Poetry Issue 9

   Issue # 9: January-June 2008

Martin Anderson

from The Hoplite Journals


      In the cobbled streets behind the market where blossoms of the fire trees fall like splotches of fresh red blood the steam printing presses are, in vaporous rooms, reduplicating sheet after sheet of the local currency. So little are such things worth anymore they are no longer counted by stallholders but stashed in small fat bundles upon a scale and weighed. The parks are stripped bare of trees by those desperately searching for firewood. Over dilapidated terminals where buses used to depart every few minutes of the day for the provinces but only a few now leave carrying their disconsolate passengers with them, their faces pressed to the windows, the poisonous air of a twilight hangs. Down streets the faint and ruined signature of light begins to expire. It is as if in the faces of those hurrying down sidewalks one can detect the image of a forgotten dream which they have just come upon again. As if this city, like its predecessor and the predecessor of the one before it hidden under the accumulated rubble of centuries, is to them a lost city. They walk beneath the neon signs of its boulevards where the products of a surplus value still present themselves. Back streets brim with foreign missionaries and musical ethnologists scurrying from one blighted or deserted sacristy to another, or from one depleted parish library to another, trying to salvage the scores of hymns or the scores of compositions once played by fiesta ensembles late into the night. In the twilight that rapidly descends the bright red blossoms of the fire trees thicken on the roads and the streets. Not far north they fall, too, upon the pathways and tracks of upland villages in what once ominously portended that time of year in which to go ‘in search of heads’. In the market, now lit by the light of flickering bare bulbs, a man with an intense and wild gaze suddenly lunges between the stalls, shouting incoherently into the night.


      He felt he could no longer bear to look at any of the objects around, him. Only those residing within his memory no longer wore away at him. The snow that would have melted upon the hot tropical stones in front of him did not melt. His senses, he thought, alienated from this present, were just as much alienated from that past, whose whiteness seemed recuperated before him. How could an object, if it was independent of him, and not subject to the operation of his own consciousness, whether in the past or the present, suddenly become apparent; and if it wasn’t independent of him how could it exist elsewhere, elsewhen? In this ebb and flow of autonomous and non-autonomous objects he felt that his consciousness persisted with no ultimate status of its own, since upon them it also depended for its manifestation. It was as if it was continually moving through a geography which had forgotten him, moving around within its own porous temporal and spatial borders, suddenly announcing its arrival and departure. It will be the same place and the same time, he thought, today, tomorrow and in the year to come. All the things that are rendered visible and audible in it will appear and reappear, whether summoned by him or not. Like a fine snow descending upon the stones in front of him he listened to it fall, silently, across the entire landscape of his life, erasing every evidence of his existence, and leaving ‘the beholder’ bereft of what he beheld.


      You are under the spell of a city you will never know and that, because you may only enter it surreptitiously, will never know you. Under the spell of its language, a language like no other you have heard, whose sounds are the most fleeting of dusks made audible, whose modulations are like an apparition caressing the air. In the lithe bodies of its inhabitants, in the gracefulness of their gaits, you hear the whispered nuances of a fate which you yearned for but which always remained concealed from you behind the thick walls of rooms in that country you grew up in. It is a city which you will never leave, and a city which you will never be able to become, either, a true denizen of. The voices of those who come up to you and greet you in its thoroughfares do not carry within them those silences of dying conversations at the ends of roads in the middle of winter, back there in that country of dankness and fogs, remote to you now, which had contained the forfeiture of all that you felt you were, or could become. On that country you have closed the door. And to it you can no longer, now, ever return.


      High up in the mountainous northern regions of the country, where most people never ventured, through small settlements without electricity accessible only by tracks too narrow even for horses, over which supplies have to be manhandled from the nearest small town an eight hour walk away, the doctor proceeded. Ringed round by a river her destination was reached either by her wading knee deep through water or being floated upon a banana plant trunk across to the other side. If she was visiting when the river was in full spate they hoisted her across on an improvised pulley system while the water toiled beneath her. Plotting her way one night to her next place of call, under the flickering shadows of an oil lamp, her host’s map spread out before her, she was intrigued at how the contours of the adjoining provinces in that remote part of the country looked, somehow, different. Returning from her room with her own map she confirmed the difference. "And have you never noticed" her host enquired amusedly "how, on your map, the recontoured boundaries strikingly resemble the profile of a very important person?" Dumbstruck, the doctor then realised that on her host’s map, a yellow and crinkled thirty year old veteran of cartography, not only were the boundaries, indeed, configured slightly differently but that on her own map, in their new boundaries, she did, indeed, recognise the characteristic high pomaded roll of the Dictator’s hair, cresting the familiar profile. "And he didn’t even come from this part of the country" she observed. "The contours were so naturally inclined it took only a little minor readjusting here and there to achieve the likeness" her host responded. And then, laughing: "Our well-coiffured land."


