The poem about the sunflower, in particular, as a symbol of Ukraine, is chilling in this context.

1.

You lookers-on
Who saw murder done before your eyes.
Just as you feel someone looking at you from behind,
so you feel on your back
the gaze of the dead.
How many dying eyes will look at you
when from the hiding places you pluck a violet?
How many hands raised in supplication
in the twisted martyred branches
of the old oak trees?
How much memory grows in the blood
of the evening sun?
Oh the unsung lullabies
in the nocturnes of the turtle dove –
many’s the one might have captured a star.
But now the old well has to do it for him!
You lookers-on
who didn’t raise a hand to kill,
but who did not shake off the dust from your
longing,
who stopped stock still at the point where it turns
to light.

2.

But the sunflower
inflaming the walls
raises from the ground
those who speak to the soul
in the dark

Torches lit for another world 
with hair growing beyond death –

And outside the song of finches
and time strolling in glory
vibrant
and the flower growing dear
to the human heart

evil ripens into the winepress
black grapes – of ill repute –
already pressed to wine –

To Katya, aged 7, in a bomb shelter in Kyiv – by Ben Okri

I wanted to reblog this from Cathy’s blog at https://wordpress.com/read/feeds/47217620/posts/3930355091 but had difficulties, so instead I have lifted it wholesale from the Guardian. Thank you to Cathy for leading me to this.

All around you missiles
Are falling. Churches
You once knew won’t
Be there any more.
The streets you walked
Will be changed by
Blood and shelling
And bombs. It seems
The world’s gone mad.
As the Earth shakes,
Not because of the rage
Of the gods, but that
One man wants to
Win back a lost empire,
You will think that
Your world is being
Shattered for ever. It is.
But out of the destruction,
Out of all this thunder,
Something new will
Come. Whatever happens
Your land will know
The courage of its soul,
Its people; and history
Will be rewritten not
With the force of an autocrat
But by the steadfast hope
And desire to be true
To the beauty of your earth
And all you have
Suffered. Katya in your
Bomb shelter, we’re with you.
We’re there in the shadows
We’re there in the silence
Between the explosions …

Those who destroy your land
Destroy themselves.
Always remember what
Your land fights for,
The right to its future,
Without any force from
Outside. Katya, we are
Done with people forcing
Us into their own dream.
We are done with being
Told who we can or can’t
Be. A time comes when
You stand and say
My future’s mine to dream
My land is mine to till
My life is mine to imagine
You will not break my truth
You will not distort my
Dream. You will not
Destroy my future, who
Ever you are. You may
Pulverise our churches,
Our roads, theatres, and our
Hospitals, with hundreds
Hiding in them, but you’ll
Never touch the
Fountain of our dreams,
Or the deep world
From which we will create
Every day a radiant
Land. From this bomb
Shelter we’ll dream anew.
Your shelling is our resurrection
Your missiles are missives
Of our regeneration.
All that you ruin
Are all those things
Which must go so
That we will for ever
Be free to be what we
Truly are. For even
If you win, the victory
Is ours. For you’ve
Tempered our souls
And revealed to us our
True selves which we
Might never have
Found without your
Wish to crush us.

Katya, in your
bomb shelter, it’s
A fearful thing
When people act
From the great emptiness
Of a loss of empire.
An empire is a vast ego,
A gigantic delusion, and
It makes people think
That they own the
Souls of others, that they
Control the destiny
Of nations, and that they
Are somehow the masters
Of the Earth. The loss
Of such a delusion
Can make people insane.
Sometimes when a leader
Is unhinged by this loss
They are prepared
To destroy the world so
They can return
To their lost dream
Of vast terrains in which
Once they were gods.

