I saw a man die with fear in his eyes
and wish I hadn’t seen it.
He knew he’d been inadequate
and wished he hadn’t been it.
I saw him searching around for love,
exhaling long-drawn sighs.
None of those present could show it to him.
All wished he’d shut his eyes.
I saw the lamp in those eyes grow dim.
We hadn’t long at all
before the light went out altogether
and he’d have to answer the devil’s call.
Then he turned and looked at me.
His eyes had surprising contrition.
He tried to stretch out his withered hand,
from which I withdrew ― I’m just his physician.
I saw his family’s look of contempt
that he’d wanted a last human touch.
Appalled that they hated him so intensely
I reached back to accept his bony clutch.
His family saw him enter eternity
holding the hand of a white-coated stranger.
They shook their heads as they left the room,
muttering something about the funeral arranger.
My second wife picked me up from work
and she and her kid replayed their day.
Irritated, I couldn’t help feeling some sadness.
Not everyone’s life turns out the right way.
She often slips
into our mailbox.
Simple white envelopes
fail to disguise their oozing menace.
Do the senders
put no names above their
Private Bag addresses
because they think we’re witless?
Their recurring failures ―
designed to leave us feeling immune? ―
prove compelling and
we eventually succumb
to the pressures of ignorance.
Despite trying not
to inhale or allow
to spill on our self-respect
we always end up paying a price.
Dream of this Age
Westward I saw you silhouetting a red sun.
Mighty oak, near old as the earth below you,
King of surrounding trees, guardian of mysteries,
Your branches and leaves wild winds blow through.
Powerful oak, I’m pulled to your presence.
Walking to reach you through tangles of growth,
Fingers and forearms scratch on dry brambles.
Though wiping off blood, to quit now I’m loath.
I finally place hands with dry blood on your trunk
And feel ancient skin textured like a grandfather’s chin.
Autumn’s mud-stuck leaves on the soles of my boots
Remind me that harsh winter will shortly begin.
Ice winds and snow would take life from me
If I remained your companion, exposed without heat.
Yet you will stand against nature’s strong warriors
Who’ll rage without malice, and won’t gain your defeat.
And in spring you’ll hide any soreness or wounds
With a great burst of beauty, branches, and green.
You’ll become stronger and reach even higher,
Knowing your tenacity the gods have seen.
You have witnessed the passing of forty generations
Of those who respected your vast strength and size.
Long before them lived others who knew
The oak as healer, guide, and source of things wise.
Cut off from them by a tragic gap of time
I nonetheless know that, aside from your might,
Your roots reach as deep into the heart of the earth
As your branches rise up into the world of sunlight.
Astute observer of kingdoms below and above
And drawing in secrets and knowledge from them,
You, beloved oak, friend of earth and air spirits,
Possess power and energy impossible to stem.
I squeeze my humanity into a hollow in your roots,
Feeling you close around, like a wondrous womb.
Ah, great master oak, I could rest inside you forever,
But you’re here to offer life, not serve as a man’s tomb.
I climb into your branches and smile at old nests,
At their number, and at the birds’ variety.
Oh great sustainer, they sing their merry thanks.
I also utter mine, with unfeigned piety.
Pulling myself higher as sun god readies to sleep
I sit where your strongest limbs widely spread
And reflect on druids and other tree-friends,
Who departed long ago to the whispering world of the dead.
They used to revere the oak and other sacred trees,
Gather mistletoe, fungi, bark, leaf and bud,
Use them for the health of the people,
And to ward off anger, violence, fire and flood.
Like those wise ones, I think of earth’s sacred objects:
Forests, groves, rivers, bubbling springs and great stones.
Like them, I feel thankful for the gods’ close attention
To us in completeness: needs, souls, natures, flesh, bones.
Oh creator above all, I make a sincere request:
Let me ascend to the top of my friend this great tree
So that I can kiss with my lips that sacred loftiest twig.
I want only to give, and to take nothing for me.
Along with a kiss may I shed a drop of my blood?
A sacrifice, neither fatal nor asked for, but offered freely
In thanks for the abundance of peace in my life,
And for all true knowledge that comes only from thee.
A humble sparrow’s, oh creator, is the body I now want
So that I can gently alight on that thin projecting sprig,
Rub my tiny-feathered face on that object of true power,
And dab a droplet of blood onto that fragile twig.
