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On The Edge Of Unbeing


A Poem for the Feast of Pentecost

They don't know what comes next.

They are trembling,

assembled together for comfort,

confused, bereft, vulnerable,

exposed to hostile forces,

on the edge of unbeing.

They've nothing to bless themselves with

and their manifesto looks dumb

without a party leader.

Where are they to go from here?

It was safe in his company,

despite the witchhunt.

The suffering had a purpose.

They trusted what he was about,

dimly grasping that the 'whited sepulchre'

must be blasted to shards.

To Regain Paradise by dint of law

and the redistribution of wealth

was both illusion and travesty

that cost blood anyway.

He had come to weigh himself

in the balance,

the fulcrum of those scales

unhinged by Adam for all time,

without some Mighty Advocate

intervene with a case

of special pleading and turn the tables

on the wealth-and-muscle hungry,

those with intellectual pretensions

and stiff-necked arrogance.

But why abandon his own,

just when the tide seems

to be turning? The corporate

wounds, defiantly repairing, are now

incorporeal. His mother, the chamber

of his incarnation, the only shrine

and single point of focus, holding it

all together: they could scavenge

with their eyes of dust until eternity,

the vision fumed with nostalgia.

But hark! This rushing wind fans

embers into conflagration.

He's here! In cloistered space!

Mary's haloed head peers heavenward

and hands are linked in concord.

Atomic Courage! Immortal Inspiration!

Babel rased to debris! Love reigns!

No power on earth can quench

Shekhinah's fire! Go, tell the world

and dare to live as if...

From JERICHO ROSE, Songs from the Wilderness (Collection in preparation.)

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Mistaken Vintage!


Fire And Wine

A poem for the Feast of Pentecost

And then it happened...

We hung around for safety

above ground level

the clamouring souls outside

a packed embolus

fain clutching our feet

as if they craved live contact

with celebrity

and sought a fragment of him

we could not furnish

that desert instant

the Word became illumined

sparks ran among the

stubble of our deadlocked heart

bursting occlusion

We recalled the phrase

God is a consuming fire

We had thought it meant

wrath; titanic sacrifice

on our part, not his

Holocausts were done!

The quality of mercy

much spoken of was

now eternally unstrained

its current flowing

This was the God of

Shadrach and his noble breed

passing through furnace

defying wild destruction

unseared and annealed

It was the God of

Moses and the burning bush

bridling lakes of fire

of brimstone and Gehenna

passionate in peace

Divine transfusion

filling us with sentience!

We rose up as one

the livid fear doused and gone

We had to tell it!

So high on rapture

we gave the false impression

the wine of Bacchus

irrigated our parched veins

Mistaken vintage!

The Feminine Principle

For true love is inexhaustible; the more you give, the more you have, and if you go to draw at the true fountainhead, the more water you draw, the more abundant is its flow.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

boundary breaker
ocean bites into the shore
like Eve the apple
cataclysm of ice-caps
old salt solution

rivers swell, banks break
tides roll and sweep, seethe and creep
deluging fissures
searching blind and blighted creeks
for enfranchisement

water sinuous
as serpent mythology
suggests oases
silently the silvered planes
mirror glass ceilings

virtual pome of
hardbitten technology
where's the salvation
in knowledge, remote control
of what was Eden?

winter follows Fall
frost exploits cracks in earth's crust
sun shifts latitude
earth and water, air and fire
reconfigure strife

pales to liquidated text
rules of engagement
anticipate bottom lines
the Garden a maze

no visionary
stake in well-earned real estate
yielding fruit past the
sum of integral parts, still
New Eve, New Adam

This Book - Some thoughts on the Baileys Prize

'I thought how unpleasant it is to be locked out; and I thought how it is worse, perhaps, to be locked in.'

