Our lives crossed in a central aisle,
between tall shelves stocked high with bright commodities.
I smiled at her; she smiled at me, then lowered eyes
demurely, yet in an instant raised and steadied them
to meet my own.
Her skin was velvet, dusky-brown
– her dark-lashed eyes were limpid dreams –
her pupils deep sapphirian blue. Her lips
were cushioned rose. Her hair, sleek burnished ebony,
so black it shone in purple-blue, just like
the starling’s wing. Across her forehead silver coins
were strung, thin hammered things which bore
strange symbols, and from her ears long pendants hung
of yellow gold, with here and there the gleam of jacinth
and of almandine. Bright copper spirals wound about her arms,
with serpent heads and eyes of apple-green and tails
of inlaid lapis lazuli. A rack of bangles, seven, nine or more
jostled at each wrist. Her breasts were bare
beneath a chattering fall of beads, while strings
of silver coins again adorned her hips; she wore some pantaloons
of silken gauze about her legs; her ankles chimed with bells,
these interspersed with tiny sculpted-by-the-waves
‘I name you Pleasure-of-my-life’*, I said to her.
‘Sir’, (oh, and did that whispered voice come straight from Paradise?)
‘let it be so. I name you too by what you are. And you shall be, to me,
Fair Foreigner’. She took me by the hand, and led me, then, away,
to dream with her.
And so we lived, for many a month,
in quiet solitude, far above the city’s thronging crowds.
‘Pleasure-of-my-life’, I’d say, as we lay there side by side,
‘tell me again of your far-off land, how it’s all luxuriant green,
and how its soaring hills, all forested, are clothed in mist,
and how the waves fall languidly upon long shores of dazzling sand.
And of those vari-coloured birds which flash across the shadowed
groves of palms’. ‘Oh yes, my Foreign One’, she’d say, ‘bright flocks
of parrots – blue, yellow, green and red – do wing their way
across wide verdant spaces. And the caramel cat with the apricot eyes
that have centres of onyx, glides through the forest
but is fearful of man. There are monkeys that swing from the trees
by their tails and will swoop to your shoulder and steal from your hand,
or playfully ruffle your hair. Bright silver streams flow down from the hills
into deep, pebbled pools. There I’d bathe, letting water-pearls fall on my limbs
from a hollowed and painted gourd’. ‘Would no man steal a sly-eyed look at you,
Pleasure-of-my-life?’ ‘Oh, no, my Fair-haired Foreign One. My kin and kind?
Refined, all, and reserved’. She smiled at me. ‘Put by such jealousy’.
‘Do others such as I, set foot upon your shores?’ (and this too did i whisper
to her hesitatingly). She pressed on my arm. ‘White sails, afar –
small specks upon the vast blue sea. They ply their way from old Ceram*,
to the land of Sekala*, it’s said, then on to lands no person knows,
where dark men of the coast that has no end – they of the turban
and the scimitar – do dwell, and no fair-skinned ones such as you.
White sails afar, and never here. But our menfolk trade with the outer isles,
so we women wear their beaten gold, their copper, and their shining stones’.
She turned to me and laughed. ‘Now have no fear’.
And so she would regale to me tales of her distant isle,
her far-off land of barefoot boys and girls, of stalls piled with spices,
fish and fruits, lithe sing-song chattering women lightly clad in splendid
coloured silks with strings of silver coins, bangles, beads, and shells and bells
which clashed and chimed from their foreheads to their toes – and of their men
who cherished them. Of the scents of enormous flowers, of the wandering notes
of the flute and the tinkling of the gamelan* which were played beneath the moon
on warm, warm nights. And music, too, was the language spoken there.
And we lived like that for many a year in our quiet solitude,
far above the city’s thronging crowds. And time never left its mark on us, it seemed.
“And tell me, Pleasure-of-my-life’, I said one glorious starlit night, as we lay there side by side, ‘tell me again how you’ll love me till the end of time … and of the children we shall raise, with dusky skins and almond eyes, all lovely barefoot
girls and boys. And I will chart a ship, my love, and take you to your land,
where I feel we have lived for all these years as we’ve lain here side by side.
I feel I’ve lived there all my life – in your distant Ohua-hai”.
So I chartered a ship with a Milford* crew
and the dread Captain Roberts* escorted us through
the Spanish Main – three Spanish galleons of sixty-four guns,
two Barbary galleys, a trim Portugee – we left them all behind,
with the whole British Navy hot on our heels
till we came to the Sea of the Eastern Isles.
Then Jonesey the Lookout, riding a spar, sang out aloft
that he’d spotted afar her island of Ohua-hai!
Two thousand canoes shot out of the bay
and lay like a raft round the ship, and as soon
as eyes sighted my maiden on deck, ten thousand voices
roared to the sky ‘It’s the long-lost princess of Ohua-hai!’
We were showered with garlands and rowed to the shore
and then there was clamour and oh, we were lauded.
