Stars and Constellations

Jericho

The children of Israel may not touch

The arts of occult divination

Which other nations practised much

By means of star and constellation.

But Joseph could interpret dreams

And Daniel too possessed that skill,

And miracles occur, it seems,

The waters part; the sun stands still.

In Babylon, an almanac

Explained the changes in the sky

With symbols of the zodiac

Which last a month and then pass by.

A synagogue in Jericho

Displays a Zodiac mosaic

From fifteen hundred years ago,

Both enigmatic and archaic.

The water signs, the fish and crab

The bigger beasts, the ram and bull,

The lion in the month of Ab,

Yields to the virgin of Elul.

Unleavened bread and paschal lamb

Remind us we were Pharaoh’s slaves,

Went free beneath the Aries ram

And walked dry shod between the waves,

Received twin tablets of the Law

When the sign of Gemini prevails

Our deeds judged in the Days of Awe

The season of the Libra scales.

We read of Noah and his ark

When winter’s near and clouds hang low,

The afternoons are growing dark

The astral archer draws his bow.

But we are not allowed to plunder

The seductive wisdom of the mages

Though scientists suppose with wonder

Infinities ofmonkey cages.

The necromancer’s eerie art

Is banned, for that way madness lies,

But astrophysicists may chart

The restless motion in the skies.

Elul 5777

Two Adversarial Twitter Poems

THE REDDER FLAG

 The people’s flag which flew so red

Now flutters from a Twitter thread

Which lauds the Shadow Cabinet

And doesn’t trust the rabbinate.

Mendoza, Mason, Owen Jones

Have generated Twitter clones,

Averse to Jess and Alastair,

Benn fils, the Coup and Tony Blair.

So post a smirking Corbyn gif,

Say ‘When he wins’ but never ‘If,’

The revolution’s on its way,

And then they’ll make the Centrists pay.

Select the red emoji flag,

Revere Ken Loach and Billy Bragg,

Devise a Twitter thunderclap

And buy the new Momentum app.

Tweet angrily of leaders past,

New Labour wasn’t made to last,

So mute the melts and salt the slugs

And fill your CLP with thugs.

 It’s Labour Conference Seventeen

Embrace the whole Momentum scene;

JC’s on all the merchandise

In gaudy and iconic guise

Remainers aren’t allowed much voice,

Their silence is the People’s Choice;

Though Blairites, Jews and Centrists grieve

The Cult won’t rest until they leave.

 So raise the scarlet banner high

While Jezza rules, dissent must die,

And social democrats of yore

Won’t raise the red flag any more.

 

 MINDING YOUR PMQs

At Wednesday noon in PMQs
The Parties are embattled
Some say that Corbyn’s smashing it,
That May is sounding rattled,
That Corbyn doesn’t speak ad hoc
But looks down at his notes
And all sides say their party
Will be scooping up the votes.
The SNP sound feisty,
In Holyrood they trust
LibDems these days are tentative
Their numbers not robust;
Backbenchers frame their questions
To support a leader’s claim,
And all sides quote statistics.
No two of them the same.
John Bercow, Mr Speaker,
Calls for chuntering to cease
When the members get too hyper
And the decibels increase,
Some MPs are telegenic
But most, like you and me,
Aren’t folk you’d give a second glance,
If they weren’t on your TV.
A few will be on Question Time
A few are KBEs
And some will end up in the Lords
If they keep well clear of sleaze.
Democracy, said Churchill,
As a system, is the worst,
But compared to the alternatives
It always comes in first.

September 2017

The Arrows are Beyond You

Regarding Jonathan, my brother,

I’m fed up, being asked if he was gay;

‘He was married and he had a son,’

Is what I always used to say.

Then they say ‘So was Oscar Wilde,

So did Alexander the Great,’

Anything anachronistic like that,

Because, in Torah, there’s no early or late.

As I was married to King David

They think I know all the ins and outs.