Virginia Woolf

On June 4, the Baileys Prize for women's fiction will be announced. Under the hashtag #thisbook, the organisers have been asking readers to name the inspirational work that has made the most impact on them. This is a tall order and a very particular one. The temptation to name novels we consider great literature does need to be resisted in favour of any that have been a strong catalyst in the way we approach our lives.

Age must come into this equation. Maturer readers, while they may relish new discoveries in a variety of genres, are perhaps not so amenable to having their preconceptions overturned, or being startled by the breaching of what was once off-limits. Their choices are likely to be retrospective and at least partially influenced by stories with a universal and timeless appeal, as is evidenced by the list below of titles submitted by well-known personalities, together with the six shortlisted finalists.

If I had to choose one book from the whole canon of my reading to date which has impinged the deepest and provided a platform for mining the treasures of subtext and the dynamic irrelevancies of stream-of-consciousness, it has to be Virginia Woolf's The Waves. 'I wish you could live in my brain for a week. It's washed with the most violent waves of emotion.'

We are submerged in a Darwinian sea with its hypnotic rhythms. We yield to its undertow and the silent, darting interplay of light and shadow. The boundaries between the characters are not flesh and blood and space. They share a seamless unconscious that roams free through Time and Creation. Only momentary impressions distinguish them from each other. They are modified, qualified, enlarged, enhanced, overcast, by their fleeting proximity to each other and the way a random universe has assorted them, forcing them through the hoops of daily role-playing required to function in a mortal sphere.

These characters are turned inside out, yet miraculously distinct, as they unreel their surface monologues and unveil their uniqueness.

Like a pioneering cartographer, this book offers a map of the human psyche when the mist has been wiped from the lens. Such revelation means you can never look at the world in the same way again.

To have understood this, to be so the thing itself, is surely genius.

There are other women writers who have exerted no less an influence, though the reasons, by comparison, are fairly mundane. What period novelist could discount the energetic prose of Jane Austen, witty and worldly, wicked, wise and wonderful, capturing in vivid relief the social customs and atmosphere of the late Georgian era?

Georgette Heyer, a great entertainer, had the knack of mimicking Austen's verve against a background of meticulous research and a facility with language she did not have to hide. She claimed that if she were cast away on a desert island, she would sooner have Austen's work than any other. I loved Heyer when I set out on my writing career. That tempo, those idioms, plus all the colourful detail of the times, supplied the courage to turn up the vacant page in the typewriter.

Having said this, the writer whose method, vitality and insights, have become almost ingrained and have helped to inform the Berkeley Series, is Helen Ashton, a respected novelist, who appeared not to achieve the recognition she deserved. In her day, there was less emphasis on fame and more on the virtues of steady industry as representing success. She possessed a gift, largely lost nowadays, which is the ability to engage dialogue within the spellbinding narrative of legendary storytelling.  She has written with dashing elegance of William and Dorothy (Wordsworth), of Parson Austen's Daughter, The Swan of Usk (Henry Vaughan) and of life in the household of the Prince Regent at Brighton Pavilion from the perspective of a footman.

 Finally, to jump forward a few decades, I can't omit Susan Hill whose earlier stories touched many raw nerves. Her sentences are often composed of idiosyncratic, intersecting clauses that are natural as running water and soak into the skin. With effortless fluency and an inadvertent eye, she unpacks the menace beneath the apparently innocent, not the Machiavellian, nor the malevolent, but the sinister in everyday exchanges loaded with unprocessed grief and emotion. How did she know about the instructions written in carpenter's pencil, on torn-off scraps of greaseproof paper, with which an embittered mother sends her son to buy fish, stressing what she will and won't pay for, and to go to the beach for it, not the fishmonger? It's like reading a leaf from your past.

In this general vicinity, I might sneak in Margaret Drabble, Rose Tremain, Kate Atkinson, Salley Vickers, all for different reasons. I wish the list was more contemporary and less seemingly xenophobic when I've enjoyed the writings of other cultures and landscapes. (The brief here is gender specific, too.) And I wish there were expanses of leisure time to explore!