*

It’s not good for humans
To entertain the delusion
Of being gods. So Katya
It is not your fault that
Someone wants back
What they should not
Have taken. It’s not our
Fault that we dream
Of freedom, that we want
To be ourselves,
Live our lives, make
Our own mistakes,
And determine our own
Destiny. No one can
Rip that away from us.
The age of empire is over.
The age of freedom is
Here. They may dominate
Us still with their might and
Their nuclear bombs,
But they will not
Determine who we shall
Be, or where our
Fire and our dreams
Will take us. I am with
You there in the bomb shelter.
I am a bomb shelter child too.
This will end. It will pass.
So drink the sweet
Waters of the Earth.
Sing songs to one
Another in this time
Of darkness. The
Monster’s worst roar
Is often just before
It falls. There are no real
Monsters in life,
Just people who’re
Deluded, or mad, or
Lost in ideas that stray
Too far from the
Wise road of the human.

*

Fires are howling
In the streets that the
Centuries built.
There are tenements,
Bomb-sliced in half,
In which you can
See the innards
Of apartments.
Your roots are entangled
With the souls of those
Who seek to murder you.
I hear that their soldiers
Weep as they drop
Bombs on their distant relations.
See, they’re driving
Their knives into their own
Hearts. Such a great
Civilisation, home to
Such madnesses.
They learned nothing
From Lev Tolstoy, Katya.
They learned nothing.
Napoleon tried to do
The same thing. He
Won too. But what
A loss that was.
They burned their famed
City so that what he
Won was ashes.
He sat there in the throne
Of ash, and eternal winter
Descended on his head.
That was the commencement
Of his end. They learned
Nothing from War and Peace.
Nor from Hitler.
A people determined
To be free can
Not be compelled
To be unfree again.
Even if you kill them.
Do you know why,
Katya? Well it’s because
We are made of a stuff
Not of this Earth
And when we find
Our truth a new beauty
And force is added to
The universe.

The missiles are falling.
Children perish in bombed
Out churches. An evil
Is being planted in our
Times and the whole
World can see it.
But missiles create lions
From lambs, and bombs
Awaken tigers. They
Never learn, the deluded ones.
They’ll kill hundreds
Of thousands, but
From those defeats
An army of dragons
Will be born. They
Have changed the world,
But not in the way they
Thought. Katya, you
Who live in the slip
Stream of empires,
Wake up fast. Grow
Deep, strong and brave.
Join the greater river
Of human destiny.
You can’t fight injustice
And then be unjust to others.
Every day you survive
Brings your liberation
Closer. Spirits
Of the dead will you on.

*

The church will be rebuilt
The streets will be made new
There will be festivals in the square.
You will taste grapes from Greece,
Apples from the Hesperides
And sweet oranges from Africa.
And one day your laughter
Will defeat the vacuum missiles
And the bombs will fade
Into the depths of your freedom.
A soft wind from the Bosphorus
Will weave your hair
And the sun-kissed snow
Will temper the grim memories
Of this bomb shelter where you grow.

  • Ben Okri is a novelist and poet. He is the author of Every Leaf a Hallelujah and The Famished Road
  • Voices of Ukraine: writers including Ian McEwan and Karl Ove Knausgaard will read work by Ukrainian authors at a Guardian Live event in London 0n Monday 11 April. The event will also be livestreamed and all profits will be donated to the DEC Ukraine appeal. Book here

Secular Xmas

There now –

I’ve made the cake,

Mince pies and Xmas cookies done,

Ordered the turkey, trimmings, drinks

Are all in hand.

The tree with all its baubles, tinsel, star,

And flashing lights is up.

More lights around my house

Than all the neighbours’ – wow!

The cards all written, stamped and in the mail.

Carols and jingle bells,

White Christmas, and so on

Playing nonstop

In every place I go. 

Presents are bought and wrapped –

No stocking forgotten –

And I’m dead beat with all this stress and strain!

Who on earth, I ask,

Invented Christmas?

And why, for heaven’s sake?

Damned if I know.

Two More Poems by Jörg Zink – Translated

I, Moles

Every being on this Earth has their own world
and every one is sure that their world is the only one
that really exists.

I think to myself:
Underneath the fig tree, in the loose soil,
lives a family of moles.