They say, ‘What with their souls being knit,

You must have entertained a few doubts?’

David’s glamour was indescribable

After he slew the Philistine giant;

He could have anything or anyone.

My whole family became compliant.

My father Saul offered me in marriage.

You know your bible. It’s all been written,

How, regrettably, I adored David,

And yes, Jonathan was also smitten.

Even Saul was ambivalent back then,

Sometimes doting on the son of Jesse,

At other times, waxing homicidal,

Which may be why my marriage got so messy.

Jonathan gave David his cloak, his princely cloak,

As if relinquishing the succession;

He gave David his bow and his iron sword,

Back then, a rare and valuable possession.

What is it with my family and clothes?

Saul wanted to give him a suit of armour,

Would have done, only it was extra large,

And swamped the little Bethlehem farmer.

Before long, Saul saw him as a rival;

Let him marry me, to contain the threat,

Then sent his Givati spooks to kill David

Whose escape I was happy to abet.

That’s enough about me. You know my story.

But what of Jonathan’s self-abnegation?

It was as if he cared nothing for kingship,

Like Edward VIII, putting love before nation.

David clocked that Saul intended murder

He sought out Jonathan and started to whine,

‘It’s so unfair, blah blah.’ My brother swore

To protect my husband and arranged a sign:

In three days time, David should be at a place

Called Ezel, a standing stone, but stay concealed,

Meanwhile Jonathan would speak to our father

Then meet David at Ezel in the field.

Somehow he had knowledge of spies’ tradecraft

And arranged to communicate in code

During a routine archery practice.

He would shoot the arrows, his quiver’s payload;

A servant would be with him, a sort of caddy,

To retrieve the arrows from where they fell.

David would hide among the bushes

Until the moment when Jonathan would yell

To his servant, ‘The arrows are behind you!’

These words were to give David the all clear,

Whereas the words ‘The arrows are beyond you’

Meant, ‘Stay hidden, you have everything to fear.’

It was like a novel by Le Carré –

Not something either of them would have known –

These men of action are seldom great readers,

Least of all when they occupy a throne.

You never saw a monarch wearing glasses.

The only king who liked to read was Josiah.

Rehoboam said he’d read Moby Dick,

But we knew he was a bit of a liar.

Next day was the festival of the new moon,

Saul sat down to eat with members of his court,

Commenting in due course on David’s absence.

Jonathan thought it judicious to report

Some issue had come up in Bethlehem

And family business claimed David’s time.

A snub always made Saul incandescent

And, from David, it was a major crime.

In his rage, he shouted at Jonathan,

Calling him son of a bitch and traitor,

Even aiming a spear at his own son,

An act certain to annoy the Creator.

In our family, it wasn’t only Saul

Who suffered the melancholic condition.

Personally, I’m depressed in the mornings.

My brother also had that disposition.

Next day, he had the face of a mourner,

No doubt he hadn’t slept and wouldn’t eat

Although it was still the feast of the new moon,

But he bathed because he had someone to meet.

He took the caddy and went out to the field,

Telling him, ‘Find the arrows that I shoot.

The arrows are beyond you,’ he then called,

‘Now fetch them,’ and the lad ran in pursuit,

Gathered up the arrows and brought them back.

Jonathan said, ‘Quickly, take them to the town,’

And watched him go. David emerged from hiding.

Three times, before Jonathan, he bowed down.

Then they kissed. Jonathan told me that they kissed;

Tears stood in his eyes but David wept aloud.

I bet. He was an effortless cryer,

With sensitivities of which he was proud.

I can see it. My manly, stalwart brother,

Erect in posture, striving to be brave,

And my husband, bowing, clinging, sobbing.

Give me that man that is not passion’s slave.

Those words are Hamlet’s, not mine, but I concur,

I’ve seen the damage caused by the zealous,

The ardent, avid and  fanatical,

Obsessive, fervent, passionate and jealous.