There followed a feasting of nine days and nights
on succulent fruits and the meat of the boar. There was
dancing and laughter – rejoicing galore, till my ship
sailed again for the fair land of Wales.
And so we lived for many a year in the quiet of Ohua-hai,
where the palms grow tall and the days are warm and the wavelets spill on the sand.
And though that was a long, long time ago, neither she nor I grew old.
‘And tell me, Pleasure-of-my-life’, I said on one ancient, starlit
night as we lay there side by side, ‘Tell me again’, I said –
but then she had suddenly passed me by, with that shy girl’s glance
and a smile returned, between shelves stacked high with boxes and brands.
I never saw her again.
* Pleasure-of-my-life: The name is that of Plazerdemivida, the devoted hand-maiden of the knight Tirant Loblanc, hero of Joanot Martorell and Marti Joan de Galba’s 1490 epic novel of that name written by Martorell and completed, posthumously, by his friend de Galba. Unlike other celebrated works of the Renaissance period (The Decameron, Don Quixote, etc.), Tirant has remained, outside the Catalan world and until fairly recent times, something of an underground classic. The principal reason is that it was written in Catalan at a time when the Catalan language and literature were to enter many hundreds of years of decline; and in modern times, this was prolonged by the outcome and repercussive legacy of the Spanish Civil War. Largely set in the Mediterranean/Byzantine world, the Romance of Tirant is a robust, widely embracing work alluding in fictitious terms to Martorell’s own experiences. (My copy is David H. Rosenthal’s 1984 translation). Cervantes admired Tirant; toward the beginning of Don Quixote, when the barber and the curate are rifling through that knight’s library, extracting, for his own good they thought, all there that in their opinion would too much influence his erratic bahaviour, Cervantes has the curate say: ‘Good-lack-a-day… is ‘Tirante the White’ here? Oh! pray good neighbor, give it me by all means, for I promise myself to find in it a treasure of delight … there is not a better book in the world… ‘ (from Motteux’ 1712 translation; this very early translation has been criticized for inaccuracies, but – got to love that archaic language!).
* Ceram: An island in the Moluccas (the Moluku archipelago, now in eastern Indonesia) known as the Spice Islands to early European seafarers. They became of interest to the Spanish and Portuguese powers in the 16th century because of the great variety of aromatic plants found there, notably nutmeg and cloves. The Moluccas were also known to Arab seafarers as early as the 14th century; in the poem, Pleasure-of-my-life speaks of them as ‘dark men of the coast that has no end – they of the turban and the scimitar’ The ‘coast that has no end’ is the long coastal route between the southern tip of India and the Persian Gulf. I have given her island – ‘Ohua-hai’ – a decidedly South Pacific name, but the real island, as we shall see, is actually at the extreme eastern end of the Lesser Sunda islands now in eastern Indonesia, and on the direct sea-route of the early Arab merchants. (Just off its west coast, incidentally, lies the small island of Komodo, famous for its dragons).
* in the land of Sekala: ‘Sekala’ is part of Balinese religious belief. Bali, where the Lesser Sundas begin, lies some 300+ miles to the west of the enchanting home of Pleasure-of-my-life, and a principal port of call for the Arab trading fleets. Sekala is the first half of the twin Sekala and Niskala. ‘Sekala’ is what is visible – the rich, colourful, moving world of Balinese pageantry and ritual; ‘Niskala’ is what you do not see – the precepts which underly the rites, and the magic which is implicit in the dance. The tangible and the intangible which are both essential parts of ceremony. These Balinese festivities were known in ‘Ohua-hai’.
* gamelan: Javanese, Balinese and Sundanese percussion (hammered, xylophone-type) instrument. I have a couple of CDs featuring gamelan solos. A gentle, tinkling sound.
* Milford: Milford Haven, the port which lies at the head of the great two-pronged branches of the River Cleddau in west Wales, which broaden to form what is one of the finest harbours in Europe.
* The dread Captain Roberts: Bartholomew Roberts (1682-1722) was without doubt the most successful pirate of the entire buccaneering age. Born at Casnewydd Bach in west Wales, and known in Wales as Barti Ddu, or in English, Black Bart, he was introduced to his profession when captured by another Welsh pirate, Hywel Davies, whose crew he immediately joined. Upon Davies’ being killed in an ambush, Roberts, although young, was elected as the new leader and went on to plunder upward of 400 vessels, some of them not merchantmen but well-armed warships. He was a bold and charismatic leader, a strict disciplinarian whose ship’s articles targeted alcohol, gambling, the illicit smuggling of women aboard (for which the penalty was death) and, as far as I remember from what Thomas History taught us all those years ago, insisted on ‘lights out’ at 9 p.m. On the other hand, he is said to have had a reputation for absolute ruthless savagery toward many of his captives. Roberts is possibly best known to us these days as ‘The Dread Pirate Roberts’ from the wonderful film adaptation of Morgenstern’s book, The Princess Bride. It is in this role that I have co-opted him (or rather his young protégé) as a protective and formidable escort for the poem’s unnamed hero and his Pleasure-of-my-life as they escape – running the Spanish sea-gauntlet and with the whole meddling British Navy hell-bent on preventing them – to the fabulous island of Ohua-Hai. This escape from the Atlantic sea-powers, now that I think of it, might have come to mind from Dunsany’s marvellous (early 1900s) gem A Story of Land and Sea, in which Captain Shard of the bad ship Desperate Lark retired from his romantic profession and, with five northern navies in pursuit, gave them the slip, firing a broadside which was heard, for the first and last time, at Lat. 23 N, Long. 4 E. along with ‘other things unknown to Admiralties’. (It would be edifying to plot out the ship’s position from the given latitude and longitude – or, I’ve just discovered that the whole story is immediately available on the Net by just typing in the story title or Captain Shard’s and his ship’s name). I have a feeling that a composite character including such personages as Shard and most certainly the well-dressed Roberts might have been used to create the now well-known, intriguing, lovable figure of Captain Jack Sparrow of the Pirates of the Caribbean film series.
