ARABESQUE – Martin Burke

Cusp of the year – birds arriving with irrefutable evidence

Sailors with, shall we say, a certain experience of the sea

Citizens which we are of this town facing the river at my door


Drawing a tradition from tradition – casting off the filthy rags

Tides washing stones to a fine polished glance


Beam into the eye beamed back to the world

A voice in realisation saying Ah, so this is what it is




What does a stone remember of its origins where its perfected stillness

Is essential?


Thus a loadstone – yet of history what can we say with certainty?

Though Hiroshima speaks, as do Ieper and Thebes, to the drone

Of cruising bombers where there should be the grace of utterance


Spring is gone, spring will return, I am hopeful wrote Izumi Shikbu in a poem

Of such innocence we have nostalgia but not experience

And poppies grow not twenty meters from my door as I walk to the river


Here the life I lead cancels the life I might have lived elsewhere

(The city composing itself about me composes me also)


Where a father and a son grapple with a kite in an erratic wind
Which drive it down and cross its lines until a practiced skill hints a measured defiance
They then ride with some success


And light bouncing off the river as if it were the fire of god
Or a syntax my dialect has yet come to working terms with
Or that out of other harbors a boat was arriving at the abandoned quay

These rust-stained stones are the rusted stones of Thebes and Calvary
A figure arrives whose face is snow stained blood-red

At such necessity the tongue shivers 
And then ye knowing ones – drone or utterance?
What stirs your spine – horror or expectation?

Oedipus becoming Orpheus  - you are what you are and will be 
Are the rope-bridge you cross on through darkness

Landscapes witness the life you witness 
Yet as yet you do not know what your next step will be

What does this mean?

Ask the winnower -the one who comes across the bridge bringing a secret to burden and free you


Thereafter search for light

The light is near but difficult to name

You cannot un-know what you know




Apart from human effort what remains?

The intricate geography of a mind as it contemplates a mind suggests a fruitful conclusion

But there are no guarantees

Ice-fields freeze the world

There are crimes for which there should be no forgiveness

Yet accusation is common where history writes a bitter poem and we are no better for it


History –a voice upsetting the apple-cart of time back to a rightful position

As Sappho did (though she may not have intended it)

Or in the obscenity of certain Roman verse outliving the colonies in which they were written


Or Pound saying to Bertrand  I have plundered your past, now it is mine -who do you see in these pages?


Where even though Joseph Brodsky on Morton Street didn’t shake the house of English

His exile left a hole in Russia like a raw un-healing wound

Which someone is already finding the seeds of joy in and saying

The apple-cart needs a new balance



Silence, moonlight, stars –the river flowing away from then returning to where I stood even as the hoarfrost gathered on my hand

Then shadows across the page, in which if there was much I did not understand there was much which needed no explanation

Such as that figure entering the world as if he were Orpheus the unappeased moon-drinker whose purpose was to have no purpose beyond the moment’s joy

Stars abounded and hurtled themselves against the dark, traditions abounded but he was not bound

The new dark was the dark of a rose, Orpheus entered my heart like a thief of hearts (which is how I enter yours) so which way does the river flow now and are these the stars Breughel saw?

Visions come, birch and elm are beautiful, responsibilities come dancing in the cloths of a new year informing the world that

Like everything metaphysical the harmony between thought and reality is to be found in the grammar of language

So, apart from human effort what remains?

If it’s love which makes us human I‘ll call no one enemy



Thus to Whitman in his exclamation:

If I astound you I do so to astound you the more -your flesh is the good of the earth and the

good of the sun and the fire in your bones makes you human


Are the heavens expansive? –then your heart is expansive


If I tell you nothing else I will tell you this truth: so what will be denied us, what will we deny



What equals the flow from lover to lover, or the smile at the smile after love?