David then fled to the priestly city, Nob,

Which was, as it turned out, unfortunate.

Meanwhile, the priests gave him consecrated bread,

Because hunger made him importunate.

When the priests were killed for harbouring David,

Jonathan said he should have brought provisions

For David, who might then have bypassed Nob,

But who knew? We’re not blessed with psychic visions.

David and Jonathan met one more time.

David and his men were living in Ziph,

A wilderness, to escape Saul’s attentions,

In a stronghold built on a limestone cliff.

Jonathan went unescorted, to see him

And there, spoke fateful words of abdication:

David would be king over all Israel;

It was a strangely selfless declaration.

For about three years, I was a grass widow,

Although, in point of fact, I got married again

As David was missing, presumed insurgent,

In the wilderness, with his merry men.

Then he worked for a Philistine prince in Gath.

Was in some skirmish when Jonathan was killed:

An archer got him, on Mount Gilboa.

They say Philistine archers are highly skilled.

Two more brothers of mine died in that battle.

It’s believed that my father fell on his sword,

Taking his own life to avoid capture;

Something the biblical authors record.

I’m not saying that David didn’t mourn.

He wrote a very beautiful lament

And set it to music, as with his Psalms,

The later ones they call Songs of Ascent.

He was even nice about my father –

The eulogy I wanted, he provided:

‘They were lovely and pleasant in their lives,

And in their death, they were not divided.’

He then began to reign, at first  from Hebron,

Well equipped with wives, militia and fame,

I don’t want talk about my nephew,

Jonathan’s son, Mephibosheth by name –

Nobody comes well out of that story.

Any hint of homoeroticism

With Jonathan was played down by David,

Troubled enough by family schism.

When he said ‘Passing the love of women,’

He was speaking of Jonathan’s love for him,

Not the reverse. Poetic but weasely.

He wasn’t prepared to go out on a limb.

Jonathan was probably well out of it

Likewise Saul, my dad, if you take the long view.

Most of those kings were like The Sopranos:

‘Blood will have blood.’ So whaddya gonna do?

June 2017

My Family and Other Short People

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It’s remarkable to me with my four surnames

That, for seventy years, my parents were wed.

They got interviewed by Justin Webb

For the Today programme. Mum said,

‘It’s a matter of give and take.’ And then,

‘Jack  gave and I took,’ she quipped.

It’s true, he was the worshipper

From their teens,  and she the worshipped.

He, intellectual, short, dark, angel-faced,

She, timid but sociable, pretty, short, dark,

She was a homemaker, he a schoolteacher,

Wanting us daughters to make our mark.

For the record, my sister is short, dark-haired

And quite noticeably beautiful;

I am short, fair and inclined towards religion,

Yet, in some ways, possibly less dutiful.

There was also the baby whose premature birth

Occurred two years before I was born

He died, so remains a great mystery,

But some fabric of my parents’ life was torn.

They married early in World War Two.

In the army, he had many close shaves;

She, in the East End, took to the shelters

Those crowded, subterranean caves.

Their parents, born in Europe

Had migrated to this Sceptr’d Isle

And here they flourished,

Working with machine and textile

Poor in Whitechapel,

But thriving in the postwar boom

Families in suburban semis,

No longer sleeping  in one room.

My grandparents were tiny

But my mother’s brothers were quite tall

And male pattern baldness

Appeared in them all.

I always think my son is five foot eight

But he says no, five seven or maybe six.

His boys could grow up tall

As their mum brings tall genes to the mix.

When one of my daughters studied theatre

They got her to play Hermia, in the Dream,

Where matters of height and size

Are a part of the play’s theme.

The thing is, she’s taller than her sisters,

Tall enough to have joined the police

When they still had a height requirement,

If such had been her caprice.

To this day, I’m put in mind of my father

When I see certain short, good-looking men,

Usually on a screen: actors or journalists

Who appear every now and then.