The story behind the poem:
Originally, this poem along with its ‘essay’ of notes was intended as a sequel to the Song of the Shulamite Maid which has previously appeared inThe Igam-Ogam Mabinogion, with the focus shifted from the south Arabian states to their offshoot in Ethiopia – to include the Kebra Nagast / “The Glory of the Kings’ (the Ethiopian retelling and continuation of the Biblical tale of Solomon and Sheba), Gérard de Nerval’s nicely-constructed novella on the same, The Tale of the Queen of the Morning and Soliman the Prince of the Genii, branching out to my next-door neighbour’s capture (he was a Brit intelligence officer) by Eritrean insurrectionists, with, as we were neighbors in the then West Germany and thus thrown in for good measure, the London Welsh Male Voice Choir’s detention (my cousin Lyn Harry was the choir’s Musical Director) at Berlin’s infamous Checkpoint Charlie. Then there is Malabar, a focal point of South Arabian-Indian trade, which as we shall see enters the story further on. But there is no time for all that now, and I think I can probably find room for these things in connection with another poem. Best, I think, to get on with the more immediate inspiration for The Crossing.
Years ago, of an evening, I used to walk my little dog, Blackie, in the nearby grounds of Old Chiao Tung University. It was a good place to walk – plenty of green, open spaces, lots of shady old banyan trees, some quaint old meandering garden paths, egrets frequenting the pools there, and never too many people around, only a few walkers like myself enjoying the evening air. And among these regular walkers I met some interesting people with whom I shared some long, fascinating chats and made friendships, too. There was Peter the would-be Publisher (poor bloke, an aging bachelor émigré from Hong Kong down on his luck). I’ll skip him for now, but hope to relate his story some other time. The others I cannot leave out here; two couples, both husbands being, funnily enough, professors of Mathematics at the spanking new Chiao-Tung University on the other side of the city, but having accommodation for both faculty and students on this the old campus.
Alex and Irene were from Ukraine, and what names to go with it – Alexis and Irene … why, they could have been a Byzantine Emperor and Empress! Their very names, as soon as uttered, recalled to me the Kievan Rus and its long connection with Byzantium. I don’t know their surname; I probably still have Alex’ card tucked away somewhere. Alex was sturdily built, and didn’t look at all what I’d call ‘Slavic/Russian; Irene was tall, blonde, and graceful; I think they must have been in their forties. They lived in Kiev, and as far as I could establish were Russian speakers. We talked about many things – the east-west language divide in Ukraine, the lesser, dialectical north-south one in Wales – I gave them, I hope, a new perspective on Wales’ situation within the ‘Union’ and on the world stage. Taiwan’s position on the international stage, naturally, entered our discussions on politics. At one time I remember mentioning CNN’s dealing with a certain news item. ‘CNN?’ smiled Alex, ‘We are quite used to that kind of brainwashing at home’. We talked of much more – the French Revolution (a lot of the talk was on political history); Gilgamesh (at the time I was in the middle of my metrical rendition of the Epic [for this, see Bullskull and Lionheart in The Igam-Ogam Mabinogion]) and, oh, all sorts which intervened. To my surprise, one morning I met up with Alex and a Russian colleague in a little alley very close to where I lived, and was immediately struck by the physical difference between the two so that I could scarce forbear a smile. Something Alex said must have led up to it – he might have remembered that I’d previously said that he didn’t really ‘look’ Russian – but I looked at his tall, gangly friend and said ‘Now you really look like a Russian’. He grinned at me and asked ‘So? What does a real Russian look like?’ I couldn’t bring myself to tell him that he had eyes like ****holes in the snow and a nose like a ski-slope, but remarked with something to the effect that his facial features were ‘really Russian’. (Nay, equitable reader, there is not an ounce of disrespect here; simply that from my own observations there is a fairly prominent ‘Russian’ physiognomy characterized by rather hollow eyes and a long, concave nose; current President Vlad Putin fits this description to a ’T’; others, I’ve noted, don’t come into this category at all). Alex and Irene later moved to new accommodation, outside the old campus but quite nearby – not in the new one on the other side of town; they frequently walked here in the Old University grounds, all the same. And then, when my 17-year-old Blackie died, I didn’t walk there any more, and lost track of that lovely couple. That was a good many years ago, well before the unnecessary tragedy of what is happening now in Ukraine was in the air, although even then there was thunder grumbling in the distance. I often wonder about the two, whether they returned to the Ukraine, or whether Alex continued to renew his University contract here in Taiwan or found a post in some other country. I think that both were happy to live and work here. I pray that if they returned to their home in Kiev, or wherever they are, they are safe today.