Oh, oh, words cannot convey what I feel taking place.
My human shape’s shrinking, my hands have become claws.
I’ve developed wings of brown feathers
And become a frail bird – without any flaws.
Oh Majesty, how it feels to flit in the breeze.
I cannot bear the pleasure of feeling so light.
Grant me a few minutes to fly over the forest,
Then I’ll wing my way back with the quickest flight.
I’m darting madly but gladly through the winds
With rushing cold air giving my bright eyes a sting.
Nothing, nothing can rob me of joy
Except Terror! Terror! for that large swooping thing.
The sky god ― bless him ― caused the falcon to overshoot.
Pain in my left wing that screeching bird caused,
But I managed somehow to survive
The horror and pain of his razor sharp claws.
I fluttered madly behind and around trees to the ground
And escaped, bleeding, into a hole in the base of a trunk.
It was the one in which I’d earlier curled up,
Only now I palpitated with trauma, as the sun god sunk.
But then the delicate tree spirits came and tended to me.
It was not luck that had saved me, they lovingly said,
But the gods had favoured my reverent mission,
And to another target, a stoat, the falcon they led.
Now, bless our great oak, the spirits encouraged.
Anoint it with the lifeblood flowing from your wing.
Smear it sweetly on that loftiest twig of great magic,
Then return to us here and we’ll restore everything.
The kind tree spirits gave me the boldness to fly
To the top of my oak where I saw the twig swaying.
I alighted in pain, and caressed that stick with my beak,
Wiped blood where I should; against death began praying.
Then in lady moon’s light I fell unknowing to the ground.
A twisted creature I lay cold for ages,
While the sweet tree spirits hovered and worked
Until my body changed, spellbound by ethereal sages.
Tears splashed on my cheek and soft sobs I heard
As the all-powerful one breathed life back into my chest,
Which rose and fell like calm sea swells.
Then under silver moon goddess I arose from my rest.
I felt relieved that I lived again, as a man,
But grieved that a true world had again disappeared:
The world of nature’s souls and the gods’ touch,
That the forest spirits had kindly with an outsider shared.
As I walked away from the trees, scratched and bruised,
Thrashing leaves and creaking made me turn for the sign.
“Oh druid-heart, friend, thank you,” I swear I heard,
Whispered by my oak grown larger, in a voice unlike mine.
Watching night gain its power I see a bee on the curtain.
Sweet messenger of the gods, what news do you bring?
I’ll tell you a story in return of the forest’s loving kindness.
Come, omen of good days, I’ll tell the whole blessed thing.
beneath my hearing,
above my imagination,
outside both dreams and
You frighten me
by telling me
you still love me.
I cannot answer.
My Soul Waits for Her
Tormented loving soul
Unbound deep in my chest
Feeling pain and fatigue
And craving for rest
Reaches out to awaken Its
Only true friend.
Rejected, It returns,
Near eternity to spend
Impatient distress of waiting until
Finally she remembers
And fear becomes still.
Baddest Man on the Planet?
Vincent Van Gogh
Anguished genius of the canvas
Not for painting on, demented, with swirling brushstrokes,
but for adorning with opponents’ fallen twisted torsos
and flecks of blood red from the palette of their faces
Our Vincent Van Gogh – in black shorts –
has inner torments forever associated with that lacerated ear
That famous lacerated ear?
Not the result of a self-inflicted wound of unanswered love,
but a bitten piece of flesh spat out with disgust on the canvas
next to him who answered punches
with elbows and head butts
Our Vincent Van Gogh alone with his thoughts
and his demons
Hypnotic with his raw and uncontrolled emotions
Not the flood of pigmented images flowing from mad mind,
but the flood of curses flowing from the saddest mind
in order to meet the expectations of those who want
to see a walking devil
Our Vincent Van Gogh, immortal casualty of his art,
afflicted virtuoso of the canvas
The Battle of Love
After our touching fingertips part I know
we’ll never be close to each other again
Yet I’ll not regret our first kiss years ago
or find a salve for my torn heart’s pain
Find a salve for my torn heart’s pain
I’ll miss brushing your hair from my cheek
when you rested your head on my chest
and breathing as one without needing to speak
In darkness our minds, bodies, spirits found rest
In darkness our minds, bodies, spirits found rest
I had never loved a woman with eyes of your hue
yet your sadness and longing that couldn’t be veiled
drew me like a victim of a crone’s spell to you
And against you, I discovered, all other women paled
Against you, I discovered, all other women paled
Your wonderful smile – joy bringing – agleam
Happy gentleness of a skippedy calf
I adored you, broke rules for you, and let my mind dream
But against the tide of reality drown-gulping I swam
Against the tide of reality drown-gulping I swam
I could not with clear conscience make choices other
I swear that you’ll be in my thoughts for all time
I know you lost patience, chose “security” with another, but
though I lost the battle I committed no war crime
Though I lost the battle I committed no war crime
I really wonder who you are, lady,
and what you look like
You, who stare so intently at me
I can’t see your eyes, but I sure can feel them!