My Zodiac and Chinese star signs

Are associated with the element ‘earth,’

Virgo and Earth Ox,

If such categories have any worth.

Obviously, as my feet touch the ground,

I am nearer to the earth than the sky,

But I’d  prefer ‘air’ for my element,

To fix the gaze aloft on something high.

.

Senior Keyboard Warrior

bird

It’s more than three years since I retired

But the time hasn’t been wasted;

Work was cut but new stuff pasted,

A third grandchild acquired,

I tried to learn Ancient Greek,

Took up the paintbrush again,

First oil paints since I don’t know when;

A bit of Torah study midweek

And generally, synagogue life;

Time with the partner still a pleasure:

A late and unexpected treasure,

Though, for me, no more being a wife.

Besides this, I’ve become addicted to the news.

I’m not happy about Brexit,

Or Marine Le Pen’s plans for Frexit,

Corbyn’s Labour, Trump’s weird views.

Not a Luddite, I blog and tweet,

Well, the blogs are poetry and bible,

But Twitter is such a fount of libel

Which, in real life one doesn’t often meet,

Of fake news before ‘fake news’ was a thing

And gross cartoons, displeasing memes,

Rage, loathing and political extremes,

Threats, photo shopped images, name-calling;

It angers me when they go for my heroes

Such as David Aaronovitch or JK Rowling,

So I want to respond to the trolling

By replying in kind to those zeros.

And I know Netanyahu’s trouble,

But not the murderous ghoul

Superimposed as a general rule

Over a photo of Gazan rubble.

I tweeted #JesuisCharlie, #JesuisEd,

The latter back in 2015

When the bacon sandwich photo was seen

And hopes of Labour winning put to bed.

I see a sinister use of stereotype.

Although I don’t like the expression ‘As a Jew,’

And I know this sort of thing is far from new,

As a Jew, it hurts to read such tripe.

Neonazis think the Talmud is satanic.

What can they have been reading?

The innocent people they’re misleading

React with well-meaning anti-zionist panic.

Well sometimes it’s all too much

And then I muscle in, with my 140 letters,

Get involved in Twitter vendettas

Until it’s time to kick them out of touch.

Being a worrier is how I roll,

But now I’ve become a warrior

For which I ought to be sorrier

As I don’t want to behave like a troll;

I thought Twitter would be an exchange

Of culture, pictures, good advice,

But often, it’s nothing so nice,

More like firing at close range.

Nevertheless, there are pleasant people,

Who write a word of wisdom, an epigram or joke.

If only one could avoid the sort of folk

Who close their tweets with hashtag WakeUpSheeple.

Michal and Bathsheba

If you’re inclined to buy into the legend

You’ll think Bathsheba was an iron age Monroe,

Arousing desire in any man who looked,

Winning the susceptible king at ‘Hello.’

Rembrandt’s depiction is closer to the truth;

His Bathsheba is a bulky Dutch frau,

An exhibitionist, later a lobbyist

Influencing the royal succession somehow.

Me, well I’m Michal, King David’s first wife;

It seems that you and I have met before.

You don’t recall? But you know Bathsheba,

More prominent in biblical, artistic lore.

You heard that she got her kit off on the roof.

Not that it matters, but she was indoors,

David was on the roof, so he had sight

Of activities on the lower floors.

That same night, he sent out messengers

And had her brought directly to his rooms

The King’s wishes must be gratified,

And indeed they were, at least, so one assumes.

In no time at all, Bathsheba was pregnant,

An inconvenient postscript to desire

As her husband would know it wasn’t his,

So David had to fix things with Uriah.

He sent loyal Uriah to the fray

Without backup, thus the soldier lost his life,

Unselfishly removing the impediment

To King David’s liaison with his wife.

Well don’t look at me! Yes, I’d married him,

But was never privileged to have David’s ear.

He tended to prefer Maacah or Abigail,

But had a different favourite every year.