It was the romance of the second couple which directly influenced and inspired this poem. Fairly late one evening – it was already dark – Blackie and I had just entered the Old University grounds through the small side pedestrian gate and walked down the metre or two of sloping concrete path to the area where faculty and students parked their bikes and scooters when I heard a loud voice in an accent that was unmistakable, and there in the darkness came across Michael O’Mahoney (pronounced ‘O-mah-ni’, just as one would call a native of the south Arabian country an Omani, and all the more reason for connecting this poem to the Song of the Shulamite Maid 🙂 ) and with him Lena, his wife, unpacking items from beneath their scooter seat. So I stopped by and said ‘That’s a fine Irish accent I hear!’ Surprised, he turned round, and we had five or six minutes chatting there before walking, the three of us, down the same long path between the banyans at the end of which we were to take our leave. Michael was hearty and garrulous, and Lena quiet. He was from a small village in Co.Tipperary, the name of which eludes me now (could it have been quiet Athroonagh, Dermot? There, under the great flanks of Slieve-na-mona?) I remember that one of the first things I asked him was whether he knew Kevin (Kevin Kavanagh was another Irishman, from Co.Meath, who was at the time on our faculty; he was married to a Filipina, lived not far away, and they had visited me at my apartment). Yes, he knew Kevin. In those ten or twelve minutes we were not able to discuss much, and at the time they were in a hurry, but although she said little, I could see that Lena was an Asian lady, and Michael told me that they took regular evening walks in the park and that we were sure to meet up again. And it was so; once I bumped into them under the lamplight in the company of Alex and Irene. One night, too, after we were caught in a sudden downfall of rain, Michael invited me up to their apartment, where I stayed for several hours – until close on midnight, as it happens – and it was then that I heard the story of their first meeting, and of Lena’s upbringing in, and love for, her island home.
Lena was from the island of Flores, in the Lesser Sunda Islands, and she and Michael had met in the city of Surabaya, Java. Michael had first visited Indonesia several years previously when he had spent a short while on one of the long string of islands off the west coast of Sumatra, where he had gone for the surfing. A few years later he had secured a teaching post at a school in Surabaya. (Interestingly, for me, before accepting our much preferred joint husband-and-wife position in Taiwan I had been shortlisted for a position at a school in Surabaya, and our very best friends when we and they first arrived in Taiwan, Netherlands couple Jules and Ireen Brederode, had just come from there!). But now for the setting of this romance: If we look at a map of Indonesia (take a look), we see to the south the great, long island masses of Sumatra and Java. These are the Greater Sunda Islands. After Java and starting with Bali are a string of smaller islands, and these are the Lesser Sundas, near the end of which, just above the larger island of Timor, we find Flores; after Flores, the Lesser Sundas peter out into the great expanse of ocean. Lena – that was not her proper name; the proper name, a native one, was a little longer, and ‘Lena’ was the diminutive which Michael always used – Lena was born on Flores, and spent her early years there, until she was eight or nine years old. Then her father, the owner of a successful grocery business, decided to up and move to Java’s thriving, sprawling port-metropolis of Surabaya, where he established an even more successful supermarket. It was in an aisle of her father’s supermarket, in which she worked, that Michael first met her (clothed in her saleslady’s / manageress’ uniform, I hasten to add, and not in the spangling, dangling, bangles, bells and beads of the poem). They took up home together, and for a long time there they lived, in one of Surabaya’s skyscraper apartments, high above the thronged hive of the city. When they lived there she spoke always of her childhood on Flores, and after a year or so, Michael took her there.