and at the others standing equally worried
(All hiding their own fears?
No-one wanting to look guilty?)
in a tall-fat-short-thin row on my right and left
What instructions have you received?
I hope they told you to be sure,
to be absolutely, damned POSITIVE
before you point and say “him!”
I know you’re there, lady, attempting to recall
those events, whatever they were
and struggling to bring back to your mind
the face of your attacker, whoever he was
I can’t try to look any less like that bastard
God I wish I could
I haven’t got a clue who he is,
or whatever it was (and where and why) he did to you
And although I’m sorry, yes I am,
that whatever happened was really bad
I know you wouldn’t be here otherwise
I gotta confess that my thoughts
are only for me!
I’m scared, lady! Really scared!
I can’t even see where you are behind that
one-way deaf-mute glass window.
Am I seeing shadows? Movements?
Oh shit, I’m looking guilty again!
Must look away, but where? Up? At my feet?
At the glass? Is that confident? Confrontational?
I can go? What? No. 5? That’s me, right?
Ah thank you, thank you God, ol’ mate!
Ah ha! We six are leaving, but two are staying.
Evil bastard, whichever you are.
I’m sure it’s you, No. 6, ‘cause you sure do look guilty.
Best to sip exquisite wine from beautiful vessels
Drinking a luxurious, velvety red
from a thick-glass, practical family tumbler
doesn’t change the taste,
just the experience
Best to listen to Elvis Costello
without ever seeing an album cover
Best to read Robert Graves
without ever seeing his photo
But best to read Hemingway
while studying his!
Sandpaper rough winds strip life
from treeless hills of thistle and irritated soil
with locust efficiency,
leaving only resilient grasses, some surprisingly green,
to show that dead soil still lives.
Abrasion dries, etches lines of prematurity,
and breaks blood cells in cheeks and noses
which develop a ruddy grain
on the squinting faces of those who shepherd sheep
or watch shaggy cattle
which manage to find adequate life to chew
across the wild grasses divided, rarely, by rectangles
framed by piled stone walls.
Dawn’s light groans to swim through
the haze of dripping mists
which hug the valleys and obscure neighbours’ views.
The shifting greyness:
earth mother’s petulance and wind-hatred?
An inevitable consequence of her failure to keep trees alive
where no more than grass, thistles and brambles
scratch and catch?
Yet hearts do beat, not on the slopes or heights,
but in the damp gullies
where tiny streams grow from silent gaps
between mossy rocks
before whispering, then burbling,
then babbling with excitement
as they wash over slimed rocks in swift rushes of joy
while the mother goddess clusters living things,
seen and unseen, in and alongside
those flowing arteries of life
where the sky’s foul breath can’t reach.
Revel in your freedom, you who sip the crystalline blood
that flows from springs deep inside the mother.
How bewitching is your ethereal activity:
boisterous and energetic
unseen and unheard except by a very few who sit
with eyes closed and ears blocked
until you give them delights of glimpsed manifestation.
Others think that the songs they hear
are the chill water’s sweet caress of rocks
and saturated tree roots
Whereas your chatter,
although from sanctified incorporeality,
is something so jubilant that it would sweep
hatred from hearts and malice from minds,
But, alas, sweet spirits and nymphs,
you must perform dragonfly dances
and sing bird songs to an audience of your own kinds,
as well as to a few straying, happy poets
Joel Hayward Poetry, Joel Hayward Poet, Joel Hayward Poems