Archive for the ‘poetry’ Category

What Survives
December 23, 2009

Near Finsbury Park Station there’s a boarded up old pub, a matte lapis facade festooned with a remnant of London’s disappeared beers: Meux’s Original London Stout.  In every corner of London a mysterious detail hides a story; to note them is to chase ghosts.  Ghosts of the drowned; of the sudden, absurd death.  Even death by beer.

Meux’s was “famous for its black beer” and the great porter vat it was brewed in: 22 feet high and containing enough beer to supply more than a million persons with a pint of beer each.  According to Zythophile the brewery “…once brought a beautiful aroma of malt and hops to delight passengers on the tops of buses at the corner of Tottenham Court Road and New Oxford Street.”  But British Historian Thomas Pennant describes it as exhibiting a magnificence unspeakable.

One day, this vat burst. The London beer flood was immortalized in Peter Pindar’s poem, “The Lamentations of the Porter-vat”

Here—as ’tis said—in days of yore,
(Such days, alas! will come no more),
Resided Sir John Barleycorn,
An ancient Briton, nobly born,
With Mrs. Hop—a well-met pair,
For he was rich, and she was fair.

And yet the pair quarrels, love-locked, waltzing disaster like petty gods.  Are these the genius loci of this Seven Sisters corner, driven from their original perch by the tourists flocking to see We Will Rock You musical playing at the Dominion Theatre which now stands in place of the brewery?  I imagine Meantime’s London Porter to be a fitting ode to these bitter, roasted ghosts.

1814.  It’s that hour when everyone’s at home. You run from a flood of porter, through the crowded tenements surrounding the brewery. The basements of the rookery fill.  Up on the first floor: a mother and daughter at tea and then not, the mother dead on the spot.  The daughter tries to swim and is dashed to pieces.  Running, a tidal wave of the stuff after you. Timber and neighbors, feral cats swept up in it. Drunk on the fumes. The drunk are dying.

There are rumors: in the nearby hospital the doctors minister to the injured who stink so of beer the other patients there demand beer too, almost causing a riot.

And following it all, punters with pots, gleaning from the porter river: knee deep or face first.

You would cup your hands–let nothing go to waste.

Oh, England, My Lionheart…I Don’t Want to Go…
December 12, 2009

Green Man from the Beltane Bash Street Party, 2006

Yesterday I passed  the Life in the UK Test which all seeking residence must take after the law changed in 2007.  The experience was of course a series of jumping through hoops placed in front of you by a patronizing bureaucracy, the same absurd behemoth that has been the birth mother of so much brilliantly sardonic British comedy.  The test is that unnerving combination of stupid and hard; it had almost nothing to do with life here– an arbitrary series of factiods, most 8 years old, memorized and spat back in tick box format.

And, with all this, Operation Don’t Deport Me, or ODDME, has just begun!

It’s forced me to focus on what I do love about living here– everything that wasn’t on the test and that will never be in any oath.  Ale is one–my informal passport to real life here.   Beer has shown me this place and the people in it in the most glowing, welcoming way.

There are no coincidences in life, really.  Shortly after returing home, demoralized and frustrated despite my success, I read Zythophile’s transcription of Carol Ann Duffy’s beautiful poem, a meta take on one of my favourite folk songs. I reprint it here with what I hope is fair use.

John Barleycorn

Carol Ann Duffy

Although I knew they’d laid him low, thrashed him, hung him out to dry,
Had tortured him with water and with fire, then dashed his brains out on a stone,
I saw him in the Seven Stars, and in the Plough.
I saw him in the Crescent Moon and in the Beehive.
In the Barley Mow, my Green Man, newly born, alive, John Barleycorn.

I saw him seasonally, at harvest time, in the Wheatsheaf and the Load of Hay,
I saw him, heard his laughter in the Star and Garter and the Fountain and the Bell,
The Corn Dolly, the Woolpack and the Flowing Spring.
I saw him in the Rising Sun, the Moon and Sixpence and the Evening Star.
I saw him in the Rose and Crown, my Green Man, ancient, barely born, John Barleycorn.

He moved through Britain, bright and dark, like ale in glass.
I saw him run across the fields, towards the Gamekeeper, the Poacher and the Blacksmith’s Arms.
He knew the Ram, the Lamb, the Lion and the Swan,
White Hart, Blue Bull, Red Dragon, Fox and Hounds.
I saw him in the Three Goats’ Heads, the Black Bull and Dun Cow, Shoulder of Mutton, Griffin, Unicorn.
Green Man, beer-born, good health, long life, John Barleycorn.

I saw him festively, when people sang for victory, for love and New Year’s Eve,
In the Raven and the Bird in Hand, the Golden Eagle, the Kingfisher, the Dove.
I saw him grieve and mourn, a shadow at the bar, in the Falcon, the Marsh Harrier,
The Sparrowhawk, the Barn Owl, Cuckoo, Heron, Nightingale.
A pint of bitter in the Jenny Wren for my Green Man, alone, forlorn, John Barleycorn.

Britain’s soul, as the crow flies, so flew he.
I saw him in the Holly Bush, the Yew Tree, the Royal Oak, the Ivy Bush, the Linden.
I saw him in the Forester, the Woodman.
He history: I saw him in the Wellington, the Nelson, Marquis of Granby, Wicked Lady, Bishop’s Finger.
I saw him in the Ship, the Golden Fleece, the Flask
The Railway Inn, the Robin Hood and Little John.
My Green Man, legend-strong, reborn, John Barleycorn.

Scythed down, he crawled, knelt, stood.
I saw him in the Crow, Newt, Stag, all weathers, noon or night.
I saw him in the Feathers, Salutation, Navigation, Knot, the Bricklayer’s Arms, Hop Inn, the Maypole and the Regiment, the Horse and Groom, the Dog and Duck, the Flag.
And where he supped the past lived still.
And where he sipped the glass brimmed full.
He was in the King’s Head and Queen’s Arms. I saw him there:
Green Man, well-born, spellbound, charming one, John Barleycorn.