Flores held a special interest for me, right out there at the end of the Sunda chain. These were the very waters, just east of the island, where Juan Sebastian El Cano, Ferdinand Magellan’s Basque navigator, had limped through in 1522 with the Victoria, the sole remaining ship of the fleet of five and a crew of almost 300 which had originally set out from Spain three years previously. Just imagine, a single, not very seaworthy ship with a crew of just 18, a sorry remnant of the original expedition … but laden with the precious spices taken aboard from the Spice Islands mentioned in the Glossary above, and eventually, miraculously, making it all the way back to Spain. Magellan himself, the Captain-General, was not among them, having been killed in his assault on the natives of the island of Mactan in the Philippines. His own, silly, vainglorious fault, but typical of all western colonizers then and since with superior armaments and inflated egos whose way was perceived to be the only way and to whom all, inferior, others were expected to submit. Magellan’s behaviour in Cebu, the large island next to Mactan, was to make a forceful, one-sided friendship with its ruler, insist that the ruler and all his people became Christians – those who refused would be killed – burn down a village whose inhabitants did not wish to obey, make the rulers and whole population swear obedience to the King of Spain, and launch the foolhardy attack on the neighboring island of Mactan whose people were reluctant to agree to his demands. Among the survivors aboard the Victoria was Antonio Pigafetta, a young Italian volunteer who kept up a day-to-day record of events of what was to be the first circumnavigation of the world. His exceptionally detailed account of this remarkable voyage is well worth reading. (My copy of Pigafetta’s Primo viaggio interno al globo terraqueo is the 1969 Yale University unabridged English translation/edition of R.A. Skelton taken from the French manuscript version, and available at a very reasonable price from Dover Publications).
It was in these very waters, too, that 267 years later another sorry vessel, also with a crew of 18 survivors, limped its way. This was the launch of the now famous HMS Bounty, under the command of its captain (well, with him that makes 19), Lieutenant William Bligh, set adrift on the vast expanse of the Pacific by the mutineers. On June 12, 1789 in the dark of 3 o’clock in the morning, after an incredible voyage of 3,618 nautical miles the Bounty’s launch made landfall at Timor, the large island just to the south-east of Flores. This open-boat voyage over thousands of miles of virtually uncharted waters during which captain and crew suffered severe privation was a tremendous feat of navigation which has its rightful place in the annals of naval history. At the Dutch fort and settlement of Coupang in Timor they received welcome and succour; within a month or so Bligh had purchased (under government bonds and agreement with the Dutch authorities) a schooner which he named HMS Resource, and on August 20 left on the long journey home. This is what Bligh wrote at the time:
‘From Coupang, we steered NW by W, having a moderate breeze at SE with fair weather.
Saturday the 22nd. At daylight, we saw the island Flores to the northward… Our distance from the coast of Flores was about 10 leagues; and two high mountains bore N 1/2 E and NNW. These two mountains resemble each other in shape, and the westernmost is a volcano. The interior parts of Flores are mountainous and woody: but near the sea-coast is a fine open country… We steered along the south side of Flores, mostly with light winds and hazy weather, so that we did not constantly keep sight of the coast.
On the 12th [i.e., September], in the evening, anchored in Sourabya road… Surabya is one of the most pleasant places I ever saw. It is situated on the banks of a river, and is a mile and a half distant from the sea-shore… ‘
So ends William Bligh’s sojourn in Lena’s home waters, and he and his momentous future need occupy us no more. Neither are we concerned with the ensuing drama of the Bounty mutineers, an epic tale in itself – save for one episode, which touches in a surprising way on our story’s anchorage in Taiwan:
Of the 16 mutineers who remained on Tahiti (‘Otaheite’ in the contemporary narratives) – 9, with their Tahitian women partners had departed with Fletcher Christian on the Bounty to settle finally on the uncharted Pitcairn Island – a remaining 14, amidst deteriorating relationships with some of the natives and fearful of an Admiralty expedition which might be forthcoming to apprehend them, eventually decided to construct a seaworthy vessel and escape to Dutch-held Batavia (now Djakarta) in the East Indies, whence they hoped to join one of the Europe-bound fleets. A number of these men had played no active part in the mutiny or had been forced to remain on board the Bounty, and were conscious of their innocence. They were able to construct a small schooner – which they named the Resolution after Captain Cook’s ship – and by July 6, 1790, were ready to depart but that their native allies (opposed to others who were on less friendly terms) wishing to still secure the protection of the sailors’ armaments, prevented their departure by denying them the material for the construction of sails. And on March 23,1791, the feared Admiralty expedition – the British frigate HMS Pandora under the command of Captan Edward Edwards – arrived. The inhumane treatment of the 14 by Edwards and the fearful, fateful return voyage of the Pandora, though, is a saga which has no further bearing upon this present tale. What is relevant is that the mutineers’ small schooner was commissioned by Edwards as a tender (a vessel to attend a larger ship for communication/transportation). Now she and her crew became lost and adrift in a gale, but reached Samarang in Java, where Edwards later found her, and she was sent as a present to the Governor of Timor. A remarkably sound and swift little vessel, she was afterward used in the sea-otter trade between China and Hawaii. While at Canton, she was purchased by a Captain Broughton whose ship, the Providence, was engaged in a survey of the China coast – and this is where the story comes home! For on May 17, 1797, the Providence was wrecked just to the east of Formosa (Taiwan); Broughton transferred his crew to the schooner, and this sturdy little craft built by the men of the Bounty became the means of saving their lives. The Providence went down when she struck a reef at Miyako-jima, one of the Ryukyu Islands (formerly the Kingdom of Ryukyu which in 1878 became tributary to Japan and later part of Japan proper; I have two or three coins minted in the kingdom). The Ryukyu chain stretches from its largest island of Okinawa in the north to small islands and islets very close to Taiwan (indeed, one or two of which are still claimed by Taiwan and there have in recent years been confrontations at sea with Japanese vessels). The population of the archipelago still retain their native language, and are, from the Okinawans down, physically distinctive from the Japanese. The southernmost grouping of the Ryukyus are the Yaeyamas, the most far-flung outpost of all Japan, and here, just to the south-west of Miyako-jima where the crew of the Providence escaped in the schooner built by the men of the Bounty, lies the island of Ishigaki (Ishigaki-jima; jima = ‘island’; cf ‘Iwo-jima’, the WWII battleground is probably the most well-known use of the suffix) no distance at all from Taiwan and a favourite, easy-to-get-to holiday spot for my family.