Would I have discovered these authors without a literary fanfare? Was it easier for the cream to rise in the days when publishing had integrity and writers had a clearer sight of their goals? I don't know. The old maxim that youth is a gift of nature and age a work of art may have just a little to do with it. Who knows what may emerge when the present writing generations come into their own?

But what all the authors mentioned have in spades is Voice. Cadence. Style. Empathy. Instinctive gifts they have developed through practice. Because of it, their images lodge in the shadows of the mind, unforgettable as ancient poetry.

Short List
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - Americanah
Hannah Kent - Burial Rites
Jhumpa Lahiri - The Lowland
Audrey Magee - The Undertaking
Eimear McBride - A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing
Donna Tartt - The Goldfinch

Some celebrity favourites

Baroness Valerie Amos: Beloved by Toni Morrison
Zawe Ashton: The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Mary Beard:  Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Edith Bowman: The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
Saffron Burrows: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Shami Chakrabarti: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Gwendoline Christie:  I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
Grace Dent:The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford
Katherine Grainger: Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson
Martha Lane Fox: Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell
Caitlin Moran: Two Pence to Cross the Mersey by Helen Forrester
Kate Mosse: Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
Dawn O’Porter: Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson
Susanna Reid: We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver
Jennifer Saunders: Dust by Patricia Cornwell
Sharleen Spiteri: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Tanni Grey-Thompson: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Sandi Toksvig: Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
Joanna Trollope: The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay

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A Mysterious Companion

Road to Emmaus - Jon McNaughton

Way Home

We had hung around
those who followed him,
on the fringes
of what was going on.
Something about him
magnetised us -
a harnessed energy -
His actions were natural
as running water,
performed with gentle
economy of movement,
as if integrity
on every front
was key to healing
and wisdom's pearls
must not fall foul
beneath forked feet.
His words singed
a place in the memory
for Good, echoing
of a past and future Now,
strange cadences
on the tongue
of a Nazarene.

The women held their breath,
rapt at the sight.
Adam was in focus
and the locus
of their response,
the chambers of the heart.

He drew the children
with no sweet enchantment,
no narcissistic guile,
only the gift
of their reflected selves
within God's eye.

Next thing we knew,
they'd laid a charge
of gross profanity
against him.
He was the pinnacle
of innocence to us.

They slaughtered him
to feed carnivorous appetite,
an orgiastic rite.
Pitch night
eclipsed the light
and Jerusalem was mute.

Turning tail, we trudged
the homeward dust
we'd shaken off
without a second thought,
retreating to a shell
that did not beckon
and reckoned with
no warmth and welcome.
Where were we headed
but to an emptiness
we'd gladly forsaken?
We knew well enough,
as twilight empurpled
the day with regal shades,
imparting mystery
to our deadened tones,
that something momentous
had taken place.
We could not match
the expectation
still suspended in the soul
with unrewarded dreams.
We seemed no longer
enough for one another.

When all at once,
our quantum leap of longing
begat a perfect stranger!
Unaware of the demise
of Israel's hope,
he kindled a flame
so bursting bright,
it cast new light
upon unfolding history
and diamond promises
of scripture.
We didn't want to part
and begged him tarry
at our door, come,
cross the threshold,
light our lamps,
set our hearth and hearts ablaze,
share our supper,
drink our wine,
let not this day's vision
go stale on us!
Our yen to seal the bond
compelled oblivion
of the meagre larder.

The tactile planes
of earth dissolved
into heaven's board
and victuals spread
before our Guest,
he blessed,
and broke the bread -
such precious fare
within his hands -
as if he would return our gift
with value manifold.
How blind! How blind
our flesh and blood!
We knew him then,
our Host!
That instant, he was gone...
bequeathing us the Holy Ghost.
Had we prefigured him,
or he us?
In consuming,
he was himself
and by that means,
he made us Whole.

From Jericho Rose, Songs from the Wilderness  (please scroll)