Poetry attempts and sometimes succeeds yet even my failures are a joy I will not disown


The world is as young as its heart and as old as its mind


Each man’s wisdom is particular to himself in the sacredness of his body’s judgments’ which are not accusations


So I conspire? Yes, I conspire –believer and infidel not limited by the sermons of priests, having ambitions to show you the blade of grass the universe is


Call it the transcendental truth, or simply say Atlantis roots itself within us where less would be a betrayal


The stars have given this duty and either we make a stirring music or we die so sing for earth as Atlantis rises and shock-waves shape us


Many will dispute the worth of this but there is nothing else worth singing



Cathedral shadows on cathedral square

Women in their finery as if at the Spanish court

A wholesome absence of nostalgia


I to the world as its lover who comes unquestioning its caprice of light

Nor its answer of shadow and shadow

In which the fanfares of heaven are about to play for us


Or for Orpheus who surely is amongst the festive dancers


Then why be it strange that musicians play a samba for the populace

Or a street-clown perform familiar tricks as he twist balloons into unlikely animals

Only children recognize?


What does the city tell us we have not understood?

Which of the many unlikelyhoods is the most likely?


The air answers not with a rebuttal but an alternative

With a butterfly who intrigues me to the point of obligation


Surely he feels my breath my expectation

Surely he feels my eye seeking to guide his eye at critical moments

All be I the least of two sparrows, the least of swimmers

The least of those who would arrogantly say this writing is mine alone


I know how tentative language is at sunset where three shades of grey never equal black

That for the gull who springs from my heart this is not, nor will be, exile


Ghent to me as London to Blake was

In which my mind has found a home and surely I will see its angels also


As birds come from destinations I would go to were I not already there

As a woman re-pledges her love to me in tones Solomon approves of


Whatever the clocks of the world may say my heart says otherwise

Statues and stars my witness, water my poetica, then may I must I speak


Or is the speechlessness of birds the better example

Where fluid light and water are a lyric singing the day to itself

As Orpheus enters the world to be its guiding sponsor

Because of which, in praise of which, I call aloud


Glitter and flow ye golden days

Whirl me towards I know not what but for which I am willing

Love the delicious life of me

Show splendid thoughts to the darkness you brighten to redeem us





Some say god some say the turbulence of the moon

A book disguises what it knows, an atom travels from itself to itself

Heartbeat and light-year go the same distance


What’s not there is not there yet there it is-

A moon in water that is more than a replica of itself

Water-birds preening their feathers without self-aggrandisement


The god-moon smiles, such things happen

Such as those who do not need to own a jar to see the emptiness it holds


Ah! You think I am seeing the child of god

But the world is a book of what it is and isn’t


Certain ones understood how essential this is like salt in bread

Where to misunderstand grains in your hand

Is to understand you hold the salt-mine salt-shore of the world



Canticle or lamentation, we are servants, word and world

Thus with what script will we embellish the page?


Shadow of her body on my body yet of the moon let us not speak

Where a vermillion sun casts refreshing light


Ensor in Oostende knew the measure of colour

Yet between harbour wall and harbour water there is a harmony so explicit

It does not need to be painted


Yet what can I paint –child that I am of elemental time

I cite the precedence of sun, the precedence of rain

Both staining the café window to perfection


Thus in this harbour there are unspoken possibilities as yet unlived by the new Odysseus.

The wind shifts from south to west

But he does not shift nor should he for he is the wind’s desire


Yet to impose no predetermined purpose on the world

Nor garnish a tale with unnecessary landscape or weather

So that the common nudity of the race be celebrated (accuse me of that if you will)


Thus to the harbour-master I offer a hand of brotherhood

Which even as I write he inserts into a charcoal drawing which three days from now I’ll admire


And there he stands – hobbling on crutches towards the stairs I climb

To hold his hand

As if what’s to be known can best be known by handclasp, harbour, charcoal, grace and tide




I speak simple things –shall I use simple speech?

Shall I say the darkness understands the light but cannot grow to love it?


Words among words, the fire at certain altars

Aeschylus, and others, walking amid ruination and glory


Antigone smiles, Electra smiles, what they know cannot be disputed

The geometry of the future has been uttered


Out of the past but out of the future also the teaming sea at daybreak, at nightfall

Cities awaiting vivid pronouncements, labyrinths, mirrors, maze of inner-city lanes

(also a mirror)


My face visible, my handwriting also on letters on a desk near a window

One day we will call ‘Home’ what we now call the unknown



Cusp of summer yet history is unresolved

Where apart from human effort what remains?


Barges sail and a kite flies high as if the masters of fantastic arts blessed us with audacity

Of which only in the singing are we human to ourselves