During the few hours I spent with Michael and Lena that night it rained, Lena opened up (as I’ve said, she was of a quiet disposition) and spoke a good deal of her early life on Flores. How they had no umbrellas, and how she walked to the little school, when it rained, holding a banana leaf over her head, and how there was a channel of split bamboo which carried clear mountain water into a pool where she would bathe (this is in the poem). And the jungly mountains and the beaches, of course. She didn’t mention animals (brushing casually on birds, butterflies and flowers, yes), but the caramel cat and the mischievous monkeys I had to make up, as a few other things. The gamelan was played there, yes – I’d mentioned that I had some gamelan music beforehand. She was of very slight build, most petite, and looked, to me, more like a high-school girl than an adult. At her neck she wore a silver cross, so I imagine she was a Christian. But when she went back to Flores with Michael, she was disappointed, as so much had changed, and it was no longer the place she had held for so long in her mind. When Michael’s Taiwan tenure was over, they planned to go to Ireland for some years, and hoped to have a baby there. I don’t know whether they ever did, as when I stopped walking there, as with Alex and Irene, I lost contact with them. It was Michael who introduced me to The Irish band The Chieftains. I’d heard of them several years before, but in those days had gone for a long time without listening to any popular music. He virtually effervesced over their song Coast of Malabar, which both of them loved, and recited some of the words to me. It sounded the sort of tihng I’d enjoy – and previously my brother-in-law, Dai Harries, had spoken of The Chieftains along with his favourite Irish band,The Fureys. Anyway, shortly after, thinking of them and of those few lines from the song I came up with a short poem about this Irishman and his tropical island bride:
From Erin’s mist-clad, windswept shores
from ferned and heathered hill,
from lonely cairn and holy well
and rushing mountain rill
to Flores’ warm-washed, palm-leaved bays:
In lush luxuriant green
– yet far from the emerald of his isle –
he found his dark-eyed queen.
Now in giving Co.Tipperary a coastline I was only doing what Shakespeare did when he gave Bohemia one, and was thinking, furthermore, of the island of Eire and linking it with the island of Flores; and the poem’s title was, anyway, Islands. Again, I don’t know to what degree holy wells feature in Irish history, but in Wales we’ve always been hot on them. Oh, well … Next time I was out for a walk I took a copy of the poem with me (handwritten, in those days of old), and when we met up read it out to them; they loved it – so they said – but no, really, I gave them the poem, which I’m sure, knowing them, they’ll still have. Next thing was to rush out and buy a CD of Coast of Malabar. When I got home and played it and listened to it sung so beautifully and read the lyrics several times over I was captured, and I’m sure that this was the impetus for, eventually, deciding to compose The Crossing. The lyrics are wonderful. Here are two stanzas, close to the end:
“Come to me,” I hear her calling
cross the ocean, wild and far
“Come to me again and love me
On the coast of Malabar
And my thoughts keep ever turning
To that far-off distant shore
And the dark-eyed girl who loved me
But I’ll see her never more”
The really strange thing was that neither Michael nor Lena had the remotest idea of where Malabar was, and I had to enlighten them. They never got to know of The Crossing, either, and so never knew that in that poem I had played around with their destinies, shifting their meeting to a northern hemisphere setitng, deciding that their romance would be the briefest, with not even a single word spoken… well, just as the song makes it brief, I suppose, albeit a little less abruptly. Why did I do this? Well, The Crossing was written a long time later, and at the time, I had formed the idea of a Dialogues without Words series. Another reason was that I wanted it to fit in also with my series Manifestations of the Muse. The two are fairly related, and sometimes it’s difficult to know in which to place a poem; with some, it feels that a poem could well fit in both. The love in The Crossing could not be allowed to flower, as The Muse, The Goddess, is an unreachable ideal, as is alluded to in a number of other already posted poems. Maifestations of the Muse 1 and 3 (Ceridwen’s Candle and Island of Lesbos have already appeared, but 2, Bella Domna, requires a lot more thought and work, and has been postponed: it’s complicated, dealing as it must with all the currents and influences involved in the long making and shaping of the female apotheosis in poetic beauty … But that’s straying, and this is not the place to touch upon it.