I imagine asking Daddy mole,
“How big is the world?”
He’ll think about this for a while, then say:
“It’s very big. It’s made of soil
that reaches two mole-lengths down.
Then you hit rock. That’s where the world ends.
It reaches two mole-lengths up,
then comes Hell. That’s where the devils are
who want to kill us with their spades.
This is where the world is, here in our burrows, 
here where there’s food for the noblest of creatures,
for us moles.”

His wife and child, however, consider
Father to be a wise man.
They roll themselves up in their cosy, soft, warm fur
and are sure that they
are living in the hub of the world,
privileged above all other creatures.

II. Beetles

Let’s have a little more fun:
In the grass at the edge of the field
two ladybirds are strolling through the clover
content after a good meal
and philosophising about the limits of existence.

One of them, his brow furrowed in thought,
starts thinking aloud:
“Might there not be creatures in the world
that are utterly different from us? Bigger? Stronger?
Wise and powerful? Humans, maybe?
Or whatever you want to call them.”

The other beetle laughs so hard that the blade of grass quivers.
“Humans? Are you kidding?
Have you ever seen one?”
“No, never seen any,” admits the first, abashed.

And they conclude that there can’t be any humans
as there’s no proof of their existence.
“The truth is,” says the second insect, 
“that nothing exists unless you can see it
and hear it and count it and define it,
and above all else, eat it.”
And they turn their smug attention 
to their dessert.

Strange, how obediently we follow – Jörg Zink

Strange, how obediently we follow 
When we listen to our experts.
Day after day we let ourselves be persuaded
That our world goes no further
Than what can be reduced to figures,
theorems, proofs.
We let them tell us: a different world,
A spiritual one maybe, spiritual beings,
Even a God – that’s all wishful thinking.

We let them wall us in.
We say: no one is free.
We are all shaped by our genes.
Our job maps our path.
We are fixed, we say,
and freedom is a dream.

But maybe we could be freer than we think
If we opened our eyes –
Both in our heart and in our spirit –
Maybe we could cross all borders
Drifting with the white clouds 
Across the blue of an endless heaven.

(My translation)

Broad, blue to the horizon – Jörg Zink

Broad, blue to the horizon, lies the fjord
Hemmed in by distant mountains.
Stretching as far as the eye can see: water, rocks, sky,
Blurring in the mist of the distance.

But what for the outward eye stretches into infinity
also stretches into infinity in our own soul,
and our inner world
is even more infinite than the outer.

For where the inward things end
is where a new, boundless world begins.

An ancient legend tells of a river
that runs around the edge of the world, and it says:
Look beyond! There, too, is truth!

And I sense:
All the boundaries we see,
All the boundaries we bump into,
Can open up to us
And our freedom begins
Wherever we look beyond the bounds
.

This is my rendering of the first poem by Jörg Zink in his little book “Unter weitem Himmel”, a beautiful collection of poetry and photographs, with a positivity frequently absent in the literature of these present times.

It’s over five years since I exultantly bought this lovely book for just one cent (plus postage) – a tale I recounted here – and I really don’t know why it has taken me so long to get around to putting these poems – which are really one long reflection – into English. His website, in German, can be found here: https://www.joerg-zink.de. He lived to be 93, and was a very prolific author so I’m sure I can’t be the first person to translate any of his works into English. However, Google is letting me down in this instance by only bringing up German results for me. Never mind: that means I can get on with putting these into English without having to compare myself with people far better than I am, which can be intimidating as well as challenging.

I have two other poems on this blog that are my translations of Zink’s originals, here and here. Both of these come from the same source, Unter weitem Himmel. I don’t want to infringe anyone’s copyright, so any images included are mine. We don’t have many fjords here in Switzerland, and I haven’t been to Norway, so at present I don’t have a suitable photo to accompany this poem. Perhaps my daughter can oblige, since she has been there?

Anyway, enjoy!

Homecoming

The road runs to meet you
Eager as a hungry mouth
Swallows and spits you out
At the tunnel’s end
Races headlong towards you
Until the turning
There it slows
And pours you into the lane
That tips you into the house
Your journey’s end
And the road retreats
Back into the hills.