A skater fell offshore on Boxing Day.
The current took him underneath the ice.
That’s what we think, that’s what we all here say.
We would have fetched him back within a trice
and warmed him with dry blankets and advice
to stay on thicker places, if we’d found
a line; or been inclined to sacrifice
ourselves free-diving in the icy sound.
For him the lake’s a winter-long playground.
I want a moral here! His fate was harsh:
a husband (and a father) on a lark,
imprisoned until Spring, down in a marsh,
for skating blithely where the ice was dark.
He must have known the dangers, this no park
but what in recent years was open sea—
although a thousand other skaters hark
no better than he did, and they go free,
and, rosy-cheeked, inside to take their tea.
Is there no good or bad that is concerned
with whether he deserved to sink and freeze?
Is there no count of graces that he earned,
examination for, say, callused knees,
or other marks of piety—that please,
or anger God, or gods, who grant our breath?
Or worse, is there no One we can appease,
and he, and we, go senselessly to death?
A golem on my shoulder lisps a ‘Yeth.’
I whirl (no help) and try to shake him loose.
The golem pinches with six-fingered hands;
and nerves along my neck absorb abuse
that maims small muscles and non-minor glands
until I scream. The golem understands,
propels me, gently now, into a chair
that faces the large window to the sands.
He/we run torpid fingers through my hair.
I catch my breath, try to avoid his stare.
‘You want a moral; or you want it not
to be a moralithtic life you lead?’
the golem asks me, rubbing at the knot
that he’s created near my ear. ‘Won’t bleed,’
he adds. Hands pat. ‘You are a bumptious steed.
I spend so many eons with your kind
but still can’t find a single one who’ll heed
the lessons (seems his lisp has slipped his mind)
that Nature makes so clear to those not blind.’
‘The seasons run, unmindful if you know
that they exist, or mark their rituals.
No Christmas missed persists as next Yule’s show.
No joys you reject as but habitual
come back again the same. No annual
performances repeat each others’ notes
in perfect tune, not even spiritual.
Those who refrain from sowing their wild oats
are milled the same. All end their lives as groats.’
I sit mouse still. I notice that and this:
irrelevancies, wisdom. I am scared.
Who made this golem? Whose unthinking kiss
or careless words inspired him? Who has cared?
‘You did. You do. No question goes unpaired
with answer; though the answer stays concealed,’
the golem says. ‘You have, unwitting, dared
to ask the gods that reasons be revealed
for this and that—for him who lies congealed.’
‘Think,’ he adds, ‘of meetings that you chair.
What morals give you balance as you fly
on auto-pilot, through the air-co’d air,
your only prophet Profit? When you’re sly,
and rush to sweep away those facts that try
to mar the matrices you want to slice
with other factors (such as kids who die
in labor camps from eating rotten rice—
that keeps production costs down), this is nice?’
‘Involved,’ I answer. ‘Tricky—and unfair.
My firms don’t use child labor, or infirm
supports for commerce. Our au-pair,
our youngest worker, ask her, will confirm
she’s safe and happy here. It’s her last term
at school as well. She’s getting topflight grades,
not what you could call hardship. Do you squirm?
I will not risk the anger of you shades,
embodied now—but I am right in spades.’
The golem laughs, a most unpleasant sight.
‘You’re hopeless,’ he opines. He starts to grow.
‘What you’re in need of is some serious fright.’
He seizes me. His fingers smoke and glow.
He hurls me through the window to the snow
that sizzles as it cushions me. I faint.
He revives me with a not-too-gentle blow.
‘You play,’ he says, ‘you’re innocent of taint.
I exercise myself with great restraint
to keep my hands from sliding you, in place
of that good skater, underneath the ice.
You’re guiltless, gutless, no lines on your face.
Not yet they’re not. You profit from Earth’s spice
while keeping clean white hands. Have you seen lice?’