So let’s finish on a less serious note, and return to people-you-know. Mikhail and I-forget-her-name were another Russian couple who for about six months occupied an apartment on the 4th floor here. Mikhail was yet another professor of Mathematics. Now he didn’t look Russian at all. He was shortish, slightly built and quite swarthy, with dark curly hair. She was the complete opposite, being bigger than him by far, bulbous as the outside casing of a matryoshka doll and as good-looking as Nikita Krushchev. Yes, she was the very image of the Russian woman we were presented with during the Cold War, you know the kind of thing I mean – a large, indeterminate bodily outline, a headscarf worn turban-like tied with a two-horned knot at the front, a pair of overalls with a spanner sticking out of the top pocket – a stoker in the boiler-room of the Kursk. Nothing like the WWII cuties in their lustful forage caps. No Sir, during the Cold War there was no cheesecake to be found in Russia, nyet, no sir, no indeedy, not no-how. The couple’s 19-year-old son came to stay with them for a couple of weeks, during which I invited them up. He started snooping around my library, which I hate (well, actually, he wasn’t snooping; he was a nice young fellow, and I had invited him to take a look. I only say ‘snooping’ because if you’re writing something, you have to make it a bit interesting; it’s like the media judiciously lying to everybody; and having arrived beyond middle-life I’m already past the age, anyway, for really athletic fibbing. But seriously, I’m always unnerved when people visit me here and see phalanxes of shelves heavy with books. To deter happy wanderers I have a big notice on my front door to which I invite attention and which says:
Apologies, dear friend, before
you put a foot inside the door.
My many books are here for tending –
and not a single one for lending.
I learned my lesson in October, 1962 when a ‘friend’ borrowed our copy of John Wyndham’s popular futuristic novel The Kraken Wakes (we were into things like ‘triffids’ back then). The book was never returned (I haven’t forgotten, wherever you are) and I have never ever loaned out a single one since, except to a member of my immediate family. It’s a certain breed that asks to ‘borrow’ books. I’ve even learned, with horror, of soulless beings who ‘borrow’ books and go on to lend them out to third parties. It’s quite in order to offer a loan of a book to a trusted friend, of course, provided it’s known that the friend is also a fellow book-lover (but all the same, insist that, before making away with the book, that friend leaves with you his/her passport and one shoe … and as an afterthought, it might well be prudent to have a prepared affidavit at hand, worded most cunningly by a notary-public, for which the friend-borrower must be a signatory. No need to go further than this, though; forget a prescribed number of witnesses and counter-signatories, as this may suggest to the friend-borrower that your trust in him/her is lacking. Although, in these days of the cam-phone it would be just as well and easy enough to photograph the transaction). Oh, no, I’m quite straight about it, so when Mikhail’s son, stopping at a shelf, said that he’d always meant to read the Heimskringla and ventured even further by asking if he could borrow the one which snuggled contentedly amongst its sister volumes, I was forced to give my stock answer, which is: ‘I’m sorry – I never lend books out. But I can tell you where you can buy a copy’. This is simple, straightforward, and always works. No, when it comes to my books I am neither a dupe nor a dope. Oh, yes, beloved bibliophiles, beware the beastly breed of book-borrowers.
To wind up, we cannot really leave the poem without tribute to the one responsible for its very coming into being, and without whom I would never have met Michael and Lena; I speak of my good, long-time pal, Blackie. Now Blackie was of his race the most exceptionally talented, whose abilities amounted to genius, and when I say ‘genius’ I don’t mean merely the kind of intellectual equilibrium with the universe that we find in a Galileo or a Newton, but also the superlatively acute, instantaneous vision of a Shane Williams or a Gareth Bale. Indeed, I cannot emphasize how intelligent Blackie was; and when I say intelligent, I don’t mean the lowly empirical intelligence with which we humans are accustomed to credit our canine cousins when we place three bowls in front of them, the first containing salt, the second sugar, and the third some tasty meat, and – lo and behold! – the dog selects the third. No, I mean something quite different; I mean unique, enormous intelligence. Blackie, for instance, was an accomplished mathematician. This I was proud to demonstrate to all three of those professors of Mathematics mentioned above. In their presence I would say to my pal, ‘Blackie: what is the solution to 9-5+4?’ And Blackie would say nothing. I would test him with even more complicated formulae of the same type, such as 28+2-9+6+15, and Blackie would instantly respond, each and every time, with absolutely the correct answer. The professors were, of course, suitably impressed, and their wistful smiles, proof of their expert understanding, were a pleasure to behold. Further, Blackie was a notable Latin scholar. It’s true. At a very early age, during his puppyhood, he had simply devoured both Horace’s Odes and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. He tried to do this without my knowledge, naturally, but one day I caught him at it. He had, quite on his own initiative, plucked the volumes from the lower shelves. Clever boy; there they were, my copies of the Latin poets, lying on the study floor, and obviously having been treated with great attentiveness … To astonish people, I would say to him, in front of an audience I knew to be highly