Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Category: Poems

Strangers in Alien Lands

This poem was written as a contribution to Sheffield’s Poetry-athon on 20th February 2017, a celebration of the contribution of migrants to our communities. You can read all the poems contributed here.

Let’s imagine our world,
Stopped still, without movement:
We all stay where we’ve come from;
No stranger turns up unexpected,
And we’re all trapped at home.

No Abel goes wandering with his herds,
King Cain reigns, planted in the ground.
And yes, some comfort can be found
In the same old gruel,
In the plain dishes of our youth.

Perhaps the Tower of Babel tempts us,
Ever rising skyward,
Still anchored in one place.
Here progress might be measured
By the backs upon which we climb.

Abraham will never leave,
Issac never marry
And Jacob never run away.
Our stories would run dry,
Our histories die out.

A world without movement ceases.
Hollow harmonies fall quiet.
Our world needs the traveller
To bring us something new,
To make our place a home.

We were all pushed out from Eden
To try and find a place on Earth:
To move, to build and welcome,
Strangers all, in alien lands.
For home comes only from the heart.

On The Desire For Citizenship

What connects
The child abandoned by his mother,
The mother beaten by her man,
The wounded soldier, and
The fleeing refugee?

Love,
Love certainly is needed.
But love alone,
Or love unguided,
May fail to hit the mark.

For we each need
To live a life
Of meaning, where hope can spring,
Where our presence takes on weight,
And where respect can be restored.

Perhaps
We long for citizenship
In heaven, or perhaps
Just along our street.
For the world may bear our absence,
But we know it could also be our home.

May we connect,
Like stars in constellations,
Offering guidance, and meaning in the dark.
May we weave a net for souls,
Haven or harbour, where love can work,
And reconnect us all.

In Praise of Doubt by Bertolt Brecht

My thanks to the wonderful Charlie Barker-Gavigan for sharing this poem with me. A wonderful discovery.

Praised be doubt! I advise you to greet
Cheerfully and with respect the man
Who tests your word like a bad penny.
I’d like you to be wise and not to give
Your word with too much assurance.

Read history and see
The headlong flight of invincible armies.
Wherever you look
Impregnable strongholds collapse and
Even if the Armada was innumerable as it left port
The returning ships
Could be numbered.

Thus one day a man stood on the unattainable summit
And a ship reached the end of
The endless sea.

O Beautiful the shaking of heads
Over the indisputable truth!
O brave the doctor’s cure
Of the incurable patient!

But the most beautiful of all doubts
Is when the downtrodden and despondent
raise their heads and
Stop believing in the strength
Of their oppressors.

There are the thoughtless who never doubt
Their digestion is splendid, their judgment is infallible.
They don’t believe in the facts, they believe only in themselves.
When it comes to the point
The facts must go by the board
Their patience with themselves
Is boundless.  To arguments
They listen with the ear of a police spy.

The thoughtless who never doubt
Meet the thoughtful who never act.
They doubt, not in order to come to a decision but
To avoid a decision.  Their heads
They use only for shaking.  With anxious faces
they warn the crews of sinking ships that water is dangerous.
Beneath the murderer’s axe
They ask themselves if he isn’t human too.
Murmuring something
About the situation not yet being clarified, they go to bed.
Their only action is to vacillate.
Their favorite phrase is: not yet ripe for discussion.

Therefore, if you praise doubt
Do not praise
The doubt which is a form of despair.
What use is the ability to doubt to a man
Who can’t make up his mind?
He who is content with too few reasons
May act wrongly
But he who needs too many
Remains inactive under danger.

You are a leader of men, do not forget

That you are that because you doubted other leaders.

So allow the leader

Their right to doubt.

We Fell Asleep

We fell asleep.

We forgot that they don’t take care of us, we take care of each other.
We forgot that it’s the rich who need the poor, not the poor who need the rich.
We forgot that politicians work for us, we don’t work for them.

We forgot that government doesn’t innovate, people do.
We forgot that government doesn’t create wealth, people do.
We forgot that government doesn’t know best, people do.

We forgot about citizenship.
We forgot about families.
We forgot about community.

We confused good with big.
We confused achievement with wealth.
We confused love with control.

We forgot that the welfare state was made by us, that it belongs to us and it needs to work for us.

It’s time to wake up.

Dog Fox Field

These were no leaders, but they were first
into the dark on Dog Fox Field:
Anna who rocked her head, and Paul
who grew big and yet giggled small,
Irma who looked Chinese, and Hans
who knew his world as a fox knows a field.
Hunted with needles, exposed, unfed,
this time in their thousands they bore sad cuts
for having gazed, and shuffled, and failed
to field the lore of prey and hound
they then had to thump and cry in the vans
that ran while stopped in Dog Fox Field.
Our sentries, whose holocaust does not end,
they show us when we cross into Dog Fox Field.

Les Murray, Dog Fox Field

This poem by the Australian poet Les Murray builds on the fact that in Hitler’s Germany the test for determining whether you could avoid the first gas chambers – which were built for disabled people – was whether you could construct a sentence from the words: dog, fox & field.