The golem lifts me like an empty sack
and suddenly we’re flying. I see rice
and green, green paddies. Something dying, black.
Spilled blood that fades from red to brown—and back.
‘Not knowing Past, you know not what you know.’
The golem dumps me on a sandy hill.
‘You play that you are happy, as you go,
unthinkingly; in ignorance, eat your fill
of what is put before you. There’s a bill
to pay, a reckoning. Perhaps it’s true
that I should pity you. Perhaps you’re ill.
But such an illness? Better that you rue
the day that you were born. Before I’m through…’
Large dogs prowl hungrily. The coming dusk
projects their shadows higher than my head.
Alone, (the golem, leaving me, was brusque)
I search for supper, shelter and a bed.
I find not one of these, but face instead
a crowd of children combing Goa’s beach:
tiny creatures, mostly eyes and head.
They congregate around me—and they reach
and reach and reach, and reach, and reach, and reach.
The sunrise does not rouse me. It attacks.
I’m sweating. Thirsty. Dirty. Decked with bugs.
Fat parasites park on thin children’s backs.
No golems I can see. Disbanded thugs
of darkness took my shoes and water jugs.
The children cry with thirst, and so would I
except for being trained that tears are drugs
for weaker breeds. Can Kipling make them dry?
The sun burns monsoon prophets from the sky.
It’s noon. I’ve moved. A scorpion in my shoe
stings and kills the thief that stole it in the night.
A moral here? I daren’t ask the few
young sleepers left, for fear that one child might
be Golem waiting for this simple rite
to rile him, send him springing on my chest.
I’m thinner, and surprised I feel all right.
The worm-rich river water thins me best.
I’m strangely happy, quite content to rest.
Night falls and I fall with it, in the road.
No longer asking anything, I cringe
in darkness, fear the snake, the poisonous toad,
malaria, the lice that lick the fringe
of hair I’ve left. No thoughts impinge
of moral, future, meaning, or the past.
Out of doors, I hear the creaking hinge
of Golem speaking through weak spells I’ve cast
to keep him gone: ‘It’s time for captain’s mast.’
‘I’d leave you here forever,’ Golem said,
‘except it suits you: passive; fallow clothes
that serve you as a seedy, teeming bed.
I hoped you’d be repenting, but you doze
your life away, as millions do. Suppose
—stand up!—that there are actions you can take
to help this world, relieve it in its throes
of pain. It’s time you and your ilk should wake.
Come to the present now, see can you take
the first-world’s pumped-up product. It’s called Hell.’
The golem jerks me up by dusty scruff
and flies us to Los Angeles, where swell
limousines take swollen kids to rough
clubs in the inner city. Life is tough
for them, but not in ways that I had thought.
Their parents (famed, nonentities, or both)
have showed them by example; they’ve been taught
that nothing has a worth until it’s bought.
I see kids clamour for the surgeon’s knife
to titillate their market values up;
to straighten teeth and noses—like Dad’s wife
(their age) had sported when she won the cup,
the houses, cars, pool pillows, and their pup.
Their favourite childhood game appears to pose
in VIP rooms, where they ante up
their budding lives for snow packed up the nose
like rivers flooding viper rooms that close
them off, and out, and down, and down, and down.
Some, phoenix like, each half a thousand years,
recover their humanity. Most drown.
The others drag—just empty heads with ears
that gather emptiness; and eyes they swivel round
to see what folk are looking up to them.
If they see no one is, they trip, don’t frown.
They do designer drugs like I do gym;
it speeds their days, is both their grail and hymn.
Why did he do it: brave the cold and skate?
Where did he get the courage to exist,
and, more than that, to live? To woo a mate,
complete good schools, and undertake to twist
the tail of fate. In Goa, have they missed
that life is deed? In L.A., that a life can have a goal?
The golem answers softly, ‘Atheists
deny that higher beings reign, blow kohl
on witnesses who claim there is a Whole;
they darken eyelids trying to unveil.’