appreciative of the Classics, ‘Blackie: ‘Hic, Haec, Hoc’ or ‘Is, Ea, Id’ – continue …’ : and Blackie would instantly decline. At that time, unfortunately, we had no Latinist here, as Monseigneur Fahy had passed away some time previously (Monseigneur Fahy was an Irish-American who had been nominated to a bishopric in mainland China, but before he was able to take up his duties as bishop, Mao Tse-tung had beaten him to it, and he was obliged to make his way to Formosa [see Requiem for a Jesuit in ‘The Igam-Ogam Mabinogion’ for these times]. His funeral was an entirely splendid occasion; there were trumpeters there wearing tall, plumed bi-corn hats just like Napoleon’s marshals. The Hsinchu cathedral was packed to capacity; at the back we were sardines, and still more overflowed into the plaza. I do remember, though, that the little scowling Spanish brother who was sexton at the Catholic section of the cemetery – later I would meet him on my walks there with Blackie and discover that despite his ever-stern visage he was, when you got to know him, quite aimable and loquacious – pushed his way in front of me, partly obscuring my view; I said nothing at the time, nor during our subsequent chats – but I don’t forget these things, and if I ever see the bloke again … 🙂 ). The Monseigneur, I know, would have been highly pleased with Blackie’s learning, which, I would go so far as to say, quite surpassed his own, and later, enjoying as we did a most amicable working relationship with the Father Superior of the Diocese it was on my mind that with his Latin and all I might secure for my pal an appointment in the Church. But Blackie had other skills too and was impatient for some real action. He was, for example, fast. Oh, boy, was he fast! How that lad could run, swerving and side-stepping with marvellous dexterity around every conceivable obstacle in his path. It was for this reason that, although a promising career as a prominent ecclesiastic or Latin or mathematics professor beckoned him, we decided on another course, and within a short while my Fidus Achates, being all black and astonishingly, incredibly fast and agile, was snapped up by the New Zealand national XV. (I must say, here, that I had some misgivings about offering my boy to the second-best rugby team in the world, as it might go to their heads, and they might with reinvigorated buoyancy fancy their chances against us, remembering particularly what happened in Llanelli in 1972; but there, the lad was all black and raring for action. And indeed, all was going well until, at the very time he was preparing for his international debut, some interfering, jealous scoundrel (English, I’ve always suspected) surreptitiously decided to rummage through the books, and discovered deeply buried there some obscure rule which stated that no-one with more than two legs was allowed as player on a rugby pitch . Eventually, and to the chagrin and disappointment of rugby followers worldwide – and not only that but around the entire globe – my fleet star’s place on the wing was reluctantly given to Joe Rokokoko. Poor Blackie.
Now that I think of it, I remember, at one time, not long before his transfer of intellectual abilities to the physical, he became remarkably quiet. Pensive, thoughtful, he was, and as this lasted for some little while it caused me some worry. This was not too long after his perusal of Horace and Ovid, and I should mention here that following that occasion I found that both Claudian and Pacatus had been pulled out of their places on the bottom shelf and well perused; indeed, Pacatus seemed to have been handled voraciously. This lad’s appetite for the Latin poets was insatiable … Then, like a flash of lightning, it dawned on me – he was working on a book! The little rascal! And he had kept quiet about it all the time! I remembered that he had put his paws up on my desk a couple of times, panting excitedly, thrusting his snout into my papers at the time I was absorbed in Claudian, and suspect, in addition, that he must have heard me talking on the phone to a friend about my opinion of Pacatus (yes, you, Pacatus, you big Theodosius-creep. It’s me, Lewis. Did you think I’d forgotten? Denigrate Magnus Maximus, would you? Well, by Phileironeia Coprocephalos, we’ll discuss this in due course, and we’ll see about that … ! ) [ for this, see In Praise of Ale in The Igam-Ogam Mabinogion] ). But I was excited! Was it to be two volumes to astound the academic world, then? The second a specialist study on Late Panegyrics? And all the while – by Vociferus Barcatus! – he had remained totally silent, the crafty devil! Well, I suppose that’s how it must be with all the greats – there they are, quietly working out their majestic themes, all to themselves, all unbeknown to the lesser among us. Then, abruptly, he had aroused himself out of his poetico-mental studies, become all of a sudden alive, and had changed his mind and started racing around the fields at top speed after the rugby ball I had booted ahead of him, thereby launching himself straight into a new regimen of training of an entirely different kind. What a dog. World rugby sensation was nice; I was a bit disappointed about the books, though.
I did compose a poem about this wonderful flat-mate of mine, a long one, too, well over 100 lines, and very funny. Unfortunately this is the only poem that I have ever lost. The original manuscript was stolen one night with a file of other documents when my car was broken into. Luckily, I had shown a photocopy to family members and this photocopy I understand to be still lurking, somewhere, among assorted papers, although several searches have been made and it has not yet been found. But I’ve been assured that it has not been mistakenly thrown away and hope that one day it may be rediscovered and I’ll be able to post it here on ‘The Ig-Og’. Wish me luck.