Some people know that disabled people were killed during the Holocaust. Few seem to know that they were the first and leading victims of the Holocaust. The technologies of death were developed on them and only later extended to Jews and many others.

I explore some of these ideas in my book The Unmaking of Man and I explore the parallels between our time and the years that led up to the Holocaust where the intentional scapegoating of disabled people, Jews and others flowed from economic anxieties, state and professional power and the abandonment of core moral values.

Disabled people, especially people with severe learning difficulties, are our moral guardians – they “show us when we cross into Dog Fox Field.”

Love is Born

Love is born
With a dark and troubled face,
When hope is dead
And in the most unlikely place;
Love is born,
Love is always born.

Love is born by Michael Leunig

Thanks as always to John O’Brien for sharing this Christmas poem.

The Star Within Us

When it’s Christmas we’re all of us magi.
At the grocers’ all slipping and pushing.
Where a tin of halvah, coffee-flavoured,
is the cause of a human assault wave
by a crowd heavy laden with parcels:
each one his own king, his own camel.

Nylon bags, carrier bags, paper cones,
caps and neckties all twisted up sideways.
Reek of vodka and resin and cod,
orange mandarins, cinnamon, apples.
Floods of faces, no sign of pathway
toward Bethlehem, shut off by blizzard.

And the bearers of moderate gifts
leap on buses and jam all the doorways,
disappear into courtyards that gape,
though they know that there’s nothing inside there:
not a beast, not a crib, nor yet her,
round whose head gleams a nimbus of gold.

Emptiness. But the mere thought of that
brings forth lights as if out of nowhere.
Herod reigns but the stronger he is,
the more sure, the more certain the wonder.
In the constancy of this relation
is the basic mechanics of Christmas.

That’s what they celebrate everywhere,
for its coming push tables together.
No demand for a star for a while,
but a sort of good will touched with grace
can be seen in all men from afar,
and the shepherds have kindled their fires.

Snow is falling: not smoking but sounding
chimney pots on the roof, every face like a stain.
Herod drinks. Every wife hides her child.
He who comes is a mystery: features
are not known beforehand, men’s hearts may
not be quick to distinguish the stranger.

But when drafts through the doorway disperse
the thick mist of the hours of darkness
and a shape in a shawl stands revealed,
both a newborn and Spirit that’s Holy
in your self you discover; you stare
skyward, and it’s right there:
                                               a star.

December 24, 1971 by Joseph Brodsky from A Part of Speech


Life is a Gift

The Wise Men will unlearn your name.
Above your head no star will flame.
One weary sound will be the same –
the hoarse roar of the gale.
The shadows fall from your tired eyes
as your loan bedside candle dies,
for here the calendar breeds nights
till stores of candles fail.

What prompts the melancholy key?
A long familiar melody.
It sounds again. So let it be.
Let it sound from this night.
Let it sound in my hour of death –
as gratefulness of eyes and lips
for that which sometimes makes us lift
our gaze to the far sky.

You glare in silence at the wall.
Your stocking gapes: no gifts at all.
It’s clear you are now too old
to trust in good Saint Nick;
that it’s too late for miracles.
– But suddenly, lifting your eyes
to heaven’s light, you realise:
your life is a sheer gift.

1 January 1965 by Joseph Brodsky

I love this poem. I am sure most of us have felt the way he describes.

The epiphany at the end of the poem is tough. He realises that life is a gift, not just despite the pain, misery, fear and loneliness – but because of it. The gift of ‘sheer life’ is distinct from the many joys of life – and it is a gift we can lose sight of when we are full up with things – when we are happy, busy and in company.

When we reach ’empty’ – we may finally realise that there is something else – something that should be filled – sheer life itself.

God does not give us the right to exist – life is sheer gift.

What will we do with this knowledge?

Death Comes Softly Shod

The law’s been passed and I am lying low
Hoping to hide from those who think they are
Kindly, compassionate. My step is slow.
I hurry. Will the executioner
Be watching how I go?

Others about me clearly feel the same.
The deafest one pretends that she can hear.
The blindest hides her white stick while the lame
Attempt to stride. Life has become so dear.
Last time the doctor came,

All who could speak said they felt very well.
Did we imagine he was watching with
A new deep scrutiny? We could not tell.
Each minute now we think the stranger Death
Will take us from each cell

For that is what our little rooms now seem
To be. We are prepared to bear much pain,
Terror attacks us wakeful, every dream
Is now a nightmare. Doctor’s due again.
We hold on to the gleam

Of sight, a word to hear. We act, we act,
And doing so we wear our weak selves out.
We said “We want to die” once when we lacked
The chance of it. We wait in fear and doubt.
O life, you are so packed

With possibility. Old age seems good.
The ache, the anguish – we could bear them we
Declare. The ones who pray plead with their God
To turn the murdering ministers away,
But they come softly shod.