The golem, looking old and gray, then asks,
‘Forgetting Captain’s Mast? That won’t avail
you. Captain is the woman who unmasks
your sort. You, a ‘floater,’ are the kind who tasks
the universe you know with dirty works;
the kind who claims an innocence, and basks
in bounty earned from efforts that it shirks.
The Captain’s Mast removes persistent smirks.’
The golem slams me on a ketch’s deck.
There’s nudity and violence. No love.
My first mate downs me with a body check.
She splays me for inspection, dons a glove,
approaches—then an order from above
belays my fears. The Captain takes the con,
instructs me to report. Hands give a shove
I’m charged with living as a myrmidon,
accused of posing as sine qua non
of universes better off without
the selfish sort of simpleton I am.
I say, ‘Not guilty,’ then the crew all shout
‘This is no law court. Better if we ram
you in this cannon, cook you like a ham.’
The Captain, wearing Ray Bans, waves her wrist.
Her sailors, distaff, bind me fast and slam
me overboard for keelhauling. I twist
to free myself; but way and wake persist
in doing all they can to usher in
my own wake. ‘Oh, hear and save me, Lord!’
Is that my voice, I who jut my chin
and claim a man is all there is? My word!
The golem, swimming by me, says, ‘Absurd.’
He cuts the line, and as the ketch departs,
he scoops me from the briny and on board
a craft that’s guided by celestial charts—
a craft that takes it shape from pub room darts.
‘What sense, if any, Mortal, do you make
of what just happened? Moral, morals, cue?’
The golem sighs: ‘I offer you the cake,
you pray for bread; some water, you want stew.
You say fate’s harsh, I make it so; but you
then cry for help to God (or gods) you claim
(or hope) will grant you an epiphany
on call. No strings of course. No alms or fame.
Don’t name the forces you will not acclaim.’
The keelhauling made me bolshie. I demur:
‘Golem, do your damnedest. Make some sense.
I ask for facts, you kick me like a cur
then whisk me off to Past, then Present. Tense
is what you’re making me, not wise. The Gents
is what I’m wanting now. Can you instruct
me how to find it? No? Then get thee hence.
You claim from past and present we’ll deduct
the future, but so far you’ve truly…’
‘No need to go all salty, sir,’ he pleas.
Do I grow? He diminishes, that’s sure.
I watch him greenly quaver as I sneeze
‘I need,’ he says, ‘to show you something pure.
A future beckons, one you can endure.
The skater you abandoned to cold fate
is worth another day or two of your
indulgence. You’ll learn something if you wait.
If you spit on this, do not expect to rate.’
‘A punning golem’s now my font of wisdom?’
I talk like him already, but don’t think
all super naturals brilliant. This one’s dumb.
He takes me places all my friends think stink,
and shows me riddles. ‘Wretched clay foot fink,’
I round on him, ‘Give answers or you die!’
His eyes alert me I would be extinct
if he cut his own orders. Acting shy,
the golem bows, and once again we fly.
I see I fly alone and lose my head.
My heart takes wing across the Pyrenees
and overflies La Mancha to the Med,
of all my loves the fairest. Lemon trees
grow through the winter, and the welcome red
of restaurant rooftops welcomes me in Spain.
I see old towns where Moor and Christian bled.
My heart sinks in remembered tribal pain
and I am home upon the coastal plain.
No golem, but a Goya-model girl
with wondrous limbs and lacking all her teeth,
greets me with a black grin and a whirl
of dancer’s skirt. She hands me a sweet wreath
of almond blossoms. Then she says, ‘come keeth’
and I think, ‘bloody golem strikes again.’
‘No soy golem,’ she laughs, ‘Are you Keith?
He comes to watch each Carnival begin
and you all look alike to me, you men.’
‘¡Adios!’, I say, and ¡swim! to Cadaqués.