He disliked me for being fastidious

But more than that, because he did my father harm;

My father, as you know, was Saul the king,

Who rightly eyed David’s ambitions with alarm.

You were asking about Bathsheba and me –

You’d be surprised to know how rarely we spoke;

She never came to the Royal Wives’ Book Club;

Her taste for Mills and Boone struck me as a joke.

As time went by, I noticed she was clever.

With Nathan on her side, she pushed the claim

Of her son Solomon, who had older brothers,

Half-brothers. Displacing them was her aim.

Perhaps you want to know if I suffered,

On account of the women who usurped my place,

Pleasing the king with a gentle phrase or look

Or with a smiling and attractive face.

Well, by the time I was past childbearing,

I didn’t care whom David took to bed,

Who bore him sons or daughters, knew his secrets

Or who, like me, wore a queen’s crown on her head.

This is what I minded: at first he loved me

But a few years later, he hated me;

He broke up that brief second marriage of mine

Yet, in his heart, never reinstated me;

He was by nature stubbornly unforgiving

But at the same time, wouldn’t do without me;

He wronged several members of my family.

He showed no curiosity about me.

The thing is, I pitied him and pity stokes love.

Of all the women, the one I most resented

Was Abishag, sent to comfort the old, cold king,

And I felt, at the time, strangely tormented.

That teenager, who cared nothing for him –

Whose idea was it that she should keep him warm?

I seem to perceive Joab all over it,

As a manipulator, he had great form,

He set up the same girl with Adonijah

One of David’s sons, encouraging the fling

As he thought Adonijah was heir presumptive,

Not realizing that Solomon would be king.

That brings me back to Solomon’s mother,

Bathsheba, now pulling strings with the best,

So her son and hopeless grandson reigned

The latter stirring up such a hornet’s nest,

The kingdom was divided, Israel in the North

And in the South, Judah, the Davidic throne;

A few generations later, came the exile

And after that, we’re in the messianic zone.

Bathsheba gets a mention in Matthew’s gospel,

Not a namecheck, Matthew just says ‘her;’

David fathered a son by ‘her of Uriah,’

Which is the version I personally prefer.

 

 

November 2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

Marching Past

for-poetry-blog

In the lean 1950s, I watched them marching by;

Touched by frosty sun, the medals still shone

As an adult, I polished and polished, to no avail

The shine on my father’s medals had gone.

A child, I stood with my mother in Whitehall

Waiting and shuffling my feet

Mum bought me a milk chocolate clock

So I could nibble something sweet.

Years later I’d buy hot chestnuts for my children

They’d say ‘There’s Grandpa!’ as he passed

He was seventy and more but never missed the parade,

It was his way of holding fast.

He always marched with Oxford and St George’s

Named for St George-in-the-East

The  club which brought light to East End children,

And offered them a cultural feast.

He also went to Remembrance Day in Hendon,

Much later, when he was ninety or so,

A carer then would push his wheelchair

But still, every year he would go.

I used Duraglit for copper, on the medals

An assignment which I found tough

Because the metal showed signs of thinning

And Dad said they still weren’t bright enough.

Some time after he died, the medals went missing.

My sister and I were beside ourselves

But they turned up in the care home’s safe

Where they’d fallen behind some shelves.

Now I no longer stand on the pavement

But watch the parade on BBC

The ex-servicemen and women

Swing their arms so dauntlessly,

Wars, conflicts, tensions have not ceased.

The bands play tunes from World War One

Lest we forget. But we remember, in the morning,

And ‘at the going down of the sun.’

13  November 2016

Birthday of the World

rh-card-5777

I used to send so many cards

With shofarot and honey jars,

Cezanne pink apples, purple wine,

Or Cubist style six pointed stars,

And wishes for a sweet New Year

With safe progression through the fast;

The first class stamp, the letter box,

Equipage of the recent past.