Euthanasia (1980) by Elizabeth Jennings

The poem imagines the psychological damage done by permitting euthanasia: the old and infirm now realise that the role of the doctor is not just to protect them from death. Suddenly – with kind and good intentions – the doctor has turned into a murdering minister.

And of course, we are all old and infirm (only not just yet) and so we all begin to realise that our life is suddenly going to be much more conditional on the judgement of these compassionate professionals. Certainly, important rules will be put in place to keep us safe (or so they say): (a) we must really will our own death, and (b) there must be no hope of recovery. We can even hope that these new rules will be followed – most of the time.

But this new right – the right to be hurried to death – completely changes our moral status. We used to be sacred beings. It was wrong for others to kill us and it was wrong to kill ourselves. But in this new world we will merely be containers for experiences – shopping bags, ready to be filled with a variety of goods – of varying quality. Too many low grade experiences and we will be ready for death, but if we can maintain our experiences at a sufficiently high grade – well we have nothing fear – at least not yet.

Who judges the quality of these experiences? Well I am sure we still be allowed at least one vote on this; but it seems that others will now be asked to decide whether we are having ‘a life worth living.’ And if we are a little confused, if we lack capacity to cast our own vote, then what happens to our vote? Can we be out-voted? It would seems so irrational to protect the irrational from the fair and pleasant death that is now on offer – and after all – by definition such a life is hardly worth much. [Although again the question of whose definition does not always seem to get raised by the euthanasia enthusiasts.]

There is no recovery from life. Death is where we are all going – so what is wrong with hurrying things along a little when things get difficult? And although you may be happy now, you may be sad tomorrow – and vice versa. Nothing removes uncertainty like death.

In this new world death will come softly shod – but it will change everything.

The Survival of Justice

The lucky man’s great good fortune
Ruins his children.
This was old wisdom.
Is it true?
Surely the father who breaks heaven’s law
Ruins his children.
The father who denies heaven’s right
Blinds his children.
The father who forgets to be humble
Crushes his children.
Evil begets evil.
But the children of the man who fears heaven,
They tread with care. They care for the good.
They are rewarded.

Rich pride mounts rich pride
And begets insolence.
Pampered insolence begets
Anarchy.
And anarchy, where every man
Is the tyrant
Of his own conceit,
Begets all-out-war –
Striking at heaven and earth.

Justice lives in poverty.
She survives. She measures
What is necessary.
She honours what ought to be honoured.
She seeks out clean hearts, clean hands.
She knows what wealth and power
Grind to dust between them. She knows
Goodness and the laws of heaven.

From Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, translated by Ted Hughes.

The chorus sing of justice just before Agamemnon arrives, to be slaughtered. They see how the powerful, always believing themselves to be justified, in fact deny justice. And they see how all of this will unravel. Evil begets evil. Justice survives, even as it is ignored – it cannot be eliminated.

On the Mystery of the Incarnation

It’s when we face for a moment
the worst our kind can do, and shudder to know
the taint in our own selves, that awe
cracks the mind’s shell and enters the heart:
not to a flower, not to a dolphin,
to no innocent form
but to this creature vainly sure
it and no other is god-like, God
(out of compassion for our ugly
failure to evolve) entrusts,
as guest, as brother,
the Word.

A Poem by Denise Levertov shared by John O’Brien

After two weeks writing about the Holocaust I was grateful to get John O’Brien’s reminder about this poem. The horror of what we have done to each other, and the sure knowledge that nothing has changed and we are still quite capable of every act of evil and more, is hard to accept.

We are not worthy, that is sure, and yet we live in hope that the incarnation was a sign that, despite this, we can still be redeemed.

Six Blind Men of Hindustan

There were six men of Hindustan,
to learning much inclined,
Who went to see an elephant,
though all of them were blind,
That each by observation
might satisfy his mind.

The first approached the elephant,
and happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
at once began to bawl,
“This mystery of an elephant
is very like a wall.”

The second, feeling of the tusk,
cried, “Ho, what have we here,
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ’tis mighty clear,
This wonder of an elephant
is very like a spear.”

The third approached the elephant,
and happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
thus boldly up and spake,
“I see,” quoth he,
“the elephant is very like a snake.”

The fourth reached out an eager hand,
and felt above the knee,
“What this most wondrous beast
is like is very plain” said he,
“‘Tis clear enough the elephant
is very like a tree.”

The fifth who chanced to touch the ear
said, “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
deny the fact who can;
This marvel of an elephant
is very like a fan.”

The sixth no sooner had begun
about the beast to grope,
Than seizing on the swinging tail
that fell within his scope;
“I see,” said he, “the elephant
is very like a rope.”

So six blind men of Hindustan
disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
exceeding stiff and strong;
Though each was partly in the right,
they all were in the wrong!

So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!

John Godfrey Saxe

It may be that the treatment for attitude is experience. But what do we each experience? Our experiences are never the same. As Hannah Arendt argues: it is only when we allow different perspectives to come into view and when we try to understand and integrate those perspectives that we can then come towards some kind of ‘sanity’ (wholeness).

© 2017 Simon Duffy

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