      Years later you return to the small hotel where he, and you both sometimes, stayed. Being in that country again and finding the date of his death coming round you decide it would be a fitting venue in which to sit down and, with his favourite drink, engage him in silent conversation. Some of the old retainers, whom you recognise, float across the lobby’s faded carpet, encumbered with the luggage of the latest arrivals. You decide not to distract them. Probably, you suppose, as far as they are concerned, despite having been an annual visitor, he simply stopped coming to the country or decided he preferred a change of hotel. The décor seems even more dated, and more scuffed and worn, than the last time you were here. Although you have an overwhelming desire to march straight off into one of the rooms, convinced you will find him there lolling on his bed with a book in hand beneath a cloud of Gitannes smoke, you resist the temptation. You sit on in the coffee shop beside the lobby, fondly re-running memories of how frequently the night staff’s jaws would drop as he returned and, before entering the hotel, briefly embraced one of the country’s most famous cinema celebrities, actor or actress or director, goodnight. Tiring, at last, of your silent monologue, and feeling not a little inebriated by the unexpectedly large amount of alcohol you had consumed whilst reminiscing, you call for your bill. Outside, under the rain-pooled tarpaulins of their tilted shacks, the poor, of which this country is mostly constituted, gaze into the infinite burdens of the night with that seemingly inexplicable, for a foreigner, equanimity which is, in fact, the product of centuries of practice.


      From the campus, even on an unclear day, loomed the cone of the volcano. Every so often you would wake to a fine dusting, a scattering of ash upon the rooftops and pathways. And you would look up, through the haze of heat in the direction of Amarsuno, for that small telltale plume of smoke. And, on not seeing it, you would breathe a deep sigh of relief and then lapse back into thinking about your ordinary cares and obligations. With that smile always upon his face, which, sometimes you thought, fluctuated between benevolence and condescension, slightly self-satisfied and wry, as if he knew secrets or had solved an important riddle, an ageing member of the faculty, whom they simply referred to as ‘the philosopher,’ made his slow indeterminate way beneath the rain trees across the winding bamboo filled paths and creaks of the campus. Often, at noon, he could be found under the broad leaved shade of a banana plant reading, or just thinking. Outside of the class his students steered well clear of him, intimidated by the uncompromising thrust of his dialectic - he had a profoundly Western, either true or false, syllogistic frame of mind. So he sat on peacefully, to all appearances, undisturbed. Evenings, one would often come across him making his way home, stumbling in the deep shadows of the track beside the Infirmary where the groans of those about to depart this world could sometimes be heard, that smile, as he raised his head into the feeble light emitted from the rooms, still discernable upon his features. Mornings found him adroitly circumnavigating the pandemonium of assemblages of students on pavements, in corridors, on his way to lecture room or the lull of his office. In summer the pale fluffy hemispheres of the seeding capoc trees settled upon his desk. They matched exactly, his students thought, the colour of his hair. Later, lingering still in small groups by the squid vendor on the road side, they would greet him as he passed them on his way home. Slowly, as if he did not see or hear them, that indeterminate smile spread across his face, he would lift his head until his eyes were in perfect alignment with a distant image - Amarsuno, towering silently above the dense green tropical vegetation of far valleys and hillsides.


      For the first time. This archetype bleeds into your whole being. Diluted, traduced, later, maybe. Not now. Transcending, within itself, differences of time and place. You go walking into a landscape that is perpetually present, that loses its shape. For this reason you, too, lose your way in it. So many horizons layered, one over the other, so many towns and cities. Their ghosts walk in your blood. You are haunted. The train leaving from platform three leaves for no particular destination, other than this. For this, the prow of the ship cleaves no other water. And these voices that you hear all the time, are not yours. They come from a place where they have never abused the injunction of No Private Property. Where that face, a blank which you fill in with your own longing, passes through a clearinghouse of broken statuary. Of small groups crossing a frozen sea calling back to you, but who you do not hear. Standing in this garden in blue borage on an afternoon of rare sunlight you stand in all places, and in all times. "Whisper my name again into my ear" you say, "before I forget it."


      This morning, it being Xmas day, the gift of a cooked Peking duck was delivered to the house we were invited to by the butler of the next door neighbour, the Vice President of the Republic. Not being, like every other politician in this land, a devotee of the principle of public service, but, rather, of private aggrandizement, one wondered, looking at the elegant livery of his employee who delivered the gift, at how the emollient of power must work to utterly inoculate its possessor against a world in which the vast majority of us live and breathe and die. Gone, for him, is the entire range of mundane cares that occupy the rest of us. For him are doors opened, cars ordered, bills payed, repairs arranged and carried out, the bath tub filled with water, and even the nails of the toes and fingers clipped. The list goes on and on. His existence rests, whether he likes it or not - and none do dislike it so much they willingly dispense with it - upon a cloud of the most potent of bromides, just as a child’s does. And, perhaps, this is one of the greatest attractions of wealth and power, that it enables one to fall back into some of those deeply assuaging docilities that are available to most of us only as young children, when, in our helplessness, we inevitably form the centre of others’ attentions, being totally dependent upon them for our every want and need. Not far from the quietness and neatly trimmed and well watered verges of the Vice President’s subdivision suddenly erupts, at the end of the road beyond the heavily armed security guard post, like the vision of a far off sea, the noisy and anarchic flow of humanity moving under a thick stratus of vehicular fumes, scrambling hither and thither after unaffordable medicines and barely affordable rice, living and dying under the hot glare of a sun which is mercifully tempered by air conditioners in those mansions that glow behind the security guard post. Like the walls of a white mirage, an unfathomable dream, they hover in the clean undisturbed air of a paradisal, a post-natal, calm.