Now I customize and click,

An inbox blinks, a mobile chimes

‘Shanah tovah’ across the world,

As spoken too in ancient times.

The year begins; we know the taste,

The harmonies, the sense of awe,

Remembrance and rimonim,

The Written and the Oral law.

Our names are in the Book of Life

Inscribed, not tapped by SMS,

We think God may not be online

And heaven has no e-address.

The world, they say, was born this day

With quarks and photons at the birth,

The angels watched and voiced their doubts

At God’s creation of the earth.

They saw the holy algorithm,

Shattered vessels, spilling light

The forward march of endless time

And day, the firstborn child of night.

September 2016

Painting a Portrait

These days, I’d rather paint a landscape

Than a portrait of a person’s face

Of which the defining feature is the soul,

And I never catch its special grace;

I can paint eyes which are almond-shaped

Brown yet infused with a green light,

Or extra wide, the full circumference

Of the blue iris in plain sight;

The oval and heart shape of faces are not a problem,

Some have a characteristic square jaw

But then the delicate relationship

With the point of the chin is hard to draw.

The ogee, the line of beauty, made known to me

Through Alan Hollinghurst’s book of that name,

Curves in the corners of the eyes and mouth

So I, the artist, must raise my game.

Even my own sexagenarian face,

Small jowls and deep lines, remains elusive,

No brushstroke in a darker shade of flesh

Is ever properly conclusive.

And those I love – if I draw them –

You know at once who it’s meant to be,

The sketch may be a decent attempt

But it doesn’t come near what I see.

It is not altogether a  question of light

And not altogether a question of line,

More like ‘the hard problem’ of consciousness

Or the human face as the image of the divine.

 

July 2016

 

 

 

 

Nell Gwyn Changed my Life

nell gwyn
Not the lashless Stuart beauties
On the wall at Hampton Court,
Pouting pearly bosomed cuties,
Opaque of feeling, will and thought,
Neither do I dwell on status
Of the man, however regal
Or finely wrought his apparatus,
No; I speak of Anna Neagle.
Herbert Wilcox was director,
A film of nineteen thirty-four
Cedric Hardwicke Nell’s protector –
The king – and Nell of course his whore.
Well this got screened on BBC
When I was young, I’m guessing eight,
Or possibly on ITV:
Some latter nineteen-fifties date,
And I was quite captivated
By Nell Gwyn’s lively wit and charm,
By something emancipated:
The use of humour to disarm,
More usually a male gambit,
A bel esprit would be a bloke,
At least, such was my own ambit,
Women less prone to crack a joke.
‘I Love Lucy’, ‘I married Joan,’
These comic, fluffy, giddy wives
Or ‘My Wife’s Sister’ – Brit, homegrown –
Showed dizzy, silly, shallow lives.
But Nell’s modus operandi,
Merry, bawdy, liked a rumpus,
Eating jellied eels with brandy,
Did not lack a moral compass.
The Chelsea Pensioners owe her:
Veterans who, unsupported,
Penniless, were sinking lower,
Nell prevailed, so it’s reported,
Counselled Charles to make provision,
At least, this happens on the screen,
Nell is graced with social vision
And confidence to intervene.
Unlike his other concubines
She wasn’t always out for tin
Or title, which, sans doute, refines.
Affection was her mortal sin.
Neagle, then thirty, played eighteen
With youthful vigour, bounce and zest
Though typecast later as a queen
Or stylish ladies from up west.
And maybe I exaggerate
When I call it influential
And possibly I overstate
This minor film’s potential,
It held me, as a child engrossed
This is clear to me as a bell
I guess that what I wanted most
Was to be a woman like Nell,
Repartee coming thick and fast,
Not mean or spiteful but pleasant
That notion from my distant past
Has echoes still, in the present,
I count joie-de-vivre as a merit;
My style is more the minor key –
Maybe the genes I inherit –
But I so esteem vitality.