The current’s strong but I am not afraid,
and plunge for glory ¿glory? to the base
of basalt ridges. Small soft hands, a maid’s,
encourage me. Example. Effort. Stayed.
With bursting lungs I try for one more yard.
I’d give it up but for the strokes I’ve paid.
The water thickens; waves grow cold and hard.
The voyage, once so fair, goes down ill-starred.
‘Resist those hands that aid you,’ Golem says.
‘You’ve seen enough, and hunger for quiet death.
The saved must live: the living creature pays
with pain and sour remembrance for each breath.
These words I use to drag you underneath
are yours. Remember first love’s radiance,
and how you ruined its kisses with your teeth?
Your words! How did you state love’s transience:
“Life’s but fiction malformed by experience”?’
The golem bursts my heart and disappears.
My death, delayed by hurting tugging hands,
attracts me less the more its moment nears.
A young man screams; a woman barks commands.
Death grasps me but a dolphin countermands
his will, and offers self up to the Scythe.
I’m laid out living on bright, chilly sands.
Above me stands a people who all tithe
but I, still all or nothing, lie and writhe
against the hands. I’m bitter, cold, and want no
second chance. For I, dragged through stretched time.
see humans’ function: we’re the same as guano—
So birds wrap seeds, we are Creation’s chyme—
the soil—protesting ideas in our grime
until they grow. Each new meme needs a cape
for cover till it blooms to paradigm.
Correctly seen, we murder and we rape
to line the meme’s chick nest. Me guano ape.
When Golem gave me wings he gave me sight.
Clear sight brings madness to a feeling man.
Aldous Huxley, sadly, was so right
to see it’s limitation lets us plan;
that could we see our function as bedpan
we would rebel, and atomise the world.
We, the droppings, trail the caravan.
We’re but manure the Cultivators whirled
since Idea started and the Word unfurled.
Rough hands persist. They push ribs and I grunt,
and cold runs through my own hands like a spike.
My neighbour, Dali, draws an elephant
on sky-high legs. It stoops and grabs a mike,
and sun-stoked cheddar watches take a hike
across my chest. I’m crowing like a cock.
I breathe out water, emulate a pike,
and strong cold hands upend me on a rock.
The rock becomes a dingy then a dock.
Doctors treat me, care not I can’t pay.
A nurse tells me it’s all right. I believe.
Belief eclipses knowledge and I sway
towards living. For the first time, I receive
some hint that I am on Earth not to achieve
and even less to think and burn with rage.
Salvador sends six skulls that I cleave
and fill with flowers from a gentler age:
lavender, camellia, thyme, and sage.
A million suns resolve themselves to one
that sets and rises as I swing my head.
The girls that dance by kiss me just for fun;
and angels grace the rainbow by my bed
of cockleshells and coral crushed to red
tiny grains of shiny counterpane.
I bow my head as sweetening prayers are read
and readily agree there’s more than Cain
that steers the blood along the human vein.
I’d stay forever coddled on this shore
but strength, returning, turns my mind to work.
Honest work, an active giving, more
than simply taking. Once inclined to shirk
unselfish tasks to better chase the perk,
I see fulfilment lies in paying back
those hands that pull us from the freezing murk.
These hands that saved me, these giving hands that lack
no love. My kind of hands, the human pact.
The azure sea fades to a northern gray
and I see faces topped with Nordic hats.
‘He’s coming round,’ I hear a tall man say,
and children yell in relay this-and-thats
to tell the people ranged along the flats
of cross-scratched ice and mounds of melting snow
that I’m alive—and, like a thermostat’s
copper, I am bending, like a bow.
I’m standing up. Crowds cheer me as I go.
The ice I fell through gave up, weakened by
the Christmas rush of skaters just like me
all out extending holidays to try,
unthinking, for some reason we could be
content, or happy, with our destiny
to live this way, these years. As we begin,
we think our blades are wings that fly the sea.
We tell the surface, ‘Hold, and let us win.’
We have to try. We know the ice is thin.